Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R Sampanthan refused to answer several questions on Sri Lanka’s flag and the armed Tamil struggle in a hot-headed interview with Sooriyan FM last week, where he distanced himself from spokesperson M A Sumanthiran as the party’s senior leadership continued to come under criticism.
Speaking to Sooriyan FM, Sampanthan became visibly irate during the interview, shaking his fist and refusing to elaborate on several questions, stating that many topics were “old stories”.
The interview comes after party spokesperson M A Sumanthiran faced widespread backlash from across the Tamil political spectrum after comments to Sinhala media, accepting Sri Lanka's lion flag and national anthem. Sumanthiran later told Tamil media that he 'bows his head' and paid his respect to LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
When Sampanthan was asked whether he accepted the Sri Lankan flag, he insisted that there “is no point talking about that”.
“I will not say I do not accept it,” he added. “I respect Sri Lanka’s national flag. It is my duty to respect it. I belong to Sri Lanka. Not to another country. This is an unnecessary question. It is because of questions like this that we are not talking about the things we should, but this is intended to create trouble. I am not going help you do that.”
Tamils across the North-East have for decades rejected the Sri Lankan flag, with many raising black flags instead on Sri Lanka’s Independence Day. Even within the TNA, several senior members have distanced themselves from the Sri Lankan flag - a point that was put forward to the TNA leader.
“There’s no meaning in questions like this,” he shot back. "I reject this question completely. Why are you asking these questions? What good does this question serve Tamils? How are you serving the Tamil people, the Tamil race, who are currently engaged responsibly and steadfastly in efforts related to a solution, what good does this do? Sinhalese have tried to create trouble… now do you wanna create trouble? I will not support this, I completely reject this. Please stop asking such questions.”
When pressed to give an answer and clarify the party’s stance for the Tamil people, Sampanthan claimed that “the Tamil people will understand my answer well".
“The Tamil people trust us,” he added.
Sampanthan went on to state that he accepted Sri Lanka as an “indivisible” country and his party was looking to “find a solution within this country”.
“There’s nothing different about that,” he said. “Thank you. I will not respond to such questions. The purpose of such questions is to block a political solution from happening. To disturb it.”
Sampanthan has come under fire several times over the years, from both the diaspora and across the Tamil homeland where protests have been staged against him. Notable criticisms include Sampanthan’s decision to attend Sri Lanka’s 2015 Independence Day event as protests took place across the North-East, his waving of Sri Lanka’s lion flag in 2012 and attempts to discipline a NPC minister who refused to in 2017.
In his interview, Sampanthan also refused to answer several questions around the history of the TNA and support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or the Tamil armed struggle, stating once more that it was an “old story”.
“There’s no point in talking about this,” he responded. “Only after 30 years of independence, the armed struggle started. It started and then it ended. There’s no point now talking about it. It’s a finished thing.”
When questioned on whether he thought the armed struggle was wrong, Sampanthan shot back by saying, “We don’t need to speak about right or wrong now”.
The party leader also distanced himself from Sumanthiran’s comments and refused to answer questions on the controversy the spokesperson has faced. “I am not required to answer for Sumanthiran’s opinions,” he claimed. “You can ask him. I will not talk about that. I released a statement related to that matter. I do not wish to talk about this further. He is allowed to express his personal opinion. From what I understand he did not criticise those who took part in the struggle. He said his opinion. That’s it.”
Sampanthan’s earlier statement hit out at the Sinhala interviewer for “promoting mischief” when he grilled Sumanthiran on the Tamil struggle last month.
In response to calls for Sumanthiran to be expelled from the party, Sampanthan went on to tell Sooriyan FM that this was an “internal party matter” and there was “no need to talk about it”.
"We are working together and united,” he claimed. “If we have differences we speak and resolve them.”
He also dismissed reports that the TNA was under Sumanthiran’s control, stating that it was “all your imagination”. “Our committees come together, discuss and make decisions,” he added.
Sampanthan has led the party since it was founded in October 2001. When asked who the next leader would be, he responded it was the people’s and party’s decision. “I didn’t dream about taking this position,” he claimed. “Like that, when the time comes, someone will take this place.”
When asked about progress on accountability for war crimes, the TNA leader also claimed that “international agreements were made”. "At the UN human rights council, members passed resolutions with Sri Lanka’s support. Our position is that those resolutions must be implemented. We will not shift from that position. Next year March a decision has to be made.”
"Things are happening,” he added. “I do not need to talk about that now.”
See the full video of his interview below.