”The most important thing we have achieved is to help the Tamil speaking people find hope and courage, when they were at the nadir of their lives. The fact that the Tamil speaking people as a whole have come out of the shell they were forced into prior to the election is truly remarkable. They wholeheartedly support the non-violent and democratic struggle that we are engaged in. They understand that staying on the path of non-violence amidst untold hardships, provocation and persistent and pernicious intimidation requires courage and commitment.”
We will not issue ultimatums to government– C.V. Wigneswaran ( interviewed by Sulochana Ramiah Mohan)
Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C.V. Wigneswaran, in a wide ranging interview with Ceylon Today, says Tamils don’t want to give the government an ultimatum to share power as it is puerile to talk of ultimatums, and adds, “We are not gun toting cowboys to go for ultimatums.”
Following are excerpts:
Q: Is there a major mistrust between the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA)?
A: Establishing and preserving trust is no easy task. It takes commitment and the balancing of several forces. I would say there are obvious misunderstandings. There is also reluctance on the part of the government to give any form of relief to the Tamils politically. In fact, there is reluctance to allow any challenge to the concentration of power in the Executive. The Judiciary and Parliament have been compromised. Such reluctance is natural where there is concentration of power. Nobody likes to cede power. They believe sharing power is ceding power and that it will loosen their hold on the polity. Concentrating power is viewed as a winning political strategy. But I doubt it. Ultimately they will realize their folly.
Q: What is your assessment of the ground situation of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) after the TNA won at the election seven months ago?
A: The Council as an administrative cum political body has been now set up. The necessary infrastructure has been established from scratch.
But, the Governor and the Chief Secretary and others are running a parallel administration to ours. It is clear that the aim is to stultify the democratically elected Provincial Council from discharging its constitutional obligations. Under the 13thAmendment, the Provincial Councils have to rely on the largesse of the government to function. The current situation highlights the legitimacy of the complaints of the Tamil speaking peoples that the 13th Amendment is grossly insufficient. We hoped that there would be cooperation, at least to the extent of addressing the immediate concerns of the war-affected people. Unfortunately, the purpose appears to be to thwart democratic governance and foist policies and regimes unequivocally rejected by our people. At present, there is an undisguised attempt at intimidating the people and stifling democratic dissent while at the same time Army constructs enormous Vesak pandals for the first time in the Jaffna Town with accompanying dansalas! We welcome all persons to practise their religion and observe their customs – what we find objectionable is the foisting of their beliefs and customs with the backing of military power.
The government prides itself on peace that has been brought about. It seems that the powers that be forget the ‘peace of the police is not the calm of the temple but the silence of the tomb.'(Martti Koskenniemi).
We do not believe in confrontation. We are endeavouring to use reason and discourse to prevail upon the government to adopt a cooperative approach. We will not give up our commitment to democracy, discourse and deliberations.
Q: What have you done for the Tamils of the North with the available powers since winning the election?
A: The most important thing we have achieved is to help the Tamil speaking people find hope and courage, when they were at the nadir of their lives. The fact that the Tamil speaking people as a whole have come out of the shell they were forced into prior to the election is truly remarkable. They wholeheartedly support the non-violent and democratic struggle that we are engaged in. They understand that staying on the path of non-violence amidst untold hardships, provocation and persistent and pernicious intimidation requires courage and commitment. They have shown that they are not lacking such capacity. There has been a sense of purpose and direction that has been restored when there was hopelessness. Our brave women had been questioning the conduct of Army personnel at certain meetings in the Wanni, which they dared not do pre-election. It is my view that the drama recently enacted by the Army in the Northern Province had as one of its purposes the curbing of their independent spirit that had resurfaced.
Second, the world has seen the justness of our cause and the recalcitrance of those who seek to obstruct democratic governance.
As for the specific activities carried out, my ministers and Provincial Councillors have made significant strides, despite the obstacles placed in their way. We have brought out brochures in respect of each ministry (Agriculture is out in print for reading; others are in the process of being printed) and I would advise you to read them.
Q: The TNA is calling on the government to share power. However, you have said Tamils cannot expect to have a total power-sharing, but a solution where at least the majority is shared, is good enough. What is the majority of the power that you want to be shared?
