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Interviews

  '13th Amendment must be fully implemented'


'Govt. precipitating a humanitarian crisis'


Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam

TNA Parliamentarian Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam admits that the government forces have gained control over once LTTE held areas but states that it is not a solution to the political question that has plagued the country and driven a section of the Tamil community towards militancy.

Following are excerpts of an interview with The Sunday Leader:

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Q: About how many civilians are likely to be trapped in the LTTE controlled areas due to the current military engagements? The Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC), estimates the figure to be around 238,831 in the entire northeast...

A: Our information is that there are about 500,000 civilians living in LTTE controlled areas purely in the Wanni. Of this figure, over 200,000 civilians are Internally Displaced Persons. Of these IDPs over 130,000 have been displaced several times over since early June due to the aerial bombardment and artillery fire conducted by the GOSL. These IDPs are living under trying conditions. There are some 50,000 individuals living under trees.

Q: Do you accept the notion that the LTTE is losing ground?

A: The fact is that when compared with the situation that prevailed in the northeast in 2002 when the CFA was signed, there is no denying that the government has gained territory and that the LTTE has lost territory. 

The real question is whether that is a demonstration of one side's strength and the other side's weakness. I am not a military analyst. To try and understand what is happening now. I look at what happened over the past 30 years. There have been instances when one side lost and another side gained territory in the past too. In the late 1990s the GOSL had gained a lot of territory but that situation changed dramatically by the time the CFA was signed in 2002. I think it is a mistake to look at it as a territory debate.

One should not lose sight of the fact that the LTTE in the eyes of the Tamil people is a national liberation movement. That is what is most important. The Tamil people are more behind the LTTE today than they have ever been in the past.

If persons are assessing the situation based on gained and lost territory, my perception is that such people have not learned from the past and are likely to repeat some of the historical mistakes all over again. 

Q: The government has set a year-end deadline for the capture of Kilinochchi and to eradicate terrorism. Is this feasible in your view?

A: In the first place, I don't accept there is a terrorist problem in this island. The Tamil people are fighting for national liberation against an oppressive state. The Tamil National Struggle commenced long before the advent of the LTTE. The truth is that the LTTE is a national liberation movement and is very much alive.

Why the LTTE's presence cannot be discounted is because it is built on popular support.

We have been told many times and by many governments of Sri Lanka that the war will be won and that the LTTE will be defeated. This is also not the first time that deadlines have been given by governments. From the little I know, I am yet to come across an instance when a national liberation movement in any part of the world has been militarily defeated.

Q: Unlike other Tamil political parties, the TNA has not called upon civilians to leave the LTTE held areas despite a worsening situation. Why?

A: It is clear that the government wants the Tamil civilians to leave LTTE controlled areas and to move to the government controlled areas.

The Tamil civilians in the Wanni know what is happening to the Tamils in the east despite over a year having lapsed. The Tamils continue to suffer immensely in the east. The situation is far from the so-called 'liberation' that the government claims. That does not make it easy for the civilians to enter government areas. On the contrary, they fear the fate that befell the Tamils in the east would now be theirs if they crossed over.

The Tamils have never felt a sense of belonging to the Sri Lankan State. The Tamils consider the state as hostile to their interests. As to where the Tamil civilians want to move to avoid the fighting is something that should be left to them to decide.

But I agree with my colleagues, I believe the civilians would not want to enter government held areas. Currently there are Tamils living in government-controlled areas. The whole world knows how hostile the government treats them.

Therefore the Tamil people in LTTE controlled areas will have natural fears about leaving.

I doubt the civilians in the Wanni think that they can trust a government that has been deliberately bombing civilian targets. I doubt the Tamil civilians in the Wanni are ready to trust a government that has been imposing embargoes and denying humanitarian aid to them and has been using food and medicine as a weapon of war.

Q: So your perception is that civilians would not leave LTTE held areas to enter government controlled areas on their own accord?

A:  Yes. This is my understanding of the situation.

Q: Is the government likely to guarantee safe passage to the affected civilians?

A: Well the TNA has been meeting  the UN and other humanitarian agencies recently. They inform us that the government has indicated that they are willing to agree on a 'humanitarian corridor' to facilitate the movement of the Tamil civilians from LTTE controlled areas to GOSL controlled areas.

The government is obviously giving a very narrow interpretation to the 'humanitarian corridor' concept. Since it is very unlikely that the Tamil civilians in the Wanni will want to leave LTTE controlled areas for the reasons that I mentioned earlier, our view is that the 'humanitarian corridor' concept should be given a more realistic interpretation, whereby the government should permit safe passage to all humanitarian assistance, that is, to all humanitarian workers and the aid they carry to where the affected civilian population is.

Q: Following the air attacks by the LTTE, the government claims that one of the aircraft were intercepted and attacked. What is the ground information you have in this regard?

