Michelle Bachelet- United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
The Tamil National Alliance(TNA) is currently in a state of great turmoil. The current TNA crisis is linked up with the United Nations Human Rights Council(UNHRC) in Geneva. The issue is that of writing letters to the UN Human Rights Commissioner Ms.Michele Bachelet.
As is well-known the TNA is the premier political configuration representing the Tamils of the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. The TNA comprising the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi(ITAK), Tamil Eelam Liberation Orgnization (TELO) and the Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam(PLOTE) has ten MP’s from all the five North Eastern electoral districts in the current Parliament. Six of the ten MP’s are from the ITAK while the TELO and PLOTE have three and one each respectively.The TNA contests elections under the House symbol of the ITAK.
Currently the TNA is experiencing turmoil between the constituent parties on the one hand and within the chief constituent on the other. There is inter-tension among the three constituents with the TELO and PLOTE ganging up against the ITAK. There is also intra-tension within the ITAK where a group of dissidents are rebelling against the official line of the party. Complicating matters further is the conduct of ITAK president Somasundaram Senathirajah -known as “Maavai” Senathirajah - who is allegedly playing a double game by playing footsie with elements hostile to the ITAK.
There have been tensions in the past among the three constituents of the TNA. Much of the bickering was caused by the two minor parties in the TNA namely the TELO and PLOTE accusing the major party the ITAK of “big brotherly conduct”. Explosive statements with a bang appear in the media. Threats are issued. A break-up of the TNA seems imminent. Then everything subsides with pugnacious protests turning into pathetic whimpers. The “dissent” has often proved to be a ruse by the TELO-PLOTE “little brothers” to extract greater concessions in matters like electoral arrangements from “Big Brother” ITAK.
There are indications that the current crisis concerning a “letter matter” may not turn out to be a damp squib as in the past. The main reason is that the current issue does not seem to be caused by internal factors within the TNA alone. There is strong suspicion of the presence of a external factors in the exercise. There appears to be an “Overseas Tamil Connection”(OTC) backed by money power and media power playing an influential, behind the scenes role in fomenting an internal crisis within the TNA. The objective seems to be two-fold. Firstly fragmenting the TNA and isolating its chief constituent the ITAK. Secondly fomenting dissension within the ITAK and debilitating it further. Faultlines existing within the TNA in general and the ITAK in particular are being exploited by this”OTC”. However it remains to be seen whether the “OTC” would be successful in splitting the TNA through its stratagems.The genesis of the current TNA turmoil is this. A resolution titled ‘Promotion of Reconciliation Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka’ was adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on March 23rd 2021 at its 46th session held in Geneva. Twenty-two member states out of 47 voted in favour of resolution; 11 voted against the resolution while 14 abstained from voting.
48th session of the UNHRC
The 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council is scheluded to take place in Geneva from September 13th to October 8th 2021. Sri Lanka’s progress in adhering to recommendations and proposals outlined in the ‘Promotion of Reconciliation Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka’ resolution will be reviewed in the coming session. The UN Human Rights chief Michele Bachelet will deliver an oral update on Sri Lanka’s performance. Sri Lanka’s new Foreign Minister Prof. Gamini Lakshman Peiris has submitted a 13 page response to the UNHRC in which the progress achieved so far is stated. Notwithstanding the Foreign minister’s rosy claims the UN Human Rights Commissioner is expected to deliver a hard-hitting statement rebuking Sri Lanka on its shoddy performance.
