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‘We could settle on a home-spun solution’

PLOTE Leader Dharmalingam Siddarthan

PLOTE Leader Dharmalingam Siddarthan claims that the LTTE damaged the Tamil cause much more than the Sinhala leadership or the government led army.

In an interview with , The Sundy Leader the former militant turned politician opines that local elections in the north are premature and inappropriate, and the composition of the presidential task force non-representative. Excerpts:

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti 

Q: Now that local elections have been announced for Vavuniya and Jaffna, what role will PLOTE play in the forthcoming elections? 

A: We welcome a new era, the reintroduction of democracy and pluralism to the northeast. The LTTE is finally defeated. Democracy and pluralism were long denied to the Tamil community.

In my view, the announcement of elections, just days after the war are inappropriate. There should have been more time for people to overcome their trauma and settle with a regular lifestyle without guns and bombs. It is too premature.

I am not talking about those rendered refugees, but civilians who live in their own homes. They need and deserve some time to experience the return to normalcy. People should have peaceful minds to think of political requirements.

But now that polls have been announced, we will certainly contest the election as a tripartite alliance with the TULF and EPRLF (Pathmanabha Faction). We would be happier even with a greater alliance. Our collective resolve is to contest.

Q: Why is the EPDP not part of your political alliance?

A: We have nothing against the EPDP. Its Leader Douglas Devananda is a government constituent party member. He may have some difficulties in adopting an independent political position.

We supported the government on its war effort to defeat the LTTE but wish to retain our political identity. We would be happy to widen the political circle anyway.

Q: If the poll announcement is inappropriate, would you agree that the government is keen to take political advantage of the post war situation?

A: I believe the government is keen to start the political process and many countries are waiting for that moment. There is hope about democratic institutions being reintroduced paving the way for development. The government appears to consider the setting up of local bodies as the correct move.

I am not faulting the government for announcing a poll, but personally feel, post conflict, people need time to settle in their villages and homes. It also offers an opportunity for political parties.

Q: Is the defeat of the LTTE also likely to infer the subjugation of the Tamil community and their political identity as some see it?

A: No. Let me give you some background as a pioneer of a Tamil militant movement. At the beginning, all of us including Pirapaharan were committed to the separatist cause. After the 1983 riots, all military organisations ballooned into larger outfits. This also led us to lose our direction and sense of purpose.

Secondly, to achieve the goal of sole representative status, the LTTE commenced the elimination of other groups. With that they lost their mission. They forgot their mission and the people’s aspirations. The LTTE in its quest for supremacy amongst Tamil organisations, eliminated even democratically elected leaders like Amirthalingam.

Then, post 1983, there was much international sympathy for the Tamil cause.

Even India initially never supported a separatist cause for the Tamil people. After the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, most of us realised a separate state was not achievable. If India did not back it, there was no way we were going to achieve it. We opted to enter the mainstream and contested the elections at local, provincial and national level.

Sadly for the LTTE, even after the Accord, it continued on a course that was unjustifiable and unacceptable. They failed to understand the political reality that a separatist state for Tamils was unattainable.

Destruction is not a liberation struggle. Limited violence may be a means to be heard but the LTTE’s levels of violence and lack of political direction proved to be their fatal flaws.

The LTTE damaged the Tamil cause much more than the Sinhala leadership by killing a large number of Tamil leaders. LTTE’s militancy also did not help Tamils to win their justifiable rights.

Successive governments used the LTTE’s unrelenting nature to their advantage, and to brush aside any proposal for devolution as being unacceptable to the LTTE. That was the ready-made reply for a reluctant state to deny devolution. 

The LTTE had a policy of all or nothing. As long as the Tigers are alive and kicking, there won’t be peace. After seeing the destruction and the refugees, I think the Tamil political leadership must do some soul searching and come together. Our collective aim should be to resettle, rehabilitate and develop. We all have suffered enough.

The urgent requirement is not a political solution but a human solution.

Q:  What role would you play in seeking a solution to the humanitarian problem you cited?

A: We have already spoken to India and held discussions with Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapakse. I believe if the international community is convinced about the end of the war, they will play a role in development. India and some European nations are keen to assist.

I think the government is keen to resettle people. They have a 180-day programme and at least they might get a head-start during this period. It is difficult to achieve major targets overnight. There are thousands of anti personnel mines to be cleared and some LTTE caches to deal with. The realities are harsh. It takes time and immense effort. There are no shortcuts.

Q: Do you accept that the LTTE organisation is destroyed?

A: My educated guess is that the LTTE leadership is routed out. Its structure is sufficiently devastated. The LTTE influence on the youth will also peter out and is already on the wane. It is the LTTE expatriate community that struggles to keep the LTTE alive. I don’t think it can rebuild itself to its former level. In a small way they might function but even that is not possible just yet. Also, no guerilla group can survive without the people’s support and the LTTE has considerably lost its support base.

