By Paul Newman
Sivagnanam Shritharan, 43, is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Member of Sri Lankan Parliament from Kilinochchi. Elected in 2010, he was earlier the head master of the Kilinochchi Mahavidyalayam in Kilinochchi, where LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran’s children had studied.
An ardent advocate of peace who loses no opportunity to criticise the flawed Sinhala polity, unidentified gunmen made an attempt on his life in March last year near Anuradhapura.
Shritharan survived an attempt on his life, but still fights for his people
He survived, and still remains the man he was, bold and committed to the cause of his people.
Having climbed the political ladder from the grassroots, the Tamils of Sri Lanka, both in their homeland and among the Diaspora, have pinned a lot of hope on him.
Many still remember his maiden speech in Parliament, when he said: “A race that subjugates another race cannot live in peace itself. That country too can never achieve liberation. Further by the actions taken to subjugate, they will be enslaved by other nations.”
In an exclusive interview to Dr. Paul Newman, he reiterates his position that securing Tamil Eelam is the ultimate goal of TNA.
1. As an elected leader of the Tamil people do you believe the Sri Lankan state can render justice to the Tamils? Can you update on the situation in the Tamil areas?
Though we are democratically elected leaders, the Sinhalese politicians have never treated Tamil leaders with respect and equality. Though they speak of reconciliation, it remains only on paper. All the present talk of forging unity is because of international pressure. Without the international community and India taking up the issue of Tamils, Sri Lanka is not going to give anything to the Tamils.
About the current situation, the Tamils are not even allowed to mourn their dead. On May 18, the General Secretary of the Jaffna University was beaten up for organising a meeting to remember the dead (in the 2009 Mullivaikkal massacre). The army has surrounded the University campus.
In Kilinochchi the army moves around openly in villages questioning and clicking pictures terrifying the civilians. A couple of days ago when I was distributing note books to students in a school, the army moved into the campus and took pictures.
When I as an elected Member of Parliament cannot move around freely how you can expect the civilians to be free?
When our leader Rt.Rev. Rayappu Joseph (Bishop of Mannar) is questioned by the CID for speaking the truth, how can the common man speak up? The civilians are caged in an open prison.
The Sinhalese-Buddhist ruling class is suppressing the Tamils. The Sinhala politicians now go to the extent of saying that the Tamils are aliens to Sri Lanka.
Our women are systematically targeted. Even nine-year-old girls are lured into sex by the occupying state forces. Tamil girls have become mothers without a husband and the kids have been fathered by Sinhala soldiers who have abandoned these innocent Tamil girls.
The Sinhalese systematically follow the principle of wiping out Tamil culture and identity.
Army camps are located in our schools, so how can the education system function?
The Tamils today have a feeling of being enslaved. Three years after the end of the war, all the dreams of peace lay shattered. We are orphans in our own motherland.
2. There are speculations that there is a rift within the TNA on the issue of Eelam, with a section said to have given up the cause and another still swearing by the right to right to self-determination. What would you like to say about this?
Sure, there is confusion prevailing. Some TNA MPs like Sumanithiran, a well known lawyer lacks political experience. He has always lived in Colombo. It will take some time for him to understand the reality of living in the north under the suppression of the armed forces.
Our leader Sampanthan too has lived in Colombo. When a Sinhala flag was thrust in his hands, as a person living in Colombo he had to accept it. It was only a political tactic to hoist the lion flag and invite the Sinhala leaders to talk to the Tamils.
Though I do not accept this personally, I feel politically we were extending an olive branch. The international community appreciated his gesture. We too sent a message that we are ready to walk the extra mile.
I would like to firmly state that we would never give up the demand for a Tamil nation. We are all working for the right to self determination of the Tamils. The LTTE too held talks with an open mind with the Sinhalese in 1987 and 2002, but they were betrayed.
We too will explore all possible peaceful methods. We cannot let the sacrifices of our brethren go in vain. There may be differences but we will overcome them.
3. What is your stand on a separate state of Eelam for the Tamils?
If Sri Lanka goes the way it is going now, our demand would be internationally strengthened. 300,000 civilians have sacrificed their lives so far, 90,000 have been widowed, 25,000 orphaned, 40,000 fighters have laid down their lives.
There is no truth in the Sinhala polity. The future course of our action is in the hands of the Sinhala leaders. They need to decide whether we could live with them in the north and east with dignity, or go our way.
Since 1990, 26 countries have been born – twenty-three of them in Europe after the dismantling of the communist world, two countries, namely Eritrea and Southern Sudan in Africa, and East Timor in Asia.
