Colombo, Elections, Politics and Governance

The Wigneswaran Factor: Sampanthan’s Master-Stroke


Photo courtesy Lanka Standard

In this country, it is a rarity to witness really smart politics on strategic issues. We have just done so and got two breakthrough moves on the same issue. The first was by President Rajapaksa who chose to go ahead with the election to the Northern Provincial Council and have a meeting with Mr Sampanthan, the TNA leader. The second was by Mr Sampanthan who worked hard to persuade his coalition to field Justice Wigneswaran as the Chief Ministerial candidate.

Justice Wigneswaran is a candidate that every Tamil can be proud of to have as his and her representative, and may make a Chief Minister that most Sri Lankans of whichever ethnicity or religion can be proud of. In fact he will have the salutary effect of raising the bar of performance for every chief minister and Sri Lankan politician throughout the island.

The choice of Justice Wigneswaran illustrates the kind of strategic thinking that is needed in politics when fundamental issues are at stake; strategic thinking that is willing to stand up to and sacrifice more obvious ethno-populist passions and pressures for the defence of vital interests of the entirety of the people and place one represents. The choice further shows a capacity on the part of Mr Sampanthan (and his able young supporter Mr Sumanthiran) to think through those strategic interests in a manner that transcends baser ethno-populist sentiment. In short, Mr Sampanthan and Mr Sumanthiran have accurately understood strategic Tamil interests which they have not confused with the lowest common denominator of Tamil sentiments.

Justice Wigneswaran is a symbol of Tamil ‘soft power’, which is being depleted in the Sinhala society and most certainly the State. If handled correctly he can become a symbol of the soft power of Sri Lanka as a society and a country. The Sinhala Establishment has to get its head around the fact that though the Tigers were utterly defeated, the Tamil community has not been cowed and has bounced back politically. One of the reasons for this resilience and recovery is the continued availability of an educated elite, literate in an international language (English)—a sociological resource which has been depleted on the Sinhala side by and driven into alienation or exile by the state of suffocation imposed by the State.  On the Tamil side the English educated elite is still available for politics and public service and is welcomed by Tamil society while on the Sinhala side, the public welcomes the incorporation of the elite but the dominant monolingual petty bourgeoisie which monopolises the state apparatus, does not. The choice of Justice Wigneswaran as Chief Ministerial candidate shows firstly, that the Tamil professional elite is still intact and willing to engage in politics and secondly, that the Sinhala state which has shed the equivalent human resources will find it difficult to compete in the regional and international arena.

It is not however a zero-sum game in which Tamil interests win and Sinhala interests lose. Indeed the choice they have pushed for, Justice Wigneswaran is the best chance to make the 13th amendment work and is therefore the best hope for North-South reintegration on the basis of frankness, dignity and mutual respect.

Whether or not it was intended as such – and I suspect, not—the choices made by Mahinda Rajapaksa (to hold the election) and R. Sampathan (to field Justice Wigneswaran) can be considered as complementary, and when taken together, offer the best chance for political reconciliation. It could mark the beginning of winning the peace and building a new Sri Lankan nation.

If both sides get it wrong though, it could mark the end of the road for a united Sri Lanka.

The single most important factor about the choice of Justice Wigneswaran as Chief Minister is that by so doing, the TNA has upped the ante and raised the potential cost to Colombo of any unfair and peremptory dissolution of the Council.  In short, by choosing Justice Wigneswaran, Mr Sampanthan has cleverly installed a deterrent to arbitrary dissolution of the NPC.

Sri Lanka, it must be recalled, is haunted by the negative experience of the North Eastern Provincial Council. One of the reasons for its failure was the personality of Vardarajaperumal who was chosen as Chief Minister (despite my strenuous representations to the EPRLF leader K Pathmanabha as well as the Indian side). Perumal’s lack of political maturity and realism in dealing with the Sri Lankan state, his mercurial populism and alcohol-fuelled adventurism were among the main reasons for the mishandling of the inevitable contradictions between the periphery and the centre.

Justice Wigneswaran is hardly a Vardarajaperumal. Educated in Colombo and a distinguished senior representative of one of the arms of the Sri Lankan state itself, he has long functioned in a multiethnic social universe. A dignified yet outspoken, multilingual man, he is in the current circumstances, the best possible bridge between North and South. He is, in sum, the TNA’s Lakshman Kadirgamar.

