Image from Jaffna Challengers website

Two contrasting insights into reconciliation were on display in the last ten days – one in the field of sports and the other in the field of politics.  The former relates to the Carlton Super Seven Rugby Tournament and the latter to the ITAK or Federal Party convention in Batticaloa.   The significance of the latter is of course beyond dispute given that it was the party convention of the major party in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the speech made by its leader R.Sampanthan has been the subject of columns, editorials and dire conclusions on what it portends for the fate of the nation-state of Sri Lanka.  The former may seem trivial by contrast – a sporting event, even tamasha, that attracted the attention of few.  Sporting events though have their role to play in reconciliation and are replete with political significance and purpose.  The Carlton Super Seven Rugby Tournament was no exception.  Joint winners of the tournament was a team called the Jaffna Challengers captained by a young naval officer who also happens to be a son of the President of the republic.

One assumes that the choice of name for the team had some reconciliatory purpose – there were others with regional and provincial titles. This columnist is not clear as to whether any of the other teams had any connection to the parts of the country they were named after. By all accounts the winning team did not – rugby not being a sport to have taken hold in the Jaffna peninsula to date.   It would seem to be the case that the choice of team name was either prompted by a desire to introduce the sport to the peninsula and integrate the peninsula into this sporting loop of increasing prominence and profit and/or an act very much in the spirit of the captain of the team’s uncle’s remarks about all parts of the country being accessible to all the peoples of the country, the north being no exception.  Yet another victory lap by the winning team before the bewildered population of Jaffna, may well be on the cards. And someone may wave a Tiger flag on this occasion too!

Talking of flags, the highly respected TNA leader Mr Sampanthan is in effect being accused of irresponsible and even dangerous “flag waiving” – by some Tamil nationalists with regard to the Lion flag at the beginning of the month at the joint opposition rally in Jaffna and with regard to the Tiger flag at the end of the month by all – Island patriots, on account of sentiments expressed in his speech at the ITAK convention in Batticaloa.   The truth of the matter, as this columnist sees it, is that Mr Sampanthan has to speak to both constituencies and the international community beyond, if he is to lead and hold together his party and his people within a united Sri Lanka.   Once can disagree about language and tone, but should not lose the wood for the trees.  Yes he did talk about a future outside of Sri Lanka, about external self-determination and about what could follow from this government not addressing the aspirations of the Tamil people. He did not talk about this, though, as the first option or the preferred one.

In any and every event, is not the point to pull the political rug from under the secessionists’ feet?  How irresponsible, dangerous and unreasonable have Mr Sampanthan and his party been in the pursuit of a political settlement of the ethnic conflict since the defeat of the LTTE as evinced by their behavior in the direct talks between them and this government or is it the SLFP – as they are now being told, contrary to the evidence of the letter inviting them to talks which was published in a week end newspaper?  Have they not demonstrated commitment and good faith, forwarded proposals – stretching from the Mangala Moonesinghe proposals to the PA 95 and 97 proposals, the August 2000 draft constitution and the APRC Experts Committee report- and made clear that they will participate in a select committee once a consensus is reached between them and the government which can be forwarded to that select committee for discussion with the wider group of stakeholders?

The real tragedy is that Mr Sampanthan had to make the speech at all and in the tone and language he did.  It is a measure of the state of reconciliation and unity in the country. To this columnist the speech was about consolidating the TNA position within the Sri Lankan and Tamil polity and the ITAK position within the TNA as primus inter pares rather than as sole representative of the Tamil – speaking peoples mapping out a strategy for secession. In narrow political terms it is about holding the TNA and the Tamil polity together, lest as times goes by and is deliberately allowed to through procrastination and deceit, the Tamil polity fragments into a combination of pitiful incoherence on the one hand and obdurate extremism on the other. It probably and sadly is the case that there are two polities in this context, each delineated by ethnicity and each the mirror image of the other.  Mr Sampanthan may well have a similar problem, if not the same, with his hard- core nationalists as President Rajapaksha with his!

The overarching question as always is as to whether the politics of hurt and harm and hate should be allowed to hold the country to ransom?