All these countries got freedom with the help of some western country. We too will get it one day or the other.
Prabakaran worshipped Fidel Castro and Che Guevara but Cuba has been blindly supporting Sri Lanka. These countries which supported Sri Lanka are now able to see the double standards of Sri Lanka and understand the gravity of the situation in the island with regard to the human rights situation.
We too hope that with the help of the Diaspora and the Tamils of Tamil Nadu we would be able to establish Eelam.
4. How do you see the LLRC report when compared to the UN Panel of Experts report?
We have rejected the LLRC report and made a document on its shortcomings, though analysts point out that there were 4 positives in the 210 recommendations contained in the report, which are:
1. Demilitarisation of the north and east
2. Rehabilitation of the war affected Tamils
3. Compensation package to war victims and recognition of the fact that Tamil civilians were killed
4. Appropriate political packages for the Tamils
What the commission failed to state is the number of civilians killed. It did not come out with specific political solutions either.
I can go on but basically it was a Sinhala government appointed commission reporting back to the same government. It was not an independent report. But the UN’s was an independent report with Human Rights experts examining the facts and writing a very credible report.
What happened in Sri Lanka was not a war crime, it was a genocide carried out in broad daylight with the systematic blockade of the international media, human rights groups and international humanitarian agencies including the UN and ICRC (International Committee for the Red Cross).
5. What are your reactions to the UN resolution, India’s support to it, and how do you see the Sri Lankan state responding to it?
Better late than never! When 1,000 people get killed in East Timor, a separate country was created. When 2,000 got killed Southern Sudan was created, but only after 146,000 went missing in Sri Lanka, the International community has woken up.
The Indian vote at the UN was possible as a result of the pressure built up in Tamil Nadu. We need to thank Dr. J Jayalalithaa for her unconditional support (to the Tamil cause), and Senthamilan Seeman for rallying the masses on the streets of Tamil Nadu, forcing even M Karunanidhi to support the mass movement out of electoral fear.
It will be good if India continues its pressure on Sri Lanka as it was done during the period of Annai (Mother) Indira Gandhi, MGR and Indian bureaucrats like G Parthasarathy. Their untimely death was a loss equivalent to Mullivaikal.
6. How do you see the attacks on human rights defenders, especially the Bishop of Mannar?
Last week a Muslim journalist was attacked in Mannar, another in Jaffna. The Sinhala regimes have no democratic tradition. They are proud to proclaim that they are born of a lion. How can you expect them to respect human rights which are essentially human and democratic?
The Sinhala leadership will always target those who speak the truth, whether they are Tamils, Muslims or Sinhalese. The Bishop of Mannar is a champion of human rights and an apostle of peace.
How can they tolerate him when he has revealed that 146,679 civilians are unaccounted from September 2008 to May 2009? It is our duty to protect him, as he is not just a religious leader but a great leader of humanity and the Tamils.
7. Can you comment on Gotabaya Rajapakse’s remark that the North does not belong exclusively to the Tamils?
Historically the North-East has always belonged to Tamils. Till 1616 we were an independent country. It was only in 1833 that the British unified the erstwhile Ceylon into one administrative unit for their convenience.
It was only then we started interacting with the Sinhalese. When the British left, the biggest blunder they committed was to leave the island as one entity dominated by the Sinhala politicians.
Even the mythological Ravanan was a Tamil king ruling the entire Sri Lanka. Mr. Gotabaya Rajapakse needs to read history and mythology to update his knowledge of the Tamils before uttering racially biased statements. We can also start talking about history and tell the Sinhalese that they came to Sri Lanka from Orissa as refugees along with their King Vijaya. There is no mythological or historical record of Sinhala settlements in the north or east.
8. What are your future plans and how does it fit into the polity of TNA?
Thirty years of my early life was spent as a teacher during the course of the civil war. I never wanted my students to be violent, but at the same time we should not bow down when injustice is meted out. We need to fight back, this is what the LTTE did.
Today we have entered a new phase of our struggle. Under the leadership of Mr. Sampanthan we have come forward to walk the path of democracy, peace and negotiations.
We shall continue our struggle. There is no going back on the question of right to self determination. At times we may act differently, (but) individual stands are not the official stand of the TNA.
There may be statements made by our leaders to suit the polity of the time but Eelam is our ultimate goal.
(This interview was posted on “The Week-end Leader”.Dr. Paul Newman holds a Doctorate of Philosophy on ‘Internal Displacement and Human Rights situation in Northern Sri Lanka from Bangalore University. He was one of the four public speakers at the Permanent People’s Tribunal on War Crimes against Sri Lanka)