In the two years since he was first elected to Parliament, Sri Lankan legislator Shanakiyan Rasamanickam has won many fans within Sri Lanka, including from the Sinhalese majority. But his recent speech in Parliament, threatening to launch a “China go home” campaign, similar to the “Gota go home” people’s movement that dislodged the former President, made more heads turn.
China was “forcing down” useless investments in Sri Lanka, China has “no democracy, no human rights,” he roared in the House. If China is truly a friend of Sri Lanka, it must restructure the bankrupt island’s debt and help the crisis-hit country access IMF support, the 32-year-old Opposition MP argued.
A popular dissenting Tamil voice on the island, Mr. Rasamanickam had an unlikely start to his political career. He began working as a political activist in his twenties in one of Sri Lanka’s main national parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party [SLFP]. This was after the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi [ITAK], the chief party of the Tamils in the north and east, where the young political aspirant first sought membership, refused to take him in. This, despite his grandfather S.M. Rasamanickam, after whom the legislator is named, having been an ITAK veteran and party president.
Following his childhood and schooling years in the central Kandy district, Mr. Rasamanickam pursued higher studies in Australia, reading commerce and accountancy to practise as a professional auditor. It was during a visit to his home country in 2013, to mark his grandfather’s centenary, that the youngster considered getting into politics.
With SLFP Leader and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa readily welcoming him, Mr. Rasamanickam spent about four years in the predominantly Sinhala-Buddhist ruling party, whose policies Tamils were continuing to resist after the civil war. He worked as its chief electoral organiser in the eastern Batticaloa district. He contested the 2015 general elections from the party and lost. Disillusioned with the SLFP’s ways, he resigned in 2018 and joined the ITAK, that was by then more open to him, after its long-timers suffered electoral setbacks in the district. The ITAK is the chief constituent of the Tamil National Alliance [TNA], the main grouping representing Tamils of the north and east, with 10 seats in Sri Lanka’s 225-member legislature. Even as the Alliance lost six seats in the 2020 general elections, Mr. Rasamanickam secured an impressive win, emerging second in the district’s preferential list. His entry into Parliament gave Batticaloa more visibility at the national level and more say within the TNA, known for its northern focus and Jaffna-centrism.
He didn’t take long to make a mark. In December 2020, months into his parliamentary debut, Mr. Rasamanickam highlighted three issues in the House. He spoke on the deadly riot in the Mahara prison on the outskirts of Colombo, that left 11 inmates dead, the right of Tamils to remember their dead, and the right of Muslims to bury their relatives who had succumbed to COVID-19.
At the heart of these issues were policies, evidently repressive and racist, of the then Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration. In raising them, Mr. Rasamanickam spoke to the anger and grief of the Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims in one breath – something that Tamil legislators, focused mostly on Tamil concerns, seldom do. He consistently made a case for Muslims’ burial rights, winning substantial support from the community in his district and across the island, again rare given the tensions between Tamils and Muslims, even as he flagged land grabs of Tamils by the military and state, and national corruption amid early signs of economic collapse. In that he covered the local, regional, and national.
In February 2021, he led an impressive anti-government march called the ‘Pothuvil to Polikandy’ rally or ‘P2P’, from the eastern Ampara district to Jaffna in the Northern Province, along with prominent Jaffna legislator M.A. Sumanthiran. The march highlighted key concerns not only of the war-affected Tamils, but also those of the Muslim community and Malaiyaha [Hill Country] Tamils.
There is yet another reason for the southern Sinhalese establishment to be wary of the Tamil legislator. Unlike his colleagues, he is comfortably trilingual in Sinhala, Tamil and English. He not only speaks to the concerns of the Sinhala majority but also does so in their own language. Usually dressed in a suit, Mr. Rasamanickam sticks to a yellow tie, apparently for branding. He has an active and astute social media team that amplifies his work with timely messaging. A politician to watch in Sri Lanka.