It should not. Mahinda Rajapaksha has a pivotal role to play in this. Quite frankly, his inability and/or unwillingness to do so, is far more damaging to unity and reconciliation than any interpretation of any speech Mr Samapanthan may make; his willingness and ability to do so immeasurably greater a contribution to unity and reconciliation than any contribution the Jaffna Challengers can make!

  • kadphises

    The Daily Mirror carries the same piece but says it is written by N. Sthiya Moorthy. There is also a picture, but its not of Dr. Saravanamuttu’s face. I hope it is not another case of plagiarism.

  • Ward

    The President has overwhelming majority in the parliament to do anything his political will dictates, though his election manifesto and the speeches at the UNGA and other important occasions (as international community waits to hear what he has to say) are forced to show his ”desire to have justice for all citizens”.

    He is very comfortable (as can be seen from what he has been DOING in the last six years) with his political will:
    “If I make any devolutionary concessions to the Tamils, 13A Plus, Minus, Divided or Subtracted, it will be curtains for me” –
    15 June 2011,

  • Ward

    As most of the army and the navy are inside Jaffna peninsula, the name ”Jaffna Challengers” is very appropriate for teams fielded by the army or the navy.

  • In the course of defending Mr Sampanthan’s speech Dr Saravanamuttu has sought to demonise those who disagree with his politics by calling them ‘extremists’ and branding them as people no better than the hard core Sinhala Budhdhist Nationalists. I have utmost respect for Dr Saravanamuttu and for the contribution that he has made to political discourse in this country, and hence with all humility here is a brief response.(I am going to wear the cap of the Jaffna Challenger because i think it fits me.)

    1. “It probably and sadly is the case that there are two polities in this context, each delineated by ethnicity and each the mirror image of the other”. I am surprised that Dr Saravanamuttu equates the nationalism of the oppressed with the nationalism of the oppressor. Does he really think that contemporary Tamil Nationalism mirrors Sinhala Budhdhist Nationalism? Or is Dr S also making the mistake of equating Tamil Nationalism entirely with the politics of the LTTE?

    2. “Mr Sampanthan may well have a similar problem, if not the same, with his hard- core nationalists as President Rajapaksha with his!” – Does Dr Saravanamuttu actually think that President Rajapaksha stands tall above the hard core nationalists in the South? Is MR a closeted liberal then? Isnt it the case that hard core nationalism is used as an excuse by Rajapaksha to retain the status quo?

    3. “To this columnist the speech was about consolidating the TNA position within the Sri Lankan and Tamil polity and the ITAK position within the TNA as primus inter pares rather than as sole representative of the Tamil – speaking peoples mapping out a strategy for secession. In narrow political terms it is about holding the TNA and the Tamil polity together, lest as times goes by and is deliberately allowed to through procrastination and deceit, the Tamil polity fragments into a combination of pitiful incoherence on the one hand and obdurate extremism on the other”. The speech definitely has not helped in consolidating the TNA or the Tamil polity – it has definitely and deliberately sought to kick out all those except ITAK from the TNA/Tamil politics. I dont want to go into this in detail but if anyone doesnt understand what i am talking about they should listen to Suresh Premachandran’s recent interview to TNA is not about parties – its is a political movement – Sam and ITAK think its an electoral alliance – thats a disastrous approach to understanding the role of the TNA in the current political context. Mr Sampanthan wants to return to the good old pre-1970 days of the ITAK and this can only mean that we havent learned anything from history.

    4. Mr. Sampanthan does not even use the federal word in his speech which is indicated as the TNA’s maximalist position in the 2010 General Elections manifesto. For the first time he comes out officially and says that they are willing to explore a solution that has a point beyond the 13th amendment as its starting point. That’s a very significant compromise. What is ‘beyond 13A’ – is it within the unitary set up or outside it? If ‘beyond 13A’ is the starting point whats the plan for the path to ‘incremental devolution’? Now does Dr Saravanamuttu think that to raise such questions is ‘extremist’? Here is the big one for the long time federalist Dr Saravanamuttu: Would pushing for federalism be considered ‘extremist’ in the present context? And the other subsidiary questions: Is pushing for a recognition of the Tamils as a nation within a plurinational Sri Lanka an ‘extremist’ thing to say in the present context? Is it wrong to articulate that this as the political issue that is in a sense a pre-constitutional matter that any negotiation between the Govt and the Tamil side should grapple with. Its a tough one but isnt that the core without which no constitutional settlement will not hold? Because aren’t we talking about a new social compact rather just drafting a new constitution/ tinkering with the current one? And am i an extremist when i say this? So what is this ‘extremism’ in Tamil politics that Dr Saravanamuttu is referring to? So if Dr Sara thinks that the above is not extremism (and that i have picked the wrong cap) then pray tell us Dr Saravanamuttu who are these Jaffna Challengers? (other than the rugby team of course)?

