All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) leader Gajan Ponnambalam, in an interview with the Daily Mirror, shares his views on the political developments of the north. Mr Ponnambalam, whose party made significant gains at the local government elections, speaks about Federalism. The following is what he shared:
Tamil people are not going to ask for an armed struggle
If there is going to be an armed struggle, it is the Sinhalese who are pushing them to it
UNHRC has been used as a political tool
UNHRC resolutions not aimed at addressing accountability issues here
They are aimed at regime change in Sri Lanka only
TNA is part of the government
Law and Order was good in LTTE controlled areas
There is nothing controversial about Vijeyakala’s statement
Q As the leader of All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), how do you assess the current political situation? When you consider the last elections in 2015, we see the way the people voted and the expectations they had in the rejection of Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa to usher in a new political culture in the south. Later, people voted for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on the basis that they would have a good relationship with the party in the south and deliver on Tamil expectations. As far as the benchmark for the 2015 elections is concerned, there is total disillusionment certainly in the north and east, and also in the south. There is a very clear shift away from the TNA in all the districts in the north and east. In the case of the south, there is a resurgence of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The voting terms may be different. In a real political sense, there is a total resurgence of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party.
Q You mentioned that there is a resurgence of Mahinda Rajapaksa. How do you view that phenomenon from your party’s point of view? Even from 2010 onwards, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political position in regard to the solution to the ethnic problem is fundamentally problematic to the Tamil people. There is absolutely no doubt about it. We reject that position. We see him pandering to the Sinhala nationalist sentiments. I personally do not have a problem with Sinhala nationalism. I do not reject nationalism. I am also a Tamil nationalist. There is nothing wrong in being a nationalist. Various forms of nationalism must be prepared to co-exist. Unfortunately, Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa has an ultra-nationalist position where he rejects any other form of nationalism. That ultra-nationalism is nothing but racism. The question is whether the alternative to it is any different. That is the key question.
If the coalition government had taken a different line and said, “Mistakes have happened. The LTTE might have been defeated. But, the Tamil people are different. We have to deliver on their rights. If we do not deliver, the country will find it difficult to move forward. The international community did not like Mahinda because he did not deliver on the Tamil question in terms of war crimes, accountability and political solution. Therefore, they came down hard.”
If they (the new government) had said that, I think there could have been a genuine change. They went on a totally opposite narrative. Their position is that it was they who protected Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is they who had safeguarded the military from any form of prosecution. They are trying to outbid Mahinda. In our view, it is not a regime. It is really the change in personalities. For us, it is unfortunate.
Tamils are the vast majority living in the north and the east. If you look at upcountry Tamils, they are living in the south in fairly large numbers. You have a significant number of Sinhalese in the north and the east. No one is asking them to be chased away. Our accusation is that their settlements are State-aided colonization.
Q Yet, the present government has undertaken certain projects such as the Constitution-making process. The TNA is part and parcel of that process. How do you respond? Kelum, I left the TNA because they said soon after the war was over that they were going to accept the 13th Amendment to the Constitution as the basis for a solution. The 13th Amendment is well within the Unitary State. You cannot be within a Unitary State and talk of devolution or Federalism. No one is talking about separation. Clearly, we are not talking about separation. Certainly, to exercise the right to self-determination in the north and east, you cannot be within a unitary state and do it. Yet, the TNA accepted it. So, we left the TNA. I cannot understand why Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa or any Sinhalese reject these political proposals backed by the TNA. These are proposals Tamil people have to reject. They are within the Unitary State. The TNA is lying to the Tamil people by calling it Federalism. But, it is not. After we told the truth to the Tamil people, they began to realize that they had been cheated. I don’t understand what the Sinhalese are worried about.
Q What are the parameters of devolution you expect? In any Federal constitution, except for foreign affairs, currency and national defence to protect the country from foreign invasion, everything is devolved. Then, for convenience sake, there are subjects like national highways cutting across Federal units. In such matters coordination is needed. That has to be vested with the centre. There has to be self-rule to the region.
Q You talk about self-rule to Tamils in the north and the east. But, a vast majority of Tamils live outside the north and the east. What about them? Kelum, Tamils are the vast majority living in the north and the east. If you take upcountry Tamils living in the south, there is a significant number of Tamils in the south. You have a significant number of Sinhalese in the north and the east. No one is asking them to be chased away. Our accusation is that their settlements are State-aided colonization. Yet, we are not asking the Sinhalese to run away. We are not saying that Tamils in the south must come to the north and the east. We have to make sure that the Sinhalese in the north and the east are comfortable and safe. When we say self-rule, it is not to disenfranchise the Sinhalese people living in the north and the east. They will be protected and given equal rights. But, the north and east, as a region, is Tamil speaking. That identity must be protected. Within that identity, non-Tamils can live. The same sort of arrangement will be there for Tamils in the south.
Q How realistic is a Federal solution without cooperation from politics in the south? That is something the Sinhalese people have to think about. If they want this country to solve its problems without external interference, they must find a way to solve the ethnic problem. We are not talking about separation. Federalism is not separation. I do understand the Sinhalese people having a problem with a Separate State. But, you cannot deny Federalism. We are prepared to give all the guarantees you want, provided, that Tamil people can exercise their right to self-determination within a united Sri Lanka. We will ensure the Sinhalese people that we will not seek separation.
