The veteran politician R Sampanthan (left) at a 2017 vigil in Colombo organised by the families of disappeared Tamils. The muted responses to his death from within the Tamil nationalist polity, of which he claimed leadership, reflect the limits of Sampanthan’s “pragmatic” politics. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Press
The veteran politician R Sampanthan (left) at a 2017 vigil in Colombo organised by the families of disappeared Tamils. The muted responses to his death from within the Tamil nationalist polity, of which he claimed leadership, reflect the limits of Sampanthan’s “pragmatic” politics. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Press

Tamil politics in Sri Lanka after R Sampanthan, the elder statesman that never was

Sampanthan’s death prompted glowing tributes from Colombo but relative indifference in the Tamil community, which gained nothing from his and the Tamil National Alliance’s compromises with the Sri Lankan state

“I will make my people ungovernable!” Rajavarothiam Sampanthan exclaimed, banging on the table. He was at a private meeting with diplomats of a powerful Western state in 2016, his expression giving away his frustration over the failure of the ruling Sri Lankan government, then led by Maithripala Sirisena, to make progress on the Tamil national question.

R Sampanthan was one of Sri Lanka’s longest-serving members of parliament and the leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main political coalition representing the Tamils of the country’s North and East. He had promised Tamils ahead of the 2015 election that there would be a political settlement to meet their long-standing demands for autonomy by 2016 – and when that did not materialise in time he promised it by 2017.

A few months prior to the meeting with the diplomats, Mavai Senathirajah, the leader of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi – Sampanthan’s political home, also known as the Federal Party – had told Eelam Tamil activists and politicians from across the world gathered in the United States that the TNA would embark on a campaign of civil disobedience if the Sirisena-led government failed to come to an agreement with Tamil nationalist representatives in parliament. He was evoking the Federal Party’s legendary 1961 satyagraha against the implementation of the Sinhala Only Act, a landmark in the disenfranchisement of Sri Lanka’s Tamils as it prescribed Sinhala as the country’s only official language. On that occasion, a campaign of civil disobedience had managed to bring the civil administration of the North and East to a standstill. 

Spoiler alert: Sirisena did not make progress on the Tamil issue. Sampanthan did not make his people ungovernable. And the TNA did not embark on a civil disobedience campaign.

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Himal Southasian
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