A: I know only what I hear from the media and that is, that the government claims that an aircraft belonging to the LTTE was brought down, and the LTTE denying it. But really, I think what is more important is to understand, that the fact of the matter is that there cannot be a military solution to the conflict. This struggle is steeped in the deep political aspirations of the Tamil Nation to be a free people.

Everything that is happening should be viewed in this background. The LTTE has the support of the Tamil population. Besides the local civilian support, it enjoys tremendous diaspora support. The truth is that the LTTE has gone from strength to strength.

I find it difficult to believe that they have suddenly lost this strength, just due to the advent of the Mahinda Rajapakse regime.

Q: The LTTE is being accused of using civilians as a human shield. What are your views?

A: The LTTE has a lot to lose by using civilians as human shields. The last thing the LTTE would want is to deliberately put the civilians at risk and thereby jeopardise its own support base.  The LTTE will not put the people in harm's way, knowing fully well that the people remain their strength. It is a movement built on the people's strength. It is a people's movement and derives strength from the people.

Why would it want to put civilians at risk and risk its own future? It is ridiculous even to suggest that.

Q: Is it your contention that the LTTE still enjoys massive mass support, despite 30 years of not being able to deliver to the Tamil people?

A: I strongly believe so. There is no disputing that the LTTE is strongly supported by the people.

Q: Do you feel that the current situation merits UN or international intervention? In fact the government has requested both NGOs and INGOs operating in the Wanni to move out.

A: The TNA has always maintained that the international community must come forward to provide humanitarian assistance to the affected people. We make this point to every foreign actor that we meet, whether it be foreign governments or INGOs.

We also tell them that the GOSL is deliberately precipitating a humanitarian crisis for precisely the reason of getting the Tamil civilian population to leave LTTE controlled areas. They did it in the east and now they are doing it in the north. In other words the creation of this humanitarian crisis is a part and parcel of the government's military strategy. This is obvious to everyone.

What we have been telling the international community is that, their not restraining the Government of Sri Lanka when Tamil civilians are being so blatantly targeted will have consequences with regards to their own credibility vis-…-vis the Tamil people. The Tamil people are watching closely as to who is doing what in the international community at this important time for us.

Q: The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is about to make a visit to India and meet Indian leaders. What's the purpose of this visit?

A: We would like to go to India. India is an important country. The Tamil people have always wanted good and strong ties with our neighbour. The Tamil homeland is a very short distance away from India. The Tamil people have viewed the people of India even more closely. A lot is happening here. We wish to keep India informed of our views.


'13th Amendment must be fully implemented'


Douglas Devananda

Minister of Social Services and Jaffna District MP Douglas Devananda believes fire should be met with fire and calls for the elimination of the LTTE leadership in a bid to introduce democracy to the north. Following are excerpts of an interview with The Sunday Leader:

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Q: About how many civilians are likely to be trapped in the Wanni now?

A: The exact information is not available with me. The LTTE as usual is using the people as a human shield. They did it in the east and it happened in the north. Now it is happening in the Wanni. Different quarters quote various figures. I am unable to offer definite numbers.

Q: You hold the important portfolio of Social Services. What kind of scheme do you have in place to assist the displaced?

A: Not just because of that portfolio, but as a Minister who represents the people of the affected area, I may lead the government team there. People are beginning to move to government held areas and I want to see this happen.

There is a Special Task Force through which people come to meet us. We meet their needs through that.

Q: Do you believe that the LTTE is losing ground to the government forces?

A: Of course they are and it is natural for that to happen.

The LTTE has denied the north connectivity with the south. Even though we have a political problem, complete separation does not get us anywhere.

I am a politician who hails from a leftist background. I always held progressive views but unfortunately, we could not find a progressive southern government to work with.

As a member of this government, having shed my militancy to answer the political question that affects the community, I have begun a new journey. I want that connectivity, lost thanks to the LTTE, to be reintroduced. Through that, to make civilians and specially the young people to understand that they are misled and made to believe in war.

I just brought thousands of children from Vavuniya to Colombo recently. Right now I have a group of over 300 northern students who have excelled in sports and some young innovators visiting Colombo. We encourage them to participate in national athletic meets and to play a decisive role in shaping their own future.

We have committed too many youths to the war, from both sides. And this nation weeps.

I tell the Tamil people that for the past two decades, people in the Wanni suffered due to lack of democracy. We need to reintroduce democracy there.

President is trying to do that. We should assist him. It happened in the east also. There are some issues in the east still, no doubt. But it is better than what it used to be. Things will improve.

Northern Province is different. It has special concerns. But the fact remains that I have steadfastly fought for the rights of the Tamils, in government also. I have always strived to serve their needs and to increase their bargaining power and believe that their suffering should end.

I know by experience that militancy can get you only to the half way mark. Beyond that lies the political path. Naturally the LTTE is losing ground not just due to military setbacks but also due to lack of popular support.

