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Interview: M.A. Sumanthiran

‘They kept denying that there was a crisis’

Print edition : Apr 22, 2022 T+T-
M.A. Sumanthiran:  “... the triggering of this crisis seems to be the heavy tax cuts that were introduced soon after Gotabaya Rajapaksa became President.... As much as 33 per cent of the people fell outside the tax net as a result.... Once it starts sliding, you can’t pull it back.”

M.A. Sumanthiran: “... the triggering of this crisis seems to be the heavy tax cuts that were introduced soon after Gotabaya Rajapaksa became President.... As much as 33 per cent of the people fell outside the tax net as a result.... Once it starts sliding, you can’t pull it back.”

At a press conference  in New Delhi on April 17, 2009 (from left): A. Adaikalanathan, president Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO); R. Sambandan, of the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) and the Tamil National Alliance; K.S. Premachandran, general secretary, Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front; and M. Senathirajah, general secretary, ITAK.

At a press conference in New Delhi on April 17, 2009 (from left): A. Adaikalanathan, president Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO); R. Sambandan, of the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) and the Tamil National Alliance; K.S. Premachandran, general secretary, Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front; and M. Senathirajah, general secretary, ITAK.

Outside the President’s office  in Colombo on February 24, main opposition Tamil members of Sri Lanka’s Parliament protesting against the alleged acquisition of their land in the northern and eastern regions of the country under the guise of protecting archaeological sites and wildlife, and so on.

Outside the President’s office in Colombo on February 24, main opposition Tamil members of Sri Lanka’s Parliament protesting against the alleged acquisition of their land in the northern and eastern regions of the country under the guise of protecting archaeological sites and wildlife, and so on.

Prime Minister  Mahinda Rajapaksa receiving a letter from R. Sambandan in Colombo on May 7, 2020.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa receiving a letter from R. Sambandan in Colombo on May 7, 2020.

Demonstrators  carrying black flags and pictures of missing Tamils during a protest march in Sri Lanka’s northern town of Kilinochchi on February 4, 2021. Sumanthiran: “Next is the issue of disappearances. We asked that investigations should commence on some matters. Then, there was a discussion on who would do it: should it be the office of missing persons or the yet-to-be-set-up Truth Seeking Mechanism? We were keen on starting investigations; it did not matter which body conducted it. They have agreed to commence this.”

Demonstrators carrying black flags and pictures of missing Tamils during a protest march in Sri Lanka’s northern town of Kilinochchi on February 4, 2021. Sumanthiran: “Next is the issue of disappearances. We asked that investigations should commence on some matters. Then, there was a discussion on who would do it: should it be the office of missing persons or the yet-to-be-set-up Truth Seeking Mechanism? We were keen on starting investigations; it did not matter which body conducted it. They have agreed to commence this.”

Interview with M.A. Sumanthiran, Tamil National Alliance leader.

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader M.A. Sumanthiran’s home in Colombo’s Tamil-dominated Welawatte area does not have the luxuries, such as uninterrupted power supply, enjoyed by many elected representatives to the Sri Lankan Parliament. On the morning of April 1, Sumanthiran spoke to Frontline about a wide variety of issues that affect Sri Lanka even as the 13-hour power cut across non-VIP areas in Sri Lanka entered its second day.

I want to start by asking about the meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on the Tamil question. There was supposed to be a meeting soon after he was elected in 2019. That never happened. Then, he called a meeting, which was also cancelled. Suddenly, in the middle of the biggest crisis in recent memory, the TNA delegation meets the President. Was there a serious attempt to talk about anything at all or at least lay a framework for talks?

As soon as he [Gotabaya Rajapaksa] was elected, [R.] Sambandan [TNA’s patriarch and binding force] and I met him in Parliament. He [the President] said: “We must meet. We must bring this to a conclusion.” We said that we are ready anytime to meet. That was it. Then, once in a while he comes to Parliament, and when he sees me, he used to say: “Oh, we must meet.”

Once Prime Minister [Mahinda Rajapaksa] was talking to me [in Parliament]. The President was walking towards us. The Prime Minister said: “I was telling Sumanthiran, that you [President] have to meet the TNA.” Then he [President] said: “Oh, I have been meeting him many times.” Then, Mahinda [Rajapaksa] said: “You have to meet the TNA properly [for a structured dialogue].” Then, he [the President] told me that he would talk to the Prime Minister and fix a date.

