Tribute to Tamil Leader R Sampanthan

Hard fact is Sampanthan is no more, but Sri Lanka is yet to address its decades old national question to the satisfaction of all communities.

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Rajavarothiam Sampanthan [Photo: Frontline India]

The Global Tamil Forum (GTF) is deeply saddened by the passing of the Tamil elder statesman Mr R Sampanthan on June 30, 2024. We express our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of the departed leader and all those mourning the loss of Mr. Sampanthan.

Mr. Sampanthan had a long and illustrious political career. He has been a Parliamentarian for nearly 50 years, the Leader of Opposition in the Sri Lankan Parliament between 2015 to 2018, and led the Tamil National Alliance for the last 23 years. Mr. Sampanthan was an ardent advocate for Tamil rights and dedicated his political life for pursuing a just solution for the Tamil national question.

From the time of Sri Lankan independence (1948), Tamil polity has been blessed with great elected leaders. From fifties to seventies, as the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism exerted its dominance at the expense of minority communities, Tamil community was ably led by late S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, who coalesced Tamils into a strong united front, adopted Gandhian methods of resistance against oppression, and made attempts at negotiating self-rule arrangements for the Tamil-majority Northern and Eastern Provinces. This tradition of strong, committed leadership continued under the late A. Amirthalingam during the seventies and eighties, a period during which armed resistance to state oppression and violence emerged and eventually dominated all aspects of Tamil politics. Mr Sampanthan became the prominent, elected Tamil leader during this tumultuous war period.

The civil war that ended in 2009 presented unprecedented challenges for the Tamil community – the community lost, not only immense number of lives and property, but hope itself. The victorious majoritarian leadership did not waste time in using the opportunity to marginalise Tamils even further. The international community looked upon the Tamil leadership with ambivalence about their past and future political agenda. This crucial period was ably navigated by Mr Sampanthan, who solidified and rebuilt the Tamil political leadership through carefully calculated initiatives and a pragmatic political program. An important highlight of this era was the crucial role Mr. Sampanthan played in the political transition in 2015, which provided much needed breathing space for Tamils to recover from their losses and to regain a sense of normalcy.

Mr Sampanthan’s uniqueness comes from the fact that he could strongly articulate for Tamil interests, while fully conscious of the interest of the country and the concerns and fears of the majority community. There were innumerable occasions when Mr Sampanthan eloquently argued for a political solution building on Sri Lanka’s constitutional history and the many promises the Southern Sinhala establishment made in the past but failed to keep. In the same breath, his demands for equal rights for Tamils never left unsaid that they were within a ‘united, undivided and indivisible’ country.

When Sri Lanka showed no inclination of addressing the serious crimes committed during the war, it was Mr Sampanthan who provided the pivotal leadership in ensuring that Sri Lanka would be subjected to UNHRC resolutions and oversight (from 2012 onwards) for promoting human rights and reconciliation in the country.

Equally, when Sri Lanka was paralysed by a constitutional crisis (2018), Mr. Sampanthan provided principled leadership to overcome the crisis with the interest of the country at heart.

It is such qualities that made Mr Sampanthan a highly valued leader, both in Sri Lanka and among the international community. GTF have witnessed on many occasions the high praise bestowed on Mr Sampanthan – by leaders of all communities in Sri Lanka, and by political leaders and diplomats from many countries.

A sentiment often expressed – both in Sri Lanka and internationally – was that the national question in Sri Lanka had to be resolved during Mr Sampanthan’s lifetime. Undoubtedly, that epitomises the respect and admiration with which Sampanthan was held, and will firmly place him in the pantheon of great elected Tamil leaders from Sri Lanka.

But the hard fact is Mr Sampanthan is no more, but Sri Lanka is yet to address its decades old national question to the satisfaction of all communities.

For many decades now, Sampanthan was the face of Sri Lanka’s Tamil community and its struggle for recognition, justice and equality. After such a dominant presence, replacing him with a new and capable leader will be a huge challenge. GTF hopes the new leader will follow on the footsteps of Mr Sampanthan – relentlessly articulating for Tamil interests, while integrating those with the wellbeing of the country as a whole.

On the other hand, all communities in Sri Lanka, and particularly those from the majority community, need to reflect deeply why they have failed to find a just and lasting solution to the national question over such a long period.

Perhaps the time is now. Working towards a just and equitable outcome with goodwill and honesty to what the late Mr. Sampanthan often referred as “the National Question” will be the ultimate tribute the country could pay to Mr. Sampanthan.

SLG Syndication

SLG Syndication is committed to aggregating excerpts from news published by international news agencies and key insights on contemporary issues published by think tanks. Our aim is to facilitate the expansion of its reach while giving due credit to the original source.

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