‘‘There is a window of opportunity’’

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian and well-known Constitutional lawyer M. A. Sumanthiran says that his party emerged to voice the grievances of the people of the North and East but was ready to expand its activities to other parts of the country and would be involved in national politics. Mr. Sumanthiran who is based in Colombo and plays a vital role in the TNA as a bridge between the North and the South says though there are certain obstacles there is a window of opportunity for true reconciliation and long lasting peace.  Following are the views he shared with the Dailymirror:

“There is a window of opportunity. I will only call it a window. I will not call it other than that at the present moment. But nevertheless it is a window. And those of us who are desperately yearning for something like that must not ignore that window. “

1(592)QPresident Maithripala Sirisena and the present Yahapalanaya government seems to have done a lot to grant the demands of the Tamil community and ease the lives of the civilians in the former war affected areas in the North and East. Are you satisfied with the governments performance?  
We are unhappy with the phase or the rate of progress. For instance, private lands are being released as a promise made at the election. But in the north, particularly, there are extents of land which the army occupies and so far only five percent has been released. We expected all of those to be released within the 100-day programme. So naturally there is disappointment which looms over that. But as I said first, the direction in which the government is moving is very very positive because they are releasing lands. The second issue of course is of the political prisoners. Some steps have been taken to release political prisoners but nobody has been released as yet. So we know that those steps have been taken. But we want to see the actual release taking place. The President recently said that there was no political prisoner and nobody would be called a political prisoner. That is unfortunate that he says that. The phrase political prisoner has a particular meaning. Those are the people who are involved in crimes perhaps, but not for their own benefit but to achieve political objectives. It is true that they are held under particular laws. All of these people are held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. And all of them were accused or suspected of having to have committed offences in achieving political objectives. So the President and the government must realise that they are political prisoners and the phrase has a meaning world over. Nelson Mandela was a political prisoner. If you had asked the white South African rulers, they would have said that there are no political prisoners. He was convicted under a section of that Act. But the world recognises that he was a political prisoner. So there are political prisoners and those are political related detentions. And the President also must use the right phrase and admit that there are political prisoners and release them now.

“the phase is slow. These things will be dealt with because so far we have not seen any loss of intention. We can see a genuine intention on the part of the government, so we will support and keep egging the government on.”

QWith these barriers, do you think the TNA would get on with the government?
No. There are issues, but that does not stop us supporting the government. As I said the government is moving in the right direction and we are confident that this government will, although the phase is slow. These things will be dealt with because so far we have not seen any loss of intention. We can see a genuine intention on the part of the government, so we will support and keep egging the government on.

QWhy don’t we see TNA engage in island-wide politics and confined to the North and East, especially when  elections are around the corner?
We have not confined ourselves to the North. If you take the 19th Amendment, we participated fully in that exercise to the point that when the negotiation team had to be appointed to negotiate with those opposed to it. I was one of those three people the President and the Prime Minster had appointed. To that extent, we were involved in many other things. Impeachment of the Chief Justice and the restoration etc., So at the present moment, all the national issues we are involved in. But at the same time, there is a huge national issue that we are concerned about and that needs to be addressed. We agreed with this government that it need not be fully addressed until the general elections are over, but thereafter that issue must be given priority. The government has already spoken about the passage of 19th Amendment. The Prime Minister said it in Parliament, the Foreign Minister and Minister of Justice too had voiced that a new constitution would be enacted and  the next Parliament should be converted in to a Constitutional Assembly. And the Foreign Minister specifically said in his speech that in that constitution the ethnic issue also would finally be resolved. So while we involve ourselves in all the national issues which are taking place at present, the biggest issue was that the country had faced a war for 30 years and that still remained unresolved. That is our particular concern and it is the expectation of the people we represent. So that has to come to the fore at some point.

QSince the end of the conflict, the wounds caused by ethnic disharmony are not healed as yet. What measures have you taken on your part being part of the TNA to convince the South that you are in fact against separatism?
We gave the right signal saying that we are for reconciliation. That we are prepared to live within one undivided country, but certain important issues like accountability and of truth being ascertained are fundamental to the reconciliation, but we will fully participate in that process. The new President also has affirmed that. Particularly in his speech on the Independence Day, he said that there were mistakes made after the war that came to an end, and that they affected the relations among the communities. And he wants to put that right. So we appreciate that approach. He repeated that in Matara too. So he says constantly that these wounds and issues that separated the people must be addressed and the people must be unified again. And we are fully prepared to participate in that process not at the expense of the truth. Truth has to be uncovered because it can never be the case that you could sweep the truth under the carpet and say people are reconciled. As uncomfortable as it is, we would like to see the country to accept the truth. Both the Tamil and the Sinhala people and also the Muslim people must accept the truth and come to terms to see how they have contributed to this disharmony and not to find fault with anybody but find ways to live in harmony within one country.

QDo you think that you have managed to convince the South that you are away from separatism?
I don’t think the South should be suspicious at all. We have constantly expressed our position in all our election manifestos that it was within one united country we were seeking a solution. The separatism is not in our agenda and I don’t think the South needs to be suspicious of that. There may be some lapses in communicating, particularly because what we say is not carried in the Sinahala media. We are trying to bridge that gap as well now.  So when that happens, others interpret what we say in a different manner that goes to the Sinhala people. So we are trying hard to directly talk to the Sinhala people but the lack of proficiency in the Sinhala language poses a major drawback.

