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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

No action, talk only, says Suresh

    * TNA is not interested in separatism
    * Proper devolution is healthy for Sri Lanka

The UPFA government and the TNA are now put to face each other and both teams are engrossed in talks to find a solution to the day to day problems faced by the Tamils of North-East. Already four rounds of talks have been held between these parties. However on April 29 the all important talks will commence and that will be on the political solution to the ethnic crisis.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has already promised to offer the Tamils what he himself has described as ‘13th amendment plus’ while India, Sri Lanka’s giant neighbour has suggested a ‘13th amendment plus plus’. The contentious issue however seems to be in devolving police powers to the periphery. On this issue both the TNA and the government are sharply divided. The TNA last week submitted its proposals to the government outlining details of the degree of powers that had to be devolved to the periphery.

Having submitted its proposal, the TNA is waiting for something positive to happen on April 29. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian and Jaffna district MP, Suresh Premachandran in a hard hitting interview to The Nation said successive governments had only prolonged the issue by merely talking without any action.
“We have seen only talks but no action. When the LTTE was present it was difficult for us also to convince the governments to settle for a solution. But now that the LTTE is defeated it should not be difficult for the government to find a suitable solution. We have not given up hope in this government,” he said.

Following are excerpts:
Q: What is the progress of the talks held between the TNA and the government so far?

There is no major breakthrough as a matter of fact. The progress is slow. The government has asked us several times what our requirements and needs are. Now this question has been asked from us since the early 70s. But nevertheless, we have given our proposals to the government.
In the very first meeting we had with the government, we did mention that we need maximum possible devolution within a united Sri Lanka. We then submitted the government our package, in which the degree of powers that had to be devolved to the periphery had been clearly spelled out. We are awaiting response from the government.

Now this is about the political solution. About the day to day issues too we have been talking with the government and I do not see any improvement in this regard as well. We told the government that Tamils still in Army custody must be given an opportunity to meet their kith and kin. First the government said it was collecting details of these members and later told us that they have collected the much needed information and there has been a data bank set up. After that the government told us that the kith and kin were now allowed to visit this bank and obtain any details about their loved ones. But when we told our people about it and when they visited the data bank in the Wanni, they were chased out by the army.
We then reported back to the government regarding this and the government promised to look into it. But to date, there has not been any information about this from the government. About 850 long term prisoners are languishing in prisons for more than 10 years without any charges. We requested the government to release them but there has been no response.

Then about resettlement, we informed the government that there are several High Security Zones (HSZ) and they must be reduced, to no avail. There are refugee camps in Valigamam north. For the last 24 years the people have been living in this camp. In Sambur and Muthur more than 6,000 people are in camps for more than five years. These people have no access to their own lands. In Mullaitivu district in the Wanni, an extent of 20 square kilo metres of land is not accessible to the Tamils who have their properties. This covers three Grama Nilsdhari divisions. But they can’t go there. In Thirumurugandi in the A9 road about 100 families are without land because they are taken over by the government. People in Mullaikulam in Mannar district can’t return to their homes because their lands are taken over by the government. So whenever we tell all these problems to the government, the government only listens to us without any action.

Q: But the TNA has met the government only four times. Are you confident that future talks would be fruitful?
We have to wait and see. The real pain of mind is when we as peoples’ representatives visit the Tamil areas the people plead from us asking us whether they can see their children who are kept behind bars by the government. Can anyone understand our plight? So we told the government to at least release the names of those kept in prisons so that the people will know that their children are living. But this has not happened. It is a violation of human rights to deny parents or relations from visiting their children and loved ones who are in prisons. Doesn’t this government know about this?

Q: How confident are you that these talks would pay dividends at the end of the day?

Well, no discussion from the inception has shown positive results. It does not mean we are pessimistic. We still have hopes that this government will do something. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is the first one who said that he will offer us 13th amendment plus. So we are confident that at least under his regime some change will take place.

Q: What do you think were the reasons for past talks to go wrong?

The main stumbling block has been the unwillingness on the part of the successive governments to give in to any of our demands. Even before the Indo-Lanka talks we had the Thimpu talks, then Mangala Moonasinghe commission, then talks under former Presidents like J. R. Jayawardene,
R. Premadasa, Chandrika Kumaratunga, and under Ranil Wickremesinghe and also under the present President Rajapaksa.

Under Rajapaksa we had two meaningful exercises. One was the APRC conference and the other was the Expert Committee meetings. The report we submitted to the Expert Committee in my view could be the basis for any form of dialogue. But still the government is asking us what we want. So we feel all governments have been in the habit of buying time and nobody takes our problems serious. What we really don’t understand is that when the government says one thing, the cabinet ministers say a total different thing outside parliament. Now we never found this type of politics in the past.

Q: You accused the government of being the stumbling block. But how about the LTTE. Did not the LTTE throw out everything what was offered including the Oslo declaration and demanded only for Eelam?
Yes, you are correct. And this is why the Tamils are continuing to suffer in their own land.