Then, [the whole] of 2020 went like that. In 2020, he appointed an expert panel to draft a new Constitution. That committee put out a public notice calling for suggestions and recommendations. So, the TNA wrote to that committee. We made our proposals in December 2020. Then, they invited us to meet them in February 2021…. We had a very long meeting with the committee. At the end of the meeting, Mr Sambandan told them that there were many things that had been agreed to in the past, and that we didn’t need to go through all of it again. It is a question of putting all the consensus together. After this, we wrote to them and made them the same offer. There was only an acknowledgement of the letter. But nothing moved forward.

Also read: Sri Lanka's downward spiral into full-blown crisis

I think Mr Sambandan wrote again [to the committee], and then he wrote to the President, saying that he [the President] had appointed an expert committee and we had made our proposals and that we had forwarded these to [him] as well. And also that the TNA had not heard back from the committee. Against this background, the TNA suggested that it might be a good idea for you [the President] and we [the TNA] to meet directly. He wrote back and gave a time: 16 July 2021. In response, Sambandan wrote an eight-page letter, which talked about only the political solution, giving all the previous promises, and said: “If you are making a new Constitution for the country now, it’s time that all these consensus and all these promises are brought into that.”

On July 15, late in the evening, we received a call to inform us that the meeting had been cancelled and that the President would give a new date soon. Then, the President wrote to Sambandan twice saying that he would fix a date “very early” and inform Sambandan. That “very early” has not happened until now. We were to meet on March 15. But that was the day of protest outside Parliament of the main opposition party…. On March 15, too, they were keen to have the meeting. A little later we were called to say that the meeting stood cancelled.

Then, Prof. Peiris [G.L. Peiris, Minister] called to ask if March 25 would be convenient for us. That’s how this meeting happened. There was ample opportunity to meet before, from the time he became President in 2019. But two and a half years later, it happened.

It may not be a coincidence that this meeting is happening at a time like this [of social unrest]. He also called for an all-party conference two days prior to this meeting. We attended that as well. The opposition parties and even two parties who are part of the government boycotted this meeting. I think the situation that has developed has also contributed to the President deciding to hold talks with us.

You have been part of many of these meetings since the war ended in May 2009. Did you see or hear anything that was any different from anything that happened earlier?

Not really. In 2011, we had 18 rounds of talks with the [then] Mahinda Rajapaksa government. Prof. Peiris was part of that on the other side. There also, in the first few meetings, they promised quite a lot of things. As time went on, there was nothing. They wanted a proposal from us, which we kept giving at each meeting. Then, we wanted their response. They kept saying that they would give it to us at the next meeting each time.

In August 2011, we refused to fix a meeting, saying that until your response comes, it is useless us meeting. So the talks broke down at that point. And then Sambandan and Mahinda Rajapaksa met and decided to resume talks on the basis of previously agreed five documents. We made some progress. Then, suddenly, the government side did not come to a meeting! We went and sat but they never turned up.

Yes, I remember reporting on that incident.

I don’t see any difference even now. The first meeting is always very positive. But the test is in the implementation. So they have given us a promise on four issues to be done before the next meeting. The next meeting is to happen within two months. So, within these two months, we will have to see whether those four promises are kept….

Are you at liberty to share those promises?

Yes. First is the release of political prisoners, those who have been incarcerated for over 10 years. There are 48 such persons. They said they would act on it…. In addition to this, they themselves said, those Tamil people recently arrested under the PTA [Prevention of Terrorism Act], would be released.… Second is land grab. It happens in many different forms. We discussed all of those. On the military acquiring new land, the President said that he had given instructions and that no such act was going on.

We gave him examples of how it was happening. He wanted a list of such places. Later, the Army commander called me and asked me for those details. We are preparing a full list and we will give it to them soon. But that is only one component of this thing. There are other ways in which the Army stops people from occupying, cultivating their own land. On the cultivation part, the President said that whoever has been cultivating for a long time, as certified by the Divisional Secretary, will not be hindered.

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Then, there is an issue of change of administrative boundaries. When we raised this, first they denied, and then we gave examples and… they agreed. But they will put this item on hold until the Delimitation Committee completes its work. We agreed to this. Similarly, with the application of various special laws, like forest ordinance, wildlife, mahaveli, archaeology—where they use these special laws to drive out people and take over land—a direction will be given to maintain the status quo until it is discussed with the TNA.

