An interview with M.A. Sumanthiran MP
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) last week gave an ultimatum to the government to respond to its set of proposals on finding a solution to the ethnic question.
TNA MP, M. A. Sumanthiran speaks to The Nation on the reasons for giving an ultimatum at this juncture and on the issues that arose following his speech in London
Following are the excerpts:
Q. The TNA had issued an ultimatum till August 18 for the government to respond to the proposals submitted by you. Why did you choose to make such a move at this juncture?
A. We gave a paper to the government at the second round of talks on the February 3. They requested for a detailed report when we handed it to the government. We then gave a detailed one during the next round of talks held on March 18. We were told that the report was comprehensive. But the government delegation requested time for them to go through the proposals.
Although the next round of talks was scheduled for April 7, discussion on our paper was specifically scheduled for April 29. However, it was not discussed because they were not ready. That was the story told to us at subsequent meetings. And we had our 10th meeting last Thursday. So, we have had seven rounds of discussions without the government’s response to our set of proposals. During one of the meetings, they told us that they would respond to us in writing. And then they said that they cannot give it in writing.
The point is that we have given them sufficient time and sufficient number of meetings for them to state the government’s position with regard to the points that we have raised. How can we go ahead with the discussion if they do not state the government’s position? That is why we said that there was no point in us meeting and going back without the government’s response every time. So we thought that it was enough and told them to tell us when they are ready with the response so that we could continue with the discussions.
Q. The talks between the government and the TNA is considered to be an important platform to find a solution to the longstanding ethnic question. Don’t you think that this move by the TNA would hamper the process and would create uncertainty among the people, especially the Tamils?
A. That is the very reason why we have said that the talks must be meaningful. This process must be purposeful and meaningful. You can’t have a process for the sake of having a process. That process must achieve something. It seemed fairly clear to us that this process was maintained by the government for the purpose of having a process and not to achieve anything through it.
The government has been particularly telling the international community that they are engaged with the TNA to find a political solution. Meeting month after month is not really engaging in talks. We were not engaging in talks because they did not come up with their position. So that is why we are also keen on making this process a success. It must be meaningful. They should respond to whatever we have placed on the table, for this process to be meaningful. They have constantly promised to give their response. They have never refused to do it. But it has not materialised.
Q. Did you convey this to the government?
A. We issued the statement only after conveying our position clearly to the government. We gave a time frame of two weeks so that it would not be an open ended one so that we need not wait until the time when the government decides to respond.
The government seems to have issued a statement saying that it was a very short time that we have given. And that we have laid down conditions. We have not laid down any conditions. We have only asked them to honour their own commitment.
It does not mean that they should come up with a solution within this two weeks time. They have had time since March to do that.
Q. What would be your next step if the government fails to respond within the time frame you have given?
A. We will assume that the government is not willing to respond in spite of the fact that they have promised to respond from March onwards. They can do that if that is what they wanted to do. It is a different matter if they want more time. They can ask for more time, but they must respond. There is no point going and sitting at the table again if they do not respond.
Q. But don’t you think that your current move would be in vain if they requested for more time and if you consent to it?
A. That is why we have given them two weeks and have left it at that. It’s up to the government to respond in whatever way. The two weeks time is not a condition or anything like that. They surely must have discussed these matters.
Q. The government is now looking at a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to find a solution to the ethnic question. What is the TNA’s stand on this?
A. We had asked for the exact terms of reference on the PSC for us to respond. What was suggested originally was not acceptable to us because the terms of reference did not mention the purpose for which the PSC was being formed even once. We made certain suggestions and they were acceptable to the government delegation. Again they wanted time to consider the purpose of the PSC. And they came back at the last meeting with a new suggestion in which they had mentioned the purpose. But, they had changed everything else that we had agreed at the previous meeting. Therefore, there was no agreement reached with regard to the PSC.
We had again worked on the draft that they brought. Now they want to go back and consider the matters that we had previously agreed upon. That also is in their court now. They can come back to us when they are ready to respond to the substantial issue of devolution of power and when they are ready to agree with the draft terms of reference. But, it cannot be an indefinite wait.
Q. You had said that you were waiting for the government to respond to your proposals and for the agreement on the terms of reference with regard to the PSC. What would happen to the PSC if they fail to respond to your set of initial proposals?
A. Well, the PSC is useless unless it is a mechanism to implement the agreement with regard to the substantive issue of devolution. So we have to engage in a proper discussion to achieve that first.
Q. What would happen to the talks between the TNA and the government if the PSC is implemented?
A. Well, the idea was that the talks would go on even if the PSC is constituted in agreement with us. But without the progress of the talks between the government and the TNA, there is no purpose in a PSC.
Q. There were some confusion within the Tamil political circle with regard to certain statements that you had made during your recent visit to Britain. Can you explain as to what the issues were?
A. There were three things that were identified from my speech at a meeting in London. It was reported that I had said that we must seek a solution that is acceptable to the Sinhala people.
What I really said at the meeting, which can be verified by the video that has been uploaded by some people, is that our position is a reasonable position and a just claim. We must convince everyone that our position is a reasonable and just position. The international community must know that we are not taking an extreme line. Similarly, at least a section of the Sinhala community in this country also must accept our solution as being reasonable.
I very specifically said ‘at least a section of the Sinhala people must accept it as reasonable. But that was twisted and a different version was given.
Secondly, is the issue of war crimes investigations. In respect of that, I never said at that meeting that allegations of war crimes should not be investigated. There was no statement in regard to that at all. It was not in the video either. That was something introduced by someone. My position is that allegations of war crimes must be investigated. These allegations are not made by irresponsible people. An expert panel appointed by the United Nation Secretary General itself has said that there are credible allegations of war crimes committed by both sides. If that is not a responsible body, then what is?
Not only that, many countries have said that this must be investigated, including India. A statement issued by the Indian Foreign Affairs Minister on Thursday very clearly spells out that allegations of human rights violations must be investigated.
The third issue was on my comments on the role played by the Diaspora. There were repeated questions asked on the role of the Diaspora. I did say that the Diaspora is sometimes perceived as being one-sided and that the international community and the reports of the UNSG Expert Panel and the International Crisis Group had commented negatively on the role of the Diaspora.
As much as we listen to the advice from the international community, we also take advice from the Diaspora. So I urged them that it might be good if the Diaspora also heeds the advice given to it by the international community. What I had said was twisted and what I had not said was reported as if I had said it. This could not have been done by mistake. Because what I said was very clear. This seems to have been done by some mischief makers.
Q. But if what you said is true. Wouldn’t it give an idea that the Tamils are divided?
A. No. I wouldn’t say that. Because, the large majority of even the Diaspora is very responsible. And people who interacted with me at the meeting and thereafter told me not to take these abbe-rations seriously. There is wide support for the responsible role played by the TNA. And that accounts to most of the people who constitute the Diaspora.
Q. Was there any misunderstanding within the TNA with regard to these issues arising from your statements in Britain?
A. No. There was no misunderstanding within the TNA. There was only one Member of Parliament who had made a comment saying that what I had said was not the position of the party. He had said that assuming what was reported was in fact what I had said. But even he at the end of his statement has said that he knows me well and he cannot imagine me having said that. Everyone else had declined to comment saying that they need to wait till I returned to ascertain what had happened before they comment.