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The demise of Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, the senior-most leader who guided Tamil national politics post Mullivaikkal, has deepened the leadership vacuum in Tamil politics. Sampanthan entered the political arena through the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), being inspired by the ethnic liberation politics of S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, and served as the leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) established with the blessings of LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran. A staunch believer in non-violent politics, Sampanthan adhered to the principle that democratic leaders should always be approachable, maintaining open dialogue with allies, adversaries and perceived betrayers alike. He was not at any point a follower of polemical politics. That is why he is seen as one of the most flexible Tamil leaders that the South has faced in its history.

In the early 2000s, when the armed struggle by the LTTE was at a successful peak, an idea emerged from the East to strengthen a political party that recognised the LTTE through electoral politics. The formation of the TNA was made possible with the blessings given by the LTTE from the Vanni and the continued dialogue held by the late Taraki Sivaram and others. After the LTTE assumed leadership of the Eelam Tamils, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), which previously led Tamil politics, became marginalised. With the assassination of TULF leader A. Amirthalingam, the Tamil political arena increasingly centered around the LTTE.

Until the turn of the millennium, the LTTE considered not only the armed movements working with the government but also the TULF leaders as traitors. But in the political and diplomatic arena, the LTTE realised that armed struggle alone would not bring about liberation and therefore endorsed the formation of the TNA. The LTTE united those who had hitherto been considered as traitors into one team. The dark past of the parties and former armed movements within the TNA was forgiven and provided absolution. Along with that they were taken into every Eelam Tamil household leading to significant electoral wins. The TNA’s victory in the 2004 general election contesting under the house symbol of the ITAK was a significant win in Tamil political history. It was then that Sampanthan was selected as the parliamentary group leader of the TNA with the blessings of the LTTE. He held the mantle of the TNA leadership position for the next two decades.

Sampanthan’s belief in non-violence, alongside his acceptance of the LTTE’s role, defined his leadership. He asserted in parliament that although they were elected as representatives of the Tamils, it happened with the auspices of the LTTE and that the LTTE were the sole representatives of the Tamil people. He also said that it was adequate for LTTE to solely participate on behalf of the Tamil people in negotiations regarding a political solution for the Tamil people.

It has often been suspected that the LTTE, sensing their end, formed an alliance of all the Tamil factions for democratic electoral politics. That is why even after Mullivaikkal, the Tamil people stood united. Mullivaikkal was one of the biggest setbacks faced by the Tamil people; recovering from it is still not an easy task. At such a poignant moment in time, Sampanthan was careful to keep the TNA handed over by the LTTE intact. He preserved it until he became debilitated due to old age. The period after Mullivaikkal was a void as far as the Tamil people were concerned. No one knew how to handle that void. In such a situation, Sampanthan navigated that void by playing a strong role in promoting non-violent politics through the TNA.

Reflecting the sentiments of the Tamil people, Sampanthan took the politically bold decision to support Sarath Fonseka in the presidential election held by the triumphant Rajapaksas just a few months after Mullivaikkal. He knew that he would be criticised time and again for this decision given Fonseka’s role in the final war. In such a situation, Sampanthan took that decision in the course of his approach to defeat the Rajapaksas. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s shoving of a lion flag in his hand at a campaign rally for Fonseka remains a major criticism of Sampanthan’s political career. Sampanthan believed that defeating the Rajapaksas would not only be a political-diplomatic victory but also an expression of the solidarity of the Tamil people. He never wavered from that belief. That is why it became possible to defeat the Rajapaksas in 2015.

The Mullivaikkal victory was the greatest in the history of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy and believing that those who achieved that victory could be defeated within six years was unexpected. It did not happen through a single presidential election. It happened because the TNA demonstrated to the international community and the South the Tamil people’s unity and their impact on the political landscape at the 2010 presidential election. Sampanthan’s role was significant in convincing the South and diplomatic circles that if Wickremesinghe was put forward against the Rajapaksas, the Rajapaksas would win easily. That is how Maithripala Sirisena became the common candidate of the opposition parties in the 2015 presidential election.

The role played by the Tamil people’s votes in that victory was immense. Sampanthan consistently expressed that the responsibility of the Tamil political leadership was to reflect the sentiments of the Tamil people. It is because of this that he stood against sections that raised empty slogans calling for election boycotts or a common candidate. He believed that political moves that did not contribute to any constructive arrangements was absurd. A few days before his death in an interview given to a media he criticised the Tamil common candidate issue as a destructive act.

Sampanthan did not shy away from considering himself a son of Sri Lanka. “…I am a Sri Lankan, but a proud Tamil. I am entitled to the recognition and power that comes with it…” was his political stance. He believed that a resolution to the ethnic conflict should be through mutual agreement by all sides. He was strongly criticised for this belief. During the yahapalanya period, he made concessions beyond his power and moral limits to somehow reach a political solution for the Tamil people. During attempts to draft a new constitution, he agreed to controversial provisions on providing the foremost place to Buddhism and the unitary structure of the state and thereby faced the most irrefutable criticism of his political career.

The qualities of a leader who guides a nation is not only to match the adversary in the field but also to seize the opportunities and make the right moves to achieve goals. There may be setbacks. One may be criticised forever but one must take bold decisions to achieve one’s goals. Sampanthan was one who followed that stance. He was well aware that his approach to the South would continue to be criticised and some may call him a traitor. He believed that staying aloof and not making decisions out of fear of such criticism was not an attribute of a leader. Hence he took responsibility for all the decisions of the TNA. Likewise he had an immense desire for to find a solution for the Tamil people within his lifetime. This also reflected a self-serving desire to obtain credit for bringing about such solution. However, the chauvinist forces of the South did not allow for this. Once again, the Rajapaksas were brought to power, putting an end to his desire.

Posthumously Sampanthan is hailed by the South as a moderate leader who emerged from Tamil national politics. But during his lifetime none of the leaders of the South recognised Sampanthan’s commitment to find a solution to the ethnic conflict. No actions were taken. When Sampanthan was the Leader of the Opposition and the national anthem was played in Tamil at the end of the independence day event which he attended, the tears that flowed from his eyes symbolised the level of oppression the Tamil people faced at the hands of majoritarian politics. The Tamil rendition of the national anthem may have been a major event in Sampanthan’s lifetime in a country, which had multiple languages but instilled monolingual dominance over the Tamil speaking population.

An elder son and statesman, called aiya by all, was laid on his funeral pyre in Trincomalee. The fire will consume his lifeless body but his enduring commitment to Tamil liberation will remain unquenched. Farewell, aiya!

Translation of the original article in Tamil that appeared in the Kaalai Murasu newspaper on July 7