TNA Leader speaks his mind

ďDonít foist the LTTE on the Tamil peopleĒ

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Leader R. Sambandan, despite his advancing years, is quite sprite when it comes to the subject of finding a solution to the ethnic question. With the LTTE having been crushed nearly a year ago, he sounds ready to fully cooperate with the government, to find that so far illusive solution acceptable to everyone.

Following are excerpts from an interview with this veteran Tamil political warrior.

Q: We have obviously arrived at a crucial juncture, where the government appears to be ready to fully implement the 13th Amendment, but, for there to be an honest and honourable settlement, there must also be some give and take from the Tamil side as well.
Honesty must come from both sides. The Sri Lankan State also has a responsibility to be honest. The Tamil side also must be honest. Under Chelvanayagamís leadership, the Tamil side was absolutely honest- 100%. In our election manifesto of 1970, the Federal Party (FP) called upon the Tamil people to vote against any party or candidate who espoused separation. We put that in writing in our manifesto. That was the degree of our honesty. When J.R. Jayewardene was Prime Minister, speaking on Chelvanayagamís vote of condolence in Parliament, he said, you donít have to obtain anything in writing from Chelvanayagam, if he gives you his word, you can be sure he will honour it. That was the degree of honesty the Tamil side maintained.

The 13th Amendment was enacted in 1987/88. We rejected the 13th Amendment at that point of time, because we knew that it was not workable. Many senior politicians in this country condemned the 13th Amendment as being unworkable. Efforts have continuously taken place ever since the enactment of the 13th Amendment, to make improvements to it, to go beyond the 13th Amendment. We had the Mangala Moonasinghe Select Committee proposals during President Premadasaís time. It went far beyond the 13th Amendment. There were the Constitutional proposals of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prof G.L. Peiris, who was the Minister of Constitutional Affairs between August 1995 and August 2000, that went far beyond the 13th Amendment. Ranil Wickremesinghe took the issue far beyond the 13th Amendment. Then, President Rajapaksa appointed the APRC and a Panel of Experts. The Experts, in their majority report, comprising a large number of Sinhalese, went far beyond the 13th Amendment. Even the APRC deliberations went far beyond the 13th Amendment. So any effort to foist the 13th Amendment as the political solution in this background history, in my view, will not work, will not take us anywhere.

Q: If the government is willing to consider substantial concessions on sensitive issues like transferring police and land powers, then the Tamils should also be willing to compromise. Otherwise we will be back in square one hardliners on both sides hijacking the issue. There are also varying demands from the Tamils from Federalism to two nations one country and 13th Amendment plus. There is also the Muslim factor.
Leave the Muslim factor to us. We the Tamils and Muslims can come to a common understanding. Please come up with something that is reasonable, adequate, workable and durable. Please do not think you can foist anything on us. That will not happen. But if you are prepared to enter into serious negotiations, to work out something, which will be a solution to the national question and which will also serve the countryís interest we will extend our maximum cooperation, but we are not going to be bullied into accepting something which will not work.

Q: The sticky issues have always been devolving Police and land powers. So if something substantial was offered on those frontsÖ
Why canít we be given the matter of land that is contained in the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact of 1957? It was signed in 1957 by a leader of Bandaranaikeís calibre, one of the greatest leaders this country produced, and President Mahinda Rajapaksaís political guru. Why canít we be given what Bandaranaike offered us in 1957?

Q: Political expediency on both sides led to going back on promises, abrogation of pactsÖ..
With regard to Police powers, they are absolutely essential for any institution of government to function. Are the Police exercising their powers properly? When your Police force and your Police powers are in a rotten state, how can you expect us to have any faith in that police service? Let us have very clear cut ideas about this. We do not want Police powers to divide the country, but to maintain law and order in a territory in which we have powers of governance. Police powers are fundamental. It is there in every country where there is a power sharing arrangement.

