Pic: Thilak Perera

On the ninth anniversary marking the end of the conflict, TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran in a wide ranging interview with the Sunday Observer, calls for a speedy resolution of issues affecting the people of war-battered Northern and Eastern regions, along with action on abolishing the Executive Presidency and completing the Constitution making process.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: Are you positive that the Constitution making process can be completed within the current term of the government?

If the final draft can be brought to the constitutional assembly within a month, certainly before the end of this year, the process can be completed. As far as the TNA is concerned, we are still hopeful the process can be successfully completed.

It is just not hope, this is something inevitable, if the country is to have a future, this opportunity must be seized by all political parties. All parties have committed to the process and we cannot abandon the process now.

Q: Who or what is the biggest stumbling block in this process ?

Lack of political courage on the part of the two main political parties is the main stumbling block. Even the local council election result upheld the January 2015 mandate. Collectively, the votes for the two parties far exceeded 52%. So, if they really put their hearts and minds on this project, it can be carried forward. The reluctance seems to be over the referendum that is mandatory for a new Constitution. But we think a referendum is certainly winnable and this is a make or break project for the country as a whole.

Q: But compromises on contentious issues like the Executive Presidency and the electoral system will not be easy ?

Executive Presidency is a matter everyone at some point or other had vowed to abolish including Mahinda Rajapaksa, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena. It was the first promise made by the common opposition candidate. All of them made this promise as election pledges, to win elections. That was the winning formula.

The President must keep to that promise, the UNP which is the party that brought in the Executive Presidency has taken a policy decision to abolish it. We have discussed the concerns of devolution without the Executive Presidency at the steering committee. Our own suggestion is not to abolish the Executive Presidency in toto, but retain some powers in the President with regard to the provinces. Because there seems to be a fear that if you widely devolve power to the provinces, there is no strong centre.

So as a counter to that we have proposed, there will have to be a President under the new Constitution who will retain some powers with regard to the provinces, like in India. In India the President will do that on the advice of the PM.

But what we have recommended is on the recommendation of the Governor, the President can take over the administration of the provinces on certain limited grounds. Of course that decision can be reviewed by a Constitutional Court and so on.

But in extreme urgency, if there is a threat to the unity of the country, the President can act on his own. That is a matter that has been agreed upon. Therefore, in pure theory it won’t be a total abolition of the Executive Presidency. Hence, adjustments are still possible.

There is another contentious issue – the SLFP says the President must be directly elected by the people. Some minority parties also say they must have this.

The TNA thinks it must be a President who is elected by Parliament because if the executive powers are taken away, to have a President directly elected by people would run counter to that. The President can claim a mandate directly from the people. But that is also negotiable. I think a negotiated compromise on that is still very possible.

Q: There seems to be a huge public outcry lately against the abolishing of the Executive Presidency – the Government seems to have taken aback by this?

I don’t know if it is correct to say there is a huge public outcry. The Government has received a people’s mandate to abolish it. The country has repeatedly voted for it. Perhaps there is lack of communication to the masses on the real ill effects of the Executive Presidency. It seems to be the case that once in office every President forgets the promise to abolish that office.

Q: Nine years after the war ended, what is the priority for Tamil people?

Livelihoods and shelter are basic necessities. That cannot be second to any other priority. Along with those will come a final political settlement. Non-resolution of the ethnic issue has been the reason for the three decade long violence in this country, all the displacement, loss of life and the country suffering economically. Those issues cannot be underestimated. So long as it remains unresolved other issues will keep aggravating. Hence, it needs to be addressed.

Q; The call for constitutional reforms, a political settlement – aren’t these mere political slogans. Instead, don’t you think the ordinary people want to live in peace with easy access to livelihoods, better living standards and shelter?

If they were not that important, they wouldn’t have sacrificed their lives in their hundreds and thousands and carried on with an agitation that has spanned over three decades or longer.

Q: There is a lot of talk lately about the resurgence of Tamil nationalism in the North and the East. Given the route Tamil nationalism took the last time, do you see this as a dangerous road?

That is one of our fears. Tamil nationalism by itself is not a negative thing. We are all Tamil Nationalists. But that does not mean we articulate for a separate state. That call for a separate state does not exist now from the people. But they don’t want to live in this country like second class citizens. They have lived in this country as long as anybody else has. That recognition is necessary.

The non-recognition of that status of the Tamil people beginning from the 1972 Constitution resulted in the agitation becoming an armed conflict. Now with the experience of how that affected our people, we hope that our youth will never return to violence to resolve issues. But that’s our hope. Our fear is that when another generation comes about which has no memory of the sufferings of our people during the war time it’s anybody’s guess as to what they will do. The situation also changes, today is not 1970s. In the 1970s the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora was inconsequential. Now, there is a very strong diaspora whose economic might is said to be equal or greater than even the state of SL. Dreams of a separate state are in the minds of the diaspora because those are the people who fled this country through violence. And so if this issue is not resolved and youth become radicalised, it won’t follow the same path that we trod 40 years ago.

Q: As the main Tamil party in the North and the East, how can the TNA steer the people away from ultra-nationalist sentiments and towards a more constructive approach to have their demands met?