QYou live in the South and voice for the people in the North and can communicate in Sinhala language. So you, being a bridge between the North and South, what are the concrete measures through which  you propose to fill the racial division?
I think the message must go to the Sinhala people very clearly and our message should allay their fears of separatism or violence. Similarly,   the message must come very clearly from the Sinhala leaders too to the Tamil people and they must lay their fears of continued repression, discrimination, lack of will to share power and so on. If that can be bridged, and that is why we are fully supportive of the present government’s initiatives so that is the message the President delivered. And we think we also should reciprocate in that way and make the message very clear to the Sinahala people. Because so long there has been suspicion in the minds of the Sinhala people that you can’t bring about any kind of reconciliation. We have done horrendous things to each other. That also must be brought out and be dealt with in a way that a victim receives justice without revenge but with a  view to achieving a true and genuine reconciliation.

Q; But the issue of ‘genocide’ has disturbed certain section of the Southern community, and in an interview last February you had justified the resolution passed by the NPC calling on the international community to investigate charges of genocide and prosecute the perpetrators (Saying that it was ‘timely’ and the facts listed are true). Don’t you think that this has led to a situation for extremist elements to create an unnecessary ethnic tension in the country?
The genocide issue is a political slogan. What I said that about NPC resolution was that it was an expression of the people. It doesn’t mean the crime of genocide is proved for the international crime of genocide. There must be a tribunal and there must be various ingredients of that offence that have to be proved. Now I don’t think that is what the NPC had said. The NPC says that from  1947 these these things had happened and these all are intended to diminish the Tamil people’s states and Tamil people’s lives in this country either by driving them out of the country, killing a group of people, a periodic violence against the Tamil and so on, and they called it genocide. That may not fit with the international crime of genocide, it isn’t. In fact at the end of the resolution says the international community has not accepted this kind of events as genocide. Now you must recognize that this is also as genocide. So it must be seen in total context of people saying that the Tamil people were suffering for 60 years of protracted violence. And they are saying that is genocide.

The way to deal with that, we will not allow these things to happen anymore. There won’t be driving people out of their lands, There won’t be systematic colonisation in your lands. You are made to become a minority in the lands you have historically inhabited. People have freedom to move this way or the other. But if it is a government policy intended to change the demography, then that is unacceptable. There must be assurances that come and say hereafter all that will not happen. So I think that is the way to approach it rather than merely take objection to the people’s feeling that there is genocide happening against them.

Q: The Tamil community has been spread around the country based in various parts. Why does the TNA wants to represent the Tamils in the North and the East?
We are a party who mainly seek a power sharing arrangement for the North and East. That is the main reason we have confined ourselves to represent the North and the East. But we have not ruled out contesting in other parts of the country. In the forthcoming General elections we may take a decision to contest at least one or two districts outside the North and the East.

QWould it be Colombo?

Either Colombo or Gampaha.

Q Are we on the right track for true reconciliation and true peace? Years ago we considered it a dream but do you think that that dream can be realised?
There is a window of opportunity. I will only call it a window. I will not call it other than that at the present moment. But nevertheless it is a window. And those of us who are desperately yearning for something like that must not ignore that window. We must make it at home and open it wide and do all that is within ourselves to and go out on our limbs and make it work because it is certainly an opportunity. Of course there will be new and various obtable come in the way. Various forces will try different ways to scuttle this. But if we have the objective very clearly in our minds both sides and we can achieve that.

Q There are section in the South who have described you as the proxies of the LTTE and the diaspora, both viewed with a lot of disgust and suspicion among those in the sought. Why do you still associate yourselves with them and their ideologies?
We have no track with the LTTE. During peace time from 2001 onward there were talks among the successive Sri Lankan governments with the LTTE. There were pacts entered into and arrangements made. This was done between the government and the LTTE. During that time the TNA did work with the LTTE. If the government thought that they had to work with the LTTE so much more the TNA should have done that because we were representing the people who were in the areas controlled by the LTTE. That does not mean we have ever supported their methods or supported their goal of a separate state. That must be understood very clearly. Now that the LTTE is no more that chapter is over. We are pursing our people’s legitimate political goals.

As for the diaspora, the diaspora consists of large number of people who fled this country due to violence in this country in 1958, 1977 and 1983 and thereafter. They could not live here peacefully they were attacked their houses were burnt and many of their relatives were killed. Naturally they have a girvence against this country. But what we have found is that we have engaged with diaspora for sometime and that if there is a reasonable political solution based on power sharing, substantial section of the Diaspora will accep that. More than 80 percent of the diaspora will accept that. We have worked very closely with responsible sections of the diaspora. You might have seen statements from some of them and recently Fr. Emmanuel issued a statement commending President Sirisena.  He is the president of the Global Tamil Forum which has more than members of 15 countries in it. So like that a large section and the silent majority will go along with what the TNA says on behalf of the people living here. The problem though is the most of them are skeptical. They are skeptical that any Sri Lankan government will deliver to the Tamil people. So it is that skepticism that keeps them back. If the government can prove them wrong and deal with us justly they will accept it.
Pix By Kithsri de mel
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