The Chief Minister of the former United North-eastern Province, Varatharaja Perumal believes that India should have intervened, in the absence of political will at home, to ensure the continuity of a united North-eastern provincial Council.
Perumal noted that the new government has facilitated the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and instead of faultfinding, the TNA should have made strong attempts to seek a political solution to the ethnic question.
Excerpts of the interview:
Q: The government formed after the January 8 presidential polls is a combination of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the United National Party (UNP). Do you think this creates a common platform to address the national question?
A: The new government has demonstrated its goodwill by taking steps to fulfill TNA’s pre-election demands, except on the demand for a reduced military presence in the North and the East.
The TNA has got a very cooperative governor. The government seems to cooperate financially and otherwise.
The TNA has to now deliver to the people, while negotiating with the present government without forcing it into a difficult situation. For me, the resolution of the ethnic conflict is based on power devolution to the provincial councils, proper rehabilitation of all persons affected by the war, restoration of equality without discrimination based on language, religion, caste and region and adequate integration of all communities.
Such a process should be initiated after the next election, since the 100-day program does not include the resolution of the conflict. However, the proposed 19th Amendment is the need of the hour to create a congenial atmosphere for making progress on various fronts, including the foundation-laying for resolving the ethnic conflict.
Q: Is there a role for India in this, and if so, what is it?
A: India is unlikely to get involved in the way it did in the 1980s.
India may continue to persuade Sinhala and Tamil leaders to understand and cooperate with each other to pursue a lasting solution. The Government of India will not succumb to unreasonable pressure exerted by Tamil Nadu or the Tamil Diaspora.
However, if both parties fail to reach a compromise in the long run and fights are escalated, then India’s approach might change. We cannot predict as to how would such change be. India’s regional and strategic interests cannot be concealed by its economic interests; rather they are interconnected.
It is vital to remember that national unity among people of all nationalities / communities in Sri Lanka is imperative for Indo-Lanka relations.
Q: Today, there is a functional Northern Provincial Council. The ruling party, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has already gone on record stating they would request for Indian mediation to help resolve the ethnic issue during their discussions with visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Should India take up such a role?
A: India wants not only bilateral relations but also, people-to-people relations. If Sri Lankan leaders fail to perform their national duty in resolving the serious internal problems responsibly and prudently and contain issues before their impact travels beyond the seas, then outsiders may enter, not simply for the benefit of Sri Lanka but mainly for the their own interests.
The responsibility therefore squarely lies with the Sri Lankan leaders.
Q: There were great expectations of the TNA when it assumed political control in the Northern Province. You were the first Chief Minister for the combined North-Eastern Province, following the setting up of the Northern Provincial Council in 1988. Are the expectations being met?
A: The Mahinda Rajapaksa administration functioned in violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
Even then, I wanted the elected NPC led by former Justice C. V. Wigneswaran to deliver something by persuading President Rajapaksa to some extent.
They should have mobilised support of the democratic and progressive forces among the Sinhalese in support of the 13th Amendment and could have initiated legal proceedings to get the full and proper implementation of the same.
But the demands and the resolutions of the NPC were irrelevant to the 13th Amendment and provided easy opportunities for the Sinhala chauvinists and majoritarian Nazists to create wrong impressions and cause fear among the Sinhala people about the basic aspirations of the Tamil people.
The new government, though it does not want to deal with the devolution issue immediately, has shown its readiness to cooperate with the TNA to function effectively.
The TNA appears to want to use the tragedies of the Tamil masses, instead of making any attempt to move towards a political solution and peaceful living. They appear to enjoy the tragedies and sufferings of the Tamils, to win elections, successively and successfully. There is no way when there is no will.
Q: When the war broke out in 1983, many Sri Lankan Tamils, mostly from the north, fled to India for refuge. It’s been five years since the war ended and a new government is in office. Do you think there a willingness among the Sri Lankan refugees to be reintegrated?
A: You have to question whether there is any genuine willingness among the
leaders of both sides to reintegrate the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees.
After 50 days in office, the new government has not established a strong impression among the Tamil refugees that they would be safe in Sri Lanka, while the TNA continues to campaign that Tamils are continuously threatened and harassed by the Armed Forces and the State Intelligence Services.
The Sinhala and Tamil leaders should build trust and confidence among themselves, to address the fears and apprehensions of ordinary people who live away from Sri Lanka.
Q: The TNA wants full implementation of the 13th Amendment. In short, they want police and land powers to be devolved to the provinces. How critically does the absence of these powers specifically affect the performance of the NPC?
A: These powers are assured by the Constitution. It is an omission to fulfill a legal duty and an illegal act. The primary duty of the president and the government is to ensure that every provision of the Constitution and other laws are implemented fully. Police and land powers are rights of the Provincial Councils, and their denial is a blatant violation of the Constitution. For the NPC to perform meaningfully, these powers are essential.
No government can exercise its powers without a force. The PCs have many duties and responsibilities, including the collection of taxes. Who will pay any tax if there is no compulsion?
