The Passing of R. Sampanthan MP: Snapshots from a Divided Country

The Passing of R. Sampanthan MP: Snapshots from a Divided Country

 07/02/2024

R. Sampanthan MP passed away on June 30, 2024. He was 91. Sampanthan was a venerable statesman, and veteran Tamil politician. His passing marks the end of an era. As journalist Meera Srinivasan wrote in The Hindu obiturary, “A parliamentarian for nearly half a century, Mr. Sampanthan was a bold and relentless voice in the House. Since the end of the civil war in 2009, he tirelessly demanded equal rights for Tamils, within a ‘united, undivided, indivisible’ country. Trained as a lawyer, he based his arguments for a political solution on Sri Lanka’s constitutional history and the many promises that the southern Sinhalese establishment made in the past but failed to keep.”

The Indian Prime Minister wrote on Twitter, “My deepest condolences to the family and friends of veteran TNA leader R. Sampanthan. Will always cherish fond memories of meetings with him. He relentlessly pursued a life of peace, security, equality, justice and dignity for the Tamil nationals of Sri Lanka. He will be deeply missed by his friends and followers in Sri Lanka and India.”

I studied commentary on Facebook and Twitter to get a sense of how passing registered with those on the respective platforms. The four public posts on Facebook with the most comments at the time of writing were those by the Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa (in Sinhala, Tamil, and English), by M.A Sumanthiran MP (in English and Tamil), by Shanakiyan Rasamanickam MP (in Tamil) and by The Morning newspaper (in English) and in that order. Premadasa’s post had 441 comments, Sumanthiran’s 238, Rasamanickam’s 203, and The Morning, 176. Tamil comments were parsed through Google Translate prior to study since I do not know the language.

I also searched for සම්බන්ධන්, සම්බන්දන් (two variations of Sampanthan’s name in Sinhala). Aside from Premadasa’s post, the two other posts with the most comments were both published by Newsfirst. One was a video, and the other was a link to a story on Sampanthan’s passing.

On Twitter, studied 174 tweets with ‘Sampanthan’ in them published over the past 24 hours. A similar query in Sinhala (for සම්බන්දන්) didn’t surface more than 2 tweets.

Comments to posts by the politicians and The Morning

The majority of comments against Premadasa’s post and the one by The Morning express condolences and respect for Sampanthan. Many users offer variations of “Rest in Peace” or “නිවන්සුව ලැබේවා” (May he attain Nirvana/Nibbana). There is widespread recognition of Sampanthan as a veteran politician and an important figure in Tamil politics. Some praise him as a moderate voice (in Tamil politics) who sought a united Sri Lanka, contrasting him with more hardline Tamil politicians (who aren’t named). Others reflect on Sampanthan’s long political career, with a few questioning why he remained active in politics until such an advanced age. There are suggestions that politicians should retire earlier. Flowing from this, a small number of comments use Sampanthan’s death as an opportunity to criticise the broader political establishment, expressing hope that other elderly politicians will soon follow.

Sadly, there’s an undercurrent of negativity and even celebration of his death among some. Worth stressing that others, albeit a few, criticise those who react with laughter or joy at the news, calling it despicable, disrespectful and lacking in basic human decency. There are appeals to show empathy regardless of political differences.

  • Some users express joy at his passing:”Good news” and “good news of the day😂” appear in English. In Sinhala: “ආරංචිය සුබයි කිව්වේ මේකද?” (Is this the good news that was mentioned?) is a play on a Sinhala slogan used by the re-election campaign of the incumbent President.
  • There are comments accusing Sampanthan of supporting separatism or the erstwhile Liberation of Tamil Tamils Eelam (LTTE):”ප්රාභාකරන්ගෙ Pka ලෙවකාපු එකා..හොද වැඩේ ඕකාට..අපායටම පල tooooow” (The one who licked Prabhakaran’s arse.. good thing for him.. go to hell)”දැන් ඉතින් ප්රභාකරන් කියන මස් වැද්දා සහ උගේ ගෝලයෝ රොත්ත එක්ක අපායත් දෙකඩ කරල වෙනම අපායක් හදා ගනින්” (Now go and make a separate hell with Prabhakaran the butcher and his gang of followers)
  • There are comments that downplay Sampanthan’s contributions or express indifference:”He has done nothing to country or nation . But. I pray for Rest in peace.””කරපු දේවල් මතක් වෙන්න ඇති රටට” (The country must be remembering the things he did – idiomatically implying negative actions)
  • Some comments use explicit derogatory language or express satisfaction at his death:”Burn In Hell Asshole””Go to hell you ……””Okk…😪Sri Lanka’s one curse ended like that🐖”

While there is still significant respect shown for Sampanthan as a long standing political figure, the comments in Tamil and English on Sumanthiran and Rasamanickam’s Facebook posts reflect a more critical and introspective tone within the Tamil speaking community regarding his life, legacy, leadership and the future of their political representation in Sri Lanka.

