“Tigers forfeited many an opportunity for peace” – N. Sri Kantha

Though they outwardly deny being coerced by the LTTE in the past, now in the absence of the Tiger terror machine the Tamil National Alliance is increasingly behaving like a responsible and reasonable Tamil democratic party. The previous week for the first time they held direct talks with President Rakapaksa on outstanding issues, unlike in the past when they insisted that any talks should be with the LTTE. This week we spoke to one of the stalwarts of the TNA, Parliamentarian N. Sri Kantha, who has some sound and constructive advice to the government

By Rohan Abeywardena
Q: There has been a definite change in the attitude of the TNA in recent days. Is it a case of it evolving into a reasonable Tamil democratic party?
I don’t think there is any change in regard to our political stand. We have been right throughout, insisting on the necessity to evolve a political solution with a view to solve the national question once and for all within the framework of a united country. That has been our consistent stand. It might be that there had been some voices among the ranks of the TNA and more particularly the TNA parliamentarians deviating from this stand in the recent past but as a party our stand has been very clear. Now that the war is over the pressing question with regard to all of us is the getting together, forgetting petty political and party differences and to involve ourselves seriously in a political process to solve the national question namely, the ethnic problem. That is how the TNA faces the present and looks into the future.

Q: Finally the realisation has come that what ever solution must come from within the country. Earlier TNA was seen going around the world making very disparaging remarks about the country. Now at least you all are willing to talk to the President…
We never advocated the creation of a separate and sovereign state out of Sri Lanka. We came into being in November 2001 and our stand has been very clear: the national question being a political issue can only be solved politically and not through war. In regard to your allegation that we have been going round the world and making aspersions on the country, I would like to deny that. If at all some of our members had been very forthright and to some extent fiercely critical of the government with regard to the war then in progress, I would say you have to understand it from the point of view of the Tamil people who were caught between the two contending military forces - the Security Forces on one side and the LTTE on the other. In fact, we have been stating that there was a third party to the conflict, the innocent civilians in the war zone, who were caught up between these two adversaries. So it is in the light of their suffering and hardships forced by the continuing war, one has to understand the actions on the part of some of our parliamentarians you are referring to.

Q: It was a very conciliatory gesture of TNA Leader R. Sambandan to swear in your newly elected local government members while the national anthem was being played.
It is not a question of our becoming more conciliatory. We have been always open for political negotiation and that is how we have been looking at the whole question
In regard to the question you are referring to it’s nothing new. Whenever the national anthem was played in any part of the country, if anyone of us happen to be there we have always respected it. But in this instance not only the national anthem was played but also the Tamil anthem before that and at the beginning the anthem of the Urban Council of Vavuniya was played. So obviously and logically there should have been the national anthem. So that was how it was played.

Q: You all had the first round of talks with the President, what is the next?
We have agreed this meeting which was very cordial that we should follow it up with periodic meetings with senior personalities in the government and we have agreed to have discussions with Hon. Basil Rajapaksa, who is now heading the task force for the rehabilitation and resettlement in the North in regard to the problems and issues concerning the people of the area including, that is very important, the internally displaced persons numbering more than 250,000 at the moment. So we would carry this process forward.

Q: There is lots of reconstructions already going on in the East and if not for financial constraints, they would want to keep up the momentum in the North as well. Will you all be taking an active role in whatever the government is doing for the good of the people?
Definitely. That is in regard to every constructive effort from the Government or for that matter any other quarter the constructive cooperation for the TNA would be there. We will do our part without compromising on our basic stand.