Sri Lanka’s “Tamil Nationalist”political parties were somewhat lackadaisical towards the UNHRC 48th session initially. Since the Human rights commissioner was only expected to present an oral update reviewing the situation and there was no likelihood of a resolution being passed, Geneva was of little interest at that juncture. Things however changed when the Octogenaran leader of the TNA Parliamentary Group, Rajavarothayam Sampanthan thought of sending a letter to the UN Human Rights Chief in Geneva. The letter was to be sent on behalf of the TNA with four signatures. The lead signatories were to be TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan and the heads of the ITAK, TELO and PLOTE namely Maavai Senathirajah, Selvam Adaikkalanathan and Dharmalingam Siddharthan respectively. The other six TNA parliamentarians were to endorse the letter by aaffixing their signatures also. Even as Sampanthan’s envisaged letter on behalf of the TNA was being drafted, the TELO discreetly embarked on a parallel effort. A letter addressed to Michele Bachelet was drafted. The ITAK was not notified of this officially. However it is believed that ITAK president Senathirajah was“unofficially” aware of this move but had not kept Sampanthan or his party colleagues informed. When the letter was finalized ,the TELO’s national organizer and spokesman Kuruswamy Surendran sent copies of the letter to several Tamil political parties including the ITAK requesting signatures.
The ITAK component of the TNA barring Senathirajah was incensed. TheTNA spokesperson and ITAK Asst Secy in charge of Constitutional,legal and international affairs MA Sumanthiran MP poined out to the TELO that it was incorrect for a constituent of the TNA to prepare another letter when the official TNA epistle was being drafted by the leader Sampanthan. Surendran was told that Sampanthan’s letter was on the verge of being finalized and would be submitted to the TELO and PLOTE for their consideration and suggestions. But when the official TNA letter was given to the TELO and PLOTE, it was learnt that the “other” letter had been signed and sent to the UN Human Rights chief.
Reportedly the seven signatories were “Thamizh Makkal Koottani”leader and Jaffna district MP CV Wigneswaran, TELO leader and Wanni district MP S. Adaikkalanathan, PLOTE Leader and Jaffna MP D. Siddharthan, TELO Secretary and Batticaloa District MP Govinthan Karunakaran, TELO Wanni MP S.Noharathalingam, Eezha Makkal Puratchihara Viduthalai Munnani” Secy-Gen and EX-Jaffna MP Kandiah Premachandran alias Suresh and the “Thamizh Thesiyak Katchi” leader and Ex- MP N. Srikantha. Thus it became obvious that the TELO with PLOTE tagging along had broken TNA ranks and co-signed the letter with parties opposed to the alliance. The letter dated August 31, 2021 was addressed to Michelle Bachelet, the UN High commissioner for Human Rights. The missive stated “As you are preparing to deliver an oral update to the UN Human Rights Council about Sri Lanka, we, from the Tamil political parties wish to bring to your attention our assessment of the situation of Tamils since the adoption of UN Resolution 46/1 six months ago.”.
The letter then went on to present a lengthy list of alleged and violations of human rights by the Sri Lankan Govt.These alleged offences were classified under different sub-headings. Some of these were as follows -Some examples of Land grabbing in traditional Tamil areas, Archeological Department, Peaceful remembrance of the war dead and other killings by the State prevented by the Government,Remembering July 1983 mass killings of Tamils, Discrimination in Government Administrative appointments,Military officers appointed to the Office of Missing Persons (OMP),Peaceful Protest Leaders from P2P movement and families of the disappeared and are harassed and intimidated. The letter concluded with these lines – “We submit these facts for your kind attention, necessary action and to support your commitment and untiring efforts to find justice to the Tamil people of Sri Lanka.” The sending of the letter to Geneva was publicized in the Tamil media. It was made out that the TELO along with other Tamil parties had stolen a march over the ITAK. The insinuation was that the ITAK was soft pedalling the UNHRC issue.
The ITAK perceived the act as a betrayal of the TNA and the ITAK by the TELO and PLOTE. The ITAK hastily convened an emergency meeting of the ITAK politbureau via Zoom. Nine of the eleven ITAK politibureau members participated. They were Parliamentarians Sivagnanam Shritharan, MA Sumnthiran, T.Kalaiarasan, ITAK President and Ex-Jaffna MP,Maavai Senathirajah, Former Gen SEcy and EX-Batticaloa MP K Thurairajasingham, Acting Secretary and ex Provincial minister Dr.P. Sathiyalingam, ITAK Administrative secy Xavier Kulanayagam and Senior Vice Presidents CVK Sivagnanam and Pon. Selvarajaja. The non -participants were TNA leader Sampanthan and Lawyer KV Thavarasah.
