By Hasitha Ayeshmantha and Ashanthi Warunasuriya
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q. What is the Tamil National Alliance’s stance on the current reconciliation process? Are you satisfied with the response of the new government to the issues of the Tamil minorities?
A: The whole point of conducting a reconciliation process is to make sure that the Tamil people, especially from the Northern part of the country, will be able to shake hands and be on the same grounds as the Sinhala community. Therefore, before setting foot on reconciliation, the two communities should be able to live harmoniously in a same setting.
We should be mindful that the country is coming out of a three-decade long war, the former government managed to end the war, but the conflict is still alive. During the time of war, the conflict was physical and between two armed parties. But now, even though some time has passed since the conclusion of armed clashes, the conflict between the Tamil minority and the majority is still going on.
On the other hand, several thousands are still living their lives inside camps, many still displaced from their land which they had a birth right to. The armed forces are still occupying the lands of the Tamil people in the North; how can these people return to their livelihoods if the army won’t give them back their land?
Hence, before bringing about any reconciliation, the government should resolve four main concerns. First, the government should bring in forth a political resolution to address the ongoing conflicts between the two communities. Without a proper political resolution, it would be impossible to provide a solution for this matter. The next concern is that the government should take steps to hasten the resettlement process. Reconciliation without the people being resettled back into their homes is quite pointless, so the government should make sure that the people are able to return to their homes and be able to continue their livelihood.
The third step would be to withdraw the army from the peoples’ land. In order to resolve the second concern, the government must withdraw the armed forces from the territory and let the people settle back into their property. The final step would be to conduct an independent and proper investigation into the issue of missing persons. It has been quite some time since the issue first came to light, but no party has yet been able to come up with a proper explanation as to what happened to the people who went missing during the war.
If no one is willing to take a step forward and address the above four issues, there will be no point in talking about reconciliation.
Q. The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) is one single entity who has raised concerns over the Tamil minority’s issues and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. What sort of impact would this intervention have on the above issue?
A: The United Nations has always kept in check on the reconciliation process and Tamil minority’s issues, but we do believe that they can do more. Especially with the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s visit coming to a conclusion, and when observing several sentiments he made during the final press conference, he too has made several observations with regard to the issues of the Tamil people in the North.
During his visit to Sri Lanka, he had several discussions with the Chief Minister of Northern Province and the opposition leader. They discussed the problems of the Tamil minority and about the reconciliation issues.
Also, it was evident from the remarks he made that he is aware of the situation in the North. The Commissioner remarked that government should take steps to intensify the reconciliation process.
However, we believe that they should influence more in making sure that the political prisoners who are still in custody are released and to request the government to withdraw the army from the North and handover the property back to the people.
The other party, the government, should coordinate with the UN and ensure that the reconciliation process is conducted within the proper framework and in an independent manner. More could be understood and the UN’s stance on reconciliation could be observed when the UN Human Rights Commissioner issues his official report on the visit in March.
Q. It is not a secret that the new government is pushing the European Union (EU) to obtain GSP plus concessions. To obtain these concessions, the government will have to have a clear stance on reconciliation by March. Do you think this is achievable?
A: No, the government will have to have a clear stand on reconciliation when they forward the application in March. But, as of now, the government has failed to hold a proper dialogue on the matter and especially without addressing the four issues I pointed out earlier; I do not believe that there will be any common ground on reconciliation by March.
As I said earlier, reconciliation is a matter that should be addressed on more serious terms, holding sports with the collaboration of all ethnicities and holding religious events on the same backdrop does not signify reconciliation. That does not mean that we discourage such events, in that case, we believe that more such ventures should be promoted. But in any sense, those could not be looked upon as reconciliation.
However, the new government has made several gestures that suggest that they are interested in reconciliation, but under the present circumstances, I do not believe that they will be able to come to an understanding by coming March.
Q. Speaking of the government, do you feel that the change in regime has brought upon some relief to the issues of the Tamil minority?
A: With the change of regime, there is a certain level of relief for the Tamil minorities who were under oppression for over 25 years. The regime change has certainly lifted the atmosphere, especially in the Northern Province. The new government also took steps to ensure that several lands were handed over to the appropriate owners. As I said earlier, life is much lighter than what it used to have been before.
But, I believe that this situation should improve further and in good time as well. Even though some received their lands, still thousands are displaced. Military intelligence is keeping constant surveillance over the people; they are not able to have an informal gathering without the presence of army personnel.
One other concern is the fiasco of missing persons. The Prime Minister made statements in parliament saying that they are dead. How can the government make such remarks without a proper investigation? Therefore, the Prime Minister and the President should intervene and ensure that the investigations are carried out in the right manner. At the end of the day, they should deal with the hard facts and make the right decisions without light-footing around the issues.