45 year old Ananthy Sasitharan made history when she was sworn in before Northern province governor Reginald Cooray in Jaffna as Northern provincial minister of women’s affairs, rehabilitation, social services, food supply and distribution and industries on June 29th 2017. Ananthy who will celebrate her birthday on September 10th has set a record of sorts by becoming the first woman to be appointed as a Northern provincial minister. She was elected from the Jaffna district in the first Northern provincial election with the second highest number of preferential votes polling 87,770. ( Incidently her name is spelled in the media in different ways such as Anandhi, Ananthi, Ananty and Ananthy. The official Northern province council website spells her name as Ananthy. Therefore I am also using the same).
It is a well known fact that Ananthy Sasitharan is the wife of Sinnathurai Sasitharan alias “ Major Ezhilan” who was a senior leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). She herself refers to him frequently in public. Ezhilan (also spelled as Ellilan) had reportedly surrendered – along with a number of fellow tiger leaders – to the armed forces in Mullaitheevu district in May 2009. There is no information about their fate and all of them including Ananthy’s husband are regarded as “missing” or “disappeared”.
Ananthy captured national and international attention by a determined campaign demanding information about her husband’s situation. This resulted in her receiving lots of sympathy and empathy from the long suffering Tamil people of Sri Lanka. The Tamil National Alliance(TNA) cashed in on this by fielding her as a candidate of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) in the September 2013 Northern provincial elections. She won handsomely with the second highest tally of preference votes in Jaffna.
After becoming a provincial councillor, Ananthy Sasitharan chartered an independent course in politics that often fell foul of the TNA hierarchy position. Later she was “suspended” from the ITAK on disciplinary grounds pending inquiry. This has not deterred the irrepressible Ananthy who continues with her particular brand of controversial politics.
In an earlier article about Ananthy Sasitharan, I described her as “vibrant” and wrote thus – “Ananthy Sasitharan’s political ambition is not a factor that can be dismissed lightly. Even her critics acknowledge that she is a tenacious woman who pursues her objectives with single minded determination”. Recent events have proven me correct. The woman achieved political success as an elected provincial councillor in 2013. Four years later she has reached a significant milepost in 2017 after being appointed provincial minister.
The circumstances of Ananthy’s romance with Sasitharan alias “Ezhilan” and her marriage to him serve as testimony to the first woman northern provincial minister’s steely resolve. People who are aware of what happened in those days say in lighter vein that Ezhilan had no chance whatsoever once Ananthy had set her sights on him.Those events and other matters concerning Ananthy Sasitharan such as her politics, have been related earlier in these columns but are still worthy of being re-visited in the present context.
Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission
It was in the aftermath of the war that Ananthy Sasitharan first grabbed attention as the wife of Ezhilan. She presented herself before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in 2010 when it held sittings in Kilinochchi and testified that her husband had gone missing after May 2009. Ananthy stated that she had personally witnessed his surrender to the armed forces at a point near Vattavaahal in Mullaitheevu district. She was a Govt employee at the Kilinochchi district secretariat at the time she deposed before the LLRC.
That disclosure made her a sensational figure then. This was the first time after the war that the spouse of a senior LTTE leader had been bold enough to come before a commission and testify that her husband had surrendered and was now reported missing. Speaking to the BBC Tamil service after her testimony Ananthy related her version of what had happened then. Ananthy said that when her husband Ezhilan went with other senior LTTE leaders to surrender, she and the three children had walked behind.
She said that she saw her husband being identified as “Maavilaaru Ezhilan”. According to Ananthy an Army officer had asked her to turn back and surrender along with other Tamil civilians as she was a Govt employee and assured her that Ezhilan would be released later.Whether true or false Ananthy’s testimony before the LLRC and her subsequent media interviews did make a powerful impact.
LTTE media organs amidst the Tamil Diaspora derived maximum mileage out of her testimony. It later came to light that Ananthy had been encouraged and supported by TNA parliamentarian Sivagnanam Shritharan to go public and testify before the LLRC. Nevertheless a wife trying to trace her missing husband was very justifiable and few found fault with her for that. The sight of a single mother with three young daughters seeking the truth about a husband and father aroused much sympathy. Besides there was a romantic touch as the Sasitharan-Ananthy union had been a love story of sorts.