The ITAK politbureau was in an angry mood. The TELO-PLOTE “betrayal’ was severely condemned. When ITAK president Senathirajah suggested that the party too could add its signature to the TELO sponsored letter, the ex-Jaffna MP came in for heavy flak. Even some of Maavai’s loyalists lashed out at him. The ITAK chief was criticized for allegedly collaborating with other parties in a manner that was detrimental to ITAK interests. The ITAK resolved unanimously to treat the TELO and PLOTE as having left the TNA on their own if the parties wanted to do so. The TNA had always taken up the position that political parties were free to leave the alliance if they so desired. There was no question of expelling any party from the TNA. Hence it was deemed that the TELO and PLOTE by opting to send a letter to the UNHRC with other external parties instead of following the correct TNA procedure had demonstrated effectively that they were no longer with the TNA. It was also decided that the official TNA letter to the UN Human Rights Chief would be signed only by Alliance leader Sampanthan. There had been media reports that the TELO and PLOTE would be willing to co-sign the TNA letter also but this notion was firmly rejected by the ITAK. So the final version of the TNA letter signed by Rajavrothayam Sampanthan alone was sent to Michele Bachelet.
Sampanthan in the letter dated 5 September 2021 stated “ I write as the leader of Tamil National Alliance, being the largest political formation represented in Parliament, from the North and East Provinces in Sri Lanka, the historic habitation of the Tamil People, and wish to bring to your attention the following matters in relation to the resolution adopted in March 2021.”Thereafter Sampanthan traced the course of UN involvement in Sri Lanka after the war ended in May 2009 and briefly outlined the resolutions passed by the UNHRC. Sampanthan’s missive to the UN Human Rights Chief concluded with the following paragraph.
“In these circumstances, I urge you, Madam High Commissioner, to kindly make your Oral Update to reflect the actual situation in the country and call for a radical turn around by the country in respect of these matters. I thank you for all the efforts your Office takes in respect of Sri Lanka.”
Even as the TNA was in turmoil due to the TELO-PLOTE revolt, the ITAK was in for another jolt. Tamil Media reports stated that a group of ITAK MP’s and ex-MP’s had sent a third letter to Geneva in defiance of the party. Initially it was said that Parliamentarians SivagnanamShritharan, Charles Nirmalanathan and Thavarajah Kalaiarasan had signed and sent a separate letter to Geneva. They had reportedly described themselves as “Tamil National Parliamentarians” in the letterhead.
Subsequently more detailed reports in a Tamil website identified nine persons as having sent the “rebel” letter to Michele Bachelet. They were MP’s S. Shritharan. C. Nirmalanathan, T. Kalaiarasan, Ex-MP’s E.Saravanabavaan, P. Ariyanendran, S. Yogeswaran,G.Sreenesan, Batticaloa Mayor T. Saravanabavan and Former Eastern Provincial councillor Nadarajah. It was also reported that Charles Nirmalanathan had been the driving force behind this letter. Interestingly enough there had been Tamil media reports some months ago quoting the Roman Catholic Charles as having said that he worshipped LTTE chief Prabhakaran as his God.
According to media reports these ITAK dissidents regarded as one time supporters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had disapproved of some paragraphs in Sampanthan’s letter referring to the UN Expert panel report on Sri Lanka. The paragraphs in question are as follows-
UN Expert Panel Report
“The UN Secretary General Ban Ki – moon appointed a panel of experts on 22nd June 2010, whose report was handed over on 31st March 2011. This report, inter alia, made the following observations: The panel found credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law was committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
“Indeed, the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace. The panel has concluded that the Government’s notion of accountability is not in accordance with international standards.”
