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Progression through the Opposition Leader – but is Sri Lanka ready for it ?

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Political positions can play a major role in reconciliation. With Geneva around the corner again, this can go a long way.

R.Sampanthan, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), was always on the cards to become the Opposition leader since the announcement of the national government. With the UNP and SLFP being in a MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) to form a government for the next two years, the TNA ended up being the largest party in the opposition. Yet even I didn’t think the political hierarchy of the country will go through with the matter and actually appoint Mr. Sampanthan to the post. The breaking news really had a” wow effect” on me.

It was caused by the feeling of euphoria of seeing an apparent move towards progressive and liberal political decision making from within the political hierarchy. The President and Prime Minister were progressive in making such a decision, but the question that always stayed in my mind was the rest of the country ready for it? Will it simply add fuel to the fire of extremist nationalism that some factions of society have been trying to ignite for months. However the last 24 hours seem to signal otherwise.

Friends claim that people on buses and trains are discussing the appointment as a very positive step as the country moves towards stability. The typical voice pieces of extremism are spewing out claims that this is a conspiracy to divide the country. But the people it seems are not paying much heed. The storage of rice at the Mattala airport cargo facilities have drawn more negative public attention.

The inaugural speech by the new opposition leader was an excellent reflection of what the country can expect from his tenure. He didn’t take much time to applaud the parliament for the decision to appoint him. Instead he stressed on the alarming political culture in Sri Lanka of being elected to parliament to merely grab a ministerial portfolio. He straightforwardly opposed the bill to increase the size of the cabinet to accommodate a national government, because such an increase is against NATIONAL INTEREST. A national government is a necessity he assured but this digressive political culture of requiring ministerial positions was condemned. For those of who understood him, Mr. Sampanthan became an instantaneous political superman.

Why did I highlight national interest? For emphasis that this is not a Tamil politician merely representing his electorate in the North and East. Here is a national politician who has been engaged in politics in the Federal Party since the late 1950s, entering parliament in 1977. Yes, he has won his elections on a Tamil vote, running from a Tamil ethnicity based party. But even most of Sri Lanka’s “national leaders” have depended on ethnicity based voter bases to win their elections. The results in the southern province is the best example.

The SLFP and UNP have depended on alliances with minority parties like the SLMC (Sri Lanka Muslim Congress), ACMC (All Ceylon Muslim Congress), EPDP (Eelam People’s Democratic Party) and CWC (Ceylon Workers Congress) to attract the votes of minority ethnicities. The independent running of the ACMC in the Eastern province and the loss of UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) votes in the province in 2015, clearly displayed that its 2010 votes in the region depended heavily on its alliance with the ACMC.

Thus, no Southern politicians can claim that they are national politicians and Sampanthan is not. If they continue to do that it is merely another facet of the digressive political culture that he pointed out in his speech.

The appointment will add desperately needed positives for Sri Lanka at Geneva later this month.Some may claim that the appointment is a mere show to make it apparent to the world that the current government is hell bent on effective reconciliation. Well at least this government is then putting on a show to protect the country from negative global opinion. But I hope this is not such a mere narrow minded decision.

Is he a supporter of the LTTE and its separatism? He is adamant the TNA (Tamil National Alliance) is against a separating Sri Lanka. Why has he placated the LTTE in the past and worked with them? Because after all, he is a politician. Just like other politicians have their hands dirty with corruption and the underworld, he too has gotten his hands dirty dealing with the LTTE. It was for his political survival and his personal survival. When his LTTE critical political colleagues were being shot dead he had to find ways to survive. Just as some politicians in the South have relied on ethnic nationalism to gain votes and survive the ongoing political wind of change. The survival of the TNA during the LTTE times have ensured that following the end of the war, the Tamil population has had a legitimate democratic political movement to represent them in Colombo. Otherwise they would have been easily misled by more extremist factions and distanced from reconciliation.

For those of who think the majority of the population wouldn’t understand the predominantly Tamil and English speaking Opposition Leader, it must be reminded that Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the JVP has been appointed as the Opposition’s Chief Organizer. There is few in the majority who wouldn’t understand him.

On a final remark, watch Sampanthan’s interview with BBC Sinhala at the parliament done in Sinhala. He clearly asserts that he will play the same role as any Sinhalese Opposition leader and oppose the government where it is of national interest. It is heartwarming to hear a opposition leader who can be understood by anyone in Sri Lanka due to his fluent trilingual capability.  And Sri Lanka is ready, maybe not everyone, but everyone who is thinking progressively towards Sri Lanka’s future are ready. Dwelling in the past is a very Sri Lankan pastime but progress is in looking at the future not in the past.

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