A: Governance involves a bundle of rights and obligations, and checks and balances. How does one determine and delineate the boundaries between the different branches of government, that is, Legislature, Executive and the Judiciary? Different countries set different boundaries. The ultimate aim is to ensure a pragmatic, efficient, durable and democratic framework that is in consonance with the aspirations of the body politic. In as much as this differs at the national level, the idea of power sharing at the sub-national level too requires calibration along similar lines. It is a matter that has to be discussed and deliberated. There is no magic point which sets out the boundary between acceptable and non-acceptable solutions. Certain powers may be shared to a greater extent so that they compensate for lesser sharing in another area.
We have very good documents already prepared in the year 2000 and those prepared during the stewardship of the present President. So finding answer to your question is not difficult if you put those documents on the table for discussion and approach the issue in good faith.
Q: What is blocking the process of power sharing?
A: Fear and opportunism. The Sinhala politicians are terribly scared to give even an inch of space to the Tamil speaking people, as they are worried that any such move would be seized upon by their political opponents. So they pretend they want to share but withdraw when they have to share. Otherwise why did the SWRD-Chelva Pact and the Dudley-Chelva Pact fail?
In addition, as I alluded to earlier, greater the concentration of power greater the reluctance to share it.
Q: Are you giving the government an ultimatum to share powers?
A: It is puerile to talk of ultimatums. We are not gun toting cowboys!
Q: The government states the TNA’s demands are ‘loose’ and ‘callous’ and that the TNA should refrain from undermining the PSC process and at the least respect the supremacy of Parliament. Can you challenge the government?
A: Supremacy of Parliament? That is ironical, as it was Parliament that emasculated itself by abolishing the 17thAmendment and passing the 18th. Parliamentary supremacy is nothing more than anachronistic legal fiction. The people are supreme. We should not lose sight of that.
The TNA has made comprehensive statements that clearly demonstrate the charade that is being replayed. I urge you to read those statements.
Q: What do you want the government to work soon on?
A: The immediate need of the people is freedom from fear. The terror campaign unleashed recently by the Army prevents people from enjoying some semblance of normalcy. Illegal land grabs continue unabated despite land powers being a devolved subject. Militarization proceeds apace. Involvement by the military in civil matters is unbearable. Colonization with military intervention is deliberate and intended to change the demographic content of the Northern Province. Pernicious interference in the work of the Provincial Council persists. More and more officers who do not know the language of the local people are being brought in from elsewhere to work in the Northern Province. If these aspects could be focused on, we would be at least taking the first few steps towards a lasting peace. Actually, all these are not different issues that need to be worked on. Underlying all of it is simply the lack of genuine concern for the Tamil speaking people, who are not viewed as constituents of the government. We are viewed as a pesky problem that needs to be swept under the carpet so that the rest of the world will not notice. May be ours might not be a matter to be trifled with any more.
Q: Are you not demanding a time-frame from the government to solve the Tamil issue?
A: Some historians argue that it was the arbitrary time-frame of 15 August that resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands during the partition of India. On the other hand, the absence of a time-frame gives a free pass to those who wish to preserve the status quo and delay the process indefinitely. What we request is proof of genuineness. Nobody will grudge a process that takes time so long as it is clear that it is genuine. I think it is quite obvious that the steps taken by the government are akin to batsmen calling for new bats and gloves and the like to delay play until bad light forces close of play. The ‘bad light’ being played for is something that will divert the attention of the international community.
Q: What are the preconditions the government has placed on sharing power?
A: The government is not sharing any power. In fact they are arbitrarily arrogating existing powers to themselves. Stultifying the working of the NPC appears to be the prime concern of the government in the North. They are still to realize that an NPC election had taken place seven months ago and the people had resoundingly rejected the government in power.
Q: You took your oath in the presence of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, while others opposed it. Does the President support your duties?
A: As I mentioned earlier, there are attempts at undermining the legitimate functions of the NPC. Whether this is carried out at the behest of the President or in spite of the President I do not know. I have a cordial relationship with the President. In our discussions he expressed many positive undertakings. Unfortunately, it appears that there are difficulties in delivering on those undertakings.
We remain hopeful that our persistent efforts to dispel mistrust and misunderstanding will bear fruit.
Q: Is it difficult to collaborate and work with NP Governor, G.A. Chandrasiri?
A: As I mentioned earlier, a parallel administration has been set up. I have nothing personal against the Governor. In fact, our personal relationship is fine. The office of the Governor has hitherto been considered as being largely of ceremonial nature. Even now it is so in the other provinces. However, in so far as the Northern and Eastern Provincial Councils are concerned, Governors wield in theory and in practice vast powers and seek to stifle the elected representatives of the people. The military background offers the Governors help in this process, particularly in view of the disproportionately large and unnecessary military presence in these provinces.