    • wijayapala

      My dear Aacharya

      I am surprised that Dr Saravanamuttu equates the nationalism of the oppressed with the nationalism of the oppressor.

      So it was the oppressed who expelled the Muslims from Jaffna and murdered Rajini Thiranagama?

      • yappa


        I don’t get what you try to say. Pl elaborate a bit more.


      • yapa

        Dear ijayapala;

        Please note: Original yapa has only four English letters.


      • Keynes!

        How come you can’t even get your name right?

      • Dear Keynes!;

        One is a counterfeit.


    • kadphises


      I think the test for “extremism” is to ask yourself if what you are demanding is in the spirit of equality and fairness? If the answer is a “yes” you are not and extrmist if it is a “no” then you are an extremist.

      Now lets analyse what is fair and equitable..

      Do you for example demand or desire more power or resources for your own community than what you are prepared to yield to the other?

      This is where I believe both the Sinhala and Tamil nationalist positions fail the test.

      The Sinhalese nationalists demanding that a central government invariably elected by the Sinhalese majority should dictate how affairs are run in areas that are overwhelmingly peopled by Tamils.

      The Tamil Nationalists demanding a vastly disproportionate portion of the country ignoring the demographic, geographic and historical realities of the land they are claiming. A merged North and East with federal land and police powers reserves almost 4 times as much land per-capita for the Tamils. This will never be acceptable even to the fair minded Sinhalese. And this is why the Tamil Nationalist position can also be considered as “Extremist”. Is this not what you demand of the TNA when you demand of them not to betray the core principles of Tamil nationalism?

    • P.Saravanamuttu

      Dear Acharya, first, apologies for the late response. You have raised some very pertinent points in response to my article, many of which I have much sympathy with.

      I realize that the language of my article would have led you to some of the points you make and in turn apologize to all readers for my lack of clarity. I refer here in particular to the points about ” mirror image”, ‘extremists” and any suggestion that Mahinda Rajapaksa is a liberal. On the latter score, I agree with you entirely that he is not and that he uses the the JHU/NFF elements in his coalition to cover up what are essentially his own views and ideological predisposition. I have said and written this before. Re mirror image I have been remiss in not qualifying this. I should have included the word “considered” before “the mirror image”, since I do believe that in general political terms perceptions are very important. As for “demonizing” those who do not agree with my views as “extremists”, this is not a past time I indulge in, however strong the temptation at times! Furthermore, I do not consider the nationalisms in Sri Lanka to be “extreme” per se, although of course there are elements within each of these nationalisms that I do consider to be such. I am also willing to consider the argument that those elements distort the very idea of nationalism.

      Re the 3) the question of as to what the TNA constitutes or should is something that has to be sorted out within the Tamil polity. No doubt if Sampanthan and ITAK cling to what you term is a ” disastrous” understanding of this, alternatives to them will arise and challenge them politically and electorally. In my opinion this is both necessary and healthy.

      Re 4) here are my long time federalist responses. Certainly, there are some elements in the south who will insist that advocating a federal solution is “extremist”. Sampanthan not even using the term may have been conditioned by this in the sense of being tactical in political terms. He may also have calculated that the flak he would receive for not using the terms would be less problematic to him in the wider scheme of things than the flak he would have attracted if he did. Frankly, I do not know what exactly conditioned his choice of words. In any event what may or may not have influenced Sampanthan, should not in any way stop those like me who think federalism is not extreme and moreover, that it still is the best solution. I am entirely in agreement with your points about plurinationalism and my understanding of what has been placed on the table by the TNA in direct talks with the Rajapaksha regime is of documents that do not contradict this – the 95 and 97 proposals, the August 2000 Draft constitution bill, the Majority Report of the APRC Experts Committee. It is not my understanding either that Sampanthan and the TNA will accept a settlement within a unitary state.

