The Sunday Leader

“The Conflict Is Still Alive”

By Maryam Azwer

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has been expressing an escalating lack of faith in the Government’s commitment to finding a political solution to the ethnic issue.
In an interview with The Sunday Leader, TNA MP Suresh Premachandran even claimed that the Government’s current attitude indicated a conflict that is “still alive.”
Premachandran also spoke on the needs of the Tamil people, why the TNA sought support from India and the Tamil diaspora, and the issue of Indian fishermen being assaulted when fishing in the North.
Excerpts from the interview:

Q: The President has assured India that not only is he committed to implementing the 13th Amendment, but that he is even willing to go beyond it.
You have, however, expressed little faith in this assurance. Why?
A: Because so far he does not have any seriousness over the ethnic issue as such. After almost three years [since the war ended] he has not come up with any political package to resolve this problem. At the same time, he appointed two committees, one is the All Party Representatives Committee, and the other is the expert committee appointed by him. Though both the committees have given two reports, nobody knows what happened to those reports. If he is serious enough to resolve this problem, he could have implemented those recommendations given by those committees. He has two thirds majority in Parliament, he has support from the TNA in these areas, and we can get the support from the UNP also. The UNP said that whatever resolution brought by the Government, they are prepared to accept it. But the Government is not willing to implement these [recommendations], or to resolve this ethnic issue. That’s why I say the commitment given to the Indian foreign minister was merely a commitment. After this commitment was made, the Sri Lankan cabinet spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella, while the Indian Foreign minister was here, said ‘we already told the TNA about the land and police matters, and we are not going to give those powers to the provinces.’ The 13th Amendment is one in which police powers and land powers are partly devolved. And what we want is something more than that. But the Government Spokesman says ‘we will not give land and police powers.’ So what is the meaning of this commitment, if they are going to keep these powers with the central Government? They have just given a commitment to Indian Foreign minister to reduce the pressure from India, as well as from the International community, at the same time they want to drag on and they do not want to resolve this.

Q: How far will the TNA go in pushing for police and land powers to be devolved, in the North and East?
 A: After the 2010 parliamentary elections, after we got the majority seats in the North/East province, we told the Sri Lankan Government we are willing to discuss the political settlement as well as resettlement and rehabilitation matters. We said we are willing to cooperate with the Government on these areas. But till January 2011 the Government didn’t say anything about it. We are not talking about a separate state. We are demanding something within a united Sri Lanka. We the Tamil people, or the Tamil speaking people in the North ad East, want the power to look after ourselves.
Q: Do you honestly believe that India can contribute to your call for these changes?
A: India definitely needs a peaceful Sri Lanka, in terms of Indian security concerns, in terms of Indian economy concerns. If India needs a peaceful Sri Lanka, India must play a bigger role to have a peaceful settlement in this country, without which it will always be a headache to India. There is a large Tamil population in Tamil Nadu [and] if something happens in Sri Lanka, against the Tamils, the Tamil Nadu Tamils will speak against it. That is one of the important problems Delhi is facing, so Delhi definitely needs to see the Sri Lankan Tamil problems resolved in a proper manner. I hope, if not today, maybe tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, India should play a role, a proper, meaningful role, to resolve this problem.
Q: So far, in your opinion, how much progress have the Government-TNA bilateral talks made, in terms of discussing a solution to the ethnic problem?
A: Nothing. None. Not even an inch.
Q: So does the TNA see any point, in continuing with it?
A: That is what we told the Indian Foreign Minister also, that these talks ca not continue in this manner. We have been talking with this Government for one year, and we could not move an inch because of the Government attitude. If there must be any progress in these talks, or if anyone wants to continue with these talks, the Sri Lankan Government must come down, they must be prepared to compromise in some areas. The government must be in a position to share the power with the Tamil community.

Q: Approaching three years since the war ended, where do the Tamil people stand? Are they also interested in continuing to push for police and land powers, or do they just want to focus on rebuilding their lives?
 A: Our people are very resilient. After independence, the Tamil people, most of the time, voted for the Federal Party. The Federal party was almost always in the opposition. The Tamil people never vote for rice or dhal. They vote for their rights. Of course the Government is doing some development work. I will say it is merely infrastructure facilities, specifically they are putting up roads, and giving electricity. But what the people actually want, what they are saying, is that if the Government gives the powers to us, we will look after ourselves. We will develop our area. We will get the assistance from maybe the diaspora, maybe from the international community. For all these things, we need powers, so that is what the Tamil people are asking for. Nobody is bothering about this development, because for 30 years there were non-violent agitations. After that for around 30 years there was a violent agitation. But the problem is still not resolved.
The conflict is still alive. As long as the conflict is alive, I do not think the people will be satisfied with merely the development work. The Tamil people want to safeguard themselves, the Tamil people want to keep their identity; these are some important matters which the Sri Lankan government cannot do, so definitely they need powers to look after themselves. The war is over, but [not] the conflict between the Government and the Tamils. In so many ways, the Tamils were suppressed, and that conflict is still there.

Q: Do you see an end to this ‘conflict’?
 A: Yes, the Government can do it. If the Government can come out with an acceptable, political settlement to the Tamil people, definitely there can be an end to it. They can accommodate the entire people of this country, but the present Government is trying to chase the Tamil people out of this country.  We are under total militarisation, under total army occupation. If these things continue, if the people feel they can’t live in this country, they will try to go out of this country. That is what the Government wants. They do not want to accommodate the Tamil citizens in this country. We can get the support to develop the North-East, to develop Sri Lanka. But the Government must give the powers to the Tamil people to develop that area. One million diaspora is not a small population, and they are prepared to invest a very large amount of money.
Q: But the Government also has certain concerns regarding the diaspora. Would not that get in the way?
A: The government is trying to tell the world that the TNA are the LTTE’s proxies and are demanding what the LTTE demanded. That is absolute rubbish. The LTTE were for a separate state. We are saying again and again that we want to resolve this problem within a united Sri Lanka. If they cannot understand those lines we simply cannot do anything.
The government wants to escape, that is why they are framing the TNA as LTTE, and they are framing the entire diaspora as LTTE. If there is a proper political settlement in this country, the diaspora will not fight for a separate state and the majority of the diaspora will support a proper settlement. But if there is no political settlement, the diaspora will see how to resolve this problem, and they will do whatever they can.

Q: Since India’s agreement to give up on traditional fishing rights in the waters around Katchateevu, there have been reports of Indian fishermen being stoned by the Sri Lankan Navy.
What implications, if any, do you see in relation to this issue, which also includes the rights of Sri Lankan Northern fishermen?
A: This is nothing new. During the war, Indian fishermen could fish maybe all over the Palk Strait, where the Tamil fishermen especially from the North, were banned from fishing. After the war, gradually, the Sri Lankan Navy is allowing Tamil fishermen to do their fishing in the area. They want to do the fishing in their own areas, whereas the Indian fishermen, they are large in numbers, and large in vessels, so they will go wherever the fish is. They may be coming into Sri Lankan waters, and that will create problems, nobody can deny that. But, for that purpose, killing some Indian fishermen, or stoning them, is not the way to answer this question. The Indian fishermen and Sri Lankan fishermen have to meet regularly, they have to come to some understanding. The Government must come to some understanding. Also, fishermen are not encouraged in a proper manner in Jaffna.  The Ministry of Fisheries must come forward to encourage Tamil fishermen, to assist them, and to get the multi-day boats, and even jetties.

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