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R Sampanthan: Representative of ethnic Tamils post-civil war in Sri Lanka passes away

He was 91 and breathed his last at a hospital in Colombo. The veteran Tamil leader was ailing and had been skipping parliament proceedings for some time.
Last Updated : 01 July 2024, 04:37 IST

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Chennai: Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, who unequivocally pushed for equal rights for ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka including devolution of powers to Tamil-dominated north and eastern provinces as envisaged under the 13th amendment, has passed away.

He was 91 and breathed his last at a hospital in Colombo. The veteran Tamil leader was ailing and had been skipping parliament proceedings for some time.

Sampanthan, a six-time parliamentarian who also served as the Leader of Opposition in Sri Lanka’s Parliament from 2015 to 2018, emerged as the most credible political representative of the minority Tamil community after the end of the civil war in 2009 that saw the end of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) headed by Velupillai Prabhakaran.

As the leader of Tamil National Alliance, a coalition of political parties representing Tamils in the island nation, Sampanthan spearheaded the talks with the Sri Lankan Government for a just solution to the decades-long Tamil question.

Born in 1933 in Trincomalee in eastern Sri Lanka, Sampanthan was a top-notch lawyer before he entered politics and became a member of Sri Lanka’s parliament for the first time in 1977. He represented Trincomalee six times since then.

India, which played a proactive role by rolling out aid to resurrect Sri Lanka’s economy which was in doldrums after the 30-year Civil War, engaged very closely with Sampanthan as New Delhi began making a conscious attempt to reach out to the Tamil community to win over its trust.

India first courted Sampanthan in April 2009, a month before the LTTE was vanquished, by flying him to New Delhi. Thereafter, a meeting with Sampanthan and his colleagues from TNA became almost mandatory for every Indian dignitary who visits Sri Lanka, be it the Prime Minister, External Affairs Minister, the Foreign Secretary, or the National Security Advisor.

The veteran parliamentarian, Sampanthan wanted ethnic Tamils to be treated on par with majority Sinhalas and actively pushed for the implementation of the 13th Amendment that pushed for devolution of powers to provinces in “letter and spirit.”

As the Leader of Opposition following incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa’s shocking defeat at the hands of his estranged colleague Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, Sampanthan was actively involved in drafting a new Constitution for Sri Lanka.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he will always cherish fond memories of meetings with Sampanthan. “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,” Modi said in his condolence message.

Senior journalist and long-time Lanka follower R Bhagwan Singh told DH: “Sampanthan was the voice of Eelam Tamils post-civil war. One only wished that he used his prowess, not just with the government in Colombo but also with the international community, especially India, to achieve lasting gains for his Tamil community.”

The 13th Amendment, which was part of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka pact between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J R Jayewardene, envisaged devolution of powers to the island’s north-east, dominated by Tamils.

The agreement which was aimed at ending the civil war only escalated problems after New Delhi sent the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) which was withdrawn in 1990 after its presence created a major row.

Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to send the IPKF cost him his life with the LTTE assassinating him at an election rally in Tamil Nadu on May 21,1991.

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Published 01 July 2024, 04:37 IST

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