If the deep state is hoping to de-stabilise the elected Northern provincial council, the security managers will have to think again. In the event of a manufactured crisis and a creeping or dramatic coup by the capital, who would be the better interlocutor with the world community; who would be better able to convince the world’s capitals?  The national security fundamentalists or an erudite, reasonable, articulate ex-Supreme Court judge?

With Sampanthan, Sumanthiran and Wigneswaran, the fate of the Tamil community is in the best possible democratic hands.

I am especially gratified at the turn of events not only since I have been a supporter of devolution since 1984 and a Minister in the first North-eastern Provincial Council a quarter of a century ago, but because it bears out what I told the (then) Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams in early 2007, when he called on President Rajapaksa. There were several Cabinet Ministers, senior officials and Church personalities including Bishop Duleep de Chickera at the meeting. I gave a brief run down on the war as satisfying the major criteria of Just War theory. The Archbishop of Canterbury challenged me with a counter question. He had been wrestling with just war theory for about fifteen years and was concerned about a ‘just outcome’. Did I think that this war would lead to one and if so why and what were the chances? He queried. I replied that the military defeat of the LTTE by the armed forces of the state would be accompanied by the automatic re-enfranchisement of the Tamil people. This inevitable reopening of electoral space and the re-enfranchisement of the Tamil voter would give the Tamil people the leverage to re-insert their issues and demands at the very centre of Lankan politics. The revival of a political process in those areas would enable the criteria of a ‘just outcome’ to be met to some degree while further advance towards that goal was possible by negotiation between the state and the elected Tamil representatives. That was my answer, and current dynamics seem to be proving it right.

If a troika can crystallise, comprising the war-winning and pragmatic President Rajapaksa, the TNA’s R Sampanthan and the Northern provincial council’s Wigneswaran, Sri Lanka may yet win the peace, 30 years after Black July 1983. With the forces of ‘radical evil’ (as the great Goethe designated it) defeated in the North and East but not yet in the South, it will be a harsh and bitter struggle though—and a grim, emotive, turbulent transition. Living with and accommodating a TNA run Northern provincial council led by Justice Wigneswaran will require and may generate a profound shift in the collective psyche.

Justice Wigneswaran is no Alfred Duraiyappa. He will not bend the knee and tug his forelock before the Sinhala Establishment. He is nobody’s “malli”. An interview given to Ayesha Zuhair in 2011 reveals him to be a federalist who stands for the right of self-determination, though he never strays into endorsing secession. What is tricky is not the federalism but the fact that in most parts of the world, federalists do not stand for self –determination, though he belongs to that tendency which does. A Council led by him will be a counterweight to the dangerous neo-conservative surge which threatens not merely Northern lands but Southern film making! The Northern Council with him as Chief Minister will not be the answer to Sri Lanka’s needs but will constitute a counterpoint which will in turn help us discover a middle path, a golden mean between the nationalisms of the South and North. He is a challenge but the challenge he will constitute could be a positive one; just the benign shock therapy that the Sri Lankan state and Sinhala society need to accommodate and integrate if they are to catch up with the 21st century world.

  • Jayalath

    Well balance thought and very well articulated piece of write . Well, are we ready now ? Are we ready to rewrite the history ? I hope this change is vital because we fought many time for it and ruined almost we had . This change has to be realised by the politicians and all race of people . As it is the only gate way to rescue the country from this social erosion .

    The medias must highlight the needs of right people to govern a country where every one will benifit .we must stop the thugs and mobs getting into the politic atleast now which can be a massive relief to all of us if we can do that . And also , it is important to give a chance to any one who is capable of doing and handling well any type of ministry in the cabinet without regarding a race or religion . We had Laksman Kadiragama who brought inconceivable reputation to the country no one complained . ,therefore, I believe , if we can be humble that we can do miraculous things in Sri lankan politics and basically for the whole country .
    Since Premadasa ‘s Era upto today we experience how and what would happen if we elected wrong people , therefore test run period has to be over , the new era should base on the intellect and rationalism with every body’ participation.
    We are not a country with lack of intellectuals ,therefore , this is the time to get work from them and allow them to do what would best for the country not what best for the individuals or individual race or ethnic .