Q: Leaving aside the Sinhalese, there are major issues between the Muslims and the Tamils. In the past you all have had talks even during Ashraff’s time without any breakthrough. What is being done to resolve those issues?
Well, the Tamil-Muslim equation which had always been healthy in the North-East and also through out the country got spoilt during the regime of President J.R. Jayewardene. When one of his senior ministers who is now no more and who was in charge of national security at that time went on arming some Muslim young men in the guise of fighting the Tamil militant groups including the LTTE in the aftermath of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. It was not a question of arming the villagers in the border villages. It was different. It was precisely and purposely with the objective of setting up an armed Muslim group to deal with the Tamil militants. So there were obviously clashes between the two that really spoilt the Tamil-Muslim equation. Many things have happened in the past - the LTTE, in fact ,did some barbaric acts in regard to innocent Muslim civilians and consequently Tamil civilians were subjected to the same treatment at the hands of some groups including the one known as Jihad. Now with the war over and everybody looking forward to a peaceful country, we have a duty as the representatives of the Tamil people to extend our hand of friendship to our Muslim brothers who are Tamil speaking and therefore having a very strong linguistic relationship with the Tamil people. We will do that. We have already started that and you would have seen that in the oath taking ceremony of the newly elected member of the TNA to the Vavuniya Urban Council whom you referred to a little while ago, the Muslim Congress member too was there. He too was administered the oath by our leader R. Sambandan and Muslim Congress was represented by Basheer Segu Dawood, one of the most senior leaders of their party on behalf of its leader, my good friend Rauf Hakeem. So now we have started this process. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress is the formidable representative of the Muslims in the Northeast. There cannot be any denying of that fact. And there are also others who seem to represent them and who too have a sizeable support among the Muslim community. So we would talk to all of them and see whether we can agree to have a common political stand in regard to the whole question of finding a solution

Q: But those fundamental unresolved issues that were discussed for a long time from the time of late SLMC leader Ashraff have to be resolved among yourselves first.
Yes. These are issues that have to be resolved between the Tamils and the Muslims and we will rise to the occasion. We will do it. We are confident of that and I would like to stress one point; if the Tamils cannot understand the grievances and apprehensions of the Tamil speaking Muslims who can be considered as the minority within a larger minority then how can we the Tamils expect our Sinhalese brothers and sisters to join hands with us in dealing with our own grievances and apprehensions? So therefore true to the proverb “Charity begins at home,” we will first do our part in evolving a common stand together with the Tamil speaking Muslims of the Northeast.

Q: What about the resettling of some 50,000 odd Muslims who were evicted from Jaffna in 1990?
We raised this issue with the President the other day when we met him. He too agreed that they should be resettled but at the same time he added that first the IDPs in the welfare camps in Vavuniya, Jaffna and other areas be settled, followed by the displaced Muslims who are now mostly in Puttalam. We are fully conscious of the issue and we would be glad to welcome our Muslim brothers back in Jaffna.

Q: Now it is an open secret that when the TNA was formed some of the reluctant people were coerced into it at the point of a pistol by a certain Tamil journalist, since deceased, who brokered the deal for the LTTE. He had reportedly told those who were reluctant that either they join or get the bullet and people simply joined. Now that such threat….
I can always laugh at what you have been telling. Nothing of the sort happened. You must be referring to Sivaram or Nadesan? Of course, both played a significant role in the formation of the TNA

Q: According to some of the other Tamil groups that was one of the reasons why Sivaram was killed.
I vehemently deny it. In 2001 four parties came together and formed the TNA. The LTTE was nowhere in the picture at the time in regard to our deliberations.

Q: When this accusation was levelled by others in the past it was not denied.
That is the problem in politics. Different people will say different things. So we have to dissect and have a clinical analysis on our own to find out the truth. I’ll leave it to you. Coming back to your question, for threats to go away, the threats should have been there in the first place. Take the case of the TELO and the EPRLF; we fought the LTTE for more than 15 years prior to the formation of the TNA in 2001. Please don’t forget that. Both these parties lost their top leaders at the hands of the LTTE. That was also the case with the TULF that lost its top most leaders Amirthalingam together with his colleague Yogeswaran at the hands of the LTTE. So there was no question of the LTTE trying to intimidate us. Even if they had tried that, for argument sake, it would not have worked. Then in 2001 the TNA was formed and we won 16 seats. Of course, the LTTE permitted us to do our campaigning in areas under their control in the East.

