Leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, says the Tamils in the country are still not treated as equal citizens and have lost their dignity and self respect. In an interview with The Sunday Leader, R. Sampanthan also spoke on Sinhalese settlement in the North and East, as well as local and international efforts towards assuring accountability for alleged war crimes.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: Would you agree that the Tamil people have been mistreated and are continuing to lack – across the board – fundamental freedoms and dignity, etc?
A: Very unfortunately that is the truth. The Tamil people have not been treated as equal citizens for a very long time. They have suffered loss of their dignity and self respect. They have felt insecure. They have been deprived of access to powers of governance in keeping with their democratic wishes.
As consistently expressed by them for over a period of 50 years, the consequence of all of which is that the Tamil people of this country have been stamped with inferiority and do not feel that they are equal citizens. The Tamil people have consistently demonstrated that they will not accept this status of inequality and that they are resilient enough to come out of this tragic situation.
Q: Is Sri Lanka’s Northern demography currently being changed by the Government?
A: Yes. Both in the North and the East, the Government is engaged in the process of changing further the demographic composition in order to achieve their narrow, partisan, political objectives.
Q: Can you specify how, and where this is taking place?
A: It is happening in all districts. It is happening in Ampara, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Mullaitivu, Killinochchi, Mannar and Vavuniya – everywhere.
The North is being further militarized. New military camps are being opened. Cantonments are being established and the military presence and involvement has become all pervasive. Lands said to be required for military purposes are being taken as desired by the military, without any consideration for civilian needs.
In some instances, civilians are being prevented from returning to their lands and resuming residence for military reasons. Some of these lands are being occupied by the armed forces. Lands are being taken ostensibly for development purposes but are only being allocated to persons of the majority community, both in the North and the East.
In some instances lands being taken for such ventures have resulted in several thousands of people, Tamils and Muslims, losing their livelihood opportunities. In many instances displaced people who have returned have not been able to resume their agricultural activities because their lands are occupied by the military, or are being forcibly cultivated by persons from the majority community.
The Government machinery is taking no action to enable the displaced Tamil people to recommence their agricultural activities, despite such instances being brought to the notice of Government authorities, both at the provincial and national levels. This clearly indicates that there is no serious intent to enable these displaced Tamil people to recommence their lives in an effective way. In certain coastal areas, Tamils are being prevented from returning to their original villages.
They are being resettled in areas a considerable distance away from the sea front, and such persons, whose livelihood is fishing, are unable to resume their activities. Fisher folk from the majority community have been brought to some of these lands and enabled to engage in fishing.
This is a deliberate deprivation of the rights of the Tamil people and will have seriously adverse consequences on their future
Some temples have been destroyed, both in the North and the East.
Places of great religious and cultural significance to the Tamil people such as the seven hot wells in Kanniya, in Trincomalee, where the Hindus have performed their thirty-first day ceremonies in respect of their kith and kin, for generations and centuries, are being denied to them. They are unable to perform their religious and cultural ceremonies as they have done from time immemorial.
These matters have been brought to the notice of the Government even at the highest level. These matters have been raised in Parliament on several occasions but no remedial action has been taken.
The process of resettlement and rehabilitation has been pathetically tardy. Our repeated offers to co-operate with the Government in regard to such activities have not been responded to favourably by the government.
Deliberate efforts are being made by the Government to further change the linguistic and cultural identity of the Northern and Eastern provinces. There is no doubt whatever that the Government is aggressively pursuing a sinister programme to change the demographic composition of the Northern and Eastern provinces in such a manner as to weaken the Tamil presence and increase the majority Sinhala presence. We do not make this complaint against the Sinhala people as such but we certainly make this complaint against the Government.
This is in violation of policies pursued by stalwart leaders such as the late Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, the founder of the SLFP, and Mr. Dudley Senanayake, the founder of the UNP, who accepted that the Tamil speaking people had a legitimate interest in the preservation of the linguistic and cultural identity of the Northern and Eastern provinces. Such deliberate actions on the part of the Government have a very negative impact on the prospect of reconciliation.
Q: What do you have to say about the Government’s efforts to ensure accountability for alleged human rights violations during the war?
A: When the United Nations Secretary General visited Sri Lanka in May 2009 and had discussions with the President, in the joint statement issued by the President and the Secretary General of the UN, the Government committed itself to address accountability issues. Since the Government did not take action on the basis of this commitment, the Secretary General appointed a panel of experts of international repute to advise him on the issue of accountability in Sri Lanka.This panel of experts has submitted its report to the Secretary General, which is now in the public domain.
The Government appointed the LLRC and its report is due shortly. Our position is that it is fundamental that the truth must be ascertained.
Q: Do you think the international community is pushing hard enough for a full-scale investigation into war crimes allegedly committed during the final stages of the war?
A: The matter has been taken up at the United Nations Human Rights Council sessions. The report of the panel of experts appointed by the UN Secretary General has been submitted to the Human Rights Council along with the report sent by the Sri Lankan Government to the UN Secretary General. Many countries have publicly expressed their views on this issue and have stated that Sri Lanka must address accountability issues in a transparent and credible manner.
Human rights laws and humanitarian laws are a matter of universal concern. No country is entitled to violate international human rights laws and international humanitarian laws. Every country is bound by the international conventions it has acceded to, and Sri Lanka can be no exception.
Q: Do you believe human rights violations were committed in the final days of the war?
A: While the war was being prosecuted I had spoken at length in Parliament on very many occasions in regard to the reckless disregard for the safety and security of Tamil civilians. I have in fact stated that the war was being prosecuted not merely to destroy the LTTE but also to suppress and subjugate the Tamil people. In the course of these speeches I have cited numerous instances of the violations of international human rights laws and international humanitarian laws.
These speeches were made on the basis of information that was available to me while the war was being prosecuted.
Q: Do you feel that the President is doing enough within his powers to find a solution to the ethnic issue?
A: It would be my submission that in the two and a half years that have rolled by since the end of the war, very, very, much more could have been done to reach out to the Tamil people both on the question of reconciliation, and on the question of finding an acceptable, reasonable, workable, durable political solution. Since the end of the war, we, as the legitimate representatives of the Tamil people, have offered to work with the President to accomplish this task and it is my sincere regret that our offer was not sincerely availed of by the Government courtesy: The Sunday Leader