Strife in Tamil National Alliance: Pragmatism Precedes Over Politics
Anushree Ghisad

“Like a metal abraded by a file, the might of a clan is eroded by enemies within.”
-‘Thirukkural’, division 2 (Porul), chapter 89, verse 888

More than 2000 years back, in above quoted words of wisdom, Saint Thiruvalluvar, often regarded as chef d'oeuvre of Tamil literature, had in the ‘Thirukkural’, also called as ‘Tamil Veda’, forewarned of disastrous consequences for the entire clan through internal strife and by the enemies within. The recent political developments in the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) in Sri Lanka, according to political analysts, could well be indicative of initial symptoms of a building crisis that needs to be understood and its root causes, addressed.

What Triggered the Strife?

Following a complaint filed by 16 members of the Northern Province Council, against four of their ministerial colleagues for alleged corruption, Chief Minister (CM) Wigneswaran set up a three member investigation committee that submitted its report to the CM in the second week of June, 2017. The report held two of the four ministers guilty and acquitted other two, who were found not guilty1. What triggered a new wave of schism in the already turbulent relationship between the CV faction of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) (led by C.V. Wigneswaran himself) and moderate faction of TNA (led by R. Sampanthan, M.A. Sumanthiran and Mavai Senathirajah) was the immediate action of the CM, asking the two ministers held guilty, to resign and asking the other two to proceed on leave for one month.

The CM was criticized by Mavai Senathirajah of the moderate faction of the ruling dispensation in the province, for not consulting TNA in general and Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) in particular, before taking this decision. It is worth noting that that all the important players here; the CM and the three leaders of moderate faction, belong to ITAK constituent of the TNA. It may also be mentioned that 30 of the 38 members of the NPC are representatives of the TNA that consists of Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO)2.

The crisis intensified after 21 of 38 members handed over a no confidence motion against the CM to Mr. Reginald Cooray, Governor of NPC.3 Meanwhile, another section of the Council, with 15 members, presented a letter to the Governor expressing support to the CM.4 They insisted that no further inquiries/action were warranted against the two ministers who had been cleared of the allegations by the board of inquiry, and hence they need not go on leave.5 Both the factions within TNA were not ready to budge by an inch, which further intensified the crisis.

Implications of the Internal Conflict

Reports of growing differences between moderate TNA leadership and the Chief Minister had been doing rounds for last over two years, but has surfaced in the public domain for the first time, especially when the objectives of the National Government, TNA leadership and NPC leadership coincide on critical issues of reconciliation, devolution and war crimes. The no confidence motion sparked mass Hartals across the North-East, as thousands came out in support of Chief Minister Wigneswaran.6 It has cast a shadow on the unity within the TNA, among its allies and even in the national Parliament, in which the TNA leader holds the prestigious office of Leader of the Opposition. As EPRLM leader Suresh Premachandran suggested, the only plausible solution to the crisis was to withdraw the impending no confidence motion against the CM.

Compromise to Defuse the Crisis

The crisis was put to an end through a compromise reached between CM Wigneswaran and R. Sampanthan on June 20, in which Sampanthan informed the NPC Governor to withdraw the no confidence motion. He also agreed to allow further inquiries against the two ministers who were ‘acquitted’ by the initial board of enquiry and directed them not to interfere with the enquiries.7 Wigneswaran in turn agreed that the two ‘not guilty’ ministers, who were to be subjected to a fresh probe, need not go on leave until the inquiry is complete.8

Assessment of the Strife

It is quite clear that the internal dynamics of Tamil politics in Sri Lanka have not yet stabilized, and this is well reflected in the politics of the NPC as well. Competitive politics, not only driven by the leadership ambitions of individuals but largely based on different approaches to achieving reconciliation and development, is being nurtured and promoted. The possible constituents of these could be-

a. Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora

Diaspora is a reality for it has political and other interests in Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka. It may be a matter of debate whether diaspora is a direct or indirect player but it is undeniable that diaspora’s hyper activism has become a major reason of continued state of destabilisation in Lankan Tamil politics. It has been a contributing factor in the TNA strife. For the case in point, diaspora ostensibly appears well disposed towards the CV faction of this strife.