Q: And helped some to get elected by stuffing the ballot boxes.
No. Earlier it even prevented voters from coming to polling booths in government controlled areas. That was the situation in ’89, ’94 and 2000. That didn’t happen in 2001. So, this process gradually led to in 2004 with the accommodating some candidates from various civic organisations that had been operating in not only army controlled areas, but also in LTTE held areas. But it is true that the LTTE was, on and off, having discussions with the TNA parliamentary group. I won’t deny that, but we were not controlled by the LTTE. We were not, in fact, acting on the dictates of the organisation, but there was a consultative process because we had taken the clear stand as far back as 2001 general election that future political negotiations between the government and the Tamils should have the LTTE as the one and only representative from the Tamil side. Therefore given that position, one has to understand the relationship that existed between the LTTE and the TNA, but there were moments when we found that it was little uneasy. I admit that. But we were able to work continuously with a view to keep the LTTE at the negotiating table. We were disappointed when the war broke out again in mid 2006.

Q: Even TULF Leader Anandasangaree says he is very disappointed in you all especially because you all failed to say one word to the LTTE to relieve the plight of civilians held as human shield. Where was your independence?
That is the problem with Anandasangaree. He is a good friend of mine despite him being very senior to me. I respect him, but the people of Jaffna have given him a befitting reply for his political somersault when they only gave him one seat at the recently held election to the Jaffna Municipal Council which has a total strength of 23 members. Now coming back to these civilians caught up in the war zone, how many times we echoed and re-echoed their feelings in that we demanded a ceasefire in their interest, not in the interest of anybody else. The LTTE, even if we had requested or demanded the release of civilians in the war zone, it wouldn’t have released them. We knew that because the LTTE wanted them for its own interest. At the same time the LTTE was prepared for a ceasefire and the resumption of negotiations. So what we felt was that we should try what was possible and not aim at what was totally impossible and that too in the interest of the people concerned. So we demanded a ceasefire and the resumption of political negotiations. How can one say we never addressed this serious issue?

Q: With the best of intentions Ranil Wickremesinghe must have blindly entered the Ceasefire Agreement, but the LTTE had other motives from the beginning, using the CFA cover to arm itself and it is quite obvious they were never interested in peace, but were only getting ready for war.
Whatever we did vis-à-vis the LTTE, we did with good intentions, but there is something in what you say. In fact, we got thoroughly disappointed when the political negotiations failed prior to the resumption of military hostilities in mid-2006. There were number of opportunities, including the solid one offered by Ranil Wickremesinghe. So looking back, one can easily say that the LTTE should not have missed that opportunity. Even prior to Ranil Wickremesighe there were some opportunities, but it was very unfortunate that the LTTE failed to act wisely. That is the bane of our race. What else can I say? The LTTE had exploited these opportunities, including the one presented by Ranil Wickremesinghe. I would also say it could have dealt with the present President in a meaningful manner because they were in one way responsible for his election to the highest office in the land. There cannot be any denying of that. So they missed all these opportunities. Still, just because the LTTE failed to act wisely, we could not have acted in the same manner. That is exactly why instead of asking the LTTE to release the civilians we had been insisting on a ceasefire to which the LTTE was agreeable. So we tried what we thought was possible and we never thought of trying what was clearly an impossible one that is the LTTE releasing the civilians. We knew it wouldn’t have released them even if we had demanded.

Q: Since you all have started direct talks with the government, will the campaign abroad to tarnish the Sri Lankan state carried out by TNA parliamentarians like Sivajilingam and Adaikalanathan continue in parallel?
Please do not mention the name of Adaikalanathan because he is not involved in any political activity abroad. I can assure you of that. In regard to Sivajilingam and one or two other MPs you may have in mind I would deal with Sivajilingam first. I don’t think Sivajilingam had made any serious allegations in recent times after the conclusion of the war, but the general perception that some of the TNA MPs continue to engage in anti-government propaganda persists. We have already told our MPs that ‘you should conform to the political stand of the TNA and shouldn’t do anything to vitiate the atmosphere’. We expect our MPs to act with responsibility. If anyone does not conform, he cannot remain in the fold of the TNA and with elections round the corner next year any such MP will not be re-nominated. At the same time in regard to the civilian casualties in the war, particularly in the final phase, and also in regard to the indescribable suffering of more than 250,000 civilians in the IDP camps, which is an unprecedented situation in the history of this little island, you cannot expect our MPs, whether they are here or abroad to keep their mouth shut. They have to raise their voices in the interest of those people. But as you rightly said as elected representatives all of us have the great responsibility of acting with care, caution and discretion.

