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Monday, July 15, 2024

Rajavarothiam Sampanthan: A Tribute

Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, a veteran in Sri Lankan politics and a staunch advocate for Tamil rights, passed away at the age of 91 on Sunday, 30 June 2024. His demise marks the end of an era for Tamil political leadership in Sri Lanka, as he was a central figure in the Tamil struggle for equality and justice for over six decades.

Born on 5 February 1933, in Trincomalee, Eastern Province, Sampanthan had his roots deeply ingrained within the Tamil community. His early days of education were spent at St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna before moving on to S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. Eventually he graduated with a law degree from Ceylon Law College whereupon he embarked on his legal profession but, it was his foray into politics that he would shape his legacy.

Sampanthan entered politics in the 1970s when he joined Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), or the Federal Party, as it was commonly referred to back then. ITAK was part of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which focused on achieving autonomy for Tamils within a united Sri Lanka. Within the party hierarchy, Sampanthan soon grew influential largely due to this eloquence, legal knowledge and fervour regarding Tamil rights.

In the 1977 General Elections, Sampanthan was elected to Parliament from the Trincomalee District. This marked the beginning of his long and illustrious political career as a Member of Parliament, where throughout his tenure, he remained steadfast in his commitment to the Tamil cause, advocating for federalism, devolution of power and recognition of Tamil as an official language.

The 30-year ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka tested Sampanthan’s leadership like never before. Amidst all the violence and destruction, he stood out as a voice of reason and reconciliation. Sampanthan has consistently called for peaceful resolution to the conflict, arguing instead for negotiations and political settlement rather than military confrontation. He was respected across ethnic lines for being moderate even though hardliners from within his own community criticised him.

Following the end of the war in 2009, Sampanthan continued to advocate for Tamil rights through the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a coalition of Tamil parties. The TNA played an instrumental role in post-war politics, under his leadership, by calling for accountability on alleged wartime crimes, demilitarisation of North and East, meaningful power devolution among others. In 2015, his appointment as Leader of Opposition in the Sri Lanka Parliament marked a historic occasion since no Tamil had been appointed to this position in over three decades. His appointment could be seen as an important move towards ethnic reconciliation and inclusivity in Sri Lanka’s political landscape.

His adeptness at leading his party was characterised by his consistency of democratic principles and belief in dialogue and talks. He believed so much in the efficacy of democratic institutions and processes and always supported federalism as a solution to the ethnic clash within a united Sri Lanka. When he spoke in Parliament, he had an oratory that was masterly, clear ethical perspectives as well as legal reasoning which earned him respect from across the political divide.

To a number of young Tamil politicians and activists he served as a guide thereby motivating them to engage actively in a new drive for justice and equality. His personal life reflected simplicity yet also strong ties with constituents in Trincomalee, where he had dedicated himself entirely.

Rajavarothiam Sampanthan’s passing leaves a profound void in Sri Lankan Tamil politics. His life’s work was an exemplification of determination, dialogue and the continued search for justice. As Sri Lanka continues to grapple with the challenges of post-war reconciliation and nation-building, Sampanthan’s vision of a just and inclusive society will remain a guiding light for future generations.

In remembering R. Sampanthan, we honour a Statesman who dedicated his life to the service of his people and his country. His legacy will endure in the annals of Sri Lankan history and in the hearts of those who continue to strive for a more just and equitable society.

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