All the political parties affiliated to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) representing the Tamil community especially in the North and East, have pledged their full support to New Democratic Front Presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa. Five days ahead of the election, the Daily Mirror interviewed TNA MP and leading lawyer M. A. Sumanthiran who explained the reasons for the decision to support Premadasa and why the Tamil community would resist the return of Rajapaksas to power. Excerpts;
Q The Gotabaya Rajapaksa camp alleged that there are translation differences among Sinhala, Tamil and English versions of Sajith Premadasa’s manifesto with regard to the solution on the ethnic issue. What is your view?
There are no differences. Sajith has agreed for the same constitutional process that has now reached the draft stage. One cannot conclude without knowing the manifesto and the journey of its process. So in that process, there are two interim reports and this is how the words have been used. In Sinhala, the word ‘Ekeeya’ is being used. In Tamil and English, the equivalent words for unitary is not used. So ‘Ekeeya’ is used in the sense where it is one country. And there is a definition given. In the interim report also it is clearly explained and a definition has been given. So the definition is not unitary neither federal. It merely says it’s one undivided and indivisible country in which powers of governance are in the centre and province as laid down in the Constitution. You don’t have to give it a label of any sort. India is not described as a unitary or federal state. Many countries in the world don’t describe these terms. We in Sri Lanka did not describe it until 1972. Soulbury Constitution never mentioned about unitary neither did it say federal. So you can have your own terms. The word Ekeeya denotes one, and just in case it is misunderstood as unitary that has been defined in the draft. But that doesn’t conclude as federal. What we wanted to do was to resolve the issue rather than hanging on with empty labels. I agree with the content and that we managed to do. And if you were to have some consensus, we had to annul that label. But we agreed to use the word ‘Ekeeya’ in Sinhala as the literary meaning of that word only means one, nothing else. And Mahinda Rajapaksa should know this as his representatives were in the steering committee. We had long discussions on this. And now to come up with this statement as if he has discovered something new is a move to deliberately mislead the people.
“If Gotabaya wins, our worry is that the process might not only be stopped but the land that have been released might be taken again”
Q So do you mean that Mahinda Rajapaksa is not telling the truth…
He is playing a racist card and trying to excite the people by showing that deliberate misleading is taking place. In fact, over a period of three-and-a-half to four years, these have been discussed and consensus was reached. And it was in writing and has been made public. So Mr Rajapaksa is deliberately trying to whip up the Sinhala nationalistic feelings against the others.
Q You have decided to support NDF Presidential Candidate Sajith Premadasa. Do you think this is the view and the decision of the entire Tamil community you represent?
Yes. When the election results come, you would see it. It is both ways. We have listened carefully to the sentiments of our people in making that decision and our people also carefully heed our advice when they vote. So it is a two-way process.
Q What about the divisions in the Tamil political arena?
There are no divisions in the Tamil political circuit. The TNA represents the Tamil people and nobody else does. We have 16 MPs out of 18 Tamil members representing the North and East. Even the other two; namely Douglas Devananda and Vijayakala Maheswaran were not elected for one seat. They came in through the highest number of floating votes. Therefore no one can say that there is disunity and there are others outside. We represent the Tamil people and there are others who were not elected. You won’t see this kind of unity in any other community in the country. So we have been given the mandate by the Tamil people, not anybody else. But we do consult with the others and we never stand against unity. We discuss with other political formations all the time but responsibility of making decisions eventually rest in our hands.
“we must first settle the issues and do the Constitutional reforms. And if that is done then, we will certainly invite the diaspora to come and invest”
Q Before 2015 the Nothern people complained that their lands have not been returned and in 2015 the govt said most of the lands were returned to their original owners. Do you agree with this and are you satisfied with the government policy on this issue?
A lot of lands have been returned. The government claims that 90 per cent of private lands have been returned. It may not be 90 per cent but about 80 per cent. That is a huge achievement. Because at the end of 2013, the then government had stopped the process of releasing lands. And it had issued a notice to acquire the remaining lands. But that process was stalled and more lands were released and there are still more to be released. But large portions have been released to the people’s for occupation. And that is a big triumph for us.
Q Do you believe if Sajith Premadasa is elected, the process would be continued?
Yes, it should continue because the process is still underway now. But if Gotabaya wins, our worry is that the process might not only be stopped but the land that has been released might be taken again.
Q There were some complaints by the Nothern people that there was heavy military presence in the peninsula. How do you react to these complaints?
For the past four years to five years, we have not seen a heavy military presence. They are in the barracks. They hardly come out. That is in Jaffna. But in Vanni and a few other places, there was a more prominent military presence. However, over a period of time, it has been downsized.
Q There are also fears circulated especially in the South with regard to the opening the Palali airport for international flights attributing political reasons for it. What is your view?
We used to have flights from Palai to India up to the early 1980s. They were stopped because of the hostilities. Now that the way is over the flights should have started a long time ago. In fact, Mahinda Rajapaksas time when the Indian consulate in Jaffna was opened Minster S. M. Krishna came and at the opening ceremony he mentioned this that we must start the flights again. So it is high time that we started it.
“There are no divisions in the Tamil political circuit. The TNA represents the Tamil people and nobody else does. We have 16 MPs out of 18 Tamil members representing the North and East”
Q What about the issue of disappearances in the North? This has not been solved?
The disappearances issue is one that has been dragged on most without any result. But the Office of Missing Person was established, sums of money were allocated and work has started but the progress has been very very slow leading the relatives being disillusioned. But the disappearance issue itself is a difficult issue and ten years on when there are no signs of anybody, how does one resolve it. Of course, there should be an investigation in each case. The relatives must know what happened to that person so that this office is supposed to do. They still don’t seem to have got their act together for various reason.
Q It is not only in the North and East but we saw there were alleged abductions and disappearances took place in South even in Colombo as well. There is an ongoing case of 11 Tamil students who were abducted. There were allegations of the involvement of Navy as well. What is your view?
Yes, that has been found out as some people in the Navy did it for ransom. And the CID investigated and provided reports to the Magistrate. And there again there is evidence of interference in the processes. I saw that seven-person had been indicted for the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda. But that is taking too much time because of the kind of people who are involved in it.
Q But President promoted, a very senior Naval officer who is alleged to be involved in the incident?
Yes, this happened when he comes under pressure to give in to their side. But if it under Rajapaksa there won’t be that flip-flop and that all will be all in one direction that it will happen.
” In fact, over a period of three and-a-half to four years, these have been discussed and consensus was reached. And it was in writing and has been made public. So Mr. Rajapaksa is deliberately trying to whip up the Sinhala nationalistic feelings against the others”
Q There were hopes especially under last governments that the Tamils in the foreign countries would come back to Sri Lanka and invest and develop especially the North and East. What have you got to say about this?
That hasn’t happened to the levels we expected. But there seemed to be good reasons for that. People are still very apprehensive that the political situation here has not been established. So if there is a political solution, a new constitution something like that, then I think that will give them adequate confidence to come back and invest.
Q If Sajith Premadasa, the candidate you support wins would you invite the Tamil community to come back to Sri Lanka?
No, we must first settle the issues and do the Constitutional reforms. And if that is done then, we will certainly invite the diaspora to come and invest.