b. TNA Representation in the Parliament

Following the General Elections in August 2015, the TNA has acquired an important and thus far unimagined status in the national Parliament with Sampanthan’s ascendancy as Leader of the Opposition. Notwithstanding this new role, TNA leaders and representatives at the national level are conscious of the fact that they derive their status and support in the power structure from the Tamil dominated areas like the Northern Province from where they have to contest election. Thus TNA leaders and other Members of the Parliament (MPs) have long term interests in the affairs and working of the NPC. This is why the moderate faction, notwithstanding their political clout at the national level, agreed to a quick compromise by withdrawing the no confidence motion, keeping in mind the possible electoral fallout in the upcoming local government and provincial elections.

c. Religious Leaders and Civil Society

These entities are contesting for space in the political maneuverings of Tamil leadership by positioning themselves as deciding players. This is evident from the active role they are playing in what Wigneswaran has called ‘a citizen’s forum’ named Tamil People’s Council (TPC). The intervention of Jaffna Bishop and the priest of the Hindu Nallai Aatheenam to resolve the current political deadlock attest this possibility.

Thus, there are far too many players vying for a role in the politics of the Northern Province, where the political discourse is currently controlled by Wigneswaran as he runs the administration and decides the policies. Therefore, terms and conditions of the compromise between Sampanthan and Wigneswaran factions substantially favoured the latter. And although his anti-corruption drive is allegedly marred by the politics of factionism, yet in a way, it is reassuring to see Wigneswaran demonstrating the political will to act on corruption issues even to a point where it puts his allegiance to TNA and its principal constituent ITAK under some doubt.

Although the internal political strife within the TNA is not a new development, this first ever real trial of shadow testing of strength since the election of first NPC, is a new phenomenon. It has shown that despite being in numerically advantageous position, Sampanthan is not yet ready to take on Wigneswaran, even though replacing him by his own trusted supporter was a possible option. This is not to suggest that personality based clashes and power politics are likely to stabilise in the near future; they are here to stay at least till the contentious issues of demilitarisation, devolution, reconciliation and justice for the innocent victims of war are sorted out at the national level. Till that happens, one may occasionally witness such episodes of confrontational politics at least in the Northern Province. Both Sampanthan and Wigneswaran are heedful of the fact that disunited Tamil polity will lead to greater problems in making the new constitution and other administrative measures. As of today, among other things, strengthening political institutions in war affected areas is primordial for ameliorating conditions of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Only a stable political representation can ride Tamils through this new window of opportunity, making unity in alliance not a matter of choice but essential pragmatism in the larger Tamil interests.

The recently reached compromised between Chief Minister of NPC C.V. Wigneswaran and Tamil National Alliance leader R. Sampanthan, after mediation of religious dignitaries and political allies, reflects that the values defined by Saint Thiruvalluvar are still upheld not only by people but also by political practitioners. This compromise seems to be guided largely by keeping interests of Lankan Tamils in mind, for they cannot afford to have a further fragmented representation in a country when a unique opportunity has presented itself for the long lasting solution of a historically challenging task.


1. Chris Kamalendran, ‘TNA, Wigneswaran in battle for North’, The Sunday Times, June 18, 2017,
2. Shamindra Ferdinando, ‘President to solicit British support for reconciliation’, The Island, March 8, 2015,
3. Meera Srinivasan,’ Uncertainty continues in Sri Lanka's Northern Provincial Council’, The Hindu, June 16, 2017,
4. ibid
5. Kelum Bandara,‘NPC Crisis Resolved’, Dailymirror, June 20, 2017,
6. ‘No confidence motion against Chief Minister Wigneswaran will be withdrawn, says TNA leader’, Tamil Guardian, June 19, 2017,
7. ibid
8. Zahrah Imtiaz, ‘ITAK withdraws petition of no-confidence Wiggie and Sam call it even’, Daily News, June 20, 2017,

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