Tamil National Alliance (TNA) frontliner M.A.Sumanthiran MP in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer spelt out the TNA’s needs – their stance with regard to a lasting solution to the Tamil problem, the immediate measures that they have insisted over the livelihood and rehabilitation of the conflict-affected Tamils, the current controversy over the post of Chief Minister (CM) of the Eastern Provincial Council (PC) and the Government’s measures to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in full.
He said that the Maithripala administration which the Tamils exuberantly supported has already initiated measures to resolve their outstanding issues and expressed optimism that the current political trend signals harmony and mutualunderstanding among the different communities in the country.
Excerpts of the interview:
Q: Do you believe that the overwhelming support that the Tamils of the North and East, represented by the TNA, and also the Muslims gave to elect the new government to power signals harmony and mutual understanding among the different communities of the country?
A: Yes, the signal is good because the election was won by Mailtripala Sirisena from the votes given by all communities. He is is widely accepted by the people.
This is a significant achievement. Whereas the former president obtained votes , even according to his own confessions, from only one community.
The signal is also good for all outstanding political issues to be resolved because all communities have come together now.
Q: What specific issues has the TNA already taken up with the Government?
A: For the moment we have taken up the issue of resettlement of our people. They are unable to resettle in their own lands because the lands that have been taken away from them have not been released to them. The new government has undertaken to release all lands that do not hinder national security. Most of the lands that have been taken over particularly in the North and in some parts of the East have nothing to do with national security.
They have been taken over for the military to build hotels, to farm and for entertainment, for golf courses and other such purposes.
This is a very serious issue because these people have been living on those lands for generations. These lands must be given back to them.
But the Government can retain camps and other military installations that are necessary on account of national security. All other lands must be returned. That is the understanding between the TNA and the Government.
We also requested the Government to release political prisoners, persons who have been in detention over a long period of time. While those who fought in the last stages of the war, who took to arms and fought in the war fronts have been released.
They have been rehabilitated and released in two years. Whereas those who were arrested long before that, not for fighting in the war front but for helping, for giving food parcels to the LTTE because they had no other choice, were arrested and detained. They are languishing in prisons for so long.
The Government has given us an undertaking that their release will be expedited.
The other issue is, of course, the Provincial Council set up and the administrative arrangement in relation to it.
We want the PC to function properly in terms of the law. Such a function was blocked in the past. We took up that issue and the Government has already taken some steps to redress the state, including the appointment of the new Governor and appointment of a new Secretary.
Some changes in administrative arrangements have also been taken and these are welcome signs.
The fourth issue is the long-term political solution which is not an immediate concern. But we have asked the Government that it should take some initial steps on that issue within these 100 days so that when the new Parliament convenes, substantial work would have been done to be followed up with the formal consultative process.
We have agreed with President Maithripala Sirisena that the long-term solution to the Tamil problem cannot be taken up for discussion now, within the 100 days.
All preliminary work must be done now . I am sure that the Government is keen on doing that .
Q: You want to go for a negotiated settlement?
A: Negotiated process in the sense, there exist several proposals made by successive governments and the different Presidents. We need not go over them once again. We have an agreement with President Rajapaksa that the five identified documents would be the basis of any future bilateral talks.
He agreed to it but after agreeing he went back on that and called off the bilateral talks. Without starting from scratch, we can use those proposals which emerged in the country – proposals that came from the government from time to time between 1993 and 2006. We can use those processes and documents and arrive at a solution, within the framework of what has been suggested in those proposals.
Q: Do those documents include proposals on federalism?
A: When we talked to the Rajapaksa government we did not use any contentious words. We would like a Constitution that does not label itself either as a unitary Constitution or as a federal Constitution. The important thing is not the label but what is in it.
There must be a substantial power sharing arrangement – not a fake one, not something that is useless, not workable. But a genuine, workable power sharing arrangement and that is what we have asked for. It does not have to be called ‘federal’, unitary or anything of that kind.
Q: Will you get the support of all parties represented in Parliament?
A: Definitely. We will get the support of everybody because our proposal is not an unjust or unreasonable one. It is a very reasonable proposal. It will be based on the documents that I referred to which had emerged from the government side.
So I do not see any reasons why anybody should have any problems relating to them. We are willing to settle it on the basis of the documents submitted by the government.
Q: What specifically do you want in relation to the Northern PC?
A: The present arrangement in relation to the Northern PC shows that the law has not been implemented in full. The 13th Amendment has not been implemented in full . That perhaps should have been the first step. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave the assurances that he would not only fully implement it but also go beyond that to make devolution meaningful.
The first step is you must implement what is on paper. At the same time we can discuss and look at what is on paper and make it a meaningful power sharing arrangement. For instance, the Governor is a chief executive officer possessing executive powers.
This means that there is no power devolution. The governor is appointed by the president and holds powers during the tenure of the president. The President in the centre nominates him and gives powers and says I have devolved powers. That is no devolution. Practically it is the President who is exercising power through the governor.
