Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
Sumanthiran under heavy fire in North
TNA leader Sampanthan defends party spokesman, says interview had ulterior motives China and US hail President’s handling of COVID-19 pandemic; Govt. focuses more attention now on economic recovery
Just two weeks after its meeting with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is embroiled in a crisis over Abraham Sumanthiran, widely viewed in some quarters as a leader-in-waiting.
It is over his remarks during a video interview with a Sinhala social media outlet that he does not accept the policies of late Tiger guerrilla leader Velupillai Prabhakaran or endorse his armed struggle for a separate state of Eelam. He said he abhorred anthavaadaya or extremism.
It could not have come at a worst time than now for Sumanthiran. On May 19, the government marks the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas. Just over a year ago, he complained to the Police that there was an attempt to kill him. His security was enhanced and the Colombo Crimes Division (CCD) investigated the matter.
Four former TNA parliamentarians – Charles Nirmalanathan (Wanni), S. Sivamohan (Wanni), Easwaran Saravanapavan (Jaffna) and Mavai Senathirajah wrote a letter to their leader, Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, protesting against the remarks. Their view is that Prabhakaran had made a great sacrifice to win the rights of the Tamil people and Tamil youth had laid down their lives. They said Sampanthan should take whatever action he deems necessary.
Sivamohan told the Sunday Times, “since we wrote, Mavai Senathirajah spoke on the telephone to Sumanthiran. He has explained that the remarks were made in his personal capacity. However, in the near 22-minute interview, Sumanthiran does not say so. He answered a variety of questions and continued to acknowledge the key role he played in the TNA. He refused to admit that he was the de facto leader. He said the leader was Sampanthan who contacted him on “all matters” related to the alliance before taking decisions. He said he accepted the Sri Lanka national flag and the national anthem. Even recently, he hoisted the Lion flag at a ceremony in Jaffna and was all for the unitary status of the country. However, he admitted that the TNA wanted a federal system and cited the United States of America and Australia among countries where such structures existed.
Nirmalanathan wrote a separate letter to Sampanthan asking that Sumanthiran be removed from the post of TNA spokesperson. He said, “Sumanthiran has been expressing views opposing the ultimate sacrifice made by the LTTE for the sole purpose of the liberation of the Tamil people in the recent past. You might be aware that I raised this issue at TNA Parliamentary Group meetings as well. I even requested not to allow him to comment on this topic. However, he made a similar comment to Sinhala media on May 8.”
“Since he is the spokesperson of the TNA, the Tamil people are very much angry at his comments even though it could be considered as his opinion. I also vehemently condemn his comment.
“Sumanthiran should stop expressing critical views against the LTTE or he should be removed from the post of party spokesperson and be replaced by someone. I cordially request you to call for the Central Committee meeting of ITAK (Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi, the key partner in the TNA) immediately to take a decision in this regard.”
How much Sumanthiran, a lawyer, will be able to convince Tamil voters that his remarks were “personal views,” is questionable. It has already raised a storm of protests in the north. TNA parliamentarians were receiving calls by hardline elements protesting over Sumanthiran’s remarks with claims by sections that he was trying to cut a deal with the ruling alliance. There was, however, no such move. The furthest is that he has moved away from his former Yahapalana partners and ambitiously leaned on the government. In a lamppost outside an Ice Cream Parlour near the venerated high-walled Nallur Kandaswamy
Kovil in Jaffna, protestors had hung an effigy of Sumanthiran.
An Intelligence source said that when the Tiger guerrillas dominated the ground in the north during the separatist war, a close relative of Sumanthiran had been tied to the same lamppost and assaulted for being critical of them. Another effigy was found on the ground in Chemmanai. Who was responsible for them is not known, not even to the Police. However, the two instances clearly show that there remains a deep-rooted affinity in the minds of some of the people towards the former Tiger guerrillas. That is understandable even if those in the south abhorred it. Most of them have lost a brother, sister or a relative to the movement and still regard them as “martyrs.” That is not all. In the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a film producer also had an effigy of Sumanthiran tied to a post. The man had come to Jaffna last year and taken part in ceremonies in the University there on “Maveerar” or “Great Heroes” day on November 27. Photographs of this effigy have been widely distributed in the social media. A red shirt on the effigy carried a label which said, ‘Traitor of Tamils.’
Making matters worse for Sumanthiran in so far as his impression with northern voters was a meeting he held with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa last Wednesday (May 13). It was to be slotted originally for Tuesday, but two TNA former MPs had raised issue with those at the Premier’s Office. They were Selvam Adaikalanathan who had travelled from Mannar to Jaffna to discuss matters with Dharmalingam Siddharathan. The duo had claimed that he alone cannot represent the TNA and the meeting should therefore be disallowed. Later, the matter has been resolved with other TNA leaders agreeing that Sumanthiran could go for the meeting since he was in Colombo.
