Tamil National Alliance Leader R. Sampanthan in the aftermath of last Thursday’s somewhat tough stand taken with the government in giving it ten days to respond to the devolution proposals the TNA had put to the government about five months ago sat with The Island for a long interview and insisted that they had not issued any ultimatum nor shut the door on anything and they were yet ready for discussion.
Q: Although things may not have moved much on the devolution front, the government has done much to improve things like infrastructure in the North and East. Even in the case of IDPs it has settled more than 270,000 of about 300,000 who were in camps. Why is the TNA always harping on the negative aspects? At the recently concluded local government election, according to Minister Douglas Devananda it whipped up racial hatreds. Is this the way to get about?
There must be no assumption that what Douglas Devananda said in fact happened. There must be no assumption that the TNA carried out racist propaganda, but the TNA is entitled to complain about the fact that unacceptable things are happening and the way to answer to that is to respond to the complaints of TNA and tell the people those things are not happening. It is extremely easy, particularly when you have no excuse for what you are doing to brand the TNA as racist, especially when you try to intimidate people into submission, threaten people, exercise duress, try to bribe people, offer them several types of gifts, use your entire governmental machinery, use the military, use the governor in your province and the President and teams of ministers take up residence in North for several days running and do everything possible to win the election. And when you are defeated it will be easy for you to say the other side carried on racist propaganda and we therefore lost. This is what is happening. It’s a question of their trying to find an excuse for the fact that the people have rejected them. Apart from three Pradeshiya Sabhas that they won in the island areas in the North, which is under the military or a para-military group, that is representative of the government, about which the government should feel ashamed when they engage in things of that nature, it is impertinence on their part to accuse the Tamil National Alliance of carrying out racist propaganda. But we did say the truth to the people. Now you talk about people having left the camps and having come back to their lands. Do they have shelter? Do they have a house? Has the government built a single house for a single displaced Tamil? India gifted 50,000 houses. Even there the progress is very slow. The government is trying to use that for political purposes. Douglas Devananda is trying to give those houses to people who will support him politically, not to the deserving people and you have the impertinence to talk about racism. Have they got their jobs back? Have the people got their fishing gear back? Have the people got their agricultural implements back? Are people able to farm or fish or do their animal husbandry or their cottage industries in the way they were able to do before the war commenced. You dare say merely because a large number of people who were locked up in camps have been released and come out and every thing is hunky dory.
Q: No one is saying that.
A large number of people, tens of thousands are still living in camps. Two days ago a decision was made in Mulaitivu and the government said that in some areas of Mulaitivu ten villages could not be resettled because the de-mining was not complete. Now what is the position? They have taken a decision that those people will not be settled in their original lands and their original villages. They will be settled in a place called Kombavil. All these people are fishermen and the villages they lived in were adjoining the sea. Now they are going to be settled eight kilometres away from the sea in a place where they cannot carry on their livelihood as fishermen. Why is the government doing this? The government during all these months said they will be resettled in areas from which they were displaced. Now they want to send them to Kombavil.
It may be that here and there certain things are being done, but the resettlement, the rehabilitation programme from the government point of view is purely a political programme, where they are trying to build a base in the north with the support of some people, which the people are not prepared to accept and it is not being done in a coordinated way to bring about a qualitative improvement in the lives of people.
Q: You can’t possibly do everything overnight.
You talk of overnight, but two years have gone. What has been achieved in the past two years is minimal.
Q: Despite us being a third world country a lot of work has been done in especially rebuilding infrastructure in the North and East.
I have been elected by my people to represent them. Why am I not involved? We have got 14 members of parliament. Our members of parliament have been elected by the people of the North then why are we not being involved? Because you want to first finish your agendas. You are trying to change the demographic pattern of the area. You are trying to change the cultural identity of those areas. That is what you are doing and the people there have given their verdict.
Q: The Co-Chairs pledged something like four billion dollars during peace talks to bring in peace. Now the peace has dawned. So why won’t you come forward and ask them to give that aid if you want improvements to happen fast and the government is unable to give everything.
