R. Sampanthan, face of the Tamil minority's campaign for autonomy after Sri Lanka's civil war, dies

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Rajavarothiyam Sampanthan, an ethnic Tamil leader and lawmaker who became the face of the minority group's campaign for autonomy in Sri Lanka after the end of a brutal quarter-century civil war, has died. He was 91.

A lawyer by profession, Sampanthan entered Parliament for the first time in 1977 as part of a coalition that won election after campaigning on a pledge to seek an independent state for Tamils, alleging continued marginalization by successive governments controlled by ethnic majority Sinhalese.

But in 1983 the government outlawed advocacy of separatism and mandated that all lawmakers take oaths promising to preserve the unity of the country and not promote a separate state. Lawmakers in Sampanthan’s party refused to take the oath and boycotted Parliament, losing their seats because of their absence.

The loss of representation in Parliament strengthened Tamil radicals and a civil war broke out between separatists and the government.

Sampanthan grew in prominence after 2001, when he was elected to Parliament under the Tamil National Alliance brought together by the Tamil Tiger rebel group to be their democratic voice after agreeing to a Norway-brokered peace process.

But peace talks broke down and the rebels were crushed by government forces in 2009. Sampanthan became a leader in the Tamil community and was at the forefront in demanding justice for alleged government war crimes and increased autonomy and recognition for the Tamil-majority north and east, while also reaching out to the Sinhalese community.

In 2015 he became only the second ethnic Tamil to be appointed opposition leader in Parliament and held that position until 2018.

Though his goal of autonomy remains unfulfilled at his death, Sampanthan played a key role in raising international awareness of the plight of the Tamil community after the war and the need for a just resolution of the long conflict.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his condolences over Sampanthan's death.

“Will always cherish fond memories of meetings with him. He relentlessly pursued a life of peace, security, equality, justice and dignity for the Tamil nationals of Sri Lanka,” Modi said on the social media platform X.

U.S. Ambassador Julie Chung said Sampanthan's advocacy for equal rights for minorities helped advance broader human rights for all Sri Lankans and encouraged unity.

His death was announced by the Tamil National Alliance on X. It did not give the cause of death and said funeral arrangements were being made.

Sampanthan is survived by his wife and three children.