Tamil National Alliance spokesperson M A Sumanthiran said he 'bows his head' and paid his respect to LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, after he provoked widespread outrage from across the Tamil political spectrum, including condemnation from within his own party, following comments made in a Sinhala interview earlier this week.
Despite his response in Tamil, his initial comments accepting Sri Lanka's lion flag and national anthem sparked widespread anger and outrage amongst Tamils across the North-East, with condemnation from even normally supportive fellow lawmakers in his own party.
“I never said what the LTTE did was wrong,” claimed Sumanthiran in an interview with Globe Tamil following the backlash. “No-one can undermine their sacrifices,” he added. “I simply said that it was false that Prabhakaran oversaw the formation of the TNA. The first TNA meeting took place in Colombo.”
Speaking on Prabhakaran and the LTTE, Sumanthiran said,
“In the Tamil people’s political history and at a specific time, he is someone who gave everything and fought with the aim of obtaining liberation for Tamil people. Even if I disagree with his methods, his contribution was greater than mine or that of any others. For that we bow our heads and pay our respects."
'I accept the national flag'
The controversy started after an interview with Chamuditha Samarawickrama that the TNA spokesperson still has retweeted on his Twitter account. In the interview, Sumanthiran stated that he accepted both Sri Lanka's national anthem and the flag, telling the interviewer that he has even hoisted it in Jaffna.
"In our party, I think I and (TNA leader) Sampanthan are the only two people who hoist the national flag," he added.
"There are some who boycotted the flag," he admitted, referring to other Tamil lawmakers in his party. "Some people still cannot accept it. They think, how can we accept something we boycotted then. I don’t have that problem."
He further told Samarawickrama, who is a former Director of Media to the President of Sri Lanka, that he did not support the armed Tamil struggle, and made comments on both the TNA and the LTTE.
"I can’t say they stood for the goals of the LTTE," he said, speaking on the TNA's formation in 2001.
When asked whether he believed in a separate state, he replied "never".
And the TNA spokesperson was further questioned about the LTTE and Prabhakaran;
Q: Do you accept former LTTE Leader Veluppilai Prabhakaran’s political project? His armed project?
A: No. Never.
Q: You never condone it?
A: I never condone it. I will say this in Jaffna. I will say it anywhere. There has been a lot of opposition against me due to this. They say ‘why don’t you accept it when they fought for us’. I don’t accept it because I don’t condone armed insurrection.
Sumanthiran went on to distance himself from Tamil diaspora groups, stating he was "no connection with the Tiger diaspora".
"I have connections with some organizations in the diaspora like the GTF, BTF, CTC and ATC," he stated but went on to deny any links to the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam. "I don’t have connections (with TGTE head) Rudrakumaran," reiterated Sumanthiran. "He invited me and I rejected it."
He went on to claim that remittances from abroad came "if there is a family member who lives abroad and who has family here" and not from the "Tiger diaspora". His response comes just days after TNA leader Sampanthan released an appeal for funds to the Tamil diaspora, requesting that donations come directly through his party’s former lawmakers.
The interview concluded with Sumanthiran stating he would "definitely" win in upcoming parliamentary elections.
"Will you get 58,000 this time too?" asked Samarawickrama.
"More than that," responded Sumanthiran. "Twice as much. I will win with more than 100,000."
Read the full transcript of the Sinhala-language interview here.
Backlash across the North-East
Faced with overwhelming condemnation from across the Tamil political spectrum, Sumanthiran was forced to clarify just days later in a Tamil-language interview, broadcast live with Globe Tamil.The TNA spokesperson told Globe Tamil that “98% of Sinhalese believe that federalism is separatism”. In response to questions around his view on the Sri Lankan flag, he said that he "didn’t justify why I raised the Sri Lankan flag". "I attempted to explain to Sinhalese people why people in the North do not want to raise it,” he added.
As criticism mounted, the TNA spokesperson also released a video message in Tamil yesterday, where he sought to clarify his comments.
His video response came after an effigy of Sumanthiran was found in Nallur yesterday, as the TNA spokesperson continued to face intense backlash over the Sinhala-language interview. The effigy shows the politician with a garland of sandals and a sign that calls him a traitor.
Photograph: 'I am a traitor to the Tamil race,' reads the placard on this effigy of Sumanthiran in Nallur.
The effigy was found as the TNA spokesperson continued to face widespread criticism, with several political actors across the North-East denouncing him and calling for his resignation.
In response, TNA leader R Sampanthan claimed he had “not yet fully seen the views expressed by Sumanthiran in the Sinhala interview". "Nevertheless, his individual interview - his personal opinion must not be taken to be the stance of the Tamil National Alliance or the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi,” he continued as he sought to distance himself, and the party, from the comments made.
ITAK leader Mavai Senathirajah voiced his anger and said “Sumanthiran’s comments cannot be accepted". "Sumanthiran stated he cannot accept the armed struggle of the LTTE and the TNA is as culpable for these comments as him,” he added.
