Rehabilitation, Resettlement, Prison Reforms and Hindu Religious Affairs Minister D.M. Swaminathan speaks about the political solution, development work in the North and the release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Excerpts of the interview:
Q How do you look at the present situation in the North?
The government is keen to rehabilitate the North, so people can live happily without fear of any problem in the future. But there are impediments created by a few politicians. At the moment, as the Minister of Rehabilitation, I am taking all relevant steps to see that the duties I have been given will be carried out along with development programmes in the North and the East.
Q What are those impediments?
There were a few projects we wanted to start. One is the economic centre in Vavuniya. Then, there was dissension among politicians. They could not decide whether it could be done in Omanthai or Thandikulam. Since there is no consensus, it has been stalled. Then, there is the Iranamadu water tank project. We wanted to build a water tank up there and take water to Jaffna. That project has also been stopped. The third one is the saltern in Pooneryn. The government got an investor. He came and started work. That too was stopped. The government wanted to do some investment to enhance the economic growth in Jaffna. Those have been stopped by a few politicians.
They are politicians outside the government. There are a few northern politicians, not all creating problems.
Q When you say northern politicians, one party dominates northern politics. That is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Are you referring to it?
A few politicians of the TNA create problems. As far as my housing project is concerned, there is a tremendous shortage of houses in the North. We are going to build 20,000 houses. Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi were the worst hit areas during the wartime. Families had nothing to live on. It is our duty to provide basic necessities to these people. There again, there is a conflict. They have brought in an alternative set of proposals. I have gone through it.
The houses will be built as a batch of 22,000 houses for the worst-affected groups in the North such as war widows and elderly people. Since these people require houses urgently, the project will be implemented with 22,000 houses.
By sabotaging this project, do they want to heal the wounds or let them fester? If they want the wounds to heal, we have to give them something. Today, their own Members of Parliament have written to me saying that 17,000 houses are needed in the Vanni district. These are prefabricated houses. I do not want to get involved with the companies. This is the only mode we can provide now. There is a shortage of sand in Jaffna. Sand prices increased by 100 percent. There is no sand available either. You have to mine it from rivers. If you dredge sand from the rivers, then it will cause the seepage of seawater. It will affect drinking water. People should realize this. Why are these elements creating obstacles? Is it for the sake of politics? I will fulfil my obligation anyhow.
Q That is the situation related to development activities. How is the political situation?
There is a Northern Provincial Council. There is a Chief Minister, MPs and the Provincial Board of ministers. Besides, there are others not representing the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the party of Minister Rishad Bathiudeen have representation in the North. I do not know whether they work as a team. I do not know whether there is dissension among them. What I can gather is that there seems to be no coordination.
"The houses will be built as a batch of 22,000 houses for the worst-affected groups in the North such as war widows and elderly people. Since these people require houses urgently, the project will be implemented with 22,000 houses."
Q At the same time, a criminal gang named Aava has created fear psychosis among people in the North. What kind of impact has it made?
The criminal gang has been curtailed now. The Police have been told to arrest anyone. There is an element which is anti-government here. This is a gang motivated by some force against the government. The President and the Prime Minister have told the IGP, the Army Commander to take them into custody immediately. It has been stopped to a great extent now. It created a fear psychosis. Now it is better.
Q There is concern that this violent trend initiated by Ava group will evolve to a full blown militancy again. How do you see it?
This is an anti-government group trying to create confusion among the religious groups. There is one in the country trying to create tension between the Sinhalese and Muslims. It is not something done by ordinary Sinhalese. You are a Sinhalese and I am a Tamil. We do not have any issue. Today, northern and eastern politics are controlled by extremist groups. There is no coordination and amicability among politicians. Then, how can we develop the Tamil community?
A fear psychosis has been created. But, the situation has been much improved. This is a matter even the President is very concerned about. He believes that this Aava group and other apolitical groups should be brought under control.
Q Tamils in the North and the East voted overwhelmingly for President Sirisena. Under his government, how far have the aspirations of the people been met?
We are trying to do our best. As far as resettlement is concerned, houses should be given to families. We have released up to 4600 acres of land. We are trying to do the development work. I am going to do a lot of development in the North next year. I am going to do some irrigation development work. I can develop all damaged reservoirs. After that, there will be proper irrigation facilities. My major project is to provide facilities to fishermen. I will take steps to provide boats and nets in the budget.