Ananthy was born on September 10, 1971 to parents hailing from the Kankesanthurai and Chulipuram areas in Jaffna. She was the fifth in a family of six children. Her elder sister Vasanthi who joined the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) had been killed by the LTTE at Kurumbasitty in 1989. Some years later Ananthy’s younger brother had joined the LTTE. He went missing after a while and is presumed to have been killed in combat.
Victoria College in Chulipuram
Ananthy was a student at Victoria College in Chulipuram when she first saw Ezhilan who was then in the LTTE. He was from the Atchuvely area in Jaffna. Ezhilan was then active in the political wing of the LTTE. He had come to Victoria College to deliver a lecture to the students. It was customary in LTTE-controlled areas then for tiger cadres to address students in their respective schools.
Ezhilan with his dashing looks made a positive impression on young starry-eyed Ananthy. Also, the progressive views he expressed in his lecture on matters such as caste, dowry and women’s rights impacted greatly on her. It was a case of love at first sight for Ananthy. But that was not so for Ezhilan. When Ananthy conveyed her feelings to him through intermediaries he rejected them immediately. Ananthy however persisted and finally met him face to face and proffered her love. Again Ezhilan turned it down saying he was wedded to the ideal of “Tamil Eelam” and advised her to concentrate on her studies.
Ananthy was not one who gave up easily. She kept on trying to win Ezhilan’s heart. In the meantime, she finished her secondary schooling and began pursuing accountancy studies. She gave up studies after getting a Government job. Ananthy started working as a clerk at the Jaffna Kachcheri from June 10 1992. She worked at the Valigamam west AGA office in Chankanai from 1993 to 1996.
During these years her passionate ardour for Ezhilan did not diminish. Determined to win her heart’s desire Ananthy kept on persevering. Finally Ezhilan melted. But soon there was another problem. The Sri Lankan armed forces regained control of Jaffna through “Operation Riviresa” in 1995-96. The LTTE including Ezhilan relocated to the Northern mainland of the Wanni. Ananthy too followed soon after. She worked at the Mullaitheevu District Secretariat as a clerk from 1997 to 2003.Thereafter she began working at the Kilinochchi District Secretariat as a management assistant from 2003 onwards. She continued to retain that job until obtaining a release in 2013 to contest the Northern provincial poll.
Ezhilan too began rising up in LTTE ranks as a political wing member. He was a particular favourite of the LTTE political wing chief Suppiah Paramu Thamilselvan. Ezhilan was made Political Commissar of the Vavuniya district by Thamilselvan with the approval of LTTE supremo Prabhakaran. After the ceasefire came into force in 2002 Ezhilan was transferred to the politically sensitive Trincomalee area as LTTE Political Commissar.
“Maavilaaru” River Blockade
The Oslo-facilitated ceasefire had begun crumbling after 2004. The decisive turning point was in the Trincomalee district when the LTTE blocked the Maavilaaru River in the Moothoor region and prevented water from flowing into Sinhala inhabited areas. This was in July 2006. Ezhilan played a prominent role in justifying this decision and gave many media interviews about the river Maavilaaru and the importance of the blockade. Hence he came to be known as “Maavilaaru”Ezhilan. The war escalated due to the Maavilaaru episode ultimately resulting in the Mullivaaikkaal debacle.
Ezhilan and Ananthy got married on June 6, 1998 at Mulliyavalai in the Mullaitheevu district. LTTE political chief Thamilchelvan presided over the ceremony. Ananthy continued to work in Mullaitheevu and Kilinochchi during the time Ezhilan was stationed in the Vavuniya and Trincomalee districts. After being driven away from Trincomalee, Ezhilan and other tiger cadres relocated to the Northern Wanni. Ezhilan began working in the LTTE secretariat in Kilinochchi. Ananthy working at Kilinochchi Kachcheri, stayed together with her husband.