If we have authority in our hand we will get the money and do it, but we have no authority in our hands. Though we are elected by our people to look after their affairs our people have got to deal with their masters. People, who go there as Ministers lay a foundation stone, deliver a lecture, don’t interact with our people to whom our people cannot talk because they are masters, superiors. Our people are unable to interact with those whom they have elected politically, democratically to look after their affairs. If we are in authority and if we have the power we will muster the required funds and do these things. They won’t give us the power and they won’t do it themselves. That is the position.
Q: The international community is not coming for ward to consolidate the peace.
How can the international community come forward to help you when there are very serious crimes against you, very serious charges against you?
Q: The so-called international community is making a mountain out of a mole hill here, whereas they have much more innocent blood on their hands. Far worse atrocities were committed in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Now vast harm is being caused to Libya, but nothing was done to oust far worse dictators in Tunisia and Egypt until it was no longer possible for them to remain in power. Have they done anything to bring justice in Bahrain or Yemen?
Q: There is no doubt there was a terrible war here as anywhere else. It was a fight to a finish. But now we have to turn a new leaf and start afresh. So if we continue to bicker about the past nothing will change.
You can stop bickering about the past only if you are prepared to do the right thing at present and do the right thing as far as the future is concerned. What the international community is pressing and what the Sri Lankan Government had been promising the international community over the long is that there will be an acceptable political solution in Sri Lanka, which will give all Sri Lankans equality in status and make all Sri Lankans feel that they are Sri Lankan citizens and that they have stake in the future of the entirety of Sri Lanka. This is what the Sri Lankan government is not doing having got the support of the international community to win the war, Sri Lankan government thinks it can turn its back on the international community. In fact it has turned its back on the international community, not only on the western countries, but even countries like India, which helped Sri Lanka to win the war today finds that Sri Lankan government does not care about what they say. The Sri Lankan government is cooking its own goose.
Q: Obviously the ruling party has to face its own constituency so it has decided to go for the most democratic way of finding a solution in entrusting the task to a Parliamentary Select Committee made up of representatives of all those represented in parliament. What is wrong in going ahead with that?
How many Parliamentary Select Committees have we had so far on the ethnic question? What happened to the APRC? What happened to the multi-ethnic expert committee report? Have they been made public? Do you know what reports have been submitted to the President? What happened to them? I am not saying we should not have a Parliamentary Select Committee and I am not saying we will not participate in it. We have not said that so far. We have been discussing that question with the government, but at the same time you cannot deny the fact that people are perfectly justified in being sceptical about a PSC because so many parliamentary select committees have sat. Chandrika had one committee. President Premadasa had one committee. Mahinda Rajapaksa had the APRC and the multi-ethnic experts committee and its expert report. Where are all these things? They are all available.
Q: In Chandrika’s time a set of final proposals were even brought to parliament in about August 2000, but she wanted to extend her stay along with the implementation of those reforms, but the UNP was not willing to play ball.
These are the political games that you play. Today your present government wants to placate its own constituency to be in power at the expense of the Tamil people by crushing the Tamil people and when we complain that we are being crushed and we have been crushed for the past 60 years you say we are being racist.
Q: These allegations were made by Minister Devananda.
Devananda is a …… Who is Devananda? He faces charges in India. He is a Minister in your government.
Q: For that matter many others have blood on their hands for egging on this war.
I have no blood. Don’t try to put me and others in the same boat. I am not that type of person.
Q: We are not saying that you physically killed people.
Physically or not I have not killed anybody.
Q: What he had said was that you all incited people…
Were you there? Did you hear people being incited?
Q: Even Basil Rajapaksa had levelled similar charges in public.
Basil Rajapaksa also tried his very best to win over the people of the north by bribing them. He didn’t succeed.
Q: We can go on arguing for ever, but the sticking points to a final settlement are primarily your demands for police and land powers. So let the whole parliament sit and decide on it.
