Tamil Guardian sat down with Spokesperson for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and MP, M. A. Sumanthiran at his home in Colombo last week to discuss matters of the constitution, transitional justice and the budget.
The full transcript of the hour-long interview (with minor edits) is available here.
On the Constitution
Mr Sumanthiran was positive on the outlook of the recently released constitutional sub-committee reports, saying that a large percentage of what they contained “would be very acceptable to Tamil aspirations”.
The parliamentarian said he believes that considering the Centre-Periphery Relations sub-committee report and discussions at the Constitutional Steering Committee, the new constitution will go well “beyond the 13th amendment”. While he could not guarantee the outcome of the Steering Committee report he said that all representations to it had been for the governor’s powers to go and they had agreed on abolishment of the executive presidency, which would also strip the governor’s powers as agent of the president.
He noted that the TNA’s position in the Steering Committee is that labels don’t matter as long the substance of federalism is there. “[B]ut we will not allow any label that will be a problem later in interpretation,” he emphasised. Mr Sumanthiran added that he did not feel Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s recent comments stating that the constitution would have to fit within the narrow parameters of the 1978 Sharvananda judgment on the 13th amendment defining “unitary” were a problem. If key features are introduced, such as the inability of the centre to unilaterally remove powers without the consent of the periphery, then “whether it is unitary or federal, however one wants to describe it is not our concern,” he said.
Issues such as Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to the provincial councils, a key issue for the Tamil diaspora, would be “possible” as per the Finance Sub-Committee report he added, but borrowing from foreign sources “is a slightly tricky issue” and there would likely have to be some form of parliamentary approval of provincial councils accepting foreign loans. Meanwhile, the Law & Order sub-committee report had received heavy input from the security sector, Mr Sumanthiran noted. Further powers for provincial police would be considered by the Steering Committee as one perspective, however, it will be made to accord with the principles of devolution that the Steering Committee agrees on. “I think about 90% of what is in the Law and Order report will not go into the constitution,” he said, remarking that it would not make it even into ordinary law, but rather police ordinances.
Commenting on the Joint Opposition’s (JO) relative silence on the sub-committee reports, Mr Sumanthiran noted that they had in fact been participating and engaging in all processes so far, and that one member of the JO had even chaired a sub-committee. But he then added that he anticipates the JO will pull out eventually. “They are going to quit at
some point,” he remarked. “I keep telling the others not to make allowances for them because their strategy is to dilute it as much as possible and then quit,” he added. “I think many of them think they have overstayed already.” Later speaking to the possibility of the JO stirring up Sinhala nationalist fervour, Mr Sumanthiran said serious conversations were being had about how to handle this. He noted that while their attempts had been unsuccessful thus far, “we can’t be complacent thinking that Sinhala fears will not be awakened at any stage.”
Mr Sumanthiran emphasised that the Tamil polity had a large role to play in speaking to the South about the constitution and addressing Sinhala fears, and stated that the best people to lead this North-South dialogue would be Mr Sampanthan and Chief Minister Wigneswaran because “they understand the Sinhala psyche quite well.”
However, he noted that there are still imperfections in the specifics of the sub-committee reports and all the recommendations of the reports would have to be adjusted to “finally fall in line with the principles of devolution that the Steering Committee decides.”
The Tamil polity will be given the opportunity to comment on proceedings he said, stating that they are starting with information sessions for their MPs and provincial councillors and then will expand those to include more people. All of the TNA’s MPs met directly with President Sirisena for over an hour last week, he elaborated,“[t]hey’ve gone home very happy… because they heard from him directly what his commitment to a political solution is.”
The people themselves must also be involved in discussions without fears of political repercussions he noted. “Open discussion amongst the people must be open without any restraint,” Mr Sumanthiran continued. Though he felt that the Tamil polity reacted with “pleasant surprise” to the reports, the parliamentarian encouraged others to also be forthcoming with their criticisms. “The negatives must also come out,” he said. “Concerns must be raised. It’s not perfect, so unless we highlight from our polity the negative features, we also won’t have the back-up to argue at the negotiating table.”
In terms of next steps Mr Sumanthiran said that the Steering Committee’s interim report is expected to be released on December 10, though that might be delayed, and then debates will happen in the Constitutional Assembly about the reports on January 9-11. Though there is no deadline for steps after the Steering Committee’s interim report he expects it will take at the very least a month after the January debates for the Steering Committee to issue its final report. “Getting to a final report is not going to be all that easy,” he emphasised.
Only after the Steering Committee issues its final report will they start drafting the constitution.
On Transitional Justice
On transitional justice Mr Sumanthiran was firm that “every provision of the Resolution [30/1] must be implemented and will be implemented.”
He accepted that the TNA was putting a lot of emphasis on the constitutional process but then added that because of that they cannot “put accountability-related matters/obligations on the back-burner”. “Accountability for accountability’s sake must also be done… that must run parallel,” he continued.
Yet, Mr Sumanthiran then said that “practically speaking” the un-legislated mechanisms of a truth commission, office of reparations and judicial mechanism “might have to be done once the constitution process is over.”
He noted that this meant that the “government wouldn’t have done 1/6 of what they promised in the resolution last year when March comes around” and said that the TNA would be pushing for a rollover of the Resolution. “The important thing is that the oversight function of the Human Rights Council must continue until all of it is done,” he asserted.
On the Budget
In contrast to his speech expressing disappointment with the budget in parliament, Mr Sumanthiran said that the TNA has had to change its approach from just opposing it, to find space for projects for the North-East within the allocations that have been provided.
“There is enough which if utilised will make a change and our approach up to now has not been that. We have sat back and said not enough. We should change our approach slightly this time and start engaging in this process and appropriating it for useful purposes,” he said.
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has asked the TNA to come to him with proposals for development, even if it’s a plan for the entire North-East and said that he will implement them, Mr Sumanthiran stated. He added that the President is working on developing a mechanism including the MPs and provincial councillors that will look at development in the North-East and commence as early as December 10.
Speaking about this new approach of engaging the government, Mr Sumanthiran said, “[a]fter the war ended, because of the Rajapaksa era, where we were kept totally in the dark, we have got used to staying in the dark, and it has taken a bit of time to realise we can function slightly differently.”
The full transcript of the hour-long interview with Mr Sumanthiran is available here.