For most of its two decade-existence, Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has been engaged in talks with the southern Sinhalese leadership, to negotiate a durable solution to the island nation’s lingering national question.
It has sought every opportunity that came its way, braving disappointment and brickbats from rival Tamil parties and critics in the diaspora that viewed its optimism as misguided or at best, naïve.
Much of this optimism comes from the TNA’s leader Rajavarothyam Sampanthan and his resolve for a political solution within the framework of a “united, undivided, indivisible” country. “We can’t despair, we can’t abandon things,” Mr. Sampanthan told The Hindu in 2018, when the Alliance joined a Constitution drafting process initiated by the President Maithripala Sirisena-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe administration. The exercise was not completed.
The TNA is in talks again. This time with President Ranil Wickremesinghe who, in November 2022, appealed to all parties in Parliament to come together and solve the unresolved ethnic problem before February 4, 2023, when Sri Lanka marks its 75th year of independence.
On February 5, Mr. Sampanthan will turn 90, after having witnessed first-hand British imperialism, decolonisation since 1948, the post-colonial nation state, the non-violent Tamil struggle for dignity and equality, decades of bloody civil war, and a post-war era in which a just and acceptable political settlement remains elusive.
The TNA has participated in three meetings with the President, through December 2022 and January 2023, and is not holding its breath. The Wickremesinghe government is yet to take concrete action on any of the three urgent issues put forward by the Alliance — regarding state and military occupation of Tamils’ land in the north and east; Tamils detained for years under Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act; and truth and accountability to families of forcibly disappeared persons.
While the next round of talks is scheduled on January 10, where the framework of a political solution is to be discussed, the TNA has said it might “rethink” its decision to engage in talks, unless there is decisive action on Tamils’ pressing concerns, according to Alliance spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran.
The TNA, which has 10 MPs in Sri Lanka’s 225-member legislature, is currently a coalition of three parties — the chief constituent Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK), or formerly the Federal Party; along with the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE); and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), both with histories of armed militancy.
The TNA was formed in 2001, in a bid to unify Tamil nationalists opposed to alliances with the main Sinhalese parties in the south. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), in which the ITAK predominated, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and the TELO, reached a working agreement. While the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) did not explicitly back the TNA, the unspoken understanding was that the Alliance would be the parliamentary or electoral wing of the Tamil nationalist cause as directed by the LTTE. The LTTE had established itself as the “sole representative” of Tamils by then, after wiping out other militant groups and dissenters over the years.
In the south, the TNA was for long seen as the political proxy to the separatist LTTE. Hardliners in the Sinhala polity, including elected representatives, continue to resort to the slur while referring to TNA MPs, despite the TNA emphatically ruling out secession since the civil war ended in 2009.
For the TNA, on the other hand, a clean break from the LTTE has proved hard, given the organisation’s lingering appeal among many Tamils experiencing the state’s continuing discrimination and racist policies. While some in the TNA distance themselves from the LTTE and its politics, it is not uncommon for others to invoke the LTTE, especially on the campaign trail ahead of elections. But more broadly, the TNA has chosen the politics of engagement over boycott in the post-war years, and has dominated the Tamil nationalist political sphere with wide support in the north and east, despite changes in its composition in the last 21 years.
Although a regional party, the TNA holds considerable sway in national elections, especially when there is a close contest between southern parties. It has adopted an “anyone but a Rajapaksa” approach in every national election — implicitly supporting common opposition candidate General (retired) Sarath Fonseka in 2010, Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, and Sajith Premadasa in 2019. Although Mr. Sirisena won with the support of Tamils and Muslims, his administration kept few of the many promises made to them. This proved politically costly for the TNA, which lost six seats in the 2020 general election. Despite its electoral losses, the TNA is still the single largest grouping in Parliament that represents a minority community. Western states and India see the TNA as the most credible voice for Tamil aspirations. The Alliance and its supporters abroad actively lobby foreign governments around resolutions on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, although critics accuse the TNA of privileging a constitutional settlement over war-time accountability in the domestic sphere.
Following years in oppositional politics, the TNA won a rare chance to govern for the first time in 2013, after handsomely winning the historic Northern Provincial Council elections. However, the Alliance and then Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran had little to show by way of substantial policy initiatives or economic revival in the war-affected Northern Province during their five year-term.
All the same, the TNA has remained a staunch advocate of the Provincial Council system, urging the government to hold the much-delayed elections. All nine of Sri Lanka’s provincial councils — created following the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 as a step to devolve political power throughout the island — expired in 2018 and 2019. The TNA maintains that the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, flowing from the Accord, is an inadequate framework for meaningful power devolution, but nevertheless sees it as a useful “starting point”, something that its arch-rival the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) vehemently disagrees with.
Present and future
Once forged to overcome the fragmentation of Tamil nationalist politics, the TNA could not be more fractured today. Its members neither have a shared vision, nor speak in one voice. Some prominent TNA voices resort to public spats among themselves for individual political gains. Further, questions over the TNA’s future loom, for it is Mr. Sampanthan who has held diverse actors together all this time. While spokesman and Jaffna MP Mr. Sumanthiran is widely seen as heir apparent, some within the Alliance resent him.
The 2020 polls saw the TNA’s failings translate to gains for Tamil politicians aligned to the Rajapaksas. Rivals such as the TNPF, which currently has two MPs in Parliament, are also working to enlarge their footprint. While the TNA has been consistent in its pursuit of a political solution, there is no evidence of the Alliance consciously strengthening itself by democratising its structures, evolving a strategy for economic development of the north and east, including issues of other Tamil-speaking minorities, or making way for more women. The TNA’s future is uncertain, but Tamil politics has yet to find an alternative.