As far as Buddhists and Hindus are concerned, there is no major clash, except for the installation of Buddhist statues in certain areas. I am a Hindu. I venerate the Buddha and his teachings. If I see a Buddha statue, I venerate it. When I go to Kataragama, I visit the Buddhist Vihare there. But, if it is looked at from a different angle just to create confusion, it will be bad. There are some people stoking tension.
Q What about the release of lands occupied by the military?
That is what I said, 4600 acres have been released. Also, I learned that the Defence Secretary has written expressing willingness to release more land. I am yet to get the correct figures. The President, the Prime Minister and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga are working very hard for the release of lands. I also told the Army Commander to release the lands used by the military for commercial activities. There is a lot of private land taken by them. They are running hotels, restaurants and farms. We have told the Commander to release them. He responded saying that he would try and do it. He said he would do it by December. We have to wait and see. When the army runs these things, ordinary people cannot compete with them. The military has the advantage in the production cost. The military can sell their vegetable produce at a lower price whereas ordinary farmers cannot. That is why I asked the military to stop all sorts of economic activities in the North.
" You are a Sinhalese and I am a Tamil. We do not have any issue. Today, northern and eastern politics are controlled by extremist groups. There is no coordination and amicability among politicians. Then, how can we develop the Tamil community? "
Q How satisfied are you with the progress made?
I am very satisfied. I have the full backing of my government. The obstacles are posed by certain politicians in the North. They do not want anything to happen. They come out with criticism which is not tenable. It is unacceptable. I will reply to them in Parliament soon.
Q How hopeful are you of a political solution?
The process is fairly successful. There is a steering committee. The TNA is also part of it. The UNP, JVP and all other parties are there. The Prime Minister has made a prime move. We have gone through very well so far regarding the devolution of power.
Q As a Tamil politician in the government, what are the parameters of power sharing you expect?
If you can do proper power devolution in conformity with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, it will be fairly sufficient. It means land and police powers.
Q You mean the full implementation of the 13th Amendment will suffice?
If you give the 13th Amendment in full with land and police powers to a certain extent to the Northern Provincial Council, it will be alright. When we say police powers, the Inspector General of Police is in full control. But there has to be a Deputy Inspector General in charge of that area. Land powers, of course, may have to be looked into by the Minister of the Central Government. If a certain amount of it is given to the Provincial Councils, it will be ok. That is all.
If there is development done in Jaffna, it will be very important. What we need is development. If my pocket is full, I will not get into politics. If my stomach is full, I will not get into politics. Many people do not try to bring about economic growth there. They want people to remain as before and continue to suffer. This is the problem.
Q Will other Tamil politicians agree to such a solution?
They are also members of the Steering Committee. What more can be given then?
Q How is your engagement with the Tamil Diaspora in the development process?
I am ok with them. The position is this. I have stopped talking to anyone. If anyone wants to come and invest, he will be welcome to do so. We have discussed this with the Diaspora for years and years. Nothing constructive is happening. Only talks, but no job done. I have asked them to stop discussing and get the job done first.
A lot of development work is going on in Jaffna. We will develop Palali as a regional airport. We are planning a Free Trade Zone in Vavuniya. Trincomalee is going to be a hub. Once the northern economy has been improved, even the political aspirations of the people can be addressed.
Q As the Minister-in-charge of prison reforms, how is the process of releasing those detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act?
There are 93 detainees involved. Indictments have been made against them. Of them, 23 will be offered rehabilitation. They will plea. Once they plead, they will go for rehabilitation. After 12 months of rehabilitation, they will be released. For the rest, the Attorney General is contemplating framing charges. If there is no proper evidence available, they will be released. The Attorney General is in cooperation with us. This is all again in the hands of the President.
Hardcore LTTE leaders such as Vinayagamurthy Muralitharan and KP are out, then what about these poor fellows? There is a law in this country. We cannot supersede it. The government is now trying to frame charges.
"If you give the 13th Amendment in full with land and police powers to a certain extent to the Northern Provincial Council, it will be alright. When we say police powers, the Inspector General of Police is in full control. But there has to be a Deputy Inspector General in charge of that area. Land powers, of course, may have to be looked into by the Minister of the Central Government. If a certain amount of it is given to the Provincial Councils, it will be ok. That is all. "