Published On:Monday, December 6, 2010
Posted by Sri Lanka Guardian
The LTTE was only a manifestation of an unsettled issue. If the issue was settled with the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact there wouldn’t have been an LTTE. If the issue was settled with the Dudley-Chelvanayakam pact, there wouldn’t have been an LTTE.
Abstention on budget vote was a demonstration of our good faith, says TNA MP Sumanthiran
by a correspondentCourtesy: The Nation
(December 06, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In the absence of veteran Tamil politician and Tamil National Alliance leader R Sampanthan, who was indisposed, we spoke to M A Sumanthiran, the articulate new member of the Tamil National Alliance, who was appointed to parliament on its National List after the April general election. This lawyer is also probably the new pragmatic side of the TNA, which was in the past seen as an appendage of the LTTE. He answers some of the vexed questions facing the Tamil community and the country as a whole. Following are excerpts:
Q: In the past the TNA always voted against the government budget, but this time during the second reading vote it abstained. Is it a sign of warming of relations?
It is not. It is clearly stated in the statement we issued saying that there was nothing in this budget that we could support.
In fact, all the TNA members who spoke at the second reading condemned the budget.
This was only a gesture of goodwill because we have reached an agreement with the President some time in June.
There will be some mechanism set up where we will participate; one in respect of resettlement matters, the other in respect of finding a political solution.
We have been asked for names of our participants and they have been published. But those mechanisms have not been set up.
So we thought instead of continuing to say that we are committed to participating ion these processes we will also do something this time to demonstrate that commitment and good faith in wanting to engage with the government.
Q: Many of the fears that were expressed at the end of the war about settling of Sinhalese in Tamil areas, continuing militarisation, the High Security Zones, keeping people out of their properties etc are being allayed.
All those concerns remain. The HSZs are not being dismantled.
Q: People are being resettled in HSZs.
That is in the areas in the Valikamam North, where it is not a high security zone.
That has never been declared as a HSZ. The army was not allowing people to go in.
Our general secretary Mavai Senathiraja has a case that was first filed in 2003 and the court has made an order saying that if it is not declared a HSZ people must be resettled in those areas.
According to the court order, stage by stage people have been resettled. So what happened recently in Ilavalai is part of that process.
That is not something new. But the other HSZs still remain, particularly in the Eastern Province at Sampur for the last four and a half years several thousand people have been kept away and even in the Wanni although no high security zone has been declared there are several villages to which people cannot go back because the army has taken them over and they have not allowed the people to go back.
That is why you still have about 20,000 people in the camps and more than 100,000 people still unable to go back to their original places and they are with friends and relatives.
Q: On the whole, there have been improvements with people not being interned for ever as was originally alleged.
It was not an allegation. They were interned.
There was no judicial order to keep them there.
There was not even an administrative detention order.
Under our law, even if you stop a person on the road and don’t let him pass that is an arrest, but here more than 282,000 people were kept like that for more than a year.
Q: Of course, they had to sift the bad from the good.
That is not the way to do an arrest. Laws don’t permit it. If there are some bad guys in Matara, you don’t arrest the whole town and keep them for one year and sift the good guys. That is not our law. So this has been done totally in contravention of the law.
It must be accepted by everyone that the rule of law does not apply to the Northern Province.
Q: In the late 80s, the rule of law did not apply to the south either.
Two or three wrongs don’t make a right. Even in those times never were 100,000, 200,000 or 300,000 people arrested and kept in forced detention camps for more than a year. It is the first time this has happened in the history of this country.
Q: The Sampur project is for the good of the public.
Keeping people out of their original habitat cannot be for a good cause.
Q: It is to build the country’s second coal power plant as a joint venture with the Indians.
There is no coal power plant. For four and a half years, people have been asked to keep away from those places.
Q: There has been a lot of haggling to hammer out a final agreement.
Then you have to see what the public good in that is. While the government haggles, should the innocent citizen live away from their homes? Even if there is going to be a coal power plant that will be in a confined area. The entire space is not necessary for a coal power plant. The land must be acquired for a public purpose that is the law of the country. You cannot keep whole areas and whole villages out for four and a half years saying that we are going to do something for the public good.
Q: It is a sparsely populated area. So how many people are affected?
That is because there is grazing land and so on. There are easily 300 to 400 families being kept out of there.
Q: The government has taken a positive step finally to implement the language policy of the country, which successive governments failed to do. How do you see it?
