by Thushari Nathaniel
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: How successful was the ‘Elhugha Thamil’ rally?
A: After the demise of the LTTE, this was the first strong rally where over 20 to 25 thousand of people participated in. Seventy five per cent of the participants were youngsters, and all shops were closed. Businesspeople also supported. Several hundred of women also participated for the first time. It is different from other rallies because of the slogans and demands of the Tamil People’s Council. It was a great success, I would say.
Q: What did you expect from this rally?
A: The rally put forward about 10 demands. Basically, many people are against the construction of several Buddhist temples in the Northern Province. With Buddhist shrines and statues on the roads, new Sinhala settlements are also coming in. These settlers are not belonged to the area. They are new settlements. They bring in people from Hambantota and various other places and settle them down in Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Jaffna. The Sinhala extremist groups say they belong to the area and that they are being resettled. If these people belong to this area, it is well and good but here they are creating new Sinhala settlements to change the demographic pattern of the Northern Province. It is totally under army occupation and 150 army personnel are here now. The Northern Province has only a population of one million. Buddhist temples are put up where Buddhists or Sinhalese do not live. We are against the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony in this area. The Tamils have been living here for centuries. Why do they want to change the demographic pattern through settlements and colonization? Come and live here, it is not a problem, but the government is purposefully doing this, and that’s why we are against it. A very large army occupies private lands; we are not talking about government land. If they are not going to release those lands, resettlement is impossible. Our second demand is that the army must withdraw, because 150 thousand of Tamil people live in the Northern Province, 30 thousand in the Eastern Province and only 20 thousand in the rest of the seven provinces. Why can’t they assign the northern army to other places? They say this is in the national interest or for defence. That is absolutely rubbish because the Northern Province has not got a single incident. The army officials, intelligence department and the police, everybody knows very well that the Northern Province cannot get another uprising in the future. So there is no need to keep such a huge army and also keep private lands. That’s the second issue. The army must withdraw and people must be allowed to resettle on their own lands. The next is, the United Nations Human Rights Commission resolution must be implemented in full, because that is sponsored by the Sri Lankan government. Now they say they will not accept foreign or international judges. If they don’t accept why did they sponsor the resolution? Are they cheating the United Nations Human Rights Commission, like they’re cheating the Tamil people again and again? Likewise, the political prisoners’ issue; even the Chief Minister, when speaking at the rally said, we are not against the government and we are not against the Sinhala brothers and sisters, but we want to live with dignity, we don’t want these new settlements and the viharas. So, if the government wants reconciliation, they must stop all these things. The Chief Minister’s speech was very humble and it requested the government to address these matters immediately and allow the people to resettle. These are some of the basic demands put forward by the Tamil Peoples’ Council.
Q: The Chief Minister and you have come under a lot of criticism from certain Southern Politicians that you and the Chief Minister are trying to ignite racism; what is your view on these criticisms?
A: “The army must withdraw,” is it a racist slogan? If we say there’s no need for Buddhist temples because there are no Buddhists, is that a racist slogan? If we say political prisoners must be released, is that a racist slogan? Now Mahinda Rajapaksa can have a long march from Kandy to Colombo and can talk against the Tamil people. Even the JVP, the so called Marxist party, they also say the Chief Minister and others are creating tensions by calling for a federal system. If someone requests for a federal system, it’s certainly a racist slogan. If it is a multi lingual, multi national, multi religious country, federalism is one of the best solutions in such a situation. Various countries have this system. When we say we can resolve this problem peacefully, not through a federal system, we are prepared to have a united Sri Lanka. If we can have a federal sort of a constitution that can be accepted by everybody, that is good. If the government has a multi federalism slogan, can we accept that? The so called Marxist party is saying that everybody is equal when they don’t want to devolve powers to the Tamil people. The so called JVP Marxist or people like Vasudeva Nanayakkara, at one moment, they are supporting this self determination. Now Vasudeva is against the North East merger and against the federal system. These people are changing their stance from time to time. Whether the Chief Minister or I, we are definitely not asking anything from the Sinhala people. Let us live together with equal powers. Don’t we have the right to ask that? If they quote that federalism is racism, if they say fighting for an equal status is racism, then we will fight for it.
Q: Have the Tamil people in the North lost faith in the TNA because they do not raise these issues that much with the central government?