We are trying our best to keep them away from violence. We openly advise our youth. But whether we will be successful in the long run I don’t know. We try to keep them within the non-violent agitations. At present even such action is not encouraged because we are engaged in a process of negotiations.

If all our best efforts fail and there is an unreasonable denial of our rights, then what the next generation will do is anybody’s guess.

Q: Recently you mentioned that the Tamils would launch a non-violent protest against the Government soon unless it got a move on addressing Tamil grievances. What does this mean – that the TNA would launch a 1961 type satyagraha and general strike?

Yes. That’s the idea, a non co-operation movement which is totally peaceful and non violent, in keeping with Gandhian principles. Having participated in a process, fully committed to a united indivisible country, making serious compromises, if the Government and others are not ready to accommodate legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people in the country, that will be the only alternative left for us. We are also conscious of the fact that to keep our youth from returning to violence, we must ourselves launch a non violent campaign and get them involved.

Q: In the local government elections the TNA lost some ground to more nationalist Tamil parties in the North and the East. Do you think the Government’s delay in meeting the aspirations of the Tamils is eroding the people’s confidence in Tamil moderates like yourself? Do you think this will affect your political future?

It is not that we have lost some ground, we have lost a lot of ground. Between August 2015 and now our vote base has halved. At the Northern provincial council elections TNA bagged 80% of the total votes. But this time it dropped to 35%. That is a huge set back. That is a reflection of the disenchantment the people feel with the TNA, which has been viewed as an appendage of this government for the past three years. We would not say nothing has happened. People are conscious of the progress on the ground but its slow pace makes it look as if it is not moving at all. And the constitutional process being delayed brings to their mind the previous broken promises. People ask why you think that anything will be different now.

Q: You have acknowledged that a great deal of land has been returned to landless Tamil people in the North and the East over the past three years. What more do you think the military and the Government can do to bring normality to the region nine years after the war ended?

The Government needs to release all the civilian lands. These lands have not been used for anything and have become jungles. After nine years since the war ended there is absolutely no justification to hold these lands any longer.

They should also release political prisoners. We consider them as political prisoners, because their objective was political. Most of them have spent a good deal of their life in prison. Most have been there longer than 10 years.

The political objective for which they are supposed to have committed crimes does not exist any longer. Their numbers are very small 17 or so.

The concerns of the disappeared should be addressed too. We recognize the Office of Missing Persons has been established. But their work must be carried out in earnest. We must know what happened to the thousands who went missing. These are absolutely important areas. Of course livelihoods opportunities and work opportunities must be given due recognition. No development has taken place in that area for the past 30 years. There must be special attention given to North and the East as regions.

Q: Occasional news reports originating from India talks about efforts being mooted to revive the LTTE. What are the chances of any LTTE revival in the North and the East? How would Northerners today respond to such an eventuality ?

I don’t think there is any prospect of an LTTE revival. But as I said, the dream of a separate state for Tamils is not something that has vanished from the minds of the people, so if that is to go away, and people are to be satisfied that their aspirations are realized within one country, then there must be serious changes made to the governance structure of this country. Reviving the LTTE is, may be such slogans are popular in Thamil Nadu in a kind of romanticized folklore of Tamils, brave and thing. But there is no appetite for such things here in the North.

Q: Events to commemorate the war dead, is being readied in the North and the East and the student unions have warned the politicians not to politicize these events. Your comments?

Well it’s a political event and I think newly elected representatives of the people participating in such event should not be frowned upon. But the concern of the students is to avoid politicising these events or politicians trying to gain an undue advantage.

That is a valid concern. I don’t think a commemorative event for the dead must ever be used by politicians for their narrow political objectives.

But unfortunately, politics is very much apart of the preparation for this event, and that is one reason why I have out of disgust decided to stay away from this event.

Q: On the other hand the military has said the civilians who died in the war can be commemorated but not the terrorist cadres or LTTE leader Prabhakaran. What is the TNA’s stance on this ?

I disagree, an LTTE cadre is also a family member of various people. Anyone should have the right to mourn the death of their family member, even Prabhakaran. A commemoration of the dead cannot be distinguished in that way. I don’t agree with the Army on this.

Q: But given that the LTTE is still a banned organization in Sri Lanka, can such commemorations be allowed?

That’s true. But that does not mean the dead person ceases to be a member of a family.

Q: You entered politics officially only after the war ended. Do you feel sometimes that you fight the same battles, Tamil politicians fought before the ethnic issue exploded into a full war?

Yes, I seem to have picked up that battle from the early 1970s because in between there was a violent phase. I was not involved in that at all except as a lawyer appearing in human rights cases. But with regard to political objectives it is actually back to the 1970s.

In the 1970 general election the Federal Party in their election manifesto told the Tamil people not to vote for anybody who stood for separation of the country, but vote for those who vote for a federal arrangement. We are back to square one.

Almost 40 years later I seem to have picked up from there to bring about a more meaningful power sharing arrangement so that Tamils can exercise political power at least in their areas where they live as the majority community.

Source: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/05/20/opinion/meaningful-power-sharing-only-path-lasting-peace-%E2%80%93-ma-sumanthiran-mp