Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, 82, the Leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and a Member of the Federal Party (FP), a constituent party of the TNA, was appointed as the Opposition Leader in Sri Lanka’s 8th Parliament under the present Constitution and its 15th since the eve of independence, yesterday.
TNA derives its vote base largely from the Tamils living in the North and East (NE) of the country. Sampanthan first entered Parliament in 1977 on the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) ticket, representing the Trincomalee constituency. Elections in Sri Lanka under the first-past-the-post system were held for the last time in 1977. It was superseded by the Proportional Representation (PR) system.
TNA was spawned from TULF. In 1977, then TULF Leader Appapillai Amirthalingam representing the Kankesanthurai constituency became the Opposition Leader. That was the first time that an MP representing a minority community and a minority party became the Opposition Leader. Amirthalingam was also the then Leader of FP. TULF was then the second largest party in Parliament with 18 seats. The UNP with 140 seats in the then 168 Parliament formed the government at that time.
In the present context, TNA with 16 seats is the third largest political party in Sri Lanka’s 15th Parliament. The largest is the UNP with 106 seats in the expanded 225-seat Parliament, yet seven seats short of a simple majority. The second was the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) with 95 seats. With UNP and SLFP, the country’s two largest political parties currently getting together to form a National Government, the Speaker decided to make TNA Leader Sampanthan the Opposition Leader.
The Parliament formed after the 1977 poll was Sri Lanka’s 8th Parliament since independence. Sri Lanka’s 8th Parliament for the first time saw a representative from the country’s largest minority community, i.e. the Tamils living in the NE, becoming the Opposition Leader.
Thirty-eight years later, history has repeated itself, with a representative of the Tamils also living in the NE, once more becoming the Opposition Leader in Sri Lanka’s 15th Parliament.#
Sampanthan in his inaugural address as Opposition Leader made five points. The first was the need to find a solution to the island’s Tamil question, the second was that the new government’s decision to have an expanded Cabinet goes against the norms of good governance, the third was the need for the decentralization of power islandwide, the fourth was that TNA would work with other opposition parties to keep a check on the government and the fifth was that his party would support progressive steps taken by the new government.
Separatism wasn’t in Sampanthan’s agenda, a far cry from TULF, which, like its ‘successor’ TNA at the recent poll, also swept the elections in the NE in 1977, but on the separatist ticket. TNA’s campaign was, however, on federalism under a merged NE.
The need for such an investigation went beyond the shores of the island, with the country’s two major markets, the United States and the European Union pressing for an investigation and bringing out resolution after resolution, year in year out at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, against Sri Lanka.
But the change of government on 8 January had also changed the tone of these markets on Colombo, with the US, which was previously baying for blood, doing a volte face, by agreeing to a domestic investigation, which previously it had frowned upon. Probably Sampanthan and TNA are also toeing the new US line on this score! That may be the reason why he didn’t refer to this matter at his inaugural speech.
Nevertheless, it was the Tamil question that plunged the country into a near three decade Tamil terrorist war which ended only six years ago. Much water, for the betterment of the Tamils, has flown under the bridge since then.
UNP Leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in his campaign for the 17 August general election said ‘no’ to federalism. But it’s common to find politicos saying one thing at an election and doing another thing after they assume power.
In that context the nation would be looking at the Wickremesinghe Government as to what his solution to the Tamil problem would be, while at the same time waiting for TNA and Sampanthan to elaborate on issues related to the Tamil question.
The other four points raised by Sampanthan yesterday may not need any elaboration