As the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) continues to grapple with infighting after its decision to back Dullas Alahapperuma, multiple sources have confirmed to the Tamil Guardian how events of a fateful meeting with the presidential candidate unfolded – including details of a written agreement of demands and on how an Indian ambassador to Sri Lanka was dialled in during the evening.
“Whilst we are a party with 70 long years of experience, the tactless, irresponsible and arbitrary actions and activities pursued by us in the name of the party have caused considerable damage,” said Mavai Senathirajah, leader of the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), last week.
The veteran lawmaker was speaking on the controversy that followed a tumultuous week in Sri Lankan and Tamil politics that exposed the deep fissures within the Tamil alliance. Though tensions between the constituent parties of the TNA – which includes the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) alongside ITAK – had been brewing for some time, it came to the fore after the alliance announced it would be backing Alahapperuma to become Sri Lankan president last month.
The announcement had taken many by surprise. In the wake of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation, Sri Lanka’s convoluted political system meant it was up to lawmakers to decide who should replace him. As candidates from across the Sinhala political spectrum vied for support, for Tamils the choices were bleak.
Alahapperuma, a lawmaker with Rajapaksa's party, is a staunch Sinhala Buddhist nationalist and close Rajapaksa ally. Having consistently opposed Tamil demands for devolution of powers and himself stood outside the United Nations in Geneva protesting against resolutions that called for accountability for wartime massacres, there seemed little difference between Alahapperuma and the man he was seeking to replace.
Read more about his record here: Dullas Alahapperuma - Another racist throws his hat in the ring to be Sri Lanka’s next president
The other choices were just as sour.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, the six-time prime minister, was the other leading candidate. Sections of the TNA, particularly leader R Sampanthan and coalition spokesperson M A Sumanthiran had previously wholeheartedly expressed their support for Wickremesinghe during his previous tenure as prime minister in 2015. Sampanthan even once shared a stage with Wickremesinghe, as they both waved a Sri Lankan lion flag in Jaffna. However, the TNA relationship with Wickremesinghe deteriorated as the 2015 government quickly fell apart and his United National Party (UNP) plunged in the polls. During the 2020 parliamentary elections, it suffered humiliating losses, failing to win any districts and Wickremesinghe also losing his seat.
In recent months, however, the once rival to the Rajapaksas rekindled his relationship with the ruling regime, meaning that he too was seen by many as an ally of the family.
Sampanthan and Ranil waving the Sri Lankan flag together at a rally in Jaffna.
Whilst the other leading Tamil political party in the North-East, the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) announced that given the obvious lack of choice between the candidates it would be abstaining, all eyes were focussed on what the TNA would do. With 10 seats in parliament, it represented a substantial chunk of votes that all sides would be vying for.
It was in that context that TNA members met with Alahapperuma in Colombo, just hours before the vote was scheduled to take place.
ITAK steamrolls the decision
On July 19 evening, several TNA lawmakers met with Alahapperuma, Chairman of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) GL Peiris and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) leader Sajith Premadasa, who had recently thrown his support behind the Sinhala nationalist candidate.
The meeting, held at Sampanthan’s Colombo residence, saw 4 hours of intense discussions, according to a source present that evening.
“The decision to support Alahapperuma was brought by ITAK,” said the source who wished to remain anonymous. “They had decided before informing the rest of the alliance.”
The ITAK delegation, consisting of Sumanthiran, Sampanthan, Shanakiyan Rajaputhiran Rasamanickam, Sivagnanam Shritharan, Thavaraja Kalai Arasan and Charles Nirmalanathan were all present at the meeting. But Senathirajah, the leader of the party, was missing – a point he would repeat to reporters just days later as he sought to distance himself from the decision.
Other sources indicate that he was only informed of the ITAK decision by Sumanthiran earlier in the day. Yet another senior source confirmed to the Tamil Guardian, that it was an ITAK-spearheaded initiative to back Alahapperuma, with many claiming to have expressed their discomfort over the move.
However, they went on to state definitively that a written agreement with an extensive list of demands had been signed by both the TNA and Alahapperuma, as conditions that were laid out in exchange for the coalition’s support.
A written agreement
The Daily Mirror initially quoted a “senior TNA source” as stating that demands, such as a process to resolve the Tamil national question and co-operating with a UN Human Rights Council resolution on accountability for mass atrocities, were all part of the proposed deal
Sumanthiran swiftly dismissed the Daily Mirror story, claiming that the Alahaperuma “agreeing to TNA demands is mischievous and misleading”.