  • Rathan kumar

    “Sri Lanka, it must be recalled, is haunted by the negative experience of the North Eastern Provincial Council. One of the reasons for its failure was the personality of Vardarajaperumal who was chosen as Chief Minister (despite my strenuous representations to the EPRLF leader K Pathmanabha as well as the Indian side). Perumal’s lack of political maturity and realism in dealing with the Sri Lankan state, his mercurial populism and alcohol-fuelled adventurism were among the main reasons for the mishandling of the inevitable contradictions between the periphery and the centre.” – Dayan Jayatilake

    Dayan here you are simply settling ur old score with Perumal. The real reason was Premadasa was in bed with the LTTE and he didn’t want to devolve powers nor he had to. You wanted Perumal’s job then. Dayan you served many masters including Premadasa, Padmanaba, Rajapakshe.

  • Suren Raghavan

    Dear Dayan
    One word- Superb!

    Please write this in Sinhala so that those who think and shout saying JW is no true Tamil and Vasu is half Tamil because they let their children cross the ethnic identities to make SL a better a place and decent society to be part of, will bury their pin heads in shame.
    Now that there is no LTTE, I hope JW will be allowed to run his full political journey unlike Neelan and Lakshaman. For some forbidden reasons if it does not then as you write, this island never be at peace or united and the ethnonationalist militarized Sinhala polity should take full responsibilities of that.

    Beside the fact that you managed to smuggle your fear of federalism/self-determination (I am not a federalist either but for different reasons) this article is a signature pointer on the national road map to democracy (if there is such thing)

  • Anton Norbert

    Excellent piece.

  • eureka

    ”…and current dynamics seem to be proving it right …”?

    Militarisation of the last 50 months has
    i.damaged NP socio-economically, culturally and environmentally and ii.promoted more than a critical mass of sinhalisation – a lot of Tamils may be in for a shock with the result of the elections.

  • This is excellent news. I am beginning to understand Dayan better now. Justice Wigneswarran is an excellent choice. We should congratulate Mavi Sennathirajah for his loyalty and statesmanship. The Quartet Sampanthan, Mavi Sennathirajah, Sumanthiran, and Justice Wigneswarran have immense responsibilities ahead – both to the Tamils, the Country at large.

    Wishing them well.

    Dr. N. Satchi U.K

  • warforpeacehypocrite

    now dayan enlighten us pls on why all this talk about tna and northern elections completely devoid of the militarized landscape?

  • Leelananda

    I am sure if he elected state will not allow him to govern the province peacefully ultimately he will be white vanned,like Lasantha.

  • Let us hope that the choice of Justice Wigneswaran is a blessing in disguise and a welcome change of fortunes for the depraved Tamil community. Choosing Wigneswaran is just the start and there is a great deal that has to be done and the order of priority are a follows although this is happening in reverse.

    1) Electing a Chief Minister for the North and East which is no easy task as MR will put a lot of hurdles in the way.
    2) Once that has been achieved the CM should try and flex his muscles to get some normality to bring Law and Order and confine the Barbaric army to the barracks who have caused a lot of carnage such as mass murder, rape and intimidation . During my recent visit to the North ( contrary to what has been portrayed) people are living in fear of reprisals if they dare to question the authorities.
    3) Once the army has been confined to Barracks the enforcement of law and order should pass to a Tamil Police force who not only understand the Tamil Culture but also will safeguard the dignity of our women.
    4) Just like in India the CM should be able to have meetings with the Sinhala Government at the centre to allocate money for the development of the North with control of the Budget for the North.
    5) Devolve enough powers ( maintaining the integrity of a United Sri Lanka ) from the centre to safeguard our culture and heritage and the international community has a vested interest to guarantee such a status quo.
    6) Then begin the process of accountability and bring those responsible for the Genocide and those ( soldiers still committing the crime ) responsible for rape and murder and loot to justice.
    7)The prerequisite to reconciliation is accountability and sadly those responsible for the Genocide cannot be part of reconciliation and they should be made to pay for their hideous crime.