There may be some political criticism on me. There may be one or two incidents where my people are involved.  But I keep them under strict check.

The issue is that the LTTE is against democracy. It is against democracy because in such a set up, the Tigers won't have a role to play. They will lose their significance. So they feel shielded by the gun culture for beyond that lies a barren future in which they are reduced to nothing.

When I call for the LTTE's elimination, I call for the elimination of its leadership. It should happen for the people to progress and look at new political alternatives.

Q: Do you foresee a separate Northern Provincial Council in the near future?

A: I have no doubt that it is the President's wish. Once the area is liberated, it will be a reality. Before that there is every chance to hold local government elections. There are many cleared areas that could be readied for local polls easily before we go for the larger political exercise of establishing a provincial administration.

Q: Do you still stand for an amalgamated northeast?

A: I still do. That's what I always stood for as a political leader from the north. But due to recent political changes, we are willing to adapt to new situations. Our original demands of a merged northeast and recognition of a homeland concept have not changed. But we all have evolved- political parties and the people.

The EPDP is willing to accept that the 13th Amendment was a turning point in Sri Lankan politics. We want it fully implemented. Let's take it from there and move forward.

Q: The government has set a new deadline for capturing Kilinochchi, which is the year-end. As someone aware of the ground situation, does this appear feasible?

A: If it becomes reality before that deadline, I would be happy. Not because I enjoy annihilation of people or due to some petty score I have to settle with the LTTE and its leadership. The reason is that for people and the area to progress, there has to be space for democracy. It will never be a reality as long as Pirapaharan is alive. He will never allow other political opinion. 

Q: Do you believe that civilians should be moved out of LTTE held territory?

A: Yes they should be. When security forces liberated Jaffna, the LTTE forced Jaffna people towards Wanni. Some two third did not turn up. They went up to Chavakachcheri area. They remained there and later returned home. Only about one third followed the LTTE instructions.

It is the LTTE atrocities people have to be careful about.

Q: How do you propose the government should act, to create a humanitarian corridor to help civilians evacuate?

A: It is a mechanism that the government should put in place. It is important to bear in mind that the LTTE would seriously block this from happening. That will dilute its presence and significance. Even if the government manages to grant safe passage, the LTTE will create problems.

Q: What mechanism can help civilians safely enter government-controlled areas?

A:  Somehow we have to ensure this.

Let me add this. There are two aspects to the ethnic question. One is the terrorist issue and the other, political. Terrorists have to be dealt with in a language they understand. The more  the government  attacks the more ferocious the LTTE response will be. We have to drain the LTTE on the one side and drain its leadership on the other side. Until then, there will be no amicable settlement. Pirapaharan will stand in the way to peaceful resolution of the conflict.

We must earn the trust of the Tamil people by granting safe passage. The armed forces can do that.

Q: When should the political process begin, according to you?

A:  Before the Indo-Lanka Agreement, we called it a Sinhala government. Now  we accept this as the Sri Lankan government. After the agreement, the Tamil democratic leadership had ample openings to enter the mainstream and make a difference. The Tamil political organisations did not make use of the new opportunity. There had been talks during President Premadasa's time, then during President Kumaratunga's, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's and even with President Rajapakse.

This President is an amicable one. In Tamil there is a saying that the most enduring of gods refuse to bear pain at some point. The LTTE drove the President to this end. Now he has decided on a course of military action. 

Q: Are you satisfied with the Tamil political leadership in the north?

A: Do you feel only the LTTE represents the Tamil people? Are they a strong political presence? The organisation has been the bane of the people.

After the Indo Lanka Peace Accord, things have changed. The problem is that there is no internal democracy in any of these Tamil political organisations. How can they preach democracy outside?

Also, militancy is a passing phase. It is a tool to be heard, to clamour for a cause. But it does not last. There has to be a political ideology that is pushed through a limited militant movement. That's why the Tamil problem remains unresolved.

Q: Is it your position that Tamil militancy has failed?

A: Sad as it may seem, it has failed. The problem is that these organisations forgot that militancy should be used in order to be politically heard. Now the political voice is not heard. The LTTE especially will be nothing without its military power.

I am qualified to speak as a former militant. I was in the EROS and the EPRLF before the EPDP. We should evolve and learn from past mistakes. Militancy is only a means to an end, but not the end.

Q: How can the government guarantee safe passage when it has required the INGOs and NGOs to leave the Wanni immediately?

A: That is altogether different. That is an extra burden that the government does not wish to accept at a time when civilian security is the foremost issue. Instead of having multiple concerns, the government has decided to deal with the humanitarian problem this way.

Q: Does the humanitarian problems in the north require UN or international intervention?

A: There is a Tamil saying once again that one's own hand should wipe the tears. It means, the problem is local and it should be solved within the country. There is no role for outside intervention. It is the complex truth. This is not Dafur.


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