Many comments offer variations of “ஆழ்ந்த அனுதாபங்கள்” (Deepest condolences) or “Rest in peace” (in English), similar to the previous set of comments against The Morning’s, and Premadasa’s posts. However, these expressions of sympathy are often accompanied by much more varied, and complex reflections on Sampanthan’s political career and impact.

Many acknowledge Sampanthan as a significant political figure but question the effectiveness of his leadership for Sri Lanka’s Tamils. For example, some comments describe him as a “veteran politician” or “great leader” while simultaneously expressing disappointment in the lack of progress for Tamil rights during his tenure. Criticism of Sampanthan is more pronounced and specific in these comments. Some users accuse him of prioritising his own political career over the interests of the Tamil people, particularly after war’s end in May 2009. There are references to perceived compromises with the Sinhalese dominated government and allegations of failing to achieve meaningful outcomes for the Tamil community.

Unlike the comments on Premadasa and The Morning’s posts, there are almost no outright celebratory or disrespectful comments about Sampanthan’s death. Instead, the negative sentiments are more often expressed through political critiques and expressions of frustration with the state of Tamil politics. Discussing the future of Tamil politics post-Sampanthan, some express hope for new leadership, and fresh approaches, while others worry about the void left by his passing.

Comments against the two Newsfirst posts

As a proxy indicator of very high affective polarisation in Sri Lanka (which I’ve studied grow on Facebook since 2012), the level of hostility and celebration of Sampanthan’s passing in most of the comments in Sinhala, and English is high. News1st’s 2.3 million followers on Facebook are Sinhala speaking, and while some may now be in the diaspora (especially after the mass exodus out of country since 2022), many would still be in the country.

There is a significant amount of celebration, denigration, and mockery surrounding Sampanthan’s death, particularly in Sinhala. Riffing off the presidential re-election campaign slogan, many express joy or satisfaction, noting “ආරංචිය සුභයි” (good news) or “සුභ ආරංචියක්” (auspicious news). These comments often featured haha/laughing emojis. Many note Sampanthan was a “tiger” (referring to the LTTE) or accused him of promoting separatism and ethnic division. Some use derogatory terms or simply wish for him to “go to hell”.

Somewhat similar to earlier comments, but with a thinly veiled racist undertone, many criticise Sampanthan for staying in politics until an advanced age. There are suggestions that politicians should retire earlier and accusations of clinging to power.

There are a few comments that attempt to remind others of basic human decency, criticising those who celebrate someone’s death. A small number acknowledge Sampanthan’s long political career and efforts to represent Tamil interests. However, this positive, prosocial sentiment is very much in the minority, and far outnumbered by negative sentiments and hostility.

Some of the comments studied included (with my rough translation to English in brackets),

  • ලංකාවට අනවශ්ය පුද්ගලයෙකි …🤚 (An unnecessary person for Lanka…🤚)
  • ජයම වේවා!!!අපාගත වෙයන් පරයා (Wonderful!!! Go to hell, you wretch)
  • දෙමල ජනතාව රවටා බලයේ රැදිසිටි මහල්ලෙකි (An old man who deceived Tamil people and clung to power)
  • So sad RIP big tiger (Tiger is a reference to the LTTE)
  • අපාගත වේවා (May you go to hell)
  • ආරංචිය සුභයි (An auspicious news)
  • Loku deyak (Great thing)
  • Marilada kiyala hariyatama balapalla (Check if he’s really dead)
  • හොදයි (Great/Good)
  • කලින් මැරෙන්න ඔින එකෙක් දැන් හරි මැරිල ගිය එක ලොකු දෙයක් මුන්ට යන්න අපායක් නැ (Someone who should have died earlier has now died, it’s a big thing. There’s no suitable hell for them to go to)
  • මහ කොටියෙක් ඉවරයි (A big tiger’s over)
  • Aye thopi wage ewn me loketa bihiwenta epa (Don’t let fuckers like you be born into this world again)
  • දෙමළ මිනිස්සුන්ගේ චන්ද ටික අරගෙන අවස්ථාවාදී විදිහට ඒ පැත්තට මේ පැත්තට deal දාපු මනුස්සය…. (A person who took Tamil people’s votes and opportunistically made deals with this side and that side)

On the other hand, even amidst this commentary, there were those who pushed back. Rough translation to English follows the comment that was originally in Sinhala.

