R. Sampanthan (1933-2024): A pragmatic voice for Tamil rights in Sri Lanka

The veteran politician advocated for Tamil rights within a united Sri Lanka, and his demise leaves a void in the country’s quest for reconciliation.

Published : Jul 02, 2024 15:05 IST - 6 MINS READ

R. Sampanthan, the second Tamil who was Leader of the Opposition in Sri Lanka’s parliament, was a powerful voice inside and outside the House.

R. Sampanthan, the second Tamil who was Leader of the Opposition in Sri Lanka’s parliament, was a powerful voice inside and outside the House. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

R. Sampanthan, the last of the tall leaders of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, who worked tirelessly for an amicable and just solution for the Tamils within the framework of a united Sri Lanka for over half a century, died on June 30. He was 91 and had been ailing for some time.

Sampanthan, the second Tamil who was Leader of the Opposition in Sri Lanka’s parliament, was a powerful voice inside and outside the House. His leadership provided the best opportunity for a practical political solution to the lingering Tamil/national question.

A leader who was pragmatic enough to work with the Sinhala majority in a bid to actualise the hopes and aspirations of the Tamil people, Sampanthan was always viewed with suspicion in the south. This was largely because of the relentless propaganda against the Tamil leader, and the need for the Sinhala majoritarian parties to have a villain in the north who could replace the feared leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, V. Prabhakaran, in the minds of the people.

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Sampanthan was over 80 when this attempt was made deliberately, and it appeared to have resonance in the south, especially after the April 2019 bomb blasts. Muslims and Tamils were put in the same basket and the words “terrorist”, “Tamil”, and “Muslim”, were used interchangeably. Sampanthan was patient enough to realise that the sentiment was a reaction to the blasts and steered clear of combative politics during that time.

Astute till the end

When this correspondent met him in December 2023, in his Stanmore Crescent residence in Colombo, Sampanthan, who had difficulty speaking, was still exceedingly coherent in what he said: “Sri Lanka is going on in its usual way. They have got over their fears and apprehensions and there seems to be no urgency to change.” He added that the struggle for Tamil rights would “certainly yield results” and that India had a “big role to play” in the process.

Sampanthan insisted that it was not too late to solve the Tamil question and that President Ranil Wickremesinghe could do so, with the support of India and the saner elements in Sri Lankan politics. Acutely aware of the Sinhala/Buddhist majoritarianism that rears its head every time there is talk of a possible pact with the Tamils, Sampanthan was always at pains to add the rider to the political solution—within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.

In fact, Sampanthan was making notes and preparing for a meeting with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar when the latter visited Colombo in June. But his deteriorating health meant that he could not meet Dr Jaishankar.

With the then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj during a meeting in New Delhi in 2014.

With the then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj during a meeting in New Delhi in 2014. | Photo Credit: R. V. Moorthy

Earlier, on one occasion when Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party was whipping up anti-Tamil sentiment claiming that Sri Lanka would be divided by the Tamils, Sampanthan told parliament: “I would like to put this on record because I want everybody in this country to know that it was a malicious, vicious, fallacious, false propaganda on the part of President Rajapaksa and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna [SLPP] and if you proceed with this agenda, I want to tell you, [Tamil] Eelam will bloom, not on account of us, but on account of your Lotus Bud. Your Lotus Bud [the SLPP’s symbol] will bloom into an Eelam. That is what will happen. Therefore, please resist your temptation to achieve cheap political gain by carrying on such false propaganda.”

Although Sampanthan was elected to parliament in 1977 from Trincomalee as a Tamil United Liberation Front MP, it was his stint since 2001 as part of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), that cast him as the leader with a mission. (The TNA is a political alliance representing Sri Lankan Tamils.) He never changed the seat since, and was instrumental in Trincomalee retaining its distinct Tamil identity, despite the many onslaughts at Sinhalisation of the district.

Tributes pour in

In his tribute, M.A. Sumanthiran, who helmed the TNA in parliament in the absence of the ailing Sampanthan, said: “Sampanthan was a bold and relentless voice. He tirelessly demanded equal rights for Tamils, within a ‘united, undivided, indivisible’ country. He based his arguments for a political solution on the many promises that the Sinhalese establishment made in the past but failed to keep.”

Sajith Premadasa, the Leader of the Opposition in Sri Lanka and leader of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, a political alliance, noted that Sampanthan’s “dedication to equal rights for all Sri Lankans is a beacon of hope. His fair and just leadership will continue to inspire me and many others. Truly, it is the end of an era.”

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Mahinda Rajapaksa, former Sri Lankan President, who Sampanthan hoped would have the foresight to bring about lasting peace, recalled his association with the departed leader: “He was an old friend and colleague and we shared many a days discussing various issues. His demise is a loss to Sri Lanka political fraternity.”

Mourning the loss, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet: “Will always cherish fond memories of meetings with him. He relentlessly pursued a life of peace, security, justice and dignity of the Tamil nations in Sri Lanka. He will be deeply missed by his friends and followers in Sri Lanka and India.”

P. Chidambaram, Congress leader who was the Home Minister during the fateful days when the LTTE was wiped out in 2009, said that “pages can be written on his contribution to the Tamil people. Suffice to say that it was a life devoted to the freedom, security, welfare and development of the Tamil people and indeed of all the people of Sri Lanka.”

Ashok Kantha, former High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, who often met Sampanthan and Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010-2013 to push for a larger political say for Tamils, described Sampanthan in a tweet as a “towering personality and voice of sanity and moderation in [the] fractured polity of Sri Lanka. Worked tirelessly for settlement of ethnic issue. Fondly recall our association while serving in Colombo. End of an era!”

He added: “I recall telling President Rajapaksa and other Sri Lankan leaders that they should resolve ethnic issue while Sampanthan was around. Sri Lanka couldn’t avail of peace dividend after civil war as process of reconciliation was ignored and challenges of economic restructuring neglected. Sampanthan was a man of unusually high intellect, fully committed to the Tamil cause, pragmatic, optimistic and passionate in his approach despite heavy odds, and a good friend of India.”

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