Sri Lanka names first Tamil opposition chief in decades

Parliament’s appointment of official from ethnic minority signifies reconciliation, but persecution allegations persist.

Sri Lanka
Tamils continue to accuse the government of major human rights violations [AP]

Sri Lanka’s parliament has appointed an ethnic Tamil official as the country’s main opposition leader for the first time in 32 years.

Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, the Tamil National Alliance party’s head, is the first member of the country’s minority group to obtain the position since 1983, when Tamil legislators resigned en masse to protest against a law that compelled them to denounce separatism.

The majority of the nation’s population belongs to the Sinhalese community and the minority Tamils have alleged persecution by the government since the uprising of Tamil Tiger separatists three decades ago.

Sampanthan’s appointment is a sign of growing reconciliation following a 26-year long conflict with separatists that ended in 2009.

In a statement given to Al Jazeera, Suren Surendiran, the spokesperson of Global Tamil Forum – a prominent organisation seeking to improve ties between ethnic communities – said the development “gives glimmers of hope”.

“We are confident that he will represent not just the Tamil people’s best interest alone but represent all communities’ best interest in the parliament,” he said.

Sampanthan is a lawyer who was first elected to the parliament in 1977. His party, the former political proxy of the Tamil Tiger fighters, backed Maithripala Sirisena in the January presidential elections defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa, who ordered an offensive that allegedly killed tens of thousands of people and ended the Tamil rebellion.

The previous government refused to acknowledge Tamils’ request to probe alleged war crimes during the final phase of the war. The UN last year passed a resolution calling for an international probe on the alleged human rights abuses.

The outcome of the UN investigation will be released at the UN Human Rights Council session later this month.

The new Sri Lankan government has agreed to a domestic war crimes probe and the US, which sponsored three successive UN resolutions against Sri Lanka, last week said it would support a domestic process if it is credible.

‘Continued repression’

However, human rights groups continue to accuse the government of ongoing oppressive policies against the Tamil civilian population.

Mark Lattimer, the Executive Director of Minority Rights Group International, told Al Jazeera that although the level of atrocities against Tamils has decreased substantially since the war ended, there have been continued human rights abuses, ranging from “mass arrests and extrajudicial executions to the harassment of women by security forces”.

“It has become an ongoing feature of human rights violations, not just against Tamils, but Muslims too,” he added.

When asked whether he thought Sampanthan could bring signficant change to Tamil rights, he said that although his appointment was “promising”, the task would probably be too large for him.

“He will clearly be working on an acceptable resolution, but you can not place too much on one man’s shoulders,” Lattimer said.

With reporting by Ryan Rifai in Doha

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies