Opposition in Sri Lanka gets 1st Tamil leader in decades

Mr R. Sampanthan, 82, heads the Tamil National Alliance, which emerged from last month's polls as the third-largest party.
Mr R. Sampanthan, 82, heads the Tamil National Alliance, which emerged from last month's polls as the third-largest party.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Appointment a sign of country's ethnic reconciliation six years after end of war

COLOMBO • A Tamil lawmaker is to lead the opposition in Sri Lanka's Parliament for the first time in 32 years, the Speaker of the House said yesterday.

Mr Rajavarothiam Sampanthan is the first lawmaker from the ethnic minority to lead the opposition since 1983, when Tamil legislators resigned en masse to protest a new statute that compelled them to denounce separatism.

The 82-year-old heads the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which emerged from last month's election as the third-largest party, with 16 seats in the 225-member assembly.

"As the UPFA (United People's Freedom Alliance) did not make any claim for the opposition leader's post, I'd like to inform the House that Mr Sampanthan, the leader of the TNA, has been recognised as the leader of the opposition," Speaker Karu Jayasuriya told Parliament, reported The Economic Times.

The UPFA, which previously made up the opposition, has joined Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP) in government.

President Maithripala Sirisena came to power in January promising reconciliation and accountability for alleged war crimes committed by troops under former president Mahinda Rajapakse's command.

This week, he urged the new Parliament to take "difficult political decisions" to bring about ethnic reconciliation six years after the end of the war between Tamil separatists and the state.

"Even at this late stage, we should take the difficult political decisions to ensure ethnic harmony and bring about reconciliation," Mr Sirisena said in an address to Parliament outlining the new government's agenda.

The TNA supports a credible domestic investigation into alleged war crimes and has also pressed for a new Constitution to "restore democracy and justice".

On Tuesday, Mr Sampanthan said his party would push for justice and greater autonomy for the ethnic minority, who say they suffer widespread discrimination on the Sinhalese-majority island.

Last month, the two main Sinhalese parties agreed to enter a broad-based coalition government, in a remarkable turnaround for a country that had until recently appeared firmly in Mr Rajapakse's grip. Mr Rajapakse, who refused to join the coalition, remains in the opposition.

It is only the second time in Sri Lanka's history that an ethnic Tamil has been made opposition leader, reported The New Indian Express newspaper.

In 1977, Mr Appapillai Amirthalingam became opposition leader, but he resigned five years later, refusing to swear that he would not promote a separate state for Tamils in the country.

Soon after, a civil war broke out and continued until 2009, when it was crushed by the military.

Once accused of being the mouthpiece of the Tamil Tiger rebels in the country, the TNA has renounced separatism.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2015, with the headline 'Opposition in Sri Lanka gets 1st Tamil leader in decades'. Print Edition | Subscribe