Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP for the Jaffna District Dharmalingam Siddharthan speaks about the political solution, the aspirations of the Tamils and the way forward. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, he says that they need a Federal System of Government. Excerpts:
How do you, as a Tamil politician who had links with the previous rule, see the change after the new Government assumed office?
We did not have any links with that Previous Government as such because we did not have Parliamentary representation at that time. We never directly supported the Government. Yet, till the end of the war, we were under threat from the LTTE. So, we had some sort of relationship with the armed forces. We needed it to protect our cadres.
Prior to that, be it the Government of Ms. Chandrika Bandaranaike or Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, we supported them for making Constitutional changes aimed at bringing in peace. We voted with them for the budgetary matters, believing that we were required to cooperate with them for the establishment of peace. This is exactly what we are doing with the current Government.
During the war time, we had to depend on the army for our protection. Every politician of all hues got the military or Police security. For us, it was somewhat different because we were allowed to carry weapons. The military ruled out the possibility to give protection to hundreds of our cadres. So, some of them were armed.
How do you see the change of government?
People thought there would be a lot of changes after the war ended in 2009 enabling Tamil people to live at peace. Yet, it did not happen. Therefore, they were frustrated and angry with the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.
For that reason only, we voted for the new Government, particularly for President Maitripala Sirisena. We did it in anticipation of a lot of changes. Of course, the government has done certain things. Today, the fear psychosis among the Tamils is no longer there.
It is reasonably peaceful. Today, there are protests and meetings happening. But the Tamil people expected a lot of things to happen - the release of lands and detainees.
But, nothing major is happening. There are small happenings. We cannot deny that. The government has decided to set up the Office of the Missing Persons. We have to wait and see. There is improvement. There is slow progress being made.
Tamil people are not certain about what is happening regarding Constitutional reforms too. They are very anxious and suspicious about it. They want a reasonable solution. As far as the TNA is concerned, we are helping the government in this respect. We try our best to help the government in the Constitution making process.
Why are Tamil people suspicious about it?
Tamil people are suspicious because of their past experiences. They have seen several pacts thrown away. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga brought a set of proposals during her time, and it was seen as better than any other set of proposals worked out before. Yet, it did not have the passage through Parliament. Because of that only, we are suspicious. Still, in the government, top leaders make contradictory remarks.
"I do not believe international pressure can work beyond a point. It works to a certain extent only. The international community does not go beyond a limit. They will just ask the government to do it and keep repeating it. That is it. If the government does not do it, they will not send in armed forces and intervene or anything. It is simple as that."
Today, the situation is different. The two main parties are together in governance. The TNA is the main Opposition. The international community is watchful. Why are you still suspicious?
The two parties are together. That is the only reason for people to expect something to happen. But, within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, there are divisions. Some of the SLFP MPs openly talk against devolution.
We can see it. International pressure is there because of the UN resolution. At the same time, one must understand India’s pressure in 1987. I do not think international pressure of that magnitude could be applied again by anyone.
At that time 120,000 army soldiers were present in the region. The Indian envoy was playing the role of a Viceroy. Still, whatever promised to us was not fulfilled. When it was drafted in the legal form, it was a totally different picture. We are appealing to the international community to put pressure on the government here. We believe that the President and the Prime Minister are trying their best. But there are factors at play. We have to wait.
How practical is the application of international pressure in your view?
I do not believe international pressure can work beyond a point. It works to a certain extent only. The international community does not go beyond a limit. They will just ask the government to do it and keep repeating it. That is it. If the government does not do it, they will not send in armed forces and intervene or anything. It is as simple as that.
In this instance, how do you view the importance of securing the support of the majority community?
It is the most important thing. Unfortunately, since independence, we, the Tamil politicians, have failed in it.
What happened is polarization since 1950s. Secondly, we also failed to address in their language in an understandable manner. Even, Ezhuga Thamizh in Jaffna was completely misinterpreted by the south.
The Sinhala press worked overtime to misinterpret it. I do not think whatever declaration was made there, it was not reported correctly. They tried to project Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran as a racist, next to Prabhakaran. That is not true. We put forward various demands like the release of detainees and occupied lands.
