FOR the first time in decades, Sri Lanka’s parliament has recognised an ethnic Tamil MP as the opposition leader, in what is being seen as a positive step towards post-war reconciliation with the minority community.
The announcement that Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, 82, leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), was the official opposition leader was made by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.
It is the second time an ethnic Tamil has been opposition leader. Appapillai Amirthalingam took the post in 1977 but resigned five years later after refusing to swear he would not promote a separate state for Tamils. A separatist civil war broke out soon after and continued until it was crushed by the island nation’s military in 2009.
According to a conservative estimate by the United Nations, 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed in the conflict, but the actual death toll is thought to have been much higher.
The TNA emerged as the third largest party in the 225-member parliament in last month’s election, but a decision by the first two parties, led by prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and president Maithripala Sirisena respectively, to form a consensus government made the TNA the largest opposition party.
The TNA was earlier backed by the defeated Tamil Tiger rebels and was accused of being its mouthpiece in parliament. However, since the rebels’ defeat, the party has renounced separatism and said it would accept regional autonomy based on a federal model.
Mr Sampanthan’s appointment despite early opposition by some ethnic Sinhalese leaders is seen as a reassurance to the Tamil community of their place in national politics. Tamils have long complained of discrimination in education, government jobs and governance.
Since his surprise win in a presidential election in January, Mr Sirisena has taken a number of steps, including releasing military-occupied private lands to their owners in the Tamil majority north and moving the military out of police and administrative functions, to promote reconciliation.
The United Nations Human Rights Council will release a report on war crimes allegations later this month. But the United States, which earlier was at the forefront in calling for an international investigation into the allegations, has promised to present a “collaborative resolution” with Sri Lanka to the human rights council, supporting Colombo’s move to conduct a local investigation.
The TNA has pledged to make the restoration of democracy and the rule of law a priority – and has successfully evolved into a party that champions national issues, not merely ethno-centric ones.
However, the big question will be whether Mr Sirisena can command the confidence of all of the opposition, including the hardline factions of the UPFA who support former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and have spoken out against his appointment.