By then, Minister Douglas Devananda, had become aware that Sumanthiran had sought a meeting with Premier Rajapaksa. He won an appointment at 5.30 p.m. on Wednesday. Together with a group of his Central Committee members, Devananda discussed a number of issues. This included the release of more private land to their owners in the Jaffna peninsula, the release of LTTE suspects and the conversion of the Oluvil Port in the east as a fisheries harbour. He said with the port not fully operational, sand bars were forming. From the meeting, Premier Rajapaksa telephoned his Secretary Gamini Senarath and asked him to formulate a Cabinet Paper for this purpose.
It was 7.30 p.m. on Wednesday when Sumanthiran had a one-on-one meeting with Premier Rajapaksa at the latter’s Wijerama official residence. He had brought along with him a list of Tiger guerrilla suspects who have remained in custody for more than twenty years. This is a sequel to this issue being raised at Premier Rajapaksa’s May 3 meeting with former MPs. Rajapaksa said he would place the matter before President Gotabaya Rajapaksa whose task it was to take a decision on the matter. The government is not averse to releasing at least some of the cadres after a whetting process. The Premier also told him that he wished to have a meeting with women who have been widowed by the separatist war when he visits Jaffna soon.
Sumanthiran also discussed matters relating to a new Constitution. He opined that the issue was whether the country should have a presidential system or revert to the parliamentary form of government. He said he preferred the latter. Rajapaksa explained that it would depend on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who had won the people’s mandate at the November presidential election. He said he would brief the President on the issues discussed.
It is noteworthy that Sumanthiran should now talk of a return to a parliamentary system of governance. Under the previous “yahapalana” (or “good governance”) government led by the United National Party (UNP), Sumanthiran was a principal architect when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was in the making. Together with Jayampathy Wickremeratne, an appointed MP, they were responsible for drafting many a provision with the acquiescence of the UNP. That is not all. At his, and Sampanthan’s behest, the TNA supported legislation under the previous regime to put off elections to Provincial Councils (PC). It was paradoxical from a party that had demanded more devolution of power to make the PCs stronger. Even today, not one PC is functioning.
Sumanthiran’s remarks, which he has now claimed are personal, will nevertheless impact on the voters at the impending parliamentary elections. He won 58,043 votes at the August 2015 parliamentary elections. In a bid to do some damage control, Sumanthiran has now told Tamil social media that he did not criticised the Tiger guerrillas or Velupillai Prabhakaran. However, the recorded video interview in Sinhala, has gone viral. Criticism against him in the Tamil social media has been on the increase. There is little doubt it will place him on a confrontation course with the Tamil diaspora. Sections of them are demanding a public apology that should also endorse the contribution or sacrifices the guerrillas and their leader have made for Tamils.
On Friday, TNA leader Sampanthan issued a statement defending Sumanthiran and explaining the struggle of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to win Tamil demands. He said the interviewer had asked questions with
“ulterior motives.” Claiming motives when things go wholly wrong is one thing. However, the man who is expected to answer them is no ordinary person. He is a seasoned lawyer and politician. Thus, an attempt to place the blame on the interviewer is transparently flawed and the ploy to place Sumanthiran in good light with bad interpretations is showing. It would have been far better to admit the truth.
And then he says, Sumanthiran was both “frank and forthright.” Does that mean he accepts whatever he said and later retracted? If as Sampanthan, the senior and largely respected politician that he is, claims the interview was “with ulterior motives,” why did Sumanthiran give one? Perhaps he could argue that Sumanthiran did not know the motives of the interviewer. Sumanthiran, however, takes up an entirely different position now. He says he did not criticise the LTTE or its leader. Not only people in the north, but throughout Sri Lanka people would not believe in Sampanthan’s utterances. It is a case of doing more damage to a bad situation. Obviously, a case of having one’s cake and eating it. He wants Sumanthiran in the TNA and he wants the support of the others too. Sampanthan is viewed as an older generation Tamil who has stood for their cause but remained an honest politician liked by many Sinhala leaders. This is all the more reason why he should have faced the truth and not gone around the mulberry bush. Here are significant highlights of his lengthy statement which contains many repetitive paragraphs:
“Mr. Sumanthiran has been frank and forthright in his answers to questions that have been asked with the deliberate purpose of promoting mischief and disunity amongst the people of this country particularly amongst the Tamil people with the ulterior purpose of sabotaging efforts to find a resolution to the National Question within the framework of a single united undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka. Over the past 30 years after the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement and the enactment of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution much work has been done by successive Presidents and Governments.
“The questions posed to Mr. M.A. Sumanthiran are intended to promote confusion amongst all people, both the Sinhala and Tamil people. The purpose of this interview is to disturb the ongoing process amongst all people both Sinhalese and Tamils. The people should not get confused and misled by such mischievous endeavours.
