P. Muthulingam

‘The new government should give priority to housing and land rights’

Print edition : September 18, 2015

P. Muthulingam, founder, Institute of Social Development, Kandy. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Interview with P. Muthulingam, founder of the Institute of Social Development, working for the marginalised and discriminated plantation community.

P. MUTHULINGAM, 61, is a proud son of Kandy. One who has devoted himself to issues and problems concerning workers, especially those in the plantations, Muthulingam participated in a socialist revolutionary movement for some years while serving as a representative of trade unions in the Lanka General Services Union and the Workers and Peasants Institute, which was founded by the veteran sociologist Dr Newton Gunasinghe. He had to go underground in the mid-1980s, during which time he lived in India too. He was granted amnesty by the Sri Lankan government in 1989 following the 1987 Rajiv-Jayawardene Accord, and two years later he founded the Institute of Social Development, an advocacy organisation working for the marginalised plantation community. He has even set up a museum and archive in Paradeka Gampola, on the way to Nuwara Eliya, for the community in a century-old structure which once housed workers’ quarters. He shares his thoughts with Frontline on the 2015 parliamentary elections:

What is the message that the elections have sent across to you as a Tamil and as a member of the broader Sri Lankan society?

I feel vindicated. I strongly believe that voters are correct and voters are wise. They have demonstrated these qualities in the recent elections too.

Irrespective of the region to which they belong, the North or the West or the Central, the voters were very clear that their votes should not go waste. They were also particular that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa should not come back to power. They did not allow themselves to be influenced by those who indulged in rabble-rousing campaign.

Take the case of southern Sri Lanka. The Bodu Bala Sena [BBS], an extreme force of Sinhala Buddhist nationalists contesting under the political banner of the Bodu Jana Peramuna [BJP], has been defeated resoundingly. Likewise, in the North, Crusaders for Democracy, a group of former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE], and Gajendrakumar G. Ponnambalam, the grandson of G.G. Ponnambalam, one of Sri Lanka’s foremost leaders, and his party, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, have been thoroughly rejected even though they carried out a highly emotive campaign.

While the people in southern Sri Lanka do not want a return to the phase of family rule and politics based only on racial and religious divisions, those in the North and the East are conscious that support to any force other than the Tamil National Alliance would only strengthen the forces represented by Mr Rajapaksa.

Having said that, let me point out that even though the United National Party [UNP]-led alliance was able to increase its vote share manifold in several districts, about 40 per cent of the voters supported Mr Rajapaksa and the United People’s Freedom Alliance [UPFA].

Besides, some leaders of the UPFA, including Wimal Weerawamsa and Udaya Gammanpila, known for their sectarian campaign, finished first and second within the Alliance in Colombo. UNP leaders should always keep these aspects in mind. They should frame their policies and actions to ensure expeditious redress of problems of all sections of society.

Why did the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna perform poorly even though there were expectations that it would do very well?

Let me go back to my original statement, people are correct, people are wise. Everyone was quite impressed with the way the JVP conducted its campaign. The party’s manifesto was well prepared. The people also know that the JVP chief, Anura Dissanayaka, was the one who protested strongly in Parliament when the former Rajapaksa regime forcibly evicted Tamils from Colombo some years ago. Yet, they did not cast their votes in favour of the JVP because of, what I would call, tactical voting on their part. The same trend was visible among the people in southern Sri Lanka. Any vote for the JVP would only weaken the UNP, which was the effective alternative available under the given circumstances.

Besides, everyone was aware that Mr Rajapaksa would otherwise get a substantial number of votes even though his front—the UPFA—would not be able to form the government. These thoughts were very much in the minds of the people. This was why the JVP didn’t get many seats.

What would you suggest to the TNA?

Cooperate with the new government. It is very essential. TNA leaders should adopt a rational and gradual approach in getting their demands fulfilled. Apart from the issue of getting private lands released from the Army/security forces, the people there are facing serious problems in the areas of education, employment and livelihood opportunities. The system of education has virtually collapsed there. It is extremely disturbing.

As for the Tamil question, I do not think that one can go beyond the 13th Constitutional Amendment at this critical juncture. Initially, we must get the government to implement the Amendment fully.

What are your impressions of the results in Nuwara Eliya, where hill country Tamils live in large numbers.

Since the 1977 general elections, the hold of the Thondamans—Savumiamoorthy Thondaman until his death in 1999 and his grandson, Arumugan—was quite strong. But, in the latest elections, what is significant is not just that the UNP and its ally, the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA), got more seats than before but also a young TPA member, M. Thilakaraja, who is virtually an unknown figure in local society, got more votes than Arumugan, whose family has been there for years. Mind you, Thilakaraja came only third in the UNP list. While he secured around 67,000 votes, Arumugan managed only about 61,000 votes. This only shows that the hold of Arumugan is on the decline.

Secondly, unlike in the past, youngsters are now guiding their parents and elders in the family about who they should support in polls. These persons are working outside plantations. They are well exposed to the outside world and well connected through social media and what not. Great changes are happening within the plantation community. It’s a transition phase, I suppose.

Having secured most of the seats in Nuwara Eliya, what should the UNP and the new government do there?

Not only in Nuwara Eliya but also in many other parts of Sri Lanka, members of the hill country Tamil community have supported the UNP solidly.

I strongly feel that the UNP should give at least a few Cabinet slots to representatives of the TPA, which has emerged as a new force of the hill country Tamils.

The new government should give topmost priority to resolve the issue of housing and land rights, which are fundamental to the welfare of the hill country Tamils. It should get financial assistance of other countries such as India and Malaysia.

When it takes up a housing programme on a massive scale, the requirements for skilled jobs are bound to crop up in a big way. So, the government should initiate steps for skill-building of youngsters in the region so that the proposed housing programme becomes a grand success and the youth will become empowered.

Besides, for the purpose of better delivery of services to the people, the number of villages and divisional secretariats should be increased. Even the previous Rajapaksa government had agreed on this matter. Also, affirmative action should be put in place so that less-educated members of the plantation community are able to have access to courses in skill development and employment in government.