In an exclusive interview I conducted with the leader of the opposition, Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, he discussed several grievances facing the Tamil speaking people and the prospect of constitutional reforms under the Sirisena government.
Mr. Sampanthan, in an attempt to counter opinion that there is no change under the new government, highlighted that under the Sirisena government there is a change in attitude and approach in contrast to the actions of the Rajapaksa government. Mr. Sampanthan asserted that under the Rajapaksa government, land was taken away, the white van culture was dominant, members of Parliament were assassinated, journalists were assassinated, independence of the judiciary was under attack, and overall the people did not feel free. Mr.Sampanthan asserted that viewpoints under the Sirisena government have changed but there are still many matters that must be attended to.
As it pertains to the issue of land occupied by the military, Mr.Samapanthan asserted that, “people in the East have received land that was released in Sampoor, and in Jaffna some land has been released but the process has been very slow.” Mr.Sampanthan claimed that one of the reasons the process is slow is due to “opposition being mounted by the Rajapaksa audience.” Mr. Sampanthan recalled that shortly after the end of the war he and his colleagues went to about 30 villages in the Vanni and prepared a report and gave the report to Rajapaksa and asked him to give the people housing. According to Mr.Sampanthan, Rajapaksa replied, “Where do I go for the money?” Mr.Sampanthan said that he told the Indian Prime Minster about the dire situation in the Vanni and the Indian government responded by providing 50,000 houses to the people in the North.
Upon being asked why it is taking so long to withdraw the military from predominantly Tamil populated areas, Mr. Sampanthan said that, “there are sections within the military and sections within the bureaucracy who do not quite agree with the thinking of the government” and thus they are trying to “obstruct and prevent the government” from carrying out its duties. In addition, Sampanthan asserted that there are people who carry out propaganda claiming that when the land is released to the Tamil people and the military is withdrawn the national security of the country will be in danger.
In early 2016, Ranil Wickremesinghe asserted that any missing persons are most probably dead and are not being held in detention centers. Mr.Sampanthan did not want to respond directly to Ranil’s comments. However, Mr. Sampanthan did refer to the President’s Commission on Missing Persons which cites that over 20,000 reports have been made of missing persons. Mr.Sampanthan conceded that it is unlikely that those numbers of persons are still being kept in containment. Sampanthan, nevertheless, insisted that a proper investigation must take place and a mere statement speculating the missing individuals’ whereabouts will not suffice.
In March of 2016, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister announced that the government is undertaking a process of repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). However, Mr.Sampanthan stated that there have not been any steps taken since the initial announcement by the foreign minister. Mr. Sampanthan furthermore reiterated that even the government regards the PTA as a draconian law and Sampanthan has insisted that he will continue to raise the matter in Parliament until the law is repealed.
The Sri Lankan government favored a hybrid justice mechanism with international involvement to investigate human rights abuses committed during the ethnic conflict. There have been certain criticisms voiced about the hybrid justice mechanism such as: the language around the mechanism is so vague that it gives the Government of Sri Lanka a lot of freedom to design the mechanism in such a way as to make the involvement of the international community minimal; Sri Lanka could appoint international lawyers of ill repute who would perform no other role than to provide cover for an otherwise domestic process
I asked Mr. Sampanthan what progress he believes President Sirisena has made as it pertains to cooperating with the UN and allowing a comprehensive investigation into war crimes and human rights violations to take place. Mr. Sampanthan pointed out that the resolution adopted at the United Nations Human Rights Council last year has not been implemented. Mr.Sampanthan stated that there has been some concern that the judges appointed would not be foreigners which runs contrary to what was explicitly stated in the UHRC resolution. The reason why this matter has come up according to Mr.Sampanthan is due to the “lack of independence in the judiciary.” Sampanthan cited a case where the Rajapaksa government impeached a former chief justice, Shirani Bandaranayake. The local judiciary, Sampanthan insists, cannot be trusted upon by the victims and their families to conduct a comprehensive investigation. “The government must find ways and means to implement the resolution they have co-sponsored and which is adopted by the UNHRC. The language may not be strong, but it is clear enough to emphasize the need for foreign judges to emphasize the credibility of the process,” Sampanthan stated.
An independent investigation would also reveal human rights abuses and war crimes committed on the part of the LTTE such as the LTTE’s use of civilian as human shields, and the LTTE’s point-blank shooting of civilians who tried to escape. An independent investigation would ultimately lead to the prosecution of members of the Tamil community. I asked Mr. Sampanthan whether he would be willing to accept that responsibility. Mr. Sampanthan replied, “If war crimes have been committed… and reports of international investigations—whether it be the commission appointed by the UN Secretary General or inquiries and investigations conducted by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights—their reports are that war crimes were committed by both sides… so one cannot run away from it… those who have been guilty of such war crimes will have to face an inevitable process that is something no one can avoid.”
In Parliament, Mr.Sampanthan has repeatedly asserted that the Sri Lankan Tamils have given up their fight for a separate state and the ethnic problem will be resolved through a “united and indivisible Sri Lanka.” I asked Mr.Sampanthan whether this means that he does not approve of and thus condemns the actions of Tamil diaspora organizations such as the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) when they are repeatedly calling for a UN referendum within predominantly Tamil populated areas to determine whether there should be a separate state.
