More than six months after the historic elections to Sri Lanka’s Northern Provincial Council, its first Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran says he has not been able to do much, for his hands are tied. From a reluctant entrant to Sri Lankan politics to Chief Minister who won a massive mandate in the elections, it has been quite a journey for the former judge of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka.
Reflecting on developments post elections, he says heavy militarisation across the province has made even basic administration a daunting task in the region that continues to bear the scars of a brutal war. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which he is now part of, was aware of the limitations of the 13th Amendment, and expected some interference from Colombo. However, the scale of interference from the military, despite being in the spotlight of the world, is worrisome for what it portends, not only for the North-East but for the rest of the country, he tells Meera Srinivasan in this interview.
Seven months after the newly-elected Northern Provincial Council first met, what are your impressions as Chief Minister of the province?
The shift we expected after the popular mandate was made known by the people at the Election, from a Central oriented administration to a provincial administration has not come to pass. The stark fact is that we are attempting to establish democratic governance in a province that is overwhelmed by an occupying military force, which systematically seeks to subjugate the populace, change the demography, destabilise the economy, impose an alien culture and stultify legitimate democratic aspirations, whilst continuing with grave human rights abuses.
In the above context establishing a new provincial council where everything has to be started from scratch, in a war-torn area, drained of the best brains, bereft of established structures, is understandably a monumental task. Add to this the deliberate attempts to stultify the functioning of the NPC and it becomes virtually impossible. Despite numerous promises we still have a Chief Secretary, appointed in contravention of the law, functioning in collaboration with the Governor, who was the former Army Commander of the Northern Province, to establish a parallel administrative structure. Apart from the legality of the structure, from a practical perspective how can one expect to carry out governance democratically, effectively or efficiently, when you have a parallel structure in place, backed by an ominous and omnipresent military? To make matters still worse, we have the bogey of the Tiger being resurrected to justify further militarisation. However, this was not unexpected. We knew the inadequacy of the 13thAmendment and did expect some interference, though the scale of interference from the military despite being in the spotlight of the world is worrisome for what it portends, not only for the North-East but for the rest of the country.
As much as I am disappointed and frustrated by these conditions, I have not lost hope. The main reason for this is the resilience of our people. They have been amazing and they can inspire you to face overwhelming odds. Several individuals and organisations have also heeded our call and agreed to help, re-establishing faith in humanity. For example those displaced by the Army taking over 6,000-odd acres in Vali North have been left uncared for, living in other people’s lands sans means of livelihood and succour. It is rumoured that merely because they had gone to Courts to get back their lands they have been left high and dry! The responsibility to look after them is that of the Government. But they are uninterested. Hence we have started rallying round various public voluntary organisations to give them dry rations.
We have also realised that the world is not blind to what is happening in Sri Lanka. Despite the attempts at camouflage and subterfuge, our problems have reached the eyes and ears of the world. A recent report highlighted for instance the instances of torture and rape of both men and women from the North-East, with the last case study being in respect of an unfortunate soul early this year.
In essence, there are immense challenges but there is also hope.
You have been observing that as the Northern Province Chief Minister you have rather limited powers. What, in your opinion, are the successes of the NPC — given the said limitations — and what do you think could have been done better?
The foremost achievement of our coming into office has been the corresponding self-confidence that has dawned on our people. They were battered and bruised and living with no hope. However powerless administratively we may be, we have still been able to usher in a sense of purpose and confidence among our people.
That is a tremendous achievement. People no longer fear the Army. They have started protesting against the Army taking over their lands and houses. The protests have been peaceful and with no personal animosity shown towards the Army. It was said recently that some of the soldiers who came to deal with such protests had told our protestors privately that they would themselves have protested if their lands in the South had been taken over in the manner it is being done now in the North!
We are able to galvanise the support of our people to deal with situations. For example, we recently provided dry rations to the IDPs who have been deliberately left to suffer in makeshift welfare centres on private lands. We have also been able to ensure that the world has not allowed the Government to draw attention away from what is being done in the North. We have remained engaged and demonstrated our good faith time and again.
We have also established mechanisms and processes for the functioning of the Council and are in the process of finalising several key statutes that will help us with our finances and in obtaining the co-operation and support of well-wishers and friends. We recently carried out a six-month review of what we have done and each ministry has indicated what it has been able to achieve. The progress is no doubt slow, but not insignificant, given the nascent nature of the organisation and the asphyxiating circumstances I discussed earlier.