Fellow former TNA lawmaker Eswarapatham Saravanapavan said that "TNA or ITAK should not be used as a platform to participate in acts against humanity or make a mockery out of the struggle for Eelam". He also asked Sampanthan to "remove Sumanthiran from his position."
Charles Nirmalanathan, another former lawmaker with the TNA, asked Sampanthan to "remove Sumanthiran as the spokesperson for TNA" and that "Sumanthiran should not comment against the armed struggle carried out by the LTTE".
Selvam Adaikalanathan, leader of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), a TNA constituent party, said "Sumanthiran’s comments are absolutely inexcusable. Saying that the whole armed Tamil struggle is wrong is absolutely unforgivable."
The leader of the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) Dharmalingam Siddarthan, another TNA member, said, "Sumanthiran is speaking without knowing the history of the armed struggle".
Gnanamuttu Sirinesan, a former TNA MP from Batticaloa, urged "the leadership of TNA to address and take responsible action against Sumanthiran for his comments". "The TNA party is accountable for the comments made by their media spokesperson, Sumanthiran and for his remarks to please Sinhala chauvinists, he must be punished," he added.
Former ITAK youth wing leader and current head of Thamil Thesiya Valvurimai Iyakkam, V S Sivakaran said;
"M A Sumanthiran, (by telling) a story in the North, another story in the South, a story in Tamil and another story in Sinhala, he has commercialized the politics of Tamil's emancipation."
"From time to time opportunists have appeared in the Tamil side. He was the cause for leaving of many from the TNA and the ITAK. TNA should understand [whether] the party is; for the people [or], people are for the party, [or] people are for liberation, [or] liberation is for people."
Lawyer and the deputy leader of ITAK youth wing, S Dineshan said;
"Tamil National Alliance (TNA) received the votes of the Tamil people in the North and East. Therefore, the media spokesperson for the TNA, making such comments is never acceptable... I fully condemn such comments and the leader of TNA should certainly take action on this".
Former TNA Northern Provincial Council member T Ravikaran said:
“Tamil people will not accept Sumanthiran’s comments which dishonour the Tamil liberation struggles and the people involved in it - including the fallen LTTE cadres, disabled militants and also the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.
“Tamil leaders fought in many ways to combat the atrocities against the Tamil people. It was clearly evident that the fight against oppression of Tamils could not be solved by non-violent means. The LTTE was formed after the youths began to bear arms to fight for the rights of Tamil people.
The LTTE carried out their movement in a way that was accepted by all Tamil people and helped establish the TNA. Therefore, I want to reiterate that Tamil people will not accept when anyone discredits or delegitimise the armed struggle or those involved in the armed struggle.”
Pararajasingham Uthayarasa, Secretary-General of Sri Telo, condemned “the comments that Sumanthiran made rejecting the whole armed struggle" and asked, "whether TNA will take action against Sumanthiran for his comments".
Meanwhile, former Chief Minister of the Northern Province C V Wigneswarwan said he was "astonished" by Sumanthiran's comments, adding
Sumanthiran rejected the LTTE’s political and armed efforts. How can he be a MP of TNA, which had been created by brother Prabhakaran?
As a former student of mine, his comments bring me great shame. The reason behind the formation of TNA is well known by not only Tamil people but by Sinhala people too. The TNA formed with aspirations to gain independent democratic rights for Tamils is showing signs of instability.
Does Sumanthiran not know the history surrounding the party or is he pretending not to know?... He should be reminded that he is a spokesperson for the party formed by the LTTE.
Building a relationship with Sinhalese people and fighting for the rights of Tamil people are not mutually exclusive. Respecting other ethnicities is different to being being enslaved by others... Sumanthiran may be proud of being treated like a servant but when he is not entitled to do so, when talking on behalf of Tamils... After living cosily in the comforts of Colombo, he has no rights to return to the North and East to belittle the struggle of the Tamil people.
It is important to listen to the struggles and requests of the Tamil people and voice their concerns. If not, he should stay away from politics or compete for a party that addresses the needs of the Sinhala people... We need to raise awareness and educate the Sinhala people about our liberation struggle. There are many Sinhala people who understand the need for brother Prabahakaran to pursue an armed resistance. There are Sinhala leaders in the South who talk about the struggles and need for justice of Tamil people.
We need to eliminate any efforts that belittle the Tamil liberation struggle and the sacrifices made so far. If I was asked the question in Sinhala, I would have clearly stated that Prabhakaran’s struggle was caused by Sinhala politicians."
The Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) tweeted:
“A few days ago in a Sinhala interview TNA's M.A Sumanthiran claimed that he nor their party have ever condoned the armed Tamil liberation struggle and that he would readily accept and hoist the lion flag of Sri Lanka and sing its national anthem.