Next is the issue of disappearances. We asked that investigations should commence on some matters. Then, there was a discussion on who would do it: should it be the office of missing persons or the yet-to-be-set-up Truth Seeking Mechanism? We were keen on starting investigations; it did not matter which body conducted it. They have agreed to commence this.

The fourth is the setting up of a special development fund for the north and the east, and attract diaspora investment. That was agreed to, but we have not spoken about details yet. So, if there is movement on all of these things before the next meeting, then, I think it is well worth for us having gone for the first round of talks.

Devolution of power

You have said that the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution is not really a solution to the Tamil question. What does the TNA have in mind?

We were engaged in a new Constitution-making process in the last government. In that, we identified a few things in the 13th Amendment structure that needed to be corrected. For instance, the [provincial] Governor is an appointee of the President. So, there is no point devolving power on the Governor because you are not sharing power with the people. It has to be the elected representatives. Then the question is, what power? Judicial power is not devolved. The executive power is exercised by the Governor. So this is devolution to your agent or, rather, delegation. So that must be put right.

Even where there is legislative power, the Centre can override [it at] … present. Even where the Centre does not override, the Governor must give his assent. If the Governor withholds assent, you can only appeal to the President. Governor withholds assent in the first place on the instructions of the President. Anyhow, that is meaningless. On financial Bills, you need prior approval of the Governor even before you present it. So there is no devolution of executive power.

How can devolution become meaningful? I am using the word “meaningful” because during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure, he had told the Indian government that Sri Lanka would “implement the 13th Amendment in full and build upon it so as to achieve meaningful devolution”. In this, they concede two things: one, the 13th Amendment is not fully implemented and that they will implement it in full. Second, they meant that what is given under the 13th Amendment is not a meaningful devolution. That is why he [Mahinda Rajapaksa] says “build upon it” so as to achieve meaningful devolution.

Are Tamil political parties on board with the stance that the 13th Amendment is not enough?

Yes. The letter that we [Tamil parties] sent to the Indian Prime Minister says that. TELO [Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation] was at the forefront of asking for a full implementation of the 13th Amendment. After ITAK [Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi] joined it… in the letter, we put out all the promises to India [by various Sri Lankan governments].

Obviously there are two steps to the [devolution]: implementation of the 13th Amendment in full, and then building on it…. The other day when we met the President, we had another proposition too: that is to immediately implement all provisions in the Constitution relating to devolution.

Also read: Inherited problems that led to Sri Lanka’s economic crisis

Which means implement the 13th Amendment and hold the provincial council elections. They did not agree to that. Not that they refused; they started giving excuses why it can’t be done immediately. On the political solution, they said that until the expert committee report comes, it is not useful to discuss it. That will come in the next two months.

Is the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces on the table?

If two adjacent provinces agree to amalgamate themselves, they can make those resolutions and send it to the President for implementation. That is the present arrangement [under the Constitution]. We don’t want the President to approve these mergers. We suggested a referendum….

Only those provinces that are amalgamating?

Yes. Only those provinces but separate referendums. This is to ensure that there is consent from both provinces independent of each other. If they agree, then ipso facto , it becomes one unit. Leave it to the people. This provision is not only for North and the East. This is available for all adjacent provinces.

One last question on Tamil political aspirations. Is the Sinhalese majority now a little more sensitised to the Tamil question itself?

Yeah, it seems like that from the various comments that I read in newspapers and on social media. A lot of people have started expressing their opinion that this issue … should have been solved early; that Tamils are not asking for the sun or the moon, they are only asking for legitimate rights; that they are not asking for a separate state so we must listen to that. These kinds of views are increasing among the Sinhalese. Whatever may have caused it—it may be the economic downturn—but there is certainly a change in the opinion. Whether that is sufficient to carry a new Constitution on the model that we want in a referendum, I don’t know. But there certainly is a very positive turn on the part of the Sinhalese.

Warnings ignored

Coming to the economic situation, I think people in Tamil Nadu were shocked when 6 and then 10 people landed up, the first case of economic refugees coming into the State. How do you view the overall economic situation?

The overall economic situation is pretty dismal. Several of us warned about this at least two years ago and kept saying this. The government did not act on it…. Only after it happened, they are struggling to manage. The government should have had prior planning because we knew we were heading for that. And if we had planned early, we could have averted it.