Q: There have been excesses in a war situation, but it is a waste to dwell in history. Now it is an open society, where you cannot hide anything. You cannot do wrong things and get away, as everything gets splashed in the media. Canít things be worked out from here with greater trust?
Trust is not built in the air. Trust is built on something very sound. We are prepared to negotiate honestly and faithfully and we would like the government to trust us. We are a moderate Tamil political party. Of the 18 Tamil MPs from the northeast, 14 come from my party. We did not accept views of hardline forces, who wanted hardline positions stated in our manifesto. We dropped them, and every one of them lost at the election. We did not give nominations to untrustworthy people, who subsequently joined the government and contested. Every one of them lost the election. So we have acted very honestly and very straight forwardly. We would like the government to recognise that, if the democratic verdict of the people in the rest of the country gives them the right to govern this country, the democratic verdict of the people of the northeast must also be respected.

Q: People everywhere are sick of this conflict, they only want to get on with their lives.
All these things happened because the right thing was not done. What we are saying is at least now do the right thing.

Q: Recent elections show that people want a softer approach, as they are sick of confrontations. That is why fewer and fewer people are coming forward to cast their vote. The result was that the TNA elected members reduced from 22 to 14.
Twenty two members in the best of circumstances, and 14 in the worst of circumstances.

Q: In the past, Douglas Devananda was accused of resorting to strong-arm tactics, but under a free and fair election, he managed to narrow the gap between the UPFA and TNA
You are aware of the murders committed, the amount of money spent, and the thuggery that was practised.

Q: Things have changed for the better, unlike when the Tigers stuffed ballot boxes.
Things have not changed. We fought an election in an impossible situation, and we have won these 14 seats in a very difficult situation.

Q: There was no outright intimidation or violence.
There was plenty of intimidation, plenty of thuggery in every district of the North and East. Plenty of money spent. Plenty of bribes given. We donít want to talk about all that. We are prepared to leave all that aside. We are prepared to negotiate seriously and arrive at an acceptable solution, but please ensure that it is a solution that is workable, and which will satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil speaking people, the Tamil and Muslim people. Then this country will progress and develop.

Q: Can you dismiss the Muslim factor so easily?
You do not worry about the Muslim factor. You leave the Muslim factor to us. The Muslim people and we will come to a settlement and will resolve this question in an acceptable way.

Q: Are you in touch with the President on this key issue?
I have not been in touch with the President after the election. The President has not got in touch with me, but I am in touch with some members of the government who have spoken to me. So we are in the initial stages. The President has also been busy with Cabinet formation and the visit to the SAARC summit in Bhutan. We are watching developments.

Q: With whom will you feel comfortable in dealing within the government?
I am prepared to deal with anybody in the government. The President being the head of the government should decide who will deal with me or my party, and we will deal with whoever is chosen to deal with us.

Q: It was reported in newspapers that the government has given a fresh undertaking to India to resolve the national question through and, among other things, the setting up an upper house. So who exactly is in touch with you from the government?
I donít want to mention names. I donít have the authority to do that. But we are prepared to talk to anyone.

Q: Our understanding is that there is something definitely in the air.
I donít know. If that is something good, it would be good for the country.

Q: The ceasefire period saw the Tamil Diaspora making heavy investment in the local real estate market. So, if we are not paranoid of each other, things can really take off. But the Diaspora and the TNA are not speaking in the same voice.
Some sections of the Diaspora are deeply suspicious of the Sri Lankan Government. The majority of the Diaspora is prepared to work with the TNA, in keeping with the policies defined by the TNA. The only way to get the Diaspora to come around is to come up with a political solution that would be acceptable to the Tamil people in this country. If a political solution that is acceptable to the Tamil people is worked out, and we have democratic elections on the basis of that solution, where Tamil people will govern them in those areas, that will be the end of the story.

