This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Maithripala Sirisena became president three years ago. What are the principal challenges for people living in the Northern Province?
No doubt the earlier environment is no more. Democracy, to a great extent, has returned. But our expectations have not been fulfilled. Over sixty thousand [acres of] private and state lands are still occupied by the armed forces nine years after the end of the war. The armed forces are in many places, cultivating and taking produce while owners await the return of their lands.
The state lands are mostly forest lands. Valuable timber are being cut and taken away, but we know not by whom. Elephants have been deprived of using their traditional corridors and they are entering civilian land and destroying crops, etc. Young women-headed families in the Vanni are not safe from human predators. Police refuse to take complaints directed against the armed forces.
Our fishermen who have been traditionally using discernible areas for centuries as their fishing grounds have now been deprived of the same by fishermen brought from the south with the protection given by the armed forces. In Nayaru in Mullaitivu [district] and other areas permanent living quarters are being built for these illegal immigrants into the Northern Province.
Lots of our tourist resorts have been taken over by the armed forces. They run many such resorts and take the proceeds. Buddhist temples are being erected in or around them and false history is propagated about Sinhalese being the original residents in areas such as Mathakal – now renamed Patuna in Sinhala. All name boards and notice boards there are in Sinhala.
It is made out that Sinhalese occupied these areas originally and the armed forces are bent on claiming the northern lands for the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese never ever occupied the north and east in large numbers. The Buddhist remains were left by Tamil Buddhists.
Our trade has been taken over by many a relative of the armed forces. Many Sinhala shops adorn the A-9 road from Vavuniya to Chavakachcheri.
They have recruited young Tamil girls at a high salary to conduct preschools for children. The teachers are given drills and allied military exercises and also given uniforms. The people often ask whether they are comfort girls. Preschool education is a subject for our education department.
The army cannot interfere in our matters. But who would question them? Our communications are often ignored. We could possibly go to court. But, knowing the Sri Lankan environment, what if the court declares for security reasons (whatever that may mean) in favor of the armed forces?
In the field of administration there is a three-tiered administration going on in the Northern Province. One by the governor, one by the district secretaries and their officers (both agents of the central government), and lastly by us – the people’s elected representatives.
We are not taken into confidence in the formulation and implementation of projects in the Northern Province. We are informed if it suits them. They use our officers to get their things done and often set up stories that we are incapable. Recently my office was given awards by the president for coming first among eight hundred-odd offices throughout the country – including all ministries of all central ministers and departments. The charge that we are incapable and inefficient nevertheless is kept going by powerful interest groups.
We are charged for returning money back to the center without doing our projects even though we have fulfilled all our commitments and expect three hundred-odd million [Sri Lankan rupees] from the central government out of the budget for last year due to us by December 31, 2017. Our contractors await this payment having finished their work.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has not been withdrawn even though promised to the United Nations and others. Lots of suspects taken in under the PTA continue to be in incarceration without the filing of indictments. If filed trials are postponed for years, they languish in jail and our appeals to the president and others fall on deaf ears.
Nothing has been done to alleviate the suffering of those who lost their dear ones taken into custody by the armed forces even though according to international law it is the duty of the armed forces to explain what happened to those taken into custody by them.
The recruitment of Tamil-speaking policemen has only been in words. Still, over ninety percent of the police in the Northern Province happen to be Sinhala-speaking. Complaints are still made by people in a ninety-five percent Tamil-speaking province to Sinhala-speaking policemen. If it is to be taken down by a Tamil policeman, the complainant has to wait for hours.
Let me stop at this. There are many other challenges.
Will the north remain heavily militarized for the foreseeable future? Are you surprised that there’s been so little progress in this area?
The idea is to keep the armed forces forever. So the army has come up with a brilliant idea. Let us help the local population by building up houses and toilets and whatnot and earn the approval and appreciation of the people. Then we could continue to stay here forever. Mind you it is the same soldiers who brutally killed, maimed, raped and plundered our people earlier who have now taken a new avatar. I must congratulate the present army commander, Mahesh Senanayake, for formulating this scheme. He knew we would not deprive our people of housing and other amenities coming free from the army since we lacked finances to do them ourselves.
So long as a unitary constitution remains we would not be able to oust the armed forces. The government is finding many ways to avoid giving us a federal constitution. Unless federalism brings us powers to decide on our security and well-being, the armed forces will continue to occupy our territories.
Colombo seems deeply unserious about implementing a credible and comprehensive transitional justice program. What’s your take?
Colombo is conscious that they fooled the British and the minorities in Ceylon [the former name of Sri Lanka] when they ousted the British saying they would look after the minorities in a husband-like manner. They took over all powers wielded by the British after the British left and started to show their true colors.
Transitional justice entails, inter alia, devolution of power plus punishment of war criminals. The government does not want to share the power they usurped for themselves when the British left with the minorities, especially the Tamils and they do not want to punish the offenders who committed war crimes – including torture, rape, plunder and acted brutally, calling them heroes instead.
Do you think the government would ever be serious in furthering the transitional justice process? They are good at talking. They will go on talking and the world community and Tamils would be fooled again and again.
In terms of other countries’ engagement with Sri Lanka, many nations – including the United States – have enthusiastically embraced the Sirisena administration. Does this exuberant, congratulatory approach encourage reform?
They did three years ago. I wonder whether they feel the same way now. Maybe they have no alternative now. But certainly they are disillusioned by the lack of progress shown by the Sirisena administration. Their exuberant, congratulatory approach did not encourage reform. The Sinhalese leaders are members of a majority community suffering a minority complex. That complex will not allow genuine reform favoring the minorities, especially Tamils. Reform in the sense of transitional justice could only be obtained by pressure from the international community.
Do you have any predictions regarding the forthcoming local government elections?