The LTTE political wing members were at the forefront in conscripting youths based on the dictum “Veetukku oru veeran allathu veeranganai” (a hero or heroine from each home).Excessive force and sheer cruelty was shown in this conscription drive. These acts have been publicised by this columnist in earlier articles. After Thamilselvan’s death in November 2007, Ezhilan was placed in overall charge of recruitment which was in reality conscription. Ezhilan and Thamilini the woman political wing chief acquired a notorious reputation for forcibly recruiting young men, women and children in the years 2008- 2009.
The LTTE escalated its conscription to very high levels after being restricted to the Puthukkudiyiruppu and Karaithuraipattu AGA divisions in the Mullaitheevu district. Ezhilan continued to play a terrible role in this along with other senior LTTE political wingers. As the war continued to intensify along the Mullaitheevu coast the trapped civilian population were in a tragic hostage situation. A movement claiming to fight for the liberation of the Tamil people was holding its most vulnerable component in bondage and exposing it to danger and hardship.It was during this time of an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe that this writer appealed repeatedly through these “Daily Mirror”columns to “Let my People Go”. Those pleas however fell on the deaf ears of the LTTE and what happened thereafter is now history.
During this tragic phase of war when the Tamils of tiger -controlled areas were regarded as the wretched of the Wanni earth that the political wing of the LTTE descended into despicable levels. The LTTE political wing was involved in three tasks even during those perilous times.
Firstly the political wing continued to forcibly recruit youths and children in huge numbers. They were thrown into war as cannon fodder without adequate training or experience. Secondly the LTTE political wing acted repressively to prevent civilians from trying to escape from tigercontrolled areas to armycontrolled areas for reasons of safety and security. Thirdly the political wing dealt out inhuman punishment to the civilians apprehended while trying to flee. Ezhilan played a significant role in all these.
Involved in Barbaric Conduct
Even though Ezhilan was involved in such barbaric conduct, civilised norms stipulate that even persons who commit heinous crimes against humanity at one level are entitled to protection under the law at another level. Even a notorious violator of human rights is eligible to have basic human rights such as the right to life and can be penalised for alleged crimes only after due process of the law.
What then was the role of LTTE spouses like Ananthy when their dearly beloved life partners embarked on sprees of mass human rights violations and crimes against humanity against the very people on whose behalf they claimed to wage war? There is no evidence of Ananthy colluding with Ezhilan in these acts of conscription, but she does not seem to have objected to them either.When a newspaper asked her during the election campaign about conscription by the tigers she avoided a direct answer but sought to condone or justify it indirectly by stating that one segment of the population cannot distance itself from fighting when another segment was in the thick of war.
Ananthy Sasitharan remains at the interface of two contradictory positions. As the wife of senior LTTE leader Ezhilan who was reportedly involved in several human rights violations and crimes against humanity, she is at one end of the spectrum. At the same time it is a fact that her husband who surrendered himself to the Army in May 2009 is now missing. In that sense Ezhilan is a victim, and so are his wife and family. Thus Ananthy’s current situation is complicated, being the wife of a person who is both a perpetrator of human rights violations as well as a victim.
The Ananthy-Ezhilan couple have three children; all of them girls. The eldest Nalvizhi was born on May 23, 1999.The second Ezhilvizhi was born on 22 November 2001.The youngest Kayalvizhi was born on July 15 2003. The family left Kilinochchi when the army advanced and moved to the Mullaitheevu district. After the war ended in 2009, Ananthy and the children stayed in an IDP camp for a while and relocated to Kilinochchi where she resumed working as Management Assistant in the Samurdhi Department at the District Secretariat.The children were sent to Chulipuram in Jaffna while the mother shuttled between both places. It was in Kilinochchi that Ananthy came under the sway of Shritharan MP who encouraged her to testify before the LLRC.
Apart from the media, the LLRC exercise also attracted the attention of several Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) and International NGO’s concerned with issues such as disappearances and women’s rights. Ananthy had much interaction with them. Some NGO’s found her useful in helping to mobilise women with “disappeared” families and utilise them for demonstrations. Other organisations had hopes of manipulating her and controlling her. A few wanted to display her as their “trophy”. Initially she went along with these organisations but soon it became apparent that Ananthy had an independent agenda and would not play second fiddle to another. The interaction with these organisations resulted in writs of habeas corpus being filed in courts by Ananthy along with some other women for their respective family members who had allegedly “disappeared”.
