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‘Who says Sinhalese are against devolving powers to Tamils? That’s absolute rubbish!’ says Chandrika Kumaratunga

Former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga has vehemently rubbished the claim being made by some people in the present government that the majority Sinhalese are opposed to devolving political power to the minority Tamils in her island-nation.

“Who says the Sinhalese are opposed to devolving powers to the Tamils? That’s absolute rubbish!” she declared in an interview she gave me here on Wednesday (April 11) during a visit to the Indian capital.

She said that till recently, most Sinhalese have not been even aware that the island’s Tamils have a problem, and squarely blamed politicians for keeping them in the dark and for exploiting the ethnic divide for political purposes.

Ms Kumaratunga, who ruled her country as its President for 11 years (1994-2005), said that It was during an election rally in 1994 at Elpitiya near Galle in the Sinhala-majority south that she first told the Sinhala people that the Tamils in the North and East were having problems because they did not have political power.

She recalled: “I said at that rally that political power must be devolved to the Tamils too so that both communities can enjoy the same rights and privileges and live together in harmony. As I was speaking, colleagues from my party (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) sitting on the stage behind me were whispering to me: ‘Madam, don’t say such things. We will lose votes.’

However, as she finished speaking, a few people began clapping for her. “Much to my pleasant surprise, all those at that rally joined in the clapping. In all my meetings thereafter, I kept telling the Sinhalese people that power should be devolved to the Tamils. In the 1994 parliamentary election, we got 82% of the vote. I myself won by 63%. What more proof do you want to show that the Sinhalese favour devolving powers to the Tamils? ”

She said the Sinhalese extremists who oppose devolution of powers to the Tamils is barely 5%. But if those in the government keep talking in extremist language, the people at large get confused. And there is a danger that they too may eventually develop an extremist, anti-Tamil mindset, Ms Kumaratunga warned.

She pointed out that, while President Mahinda Rajapaksa swept the polls in the South, he lost badly in the North and East. “There is a clear divide between the South and the North on ethnic lines. This divide must be narrowed and eliminated soon for the good of the country,” she opined.

The war against the Tamil Tigers ended three years ago. But what the Rajapaksa government has done so far in the civil war-ravaged Northern and Eastern provinces is not enough. A lot more needs to be done without wasting any more time, she said.

A visibly distressed Kumaratunga asked: “What are they (the government) waiting for? Why are so many of the internally displaced Tamils still living in temporary shelters? Why are they not being given back their original homes? Why are they not being provided assistance to rehabilitate themselves so that they can rebuild their lives and move on?”

“There are systems and procedures for resettlement and rehabilitation put in place by my mother (Sirimavo Bandaranaike) in the 1960s when she was prime minister,” she pointed out.

The government claims that 290,000 of the 297,000 Internally Displaced Persons—-IDPs—- have already been rehabilitated. But Ms Kumaratunga disputes this. “Because of international hue and cry, the refugee camps at Manik farms were closed down. But most of the IDPs are still living in temporary shelters,” she claimed.

Ms Kumaratunga recalled: “When the tsunami ravaged many parts of the island in December 2004, I was President. I was in office for 11 months after the tsunami. And we made sure that those thousands of people who lost their homes and suffered badly were promptly rehabilitated without any fuss.”

(In the tsunami that lashed at Sri Lanka’s 13 coastal districts on 26 December 2004, around 31,000 people were killed, 130,000 houses were damaged—-99,000 of them destroyed completely, 443,000 people were displaced, and between one million and two million people were affected).

“If we could do it by using the systems that have been in place for half a century, why can’t the present government do it now?” asked the former president.

She feels the government should not get involved in building homes for the IDPs because corruption will eat up more than 50% of the funds allocated. The money for rehabilitation should be disbursed in three stages: an advance at first, the next two installments on the basis of how much of the construction is completed.

She also questioned the rationale behind the stationing of security personnel in such large numbers and occupying large tracts of land.

“I agree that we should have some military presence in the North and East. But why so many of them are there even three years after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been eliminated?”

Ms Kumaratunga said the problem is that the present dispensation is mixing up the entire Tamil community with terrorism. “The Tamils are a peaceful people. They had no choice but to keep quiet or go along with (LTTE chief Velupillai) Prabhakaran when he was alive.”

“They never liked him in the first place, nor approved of his methods. Now that the war is over, they simply want to live in peace and move on. It’s not fair to look at the Tamils with suspicion as if they all are terrorists. This is just not right.”

Asked what she will do if she is in power today, she declared: “First, I will resettle all the displaced Tamils in their original homes. And I will offer the same devolution package I did when I was President. Now that Prabhakaran is not there any more, maybe, I will reduce that package just a little!”

Would she like to get back to active politics again?

“No way! Thanks. I did enough for my country! Now, if anybody is interested, I will be happy to tell them how to provide good governance without corruption.”
 S.Venkatnarayan, courtesy: Sunday Island


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