There is no sticking point. These are all imaginary fears. All fears being created by the government.
Q: Just as much as you have fears the majority community too has its own fears.
All these fears are being created by the government. To justify not giving the Tamil speaking people the powers that are normally available in any scheme of power sharing in any part of the world, whether it be in African countries or Asian countries or European countries. In every part of the world these powers are given to units of devolution.
Q: C.A. Chandraprema had pointed out that this was the worst possible time for the government to be engaged in an election in the North because of the many adverse things that have happened starting from the Ban Ki-moon panel report, the Channel Four videos to the election of hostile Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu and even where the army was accused of breaking up an election meeting of the TNA….
It was the first meeting that the TNA had, an indoor meeting, which was disturbed by the army and you talk about our conduct being bad.
Q: The fact remains that they went into it at the worst possible time.
We didn’t ask them. They went.
Q: Still they managed to secure about 37 per cent of the votes.
Bribery, corruption duress, intimidation. This is how they got the votes. Whatever votes they got, a large percentage of that was obtained through corrupt and illegal practices. There is no question about it. People were hammered. People were week. People were destitute. People were living in a state of penury and they used every possible influence: threat, intimidation, bribery, government machinery, the military and they got some votes.
Q: Leaving aside all that as in the previous local election a large percentage of people did not bother to vote, possibly because they are sick of politicians. Politicians shout in the north or the south, but it is the ordinary citizen on the road who suffers and people are simply sick of violence.
People didn’t vote in Jaffna and there was a low percentage turnout in the past, but now people are beginning to realise that the democracy is there. It is their most important tool and they must exercise their democratic right and they are coming out and voting and telling the government what they think of the government.
Q: Even on the reduction of the number of MPs elected from Jaffna by the Elections Department based on the reduced number of voter registrations you all make a big issue out of it even though it is a fact that many people from the peninsula have migrated to the West.
There is no question about it that lots of Tamils have left.
Q: You all make it look as if it is a racist act.
It has got racist overtones. There is no doubt about that. I would expect you to exercise some fairness even in the questions you pose though I appreciate your question must come out of your heart. They can’t come out of my heart or my mind. Large numbers of people have left Jaffna on account of violence or on account of the war: the militarization of Jaffna, the military activities of the LTTE in Jaffna, the High Security Zones driving people out of their homes etc. They have come to other parts of the country. They have not merely gone abroad. They are living in the Western Province as well as in various other provinces of the country. Some of them are living in India. Although it is two years since the end of the war the necessary conditions have not been created for these people to come back. They still want to have High Security Zones. They are still militarising the place. You are preventing some people from resettling in the land from which they were displaced. And in this turbulent situation, where people cannot even return to Jaffna you are trying to minimise the number of seats. That is a denial of franchise. Why are you doing this in such a hurry? Why can’t you put this over ten years? Why can’t the government pass legislation in parliament that on account of the fact that there was a war for 30 years, where people were compelled to leave Jaffna to live in other parts of the country or to India or to other parts of the world? We do not think the status quo ante should be changed in a hurry. We think that the 30 year war necessitated that a decision on this matter be postponed for the next 15 years to enable the people to come back. Why can’t you think like that? You don’t think like that because you want the Tamils to be deprived of representation in parliament.
Q: Why haven’t you suggested that to the government?
We have talked about it and we would like the government to take some such step on its part.
Q: The picture that is continuously painted abroad is that of Sinhalese as being cannibal like preying on innocent Tamils. The result is that even now violent attacks are being carried out against even Sinhalese pilgrims in places like Tamil Nadu.
I don’t say that. I have much respect for the Sinhala peasant. Don’t think that all Tamils think like that. I have lived with the Sinhala people. I look upon Sinhalese people as my own brothers and sisters. I have lot of affection for them. I have lot of affection and respect for the Sinhala peasant whom I think is a decent human being, but not all your politicians are like that.