“During the history of a long political struggle for equality and justice such as the Tamil political struggle which commenced in 1949 and has lasted over 70 years various events have taken place. The Tamil struggle when it commenced was democratic, peaceful, and non-violent. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) commenced their armed struggle in the late 70s and early 80s, after a period of 30 years since the commencement of the democratic peaceful and non–violent Tamil struggle.
“If there had been a reasonable resolution to the Tamil Question in the first three decades, the LTTE would never have emerged on the scene. It was the failure of the majority leadership to implement pacts and agreements Mr. Sumanthiran has been frank and forthright in his answers to questions that have been asked.
“I would like to communicate to the Tamil people of the Northern and Eastern Provinces that our strength to achieve a reasonable and acceptable resolution lies in your being united behind such a position rather than giving expression to contradictory views on issues that are perhaps not strictly related at present to the resolution of the National Question.
“The Tamil people have suffered immensely in several ways during the past several decades. The Tamil people were subjected to racial pogroms even before the emergence of the LTTE. A very substantial number of Tamil people have fled the country. Tamil people will inevitably remember with pain what happened to them, but this should not confuse their thinking in relation to the main issue.”
Though the Sumanthiran saga will not impact heavily on the outcome of the parliamentary polls in the north or the east, it is sure to tell on his own candidature. One is not wrong in saying that Sampanthan’s statement has not made a rational case for his young colleague and perhaps the one groomed for leadership. The word has spread far and wide in the Tamil diaspora and the whisper campaign against him in the north and east has not been salutary. Thus, what his chances are at the parliamentary elections will no doubt be a critical question.
June 20 election likely to be put off
There are strong prospects that the elections scheduled for June 20 will be put off again. It is likely to be held on July 18 if no unexpected developments take place, especially on the COVID-19 front. This is particularly in the light of the pending fundamental rights applications before the Supreme Court. Seven such petitions challenging the conduct of parliamentary elections on June 20 and eight intervening petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court. The petitions have been filed by Attorney Charitha Gunaratne, Journalist Victor Ivan and seven others, Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, and former ministers Patali Champika Ranawaka and Kumara Welgama, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the All Ceylon Makkal Katchi (ACMC). They have all challenged the decision by the Election Commission to fix elections on June 20 amidst what they call the spread of COVID-19.
A five-judge-bench comprising Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya, Justice Buwaneka Aluwihare, Justice Sisira de Abrew, Justice Priyantha Jayawardena and Justice Vijith Malalgoda has been named to hear the petitions, which will be supported on May 18 and 19.
Among the intervenient petitioners is the Ven. Murutetuwe Ananda Thera. Another has been filed by three persons – Jeevan Thiagarajah, Asoka Nalanda Abeygunawardena and Harsha Kumara Navaratne Weraduwa. They state that
“in the most categorical terms that the dissolution of Parliament by H.E. the President by the Proclamation published in the Extraordinary Government Gazette No. 2165/08 dated 02-03-2020, was strictly in accordance with the Constitution and the Law, and cannot be impugned or called in to question either directly and/or collaterally and/or indirectly as has been sought to be done by the Petitioner (the CPA), and that the Counsel appearing for the IntervenientPetitioners shall more fully elaborate, explain, and substantiate this during the legal submissions.”
They add: “The IntervenientPetitioners state that the FR Application of the Petitioner before Your Lordships’ Court is merely a devious and desperate bid to circumvent, and suppress the exercise of the Franchise of the People who are vested with inalienable Sovereignty, at a General Election at the earliest available opportunity, and to reconvene an expired Parliament which was lawfully, and in accordance with the constitution dissolved by the Proclamation published.”
On the conduct of parliamentary elections, Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya won praise from the Constitutional Council (CC) for his impartiality. It came after CC Chairman and former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya raised issue over malicious campaigns by shady sections of the social media to cause divisions within the Commission with inaccurate and slanted reports. He noted that this was not in the national interest. Jayasuriya feared there could be resignations from the EC.
US, China telephone calls
With a five-judge Supreme Court bench taking up the petitions on Monday and on Tuesday, the government also lifted curbs to allow limited social activity though today (Sunday) will remain under curfew in all parts of the country.
That he handled the campaign against COVID-19 successfully won praise for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa both from China and the United States. Calling him this week was Chinese President Xi Jinping who had a discussion not only on how the deadly virus was being tackled but also on a string of bi-lateral matters. Also telephoning him was US National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien. He too praised President Rajapaksa and offered US assistance where necessary. The call was confirmed by Nancy van Horn, US Embassy spokesperson. Other sources said O’Brien also discussed with President Rajapaksa the US offer of a millennium grant of over US$ 450 million. The telephone call coincided with an inclusion of Rajapaksa’s name in the State Department register – the final procedure in relinquishing his US citizenship.