Q: Are you campaigning for an internal mechanism to probe alleged human rights violations by the government? What do the Northerners want?
A: We are campaigning for justice. That is what the Northerners want. We want a credible police force, credible investigations and a transparent and independent judicial process. If these are available internally no one would want to seek external help.
Q: What role are you playing in having an internal probe on alleged human rights issues?
A: Police powers are devolved subjects. But, we are not consulted in any matters. The Senior DIG Northern Province has not called on us even once since his appointment. What internal role do you want me to play? Can any person honestly say that there is any genuine internal probe on human rights issues? In the absence of such, the question of my role is meaningless.
Q: What are the restrictions that people have in starting and maintaining a business and buying and owning property in the North?
A: Forget about buying property. People are unable to hold on to their existing properties! How can you think of starting up a commercial enterprise or agriculture if there is no security with regard to land? Secondly, how can you compete with the military when the military embarks on commercial ventures? It kills competition.
Q: What is the NPC doing to safeguard women’s and children’s rights and physical and mental safety?
A: We have set up a Unit to look after their rights. You can contact Miss Prabhato and get the specific details. In addition, we have given psycho-social rehabilitation a central point of focus in our planning. You could speak to the Minister of Health, who will give a detailed picture.
Q: The PSC is the ultimate forum to seek a solution to the problems of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Is that not so?
A: The ultimate forum is the body politic. Parliament, consisting of their representatives, could, by extension, also be considered the ultimate forum. A Parliamentary Select Committee is not the ultimate forum – it is simply a mechanism to streamline matters before the matter goes before the ultimate forum. Given the super-majority held by the government in Parliament and the fact that Parliament as a body is more than willing to stultify itself and become a handmaiden to the Executive, if the Executive works out a solution with the TNA, Parliament would dare not obstruct such a solution. Is it not ironic that whilst weakening democratic and parliamentary practices, the very same institutions are suddenly trotted out as convenient excuses to delay arriving at solutions?
Q: Do you think there are attempts being made to revive the LTTE as the government claims?
A: Certainly not. This is a ruse adopted to further extend the period of stay of nearly one hundred and fifty thousand military personnel in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, despite the lapse of five years since the end of the war. A hunted man on a clandestine mission to resurrect a decimated organization in an area where there is a soldier for nearly every five adults seeks to find refuge in the house of the woman who has been on the military and media radar ever since she drew attention of the British Prime Minister to the plight of the disappeared in Sri Lanka! Surely, even Hollywood movies have better plots!
Q: Northerners claim the arrest and killing of Gopi, the arrest of Balendran Jeyakumari, were orchestrated by the government to keep the PTA intact and to continue the military presence in the Northern Province. What is your take on that?
A: Even respected Sinhalese media personnel and human rights activists among them see it that way.
Q: Minister of Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa, in an interview with Ceylon Today last week insisted the President should contest at the next Presidential Election if the people want him as the 18th Amendment allows it. Would you like to have him as the President of this country again?
A: George Washington, the first President of the United States, voluntarily refused to contest the Presidential election for a third time. Such was the respect for tradition and the fact that long periods of power are inimical to democracy. Despite there being no impediment in terms of the US Constitution, no President of the United States served for more than two terms for nearly 150 years. The tradition was broken only during the World War II by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Promptly thereafter, the Congress passed the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution limiting the terms to two. Mind you, an American Presidential term is only for four years and the office of the President in the US is not given the powers and privileges given to the office of President in Sri Lanka. One of the fundamental tenets of democracy is to have term limits. This is not a modern invention either – the Athenian democracy imposed term limits as did the Roman Republic on elected offices. The issue is not what I like or don’t like. We should move away from personal likes and dislikes and look towards enshrining democracy.
Q: The Mayor of Jaffna said recently that the TNA has internal disputes and have neglected their duties to the people. The media also said there is a major disagreement between NPC Councillor Ananthi Sasitharan and the Party stalwarts. Can you clear the doubts?
A: Where there are people who are committed and not afraid to espouse their views, particularly in a background of repression and intimidation by the government, there are bound to be misunderstandings. We welcome those. Every challenge the TNA has faced has made it stronger and more cohesive. We had a meeting recently in Trincomalee and all misunderstandings were cleared up.
As for the Municipal Council of Jaffna, there are innumerable complaints of fraud, irregularities and so on levelled by the public. We are hoping to appoint a retired Judge to inquire into such irregularities