Q: There is so much whipping up of emotions that in recent days a number of Lankan pilgrims had been roughed up in Chennai for no reason.
That is wrong. That should not be tolerated.
Q: Such things happen because of false propaganda that Tamils are being abused here.
That is happening. You can’t deny it.
Q: Tamils are moving freely all over the country. Many more are living in the South than in the North and East.
I am not saying the Sinhalese people are a bad people, but you can’t deny that some of these awful things are happening in this country and have happened for a long time.
Q: What is the information you have regarding the recent attack on the News Editor of Uthayan newspaper?
I was told that he was attacked by a para-military group in Jaffna. This group has taken the law into its own hands and has been guilty of several killings in the past in the course of attacks on civilians. I was told the para-military group is even now threatening persons who participated in elections in the North. Eventually both you and I know that nothing will come out of this, even though the President himself issued a direction that proper investigation be conducted eventually nothing will come out of this. It is again a clear indication that even after the election people whom you quote as expressing views as to how elections were won are continuing with their misdeeds. Your fellow journalist was attacked by these same fellows.
Q: Why are you angry with The Island newspaper?
I have no anger. In fact I read The Island everyday.
Q: What is the next step for the TNA?
We’ll watch what the government does. We’ll act with a sense of responsibility.
Q: A spokesman for the government said this morning that what you all are asking is no different to what was asked by the LTTE.
I think I know who this spokesman is. We have made our position very clear to the government that what we want is a just and fair solution, which is durable, which is workable and which will be acceptable to all the people in this country. Merely because some spokesman on behalf of the government, a small fellow says we want what the LTTE wants, I will not get excited. He knows as the person who sat at the table with the ministers that the TNA adopted a very moderate and a very sober position. This man who made this statement, according to you, knows that.
Q: I did not mention any names.
I know who he is. He was at the table. He knows it He cannot deny it that the TNA adopted a very sober and moderate position right throughout the talks. I ask you to seek confirmation of what I am telling you now from Nimal Siripala de Silva and Prof. G.L. Peiris, the two senior ministers who were there. Ask Nimal Siripala de Silva and he will tell you that the TNA always adopted very reasonable, very sober and very moderate position at the negotiating table. Ask G.L. Peiris he will give you the same answer. I don’t care two hoots for the opinion expressed by this puppy.
Q: You all have now drawn a line on the ground stating so far and no further.
We have not drawn any line on the ground. We submitted discussion papers more than four months ago, the government agreed to respond. We have been waiting for the government response. We have been persuading the government to respond. No meaningful dialogue can take place without the government’s response. And we have told the government you must respond for us to engage in talks meaningfully and purposely. If we don’t have your response we can’t discuss it further and you are using this dialogue to show the whole world that you are engaged in a dialogue with the Tamil National Alliance, an integral part of the reconciliation process when in fact nothing worthwhile is happening at these dialogues. By coming for the meetings and sitting at the table we are encouraging you and condoning your presenting to the world a façade. We can’t be a party to that. So please come up with your response and once you come up with the response we can engage.
Q: They have come with an immediate response and have said that it is the Parliamentary Select Committee that will have to decide.
There is much more to it than a pure and simple statement like this. Let them think about it further and we will see what happens. There is much more to it than what you are talking about.
Q: The proposed Parliamentary Select Committee will have as its base the findings of the previous PSCs to work from.
I am not against the Parliamentary Select Committee. I have thus far not made any statement against the PSC. At the same time we want to be sure that the Parliamentary Select Committee if it sits will be a credible option to achieve the objective which the government claims it wants to achieve. We have strong reservations about that. But we have not shut the door. We merely told the government you talked to us for seven months. We had ten meetings. We have come up with discussion papers. You agreed to respond to our discussion papers. Four months have gone since you made that commitment. You have not responded. Please respond to the issues, which will facilitate a dialogue. It is up to the government to consider the commitments they made at these bilateral meetings between the government and the TNA and decide what they want to do. Let them come up with their position and then we will see what needs to be done.