The relinquishment was in fact from April 2019 but a mention in the register is usually delayed due to procedural issues. That lays to rest claims in sections of the opposition, including court action, that he had not relinquished US citizenship at the time of his nomination for the Presidency.
The same praise was heaped by 16 Ambassadors and High Commissioners of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) in Sri Lanka. They said, “We would like to applaud Your Excellency for the exemplary leadership you are providing in containing the spread of Covid-19 pandemic.” However, the envoys based in Colombo in a letter said the handling of the bodies of the Muslims who have passed away due to the COVID-19 in Sri Lanka, has come to their attention. To date all three Muslim COVID-19 victims have been cremated, they have said.
Among other matters, the letter says, “Scientists, public health functionaries and medical practitioners across countries affirm that the WHO Guidelines carefully and adequately provide for individuals and communities to make a choice in respect of burial or cremation, in keeping with the person’s faith. The Guidelines take the full account of public health considerations. During this pandemic, across countries, disposal of the body of a deceased is decided upon by upholding the honour and sacredness of the body and taking into account the person’s faith. It is also a matter on which the public figures need to conduct with exceptional responsibility and leadership.
“Decision on conduct of the final rituals of a deceased, in accordance to his/ her religion, is not imposed anywhere else on the ground of varying topography or conditions of physical environment (e.g. soil, water). It may be noted that the OIC Member States represent countries with considerable diversity in respect of physical/geographic conditions/circumstances or, attributes. While Islam places overwhelming emphasis on knowledge and scientific inquiry and also accords flexibility, there is no conclusive evidence anywhere that suggests the possibility of the spread of virus through burial. We are afraid, the issue of cremation of dead bodies of Muslims in Sri Lanka could cause grievance to the Muslims of Sri Lanka and the world over.
“………We strongly believe that this matter must not arise as an issue and reach across Muslims elsewhere as such and dent the impeccable standing of a pluralist-inclusive-harmonious Sri Lanka. We candidly view that this is a matter that can and needs to be addressed forthright through frank consultation with the Muslims of Sri Lanka, under the leadership of Your Excellency and Hon. Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa.”
The signatories to the letter are: Al Sheikh Jumah Hamdan Hassan Al Shehhi (Ambassador of the Sultanate of Oman), Dr Zuhair M.H. Dar Zaid (Ambassador of the State of Palestine), Khalaf M.M. Bu Dhhair (Ambassador for the State of Kuwait), Riaz Hamidullah (High Commissioner, People’s Republic of Bandladesh), I. Gusti Ngurah Ardiyasa (Ambassador of the Republic of Indonesia), Hussein El Saharty (Ambassador of the Arab Republic of
Egypt), Ahmed Ali al Mualla (Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates), Abdulnaser H.O. Al Harthi (Ambassador of the Royal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), Omar Abdul Razak (High Commissioner of the Republic of Maldives), Ashraf Haidari (Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan), Ms. R. Demet Sekercloglu (Ambassador of the Republic of Turkey), Major General Muhammed Saad Khattak (High commissioner of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan), Nasser Y.M. Al Furjani (Charge df ’ Affairs of the State of Libya), Kutaiba Sobhe Ahmed Alkero (Charge d’ Affairs of the Republic of Iraq and Ayoub Heydara (Charge d’ Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran).
Battle on the economic front
With the easing of social restrictions, the government’s attention was focused also on the economic front. Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is also the Minister of Finance, has set up a committee to examine requests for import of goods that are not essential. Led by Finance Ministry Secretary S.R. Attygalle, a committee has been named to examine import requests on a priority basis. All imports, except non-essential goods, have now been banned. Importers have also been advised to, as far as possible, obtain suppliers’ credit for at least six months. A decision also awaits on the import cement.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also chaired a meeting of heads of banking institutions on Thursday. It was also attended by Premier Rajapaksa. The subject of loans, some on very concessionary terms to the private sector, was discussed. Premier Rajapaksa said that such loans should be granted without any further delay. Some banks came in for criticism on the grounds that they were delaying loans despite government recommendations.
The number of persons confirmed affected by COVID-19 on Friday stood at 925. A total of 489 are Sri Lanka Navy personnel. A further ---- were reported from the Navy yesterday. Health authorities have so far conducted 41,118 PCR tests.
Though there is a hike in numbers, the government is confident the spread of the virus has been contained with no clusters other than the one at the Sri Lanka Navy. However, it wants to ensure that the guidelines to the public are strictly enforced so it could bring the toll down.
Thus, a new phase has begun. On the one hand, the battle against COVID-19 continues whilst the Government is taking more time to focus on economic issues.