Government’s attitude towards people of North and East must change: Sumanthiran

  • No middle ground on 13th Amendment; should go beyond
  • Govt. must first speak to local community representatives
  • Dialogue with Tamil Diaspora must be looked at afterwards

By Asiri Fernando

The communities in the North and East are often disproportionately affected by most crises that impact Sri Lanka. The current crisis caused due to a sudden ban on the use of chemical fertiliser and the continued fisheries dispute regarding poaching by Indian fishing vessels add to the woes of these communities.

Many in the North and East continue to call for devolution of power, particularly for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, and for meaningful engagement on justice and reconciliation following nearly 30 years of conflict.

In an interview with The Sunday Morning, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran shared his views on some of the key issues that the communities in the North and East face.

Following are excerpts of the interview.

The Government indicated its desire to hold the long-postponed provincial council (PC) elections in the first quarter of 2022. What are your views on the need for PC polls, the electoral system, and issues regarding delimitation that have contributed to the delays?

When it was agreed in 2016 that a mixed member proportional system should be applied to all three tiers – local councils, PCs, and Parliament – election laws were amended accordingly. And local council elections were held under that system using the ward delimitation that had already been done.

However, for PCs, there had never been electorates carved out, since PCs were created after we converted to a full PR (proportional representation) system. Therefore, when the PC Elections Act was amended, a delimitation committee was also appointed and Parliament had to approve their scheme.

Unfortunately, Parliament rejected that committee’s report – the entire Parliament, including the Minister who presented it. Thereafter, a stalemate came about, which can be resolved only by a legislative amendment.

I presented a private member’s bill in 2019 to resolve it by deactivating the 2017 amendment, whereby we would go back to the previous PR system so that elections can be held. That can be done even now.

Some members of the Government have called for the 13th Amendment to be repealed. The TNA has stressed that the 13th Amendment should be fully implemented. In your opinion, can there be a middle ground? If so, how?

There can be no “middle ground”. It is the Rajapaksa Government that gave repeated assurances about “implementing the 13th Amendment in full and also going beyond it so as to achieve meaningful devolution” after the end of the war.

So, it is not “middle ground” that must be found; it should be “going beyond” the 13th Amendment.

The Government is drafting a new constitution. Do you think there has been adequate consultation regarding its formulation, and what would you like to see included in it?

We were consulted. We made extensive submissions before the Expert Committee to show how there had been sufficient consensus on all matters several times over with regard to a final solution – beginning from the Mangala Moonesinghe Select Committee, to Madam Chandrika (Bandaranaike)’s three proposals in 1995, 1997, and August 2000, and the APRC (All-Party Representative Committee) and the Constitutional Assembly process during the last Government. And all that needs to be done is to give effect to this consensus.

There has been a lot of diplomatic engagement between Sri Lanka, India, the US, and the European Union (EU) recently. Do you think the Government is trying to recalibrate its foreign policy?

The Government doesn’t seem to know what it is doing. It is being pulled in different directions. There needs to be a definite policy position taken.

The President recently told the United Nations (UN) that he is open to initiating a dialogue with the Tamil Diaspora. However, it is reported that the Foreign Minister indicated that direct talks with banned diaspora groups will not happen. What are your views on these statements?

We welcome the initiative to talk to diaspora organisations. But you can’t just ban important organisations and try to talk to insignificant ones. Also, a solution to the national question must be found by talking to the Tamil people’s representatives here first.

The fifth meeting of the EU-Sri Lanka Working Group on Good Governance, Rule of Law, and Human Rights was held last month. It was reported that Sri Lanka committed to reviewing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and bringing it in line with international best practices in a time-bound process. How confident are you that Sri Lanka will meet this obligation?

Sri Lanka gave an undertaking in 2017 that the PTA would be repealed, not amended. That promise must be kept. But it looks as though Sri Lanka is trying to get out of that commitment in a rather clumsy way.

The Government initiated reforms of the justice sector. Do you see this as a positive development?

Some of those initiatives are very positive, like the MMDA (Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act) reforms.

How has the sudden policy change on fertiliser affected the livelihoods of the communities in the Northern and Eastern Provinces?

It has affected them drastically. They need the fertilisers urgently to ensure a good yield to their crops. The Government’s short-sighted action in trying to make this change overnight has a devastating impact, not only on the North and East but on the entire country.

In your opinion, what will happen to the farmers in the Northern and Eastern Provinces if the fertiliser crisis is not addressed quickly?

We will have a severe crop failure that will not only ruin the farmers, but will also lead to severe food shortages.

The use of the bottom trawling method by fishing trawlers has become a serious concern. Is the Government doing enough to enforce the law? If not, why?

Many such trawlers have now proliferated among local fishermen also. There are reports that the local trawlers have to pay “protection” money of Rs. 5,000 per trawler per day in order to operate.

Do you think that the continued practice of Indian trawlers poaching in Sri Lankan waters poses a threat to national food security?

It is not only the Indian trawlers, but the local ones also that pose a threat to our marine environment, which will eventually become a challenge to national food security.

What is the TNA’s view on Chinese investments and involvement in development projects in the North?

We welcome development. But when it is the Chinese, we have certain apprehensions. That is due to the fact that the North is very close to India. We are just 30 km away from the Indian coast. India will naturally have legitimate security concerns. That is natural for any country. If Sri Lanka was located in the South China Sea and was 30 km off the Chinese coast, China would have had natural concerns about security. We are in the backyard of India. And in the context of India-China relations not being good, to the point of the countries being described as being hostile to each other, permitting Chinese footholds in the North with such proximity to India will unnecessarily upset the security balance of the region. We do not want to be in such a situation. Therefore, the TNA would prefer to avoid Chinese investments in the North.

The issue of illegal sand mining in the North and East was in the spotlight in recent times. What are your views on these crimes?

Illegal sand mining is being carried out by many mafias in the North and East. Authorities such as the Police are also hand in glove with these operations. There is a serious threat of the sea coming into the land area in many places. The environmental impact of this could be monumental.

Do you think the Government has allocated adequate resources to medical facilities and Covid-19 testing centres in the Northern and Eastern Provinces?

No. We have been highlighting many of these inadequacies regularly. Even in the vaccination programme, the North and East are receiving step-motherly treatment.

There are allegations of police brutality towards journalists and civil society activists in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. In your opinion, what can be done to improve professionalism in the law enforcement community?

The attitude of the Government towards those who live in the North and East must change first. There must be a recognition that they too are equal stakeholders in the country. Until that happens, the Police and other authorities will just mirror the discriminatory view of the Government.