But that wasn’t the case. Even the triggering of this crisis seems to be the heavy tax cuts that were introduced soon after Gotabaya Rajapaksa became President. This was because of the parliamentary elections…. As much as 33 per cent of the people fell outside the tax net as a result. That triggered this crisis. Once it starts sliding, you can’t pull it back.

Do you think that this time around the Sinhalas are more vocal in voicing their displeasure than the Tamils given that Tamils are used to queuing up in an earlier era?

Well, Tamil people have had to be more resilient and so they seem better prepared. But they also are very angry with this government. The Sinhalese people have more anger than others. They say: “We are the ones that voted for you. We brought you into office and you let us down.” So, first people thought that he won the war and that the minorities are against him, and hence, they wanted to support him and work for him. They have all become more disillusioned and are now voicing this in public.

After the April 2019 bomb blasts, people wanted a secure nation and hence voted Gotabaya Rajapaksa into office. It is such a short period of time from then to now. People do understand that there was COVID and the government was forced to spend a lot of money to deal with it. How does the feel-good factor of 2019 turn into anger in 2022? Is this not a short period of time? Is the anger more about the family involvement in governance?

Yeah. That is known [family in politics]. I think the anger is because the people are aware that the government knew what was coming and did not take any steps to avert it. In fact, they kept denying that there was a crisis. It’s like the Easter bombings; after being forewarned, you still allowed it to happen. This too was forewarned, you [the government] knew very well, but you were concentrating on other things and let this slip. That’s the anger. They voted for you [Gotabaya Rajapaksa]. They wanted technocrats to be brought in. They did not want political interference, etc. It’s like “we made you President. And you are doing the same thing.”

On March 31, there were protests in front of the President’s house and some violence also. One does not really know who was responsible for the violence, and today a release from the President’s office claims that those protesting included extremist elements. Is there a sense of deja vu for you?

Yeah, we have seen this time and again. …[The] protest was a spontaneous one; it was not organised by anyone. The opposition parties have clearly said that. In fact, the JVP [Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, a political party that claims to be left of centre] has said that people should be careful of joining these protests. It seems that some people were protesting outside his house. That has been happening on and off. As people saw about the protests on social media, more joined in. I don’t think—I can’t be absolutely certain—that there was some hidden hand that organised this protest.

What happens when protests like these keep breaking out each day? Let’s not forget that the police also face the problems that common people face. Where is this heading?

It can turn into a revolution of sorts. I won’t be very surprised if the President relinquishes power and runs away. Of course, no one can sit in this seat of power. Former Speaker Karu Jayasurya has also been saying that … the first thing the next government must do is to abolish the executive presidency and get power back into Parliament.

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After the Easter bombings, the appetite for getting rid of the executive presidency was lost. People were demanding a strict ruler, a heavy-handed ruler. Now, they find that that is not working.

Where is the opposition in the current crisis?

The opposition has been garnering the support of people and keeping things in control rather than letting it get out of hand. I don’t think they are able to contain any of this. Of course, in recent times, they themselves have taken responsibility and have called for larger protests, which have been well attended. But when the citizens’ protests started, they [the people] said two things. One, this is an inactive government and an absent opposition. This is a people’s protest.

You might have seen Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin’s memorandum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him to allow the State to distribute humanitarian help to Tamil people. At a time when everyone in Sri Lanka is suffering, is this appropriate? How do you see his offer?

We are grateful to the Chief Minister for making that timely offer and also urging the Central government to act in this situation. There are many States in India. Tamil Nadu has had particular concern for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. So it’s not unnatural for Chief Minister M.K. Stalin to ask the Indian Prime Minister [to take] … measures [for] ... the Tamil people here. I don’t see it as an attempt to divide the people in Sri Lanka. It’s just a natural thing. If my relative is stuck somewhere, I will reach out to help. There might be others stuck there too. This is that kind of call.

Given the current discontent all around, there are fears that the next rulers could be extreme Sinhala elements as opposed to a rainbow coalition of liberal Sinhalese, Tamil parties and plantation Tamils. How do you see the situation unfolding? Or is it too early to make a prediction?

A bit too early, but then my gut feeling is that it won’t go the extremist way. If at all there is going to be a change, it is going to be towards a more liberal, accommodative government. That will also enable us to settle our issues. There will be a lot of work to be done thereafter economically to stand up.