Q: If you say the discussions on the day to day issues are slow and without any progress, is it prudent to talk with the government on the main political solution on April 29?
We are doing it simultaneously. For us both are equally important, the day to day issue as well as a political solution. As regards the political solution we have already given it in black and white to the government outlining our needs. So now it is up to the government to see whether they can accommodate us or tell us these demands will not be met. We are also eager to find out a decent answer from the government. We have told the government in no uncertain terms that if we need to have functional institutions in our respective provinces then we need to have powers.

Q: The other day the TNA handed over a long list to the government mentioning about certain powers to the periphery including the police and land powers. One area that successive governments have found it difficult to compromise is on the police powers because there is a fear that this could be misused. How do you look at it?

As long as the LTTE was present there was room to justify this fear but now we are saying that we do not want a separate state but want only provincial powers under a united Sri Lanka. If you take any other country in which powers are devolved, the police powers are also devolved. We are not asking for a police force with guns and missiles, but a law enforcement authority to maintain law and order. I don’t think there should be any fear or apprehension about this.

Q: How optimistic are you that these proposals will be considered by the government?

Again I want to reiterate that we do not want to be pessimistic. Life is all to do with hopes. So we are going on that basis. The proposal we gave to the government is not the comprehensive set of proposals. There is lot more to it. Whether the government will accept it or not is not something that worries us. We have had bitter experiences in the past when leaders abrogated several of our earlier proposals.

Q: What prompts only the Tamil parties to ask for powers to their respective provinces while others do not make any claim
This springs from the past bitter and frightening experiences the Tamils have undergone in the past. Take for instance the ethnic riots, the Sinhala Only Act, the disenfranchisement of the plantation population and various other moves to suppress the rights of the minority. So this is one reason why we need to have protection and proper safeguards for our people. Also power devolution is not something new or unique. Almost all democratic countries have powers devolved to the periphery. If this happens Sri Lanka will prosper further and there can be more investments and this is also good for the country’s economy and of course the image of the country.
Today, as a matter of fact Sri Lanka is facing the brunt of the International Community for various reasons and we only want to help our own country. We reiterate to the government that we do not want a separate state but we want a solution within the united Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is our country and we too feel for it the way every Sinhalese feels.

Q: What will be the outcome at the end of the day if all the talks fail and things return to zero? Would there be space for another uprising?

This is why we are tiring ourselves to find a solution. We do not want to pass this problem on to the next generation. Right now I do not see any possibility of an uprising. But who knows what will happen in the future if the Tamils are continued to be pushed against the wall. I cannot speak for the actions of the next generation. It is up to the leaders of this country to think about.

Q: Does the TNA have any links with the Global Tamil Forum and the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam that are gaining momentum outside Sri Lanka?

No. We have no connections. They have their own agenda while we have ours. We want to solve the problems within a united Sri Lanka while they are clamouring for a separate state. But I hope the Sri Lankan leaders will take us seriously and sincerely because at the end of the day we do not like to see such huge organizations outside our country trying to mount pressure on our governments.
Take for instance the Oxford union incident. Now who knew that the Diaspora could be powerful enough to prevent President Rajapaksa from making his speech there? So we have to be mindful of these developments.

Q: India now wants the 13th Amendment plus implemented. Is this another election gimmick or do you think India is serious?
I think India is serious. In fact India has insisted that the government talks to the TNA. The TNA has been identified by India as a party democratically elected by the people. And we see this as one of the reasons why the Sri Lankan government is talking to us. So we respect the role played by India at all times.

Q: You just said the present talks with the government are on the insistence of India. Does this augur well for the future amity of both communities if talks are held under pressure?

This is our worry as well. If the present talks are aimed at managing or cushioning pressure from India or for that matter any other country, then the end result will be pathetic.

Q: During the war it is India again that wanted to finish the war while even US wanted Sri Lanka to take a step back, according to the Wikileaks. Is this because India was keen to see the end of Prabhakaran?
Yes. India was keen to see the eradication of terrorism. But India knows well that Tamils have a major problem and that is why even at present India is continuing to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government. This is why India came out with the Indo-Lanka accord and out of that sprang the 13th Amendment. So from the inception India has been playing a prudent role in the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis.

Q: There is a fear that Indian role could lead to separatism as some key Tamil Nadu politicians are determined to see it happening. How do you look at it?
India will never allow separatism and that is one reason we are confidently going behind India and further depending upon her for assistance. India only wants a decent devolution to take place.

Q: Even Congress leader Sonia Gandhi is seen extending her support to the Tamil cause. Is this because the LTTE is defeated in your view?
That is one reason. But otherwise India is increasingly worried about Sri Lanka’s gravitation towards China.

Q: What is the next plan after April 29?We will have to wait and see. It depends on how the government is going to react. We have placed everything before the government.

Q: Earlier it was said that the TNA proposal to the government made a week ago is confidential and that the document will not be circulated to the media. But how come certain Sunday newspapers had the details of the TNA proposals?

This is not our work. That was the work of the government. In fact we are very worried about it. When the government told us not to leak the details of our proposals to the media, we honoured it by not releasing it to the media. But it is the government that leaked the details of the document to some media organisations.

I personally think this is a breach of trust and the government should not be stooping down to such low levels. Certainly the details of the TNA proposals have not gone out from the TNA. I assure you.

The Nation

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