Q: Since the crushing of the LTTE, the government has even undertaken to rehabilitate more than 10,000 Tiger combatants, but yet there are continuing reports in the Western media about mass scale harassment, rape and genocide against Tamils in IDP camps here.
Please dismiss anything that has nothing to do with the truth. But the undeniable truth is that the camps are a hell. I have been to one of the IDP camps a few days ago to take charge one of my closest relatives who suffered there for more than four months with a 14-year-old young son. If I had wanted I would have taken them in the beginning, but I didn’t want to go through the back door. When our people are suffering I felt even my very close relative who was there should undergo the same suffering. But with the new scheme of relatives taking charge of the IDPs, I was able to get the two out of that hell. The government has been trying to do its utmost, there is no denying that, but it can’t cope with the situation. Therefore, I would suggest that rather than keeping these people there, to release everybody against whom the government has no suspicion of their having any links with the LTTE. Secondly, there are reports that more than 10,000 were able to get out of IDP camps through devious methods and there are also reports, I don’t think anyone has denied them, that among them were LTTE members. Those who had the means and the mind to bribe were able to get out, but others who conformed to the law are suffering inside. Please rest assured that out of the more than 10,000 who had fled the IDP camps in Vavuniya, there are hundreds of LTTE members. This is the tragedy. A sizeable section of the people who should be in has managed to get away. Out of the 250,000 odd who remain there, there might be a few thousand who may be rightly or wrongly suspected of LTTE connections. So keep them and release the rest.

Q: How can you just release them? Where can they go? Many of their houses would have been destroyed in the fighting.
Instead of keeping them as virtual detainees in sub-human conditions, if you release them, some of them will not be able to find shelter on their own. Those people can be kept in permanent buildings and not in makeshift sheds or tents. I would suggest if you bring in the scheme it might be about 50,000 to 100,000 who may remain since they will not be able to find shelter on their own. Then close down all schools in Vavuniya as you need to house these remaining people. The studies of students can wait for a few months in the interest of their kith and kin numbering more than 250,000 who are suffering in tents in IDP camps. My suggestion is bring in a scheme, whereby a sizeable section would be able to leave the IDP camps, while the rest would remain to be fed and sheltered by the government and they can be housed in permanent buildings like schools in Vavuniya particularly in the rainy season. I say this not only in the interest of the IDPs, but also in the interest of the government. The government is going to face a serious situation. It cannot, by any stretch of imagination, cope up with the IDP population once the rains set in.

The low lying areas of Cheddikulam, where the IDP camps are situated will get flooded. So rather than waiting till the last minute I would appeal to the government to think about this scheme, whereby the burden of the government would be lessened in that it would be left to deal with at most 100,000 IDPs. Till the rains are over they can be housed in schools. As the government is telling us that the de-mining process is going on steadily and smoothly, in the New Year the government can embark on resettling those people in their respective villages.

Q: One of the key charges levelled against the TNA parliamentarians was that they did not have the welfare of their constituents in their hearts as most of the time they were abroad, except for some exceptions, with their families settled in foreign countries.
We have more than one million Tamils from the Northeast living in different countries of the world spread from Australia to Canada. So there is no point in accusing anybody from the TNA of having his or her family abroad. You all are now concerned about the Tamil diaspora. The term Tamil diaspora is now on the lips of everybody in this country.
These are people who fled the country because of the post 1983 situation. It is not that every TNA MP is having his family abroad. There are number of exceptions. Out of our 22 MPs more than half of that number is having their families here. Some of us have been in politics right from our teens. I am going to turn 60 in a few days. Do you know that I came into politics when I was barely ten? I entered politics participating in the election campaign of A. Amirthalingam in the Vadukoddai electorate in the March 1960 election. I participated in the Satyagraha campaign of 1961 and Padayatra of 1963. Take Sambandan, he is now 76. He had been actively involved right from the time of the first general election, when the Tamil Congress was holding sway in the Northeast and more particularly in the North winning seven seats then in the parliament of 95 elected members and that included Sambandan’s own constituency of Trincomalee. Take the case of Senathiraja, he has put in more than 50 years in politics. Take the cases of Adaikalanathan and Premachandran. They came into politics as militants. All of us invariably have suffered and in consequence our families have suffered. So whenever there was an opportunity for our family members, including our young children to leave the country, that opportunity was made use of because our own families have suffered. Some of us have been living under the shadow of death for more than two decades and the threat emanated from very many sources, including the LTTE and from some who are now in the democratic mainstream. If peace is restored our children would love to come back and settle here and contribute to the welfare of our own people and by extension to our own country, this island. In regard to the Diaspora how can you expect them to keep quiet when the war was raging and the people were dying in large number?
At the same time I can tell you we the TNA would be listening to only the Tamils who are here. You can take my word on that. The Diaspora is entitled to voice its feelings and views. They are entitled to it, but as far as we are concerned our masters are not beyond the shores of this country. Our masters are our own people who are still living in this country and mostly in the northeast. There cannot be any remote control from any quarter whatsoever as far as the TNA is concerned. We would never allow that.