This statement is particularly treacherous as it comes in the run up to the 11th year commemoration of the #Mullivaikkal #TamilGenocide on #May18.”
The leader of the TNPF, Gajen Ponnambalam said on Monday:
“Sumanthiran is oblivious to Tamil nationalism. That is why he has insisted that he never accepted the armed resistance for the Tamil struggle.
He has also said that he accepts and identifies with the Sri Lanka lion flag and the national anthem and rejects the Vaddukoddai resolution.
Our pain has persisted for many years. For 11 years we have insisted that their party’s political actions are deviating away from the party’s fundamental aspirations it was formed from.
Sumanthiran has also applauded Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government for their role in the civil war.”
The Crusaders for Democracy, a party made up of former LTTE cadres, released a statement voicing their "anger over Sumanthiran's comments." They warned that "they will withdraw their support from the party," in response to these comments.
Several civil society organisations also slammed the TNA spokesperson, with families of the disappeared stating:
“Sumanthiran is loyal to Colombo and prefers Colombo. He does not care at all about Tamil people. He is acting on the belief that the Sinhala people see him as similar figure to Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. He serves to protect the constitution of the Sri Lanka government.”
In response to the barrage of criticism he has received from all quarters, Sumanthiran claimed that "during election time it is normal for such statements to come out” in his Globe Tamil interview.
Under fire once more
The criticism of Sumanthiran comes just days after the TNA came under fire once more as it became the only major opposition party to attend a meeting convened by Sri Lankan prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, after all other major parties boycotted it.
The TNA’s senior leadership has been slammed several times in recent years, particularly over reports from Tamils that it deliberately obfuscates its policies when speaking in Tamil, English or Sinhala. TNA leader R Sampanthan and Sumanthiran have been borne the brunt of Tamil ire, with effigies of both men displayed or burnt in protests in the North-East and in the diaspora.
In addition to Sumanthiran's comments in Sinhala last week, in 2015 he told the Sunday Leader in English that his party has no allegiance to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and is not "committed to their ideology", adding the TNA is not in favour of "terrorism". In 2012, TNA leader Sampanthan also claimed the LTTE “never observed human rights” and that he was “on the hit-list of the LTTE”.
Yet, other senior members of the TNA when speaking in Tamil have repeatedly praised the LTTE and Prabhakaran (see here and here) addressed memorial events for LTTE fighters and Black Tigers (see here, here and here) played pro-LTTE songs at rallies and even used LTTE imagery in election leaflets (see here and here).
In 2013, TNA MP Sritharan told the Sri Lankan parliament that the majority of the Tamil people in the North-East had voted for the TNA to support the ideals of the LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran and said he was "the greatest leader in history, who awoke the previously dormant defiance of the Tamils".
Last year TELO leader Selvam Adaikalanathan spoke on the LTTE’s participation in forming the TNA stating the alliance “was formed for the purpose of liberation of our people”. “No one can break the Tamil National Alliance which was formed as our people’s power with the LTTE’s participation,” he added.
The alliance's history has always been closely linked to the LTTE. The TNA was first formed in October 2001, when a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and Eelam Peoples' Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), with then TULF Secretary General R Sampanthan declaring, "the time has now come for all the Tamil political forces in the northeast to unite under one banner to give full support for the militants who are involved in the freedom struggle". In a 2006 statement, the TNA said “it is in full recognition of this reality and the overwhelming support enjoyed by the LTTE amongst the Tamil people, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, that the TNA as a mark of solidarity sought and received a resounding mandate from the Tamil people at consecutive elections recognizing the LTTE as the authentic and sole-representatives of the Tamil people at any peace process”.
Sumanthiran first became part of the TNA in 2010 when he was appointed as a national list MP.
Photograph: A 2013 TNA election leaflet with the headline 'Maaveerar Prabhakaran' and a photograph of the smiling LTTE leader
The latest controversy marks another occasion in which Sumanthiran and Sampanthan have faced criticism over remarks made in English or Sinhala. Indeed, when faced with a backlash or in the run-up to elections, both men have adapted their stances when addressing Tamil audiences.
Just months after Sampanthan's 2012 remarks on the LTTE, he told a Tamil diaspora event in London that the LTTE were “freedom fighters”.
And though Sumanthiran has stated his support for federalism, in one particularly fiery 2013 election speech in Kilinochchi, he told the audience,
Was it just for development that for over sixty years we gave up everything apart from our self-respect? There is nothing else left to give now! But he [Rajapaksa] did not know that.
Perhaps if he had been Tamil, he would have known that Tamils value self-respect above life itself!
They are coming to see the Provincial Council election of the Tamil people, to see if the Tamil people reaffirm their political demands, their political principles, aspirations and longstanding political stance.
Therefore, let us forget what the provincial council system is! [Let us forget] what the 13th Amendment is! None of those things are appropriate!
Today, as we vote, we must seize this as an opportunity to express our voice to the world
See his speech from the time, in Tamil, below.