In any Federal constitution, except for foreign affairs, currency and national defence to protect the country from foreign invasion, everything is devolved. Then, for convenience sake, there are subjects like national highways cutting across Federal units. In such matters coordination is needed. That has to be vested with the centre. There has to be self-rule to the region.
Q Support for a Federal constitution is unlikely in the south as things stand at the moment. Then, how are you going to pursue your goals? Tamil people must have their rights.
Q How are you going to achieve such rights in the absence of support from the south? That is something we will have to see. During the time of the LTTE, the international community told us that the Sinhalese people were willing to grant Federalism. It was the LTTE that was not ready to accept a Federal solution. The LTTE was only interested in separation. There is no LTTE today. Merely because the LTTE is not there, you cannot deny Federalism. The justification for the war was that the LTTE was for separatism.
Q How are you going to get Federalism without cooperation from the south? Our view is that we must get Federalism. We will struggle to achieve it.
Q Through democratic means… Absolutely.
Q Some people express fear that there is the possible resurgence of the LTTE to fight for it. What do you think of it? Tamil people have been subjected to genocide in our view. If they have been subjected to genocide, they are recovering from it. Tamil people are not going to want an armed struggle. They want their right to make sure that they won’t suffer again. If there is going to be an armed struggle, it is the Sinhalese people who are going to push them to it.
Q Today, the United States has pulled out from the UNHRC. That India is having a different attitude was said by some Tamil leaders. India is bent on resisting the Chinese rise in the region. In that context, how favourable is the international situation for you to fight for your rights? If you take the US and India, China is their fundamental concern. The US accusation is that the UNHRC is a political tool. Our accusation is that the UNHRC has been used as a political tool. The resolutions, passed in the UNHRC, were primarily aimed at regime change in Sri Lanka. That was also a political tool. It is ironic that the US makes the same allegation against the other countries. For the Tamil people, it is not a major loss that the US pulled out. The ultimate goals are not in Tamil people’s interests. The UNHRC resolution is not aimed at addressing accountability issues. It is aimed at regime change in Sri Lanka. The UNHRC resolution, as it stands, falls well short of accountability for the victims.
Q The Northern Provincial Council will stand dissolved by October. How are you planning to contest the elections then? We will contest. I think there have been calls that current Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran has to get together with us. We have said that we are willing to work with him. We are willing to come to a coalition. Of course, it all depends on whom he is trying to accommodate. We are prepared to work with him if he creates a party. We are also prepared to work with civil society organizations and unions within the Tamil People’s Council.
Q What about various parties in the TNA if they defected to join hands with you? Why are they defecting? We want a political culture in which Tamil politicians are held accountable to people. We left the TNA because their policies were wrong. We believe that they are cheating on the Tamil people. During election times, they said they were for Federalism. But, after the elections, they agreed to a unitary constitution. These parties never had a problem with the TNA policies. They had various other problems with the TNA. There were problems regarding the leadership. There are ego problems. Some parties were not given equal status. None of it had to do with policies. Our view is that any coalition should be based on policies.
Yes, of course. You ask any woman in the north and east whether she felt safe now or then during the LTTE time. The answer will be unanimous. Even those who were opposed to the LTTE will tell you that they felt safe at that time.
Q The TNA is the main opposition in Parliament. You also represented the TNA in Parliament at one point in the past. What do you think of their role? What have they done? They are part of the government. Only after they got a trouncing at the local government elections, have they started criticizing the government. They do it because they cannot come here otherwise. They won elections after the war on frauds. They lied to the Tamil people. They gave assurances to the Tamil people.
Q What is the reason for criminal activities to rise in the north? We are talking about a situation. There is so much intelligence gathering in the north and the east. You could not have won the war without having such good intelligence. If there are these gangs, they cannot function without the knowledge of the military and the Police. That is a fact. It is impossible for anything to happen without their knowledge.
Q UNP MP Vijayakala Maheswaran recently called for the resurgence of the LTTE. She said there were no criminal activities at that time. It became a controversial statement. What is your position? That is not controversial. In the LTTE controlled areas, the law and order situation was so good that women could walk at midnight alone on any road. That was how safe it was. That is a fact, Kelum. Today, when you have the military ratio of ten to one, criminal activities take place at this rate. You have to ask the military what they are doing.
Q It means you also stand for the same viewpoint? Yes, of course. You ask any woman in the north and east whether she felt safe now or then during the LTTE time. The answer will be unanimous. Even those who were opposed to the LTTE will tell you that they felt safe at that time.
Q But, there were so many political killings. Your father was also assassinated. How do you say the situation was good then? My father was assassinated by the Chandrika Kumaratunga Government. There were a lot of assassinations in the south. During the war-time, you cannot compare even. The Government did white van assassinations. That is a different thing. Those are matters associated politically. We are talking about law and order in the normal sense.
Q What is your view on the next Presidential Election? Our view is that we will take a decision at that time. It will depend on what the candidates offer to our people. As far as how people voted at the previous elections, they did it by trusting the TNA. Today, people have lost their trust in the TNA. Don’t expect the people to behave as they did at the previous time at the dictates of the TNA! It will not happen.