What we said about Buddhism was also not reported properly. Buddhist temples are continued to be built in the north and the east. We are not opposed to the Buddhist temples being there. We are only opposed to the construction of temples in private lands without the permission of their rightful owners.
We are opposed to doing it by force.
In Kilinochchi, there is this Mariamma Kovil. In that temple land, a Buddhist temple is being built. The same is happening in Mannar. If there were Buddhists there, they will do it properly by buying a plot of land and all. That is alright. The Sinhala–Buddhists should know one thing -the difference between Hinduism and Buddhism is very less, almost none.
A large number of Tamils visit Buddhist viharas. In the north, during the war time, two Viharas survived in Kilinochchi and Jaffna. A Bhikkhu was living there. No Tamil Hindu is against Buddhism. It is the domination which we do not like.
Against this backdrop, what is the way forward for Tamil Politicians?
We have to continue to put pressure on the government and the international community. That is to secure a reasonable devolution package. We are for the change of the Constitution, so that aspirations of Tamil people can be met.
At the same time, we want to look after our own affairs in our part of the country. We are not asking for the division of the country. We will never go for an armed struggle again. I think no Tamil wants the country to revert to war. We want to do this through democratic, peaceful means.
"The Sinhala press worked overtime to misinterpret it. I do not think whatever declaration was made there, it was not reported correctly. They tried to project Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran as a racist, next to Prabhakaran. That is not true. We put forward various demands like the release of detainees and occupied lands"
What is the nature of political solution the TNA expects?
The TNA expects a Federal Constitution because we have said very clearly in the 2013 Provincial Council Elections manifesto and the manifesto for the 2015 Parliamentary election.
Yet, there is a lot of opposition to Federalism. What is your view?
We understand it. Federalism is anathema to Sinhala people. For us, the unitary status is anathema. We have to see how best we can achieve something.
How far can you count on the present leadership of the country?
The President is certainly genuine. The Prime Minister also wants to see the resolution of this problem. This is what I believe. There are radicals in both the communities. It is easy to whip up emotions. That is the reason for the slow progress.
The TNA always talk about the political issues. There is an allegation that you hardly talk about economic difficulties of Tamils. How do you respond?
They have problems. After a 30-year war, they have lost everything. Unemployment is very high. Whenever we go, a large number of people come to seek jobs. Now, whatever employment is available in the government sector only. There are no alternative employment opportunities as such. Private enterprises are not yet there in a big way.
I know the government jobs are not available all the time. They are limited. We have to look at other avenues such as investments for job creation. We have to create employment. Just filling vacancies in the government sector is not enough. We need huge investments. People talk about the expatriate community.
That community is not certain what will happen in future. They are not certain whether the government will bring about everlasting peace.
How prevalent is the separatist ideology in the north?
It is not on the surface. Such sentiments are dying off gradually. Only the hardcore elements try to keep it alive. I do not believe ordinary people will get carried away by such sentiments. It all depends on how Tamils are going to be treated. We must feel that we are Sri Lankans. For us to feel it, things must be done for us. A large number of people feel that they are not treated in that manner. There are still problems there.
But, still we see LTTE commemorations. How do you see them?
It is happening. This is the way some people think. Some people believe that they can thrive by keeping the name of the LTTE and Prabhakaran alive.
You headed the subcommittee on centre-periphery relations in the Constitution-making process. What is your position on it?
I feel the committee went well. We discussed with the chief ministers, the governors, the opposition leaders and experts. We have mentioned it in our report. There are dissensions. Dissenting groups have submitted their views to be included separately.
We have mentioned it in the report. We discussed the governors’ power, the concurrent list etc. Some members said they would directly submit their proposals to the Steering Committee. There is understanding among others.
"Tamil people are suspicious because of their past experience. They have seen several pacts thrown away. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga brought a set of proposals during her time, and it was seen as better than any other set of proposals worked out before. Yet, it did not have the passage through Parliament. Because of that only, we are suspicious. Still, in the government, top leaders make contradictory remarks"