Interviews

Minority issues unanswered for over 7 decades: Shanakiyan Rajaputhiran Rasamanickam

By Sarah Hannan  

The recently held protest walks from Pottuvil to Polikandy #P2P managed to bring together Tamil-speaking communities in the North and the East to not only focus on the pressing issues that they have been facing for years, but also the issues of the Tamil-speaking communities that are scattered across the country, marking a historic moment. 

While the motives behind the protest walks have turned into a hot topic of debate, The Sunday Morning spoke to Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) Batticaloa District Member of Parliament Shanakiyan Rajaputhiran Rasamanickam, who took part in the protest walk, to understand the thinking behind it and what they plan to do in the future.  

Following are excerpts of the interview:  

ITAK Batticaloa District MP Shanakiyan Rajaputhiran Rasamanickam

Many have viewed the Pottuvil to Polikandy #P2P protest walk as a media fiasco in light of the upcoming UNHRC sessions. What is your response? 

It is natural that people look at it with suspicion and that it would have been done just to draw attention at the upcoming UNHRC sessions. But if you look at some of the slogans that we have taken up during the walk, these requests have been there for the past 70 or more years. These demands have not only been brought out to coincide with the UNHRC sessions.  

It is fair that people tend to look at it with some suspicion, as that is the kind of coverage that was given in the media in the South, to gain political mileage. Some extremist elements that voted for this Government naturally were not very pleased that the expected force was not used against the protestors such as the STF and the Army.  

These extremists tried to stop the protest from happening, but after the first few hours, the Government also figured out that they will be under much pressure, had they tried to stop us from conducting this peaceful protest walk.  

Since the walk was allowed, it was portrayed in a different way, saying it was an internationally-funded scheme. But all those assumptions are not true, as one of the 10 demands was to ensure that the plantation workers’ daily wage be increased to Rs. 1,000. That is not a matter that has any correlation to the UNHRC.  

The 10 demands we had were issues that have not been addressed for decades, and after 30-40 years, people in the North and the East including the estate sector have joined hands in requesting that these longstanding demands are met.  

Muslim political leaders were not seen at the P2P march. Why do you think that is?  

There was representation from all parties and there were statements issued by the main political parties online as well in support of the protest. Not everyone would be in the best of their health to participate in a walk of this nature. I was the only MP that walked all three days. But everyone joined in from their respective areas. M.A. Sumanthiran participated in the walk as well. Local government political representatives and council members representing Tamil and Muslim parties joined in the protest. In addition to that, former members of Parliament and former provincial council members too took part.  

Azath Sally joined in on the final day of the protest walk; Imran Maharoof and an MP who is from Trincomalee too were participants at the protest. So, there were members from Muslim parties as well. Even though the leaders of the Muslim Congress and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress were not present, their party representatives joined in.  

Already, the Diaspora is seen to be using this protest to further a different agenda on various social media platforms. What are your thoughts on that?  

In all communities there are different people, even if you take the Sinhalese community, there are extremist Sinhalese and there are moderate Sinhalese. Likewise, in the Muslim community also there are extremists and moderates. So, the challenge is ours to project what we wanted, rather than giving an extremist element the opportunity to use this for their mileage.  

But unfortunately, the media coverage that was given in the South to this event sounded somewhat similar to the sentiments that were projected by the Diaspora activities that were done online.  

Even in one of the TV talk-shows, the Public Securities Minister was being led by the host of the show by feeding words to the Minister to get a reaction. At one point, he mentioned my name and asked the Minister whether he saw the way I spoke to the Police. All they did was to try to get a reaction from the Sinhalese extremist elements. 

What steps would you take to ensure that the 10 points that you demand are addressed by the Government?  

This walk was to display to the world and the Sri Lankan Government that these demands are not just demands from a political party; that these were demands of the people. Since the incumbent President got elected, all we have seen is that the media wanted to portray that the Tamil people do not have any problems, but the only issue that they have at present is food. Even a minister was seen saying that the only problem that the Tamil-speaking community had was food and water.  