As to what could have been done, well, if we had a favourable Chief Secretary and a civilian Governor well versed in Human Rights considerations we could have led our administration on a proper planned course leading to economic recovery. If we had the co-operation of the Government we could have completed a comprehensive needs assessment and charted a master plan for recovery.
Soon after you assumed charge, you spoke of carrying out a needs assessment in the province. Did you do that? What are the primary needs of the Northern Province people?
As you are no doubt aware, a comprehensive needs assessment is a very involved process that requires specialised manpower, resources, funds and time. I had several discussions with the UN with regard to the needs assessment that needs to be done and highlighted the shortcomings of certain Government imposed measures. I also brought to their attention several previous studies that have been done. Despite this long process, much to my surprise and disappointment, they have now entered into an agreement with the Government, completely shutting out the involvement of the Northern Provincial Council. Nevertheless, an assessment is soon to be made. We will monitor it to ensure that it is done properly.
The primary and urgent needs of our people are addressing their psycho-social issues and livelihood issues stemming from their war-ravaged past, land security and freedom from fear. A collective effort to prevent Military intrusions into the civilian life including illegal colonisations is an urgent need.
There is a lot criticism — within and outside the Council — that a majority of the over 120 resolutions passed by it are not directly related to governing the province. How do you view the resolutions?
The resolutions reflect the feelings of our people. If the President kept his promise made on the 2nd of January this year to help us administer the Province we as a team would have been interested in bringing solace to our people and resorting to creative innovations together. We would have directed planned action in the Province in various Divisions to ameliorate the conditions of our people. When all our efforts were stifled and scuttled we could not control the feelings of our people. They need to say what they want, what they dream, what they face, what they fear and so on. The resolutions are pressure valves releasing the people’s frustrations with the machinations of the oppressive military regime foisted on us by powers that be.
Even within the limited powers that the provincial councils have, there seems to be considerable scope for the NPC to work in areas such as education and cooperatives. What has it really done in these areas?
In the field of Education, we have had a successful Symposium delving deep into the type of education imparted, the changes if any needed, the newer and modern techniques that need to be introduced and so on. The Report is expected at the end of this month. We are ensuring that teachers and other staff are not appointed or transferred on the strength of their political affiliations but on merit. We have recently appointed the Cooperative Employees Commission with people who are experienced in their fields. They will not only sit in Commission but also advise us on the processes to be put in place. We have also discussed with some NGOs the possibility of carrying out an assessment of the cooperative sector with some donor funding, and expect that this will be done very soon. Our progress may be slow but deliberate and sure.
You are now part of the District Coordination Committee, and have been attending meetings. How does that exercise align with the NPC’s governance?
We discuss at length many matters coming under the purview of the Northern Provincial Council, some deliberately kept within the control of the Government and others attended to, by us. There is healthy discussion and we make decisions. When areas which are controversial come up there are heated arguments. We have made it clear that we are not there to put into effect the Mahinda Chintanaya, regardless of its amorphous nature, since our people have totally rejected the Party which stood for such Chintanaya. We went into the deliberations only after making our position clear and that it is our duty to deliver on our election pledges as that is the mandate given to us. It is reflected in the minutes of our first meeting.
The TNA and you have welcomed the new regime in India. What are your expectations of the Modi government, given that Tamil Nadu is not a coalition partner at the Centre?
Shri Modi seems to have identified the priorities as far as our immediate needs are concerned. He seems to have impressed same upon our Leaders. It is for our Government to take the cue and act fast. Tamil Nadu is intricately intertwined in the political complexity in India. I am confident that the Modi Government and Tamil Nadu will not be at variance with regard to the political needs of our people.
The second round of talks between fishermen of SL and India failed and Northern fishermen are a really worried lot now. Why has the NPC not taken up the fisheries conflict in any significant way?
We did take it up in our initial stages. But it was pointed out to us that inland waterways were our prerogative, while seashore problems come under the Centre. Since the Government Fisheries’ Minister was showing interest in the problems of our fishermen folk we have taken a back seat. If our input is needed we shall certainly come in. From a democratic perspective and a pragmatic perspective, it is strange that the elected representatives of the affected region are not being asked to take a lead role.
Keywords: Sri Lanka conflict, Sri Lankan Tamilsissue, TNA, Northern Provincial Council, Sri Lanka military presence, Northern Province Chief Minister, C.V. Wigneswaran interview, devolution of powers, human rights abuses, Sri Lanka’s North and East