We want that radically changed so that power is actually given to a body or people who have been elected by the people. That is the arrangement that we will seek to go beyond the 13th Amendment and make it meaningful.
Q: Your comments on media reports that there are contentions over the Chief Minister’s post in the Eastern PC?
A: In 2012 when they held the eastern PC election, we contested against the UPFA government. The UNP contested against the UPFA government. The SLMC which had joined the UPFA government in the centre also got out and campaigned separately and attacked the UPFA.
They were more vociferous attackers even than the UNP and the TNA. When the results came the TNA had won 11 seats. With a small margin the UPFA government had got more votes, they got 12 seats. They also got two bonus seats. Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFA) had one seat. Altogether that made 15 seats for the government. We had 11 seats and the UNP which had four seats also gave their support to us. We had 15 seats. So on one side was the UPFA that had 15 seats and on the other side was the TNA that also had 15 seats. In this situation, the SLMC had seven seats which they got by campaigning against the government. So, naturally, they were anti-government seats.
We suggested that the SLMC, UNP and the TNA together form the administration and, even without being asked, we offered the SLMC the CM’s post. But for some reason they did not accept that but instead they went and met the President.
They made some deals and they supported the UPFA government in the province. Consequently a Muslim was made the CM and the SLMC shared the portfolios etc.
At that stage, no Tamil was accommodated either in the cabinet or as a chairman or vice chairman of the council. All seven places were given to the SLMC and to the central government nominees.
Nobody thought that the Tamils who are largest majority in the East will be sitting in the opposition. The situation now is entirely different. The UPFA lost its majority there because Rishad Bathuideen’s All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC) walked out. Another councillor, Pathirana, also left. Again the SLMC got out of the UPFA and supported Maitripala Sirisena. In this scenario, we calculated the number of seats each party has as of now. We have eleven. The UPFA has 10. The SLMC has eight and UNP has four seats.
So since we are having the largest number of seats at present and since we were not accommodated in the Board of Ministers , we negotiated with the SLMC. But they insist on the CM’s post for reasons known only to them. All these days they supported a Muslim CM. Now too they are asking the CM’s post.
We said no because it is unfair by our people and we are entitled to that post. The SLMC is not reacting positively to that. They have taken cabinet posts in the central government as well. The whole devolution arrangement came about because of the Tamils’ agitations and not due to anybody else’s. Yet they are still unable to be part of the administration.
The SLMC even prefers joining the previous UPFA and forming the administration to leave us completely out. We think it is very unfortunate and very unfair.
Q: Some other Muslim leaders wanted to join the TNA in the East?
A: We can talk to Rishad and others. But since the SLMC has the largest mandate we thought it is proper to talk to them first and we did it.
Q: Is there any divide within the TNA over the 100 day program of the Government?
A: So far nobody has told us anything to that effect. We have discussed it in our leadership group and in our parliamentary group . Nobody told us that they have any reservations over the 100 day program of the government. They are fully backing it.
Q: There was some controversy over PM Ranil Wickramasinghe’s statement to the NDTV channel over power devolution. Can you please clarify?
A: The PM said that devolution will now be available under the 13thAmendment which the previous government was blocking. But we have told everybody very clearly that the full implementation of the 13th Amendment is no lasting solution. By and large the PM’s message is that he will allow the PCs to work independently, taking over the provincial administration powers.
Q: Will the TNA support the 17th Amendment and the 19th Amendment to the constitution?.
A: We support the 17th Amendment and the 19th Amendment is still in the draft.When it does come, we will support it.
Q: According to reports, some Northern PC Ministers are formulating extensive plans to provide employment opportunities and livelihood assistance to deserving families. Will there be funding from the diaspora community for such programs?
A: I do not think funding will be a problem from the Government and other sources, if proper work is done to help the deserving families. There is enough funding provided that we do the work properly.
Q: Your comments on the appointment of Mr.Palihakkara as the Governor of the Northern province replacing the military governor?
A: It is a welcome change. The present government is keeping its promise and has taken away the military governor. Secondly, Mr. Palihakkara is well known as an upright man. We believe that the CM will be able to work cordially with him and the Governor will not block anything the CM wants instead will facilitate such initiatives.
Q: The government, according to media reports, has requested the TNA to submit a list of persons in detention to initiate their release. Is such a list available with you ?
A: We have the old list but it has to be updated now. We are doing it now.
Q: The fishermen’s cross border issue between India and Sri Lanka remains unresolved to the detriment of the Northern fishermen?
A: Crossing the border is not the main issue. It is the method of fishing. We held talks with the Government of India on this.
They agreed that the method must be banned. But boats of Indian fishermen have to be re-modelled for deep sea fishing. About six months to one year is required to that conversion. We should give them time and then bring legislation banning bottom trawling. We have asked them to give our fishermen the expertise ,the equipment and the basic knowledge on deep sea fishing.