Country needs a new look: R. Sampanthan

  • A new, inclusive, and progressive constitution is needed
  • Meaningful progress only if national issue of minorities addressed
  • World needs to see Sri Lanka differently, as a reformed nation
  • Justice and equality not only to North and East but whole country

By Asiri Fernando

Sri Lanka can resolve the national question through a new, progressive, and inclusive constitution, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Leader and Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) Parliamentarian Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, told The Sunday Morning.

MP Sampanthan pointed out that Sri Lanka can only achieve meaningful progress if the national issue regarding minorities was resolved. He stated that the TNA was ready to extend its fullest co-operation to honest offers proposed to achieve that objective.

“The country is faced with numerous serious problems relating to the economy, development, investment, human rights, corruption, agriculture, foreign investment, (and) exports. All of these need to be addressed and resolved. To be successful, the country needs a new look; it needs to be seen as a reformed country. The whole world needs to see it differently,” Sampanthan said in response to a question by The Sunday Morning regarding Sri Lanka’s current direction.

The need for a new constitution 

The veteran politician highlighted that the present discussions regarding a new constitution had not noted as to what would happen to the numerous earlier attempts to resolve the national issue over a period of 30 years.

“I do not wish to comment too much on the current constitution-making process, because nothing appears to be very clear at the moment, though the current signs are not encouraging,” he said.

Commenting on the drive for a new constitution, Sampanthan opined that the Tamil community was committed to the framing of a new constitution that would enable them to meaningfully exercise, along with other citizens, their sovereignty, by having substantial and reasonable access to powers of governance in a united and undivided country, and in the areas of their historical habitation at the national, regional, and local levels.

“It is only such arrangements that would confer on all Sri Lankans equality, justice, and dIgnity,” he stated, adding that the TNA was not interested in equality and justice in only the Northern and Eastern Provinces but in the entire country. 

He said that the North and East had received special attention only because these were the areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking people, and since in those areas, inequality and injustice also prevailed.

MP Sampanthan stressed that if all the domestic and international commitments that successive governments had made over the last few decades were to be implemented, Sri Lanka would be reformed.

“The Sri Lankan State is a party to international instruments under which the Tamil people, in keeping with their democratic verdicts, are entitled to the right to internal self-determination within an undivided country. Persistent and consistent denial of the right to internal self-determination entitles people to their right to external self-determination. The Tamil people have, since 1956 for over 60 years, through their democratic verdicts, claimed internal self-determination by the sharing of the powers of governance. This has thus far been denied to them,” he charged.

Historical roots 

He argued that inaction by successive governments towards a political approach by Tamil parties to seek their rights and continued violence against minorities had spurred the rise of militant movements like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

“The LTTE appeared only three decades after Independence in the late 70s and early 80s. The LTTE would never have appeared if violence was not unleashed against the Tamil people and their concerns addressed,” he explained.

Commenting on historical grievances and concerns of the Tamil community, MP Sampanthan recalled that problems began in Ceylon, post-Independence, when there was discrimination, injustice, and inequality in the areas of citizenship, language, settlement on state land, development, public sector employment, and education.

“It was then that the Tamil people and their political leaders began demanding changes in the structure of governance, so as to enable them to meaningfully exercise their sovereignty, and thereby have reasonable access to powers of governance,” he stressed.

He stated that governments did not protect the Tamil people when violence was unleashed against the Tamil community in 1956-57, 1977, 1981, 1983, and thereafter.

“By their inaction, successive governments were suspected of collaborating with those engaging in such violence,” he said, blaming the 30-year-long civil war for contributing to a surge in corruption and those who would profit from warfare.

He explained that accords entered into by prime ministers and Tamil leaders of the time were breached, causing distrust and loss of credibility of the Government in the eye of the Tamil community. “Leaders of majority political parties, by arousing communalism, were more interested in favourable electoral verdicts and capturing political power than in resolving the national question, which was increasingly getting worse,” he charged, pointing out that the inaction of the Government led to the 1983 communal riots.

“The economy began to fall during this period and a large number of Tamil people began to leave the country. Today, a large number of Sinhala youths are also leaving the country,” the TNA Leader pointed out.

The 13th Amendment

Commenting on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, MP Sampanthan noted that although it came following prolonged negotiations, the devolution of power was found to be inadequate.

“…the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was enacted by the Sri Lankan Parliament in 1988. This was the first constitutional attempt to share powers of governance. An integrated Northern and Eastern Province was created with powers devolved to all provinces in the country, as per the lists contained in the said Amendment. This was found to be inadequate by everyone. Every government since 1988, whichever party was in power, had attempted to improve on the 13th Amendment for over a period of more than 30 years (1988-2020), and several agreements and arrangements have been recorded in order to improve on the 13th Amendment and bring it to reasonable, acceptable standards,” he said.

MP Sampanthan stated that there had been a fair measure of consensus around such proposals. However, no effort was yet made to incorporate said proposals with the 13th Amendment. This was a shortcoming borne due to the continued “desire to ensure being in political power, by favourable electoral verdicts on the basis of communal feelings being aroused” he added.