Nearly 500,000 people that participated in these walks collectively on different days did not join the protests because they needed only food and water. This protest showed that after 73 years of independence in Sri Lanka, these issues were still not addressed and the people are still asking the Government to solve them. 

Going forward, we will not be arranging any more protests of this magnitude, because we have shown the world that these issues are there. But we are working on a mechanism, where we could pressure the Government on a district level, by getting the intellectuals together and exerting pressure to meet these demands. In a democratic country, that is all we can do.  

If the Government was not aware of this issue, then the Government can say that we need to bring out these issues to create awareness. But in this case, the Government is fully aware of these issues. Even the Prime Minister agreed to allow burial for Covid-19 deaths, but MPs from his own party are defying his comments, saying that is not what he meant.  

This is the state that the country has come to, and there is a visible power struggle that is going on within the government parties and their alliances. The only thing we can do is put pressure on the Government to attend to these demands. 

On the demand of releasing Tamil political prisoners, is there a specific group of people that you are looking at getting released? 

There are two groups that we are looking at; one group has been in detention since the 80s towards which various numbers are given, which is why I asked the Government as to how many political prisoners were held in custody. They responded saying that there was nobody held as political prisoners, which is not true. That was just a jab taken at our protest.  

Some of the people who got arrested, seem to have disappeared. Some of these people surrendered during the last stages of the war and throughout various times. We consider them political prisoners and we can also consider them as missing people, as there is no record of these people anywhere.  

There is however a group of people that are still detained with whom we are in touch. There are some that were arrested in 2015. There is one person that surrendered to the Government from the Batticaloa District from Thoppigala. But we do not know what exactly is going on and we do not know how they are going to classify them. Let’s say if they were actually convicted of some crime that they have been charged with, some of them have not even had a single hearing so far. Their cases have not even been filed.  

Hypothetically, if these cases were filed and if some of them were convicted with certain charges, they could have served five or ten times their sentences by now.  

If they were part of any such illegal activity and they were arrested due to such charges, the maximum sentence they would have gotten would be 5-10 years. But in this case, some of them are in remand of over 30 years.  

The other group was a group of youngsters that were arrested on 27 November 2020 for posting photos of Prabhakaran and sharing poems in Tamil about how the Tamil community needs to rise up again to ask for our rights. That didn’t in any way say that the Tamil-speaking community wanted to start an armed struggle. These youngsters are also still under arrest. We are requesting that the justice system takes action in a fair and a sensitive manner.  

MP Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan was released recently and he was not a political prisoner. He was arrested for murdering former MP Joseph Pararajasingham during a Christmas Mass at a church. Minister Johnston Fernando identified MP Chandrakanthan as a political prisoner that was released. The Sergeant Sunil Ratayake, who was convicted of murder, inclusive of a child, was released. We are questioning the Government’s double standards. 

The families of the missing have been fighting a long battle to bring the wrongdoers to justice, various commissions were appointed and reports were published. Do you think there has been any progress from thereon?  

It is very disappointing, although the Office on Missing Persons was established to register the details of the missing, which is almost a defunct entity. The problem with these missing persons is that some of these parents want to know what happened to their children and whether they are alive. There have also been instances where a person that was arrested in 1991, had made a phone call to his wife in 2019, saying that he is well and alive. But his whereabouts are yet to be traced. In this case, the Government is saying that he must have been in hiding or would have disappeared. Maybe these are various parties that are attempting to extort money from these distraught families.  

The other issue is the people that were arrested on 27 November last year; the parents fear that those children will also face a similar fate. There are similarities to the disappearances that took place in the 80s and 90s along with the most recent arrests. They are worried that in another 10 years, the Government will say that they are not there.  

All they want is the peace of mind in wanting to know the fate of their missing children. If they are dead, they could at least have some closure and they could grieve their dead. 

Even the previous Yahapalana Government failed to address the issues faced by the Tamil community. Why do you think that was?  

