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Interview  

'Only effective proposals will be a litmus test for Pirapaharan'


R. Sampanthan

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has completely rejected the 13th Amendment as a solution to the Tamil question and gone further to declare that it could not even prove an effective basis for the commencement of talks. In an interview with The Sunday Leader, TNA Parliamentary Group Leader, R. Sampanthan said that the inadequacy was best demonstrated by the many efforts to present acceptable proposals to form the basis for talks undertaken by successive heads of state. He said that the 13th Amendment concept did not emerge from the APRC but was imposed on the APRC by the President. The Trincomalee District MP claimed that the real issue was not Pirapaharan's insincerity to peace but the failure of successive governments to present devolution proposals that could challenge him and put him to the litmus test. He added that it was an absolute shame that a party like the UPFA entered into an agreement with an organisation like the TMVP to create a false impression that the UPFA was acceptable to the Tamil people. Excerpts:

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Q: President Mahinda Rajapakse has declared that the government's solution to the ethnic conflict will be 'the 13th Amendment plus one.' Is this a feasible solution?

A:  The 13th Amendment was enacted around 1988. Since then, successive governments in this country during the periods of Presidents R. Premadasa, Chandrika Kumaratunga and even Mahinda Rajapakse, during his two years in office, were dedicated to the task of evolving a set of constitutional proposals to find a solution to the conflict.

That in itself is an admission that the said amendment was not a solution to the conflict taking into account the manner in which the conflict has developed.

We did not contest the provincial council elections after the 13th Amendment. When I say we, I refer to the authentic TULF that comprised Amirthalingam, Sivasithambaram, myself, Neelan Tiruchelvan and several others. Today it is represented by only one person. 

We did not contest for a reason. We informed the Indian government that the constitutional amendment was woefully inadequate, not durable and in no way a solution. This was proved subsequently. The new body could not independently deal with agrarian services and regional transport. The Supreme Court held that the powers of the center were adequate for the center to do anything. Even simple things like the two areas I mentioned could not be decided upon by the PCs.

The 13th Amendment is certainly no solution to the Tamil question and cannot even be the basis for the commencement of anything that can move towards a resolution of the conflict. This is proven beyond doubt by the fact that since its introduction, successive presidents have attempted to propose solutions more durable.

Q: In that case, do you think the President is being very hopeful that the affected parties would settle for what he is willing to offer, which now appears to be a solution proposed 20 years ago?

A: The President must remember in the first instance that when appointing the APRC, he also appointed an experts panel comprising 17 persons - 12 Sinhalese, four Tamils and one Muslim to come up with proposals and help the APRC. He did this for the reason that even he recognised that a new set of proposals was required to attempt seeking a resolution to the conflict.

Eleven persons of this committee came up with proposals that went far beyond the 13th Amendment as the contours of a political solution. Everybody knows that the said report could have been a useful basis for the commencement of useful talks at the APRC. Unfortunately, that was consigned to the dustbin. Thereafter, Prof. Tissa Vitharana came up with a new report based on the reports of the majority and minority experts. Even his report went far beyond the 13th Amendment. The discussion at the APRC took place on that basis.

The 13th Amendment concept did not emerge from the APRC. In my view, the President imposed it on the APRC. That is the inevitable conclusion we had to come to.

While some parties at the APRC level strived to develop something of value, certain extreme parties like the JHU and the MEP were having direct contact with the President, independent of the APRC, conveying their apprehensions about the progressive thinking of the APRC.

It is my impression that the President stifled the exercise, frequently summoned the APRC in recent times to inhibit and curb its activities. Perhaps instructions were also issued as to what can and cannot be done, hence the dilution of the process. These directives were also in line with the thinking of the JHU and the MEP.

When the President came under increasing international pressure to come up with a set of acceptable devolution proposals, he looked for a way out and clung to the 13th Amendment as a lifeline.

Q: You mean, he fell back on the 13th Amendment, though never fully implemented, and 20 years old?

A: If he is speaking of this amendment, he should abide by it. What came out from the 13th Amendment was devolution in a merged Northeastern Province. He can't think of it without accepting the concept of a merged northeast. If he wants to revert to this, then he must revert to the position enunciated by the Indo- Sri Lanka Agreement which was a merged northeast.

That existed for 18 years under Presidents J. R. Jayewardene, R. Premadasa, D. B. Wijetunga and Chandrika Kumaratunga. Mahinda Rajapakse as a minister and as a prime minister also accepted this position while serving Kumaratunga's governments.

Q: One argument often put forward by southern political parties is that Velupillai Pirapaharan is insincere in negotiating peace. Do you agree? If not why?

A: The litmus test in regard to that would be to come up with a set of proposals that would challenge him. When Rajapakse assumed presidential office, in his 'Martyr's Day' speech, Pirapaharan called Rajapakse a 'pragmatic person' and called upon him to come up with proposals that could meet the reasonable aspirations of the Tamil people. 

