“North And East Are Historic Habitation Of Tamil Speaking People” M. A. Sumanthiran
By Maryam Azwer
Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently said that contrary to what is set out in the 13th Amendment, police powers cannot be given to the North and the East. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) sees this as a violation which it says cannot be justified by a public servant.
In an interview with The Sunday Leader, TNA MP and Attorney-at-law M. A. Sumanthiran expressed his views on this matter, as well as other issues pertaining to the Tamil people, that have been in the limelight in recent times.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said that the full implementation of the 13th Amendment is not possible, because police powers cannot be given to the North and the East. What is the TNA’s response to this?
A: The defence secretary is not competent to justify violation of the constitution. He breaches all rules. As a public servant, his duty is to implement the law. Even politicians, ministers and others, can’t justify violating the constitution… the secretary defence should not be allowed to make such pronouncements against the constitution.
Q: In a recent interview with the BBC the defence secretary has also questioned why the Northern Province is viewed as ‘a predominantly Tamil place,’ and has also said that Sri Lankans must have the freedom to live where they want. What do you have to say about this?
A: In a country where people have the freedom to move anywhere and live in any place, I don’t think any particular community can claim that any particular area is exclusively theirs and consequently others cannot come and live there. To that extent, what the defence secretary has said is correct. But, it is a fact that Sri Lanka is not a homogenous society. In the Indo-Lankan accord that Sri Lanka signed, there is a recognition that the North and the East are the historic habitation of the Tamil speaking people who have lived in those places, in that region, together with other people. So it is not that it is exclusively theirs in the sense that others cannot live, but it is a fact that it is in those areas that they have historically lived. The objection that we have is to the government forcibly changing the demographic pattern. If anyone wants to voluntarily migrate to either the North or the East, they are most welcome. Persons of any community are welcome, but the state should not get involved in engineering a process so as to change the demography.
Q: And do you see this happening?
A: It is happening. I myself have placed evidence of that in parliament last October when I presented a report with photographic evidence that in the Jaffna peninsula itself, on the North Eastern coast, people who lived in certain parts are not allowed to go there. They have been put in transit camps on the other side of the road, while fishermen from the South have been allowed to go live in those people’s houses and take part in fishing and other commercial activities. In the Mullaitivu coast, that’s happening.
In certain parts of Mannar, that’s happening. These are all with a view to forcibly change the demography. Many parts of the North, and even in the East, a lot of the paddy fields that were previously cultivated by Tamil farmers and Muslim farmers, today others are cultivating, and these farmers have no access those places. There’s a place called Kanguveli in the Eastern Province with a large section of Muslim farmers and some Tamil farmers, in Mullaitivu district, and a lot of places. The army is engaged in paddy cultivation. All this is wrong, and the defence secretary of all people knows that these are happening, if not being the architect of these things.
Q: Has the TNA decided on an official position regarding the Parliamentary Select Committee?
A: TNA decided on our position with regard to the Parliamentary Select Committee process in September last year. On the 2nd of September, when the TNA leader met the president, and agreed to restart the bilateral talks, there was an agreement with regard to the Parliamentary Select Committee also. That agreement was later recorded in the minutes of the bilateral talks on the 16th of September. So that is the TNA position, that has not changed. And that is not just the TNA position, that is the agreed position between the TNA and the government, and what it says is that after the TNA and government reach consensus with regard certain substantive issues, the TNA will join the PSC process. We identified those substantive issues later on in the process, at a meeting held on the 20th of October last year, about ten or twelve issues, and we drew up a time table to discuss those. There were three meetings in December, in which one of those matters were discussed and then three more meetings were fixed for the 17th, 18th and 19th of January, and the government delegation failed to turn up for those meetings, although we went and sat there for those three days. So, the agreed position between the TNA and the government, still remains the TNA position.
Q: Constitutions of Tamil political parties still have a clause for a separate state. Is this still the long term goal of the TNA?
A: That’s a misunderstanding. If you’re asking me the question from the Hindu report, which has been reproduced in some Sri Lankan newspapers also, the reference there is to the ITAK’s constitution.
The ITAK’s constitution does not make its aim to create a separate state. That clause has actually been in the Hindu website, after the news item a PDF file is attached, and one can see in the Tamil version, which is the original version of the constitution, it starts with the words “In a united Ceylon, a federal set up” and then it goes on to say, a Tamil self rule area, and a Muslim self rule area. Now that is the part that is quoted and is being misrepresented, saying that the ITAK constitution calls for two separate, or three separate sovereign countries – leaving the Sinhala aside, a separate Tamil country and a separate Muslim country. But that is not what is there. If anybody reads that, it starts with the words “Within a united Ceylon, in a federal set up” and goes on to say that there must be an autonomous Tamil region, and an autonomous Muslim region. This constitution was made in 1949, and in the election manifesto of 1970, [the ITAK] very clearly called on the people to reject any candidate who stood for the separation of the country. So the whole basis of this speculation is wrong.
Q: Following the fast recently carried out by Tamil prisoners, the government has promised to resolve the post-war Tamil prisoners issue within a month. Has there been any progress on this matter?
A: We’ll have to wait and see. There are three hundred and nine persons against whom no charges have been filed, and they are still in remand for over three years. Our demand was that if you’re not charging them, you must release them. So what the government has undertaken to do is that within this one month time, whoever against whom they have decided to file charges, those charges will be filed within that one month.
There will be another lot of people to whom they will offer rehabilitation, and if they are willing to take the offer of rehabilitation, those persons will be sent to rehabilitation, and released. There will be yet another third category of persons who will be released.
The government says one of these three things will be done as far as the prisoners are concerned. Now, another problem is that even those against whom there are cases pending, those cases are getting dragged for years.
If they are going to file fresh charges also, against another set of people, our demand was that that must be quickly completed. For that they have said, they will set up three new special high courts. One in Mannar, one in Vavuniya, one in Anuradhapura. That also they have undertaken to set up within that one month time. We will keep reminding [the government] that these things must be done within that one month.
Q: What do you feel about the rehabilitation process the government is carrying out?
A: We have commended the rehabilitation process. We appreciate very much the government’s decision to rehabilitate and release those 11,600 persons, or most of them, through that process. The rehabilitation component of that process was also very good, but after they are released there are many issues that have arisen, which we are not happy about at all. There have been re-arrests, despite them possessing certificates saying that they have undergone this rehabilitation. So the different arms of the government seem to be functioning very differently. They have various restrictions even after they are released, as to their movement, and the reintegration into society part has not been done very well. They are finding it difficult to establish themselves, find livelihoods, so much more needs to be done in that respect.