The Yahapalana Government was driven to failure after the former President Maithripala Sirisena decided to break away from the National Unity Government. If he had not pulled that stunt, I do not think there would have been any actions that disappointed the Tamil community.  

At present, we are not just pointing fingers at any of the former governments or the present Government. The issues of the Tamil-speaking people have been present for a longer period. We are exerting pressure and trying to hold this Government to account, as it is the government that is in power. We have a two-thirds majority and executive presidency. They wanted the executive powers to be with the President and the 20th Amendment that has strengthened the Executive of the country; I do not see why they cannot sort these issues out. 

Do you think the Tamil political parties could engage in a positive discussion with the Government? Has the Government shown any initiative towards it?  

We are happy to engage in discussions if they are genuinely interested, but this Government has not initiated any dialogue so far.  

We have written to the President over some issues but he has not even responded to those concerns that we raised. So, we are not getting on the streets to protest for no reason. The archaeological sites issues and the pasture land issue is currently being discussed in the North and the East, for which I personally met the President. This was the last resort that we had – to get on to the streets – because no discussions were initiated. Discussions with Tamil political parties are not something that this Government is interested in.  

Do the Tamil political parties have any dialogue or agreement with the Muslim political parties in demanding solutions for issues faced by the Tamil-speaking people?  

There are dialogues taking place and we have been speaking with Muslim politicians, but we do not have any agreement. Minorities should unite and stand together, because Tamils and Muslims were pitted against each other in the past. Divide and rule is a strategy that the British used; our colonisers taught us that, and very successfully our communities were divided.  

First of all, we used to call ourselves the Tamil-speaking communities of Sri Lanka and later on, it got split into North East Tamils and Estate Tamils, and Muslims. Later, the North East Tamils were split as North and East. So, divide and rule was a strategy all successive governments used. We need to change that for which we have to all unite. In a way, I am not saying that we are minorities by race, we are minorities in the Sinhala majority who are not of the view. There are a lot of Sinhalese that accept and respect the fact that Tamil people’s rights should be protected. So, we have to unite with all of them.  

Are you satisfied with how the Government has released lands for internally displaced persons in the North and the East?  

I don’t believe that the lands are being released, but there is more land grabbing that is taking place. Now, under different programmes such as archaeological site excavations, repurposing Mahaweli land that is underutilised, a lot of land grabbing is taking place. For people that do not have land to do maize cultivation, land is being given under the Mahaweli Authority. If you take people that live in the North and the East, they do not have any land to do cultivation. The Government has settled people from Hambantota, Ratnapura, and Monaragala to strike a balance in diversity and these families are being allocated land to do maize cultivation, and are allowed to encroach into the other lands for cultivation purposes, that is what we are opposed to. There are state institutions and schools that are still under the military that have not been released.  

Without releasing the public access properties and returning the lands to their original owners, the Government is employing a different strategy to acquire more land using different entities.  

Do you think the Tamil political parties could seek the support of India to push the Government to address the issues of Tamil people given the present diplomatic standoff between Sri Lanka and India? 

India has expressed their genuine concerns when it comes to the matters of the Tamils in the North and the East, because India also has a lot of Tamils. I think India will play a huge role in driving ethnic relations in Sri Lanka. Geopolitics should not be thrown in that. However, we should not let ourselves be used as scapegoats in geopolitical matters, but it should be a genuine concern for us to reconcile and help our cause. 

How will you make sure that the minority issues that you raised during the protest would be represented at the upcoming UNHRC sessions?  

First of all, we should not be calling ourselves a minority, as we are only a minority in numbers. But we are a community. The word minority is being used a lot, but if you come towards the North and the East, we are a majority. That is something that we all need to be conscious of. But I think with the UNHRC, there are diplomatic missions and attaches in Sri Lanka that are aware of these matters. But we do not want to take a conscious effort to take the matters to the UNHRC, as this walk was not targeting the UNHRC.  

I am sure that the diplomatic missions took note of what the protestors had to face at the beginning of the protests and the large number of people who joined in protest will get reported to the UNHRC, if that was something of interest to them.