    • georgethebushpig

      Dear Kali,

      Let me add that this is an excellent opportunity for the GOSL to replace the current Governor of the Northern Province G. A. Chandrasiri (former Major General and Commander Security Forces Headquarters – Jaffna) with a Tamil technocrat who will be able to advocate on behalf of local needs rather than ethno-military priorities.


    • georgethebushpig

      p.s. I think you meant to say “deprived Tamil community” rather than “depraved Tamil community” – a misplaced vowel can lead to a needless wor of wurds.

      • Srivanamoth

        True, the selection of Justice Vigneswaran is the ‘ideal fit’ one could look forward to after the events of the past 30 years of mutual self-destruction most of all for sheer want of political sagacity and good governance going back much further to the year of independence in 1948. The dastardly events of the past 30 years were only the culmination of previous failures by by the state which brought forth the Tamil rebels headed by the LTTE. Let us also not forget the JVP uprising before it.

        There may be euphoria at the present juncture but as already pointed out in some remarks will it continue after the CHOGM in November? Or is it only just a temporary show? All the hallmarks for a one country future were laid down in Feb 1948 under a consensual constitution but what happened after it was ditched crudely in 1971 is all too fresh to those who remember subsequent events notably the tearing up of the B-C Pact in 1958. Will history repeat itself at the altar of political chicanery and convenience? The DNA of politics has not changed. It’ll be an elephantine effort to get all round consensuality again given the current trends against not just Tamils but also other minorities.
        Education is key at all levels at least within a generation to be optimistic. Can the seeds for change be sown now under a constitution fit for purpose for all citizens without discrimination and rancour?
        In any case assuming in the best scenario for a better future for all Justice Wigneswaran wins he can at best be only a catalyst. But it will surely take many other major players to be part of the political orchestra for a better future.

        So it will be back to the drawing board again based on the successes but more importantly failures of the past 65 years of independence. No mean task!

  • warforpeacehypocrite

    i am sure many more good things ought to come ahead of CHOGM meet to satisfy IC. not just northern elections and arrest of a few in trinco 5 case. Burma is a shining example.

    • georgethebushpig
      07/17/2013 “3 • 3:35 pm
      Dear brov George ( hope you are not a pig)

      I chose the word deliberately and let me explain why.

      To deprave is to make something bad, often to the point of moral corruption, like the parental fear that a bad influence will deprave their good kids. So, depravity is behavior that is morally corrupt or otherwise deemed wicked. Don’t confuse depravity with deprivation, meaning “being denied something that is necessary.

      I am not sure whether you are privy to what your soldier brothers are doing in the North but let me tell you they are behaving in such a way which is abhorrent to my way of behaving and as an occupying army they are doing untold damage to the Tamil Social Fabric. If you want I will take you the North and prove to you what I mean and in my line of work I have come across a number of Tamil Women whose life have been torn apart and traumatised.
      I hope that clarifies your comment which was I am sure you made with sincerity.

      • georgethebushpig


        Don’t mean to belabor the point but your sentence suggests that the Tamil community is morally corrupt i.e. depraved. I don’t believe that that is your intention.

        Been to Jaffna and Vavuniya, spoke with many people, witnessed the post-war “rehabilitation” first hand, met the Governor, felt the weight of the ethno-military complex, understand better the fears of the Tamil community…. thanks for the offer though.


      • Burning_Issue

        Dear Kali,

        GTBP has stood sometimes alone in defence of the rights of all the people. He argued valiantly in support of political rights of the Tamils. He is a friend of those who seek fairness, good governance, and above all Equality with power-sharing.

        • georgethebushpig

          Dear Burning Issue,

          Seems like you know me well! That’s kind of you to recognize where I’m coming from.


  • Off the Cuff

    Former SCJ Wigneswaran asserted his judicial independence without fear. His judgement in favour of TNL standing out. He has rebuffed the Executive’s attempts at interfering with the judicial administration. The reason given by him in refusing to serve as Chairman of a special committee to investigate a former CJ, attesting to it. Dyan observes ” He is nobody’s “malli”.” Of course he is not. He has proved it beyond doubt as an SCJ.

    Dayan observes “The Northern Council with him as Chief Minister will not be the answer to Sri Lanka’s needs but will constitute a counterpoint which will in turn help us discover a middle path, a golden mean between the nationalisms of the South and North. He is a challenge but the challenge he will constitute could be a positive one;..”