      The Jaffna Challenge as opposed to the Challengers rugby team is to fashion a political platform that unites the Tamil polity on a settlement that will move us from post-war to post conflict. Absolutely, arriving at that settlement and a post-conflict Sri Lanka is not the sole responsibility of the TNA And the regime or indeed of political parties. The pluri- national case needs articulation and as cogently, coherently and widely as possible.

      I was not here referring to any specific individuals – hence the title Jaffna Challenge(r)s.

      And please note the article was not intended to be a defense of Sampanthan’s speech. Rather it was a statement of my understanding of it in the context of the critiques it has attracted in the current political context.

  • MV

    this is news to me.

    “Mr Sampanthan may well have a similar problem, if not the same, with his hard- core nationalists as President Rajapaksha with his!”

    does Dr. Saravanamuttu imply that Rajapakse is a ‘moderate’ or a ‘closeted liberal’ as aacharya says?

    • In relative terms he probably is moderate.

      • nelum

        There is only one person who would even suggest that Mahinda Rajapaksa is a moderate. That person is David Blacker. Waiting for the political appointment.

      • nathan

        Yeah. In relative terms, comparing with Hitler, Milosevic is moderate.

      • Lol, wasn’t me who suggested he was a moderate. Why don’t you two stop barking like Pavlov’s dogs and actually read the comments 😀

      • nathan

        “Why don’t you two stop barking like Pavlov’s dogs”

        And I was under the impression that GV censored abusive comments. Has the policy been revised?

        • There is a difference between calling someone a dog, and referring to the famous Pavlovian experiment with dogs. One refers to a species, the other refers to a behavioural pattern.

      • nathan

        Fair enough. Must be my age. 🙂

  • PitastharaPuthraya

    There is a huge diffrence between MR and Sampanthan.

    MR does not represent his personal ideology. He is the epitome of an age old ideology of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism opposing legitimate Tamil polotical greivances. It does not matter whether he now understands that Tamils in fact have issues, which need to be addressed by the Sinhala Government. He is unable to turn the trend, as the history shows us many similar situations in the past all over the world, even if he personally wants it or not. This forward march of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism will have to be destroyed by its own action for another era of conciliation to begin. The people who wants an end to the ethnic problem would have to wait till that day.

    Sampanthan hasn’t told anything new. He has jsut reiterated the Tamil political agenda. However, it shows the desperation of a man, who I beleive was willing to compromise the dream of having a seperate Tamil homeland for lesser entitity if MR and his ruling clique were able to grasp the moment. They were unable to grasp the moment because it was not possible for them to make ‘u’ turn all of a sudden after all what they claimed themselves to have been. If they had done it what would have happened to the Sinhala Buddhist masses who are marching with them to Sinhala Buddhist Utopia?

    This will go on till Sinhala Buddhist masses are fed up with the rule of Rajapaksha regime and elect another leader, who would be able to negotiate with Tamils for a compromised solution or till the Tamils take up arms agains and lead Sri Lanka to another disaster or internal contrdition of the Rajapaksha’s blows up the regime from within and new leader rise from the ashes with a new borad agenda of national reconciliation.

    • wijayapala


      Sampanthan hasn’t told anything new. He has jsut reiterated the Tamil political agenda.

      You are 100% correct, there is absolutely nothing new in what he said, especially the contradictions between seeking a solution within a united Sri Lanka and one outside a united Sri Lanka. Like his predecessors, Sampanthan isn’t able to reject the rejectionists in his camp, for the rather pathetic reason that he wants to keep them in his camp.

      Based on what you just said, we can conclude that the Tamil political agenda is not to find a solution to anything, but rather to keep on insisting that there is a problem in order to win the Tamil vote.

  • buddhika

    I have the same question as yappa.
    Pl clarify.
    (there is a Buddhika also in these comment columns –
    just as there is a yapa and a yappa)

    • buddhika

      what matters is the questions, answers and comments – NOT the names of contributors.