Q: As much as the Diaspora is suspicious of the government, there are considerable numbers in the south who are equally suspicious of them and other external elements.
Diaspora is not within the country. There is nothing they can do within this country. You cannot deny that the Sri Lankan Government today, is in effective control of this country. The trans national government is only on paper. You are in effective control of this country. So what you have to do is to come up with a solution that will satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people, and then you can be assured that the Diaspora and all their activities will come to an end. You must not try to make the Diaspora an excuse for not solving this problem. You must have the will to solve this problem, and you must demonstrate your will and your capacity to solve the problem, without trying to find excuses. My impression is that some sections in this country are now trying to find excuses to not solve the problem, because they donít want the problem to be solved. They donít want to share power with the Tamil people. Such games will not do good to anyone.

Q: As you said in the past, leaders such as Ranil Wickremesinghe, went very far with a ceasefire, and prior to that, Chamndrike Kumaratunga, with her August 2000 proposals went beyond anyone before, but the Diaspora and the Tigers could never be satisfied.
Donít say Diaspora. May be the Tigers were difficult at that point of time. The fact of the matter is that nothing was done in a tangible way, but that story is over. You are not dealing with Tigers now. You are dealing with a democratic Tamil political party, which is the only Tamil political party that has been elected from the Northeast by the Tamil people. And you are dealing with a Tamil political party with an understanding with the Muslim community, and the Muslim political leadership. You are not dealing with the Tigers any longer.

Q: You all had many rounds of discussions with Muslims from M.H.M. Ashraffís time, but no final agreement was hammered out.
There has been a lot of talking. There has been a lot of agreement, and we have a lot of understanding and goodwill amongst ourselves, but all that can be incorporated only when the Sinhala side is able to come up with a formula for a solution. Any understanding between the Tamil and the Muslim people must be incorporated in a political solution that is arrived at with the State.

Q: Even on your part, you all are guilty of giving into political expediency as recently as the last presidential election, when you all backed a General who wanted to double the size of the army after the end of the war, and even wanted to incarcerate the IDPs much longer while in uniform. He began to sing a totally different tune after he fell out with the government. So just to settle scores you all blindly backed him.
We didnít back him blindly. We backed him after very careful thought. I have explained to the President with regard to this matter. I think the President understands my position very well. That is over. It is a past event. It is not worth talking any longer. I told the President, even before the presidential election, you may well become the President whatever decision we make, and if we come to Parliament in good numbers, we are prepared to work with you to find a political solution. So donít talk about the past, it is not relevant any longer. Please do not refer to the past in a way to confuse the present question. Let there be clarity with regard to the present question, and letís find a solution. We are prepared to cooperate.

Q: You all are always asking for concessions from the government, but what concessions are you willing to make on your part?
We are the underdog. We are the minority. We have been trampled upon. Unbridled violence has been practised against us. We have been denied our rights. Donít talk about the LTTE. I am not part of the LTTE. I agree that the LTTE practised violence, but innocent Tamil people of this country never practised any violence. All the Tamil people were victims from the í50s till the í80s. Donít foist the LTTE on the Tamil people. We have only asked for our basic rights to live as equal citizens in this country, enjoying an adequate measure of self rule within the territory in which we are the majority and to be able to govern our selves, the way it is happening in various parts of the world.

Q: President Rajapaksa and his government did the impossible in crushing the LTTE, when all experts said it cannot be done. Similarly, donít you think he could be the person to deliver the solution that has evaded this country all this while?
Possibly. He must try as hard as he tried to defeat the LTTE, to find a political solution, and if he tries hard, he can find it. We will help him.

Q: How long do you think that will take?
It will not take long. He should work very fast on it. He can bank on our cooperation. We will give him the fullest support. We will be very honest with him. We will not deceive him. We will not cheat him. We will not cheat the Sinhala people.

Q: Can you count on the UNPís backing?
I donít know. Weíll see. I donít want to talk about it now. Letís first talk to the President and the government.(RA)