The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution on Sri Lanka has welcomed the initial steps taken by the Sri Lankan government to return land to civilians and resettle the internally displaced persons. The report has also stressed the need for the government to accelerate the return of land to its rightful civilian owners, and to undertake further efforts to tackle the considerable work that lies ahead in the areas of land use and ownership.Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Minister of Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs D. M. Swaminathan said that the release of land to the rightful owners, demilitarisation, and a solution to the Tamil political prisoners are a few major areas of concern in the report. According to Swaminathan, the military has now given assurance to demilitarise the commercial ventures run by the military in North and East.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
by Waruni Karunarathne
Q: What progress has your ministry made since the date you assumed duties as the Minister of Rehabilitation and Resettlement?
A: I have asked for approval to build 65,000 houses to resettle people in North and East, and I have put in a cabinet paper. The cabinet has appointed a procurement committee and all that is approved. Now I am following the procedures through proper channels. These houses will have to be built within four years. These people have been suffering for a long period of time, and they should not suffer any longer. 40000 houses of that will be given to the Jaffna District and the balance will be given to Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Trincomalee, and Batticaloa. In Baticaloa and Ampara there are not many to be resettled – since there will be about 3000 to 4000 houses in these districts
Earlier, we built 3000 houses. 2000 acres of land have been released in North and recently 650 acres were released by the President in Kilinochchi. According to the Army, another 500 will be released in Kilinochchi very soon. The army also gave me assurance last week that they are going to demilitarise the commercial ventures they run. At the moment, the army runs only six commercial ventures which they will release in the course of time. That means all those will benefit the general public. There are so many people including those who are rehabilitated in North and East who want jobs. Probably through the ministry of rehabilitation, we will be able to provide them jobs in those commercial ventures. Secondly, there is Apollo, a large hospital interested in coming to Jaffna. They met me a few days ago. I am to talk to the UDA and BOI regarding that matter. Whoever, who wants to start the first hospital, I will give the opportunity. Apollo has already contacted me. They sent me a letter on the 28th expressing their interest. They can even cater to the Indian patients. They will have a helipad, so that the patients can be shunt from India to Sri Lanka. Thirdly, there is also about 6000 acres of land available now in Menik Farm. It is a highly fertile area held by the Department of Forest Conservation that can be used for agriculture. If we at least can get 1000 to 2000 acres of land for agricultural purposes, it is a great help for the people there.
I have also discussed the Cement Corporation with the TNA. They said they would like to remodel it. The Prime Minister has a great idea to make Palali airport an international one – so that plans can come from India to Jaffna and there to Colombo. Otherwise, people who want to go to India will have to come all the way to Katunayake. This will facilitate the needs of people in North and East.
Q: What are the areas of concern the government has right now in establishing the new mechanism?
A: As far as the UNHRC resolution is concerned, they are very happy with the progress we have made in humanitarian issues. Our President as well as the Prime Minister has been really genuine. I do not think we can get any other two better people to join together to ensure that the Tamils as well as the Sinhalese live together in this country as Sri Lankans. Even the TNA has agreed that if they get the proper devolution of powers, they would be satisfied. They have now given up the idea of a separate State etc. As far as the UN resolution is concerned, there are a few major issues – one is that they prefer the private land taken over by the army or whoever to be given back to the people. The second major issue is to demilitarise the army and the third issue is about releasing of political prisoners. I even took it up in the cabinet and the Prime Minister endorsed it. For instance, people like KP, Karuna Amman, and Pillayan are not in the prison but for instance, the person who carried a glass of tea to Prabhakaran is locked up for being a LTTE member.
Q: How can you help the new mechanism through your ministry?
A: The new mechanism is undertaken by the President and the Prime Minister. I do not want to interfere in that mechanism. But if by chance we are called upon to help them, we are willing to help. As far as our ministry is concerned, we do rehabilitation and resettlement. If I am called upon, I will help in whichever way I can. My position is that for the last 40 years as far as the Jaffna is concerned there has not been much progress. That is the reason why the Jaffna man is today deprived of his rights. So, it is the duty and obligation of this government as well as my responsibility as the minister of rehabilitation to do as much as possible for the Tamil people economically and otherwise.
Q:The reports of the Udalagama and Paranagama Commissions have been released. Would the government consider incorporating their recommendations to the new mechanism?
A: Yes of cause. The Udalagama report and the Paranagama Commission have highlighted number of cases. The UN report talks about the last phase of the war and the alleged white flag incident. We cannot go into merits and demerits. There is going to be a tribunal appointed. That tribunal will not be a hybrid one. It will be local with local judges and technical assistance. Our lawyers from Sri Lanka may not be properly trained to handle this type of humanitarian rules. We have to get some sort of expertise from abroad. Even the former President had done similar things. In fact, the entire thing started with the former President and with his promises to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2009. However, he failed to deliver what he promised. The former government has agreed to have a domestic inquiry, but the UN says nothing actually happened. Whether we are Tamils, Sinhalese, or Muslims, first of all, there has to be a proper legal system that treats everybody equally.
Q: India’s Union Minister of State for Transport, Highways and Shipping Pon. Radhakrishnan has expressed keen interest in building a road between Rameswaram and Talaimannar. Has the government started talks in this regard? Do you think, it would be a wise decision to build that road link at this point of time?
A: That is a policy decision. The Cabinet has to give approval to such a decision. I think it has not yet come up to the Cabinet. Those are matters of public importance and country. The president, the Prime Minister, and the Cabinet will have to decide in what way it can benefit as far as Sri Lanka and India is concerned.
At the moment, it is premature to talk about it. It can be a wise decision, and it might also not be. The decision will have to be based on the public policy of the country.
Q: There have been talks about a power sharing arrangement between the SLFP and the UNP at the local government level similar to the national level arrangement after the forthcoming local government elections. Has the UNP had any talks with the SLFP regarding this matter?
A: The party leaders are in discussion about policy decisions of that nature. They have regular meetings even with the party leaders in parliament. Those are policy decisions that they need to made.
When they make the decisions, the members of the party will be told. Then views of the majority will prevail.