    I agree with Dayan since former SCJ Wigneswaran is a person accustomed to holding an even scale and making judgements devoid of emotion on the Bench. I believe he would be eminently suitable to unravel the tangled cotton ball that the 13A is.

    But the question is whether former SCJ Wigneswaran can assert the same independence, the same ability to hold an even scale and to reason out devoid of emotion, within an umbrella organisation that is more nationalistic (seeking to establish an Eelam or Tamil Kingdom) than moderate.

    Accommodation is a two way street, take goes equally with give.

    If former SCJ Wigneswaran holds true to his judicial reputation he will definitely be an asset but if he is being used to pull hot chestnuts from the fire by a currently silent nationalistic group, then the writing is on the wall for him.

    A person of the stature of Lakshman Kadirgamar would have been the best choice as he earned the trust and respect of the majority of Sri Lankans by his even handedness, but there is no one of his stature in politics today. Former SCJ Wigneswaran must transcend ethnic boundaries and seen to be Just in politics, the way he was on the Bench.

    • off the cuff,

      You are definitely off the track spinning violently in your praise for Lakshman Kathirgamar. You may be right when you say he earned the trust of the Majority of Sinhala Lankans ( not the Tamils). I am not sure whether you have ever heard his speech during the long march and the Tamils will never forgive him for that. If you have never heard his speech then go back and check.
      I have written before about this when his daughter returned to Sri Lanka and lamented about his untimely death which no doubt was a personal tragedy.
      Frankly he never did anything for the Tamil cause and he was trapped in a Tamil body ( I mean a Tamil d..k) but his soul was Sinhalese.

      I disagree with your following observation for reasons I give below.

      Former SCJ Wigneswaran must transcend ethnic boundaries and seen to be Just in politics, the way he was on the Bench.

      When he was on the Bench he was required to deliver justice in a non partisan manner.

      But if and when he is elected by the Tamils of North and East he must advance the Tamil cause and what is wrong with that. We are a minority and we cannot do any damage to you or your culture as you by sheer number will always rule and control the security apparatus.

      • Off the Cuff

        Dear Kali,

        Obviously you are not looking for a Statesman in former SCJ Wigneswaran. You may be disappointed if he turns out to be one. Sri Lanka needs Statesman not nationalists. You have missed my point by a mile but Arjuna Pathmanathan has identified the same problem as I have. Let’s see what Dayan and Suren has to say about it.

        Re Kathir we can agree to disagree. The LTTE had the same opinion about him, that’s why he is dead.

        Best Regards

        • Dev

          Lets say the former judge does rise to the occasion( as I expect he will), I repeat; who is an equal and honest partner in the central government, the counter statesman that this man can deal with ?

          Any suggestions ?

          • Off the Cuff

            As I have noted, there is no doubt that the former SCJ will try to rise to the occasion. But the TNA is an umbrella of Tamil Arusu Katchchi’s and Eelamists. Are you sure they can handle him if he asserts the characteristic independence that he displayed on the Bench?

          • Dev

            I said lets assume that he is independent and honest (and does fall under the so called “eelamists” ), he still needs a honest and honourable partner in the central government he can do business with, whom do you think fits that bill?

            You have not answered that question? Who is this partner the former judge can deal with?

          • Off the Cuff

            You are dealing with a hypothetical situation that is unrealistic. The currently silent Eelamists will not drop their long standing ambitions of an Eelam to humour SJC Wigneswaran. Just read Kali’s post to understand what an Eelamist supporter expects from SJC Wigneswaran. If those expectations are not met (which is what you hypothesise will happen) SJC Wigs will become what the statesman Kathir has become to them.

            If SJC tries to assert his independence and act as a Statesman, the Eelamists will not allow it. SJC Wigs does not have any political power without the TNA backing it. And the whole of the TNA is Eelamist.

            The moment SJC removes his Statesman cap and puts on a Nationalist cap to go along with the Eelamists (which I doubt he will do) he will lose his reputation and the aura he now carries as a fearless advocate of the rule of law (He stood up to an all powerful Executive President not once but twice) and a man who will hold an even scale no matter what. Then he would become an easy target of opposing nationalists.