Mr. Sampanthan asserted that he respects a diversity of views and went on to say that all Sri Lankan Tamils have long suffered whether they live in Sri Lanka or abroad and “their opinion must be taken into consideration with whatever decision we make.” However, Mr. Sampanthan reiterated that, “even though those in the diaspora may disagree with us, they must be prepared to understand our views just as we are prepared to understand their views. We are all striving for the same goal which is the emancipation of our people.” I agree with Mr. Sampanthan and believe it is immensely irresponsible of groups such as the TGTE to push a separatist agenda without taking into consideration the political viewpoints of Tamil politicians based in Sri Lanka. The Tamil politicians based in Sri Lanka, who advocated for solving the ethnic issue under a united Sri Lanka, were elected in vast majorities by the Tamil speaking people living in the North and East. Thus diaspora organizations must listen to and not disregard the political will of elected Tamil political leaders in Sri Lanka.
Mr. Sampanthan firmly states that, “the Tamil speaking people have historically inhabited the North and East of Sri Lanka and are entitled to have it as one unit of devolution.” Mr.Sampanthan referenced historical attempts to implement constitutional reforms such as the Indo-Lanka accord and the creation of provincial councils which resulted from the accord. Mr.Sampanthan asserted that such a constitutional reform process should be taken forward and under certain governments, especially the Chandrika government, there was progress in that front. Sampanthan stated that, “during the Chandrika government she did not have a majority and could not implement what she wanted to do…the 2000 proposals were not the best, but they were certainly better than anything we had before and were certainly workable… but the solution of a united Sri Lanka must be on a basis of shared sovereignty, maximum devolution of powers, and to ensure that it is not power that can be interfered with either by the center or central agent of governance.”
On December 30th 2015, the TNA delegation led by Mr.Sampanthan and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress delegation led by Rauff Hakeem met in Colombo for preliminary talks on power-sharing arrangements.
I asked Mr. Sampanthan about what progress has been made since the initial talks. Mr.Sampanthan clarified and said that the talks were largely “not about power sharing but about a unit of devolution.” Sampanthan asserts that the “SLMC would like to leave power sharing to the Tamil political parties because we have been much clearer and much more consistent; our position has been clearly enunciated from the time of SJV Chelvanayakam commencing from the late 1940s and early 1950s.”
Sampanthan stressed that an agreement must be reached regarding the units of devolution, “in order to ensure that the Tamil people and the Muslim people are satisfied with the demarcation of the unit of devolution. We also want to ensure the Sinhalese people living in our areas have justice and they are able to live as equal citizens”
The SLMC General Secretary Hasen Ali on January 10th 2016 asserted that, “The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) will submit a proposal to the Constitutional Assembly for a unit of devolution for the Muslims of the North and East based on party’s founder leader M.H.M. Ashraff’s demand. A unit of devolution encompassing the non-contiguous geographic areas of domicile of the Muslims of the two provinces, with power-sharing arrangements on par with the Tamil community, has been the SLMC’s demand from the inception”
I asked Mr. Sampanthan as to whether he would support and whether he believed the SLMC’s demand for a “unit of devolution encompassing non-contiguous geographic areas” was feasible. Mr. Sampanthan asserted that, “there has been no definite proposal put forth thus far by the SLMC.” However, Mr.Sampanthan refused to immediately answer whether he could support such a demand voiced by the SLMC.
Former Tamil United Liberation front (TULF) Parliamentarian and Constitutional affairs expert Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam who was extremely sympathetic towards Muslim aspirations found the idea unworkable. Neelan summed up the situation succinctly by observing thus -“A kind of devolutionary arrangement which will involve areas which are not territorially contiguous and coming together in some kind of shoestring manner… Perhaps a non-contiguous devolution will be extremely difficult to administer because of the heterogeneity of the population. It will be administratively and politically difficult to distinguish between one category of citizens living in the same village or in adjoining villages being responsible to another. So while there is the legitimate concern that the security and identity of the Muslims… need to be protected (and we need to find a mechanism to do that), I think the idea of non-contiguous areas linked together would pose problems of implementation.”
I asked Mr. Sampanthan, in sum, what provisions he believes should be implemented within Sri Lanka’s constitution to give a greater political voice to the ethnic minority groups in Sri Lanka. Mr.Sampanthan told me that there must be “sharing of powers on the basis of shared sovereignty, subjects assigned to the regions or provinces must be subject to political economic social and cultural aspirations of the Tamil people and Tamil speaking people… and everything which can be addressed at the local level meaning there must be very substantial devolution of powers and sharing of powers. [There must be] sufficient financial resources, foreign loans and domestic foreign grants, foreign investment, capacity to raise revenue through taxation, and ability to exercise these powers…[there must be] no interference with these powers either by the center or any agency of the center and must ensure these powers be exercised freely. Apart from powers that need to be at the center such as defense, foreign affairs, emigration, immigration citizenship, national communications, national transport, major ports, major harbors…apart from these, everything else should be devolved”
Mr. Sampanthan’s solution of a united Sri Lanka perfectly echoes the constitutional reforms Neelan Tiruchelvam and G.L. Peiris proposed in 1995 referred to as the GL-Neelan package. The package details a sharing of legislative and executive power between the center and the provinces with significant autonomy over law and order, justice, education, public service, finances, and the regulation of cultural activity. I believe this proposal remains workable to this day, however, the political will must be present under the constitutional assembly set up by the current government.
If you would like to listen to the audio of the interview I conducted with Mr.Sampanthan; you may do so by clicking here.