The government is aware of this. I believe the state will now try to win the Tamil people over. We all must play our role to reintegrate our society. There is a role for alternate Tamil leaders and the priority is to help our people to enter a new chapter.

Q: The composition of the Special Task Force to rebuild the north is completely Sinhalese. Is this acceptable to northern Tamil leaders?

A: It should have been inclusive. It is important that at least some members understand the Tamil language, know the terrain, the realities and the attendant problems. The region’s political leadership should have been invited to play a direct part.

The body should reflect the representation of the northern people. Civilians harbour fear. They know they are viewed as LTTE supporters. They need to communicate in their language with people who may be sympathetic to their plight. A Sinhala only task force is a mistake.

Q: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has described the conditions of the IDP camps as ‘appalling.’ As a Tamil political leader from the north, how do you rate the camps’ status?

A: When people came into the government controlled areas, I must admit the camp conditions were very bad. The LTTE had stopped the food supplies and people were starving when they came in.

By now conditions are much improved.  The IDPs who came last informed some of our members that a desperate LTTE was seen burning massive amounts of local currency. Tiger cadres have told the IDPs to take food stocks having forced them to starvation before.

Some ask as to why the government asked the people to come out when they could not keep the civilians well supplied.  The military continued to liberate areas and the government had to quickly move the people into safe areas.

Over 280,000 people are in the camps now. Nowhere in the world can refugees be completely catered to and their needs met. Civilians, organisations, political groups and religious places played their roles to help them and still do.

We are a Third World country and we can’t expect miracles to happen. The people are not starving. I can guarantee that. They have reasonable meals. There are undeniable shortcomings but I think efforts are being made to ensure some support.

The criticism comes from some NGOs due to being denied access to camps. The tsunami was a windfall for them and they are angry over not being allowed a second opportunity to make quick money.

Q: Post war, can you overrule government-sponsored colonisation in the north?

A: We are completely opposed to government-sponsored colonisation. This is a historical mistake committed by some governments.

The argument is that if Tamils can live in Colombo why, the Sinhalese can’t live in Jaffna. It is not a problem if Sinhalese wish to move into areas inhabited largely by the Tamils. We will only oppose any government-sponsored colonisation aimed at altering the demographics of the area.  Such a move will be stiffly resisted. 

Having said that, I don’t think the present government would begin colonisation. Despite constituent partners like the JHU pushing for such in the east, this government did not pursue such a path.

Q: The north had been a hub of militancy for decades. Isn’t demilitarisation key to restoring normalcy?

A: Ex-militants from other groups have already integrated into the mainstream. Some are still getting integrated into society having lived like outcasts. We only have a small number outside and they are not arms-carrying members. They too will soon come on board.

The problem is applicable to the LTTE cadres. Its top rung is largely eliminated. The second and third levels should be separated from society and put through a rehabilitation process and later reintegrated. It will take time and we should stay the course patiently.

Those with minor association with the LTTE could be pardoned. If we try to be very harsh, these cadres cannot be won over.

I recently visited the Balagalla open prison for LTTE cadres. They want to return to their education and to their professions. Today, parents won’t encourage their children to get into militant movements. That phase is over.

But they must be carefully handled, or else this will breed criminal elements. But it will take time.

Q: But it is common knowledge that besides the LTTE, there are other armed groups operating in the north? Shouldn’t they immediately disarm?

A: I believe the LTTE threat is almost over. These groups carried weapons largely to shield themselves against LTTE violence. I think soon they will voluntarily disarm themselves. They should become completely democratic.

Q: What would be the ideal political solution to the Tamil question?

A: The word federal is anathema to the Sinhala polity today. So I do not want to give it a name. It should be reasonable devolution, offering answers to our questions. It should support the running of these two provinces effectively. The concurrent list must be abolished, it allows line ministries to interfere.

Q: Does  ‘reasonable devolution’ mean something beyond the 13th Amendment?

A: When the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord was signed, we informed the Indian government that it was insufficient to fulfill Tamil political aspirations. We are ready to accept it as a basis to build on.

But it was never fully implemented. Now there is a move to implement it. The APRC process must also continue. Then we should look at the options and settle on a homespun solution that meets our political needs.

Q: Does your brand of solution require a merged northeast?

A: We would honestly prefer that.

Q: Given the diversity in the northern Tamil political opinion, is it possible to work together post war?

A: The number of opinions should be treated as a richness. The group with the highest military might once considered itself the sole representatives of the Tamil people. The next one considered it the second largest. That phase is hopefully over.

There is a historical opportunity to develop our area devoid of bloodshed. If free polls are held, the people will elect the members they want. Having suffered enough, they would not wish to have these militant groups wielding political power.

The people can now have the ultimate choice in electing representatives and not have the  gun forcing them to choose.


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