My father was not a saviour, but a strong leader - Jeevan Thondaman
Jeevan Thondaman (26) has been in the news after his powerful father, Arumugan Thondaman, Leader of the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC), suddenly passed away at the age of 56, last week. Thondaman Jr., who completed his LLB at the University of Northumbria, UK, was nominated to be the Nuwara Eliya District candidate at the upcoming General Election and tipped to take up the leadership of the CWC. He tells us he has been with his father from 2017 and worked in the estate sector for the betterment of the people. The young politician in the making says that they had followed their customs at the funeral, as they feel they owe all to their father's dear people.
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
You have been announced to be the Nuwara Eliya District candidate for the General Election. Was it a unanimous decision taken by the CWC?
A: The CWC has a National Council that is convened every year. My father, its late President, had dissolved the Council a few months ago. While we were in the process of reconvening the Council, my father unexpectedly passed away. Due to that, the CWC Politic Bureau, which comprises the pool of CWC Vice-Presidents as well as national organisers and other seniors of the Party, had unanimously taken the decision to inform the Prime Minister and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna that I was chosen to be the candidate for the upcoming General Election.
Does that mean you are the Leader of the CWC as well? When will the Leader of CWC be announced?
A: In 1999, when the late Soumiyamoorthy Thondaman Sr. passed away, the CWC was leaderless for a period of one-and-a-half years. However, my father did contest the Parliamentary Election, and a year and a half later, the leader of the party was elected democratically. We have followed a similar suit. There are four candidates in the Nuwara Eliya District apart from me, but none of them would aspire for the leadership post; our concern is that leadership was with the late Thondaman, and should remain so for the time being.
We want to ensure a democratic process in which the next leader is elected. When this is to be conducted will be known shortly, when the Party's General Secretary, Anushiya Sivaraja informs us.
Many say you have leadership qualities, and so does your cousin, Senthil Thondaman, who has been around for 10 years. How sincere are you in giving him his place/space in leading the plantation sector?
A: There are seniors who have been part and parcel of the CWC for even more than 10 years. I think it is not up to me to give them the space and place in the Plantation sector; it is up to the people. Therefore, I would not honestly put myself in a position where I am the deciding factor in giving Senthil Thondaman or any other senior persons in the Party that space or place.
When your elder sister, Dr. Nachiyar, arrived in the country, she was to remain at a quarantine centre. There was much talk about how she still attended the funeral. What do you have to say about this?
A: We have always respected, and my late father always followed, the laws of our country. Given the circumstances, my sister did in fact arrive from Oman, but she was quarantined by the Government. The reason why we still agreed for her to attend was that according to our Hindu customs, we need all of the immediate family members present on the 16th day of passing, as we conducted various rituals and her participation is compulsory.
Do you consider your father to be the saviour of the Tamils among the estate workers?
A: Neither my father, nor anyone who had taken the leadership of the Estate community for that matter, had considered themselves saviours! I have always considered my father to be the leader of the community, with whom he had worked whole-heartedly and had not done anything with a hidden agenda or hidden intentions. So, do I consider him a saviour? No! I consider him a faithful and genuine leader to the people.
The State funeral and all the support given by the Rajapaksas in the aftermath of your father's death is openly acknowledged, but will that politically influence the CWC, the powerful trade union that gave a run to all political parties in the past?
A: Firstly, it should be noted that my father, the late Arumugan Thondaman, served the nation for a period of about 30 years; in that period, there were different governments that came and went. I am indeed thankful and grateful to the incumbent Government and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa for honouring him with a State funeral. I would like to say it was not a form of political influence, but a mere recognition of the efforts of administration and the service the late Thondaman had rendered to the locality and for the country.
As Prime Minister Rajapaksa correctly acknowledged, Thondaman was not only a Minister, but also his friend who had worked tirelessly to make sure that there was no radicalism in the estate sector, and also made sure that all religions were respected and all their principles were adhered to. So, in giving him a State funeral, I do not think the Rajapaksas had any hidden political motive, but were simply honouring a dear comrade.
Thondaman's untimely death also provoked many, in the fact that the five-day funeral procession broke the quarantine, self-distancing and funeral guidelines (others were buried or cremated within 24 hours), while the President of the Public Health Inspectors' Union said that they are ready to take legal action against everyone responsible for organising the funeral. What is your response to them?
A: At the funeral, we followed our customs, and we wanted to bring him through the plantation, as we feel we owed that much to his dear people. We adhered to all the rules that the World Health Organisation and Public Health Inspectors imposed, and instructed the people to follow them without any deviation. People did maintain social distancing and wore face masks. But, when people saw their Leader for the first time in a coffin - a person who led them for over 30 years through a lot of turmoil - emotions ran high and low.
My response to the PHI would be that all those people who came to see Thondaman's last appearance are the same people who had gone to the towns to buy goods during quarantine. I would also like to bring up the fact that the Nuwara Eliya District was free from the coronavirus. So it is unlikely that there would be any new cases in the upcountry, but if there are, I would like to say that we have set up the Sripada Training College for quarantine purposes. Apart from that, I would also like to mention that since it was a State funeral, the State executives had clearly given us the pathway to go through, and we followed all the instructions clearly.