The question is not Pirapaharan's insincerity but whether President Rajapakse has managed to put on the table a progressive set of proposals thereby issuing a serious challenge to Pirapaharan.

Not just him, no southern government has. If there was, there could be no justification for the continuity of the armed struggle. The Tamil people are overwhelmingly prepared to support such proposals. Then the armed struggle will have to come to an end.

If the P-TOMS agreement was implemented or an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) was set up, things would have evolved. I am aware that the LTTE was very interested in the resettlement of the war and the tsunami displaced. They would never have been able to destroy what they were instrumental in rehabilitating. But that never happened.

I am not saying that everything is right with the LTTE. Nor do I imply that they have not made grave mistakes. They have. But the fact of the matter is that the Sri Lankan state has never come up with progressive proposals that constituted a challenge to Pirapaharan. He was therefore never put to the litmus test of having to either reject or accept proposals designed to meet Tamil aspirations and also acceptable to the country and the international community.

Q: Can the government succeed in its military efforts in your opinion? Is it likely that the government intends catering to Tamil aspirations only after achieving its military objectives?

A: As long as the struggle of the LTTE can be linked to the just demands of the Tamil people which have not been fulfilled, it is my view that the government will not be able to succeed in its efforts to achieve a military victory.

They may weaken the LTTE but there cannot be a military victory in the real sense. The government should not think that a military victory could be a substitute to a reasonable political solution. If the government thinks that a military victory is possible and thereafter they can ram down the throats of Tamils some political solution, they are sadly mistaken. The Tamils will not settle for such.

Q: President Rajapakse recently told newspaper editors that the north was not being cleared to capture territory whereas the military commanders have pledged to remove every trace of a mini state within the north. Do you think these military advances are as simplistic as portrayed by Rajapakse?

A: I have not the slightest doubt that what the President desires is a military victory. This is not because he thinks that a military victory is a solution to the conflict but because he is unable to come up with a political solution to the problem.

He thinks if Tamils are subjugated through military means then a political solution of his choice, acceptable to his extremist allies, could be rammed down the Tamils' collective throats. It will prove a sad mistake for Tamils are resilient enough to withstand any such pressure. 

Q: Is it your contention that the President is unable to pursue a political solution due to being held 'prisoner' by extremist allies?

A: There is no question about his status as a political prisoner. He is in bondage. Yet, I do not conclude that he is of the same wavelength as the JHU and the MEP.

But if he was not, the MoU signed with the UNP gave him a glorious opportunity to disengage himself from these political formations and think differently and arrive at consensus with the UNP which would have conferred the necessary two third majority in parliament and provided the required support in the country. He had his opportunity to try what the Conservatives and Labour did with regard to the Northern Ireland question.

He did not pursue the MoU and refused to utilise the golden opportunity to strengthen himself. These factors go against the President and portray him as one in line with his extremist allies.

Q: Amidst the conflict, the economy is badly hit. Is that not a high priority for parties like the TNA?

A: We are certainly concerned about the peoples' constant suffering. The middle and lower middle classes have it tough. The majority of the masses are greatly suffering and are being impoverished daily.

It is the government that does not seem too concerned about it. They seem to think that if a military victory is possible, all these issues could be neatly swept under the carpet. That shows both the insensitivity and callousness of this administration.

Q: During the recent budget vote, TNA legislators were largely absent. There was the abduction of some MPs' family members. But by such abstinence, haven't you also given into terror tactics and therefore paved the way for repeats?

A: It is a very difficult position when close relations of parliamentarians are abducted. They were kidnapped by the TMVP with whom the government has now struck an unholy political alliance to contest in Batticaloa.

When they are threatened with death, a political party is unable to extend its whip to compel those MPs to vote. That was a serious question that affected individual members. We could not be so insensitive to their concerns and feelings.

But we appealed to the government as it was well within the powers of the government to ensure the release of the abducted. It is not that we kept quiet. We raised it in parliament and with the Speaker and the President. But nothing happened because the state was quite unwilling to intervene and enforce the law.

The law enforcement machinery has collapsed. It's paralysed. It clearly shows that the state can behave in the most unprincipled way in order to ensure their political survival.

Q: You have raised the issue of MPs' security regularly. Three Tamil legislators have been killed since November 2005, two from the TNA. Following Thyagarajah Maheswaran's killing, there was a move to enhance parliamentarians' security. Are TNA legislators now enjoying increased security?

A: Our security has not been enhanced. Our members are naturally concerned and apprehensive about their security vulnerabilities. We had Natarajah Raviraj and Joseph Pararajasingham brutally killed, former on a public highway within a high security zone and the latter inside a church. Maheswaran was killed in a temple. These incidents have a serious impact on other parliamentarians. But what can we do? It is up to the state to make MPs feel secure.

Forget MPs. Take journalists. What happened to the inquiry into Sivaram's death? He was a brilliant journalist. I raised the matter in parliament and requested international involvement in the investigation. Here, inquiries are conducted in such a manner that even if arrests are made, they will be released subsequently. We have no faith in the law enforcement and inquiring agencies here.