            I hope for the country’s sake that the TNA is not looking for a marriage of convenience.

            I do not think within narrow confines of ethnicity as I do not believe that any ethnicity has rights over the other. Aspirations are not the monopoly of a single ethnicity. Hence I do not like to look at in the terms of my side and your side.

            Your question “who is an equal and honest partner in the central government, the counter statesman that this man can deal with?” is too premature, as you assume that SJC Wigneswaran will continue to be what he was on the Bench in politics too, which is the question I posed that no one answered.

            If to Lanka’s fortune that comes to pass, then Lanka will produce an equally competent Statesman to deal with a Statesman in the same way she produced a combination that defeated the invincible Prabhakaran.

        • Dev

          sorry correction *not* fall under the eelamists

  • Dev

    While the nomination of the former judge would be welcomed by all Tamils including me, the judge (and the TNA) have repeatedly stated that they are still unsure if the election would go ahead or some last minute excuse would be found not to conduct the election.

    Dayan continues to withhold any criticism of the president, this despite the fact that he is the executive president and the decline of the nation since May 2009 is his responsibility including the gutting of the 17th amendment and the passing of the 18th (as an urgent bill plus ) plus many other shortcomings the readers are well aware of!

    Also I am not sure …
    “the choices made by Mahinda Rajapaksa (to hold the election)”
    The use of the word “choice” implies he had other options but I suspect that in this instance he did not, he was probably “forced” to call the elections !
    But along with the TNA I say, there is a long way between calling and election and actually holding one….

    The former judge through his legal career has proved that he is a just and honest man, supposing he is elected to the northern province, who will be his honest and just counter part in the central government?

    • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

      Well, he could certainly have chosen to follow his powerful brother’s publicly stated opinion, but he chose to do otherwise (at least for now), probably having weighed up the Indian factor, and as importantly the Japanese one.

      That’s making a choice.

      That’s why I choose to call it one.

  • arjuna pathmanathan

    What a wonderful selection.Justice Wigneswaran will definitely make a difference. He will make Sure the Sinhalese,the Tamils and the Muslims will live together as Brothers and Sisters once again..if he is not interfered.

    Wishing him all the Best


  • Jayalath

    Well, I’m not wonder why some people has gone quite mad with CSJ Wingaswaran appointment ,because he is a Royalist and son married to Vasudava’s daughter, therefore people believe he is not much Tamil . What a ridiculous world that we have been living in ?
    I think this opinion comes from some people because of their lack of understanding about the integration, which has already demonstrated through some of the commentators opinions .
    But one thing is for sure , he will not be able to do miracles or all the problems are faced by the Tamils and others in that area , as it needs a revolution to do so , but he can be a relief to rebuild the bridge between us at this moment which at least a comfort to the community.
    Firstly ,we must get elected decent people to run the politics in Sri Lanka ,instead the murderers and mobs . Because there is a distinctive different between the murderous politicians and decent politicians , but one thing for sure, this lot will never ever will be or will want to be resolved the problems of Real life of all sri lankans . as we always say , SOME THING IS BETTER THAN NOTHING .

  • hannah rajaratnam

    I am not understanding why there is so much excitement amongst the singhalese about the choice of Justice Wigneswaran as Chief Minister of the North.

    The south went into a state of euphoria that the war was over and thereby Peace had been establishd.From messages we see it has turned sour after 4 long years of misery.They must set that right.
    The south is expecting the Tamils to bring Peace between the two ethnic groups.Here is a man who has been chosen by TNA.No explanation is necessary for the role he will play as Chief Minister.
    It is indeed a rediculous notion to even suggest that because his children are married to singhalese he can bring the ethnic groups together.
    Let us not insult Justice Wigneswaran even before he takes the chair.

  • Wallflower

    Very realistic article, but does the writer realize that the stability of the Chief Executive will be highly threatened if the country returns to normalcy.

    • hannah.rajaratnam

      Hi Wallflower,

      Normalcy ? What kind of normalcy do you expect will return and what do you have on your mind.?
      Is this for the north or the entire country?

      Could you kindly explain.

      I haven’t seen ‘normalcy’ nor a semblance of returning to normalcy
      in many years.Yours might help for a shift?

      Thank you