The National Coordinator of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) says that you paraded through the streets after announcing your candidacy to contest the upcoming General Election in violation of election law, but no action was taken. Do you see what others see?
A: As a youth in Sri Lankan society, I definitely see what others see, but at the same time, I feel circumstances have to be taken into account. All I wanted was to give my father a dignified funeral. We had to bring him upcountry because our ancestral home is there, and he lived most of his life there. One thing we did not foresee, though, was that people's emotions were uncontrollable during this difficult time. In fact, they not only blocked the car, but also prevented the coffin from being moved.
So when that happened, I wanted to make sure there was no violence or uneasiness. Hence I got out of my car and requested people to give way for the convoy. Unfortunately, certain media used this to say I was bargaining for votes. I am not the kind of person who needs to bargain for votes, and I would not pull off the cheap stunt of using my father's demise for political gain.
Your father died at a crucial time when the workers wanted Rs 1,000 per day, a university, a playground, and the removal of taverns inside the estates - which he did not want. The Government has assured the wage increase. Although you are a fresher in politics, you know there is a vacuum in the lives of plantation workers, starting from poor wages to poor working and living conditions, even though they have not failed to pay their membership fee monthly for five decades or more. What ails here?
A: The Rs 1,000 wage and the university issue, as well as the removal of taverns from every estate, were requested by my father to the Government, and we will certainly follow it up till it is executed. The Government has extended its full cooperation, for which we are thankful. But these are not the only issues faced by the estate community.
There are more unspoken issues, such as the lack of social awareness in the estate sector, lack of employment in the plantation sector and minimal awareness towards education. Moreover, there are many who aspire to be involved in the field of sports. We need to find a way to streamline all these issues under one umbrella, which is going to be our strategy in the future.
We want to upgrade the living conditions of plantation people, besides getting that wage, and engage them in cultural and extracurricular activities.
Praise is heaped upon your father as well as huge criticisms about not fulfilling the aspirations of the people. That reflects in the CWC having only two MPs in Parliament, whereas S. Thondaman Sr. had 11 members. How is the CWC seeing this decline in political power?
A: Our political power is held because, the fact of the matter and the truth everyone has to learn to accept, is that the Rajapaksas were associated with ending the Eelam War and any one of the past leaders of the country could have ended it. It is only that the Rajapaksas ended it. We have supported them because we followed the policies and principles of the ruling party.
There were furious sentiments expressed by the Tamils due to media propaganda. However, I think it is proven right now, and even people are in a position to understand, that in fact it was the Rajapaksas' Government that has done the most development in the upcountry.
And one more thing I want to say is that even though the late Thondaman Sr. had 11 MPs back then, it was a different political landscape at that point. There were many more factors; however, those 11 MPs gave us bargaining power.
I'm sure the upcountry people would provide us with the same bargaining power after seing the way the President handled the COVID-19 issue, and also the developments that have taken place under the Rajapaksas' and Thondaman's leadership.
The strength of the CWC is only in the Nuwara Eliya District, and other trade unions are taking over, weakening the CWC, which is why the SLPP is serious about winning the elections using CWC. Can you assure that CWC has the chance to win?
A: I do believe that CWC's strength in this election will not only reflect in the Nuwara Eliya District, but will also be in Kandy, Badulla and Vauvniya Districts. We have introduced fresh candidates in these areas, and I honestly believe that can bring about change. We will be proving the stature of CWC for what it actually is, and make it a National Party, not just a regional one.
The CWC is a male-dominated trade union. Will you create more space for women to work towards the plantation sector's benefit if you are made the leader?
A: The male-dominated trade unionism is a myth; our General Secretary is Mrs Sivaraja. Besides her, more than 50 per cent of membership belongs to women. Moreover, we not only involve female representation in the trade union movement, but also provide opportunities for women participation in global arenas from the estate sector based on the International Labour Organisation Conventions, International Trade Union Confederation and the South Asian Regional Trade Union Council gatherings.
Apart from that, our first Local Government chairman in Maskeliya is a woman, and we have more than 28 members in the local Government who are women.
There is also disunity and a tug-of-war between Tamil politicians in the plantation sector, with their trade unions trying to outdo each other. If you are made the leader of CWC, will you embrace stalwart politicians like V. Radhakrishnan, Vadivel Suresh, Mano Ganesan, and Palani Diagmabaram to create a common platform to work for the betterment of the estate people?
A: Firstly, I do not have qualms against anyone else who serves the upcountry. And being with the CWC, I can say with the word of my father that we are not involved in a tug-of-war or any power struggles with any other trade union, as our number of members speaks for itself. I would gladly embrace them, but the only problem is that they do not have the intention to help the upcountry people.
Because as soon as they came to power they did not bring about the Rs 1,000 salary they promised in 2015 in Talawakelle, led by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Neither did they bring about the university which we had been promised. They had in fact, used the Indian Housing we had promised and brought it to the people. There are also allegations of corruption, for which we have proof.
But one thing they did was to remove the name of Thondaman Sr. from each and every institution where his name was placed. And with that, I clearly understood that there was no chance of respecting them or embracing them politically, because their intention was not towards helping the upcountry people but to destroy the Thondamans.