  • තම ජාතිය වෙනුවෙන්, සුවිශේෂී කැපකිරීම් කර ජාතික මෙහෙවරක් ඉටු කළ සැබෑ ජාතික, දේශපාලන නායකයෙක්. (කණගාටුවට කරුනනම්, සිංහල ජාතියට මෙවන් නායකයකු නොමැති වීමයි.) / A true political leader who made extraordinary sacrifices for his race and fulfilled a vital mission. (The sad thing is that the Sinhalese don’t have a comparable leader.)
  • ඔහු තමන්ගේ ජනකොටස වෙනුවෙන් දකුණේ… දේශපාලන නායකයන් සමඟ මධ්යස්ථව කටයුතු කරා… යුදසමයේ හා සාම සාකච්ඡා වලදී ඔහුගෙ දේශපාලන ශක්තිය පාලමක් ලෙස ක්රියාවට නැංවූවා.. RIP / He acted moderately with political leaders in the South on behalf of his community… During the war and peace talks, his political strength acted as a bridge.. RIP
  • තම ජාතිය වෙනුවෙන් අසීමිත කැපකිරීම් කල නායකයෙක්..සිංහල ජාතික නායකයින්ට මේවා හොද උදාහරණ.. මැරෙන්නට කලින් නිවන් සුව පතන යුගයක,ඔබට නිවන් සුව පතමි.. / A leader who made unlimited sacrifices for his race.. These are good examples for Sinhalese national leaders.. In an era where people wish for nirvana before death, I wish you nibbana/nirvana.
  • 1970 දශකයේ මා ත්රිකුණාමලයේ සේවයේ නිරතව සිටියදි මා රාජකාරි වශයෙන් හා පෞද්ගලිකවම දැන හදුනාගෙන සිටි එවකට ත්රිකුණාමලය අධිකරණයේ සීටි දක්ෂ නීතීඥ මහත්මයෙක්. ඔබට මා අදහන දහම අනූව සදාතනික නිවන් සුව ප්රාර්ථනා කරනවා. / In the 1970s, when I was serving in Trincomalee, I knew him officially and personally as a skilled lawyer who was in the Trincomalee court. I pray for your eternal nirvana according to my faith.
  • බහුතරයක් සිංහල අපි ඔබව කිරවා ගත්තේ දකුණේ සිංහල දේශපාලකයින්ගේ වචනයෙනි. ඔබ ඔවුන් පැවසූ පුද්ගලයාම නොවන බව ස්වාධීනව බැලිමේදි අවබෝධ විය. ඔබට නිවන් සුව ලැබේවා.. / The majority of us Sinhalese misunderstood you based on the words of Southern Sinhalese politicians. When looked at independently, it became clear that you were not the person they described. May you attain nirvana..
  • මේ අදහස් දක්වන්නේ බහුතරයක් බෞද්ධයන් නේද? කෝ කරුණාව දයාව මෛත්රිය කො මධ්යස්ත බව / Aren’t the majority of those commenting Buddhists? Where is the compassion, kindness, loving-kindness, where is the moderation?

Twitter

While the Facebook comments studied above were defined by raw, unfiltered, racist, rude commentary and animosity, the tweets feature a more formal, diplomatic response to Sampanthan’s passing, highlighting statesmanship, service to community and country and dedication to the advancement of Tamils within a united Sri Lanka.

Many tweets, particularly from politicians, and other official accounts offer condolences to Sampanthan’s family and friends. There is a consistent acknowledgement of his dedication to the Tamil cause and his efforts to secure equal rights for Tamils within a united Sri Lanka.

The MP is frequently described as a statesman, a moderate voice, and a tireless advocate for peace and reconciliation. Many tweets highlight his commitment to non-violent political solutions and his willingness to engage in dialogue with the government. Several tweets, especially from Indian politicians and media, including the prime minister of India, emphasise Sampanthan’s role in bilateral relations. There are multiple mentions of fond memories of meetings and interactions with him.

A number of tweets refer to Sampanthan’s passing as the “end of an era”, reflecting his long standing presence in Sri Lankan politics as a Tamil leader from the pre-war era.

Like the Facebook comments earlier, some question his effectiveness in achieving tangible results for the Tamil community while others criticise his continued presence in parliament despite advanced age and poor health. There are also a few tweets that express concern about the future of Tamil politics following Sampanthan’s death, highlighting the potential leadership vacuum left by his passing.