Yet at least four separate sources confirmed to the Tamil Guardian that such an agreement did exist and was signed by both sides that evening at Sampanthan’s residence.
Though Sumanthiran declined to comment on the matter to the Tamil Guardian, ITAK lawmaker Shritharan took to Twitter to publicly post the set of demands that the Sinhala politicians had agreed to.
தமிழ்த் தேசியக் கூட்டமைப்பின் பாராளுமன்றக் குழுக்கூட்டம் - 2022.07.19
2022.07.19ஆம் திகதி, மாலை 6 மணி முதல் இரவு 10.00 மணிவரை, தமிழ்த் தேசியக் கூட்டமைப்பின் தலைவர் கௌரவ.இரா சம்பந்தன் அவர்களின் இல்லத்தில் தமிழ்த் தேசியக் கூட்டமைப்பின் பாராளுமன்றக் குழுக் கூட்டம் நடைபெற்றது.1/12 pic.twitter.com/pbq96AHPoN
— Shritharan Sivagnanam (@ImShritharan) July 20, 2022
The extensive list included the release of Tamil political prisoners, the immediate repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), removing the Sri Lankan military from private lands in the North-East, immediate negotiations for a political settlement with the Tamil people and co-operating with a UN Human Rights Council resolution on accountability for mass atrocities.
“The agreed conditions were presented in writing by Sajith and Dullas,” said one of the ITAK sources present at the meeting, who added the reason they were told not to make it public was the fear of a Sinhala backlash. “Ranil Wickremesinghe was presented with the same conditions, but he did not accept it.”
TELO’s General Secretary went on to proclaim publicly in an interview with IBC Tamil that a document was signed and even claimed that it was a “victory” to reach such an agreement.
When asked by the Tamil Guardian about the existence of such an agreement and on why lawmakers within his own party were contradicting his comments, Sumanthiran declined to answer.
'A personal vendetta'
“PLOTE and TELO feel that the decision was made purely on Sumanthiran’s personal vendetta against Ranil,” added another TNA figure who wished to remain anonymous.
Indeed, multiple sources told the Tamil Guardian that Sumanthiran had led the charge to back Alahapperuma. In the days leading up to the vote, Wickremesinghe’s falling out with his former TNA allies was well known, and the TNA spokesperson had shared articles criticising the-then prime minister. Sumanthiran had also defended Alahapperuma for one of his most notorious acts – the waving of a flag emblazoned with only the Sinhala lion that has been closely associated with the racist ‘Sinha Le’ movement and other organisations accused of hate speech.
Alahapperuma at a 2015 rally with a racist flag.
“He apologized immensely,” tweeted Sumanthiran in response to criticism of Alahapperuma. As outrage grew at the time, Alahapperuma claimed that an “unidentified” group had distributed the flag. “Very courageous thing to do for a politician,” said Sumanthiran. “That says a lot about him.”
Alahapperuma’s staunch support for Rajapaksa, his rejection of the 13th Amendment, his active protesting against accountability for war crimes outside the UN and even his previous slamming of the TNA, however, was not addressed.
And as Sumanthiran made the case to his fellow party members as to why Alahapperuma should be supported, he claimed to have external backing.
A phone call with India
“Sumanthiran convinced the other MPs by saying the Indian high commissioner agreed with the decision to support Dullas,” said the ITAK source.
Several others also backed the claim, with multiple confirming that one of the lawmakers at the meeting was even on the phone to the Indian Deputy High Commissioner in Sri Lanka at the time.
Both Sumanthiran and India have since come out to vehemently deny the claim, contrary to what sources told the Tamil Guardian and to what several other Tamil media outlets reported.
“Today’s Kalaikathir story that an [Indian] Diplomat told the [TNA] Parliamentary Group how they should vote on my “speaker phone” is absolutely false,” tweeted Sumanthiran.
The Indian High Commission itself also waded into the controversy, stating,
“We have seen baseless and purely speculative media reports about efforts at political level from India to influence political leaders in Sri Lanka regarding elections in the Sri Lankan Parliament to the the post of the President of Sri Lanka (sic).”
“We categorically deny these media reports as completely false. They are clearly a figment of someone’s imagination.”
In public, other TNA members declined to confirm or deny whether the call had been made.