Q: Nominations have been called for selected local bodies in the east. The UNP has already decided not to contest and you were quoted alleging the holding of a poll would prove 'suicidal' at this point.  

A: There is an organisation, the TMVP that is brazenly committed to a gun culture and more so in the east. A number of persons have been abducted; a series of extra judicial killings and extortions too have taken place. These incidents continue. Many have disposed of their vehicles fearing they would be simply taken away. There is so much of fear created that people will not dare oppose these brute forces.

Q: But then there could be a silent protest of not voting?

A:  The law enforcement machinery has totally collapsed. If the LTTE had been present in the northeast at one point of time, at least in the government controlled territory, the law enforcement machinery was functional and in force.  People relied on it.

So previously, candidates and voters could effectively depend upon the law enforcement agencies. But due to these paramilitary groups, things have drastically changed. There is the law of the jungle. The law enforcement agencies are now hand in glove with these militants, conniving together and condoning their actions.

This is the big difference. That's why we have decided we would not risk it. Some of our candidates and elected members have been killed during previous local authority elections. We have no wish to expose our candidates and supporters to brute forces. This election is a farce and a joke. Nobody will take it seriously.

When local polls were held previously in Tamil dominant areas the ITAK swept the polls, as did the SLMC in Muslim dominant areas. The same thing will happen in Batticaloa if not for the TMVP.

Q: Won't that cause your electoral base to erode?

A:  No. The TMVP leader went abroad on a diplomatic passport and had a visa issued on the strength of a Foreign Ministry note. He was driven up to the aeroplane in a car along the tarmac. Today, he is cooling his heels in a British detention centre. He reportedly went to attend a conference on climate change sponsored by the JHU minister in this government. It is this man's deputy who leads the TMVP in Batticaloa today.

The Tamil people have a long history with regard to their democratic processes dating back to 1956. Since then, they have consistently spoken and voted in support of a certain policy. That's an indisputable fact. Those in the TMVP today were a party to the Oslo Communiqu‚ and to the ISGA proposals. That was the same political thinking that has existed for decades.

Today the TMVP finds a saviour in Mahinda Rajapakse and supports his policies. This is not what the people have voted for over 50 years at a series of elections. Tamil people are aware of this history and this fraudulent election will never erode our voter base or make them change their stance.   

Q: But the government claims the east is cleared and simply wishes to complete the exercise by holding elections there?

A: President Rajapakse' singular purpose is to achieve a military victory. He is under tremendous international pressure to come up with a political solution and finds himself quite out of depth there.

He has sought refuge in the 13th Amendment and knows that he should show that something is being done. He believes that the outside world can be convinced that he is doing his best. In doing what he is doing, he is primarily cheating himself.

Q: It was reported that the UPFA has signed an agreement with the TMVP to contest for the Batticaloa MC under one banner.  Isn't this official recognition of a link between them whilst conferring political legitimacy upon a renegade faction?

A:  It's a shame that the PA which is the main party in government has signed an agreement with an organisation like the TMVP to create a false impression that the PA is acceptable to the Tamil people. It only demonstrates PA's political bankruptcy and the poverty of its thinking with regard to the Tamil question. They think by such desperate actions, they can win the support of the Tamil people.

Q: The Indian Premier, Manmohan Singh and British Premier, Gordon Brown in a recent joint statement called for a 'credible devolution package' as a key contribution to finding a political solution acceptable to all communities within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. Do you think the government is ready to drop the word 'unitary' in favour of 'united'?

A: Obviously not. In my view, three very significant phases in the APRC process should be considered as manifestations of the President's reluctance.

One was the abandoning of the majority experts' committee proposals. Second was the abrogation of the MoU between the PA and the UNP. The third, the SLFP's devolution proposals that contemplated a unitary structure of government with the district as the unit of devolution. They all reflected presidential thinking.

I don't think the President has accepted that there can be no devolution within a unitary framework. This is one of the fundamental flaws in the 13th Amendment. This is also why the provincial councils could not make progress with regard to even agrarian services and provincial transport. That's why the Supreme Court ruled that the centre could take whatever action it desired.

Not just the Indian and British Premiers, several other countries, the Co-Chairs, the EU, and the US independently, and India repeatedly, have called upon the President to come up with acceptable proposals within a united framework. Some have used the word 'federal' explicitly. But there has been no response to these calls.

This is the crux of the matter. If these proposals were prepared to accommodate these views, that would have been the litmus test to Pirapaharan and the LTTE.  

Q: Do you think that India is currently keen to play a decisive role in helping Sri Lanka to end the conflict despite an unhappy previous attempt?

A:  India must play a role. India is a country very close to all of us - close to Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims alike. We all came from there.

Unfortunately, India was betrayed by both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamils. There may have been mistakes all round. But India also has a responsibility to help resolve this country's conflict in a reasonable and acceptable manner. India must play that role and all of us must welcome that role.


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