Leaders Like Sumanthiran Are A Rare Breed

Leaders Like Sumanthiran Are A Rare Breed

Suren Surendiran

Is Unqualified & Uncritical Support For The Armed Struggle Of The Past, A Must, To Play A Leading Role In Tamil Politics Today?

The former Parliamentarian and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesperson M. A. Sumanthiran’s recent Sinhala-language interview (“Truth with Chamuditha”) and a selectively distorted presentation of this interview in Tamil by the Capital TV (controlled by interests close to the present Sri Lankan government), seemed to have stirred a hornet’s nest. While such controversies are often viewed as unfortunate and unwarranted, they also provide unique opportunities to reassess one’s thoughts and positions on the continuing Tamil struggle for equality and justice in Sri Lanka. 

Many others and I have had extensive interactions with former MP Sumanthiran over the years as he is the key contact person for the TNA for international engagement. Our collaboration covered meetings in various capitals around the world, UNHRC sessions in Geneva, The United Nations in New York and conferences aimed at amicably resolving the Tamil problem. We always found Sumanthiran highly knowledgeable, articulate, hardworking and honest, and we reiterate our utmost confidence on him.

It is elven years since the war ended in Sri Lanka and the conditions for resolving the Tamil problem have irreversibly changed. Without the support of most of the Sri Lankan people, achieving political and constitutional outcomes that satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people has become near impossible. It is crucial therefore the difficulties and aspirations of the Tamil people are unambiguously and diplomatically communicated to Sinhala and Muslim communities, and Sumanthiran is the only Tamil Parliamentarian from the North-East attempting to do this even in a limited manner.

It is in this context that the provocative interview, in a format of short and sharp questions and answers, need to be viewed. It may be the intention of the interviewer was to create a wedge between Sinhala and Tamil communities, and within the Tamil community, as general election approaches and with the commencement of preliminary discussions between the TNA leadership and the government. It appears Sumanthiran’s focus was not to fall into the interviewer’s trap of sharpening the misunderstanding between Sinhala and Tamil communities. However, we believe the interview format was not the most suited to cover a complex and emotive issue such as this, and a lot more could have been achieved with a more elaborate and nuanced discussion.

Several answers in that interview provoked varying responses within the Tamil community. However, the core controversy dealt with Sumanthiran’s response that he never accepted or condoned armed struggle as a political project, consistent with his overarching pacifist philosophy. Though not discussed in this interview, we are fully aware of other interviews and speeches where Sumanthiran has articulated his clear understanding on the rationale behind the origin of the armed struggle, his respect for the immense sacrifices made by the militants, and his caution against using those to derive political mileage particularly in the context that he never personally agreed with any political approach involving violence. 

Tamil community suffered enormously from the time of independence and the heroic struggle waged by the Tamil militants from an integral and inseparable part of the Tamil history in Sri Lanka. The fact that the armed struggle, started as a local insurgency eventually evolved into a fully-fledged civil war, necessitates a clear understanding of this phase of the Tamil struggle from all budding political aspirants. However, does that also necessitate unqualified and uncritical acceptance and support of the armed struggle of the past, for one to play a leading role in Tamil politics today?

We believe the answer is conscientiously and categorically in the negative. 

More than a decade has passed since the war ended, and the Tamil community must embark upon honest self-reflection and learn valuable lessons from its successes and failures of the past. In this journey, inclusivity of different political viewpoints is fundamental. There are many who fully support the origin and conduct of the armed struggle, while solely attributing its defeat to external factors. There are others who concur with the cause and effect of the origin of the armed rebellion but believe not everything was done right to prevent its catastrophic end. Yet for some, politics by violent means is unacceptable, without exception. 

Our well-considered position is that holding any of those viewpoints does not automatically disqualify anyone from playing an important role in Tamil politics. A whole suit of other qualities – honesty and consistency, ability and hard work, and commitment – are also critically important for one to be effective in political leadership.  Ultimately, it is the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, in all their wisdom, will make such calls through their election ballots.

About editor 3043 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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