‘Sri Lanka needs a strong leadership’

Interview with Douglas Devananda of the EPDP.

Published : Jun 19, 2019 12:30 IST

Douglas Devananda.

Douglas Devananda.

Kathiravelu Nithyananda Douglas Devananda, secretary general of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), represents Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna electoral district. A former member of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS), a militant group which was started in 1975 to fight for the cause of a separate Tamil Eelam, Devananda was trained in armed combat by the Al Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in the 1970s. He was also a founder-member of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). In 1986, he formed the EPDP. After the India-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987, Devananda moved to parliamentary politics and emerged as the most vocal critic of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) inside and outside Parliament. He survived a record 13 assassination attempts by the LTTE. He draws his electoral strength from northern Sri Lanka and has been a Cabinet Minister in the governments of Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa. Devananda also speaks Sinhala and has good links even with hard-line Sinhala leaders. In this interview, he places in context the Tamil and Muslim problems.

Sri Lanka has too many problems right now. Even the festering issue of the rights of the Tamil people has not been settled. With one more minority community under attack, what are the chances of a solution to the Tamil question?

The question of Tamil people’s rights should have been settled with the signing of the India-Sri Lanka accord. At that time, about 651 Tamil Tigers and a total of about 2,000 people had lost their lives. But because this opportunity was not seized, many thousands were killed indiscriminately until the end of the war in Mullivaikkal [in 2009]. So where was the mistake? The Tamil leadership did not use the opportunity which was presented to them. This is our stand.

For the longest time, I have been saying that the [implementation of the] 13th Amendment [to the Sri Lankan Constitution] is the only workable and practical solution. Even India said at the UNHRC in Geneva last year that the full implementation of the 13th Amendment was the solution to the Tamil problem. Even President Maithripala Sirisena has said that his government will not be able to go beyond the implementation of the 13th Amendment.

The 13th Amendment is part of the Sri Lankan Constitution. There is no need for a two-thirds majority to implement this because it is already a part of the Constitution. If this has to be made a reality, the Tamil leadership should come forward and apply pressure…. If this had been achieved, it would have been easier to make incremental progress from that point.

Whichever government comes to power, if a solution to any of the outstanding issues is not found within six months to a year, then it will not be possible to find one at a later date. This is a reality for any government. When this government came to power, there were many things it could have accomplished. But it did not.

What about the current problems facing the Muslims in Sri Lanka?

As far as Muslims are concerned, they did not have any serious problems here. They lived in many parts of Sri Lanka and were doing well. They considered themselves as a separate ethnicity, even though they speak Tamil. The women from the community began wearing the hijab and abaya even though it was not part of Sri Lankan Muslim culture, possibly because they can be identified as different…. They have created problems for themselves.

They [Muslim politicians] have been in power for a long time. Being in power for long encourages people to act with impunity. Some in the community have been behaving with impunity. Also, why is it that knives and swords are stored in places of worship? It is obviously not to cut the grass there. They are stored for a purpose and that is a problem.

The Tamils had special problems… there were riots, lands belonging to Tamils were forcibly taken away, those of Tamil descent were targeted for detention and other punitive measures, and democratic protests of the Tamil people were put down with a heavy hand. That is why Tamils needed a solution.

But the terrorism that we saw in April was different. It does not have any ideology. This happened because of the indoctrination of some people. The reason why this went undetected is because this government was not doing its job. Only now they are ordering the shutting down of institutions that were built to impart extremist thoughts. If the government had been watchful, there was no way that this would have happened in Sri Lanka.

If a person is in India, he is first an Indian, then a Tamil [if he is of Tamil origin] and then belongs to a religion. But in Sri Lanka, because of the Muslim leadership and the southern Sri Lankan [Sinhala] leadership, this logic has been turned on its head…. They claim that Muslim is an ethnicity.

Do you think that the general hatred and fear of a whole community will make the Tamils move towards the Sinhalas at a political level?

There is that possibility, but the Tamil leadership [the Tamil National Alliance] stands in the way. There was an editorial in Veerakesari [Tamil newspaper] recently, which said that the political rights and development should go hand in hand. This is what we have been saying for the past 30 years. We were called traitors to the Tamil cause when we said this.

Have people lost faith in the ability of politicians to turn the country around?

That is a fact. People are unhappy about the southern [Sinhala] rulers because of the economic downturn, the lack of jobs, the government not fulfilling most of the promises it made, and so on. They promised jobs to 10 lakh people but were not able to deliver. They initially said that Mahinda [Rajapaksa, former President] had amassed wealth but they were not able to prove anything.

What do you see as a possible solution to the current problems facing Sri Lanka?

We need a strong leadership and a stable, functioning government. Only then can the problem of terrorism be solved. Even though Mahinda Rajapaksa found a solution to the Tamil Tigers issue, he did not inspire confidence in the Tamil people. The break [Mahinda’s loss in the 2015 elections] is actually a good experience for him. He will now do right by the Tamil people.

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