Sampanthan’s death as a clarifying moment

It is wrong and dangerous to generalise several hundred comments on Facebook and tweets as indicative of broader public sentiment. But what I studied around Sampanthan’s passing is a tired racist rhetoric that’s all too familiar on social media and even in Parliament. Sampanthan spoke out against this himself in a cri de cœur to parliament in February 2018 as the then Leader of the Opposition.

It’s really quite sad, although not in the least surprising, to see in commentary around his passing what Sampanthan warned us against when alive.

The Sinhala comments (across Facebook, and Twitter) often encode a worldview that sees Sri Lanka as a unitary state with a primacy to Sinhala-Buddhist identity. From this majoritarian perspective, Tamil politicians like Sampanthan are viewed with suspicion and threats to national unity or as covert separatists. Tamil political aspirations are equated with terrorism, which is why Sampanthan is seen as a tiger. This worldview minimises, is ignorant, entirely dismissive of Tamil grievances and sees demands for greater political autonomy or rights as existential threats to the integrity of the state.

In contrast, the Tamil comments reflect a worldview where Tamils are an oppressed minority fighting for their rights and recognition within Sri Lanka. Sampanthan is seen as a champion of Tamil interests, a moderate voice advocating for Tamil rights within a united Sri Lanka. This perspective views the struggle for Tamil rights as a legitimate political movement, distinct from militancy, terrorism and the LTTE. There’s an underlying sense of collective trauma from the nearly 30 year war and a deep-seated anxiety around enduring marginalisation.

The Sinhala worldview in the Facebook comments and tweets studied emphasises the need for strong centralised governance to maintain national unity while the Tamil worldview stresses the importance of decentralisation and power sharing to protect minority rights.

Sinhala comments frequently reflect a zero sum mentality where any gain for Tamils is seen as an irrevocable, violent loss for Sinhalese. Tamil comments, on the other hand, often express a desire for coexistence, and equal rights within a pluralistic Sri Lanka. These two worldviews don’t mix – they are discursive domains unto themselves.

The affective polarisation evident in the commentary isn’t surprising.

In Sinhala, there’s an intense negative affect towards Sampanthan. Many comments express joy or satisfaction at his passing, feature denigrating, dehumanising language and reduces him to a symbol of how Tamils threaten Sinhalese. An emotional valance (including through the use of emojis) registers anger, suspicion and even what can be interpreted as hatred. This negative affect isn’t just directed at Sampanthan as an individual, but often extends to the Tamil politicians, and the Tamil politics he represented.

Conversely, Tamil sentiments display, in the main, strong positive affect towards Sampanthan. Comments often express deep sorrow, respect and admiration. He’s frequently described as a father figure or a protector of Tamil rights. The grief expressed at his passing goes beyond the loss of a political leader, touching on feelings of collective vulnerability and fear for the future of comparable Tamil representation.

Affective polarisation is particularly evident in how the life or characteristics of Sampanthan are interpreted. His long political career, for instance, is seen by many Tamils as evidence of dedication and perseverance while some Sinhala comments interpret it as stubbornness or a refusal to relinquish power.

Perhaps the best capture of comments around Sampanthan’s passing lie in what he said in parliament in the video embedded above.

“We only talked of a solution that is acceptable to our people, that is reasonable, substantial power sharing within the framework of a united, undivided, indivisible, single country. That was the propaganda we carried out in all our areas. And when we did that, how dare President Rajapaksa say that Eelam could bloom after the election? This is not only the deception of the people in the South, innocent, single people in the South, but it is the deception of everyone, including himself. I would like to say, Sir, that I would like to put this on record, because I want everybody in this country to know that it was malicious, vicious, fallacious, false propaganda on the part of President Mahindra Rajapaksa and the Podujana party. And if you persist in this agenda, I want to tell you, Eelam will bloom, not on account of us, on account of your lotus bud.”

Sampanthan’s life was defined by indefatigable attempts, with unflagging dignity despite the most heinous violence directed at him, to leave Sri Lanka in a better way than the country he was born into. I can think of no better definition of a patriot.

As Srinivasan’s obituary in The Hindu ended by noting, “Despite the country’s leadership habitually letting him down through many decades, he did not let the pessimism of the intellect diminish the optimism of his will even a little. In the Tamil people’s long, ongoing struggle for justice, dignity and equality, he will be remembered as a prominent crusader.”

May he rest in peace.

About editor 3042 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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