Q: During the CFA many Tamils, especially from the Diaspora invested heavily in real estate in and around Colombo to reap the benefit of those massive investments, they would have to help to revive the economy here and even invest more. Now that the war is over when do you think they will return to be active here once again?
Now restore law and order in effective terms in the northeast. Disarm all the paramilitary groups who are the running dogs of any government in power. Give a free hand to the Police who will do a fine job. Whoever violates the law; whoever is in possession of any unlicensed firearms should be brought to court and dealt with under the law. If they can ensure such a situation, the Tamil Diaspora will not only be investing in the south of Sri Lanka, but also in the northeast of the country. This is a serious issue. There is no question of our talking peace without the ordinary citizen feeling safe and secure in any part of the country and more particularly in the war ravaged northeast. We have made this request to the President at our last meeting.

Q: So how many armed military groups are still out there?
This is the problem. There are number of paramilitary groups who claim to function as political parties. They must choose now. Either they should function as political parties or as underworld groups. If they choose to be the latter, then they have no place in our society. When we allow members of any political party to possess illegal weapons and brandish them in a provincial or local government election, then we are in for a terrible situation. Our appeal is that every paramilitary group or any group whose members are armed in violation of the law should be disarmed. Take the case of Batticaloa, DIG there Edison Gunatillake, who is a good friend of mine has been successful in recovering weapons from a Muslim militant group. It shows that there had been one militant group that had been in existence and roaming about armed with weapons till now. There are number of others. All should be disarmed. Give an ultimatum and declare a moratorium period for them to surrender.

Q: About how many IDPs have been released to their relatives?
More than 10,000 have been released. Not only consequent to our meeting with the President. Even prior to that they were formulating some plans. The meeting added momentum to that. It is not only the TNA, but world over there is concern for IDPs. So we have to understand these developments in the right perspective. We are ready to work with the government in the humanitarian task of alleviating the suffering of the IDPs who are our own people.

Q: In any final settlement the sticky point appears to be not so much the land issue, but the devolving of police powers. It might not be a case of just one or two unruly Chief Ministers to contend with in such a situation in the future, but nine Chief Ministers running nine different police forces might make this tiny country ungovernable.
That could be a real problem. The division of the country into nine provinces is, in fact, British oriented. That is outdated. That is exactly why we want the devolution of power based on ethnicity. Instead of the present provinces we should have regions taking into consideration the reality, including those that led to a protracted military conflict in this country. Instead of having nine provinces and nine chief ministers let us have a reduced realistic number. If we are fully aware of the factors and the forces that led to Tamil youth losing faith in the democratic system commencing gradually from the early 70s, we’ll be able to deal with the whole question comprehensively and effectively.

Q: In light of recent experiences, the majority community entertains great fears. In the world we are a small minority and there is fear no one is interested in our welfare, except for a few close friends. So in other words even though we are a majority here we do have a minority mindset. So as an initial step Tamils should not expect everything all at once, but let things come gradually.
Yes. Let us be patient, but that does not mean that we can agree to a continuing process of dealing with the national question in a compartmentalised manner. We have got to evolve a political solution once and for all. That is the only way of doing that if you mean it seriously.