They have appointed a Minister. I don’t call that a positive step. We have to see whether the implementation takes place.
Q: He is a man who has always been true to certain principles.
Until about two years ago. In the 18th amendment he voted with the government against his own policy. It has to be seen now whether he will redeem himself.
Q: The war was a brutal one with wrongs being committed by both sides, but will the Tamils be willing to bury the hatchet for a new future where all communities can live with respect any where. As you mentioned earlier, the rule of law should be there before all else. Isn’t that where we have failed most of all in strengthening the third branch of the state?
If as you say wrongs were committed by both sides, the way to go forward is to acknowledge and find out exactly what happened.
Look at the root cause that gave rise to the conflict in the first place.
If you look at South Africa, they resolved the issue and then they had a reconciliation process.
A new order was set up and then they said that now that we have decided to go forward recognising the rights of everybody, let’s bury the hatchet.
That is a sine qua non, an acceptable political arrangement for the future that all agree respecting each others rights and so on is essential before people decide to bury the hatchet. Only after a political settlement is reached that the people can say that now we have reached a settlement let’s not go back to the past.
Q: You mentioned South Africa and on paper it may look hunky dory, but the reality there is quite shocking. The apartheid is very much there, though now there is a privileged black group that has arisen. The black townships remain hell holes despite all the wealth in that country. But in Sri Lanka despite decades of strife and poverty there is some sanity.
Obviously the two situations are very different.
Even the political issue is very different, but what I am saying is when there was a conflict, it was first resolved politically and it was only after the resolution of the conflict that they decided not to revisit the past sins as it were.
That is the way forward. In this conflict, neither party can say ‘let’s forget and go home’. Only if we have agreed how we are going forward together, then we can look back and say forgive each other and forget what has happened.
Q: You don’t see the strengthening of the legal arm as being important as empowering political power. In a small country with a more than a half a dozen provincial councils and knowing the calibre of the politicians we have, imagine them running that many police forces.
That is a misconception.
The present breakdown in the law and order can be addressed by devolving police powers to the provincial council as it is closer to the people and it will be a police force that is accountable to the people on the ground. They will know who is who.
It is much easier and more accountable if it is from the area itself. The police are not an army or a navy or an air force.
It is there to maintain law and order and that must be done as locally as possible. That is the solution to the present breakdown in law and order by devolving that power to the people of that area.
Q: The danger is that the local political boss will control that force.
That shouldn’t happen.
The central political boss is handling everything now.
That is no answer.
What I am saying is that accountability will come only when it spreads and that authority is devolved to a mechanism that is closest to the people.
Q: Devolving police powers is one of the key sticking points…
I won’t say it is a sticking point because we haven’t started any talks. Only when we start talks with the government would we know what the areas of agreement are and what the areas of disagreement are. For that, we must sit down and start talking with the government.
Q: In a recent interview, you once again insisted on the re-merger of the North and East. Shouldn’t there be some give and take on such issues and be more practical?
The issue of the merger was something that was entered into in 1987.
Our party or our predecessor TULF rejected the 13th Amendment even with the Northeast merger.
We did not contest the election because it did not devolve power in the way the Indo-Lanka Accord envisaged.
We said it was an apology for what the Indo-Lanka Accord gave.
So even with the merger because the powers that were devolved were not sufficient we rejected it.
Now how can we be asked, leave aside even the power that is given there, police power, let go of the merger also and accept it.
Where is the give and where is the take? If as you say it is a give and take, it is always a case of take by the government.
There is nothing being given.
What is being given then instead of the police power, instead of the merger? We don’t know.
Q: The Northeast merger was made with a provision to hold a referendum within an year to decide the final fate, but this referendum was never held.
That referendum was not held by the President.
Q: No President could hold it because the Tigers were literally holding a gun to their head, literally telling everyone that they would unleash a bloodbath.
There have been several elections in the Eastern Province. How can it be said only a referendum cannot be held. More than ten or 15 elections were held in the province. If the Tigers were threatening they should have postponed all elections.
Q: The general feeling in the country is that the 13th amendment was imposed on us by India.
I don’t see that general feeling. I think the country generally feels that the issue must be properly addressed and settled.
Q: Why is this great reluctance on the part of the TNA to join the Tamil Political Parties Forum? Is it a case of you all looking down on other Tamil parties?
No. We are the only Tamil political party that has been elected in the North and East.