Champion of Human Rights
Ananthy now began involving herself with NGO activities concerning women and families of disappeared and/or missing persons. She was a fixture at demonstrations often enjoying huge media attention. This resulted in some ill-will between grassroots activists and Ananthy who was accused of gaining publicity without any constructive input while they who did the spadework were ignored. There was also resentment in some circles about the wife of a tiger leader posturing as a champion of human rights.
A new window of opportunity opened out as elections to the Northern Provincial Council became a distinct certainty. ITAK General Secretary and TNA strongman Somasundaram Senathirajah alias “Maavai” approached her and asked her to contest on the TNA ticket. She readily agreed. Subsequently Maavai began having second thoughts about his overture as TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan raised objections. Then came Shritharan’s intervention on Ananthy’s behalf. Strengthened by Shritharan’s endorsement Senathirajah ignored Sampanthan’s objections and granted nomination to Ananthy – wife of Ezhilan as TNA candidate from Jaffna.
It was felt then that being a mother of three children whose husband had disappeared, Ananthy would strike a responsive chord among women. Besides, the phenomenon of a wife fighting for the life of her husband or seeking justice on his behalf was sure to evoke sympathetic feelings in the Tamil psyche. Hindu mythology relates the tale of Savithri who locked horns with Yaman the god of death and won a reprieve for her husband Sathiyavaan. The Tamil epic”Silappathikaaram” narrates the saga of Kannaki (Pathini Deiyyo) who sought justice for her husband Kovalan’s death from the Pandyan king and in its absence, burnt down Madurai city. Ananthy in that context could be depicted as a latter day combination of Savithri and Kannaki.
If one school of thought opted to project Ananthy as a figure eliciting sympathy another school of thought comprising diehard tiger elements opted to support her for another reason. As the wife of Ezhilan she was identified with the LTTE. If she won with a huge preference poll then that victory could be portrayed as a triumph of the tigers and justification of the LTTE. A third school of thought threw in their lot with Ananthy because they though her success would strengthen the hands of international forces who were seeking an indictment of the then Rajapaksa regime in the tribunal of world opinion.
Well-endowed Campaign to Boost Ananthy
Thus the stage was set for a well-endowed campaign to boost Ananthy Sasitharan’s capacity to harvest the maximum number of preferential votes. Abundant advertisements in the newspapers, colourfully attractive posters, proliferation of pro-Ananthy leaflets and flyers became the order of the day. Vehicles with loudspeakers went about the streets of Jaffna blaring forth ultra-nationalistic Tamil songs and slogans in support of Ananthy. A battalion of youths wearing tee-shirts with Ananthy’s name, face and candidate list number rode around on motor cycles. “Volunteers” working for Ananthy were reportedly provided with food, refreshments, transport and an allowance of 500 rupees per day. Obviously hidden hands were financing the campaign. Ananthy herself told people that relatives from abroad were helping her.
Four other developments relating to Ananthy Sasitharan during the polls campaign also helped boost her campaign. The first was a public protest demonstration by some rehabilitated ex-LTTE members who carried placards and shouted slogans critical of Ananthy Sasitharan. She was the only TNA candidate against whom a demonstration of such a nature was conducted.
The second development was a reported incident near Chunnakam in Jaffna. Ananthy was returning home after in the night after intense canvassing when a VIP motorcade passed her vehicle. A person on a motor cycle following the VIP vehicle tried to attack Ananthy’s vehicle. A heavy object was thrown at the vehicle, damaging it. Apparently the damage was minimal and no further mishap occurred.
The third development was reportedly far more serious. A gang of armed men –some in uniform – attacked her residence in Chulipuram and damaged the house, furniture and parked vehicles. At least eight of her campaign staff were assaulted severely and had to obtain hospital treatment. Fortunately, Ananthy and her three daughters had jumped over a rear wall and escaped to a safe place shortly before the attack began. Fearful of an impending attack Ananthy’s campaign staff had compelled her to leave with the children as a precaution.
