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Only Way Govt can Show Spirit of Reconciliation is to Talk to TNA and Agree on What a Solution Can Be-Sumanthiran

Dinouk Colombage Interviews TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran

In the lead up to the proposed Northern Provincial Council (NPC) election in September Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP, Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran, has expressed the belief that the government is not genuinely committed to the process of reconciliation.

pic courtesy of: Knowledge Box

pic courtesy of: Knowledge Box

In a wide ranging interview with Ceylon Today, he explained why he is doubtful the election would be held as announced and why change has to happen from within. He also said hosting the CHOGM will undermine the values of the Commonwealth.

Q) With the promise of the Northern Provincial council elections in September, does the TNA feel the government is now genuine in taking steps towards reconciliation and answering the grievances of the Tamil people?

A) No, not really. Because the announcement of the election is a result of pressure from the international community. The President is said to have given a personal undertaking to Japan in March when Japan abstained from voting at the UNHRC. It is that kind of intense pressure that has caused the government to announce the election. Even now we are not certain it is going to be held, as the President has to make an order and it is thereafter that the elections commissioner can act. We know that they are not keen to hold it, which is why I said we do not think they are genuine about this reconciliation process.

There are various forces within the government that have been set off to say that the election should not be held, and even if it is held the powers must not be devolved. Our position is that holding the election is no major concession by the government, it has to be held. Implementing the 13th amendment is neither a concession because that is part of the constitution. The only way the government can show a spirit of reconciliation is to talk to us and agree on what a further solution can be.

Q) The JHU has demanded that the government must gazette changes to the 13th amendment before the NPC elections. How does the TNA feel about these changes?

A) The government’s undertaking since the end of the war has continuously been full implementation of the 13th amendment and going beyond that to ensuring devolution, which is a phrase they have repeatedly used. Before the war ended President Rajapaksa appointed a Panel of Experts who deliberated and produced a report which is still to be made public. In 2011 the government held talks with the TNA, all of which pointed towards the direction of greater devolution than what is obtained under the 13th amendment. They told us, India and everywhere that they would fully implement the 13th amendment and discuss going further.

Now because they are holding the Northern Provincial Council elections, which should have been held several years ago, they are trying to swap that with actually reducing the powers of the 13th amendment. In a sense they are trying to put a lot of emphasis on holding the election, and in the process they wish to take away from the powers issued under the 13th amendment.

Q) The government has, at times, claimed that the TNA were the ones who pulled out of talks and were not willing to come back. What does the TNA want from the government to come back to the discussions?

A) The government has said this, but we have clarified this and they have not contested this. We had 18 rounds of talks in 2011. In the first, second and third rounds we gave proposals to the government, the third round was on March 18. The government did not have any proposals. After we gave three sets of papers they wanted time to respond which we gave them, however, they did not respond for five months. During that time we have seven meetings, all of which started with the government apologising saying they do have a response ready. So on August 4 we called off the meetings and said when you are ready we will meet. After this TNA leader Mr. Sampanthan and the President met to find a way out of this deadlock. He refused to give his government’s response to our requests, in lieu of that five documents were identified which would be brought to the tables for discussions. We commenced negotiations on areas we had highlighted; one of those was land which we discussed during two meetings.

The meetings were adjourned till January 2012 but the government did not turn up, there was no prior cancellation. After that they said only after we join the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) would they come and talk with us. Mr. Sampanthan and the President had also reached an agreement about the PSC. That is once the government reaches a broad consensus on the five documents that were to be discussed, that would be taken to the PSC either as a government proposal or a TNA-government proposal. It would be at that stage that the government would join the PSC.

Now they breached all prior agreements and still wanted us to come to the PSC that is why the talks broke. Since then, that year itself, there were two attempts at breaking the deadlock. Mr. Sampanthan met with three Ministers of the government delegation and agreed that we would nominate our members to the PSC, but before they had their first meeting we would meet and try and reach a consensus. They agreed, but went to the President who did not agree to this.

The second attempt was in May 2012 when the Leader of the Opposition got involved, he spoke to us and the government. An agenda for what the PSC would discuss was agreed upon, we said we would come for the meetings as long as we agreed on the agenda. It was agreed that the Opposition Leader would make a statement in Parliament and the government would concur. He made this statement on the May 23 having first given statements to both us and the President, all of whom agreed with it, but when the government responded they did not concur with it simply saying we must come to the PSC and everything will be discussed. So the second attempt at breaking the deadlock had also failed.

All of this because the government did not respond, first to our proposal and then to two agreements the President agreed to, then the talks afterwards they walked out of and finally despite we agreeing to concessions they agreed first and then walked out. That is the real reason why the talks did not proceed, and for all that I have said I have written proof.

Q) Is the TNA concerned about the noticeable military presence in the North in the lead up to the Northern Provincial council elections?

A) It will certainly hinder the elections. During the Eastern Provincial elections on several days there were army checkpoints setup very close to the polling stations. In the Trincomalee district, when those were discovered, Mr. Sampanthan spoke to the election commissioner and had those removed. However, in the Batticaloa and Ampara district those remained and what we found was when several of our people came to vote, after travelling a great distances, turned back and went home when they realised they had to walk past the army checkpoints. They did not vote.

