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2nd April, 2006  Volume 12, Issue 38

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    

Interviews

‘Govt. must get UNP on board now’

The only way to avert another war is to reach a political consensus between the two major southern political parties to end the two decades of human suffering. The Tamil people are still hopeful that the southern leaders would see reality and demonstrate commitment by giving expression to the joint agreement signed in Geneva to strengthen the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). In an interview with The Sunday Leader, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) member, Suresh Premachandran said that to make peace a reality, the SLFP and the UNP should reach an agreement thereby effectively eliminating the spoilers of peace who have opposed all proposed solution so far. He noted that the south since the Bandaranaike- Chelvanayagam Pact had backtracked on their promises making the Tamil people suspicious of their political decision making — a trend that has so far prevented the finding of a lasting solution.

Suresh Premachandran

Excerpts:

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Q: The Tamil people are clamouring for political recognition and one important way of doing this is to elect your own people to gain control of local bodies. Given the postponement of polls in the north-east due to civilian demands, what did Thursday’s election mean to the north-east people?

A: The north-east people made representations to President Mahinda Rajapakse and Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake seeking a postponement. The TNA fully supported this. The LTTE’s position as well as the people’s is that there should not be any violence if polls are to be held peacefully. With so many paramilitary organisations operating in the north-east, this is not possible. Until they are disbanded, tension would prevail.

Grenades were hurled thrice at the house of our main candidate for the Batticaloa Pradeshiya Sabha. There are hundreds of such incidents. If elections are held now, specially in the east which is very volatile, violence would erupt immediately. These armed groups are operating with the blessings of the Sri Lanka Army. If polls were held, they would have caused bloodshed and unrest. There would have been definite annihilation of candidates, stuffing and other offences.

Such killings and violence would have proved detrimental to the current peace process. For us, talks are more important than elections. Also, a large expanse of the north-eastern areas is controlled by the LTTE. If there was an election, the government would have failed to conduct the poll in rebel-held areas.

The local government election laws do not provide for the cluster booth system. As the majority of the polling areas are LTTE-held, the government would have had to move voters to cleared areas. But the law specifically states that polls have to be held within the specific local divisions. Booths cannot be moved elsewhere. However, clusters were used during the parliamentary elections. We want peace above all else. Conducting polls would have resulted in violence.  We avoided the situation to maintain a peaceful backdrop for the forthcoming round of talks. But that is because we value peace more than having our people elected into local bodies.

Q: Would you agree that there is an escalation of violence in the north-east sending out negative signals that the LTTE is about to strike?

A: Definitely there is an escalation of violence. But the violence is largely the creation of paramilitaries that operate with the blessings of government troops. The killings and abductions are on the rise. The public fear that they have no security and are being harassed. We strongly believe that the northeast violence is largely due to the creation of these paramilitary groups. They should be disbanded before the next round of talks and certainly before any election is conducted in the north-east.

Q: Yet, the SLMM has claimed that the LTTE was engaging in violence. As a political front of the north-eastern Tamils, why isn’t the TNA pressurising the LTTE to reduce violence?

A: The LTTE’s position is that talks should gain precedence. We support that. But to do that the government should work committedly because there are government supporters like the JHU and the JVP who block the path. These extremist elements are against a federal system and even the P-TOMS which was a relief sharing mechanism. They oppose anything that hints at power sharing. Naturally, not just the LTTE but the civilians are also losing faith. When talks continue, there would be a reduction of violence because talks would usher in fresh hopes of peace.

Q: Yet, diversity of opinion is always there. What is TNA’s prescription to overcome the setbacks in the south?

A: There would never be peace, if we wait till the cows come home. Some parties like the JHU and the JVP would never agree to share power with the Tamil political leadership. However, the two main political parties at long last, have made commitments to sharing power. Such consensus if properly garnered would prove far above the capacity of extreme elements. There would be opposition to anything and everyone cannot be satisfied anyway.

The UNP is agreeable to a federal solution within a united framework. The PA too has now accepted power sharing in principle. The government must get the UNP on board now and work towards peace forgetting their individual political agendas.

Q: You did mention that there has been a reduction in violence since the Geneva talks. Yet, there was increased violence soon after the presidential election?

A: The main reason is renewed hopes for peace. Second is that there is external pressure for the Tigers to negotiate peace. Third reason is the need to create an atmosphere conducive for talks. LTTE is also under pressure to demonstrate their sincerity to the international community about their commitment to talks. They also want to prove that they are in control of their cadres. This is also a good opportunity for the LTTE to expose the government’s attitude. If the government is playing games, the world would see that.

Q: How would the TNA assess the first round of peace talks, which led to a governmental declaration that the CFA was amended and the LTTE strongly opposing this?

A: It was agreed that the first round of talks would revolve around the implementation of CFA. The government agreed to implement the CFA and accepted the existence of paramilitaries and undertook to disband them before the next round. This is why I said the government’s attitude would be exposed. There are abductions and killings. The paramilitaries still operate. The CFA is already created. What the parties should now do is to strengthen it. If the CFA cannot be implemented, there is no point in holding talks with such a government.

Q: The position of the new government is that the CFA was flawed from the beginning. They campaigned on this basis and received a southern mandate to amend the CFA. Is there a possibility of such an amendment?