“I don't know about its truth,” Senathirajah told reporters about the claim last week. “Whatever it may be, I strongly condemn the decision to mention the name of India. These kinds of announcements are undiplomatic and puerile. It will lead to problems and mistrust.”
The ITAK leader claimed the squabbling was “sending a wrong message to India which alone is our sole strength” and warned that if it continued “we will have to face severe consequences”.
— TNAMedia (@TNAmediaoffice) July 19, 2022
At the end of the meeting with Alahapperuma, all participants posed for a photograph. “We have unanimously decided to support [Alahapperuma] at the election for the President at tomorrow’s election for the President,” the TNA tweeted.
As the fallout has made clear, the decision seems far from unanimous.
A coalition in disarray
Sampanthan in a recent interview.
Despite the TNA’s support, Alahapperuma did not garner enough votes from lawmakers in Sri Lanka’s parliament to be appointed president. Instead, Wickremesinghe triumphed and fingers were quickly being pointed within the TNA, as cracks in the coalition began to grow.
“If a collective decision is taken, the responsibility rests with all those who have taken the decision,” tweeted Sumanthiran in Tamil only after the vote, hinting that some within his party may have gone against the decision taken the night before and voted for Wickremesinghe. “Those who refuse to take that responsibility are spineless,” he added. "Let's see how many people have a backbone."
Rumours began spreading, reportedly from the ITAK camp, that some of the other constituent parties received bribes to vote for Wickremesinghe.
“We never vote against the decision of the party,” PLOTE leader Dharmalingam Siddharthan told reporters last week, dismissing rumours that those within his party or TELO had taken bribes. Instead, he pointed back to rumours that even bigger sums had been paid during the constitutional coup of 2018 when Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa tussled over the prime minister’s seat. Payments at the time were rumoured to have been made “to only two members of the ITAK without the knowledge of others,” he said, before adding that he doesn’t believe all the rumours he heard.
He admitted however that “some of Sumanthiran's comments, while being the TNA's media spokesperson, are breaking the alliance”.
“The reason PLOTE and TELO supported [the decision to back Alahapperuma] was to protect the TNA, since ITAK is trying to capture the alliance for themselves,” another senior TNA source told the Tamil Guardian. “They had already caused the EPRLF to withdraw. What will happen next?”
Within the ITAK itself, cracks that had attempted to have been papered over are now becoming more obvious. Whilst Sumanthiran and Sampanthan continue to have significant control over much of the party machinery, particularly in Colombo, Senathirajah has reportedly been lobbying former lawmakers, councillors and other political figures such as Ananthy Sasitharan, M K Sivajilingam, Suresh Premachandran and former youth leader Sivakaran to join and strengthen the ITAK’s Jaffna base and “weaken the ‘Colombo’ adjacent wing”.
Selvam Adaikalanathan, the head of TELO, was also sharply critical of the direction the alliance is heading in, as he called for Sampanthan to step down in the wake of the debacle.
Adaikalanathan, however, highlighted the 89-year-old TNA leader's “illness and inability to function actively as before” as to why Sampanthan needed to step down.
His “advanced age and illness” had impacted his ability to serve as the coalition leader, continued Adaikalanathan, as he called for the TNA to scrap its current model of having a leader that is separate from the three constituent parties and instead rotating leadership between them.
“When we look at the next leadership, it has to be a collective one, that is, the leadership should be a rotational one,” he added. “Sumanthiran cannot be acceptable as the leader of the alliance.”
“Considering the current situation, [Sampanthan] should step down from the post of leader of the Tamil National Alliance,” said Adaikalanathan. “He should make way for the next leadership, that is, the rotational leadership. We are awaiting an opportunity to talk to him about the matter very soon.”
Sampanthan meanwhile appears to be functioning on his own, writing a letter to Wickremesinghe this week stating the government’s efforts towards an “all party programme” has “our fullest support”.
The letter came just days after ITAK colleague and spokesperson Sumanthiran spoke in parliament criticising Wickremesinghe. Meanwhile, several other TNA members privately expressed their concern over Sampanthan’s announcement.
“Members of the TNA are caught up in a scramble for power,” said a Tamil journalist from Jaffna. “They play politics in Colombo and try to manoeuvre themselves into positions of power, but ultimately they are answerable to their constituency in the North-East. The people must remind them of it.”
“The whole coalition is in disarray.”