A: Two or three important points are there in this regard. The TNA has various other party leaders, people like me, Sitharthan, other party members, parliamentarians; they raise many things with Sampanthan asking him to take up all these matters with the President and the Prime Minister and to come to an understanding about the resettlement and all these things. Ask them to stop it temporarily. Once there is a settlement, we can do what is in the new constitution. Till that time, no need to put up any Buddhist temples or Viharas in the region. But the TNA leadership will take up matters with the government. The Tamil people are very worried about these issues. Moreover, there is no transparency. The Tamil people do not know what Mr. Sampanthan and Mr. Sumanthiran are doing. Even the TNA parliamentarians do not know what they are discussing with the government. They are very much against the attitude of Mr. Sampanthan and the leadership of the TNA, specifically, the ITAK because they are the people handling these matters. Many people participated in the rally and they clearly said that it is against the ITAK or against Mr. Sampanthan’s attitudes as well.
Q: Do you think that Mr. Sampanthan, being the leader of the opposition now, has mellowed down and is trying to protect his position rather than speaking up for the rights of the Tamils?
A: He says now we are talking and discussing with the government, we should be calm; we now have a good relationship with the government. This is how he interprets his work. I don’t know if he wants to safeguard his opposition leader post or anything. He openly says we are having a very good relationship with the government. We are discussing constitutional reforms and things like that and this is a good government. These people are releasing some land and we are having international support, so please don’t do anything against it. But people are not willing to accept those things because they could not get resettled after almost two years of Maithripala Sirisena’s victory and after one year of the election. The missing issue is unresolved as they could not find a single missing person so far. The political prisoners have so far not been released, but they are putting up Buddhist temples and the Army is still grabbing the lands of the Tamil people unabated. We are fighting for our rights in Mulaithivu and many other places, but the army keeps denying that they are grabbing our lands, despite it being done. So, how can we have faith in Sampanthan? So, people cannot have faith in Sampanthan’s leadership and his utterances.
Q: Do you see a need for an alternative political party?
A: Yes, certainly; it was realised during the rally as well. Several people have suggested that the Chief Minister Wigneswaran must give leadership to another Tamil party. A lot of Tamil people are now rallying around the Chief Minister, and they feel that he is the man voicing the concerns of the Tamil people. I think there is a dire need for such an alternative party. However, I certainly am not saying that the Chief Minister is going to start another political party, neither am I going to do that. However, the people are definitely of the view that there is a need for an alternative party to the TNA, and they are encouraging Wigneswaran to take up this leadership. If things continue the way they are now, definitely there will be a need to form a new Tamil political party that can and will raise the concerns and issues of the Tamil people.
Q: The Tamils have their own set of requirements and expectations and they feel that these could be best addressed through self-governance. However, some see this as an attempt to establish a separate State and to carry on with the LTTE agenda. What is your take on this issue?
A: It maybe the UNP, SLFP, JVP or any other party, if they have some repetitive suspicion about the Tamil people, no one can erase what is in their mind. Sampanthan has repeatedly stated that we Tamils are for a united Sri Lanka, and we only want to have some sort of autonomy within a united Sri Lanka. He has reiterated over and over again that we are against separatism. He has mentioned this in parliament and elsewhere and he even told this internationally. What else are the Sinhala parties expecting from us? The Tamil people have a different language, culture and even a different economy. They live in the North and East area, and they want to promote their culture and traditions and their own security. This is what we want and we are prepared to live within a united Sri Lanka; all we ask is that we be given the opportunity to take care of matters that concern us. We also belong to this soil, and we too have a history that spans many centuries. So, why aren’t we given the chance to take care of and preserve our own culture and interests? So, if anyone says federalism is separation, and the government is going to continue to suppress the Tamil people, then I don’t know. This is what led to the LTTE uprising and this would not arise even in the future if the Central government understands the needs of the Tamil people and implements the federal system. After all these years and having gone through a war, if the government takes note of the Tamil people’s request and grants us a federal solution where we can manage our own affairs within the control of the central government, then there will not be an issue. This should be understood by the left parties. No point in talking about Marxism and so on if they deny the Tamils their right to live peacefully and preserve their culture and their rights.
Q: The unity government promised to complete the resettlement soon after winning the elections. That did not happen. Now again the President has said that the resettlement will be completed in three months. How convinced are you that the resettlement can be completed within the next three months?
A: I don’t think it will be done. What we expect from the government is a pledge in parliament that all the displaced, be they Sinhalese, Muslims or Tamils, they will be resettled on their own lands. If they can take such a decision, then there is hope that it can be implemented. Yet they are not doing that; instead they are going and discussing with the army and negotiating to release these lands in small portions. What is this? Is the army ruling this country? Do we have a democratic government? The government elected by people should be able to tell the army that these are people’s lands and to return the lands and relocate the troops in other locations or other areas. But so far, there is no political decision on this matter. So, we cannot have faith in what the President has promised.