Q) Were they stopped at that point?

A) No, they were not stopped. They saw them and turned back and went. The mere sight of the soldiers discouraged them from walking past and voting. If that is the situation in the East, you can imagine how it is in the North, where there is such a large presence of the military. Already the military is involved in choosing candidates for the government party. They go and force people to contest the elections. With that kind of intimidation it is bound to affect the election.

Q) The TNA has made it clear that they would welcome foreign observers during this election; does the party have any particular group in mind?

A) I made a request last week on behalf of the party to the election commissioner for international observers; we suggested the EU and the Commonwealth. That is because in 2004 both groups monitored the elections and gave an adverse report of what happened in the North and the East about what the LTTE did. I sighted that example and said they should have confidence in those monitors.

Q) What has been the response to your request?

A) The response has not been good with parties, those who are not even contesting the election, opposing the involvement of foreign monitors. The commissioner said once the election is announced he would call all the parties and make a decision. We made a similar request during the Eastern Provincial council elections which were not met, so we are not confident this will happen but we will continue to press for it.

Q) With the government looking to acquire an estimated 6,000 acres in the North, do you feel the ongoing land grab have an impact on the upcoming election?

A) This has been going on for a while, especially in the Vavuniya district, Outsiders (people from the South) have been brought in who have never lived in the North and settled, while the Tamils have been cleared. There are around 10,000 (9,000 in Mulliativu). What is happening now is they are setting up army villages, which is a sure recipe of changing the demography of the area.

Q) What about those people who have been shifted, have they been moved somewhere else?

A) That particular area of 6,381 acres belong to people who were actually moved out in 1990 and have since been living in welfare camps maintained by the government. They are still in those camps, they have not had anywhere to go for the last 20 years but have now been told they can never go back to their homes. They have been told they will be paid compensation, but there is no indication of what that will be.

Q) Going back to the NPC elections, do you feel the conduct of those elections will have a bearing on who does and does not attend the summit in November?

A) Yes that is what the Sri Lankan government is trying to do by holding these elections, as a way of showing they are restoring Democracy. In some ways the prospect of holding CHOGM here in November, we hope, will act as a deterrent against any malpractices during the campaign. However, for that to work we will need international observers, particularly from the Commonwealth. Otherwise what happens is not reported.

Q) The emerging racism, which is being linked to the government, has been opposed by Azath Salley who was detained. While member of the BBS continue to walk free. What are your views?

A) This is again in relation to the government’s intolerance to dissent; his dissent was in regard to opposing these violent racist expressions which members of the government were giving their support. The people who have incited racism are out on the street while the person who has challenged that has been detained under provisions of the PTA. That is another important aspect of this whole saga of Azath Salley. They are using a draconian provision of the PTA. After having done away with the Emergency laws before a UN Human Rights Universal Periodic Review they have strengthened the PTA. They gave informal undertakings that the PTA would not be used, but they are using it. Not just against Azath Salley now, but also against the university students in the North last year where 39 persons still remain to be released.

Q) Is the government selectively implementing the PTA?

A) Yes obviously there is selective implementation. They have propagated a new set of regulations where anybody can be taken, termed a surrendee of the LTTE and sent for rehabilitation which is incarceration for any length of time. There are 39 from the North and 5 or 6 from the East, people who have never seen a judge. They have been convicted purely on this so-called confession of theirs that they are former LTTE cadres.

Q) Have you, as Azath Salley’s defence, questioned why members of the BBS have not been arrested?

A) We raised that, and also raised the issue that the moment Azath Salley saw the publication which was made in India he issued an email with a correction saying that was not what he said. This was done well before his arrest, and when he was questioned he showed them the email and I believe a correction has also been carried. That should have been the end of the matter, even if what he had said could incite enmity the moment he clarified his comment he should have been released. This is not really the cause, but rather this is a method of shutting his mouth because he has challenged not only the BBS but also the government.

Q) The impeachment of the former CJ was done under questionable circumstances, Duminda Silva continues to walk free despite being a suspect in a murder case and now Azath Salley has been arrested for voicing opposition. Does the rule of law apply in Sri Lanka?

A) Law and order has broken down, it is entirely in the hands of the regime. I will not even say the government, it is a handful of people in the family that make these decisions and so there is no rule of law. The law that applies is what the regime believes should apply. That is dictatorial, and there is no sign that is about to change.

Q) You said there is no sign of change, but do you feel the growing international pressure will contribute to the government changing its stance or even a governmental change?

A) Yes international pressure does work which is why we have sought international help in putting pressure on the government to reform its ways is not an act against the country. It is done so that the country reforms and will save the country from a dictatorship.

Q) While the international pressure is prevalent, there is the belief that people do not want a change as they do not see an alternative. Do you agree?

A) Yeah I think that is one of the biggest problems, because one of the main reasons the international community does not exert any further pressure is because they see the government and the President enjoys popular support. So they cannot treat it as a rogue state. That issue is an important one and that is why a vibrant opposition is a necessity, the international community can only do so much but the change must come from within. The opposition must start moving.

Q) Do you feel that the opposition is finally taking a pro-active approach?

A) The opposition has started moving, but the main opposition party must take the lead. Unless that happens this will continue for a long period of time. COURTESY:CEYLON TODAY