Mr Douglas Devananda and two others were elected from Jaffna from the UPFA and not from a Tamil political party. Similarly, Ms Wijayakala Maheswaran was elected from the UNP. The name of that is Tamil political parties Forum
The other political parties there have no political representation. They all contested, but none of them succeeded. And we are talking about a situation just a few months after an election in which the people have given a verdict. That is not to say we claim some exclusive right to ourselves.
They also have a part to play. There is no question about that.
But the TNA must also be conscious of the confidence people have placed in us as opposed to not placing any confidence in them.
We have to preserve that confidence.
We must not lose the confidence the people have in us if they think we are diluting our stand.
By joining together, they may think the TNA is diluting the mandate the people have given then that is not a right thing we are doing by the people.
With all such thinking we have not rejected the Tamil Political Parties Forum.
We have talked with several of them and we will continue to do that.
They have invited Mr Sampanthan to take the lead role in TPPF. So he is doing that.
He has called several of them and had discussions, but to say that there is some other body that is equally representative of the people like the TNA is a myth. Merely because there are nine parties are there none of them have representation.
Q: At the same time you cannot say they have been totally rejected by the Tamil people because at the last general election a majority of the Tamil people kept away from the poll.
But 14 of us were elected, whereas not a single one from their ranks got elected.
Q: You all got elected with very much reduced majorities.
True. Even with a small majority 14 of us were elected. That is a fact.
They have a part to play, but we must know the proportion of the people’s mandate.
Merely because there are nine parties doesn’t mean that they had a greater mandate than the TNA. They have recognised the lead role that the TNA must play.
Q: The LTTE brought about its own annihilation because it was on only one track and not willing to compromise, but in the case of the TNA you have leader Sambandan, a veteran politician who is seen more as an elder statesman, so can we see more bridge building exercises on your part in order to reach that hitherto elusive solution?
Yes. The budget was a demonstration of our good faith and that is why we have consistently, since the general election said we recognise the mandate the country has given President Rajapaksa.
Similarly, the North and the East did not give him a mandate at the presidential election or at the general election. Therefore he must also recognise that the people have given us the mandate. If this old issue is to be settled he and we have to sit down and talk this through and we have said on our part we will engage with the government responsibly and honestly.
Q: In the past the TNA was seen always running to Chennai to complain, but if we are to find a solution to our problems as brothers it has to be found here.
Sometimes when there is an internal fight in a house a neighbour might have to come and settle it if we don’t settle it our selves. It is good that we settle it among ourselves. If we continue without talking and if we continue without resolving it, then the neighbour will come and say can I help you.
Q: Some times the Tamil Nadu gets involved unnecessarily here in order to score points domestically there.
That is up to them.
We have no part to play in that, but why are we giving room for outside forces to come in.
We don’t have to do that. If we can resolve it among ourselves then there is no necessity for anyone else to come in.
Now international law has developed. The international relations have developed. The rights of a people are known in international law. If consistently rights of Tamil people are ignored, then that has its own repercussions in international law.
Q: Since we have come so far how long do you think it will take to hammer out a solution?
I am not an astrologer.
We have come with good intentions of resolving the issue.
We are willing to engage in that immediately and as an urgent matter, but we can’t say it will happen with in such and such time.
That is not in our hands.
It also depends on the government.
We like to tell the whole country that we need to move from a conflict era to an era of reconciliation, peace and goodwill.
Our people have come through a very bad experience and now are willing to live together with the other communities in this country, but that can happen only through mutual recognition of each others dignity, political space and rights.
If all agree that we will live together in this island as equals and yet as different people with different identities and cultures giving each other that space then we can move forward.
Q: Is the rump LTTE still trying to dictate terms by regrouping?
The issue with regard to that also has a reference to history.
The LTTE was only a manifestation of an unsettled issue. If the issue was settled with the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact there wouldn’t have been an LTTE.
If the issue was settled with the Dudley-Chelvanayakam pact, there wouldn’t have been an LTTE.
If the representatives of the Tamils were not kept out of the first republican constitution-making exercise, there would not have been an LTTE and the things got aggravated with the 1978 Constitution. If the Tamil people are made to feel that they are apart of this country and if they are proud to be part of this country and they know that they are recognised as a distinct people with in the united country and yet they are exclusive in terms of their culture, religion and all that is recognised and affirmed, then there is no way for any extremist group to surface. But if that is not done then extremism takes over.