Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian M A Sumanthiran revealed how he, and others in the party, had called on leader R Sampanthan to step down, but the 90-year old politician refused to do so.
Sampanthan has led the TNA since its formation in 2001, but in recent years has fought growing unpopularity, rifts within the coalition, and bouts of ill health.
Sumanthiran, the party’s spokesperson, was questioned about Sampanthan’s parliamentary attendance record on Face The Nation this month, having been told that “out of the 280 days the current parliament has sat so far R Sampanthan was only present for 39 days”.
The segment of Face The Nation on Sampanthan's political future.
“That is 13.6%,” said Shameer Rasoolden. “The total payments made to him for this window, in rupees, 4 million for fuel, telephone, office, transport at rupees 419,000 per month. This is taxpayer’s money. Corruption of another kind, isn't it?”
“Well, this has concerned us, and particularly me, from the time that he became unable to actually attend parliament regularly,” admitted Sumanthiran. “I'll say it publicly, since the question has been posed,” he continued.
“Some of us in the party about a year ago, went and spoke to him and asked him to step down. He has refused to do that.”
Sumanthiran went on to state that Sampanthan claimed when he stood for election in 2020 his constituents “knew his health condition very well, and the still elected him”.
“And so he still remains,” continued Sumanthiran.
Denying that there was any “rift” within the TNA, Sumanthiran however concluded by stating “my personal view is that he should have stepped down”.
“We'll do something about that.”
A coalition in disarray
Members of the TNA at Sampanthan's residence in July 2022, where a decision was reportedly backed by the ITAK to back Dullas Alahapperuma for president.
The party spokesperson’s revelations come amidst a time of growing tensions within the TNA, which for years played a dominant role in Tamil electoral politics. The party is technically a coalition of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Movement (TELO), People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) - the largest constituent party to which Sampanthan belongs.
But in recent years, fissures between the different parties have deepened. The ITAK continues to be led by veteran Tamil politician Mavai Senathirajah who is reported be seeking closer ties to TELO and PLOTE independently of Sumanthiran and Sampanthan. The 2020 elections that Sumanthiran mentioned saw the party lose six seats, with rival parties such as the Tamil National People's Front (TNPF) and Thamizh Makkal Tesiya Kootani (TMTK) picking up a seat each.
Last year, TELO leader Selvam Adaikalanathan lashed out at his colleagues in the TNA, claiming there were “two black sheep” in the coalition – hinting at both Sampnathan and Sumanthiran. At the time, he had already called for Sampanthan to step down as leader.
Relations within the party continued to worsen, as the TNA decided to controversially back Dullas Alahapperuma to replace Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president last year – a move that was reportedly steamrolled by the ITAK at meeting held in Sampanthan’s Colombo residence, where an Indian diplomat was on the phone and a written agreement was supposedly drawn out. The fallout from the decision, which even caused public discontent from within the party, left the TNA more divided than ever before.
“Whilst we are a party with 70 long years of experience, the tactless, irresponsible and arbitrary actions and activities pursued by us in the name of the party have caused considerable damage,” said Senathirajah later that same month.
A growing discontent
Sampanthan and Ranil waving the Sri Lankan flag together at a rally in Jaffna.
For several years, Sampanthan’s unpopularity had been rising, not just within the party but across the North-East. The policitian 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, as well as a parliamentary address in 2012 where he claimed the LTTE “never observed human rights” and that he was “on the hit-list of the LTTE”. A few months later, addressing a Tamil diaspora event in London, the TNA leader told the audience that the LTTE were “freedom fighters”.
In a particularly fiery 2020 interview as the party’s leadership came under criticism, Sampanthan dismissed several questions on Sri Lanka’s flag and the armed Tamil struggle.
More recently, Tamil families of the disappeared, who for years have protested on the roadsides of the North-East demanding answers to the whereabouts of their loved ones, slammed the TNA leader.
Tamil families of the disappeared protest in December 2022. The mask says 'Lion Flag Sampanthan'.
"As a Tamil leader, what has Sampanthan done for the Tamil community," asked Vavuniya District Tamil Families of the Disappeared Association Secretary Jenita in December 2022. "He took the votes of Tamils and entered parliament claiming to represent us. But is he representing us?"
That same month, members of protest in Vavuniya argued that whilst "Vanni was being captured by the Sinhalese and all the Tamils slaughtered in Mullivaikkal" in 2009, "Sampanthan and the other TNA MPs were hiding in Chennai" . The comments hark back earlier remarks fron the TNPF leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, who claimed that Sampanthan refused to answer phone calls at final stages of the armed conflict in May 18th 2009, as the LTTE political heads, P Nadesan and S Pulithevan reached out to the TNA representatives for help.
Since then, Sampanthan has continued to be a notable absence not just in parliament, but at other Eelam Tamil memorials, protests and events.
Instead, he has reportedly spent most of his time in Colombo, particularly since a decision by the Sri Lankan government to allow him to occupy an official government property despite not being the Leader of the Opposition.
A cabinet decision was made to allow Sampanthan to stay in the residence, located in the affluent Colombo 7 suburb, that was given to him whilst Leader of the Opposition in 2015.
Even though he is no longer in the position, the Sri Lankan cabinet stated he can use the property “as long as he remains the leader of the TNA,” according to the Daily Mirror. It comes complete with five workers who are paid by the Parliamentary Affairs Ministry and had a Rs. 35 million renovation in 2017.
Sampanthan with Rajapaksa earlier this year.
Despite the health concerns and scarce appearances, there is at least one person that Sampanthan did find time for this year - accused war criminal Mahinda Rajapaksa. The former Sri Lankan president led an offensive that massacred tens of thousands of Tamils in 2009. Sampanthan, however, heaped praise on him in a lavish tribute in 2020. And earlier this year, Rajapaksa paid a visit to Sampanthan’s residence in Colombo. Photographs were taken of the two as they sat and had a cordial discussion.
With Maaveerar Naal commemorations coming up next month, one of the most significant commemorative events for Eelam Tamils around the world, it is not yet known whether Sampanthan will make any public appearances then or when he will next attend any parliamentary sessions. Questions around his political future continue to swirl.