Sampanthan and the future of TNA
Mr Sumanthiran is a close confidant of TNA Leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan. Most aspects that affect the Tamil people have been discussed, and decisions shared with him by key players in the Government, diplomatic missions in Colombo, foreign governments, and institutions like the United Nations and the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)., Sampanthan’s frailty and the prevailing Covid situation do not allow him to travel from one meeting to another and be freely available to visit any country if needed.
Sampanthan is known to be furious with TNA partners for their inability to maintain confidentiality. The leaks to the media of the potential meeting with the President in June and the most recent dinner at the US Ambassador’s house were all suspected to be by one of the Alliance leaders, he had been made to believe.
It so happens that the youngest and the oldest parliamentarians of Sri Lanka in the current Parliament are both Tamils. Jeevan Thondaman was 25 when he entered Parliament in 2020 and Rajavarothayam Sampanthan is 87. On February 5, 2022, Sampanthan at 89 will become the oldest ever, serving Member of Parliament of Sri Lanka. In 2014, at 94, when he finally retired Rishang Keishing became the oldest serving MP of India. Charles Pelham Villiers was the longest continuously serving MP of the UK Parliament. He was elected in 1835 and remained an MP continuously for over 62 years until his death on January 16, 1898, aged 96 years 13 days.
As a 23-year-old young man, Sampanthan joined the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (The Federal Party) in 1956. Although the then Party Leader S.J.V. Chelvanakam offered candidacy in 1963 and in 1970, Sampanthan declined and pursued his legal career in Trincomalee. As one of the most successful civil lawyers at that time, appearing in more than 600 cases at the Trincomalee courts, Sampanthan was finally persuaded by Appapillai Amirthalingam to contest the 1977 general elections. Sampanthan as a Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) candidate won 15,144 votes to secure the Trincomalee electorate for the TULF which gained 18 seats in total for a Tamil party to become the main opposition party for the first time in history. Although he won that election on a mandate calling for a separate state to be established in the north and east of the country, many say, as an individual he never believed in separation. Some speculate that he intentionally avoided the well-known Tamil conference held in May 1976 at the northern town of Vaddukoddai where a resolution was passed calling for a separate state.
In 2001, a few Tamil intellectuals and nationalists persuaded various parties to form an alliance called the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Sampanthan became the leader of that alliance. For the past 20 years, he has held that leadership position. Sampanthan, as TNA leader, has also held the post of the Leader of the Opposition in the 2015 Parliament until 2019.
Whether he has been a good leader or a great leader, he certainly has earned the respect of other party leaders, Presidents and Prime Ministers alike. He is one of the most incorruptible Members of Parliament of recent times. He has never used any privileges including the duty-free car permit. Until recently he has lived in a modest one-bedroom flat where the block of flats does not even have lift facilities. Only since 2015 August, did he occupy the official residence of the Leader of Opposition. Due to his health and the magnanimity of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sampanthan continues to live in that residence.
There has never been a Tamil leader who has articulated the Tamil position as a solution arrived at by negotiation within an undivided and inseparable Sri Lanka. With his astute diplomacy, Sampanthan dealt with the triumphant Rajapaksa regime and the majority Sinhala community soon after the end of the war, and in parallel judiciously dealt with the international community including India that positioned TNA as a trusted stakeholder in Sri Lanka. This paved the way for the establishment of the national unity government in 2015, in which TNA played a critical role.
Sampanthan has the complete confidence of India and genuinely believes in the Indian role in resolving the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka: A leader who brought back confidence in themselves as a community, post the shattering defeat of the LTTE.
However, Mr Sampanthan also draws sharp criticism from many in the community and outside. As a Leader of the Opposition, he did not resolve and/or influence any major national issues that impacted all communities. People accused him of playing second fiddle to the then ruling alliance. Some say he is a very poor judge of character. It was his choice to nominate former Supreme Court Judge C.V. Wigneswaran for the Chief Minister post in the Northern Provincial Council. This ended up as a disastrous choice not just for the Provincial Council, but also for TNA’s reputation and popularity within the community and outside too.
His inability to take decisive action to maintain discipline within the party was blatant when he refused to sack Wigneswaran even after he issued statements publicly supporting an opposing party in the general elections of 2015. This has weakened the TNA in the eyes of the voters. Whilst being able to influence the international community to a greater extent to be sympathetic to the Tamil concerns in Sri Lanka, by and large he has been unable to rally the Tamil grassroots behind the TNA. Since 2004 when the TNA won 22 seats in the Parliament, with ups and downs but the trajectory has been downwards leading up to only securing 10 seats in the current Parliament.
Under Sampanthan’s leadership, the TNA failed to focus on schemes that will help the economic development and sustainability of the Tamil community, especially when the Indian Government was helping. This also paved the way for the loss in the vote share to the national parties in the North and East.
The lack of consultative decision making that Sampanthan pursues creates further mistrust within the TNA. His critics further argue that overall, Sampanthan is a less dynamic leader, who has hesitated to take steps to drive the Tamil political agenda forward and mostly has been a reactionary rather than a visionary. He, they say, just like slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, believes that he as a leader will deliver on the promises made to his people. Such leaders do not even think of or entertain thoughts of succession planning. To date, Sampanthan has not laid out a succession plan for TNA leadership after his tenure. By not addressing this vital issue he is facilitating endless infighting and conflicts amongst the current constituent parties. This has the potential to dismantle the TNA, post his leadership and some say that history will not be kind to him.
It is not an easy task for Sampanthan to resolve. Out of the three constituent parties, two are led by former militants who are believed to be still connected to intelligence agencies. ITAK leader Mavai Senathirajah has passed his retirement age and that party itself needs restructuring by including youth and women into leadership. That would become a sine qua non if the TNA, now committed to reconciliation, can reach any understanding over resolving Tamil issues. A post-Sampanthan era for the TNA, one is not wrong in saying, is fraught with the danger of disintegration.
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All said and done Mr Sampanthan is the most versatile, tactful and experienced politician. He has participated in talks with Indian leaders like Indra Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, Rajiv Gandhi and now Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It is to the credit of Sampanthan’s quiet diplomacy that he pursued the USA to play an active role in resolving the national question. He led a delegation of party leaders of the TNA and had a series of talks with officials of the State Department pleading for US intervention in reigning in the overtly ethnocentric Sinhalese leaders. Since 2012, the USA has moved resolutions against Sri Lanka sometimes with the help of its ally the UK.
It is true that Sampanthan is not in good health and has not named a worthy successor to take over the leadership of the TNA in his absence. TNA needs new blood and it is very likely the mantle will fall on the young shoulders of Sumanthiran, MP, PC and Sampanthan’s trusted confidant, Deputy Secretary of the ITAK and spokesperson of the TNA.