This incident received much publicity as there were many media personnel in Jaffna then to cover the historic provincial poll. Ananthy Sasitharan was the focal point of local, national and international media attention and became famous overnight. Ananthy accused the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) of being responsible for the attack. This was hotly denied by that party. Interestingly the TNA hierarchy then did not conduct an official party press conference featuring Anandhi Sasitharan, which could have resulted in deriving much political mileage.
A Fake “Uthayan” Newspaper
The dawning of polling day on September 21 2013 saw the fourth Anandhi-related election development occur. This was not one of a violent nature. It was an exercise in duplicity. A fake “Uthayan” newspaper with the same format as the original newspaper was printed with the sensational news that Ananthy Sasitharan had deserted the TNA and crossed over to the Government. The fake “Udhayan” news aroused much interest but was dismissed with disbelief and contempt. The Jaffna voter was not to be conned so easily, as the forces responsible for the counterfeit edition had naively expected.
The duplicitous exercise however did churn a wave of sympathy towards Ananthy Sasitharan. Why was this woman alone being singled out as a target among the many TNA candidates? Was it a case of the Tamil saying “Kaaitha Maram thaan Kalladi Padum”? (only fruit-bearing trees are stoned).Whatever the motives behind the attacks on Anandhi, the cumulative effect was the formation of a massive sympathy wave. So huge was the perceptible sympathy that Ananthy Sasitharan came second with 87,770 votes. C.V. Wigneswaran polled the highest number of preferences from Jaffna.
Ananthy’s victory had a stunning effect on many people, particularly some Western diplomats. One woman envoy from a powerful nation was particularly impressed and had a meeting with Ananthy who had acquired a larger than life image after her victory.This enhanced image has resulted in Anandhi being a highly sought-after “trophy” at Tamil Diaspora gatherings. After being elected she has visited the USA, Germany, Denmark and Norway. In Germany she testified before the Permanent Peoples Tribunal at Bremen. In Sri Lanka she had a meeting in Jaffna with Stephen Rapp former US Ambassador-at-Large for War crimes Issues and the ex- US Ambassador in Colombo Michele J. Sison. All three posed for the camera after the meeting. Ananthy also testified in Kilinochchi at the Presidential Commission to probe disappearances.
In recent times Ananthy Sasitharan has been a constant visitor to Geneva where she has been engaging in propaganda efforts against the Sri Lankan state. Domestically she has fallen foul of the ITAK hierarchy. She has been a fellow traveller of elements antagonistic towards the leadership of the ITAK which is the chief constituent of the Tamil National Alliance.
No Confidence Motion Crisis
In the recent ” no confidence motion crisis” in the Northern provincial council , Ananthy took a stand against her fellow ITAK Northern councillors by extending support to Northern chief minister C. V.Wigneswaran. Though suspended from the ITAK, she identified herself as being from the ITAK when she joined forces with EPRLF,PLOTE and TELO Provincial councillors to sign an appeal supportive of the chief minister. Earlier Ananthy played a key role in making complaints to the panel of inquiry appointed by Mr. Wigneswaran to probe the conduct of his four provincial ministers.It was Ananthy who compiled most of the “corruption” charges against Provincial Health minister Dr.Sathiyalingam but the inquiry panel exonerated him of charges.
Two other northern provincial ministers P. Aingaranesan and T. Gurukularajah resigned their posts after the “inquiry”drama. Since Mr. Gurukularajah belonged to the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi, the party’s councillors unanimously decided that Emmanuel Arnold elected from Jaffna should be the ITAK nominee to fill the vacancy and sent a letter to the chief minister. However chief minister Wigneswaran appointed Ananthy Sasitharan instead. This has once again caused much resentment within the rank and file of the ITAK and its Northern provincial councillors.
It has also been announced that Ms. Ananthy Sasitharan will only be an “acting minister” for a period of 3 months. This and the opposition from ITAK has not deterred Ananthy who went ahead and got appointed as provincial minister. Whatever the backdrop against which this has been done, there is no denying that Ananthy Sasitharan has made history as the first woman Northern provincial minister. (D.B.S.Jeyaraj)