Sri Lanka: Who lost the most, Sajith or the TNA?

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N Sathiya Moorthy 17 November 2019

While it is celebrations time for Team Gota and retrospection time for Camp Sajith, it may well be introspection time for the minority communities and their polity that backed the latter – only to lament their decisions within. The list of course includes Muslim and Upcountry Tamil parties in the outgoing Government, but more so for the Sri Lankan Tamils and their political leadership in the TNA.

True, SLMC’s Rauff Hakkeem and Upcountry Tamil leader Mano Ganesan sought of went overboard, at times attacking the Rajapaksas personally while campaigning for Premadasa. But they all have the history of supporting the winner, post-poll, enjoying the benefits of ministerial offices – and also getting things for their people(s), going beyond long-pending political demands of their own.

It is here that the TNA, like the LTTE that facilitated, or forced, their formation, stands out. The TNA now, and predecessor TULF in its time, have also kept out of every government that they had helped form, like the divided Sirisena-Wickremesinghe team, which owes its existence and continuance to the minority votes, especially of the SLT kind. If they thought that they would play king-maker all over again, and use it as a trump-card post-poll (though with no proven track-record), today, they have all been reduced to being jokers in the pack.

It is nobody’s case that the Tamils and other minorities should not receive their care of the constitutional cake, even if belatedly. But where even Sajith Premadasa, the candidate would not venture to contest or challenge rival Gota R, the Tamils, especially the TNA, went too far, and too fast – without giving the candidate of  their ultimate choice enough time to recoup and contest the damage done by them at the Sinhala grassroots-level.

It is not that the TNA leadership did not have options, even those that would have benefited Premadasa more than at present. Their candidate might have well had the cake and eaten it too, if only they were as circumspect as he himself was. It is anybody’s guess why the TNA took its time to take its decision, and yet went overboard to market their man. It would have been enough if they had told their constituency to ‘vote according to their conscience’. The results would have been the same.

Symbolic or what

So obsessed did a vast majority of Tamil voters become that they would vote anyone and anything as long as it is not a Rajapaksa or the symbol his ‘Flower Bud’. As results from the literate, northern Jaffna district, a Sinhala-Buddhist Independent, Ariyawansha Dissanayake, came fourth behind, Premadasa, Rajapaksa (a very distant second) and ‘rebel’ Muslim leader, M L A M Hizbullah, who got caught in controversies after the Ester Sunday serial blasts that claimed nearly 270 lives.

How did Ariyawansha manage to push a Tamil rebel in former parliamentarian M K hivajilingam and established JVP nominee, Anura Kumara Dissanayake further down the Jaffna district tally, for instance? Ariyawansha was allotted the ‘Eagle’ as symbol. If one were to go by post-counting Tamil social media posts, rural voters in the North, who knew Premadasa’s ‘Annam’ (Swan) symbol either as ‘vaaththu’ or ‘thaara’ got it all wrong.

It is not an impossible construct. As a candidate, Ariyawansha might not have been known even in his own neighbourhood.  Unless he had visited the Tamil areas on any private visit during poll time, there was no way Tamil voters that cast their lot with him would have known him, to be able to prefer him over the rest, including their own man in Sivajilingam.  Incidentally, terms like vaaththu, thaara and annam all stand for swan in the south Indian States of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Personal, personalised

It is anybody’s guess why and how the TNA leadership in particular made their political adversity to the Rajapaksas so very personal and personalised. Post-war, they had held talks with the regime of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, on a political solution, reported limited progress (which was better than no progress, under the circumstances), and yet went about unilaterally attacking the Rajapaksas (alone) for war-crimes and on other accountability issues.

The irony is the Tamils first and the TNA later on did not have any complaints about war-time army commander, Sarath Fonseka (2010), whom they happily voted the same way they have voted Premadasa, now. In between, they had no problem voting for outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena (2015), without even considering the possibilities of his (limited culpability) for being the Minister of Defence during the closing days of the war, and a silent but known ‘Sinhala-Buddhist hardliner’ in his own way.

The Rajapaksas during their second term humiliated the TNA and the Tamil community by extension, when the Government delegation failed to turn up for the aborting round of talks on two successive days without even extending the basic courtesy of informing them that it was off. Or, that is the impression doing the rounds, and no one has refuted or clarified the same over the past five years and more.

Yet, all of it happened (only) after TNA’s new-found spokesperson M A Sumanthiran declared at a news conference that the US-sponsored UNHRC resolution on war-crimes and the like owed it to their own persuasive skills. If the Sri Lankan State apparatus, as different and distinct from the political leadership or the personality of President Rajapaksa, would not have the TNA’s deliberate flip-flop, now under President Gota Rajapaksa, they would have to begin where it all ended – and abruptly.

Controlling Parliament

The TNA can now expect the Rajapaksas to control Parliament, even before the polls become due in August last year. If not, the new President, exercising powers conferred on him by 19-A may go ahead and dissolve Parliament in mid-February, when it becomes due, and advance the parliamentary polls. The chances are that a divided UNP rival in the Sinhala South may be even more demoralised to take on the Rajapaksas-led SLPP-JO.

The long-pending provincial council polls in the North could precede or follow the parliamentary polls, depending on the Rajapaksas’ success in converting their minority in Parliament into a majority before the August polls. It could well prove to be another problem and embarrassment for the TNA, as they are not as sure of their own support-base in localised contexts, as the nation-wide local government elections proved in February 2018.

There may be another add-on problem, now that the Rajapaksas are back in power at the Centre, and the EPDP of Douglas Devananda may have a ministerial berth reserved for the self. If so, the honourable and the one-way support that TNA mayors received in local government institutions in the Tamil North may become a thing of the past. It could have a deleterious effect on the TNA at the grassroots-level governmental institutions ahead of parliamentary and PC polls.

 But they all have a limited impact on the Tamils at large when compared to the stalled constitutional reforms, which the TNA was selling them with no hope of being able to take forward from the Steering Committee. The Rajapaksas had boycotted the process after voting for converting the current Parliament into a Constitution Assembly. So, the Steering Committee Reports could at best get added to the TNA’s five-report demand for consideration on political reforms.

If and when the Rajapaksas started off on the peace process, the chances are that they might go back to their own era, as most participants from the two sides are around and active. The question would then be if the TNA would want to participate, if the SLMC could work out internal solutions to the re-merger issue, and if the TNA can also persuade the UNP friend to participate. The last time under the Rajapaksas, the UNP deliberately stood away along with the JVP, citing reasons that were childish.

None of it would just now be on the Rajapaksas’ mind, starting with that of President Gota can be busy with Government-formation, ensuring parliamentary support and/or elections, and telling allies that they were no more ‘JO’ or Joint Opposition but were the Treasury Benches. They, and also the UNP, would be busy preparing for the parliamentary and PC polls, the latter patching up internal differences that did come out in the open in the choice of party candidate.

It’s all going to take some time, and it can also be the time when the TNA could introspect, rework the priorities of the Tamil community and their own leadership, instead of living for and off one section of the Sinhala majority and another from the ‘international community’, still. In between, if murmurs of protest from within become louder, blaming it all on the leadership and also certain sections thereof, if only to distance the complainant(s) from it all, the Tamil voters have seen them all – only this time, it could actually weaken their political leadership more than on earlier occasions, and for real!

The article appeared in the Colombo Gazette on 17 November 2019

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University


  1. TNA is steering the fight with the racist Sinhala section as planned with the help of international governments and through actions via UNHRC. TNA will ensure Gotabaya;s victory is only a bump in the struggle. This article is based on lack of knowledgeable factors.

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