The PCs have many regulatory powers but how can the PCs implement them? How can the PCs ensure law and order in the provinces without police powers?
What kind of arms shall be provided to the provincial police, shall be decided only by the Central Government.
The identity of a policeman is not determined by the weapon he carries but by the uniform he wears. Police powers to the PCs will also create new checks and balances between the Centre and the provincial administration and prevent the misuse of police powers.
Land powers are vested with PCs, except as are limited in respect of the powers of State lands.
It is a main grievance of the Tamil people that successive governments misused the State lands to State-aided Sinhala colonisation to make the Tamil people politically and economically insignificant in their own areas, where they have been living for centuries.
It is not simply the Tamil version but a version accepted by the Sinhala leaders since 1957. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1957, Dudley Senanayake in 1965, J. R. Jayewardene when negotiating with India during 1983 to 1987, Sri Lanka Freedom Party Manifesto in 1988, Mangala Moonesinghe-led Committee under Ranasinghe Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake in 1993, Chandrika Bandaranaike during 1995 to 2000 and the multiparty initiative led by Prof. Tissa Vitarana in 2006, had invariably accepted that the colonisations in the State lands was a serious contributor to the creation of ethnic crises in Sri Lanka.
If the Sinhala leaders do not have any discreet wish to further the Sinhala colonisations in the Tamil areas, what is their genuine problem in handing over the land powers to the PCs under the 13 Amendment?
Q: Do you think there should not have been a de-merger of the North and the East, and instead, power should have been devolved to an amalgamated North-east?
A: Whether the Sinhala leaders are going to impose their majoritarian pride over the minority nationalities by continuing with the demerger, or they are going to win over the confidence of the Tamils and Muslims by providing united North-East is a matter to be decided by the Sinhala leaders only.
Merger of North-East should not be an inhibition to the Sinhala leaders. Muslim people’s issues are genuine. In case of a united North-East, there must be an understanding between the Tamil and Muslim leaders in establishing sufficient protection and arrangements to the aspirations of the Muslims.
If Sri Lanka can be together with all nationalities under the absolute power of the Sinhala majority, why should the North and the East not be united? After all, united North and the East are not going to be an independent country but only a Provincial Council which will have only limited powers under the Constitution of Sri Lanka.
If anything is done by the NEPC prejudicial to other communities, the Centre can, and has the capacity to act legally and act against the NEPC, whereas such a facility is not available for the Tamils when the Sri Lankan Government acts against the Tamil people.
It is, therefore not true that the Sinhala leaders have genuine apprehensions about the Sinhalese being unable to live safely under the NEPC. Equating NEPC with LTTE is a false notion.
In fact, the Sinhala hegemonic and racist mind set reflects that the Tamils are inferior, so they must live under the government represented by the Sinhala majority, but Sinhalese as if they are superior, should not live under a PC represented by the Tamil majority.
Q: Do you think India is likely to press upon such a model?
A: If Sri Lankan Government leaders convince India that such a merger is detrimental to the national interest and unity of Sri Lanka then, India will not persuade such an idea.
Q: In hindsight, do you regret fleeing the island and giving up your post as Chief Minister of the North-East Province?
A: I was right. I am always proud that my party did right. President Premadasa and Velupillai Prabhakaran were wrong. Sri Lanka suffered due to them. Tamils and Sinhalese people missed the opportunity. Otherwise, peace could have been established 25 years before, deaths of over 250,000 people, displacement of millions and the loss of valuable properties worth massive amounts of money could have been avoided. Sri Lanka would not have been the subject matter for the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) either.
Q: What caused you to raise a flag to unilaterally declare independence before fleeing? In retrospect, do you consider it was irrational, emotional or the appropriate political response?
A: I hoisted only the Sri Lankan National Flag and the Provincial Flag, which is now the official flag of the NPC.
It was not the Declaration of a separate Eelam, but the 19 demands for power devolution within the unitary constitution.
President Premadasa and Prabhakaran acted in bad faith, branded it as UDI, to continue their opportunistic honeymoon, to eliminate parties that supported the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord and to destroy the PC system.
In contrast, history has proved that I acted rationally and my move was appropriate in making the issue of devolution of powers to sustain for many decades as it is the essential area to be dealt with, in order to pursue a permanent solution.
Had I collaborated with the then president, I also would have been a collaborator like Prabhakaran and some Tamil leaders, in slinging mud at India and betrayed the genuine cause of Tamils and true democratic and progressive forces in Sri Lanka. That would have amounted to political hara kiri on my part.
Q: You fled Sri Lanka, reportedly having raised the Eelam flag in protest. Do you think India could have intervened to ensure the continuity of the North-Eastern Provincial Council at that time?
A: I repeat that I have never seen any Eelam flag anywhere in any design. Of course, both Indian and Sri Lankan Governments have made this assurance and a commitment to power devolution.
When one government fails, the other should have ensured. Otherwise, bilateral agreements would become shams.
I do not mean that the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord was signed and the 13th Amendment was introduced to cheat the Tamils. If so, then both countries are liable and the continuation to separate the two made by Pirabakaran would be proved right.