A: The CFA was not created overnight. Discussions and drafts preceded the final agreement. It is not possible to backtrack on this undertaking, and certainly there was no amendment of the CFA. It is not possible to amend it unilaterally to please voters. It is also unfair for the new government to disclaim responsibility merely because a previous government initiated it. Just look at the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact and the P-TOMS? Every attempt to share power has been thwarted and that’s history. There have been spoilers always and they have been successful than legitimate governments. Tamils today find it difficult to trust the Sinhala leaders.

What if yet another government is elected tomorrow and wishes for the abrogation of the CFA? Unlike the south, we stand by our commitments. If this is to be the trend, Tamils cannot have any agreement with Sinhala leaders who change priorities according to political needs.  If so, we will have to look after ourselves and not hold talks ever. The south must remember this. When our leaders decide, we as a nation accept that decision. The bane of the Sinhala community is that their leaders allow political agendas to decide national priorities which is what is happening today. This is a deep-rooted political problem that had developed to a war. Now there is a ceasefire and the southern politicians are looking at their votes than ending the conflict that had devoured thousands of lives. What could be worse than this?

Q: However, the government’s position all along was that the CFA was fundamentally flawed and needs serious amendments in some way. Is it a position completely rejected by the LTTE and the TNA?

A: We completely oppose that position. As I said earlier, we reflect the aspirations of the Tamil people. The CFA also cannot be amended unilaterally for political reasons. The Tamils are the oppressed and the suppressed people. We first fought for a separate state and later softened our position. We would accept a solution within a united framework. But where is the southern consensus is the real question.

The CFA could be altered if both parties agree. When the previous government was elected, it was the LTTE that first declared a unilateral ceasefire. The government followed it. Today, the new government does not accept the previous document. We think it is a terrible way to deal with a national question. If the CFA is to be amended each time a new Sinhala government is elected to office, Tamils would lose faith in the CFA and the Sinhala leaders too. This shifting of position is aided by desperate political groups who do not have enough issues to focus on. Opposing the CFA is part of their political agenda. As for us, this is about life and death, about political rights and being suppressed.

Q: Despite what you say, the CFA violations show that the LTTE has committed more breaches than the government troops. In such an event, how fair is it for the LTTE to make several demands of a democratically elected government? The Tigers are still using strong-arm tactics to suppress people?

A: The CFA is all about dropping the guns and upholding peace. The government supports the paramilitaries which are terrorising the north-eastern areas. They abduct, kill and intimidate. The LTTE violence and civilian unrest are reactions to the tensions created in this manner.

During the past three months, a large number of LTTE cadres, civilians and even innocent politicians like Joseph Pararajasingham were killed in cold blood. Who is responsible for these killings? May be these incidents occurred before the talks. But even after Geneva talks, incidents continue and so do paramilitary groups. The government agreed in Geneva to disband them. Now the army cannot claim that there are no such units, as the government delegation accepted they existed during the talks. Before tension erupts, the government should take urgent steps to implement the CFA.

Q: LTTE Political Wing Leader, S. P. Tamilselvan has informed the new SLMM Chief that the second round of talks would largely depend on the government’s implementation of the Geneva joint agreement? Is the LTTE now looking for an excuse to abandon talks?

A: Certainly not. It was just last Wednesday (29) that LTTE Chief Negotiator, Anton Balasingham stated that the Tigers have no wish to jeopardise the ongoing peace process. In fact he guaranteed a second round of talks if the government could provide the LTTE delegation sufficient security to fly from Kilinochchi to Katunayake. The talks are very much on as far as the LTTE goes. The Tamil people want talks and want permanent peace. As people who have suffered the most, they know the value of peace. This decision on the part of the LTTE also demonstrates their flexibility and interest in the peace talks. They should be given credit for this.

Q: In the same backdrop, the Norwegian special envoy Erik Solheim had reportedly told and Indian Magazine, Tehelka that the Sri Lanka Army was harassing Tamils to such an extent that they were fleeing to India. In the same backdrop, the Tamil Resurgence Force (TRF) has sent out a warning signal that if civilians were harassed continuously, strong action would be taken. Despite your assurances about commitments to peace, isn’t war a serious possibility today?

A: About 400-500 people fled to India before talks. The trend abated when talks commenced. There was such panic before talks that people risked their lives on unsafe boats to reach India. The TRF reaction therefore is natural. If the government is buying time or playing games, without implementing the CFA, the LTTE would be pushed towards war. There are southern elements repeatedly beating war drums. They make opportunities of peace reduce and are making the Tamils desperate. The LTTE may be compelled to take arms.

Q: At present, the TNA is boycotting parliament. Are you going to continue with it?

A: We intend returning to parliament next Tuesday (4) ending our boycott. We are not an unruly mob that tries to desecrate parliament. We have always upheld parliamentary traditions and behaved with dignity and decorum. One of our members, Joseph Pararajasingham was killed on Christmas Eve inside a church. It was the culmination of a series of killings and we decided to expose government inaction as well as the support to paramilitary groups to carry out such activities by resorting to a non-violent agitation campaign. We never wished to disrupt parliament permanently. The TNA wants to back the peace process, call for an end to the spate of killings and urge the implementation of the CFA.. 


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