    • wijayapala

      Dear yappa & buddhika

      Aacharya thinks that the Tamils are the oppressed and that the Sinhalese are the oppressor. If that is true, then that would mean that the LTTE that was representing the oppressed Tamils had itself oppressed the Muslims and dissident Tamils (already oppressed) like Dr Thiranagama. Strange, no?

      • silva

        History tells us that those who are oppressed for a long time split up and damage each other and are driven in many directions and end up in ruins.

  • Lankan

    It is sad that the Jaffna Challengers team did not feature a single Tamil. If it was meant to be a symbol of national unity that message did not carry through.
    This itself is symbolic of the huge task faced by our nation to bring back our brother and sister tamils into the mainstream. Not only they need to be taught rugby but we need to get them back on their feet economically and socially.
    Mr Sampanthan seems to be lost in the woods due to the procrastination of the Govt. He seems to be playing to the gallery same as the Govt acts to pacify the extremist in the south. It would be better if he kept silent or be unpopular rather than derailing the peace train. Leaders are those who speak for the future of the nation and not to gain cheap popularity.

  • Orion

    Thank you. You have raised many valid points and questions. I hope Dr. Sara would respond to your observations.

  • The goings-on in North under the militarized administration do not look like the project of a moderate Sinhala-Buddhist.

    • silva

      ”But that truth cannot excuse human rights violations that currently afflict the nation as a whole; or for that matter obscure the looming threat of the cultural and political colonisation of the north by the Sinhala Buddhist majority” – Biased and Prejudiced Collection on Sri Lanka, *Gananath Obeyesekere, Economic & Political Weekly, VOL 47 No. 04, 28 January-03 February (*a Sinhalese Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Princeton University)

  • Cas Shivas

    Naming a Team as ‘Jaffna Challengers’ alone (It would seem in this instance that it may be a deliberate attempt to show that all is well in Jaffna, the Jaffna man is free from all worries and is breathing freedom and has plenty of time at his disposal to play Rugby.It appears the team is actually composed of members of the S.L.Armed Forces). Even staging a play by Parakrama Niriella in Batticaloa or a play by Dr.Mownaguru in Hambantota if the emphasis is only on esthetics without a message- or a Sinhalese marrying a Tamil or a Tamil marrying a Sinhalese -this has happened in the past among prominent people like Nirupama Rajapakse marrying Nadesan or Mangala Samaraweera’s Aunty marrying V.S.C. Anandan from Valvettythurai or even H.L.De silva’s family having such intermarriages- will not bring communal amity and solve the long standing National problem. Root causes of the problem have to be identified and addressed.Completely denying that there is no problem at all will not help as well.Mr.Sampanthan was only reiterating the history, International Law and Precedents as in Canada). After almost 30 years of negotiations and non-violent struggle S.J.V.Chelvanayagam,Q.C. in desperation said, ‘only God can help the Tamils’ and resorted to the Vaddukoddai Resolution in 1976. Sampanthan after giving up a very lucrative legal practice and entering politics at the request of Chelvanayagam conveyed through M.Thiruchelvam Q.C. (Neelan’s father’) after more than 30 years of violent struggle by V.P and three years of inactivity by MR is again in desperation and in square one.JRJ had 4/5th majority and now MR can easily muster 2/3rd majority in the Parliament. JRJ puposely failed to solve the problem and even merged North and East not through a Constitutional Amendment but by Emergency Regulation knowing pretty well that it will fail in a Court of Law and now MR is not intent on solving the problem but is trying by all means to postpone a solution. He knows for sure that statesmanship is necessary (e.g. South Africa-Nelsen Mandela and De Klerk) if the problem is to be solved but instead finding an escape route through the PSC. He knows that they will never agree to anything and there will be no consensus at all. He will only have a ready made answer to India and the International Community, that he tried and he is not to be blamed and happily continue as the President with majority votes.In the meantime Sampanthan’s generation will be gone after Chelvanayagam’s (and perhaps Dr.Saravanamuthu’s) generation and perhaps Gajendra Kumar may have to take over if not Suresh Premachandra or Sumanthiran, and the problem will go on and on, and as SJV said God only will have to descend as Lord Krishna did in Mahabharatha (but even he was denied even five villages by the 100 strong Gauravas when he went on a peace mission on behalf of the 5 member Pandavas.