“Unless the Government addresses the allegations of violations committed by both sides and places the rights and dignity of the victims of the conflict at the centre of its approach to accountability, its measures will fall dramatically short of international expectations.”
What seems to have irked these letter writers was the equating of the alleged offences by the Sri Lankan security forces and LTTE in the UN expert panel report. They were not happy with Sampanthan for citing those paragraphs in his letter. As such they wanted to dissociate themselves from the TNA letter and write their own missive to Michele Bachelet.Funnily enough they seem to want the UN Human Rights Chief to disregard the adverse references to the LTTE and focus only on the negative references to the security forces. Hence the separate letter to Geneva.
What these Pro-LTTE self- styled Tamil Nationalists don’t seem to be aware of is that the UN expert panel report has been in existence for almost ten years and that the then UN Secretary - General Ban Ki Moon requested the UN Human Rights Commissioner to take further action on the basis of this expert panel report. The resolutions passed by the UNHRC on Sri Lanka also rely on this report. Reconciliation and Accountability is possible only by treating both sides on par. When the hawkish Tamil nationalist elements were clamouring years ago for a war crimes probe this writer pointed out that such a probe would focus on the alleged violations of the LTTE also and would not target the security forces alone. That “warning” was ignored then. Now belated recognition seems to have dawned on some Tamil ultranationalists. Seemingly oblivious to the fact they are being perceived as clowns, the ITAK rebels are asking the UN Human Rights chief to ignore the LTTE violations.
“Tamil Nationalist Parliamentarians”
Whatever the professed motivations of the group known as “Tamil Nationalist Parliamentarians”, the act of sending a dissenting epistle to Geneva amounted to a revolt against Sampanthan’s leadership. It was also a breach of party discipline. When news of this “rogue”letter became known the rank and file of the ITAK particularly the youths began reacting strongly against the rebel group. Some media organs also criticized them vehemently.
This led to a denial being issued by six of the nine purported signatories including Shritharan and Nirmalanathan. They claimed that no such letter had been sent. The websites then published the last part of the letter with the signatures. This led to Kalaiarasan MP accusing Shritharan MP of having forged his signature. There is much confusion on the matter but notwithstanding the denials it appears the letter hs been sent to Geneva. The current turmoil in the TN has led to media reports that the TNA has now split and fragmented due to the Geneva letter crisis. TNA leader Sampanthan has told the media that the TNA would not break up due to the UNHRC matter. Likewise the TELO and PLOTE too have announced that they are still with the TNA. Meanwhile the ITAK is scheduled to conduct a media conerence in Jaffna where ITAK President Senathirajah, Acting secy Sathiyalingam, Senior Vice President Sivgnanam, Administrative secy Kulanayagam and spokesperson Sumanthiran are expected to address the press.
Damage Control Exercise
The press conference -an exercise in damage control- is expected to “clarify” the situation. It is hoped by well-wishers that the TNA turbulence would peter out to a storm in a tea-cup.However the fault lines within the TNA and ITAK have been vividly exposed and it is doubtful whether genuine rapprochement is possible. Besides the Overseas Tamil elements too would persist with their efforts to fragment the TNA.
Playing to the Tamil “Gallery”.
The recent events have also made Tamil Nationalist parties a laughing stock. It is blatantly obvious that these parties are all playing to the Tamil “gallery”. They re all trying to project an image that they are the movers and shakers behind UNHRC activity in Geneva. They all want to claim credit for whatever action is proposed by UN Human Rights Chief Michele Bachelet. It is very likely that the Oral report to be submitted by the HR commissioner has already been prepared. But the Tamil parties in Sri Lanka want to create the illusion that their letters would influence the Human Rights chief’s report. Writing letters to Michele Bachelet has brought in its wake Turmoil and division within the Tamil National Alliance.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org