Tamil Guardian caught up with Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam to hear his thoughts on Sri Lanka's Truth and Reconcilication Commission, international accountability, the repressive environment of the North-East and Tamil political representation.
Truth and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has created numerous Commissions in the past but none have led to genuine accountability. Last year, President Ranil Wickremesinghe announced that Sri Lanka would establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission but this has been condemned by Tamil civil society as a hollow gesture.
When asked about the proposed commission and if it would sway the international community from pursuing alternative paths to accountability, Ponnambalam said the commission "is a joke".
“The Secretary to the President invited all of the sort of Colombo based civil society, actors, organisations and activists and had a pretty lengthy meeting with regards to how the government proposed to handle reconciliation and accountability, and basically bluntly stated that their efforts towards creation of a TRC is to ensure that criminal accountability goes out. So it's quite clear that the intention is to establish a so-called pretend reconciliation mechanism as an alternative to accountability. It is not a complimentary thing. So there is no incentive for the truth to come out - it is a whitewash.”
“I think the Tamil actors who have been quite serious about accountability will reject it outright. I think those political actors who have been sort of pandering to this facade of giving a domestic mechanism, a chance and all of that I think they will come under immense pressure from the Tamil people itself this time around.”
“The reason why this domestic mechanism thing was given somewhat of a chance in 2015 was because I think the Tamil people were confused because some of their elected members tried to make out that Ranil Wickremasinghe was, you know, different than the others. I think today, President Wickremsinghe has shown what his true colours are.”
Ponnambalam said that if the international community chooses to give any recognition to the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission, then “that’s their business.”
He went on to compare the commission to the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) which was established in 2016. Although it has been six years since the OMP was set up, the mechanism has not provided any tangible action on a single enforced disappearance case. Tamil families of the disappeared have consistently expressed their lack of faith in the mechanism as well as any proposed domestic mechanisms as they have repeatedly failed Tamil victim-survivors.
International accountability for Tamil genocide
Sri Lanka has been scrutinised at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for years, with multiple resolutions passed but little action has been taken by the state. As Sri Lanka has reneged on many of its commitments made to the UN, Tamil Guardian asked Ponnambalam whether accountability has been stalled in Geneva.
“We have no doubt that a UN process is something that we want. A question is what the Human Rights Council has been an institution that we believe our party believes is not suitable for Sri Lanka because the Council works on the basis that you have to have the consent and the consensus of the relevant state. Obviously, Sri Lanka is a reluctant state - I mean, they've demonstrated over 15 years.”
He went on to explain that the TNPF have been advocating for UN member states to “look at taking Sri Lanka elsewhere and think beyond the Human Rights Council.”
“Our party's view is that if it is a UN mechanism that we're looking at then it has to be the ICC. We have been saying that from 2012 onwards. We have been consistently saying that the ICC investigation doesn't necessarily have to go through the Security Council, that there are other venues, other parts to have an investigation to happen.”
“I think Myanmar, Afghanistan in the future, possibly Syria, are all examples where countries without going to the Security Council or where countries who are non-signatories to the Rome Statute are being investigated,” he added.
The most recent resolution, UNHRC Resolution 51/1, calls on the Sri Lankan government to conduct “thorough and impartial” investigations into human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law.
In 2020, Sri Lanka withdrew from its commitments to Resolution 30/1, which the 2015 government had co-sponsored. Since then, Sri Lanka has repeatedly rejected subsequent Resolutions and have instead claimed that its domestic mechanisms will achieve transitional justice and accountability.
Ongoing repression of Tamils
In September 2023, Mullaitivu District Judge Saravanarajah fled the island as a result of threats to his life by the Sri Lankan government over his involvement in the Kurunthurmalai case. Judge Saravanarajah revealed that Sri Lanka’s Attorney General had been exerting pressure on him to alter his judgements in these cases while Sri Lankan MP Sarath Weerasekara made threats to him during parliamentary debates.
Following an ‘investigation’ by Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID), they found that there had not been any threats to Judge Saravanarajah’s life.
Commenting on the incident, Ponnambalam said:
“I think what's more important was the revelation that the Attorney General summoned him and directly put pressure because I think that goes to the very root of what Prince Zeid, the former High Commissioner, stated in his report, when he suggested that member countries should look at other jurisdictions like the ICC and universal jurisdiction.
His reasoning for the complete rejection of a domestic accountability mechanism was because the whole Sri Lankan administrative system, because of the conflict, has been so corrupted on ethnic lines that you can't possibly expect, justice and the fact that the notions of good governance, the notion of a rule of law, all of these go out the window when the Attorney General can summon a judge I think it's just you know, it encapsulates the argument for an international criminal accountability mechanism brilliantly.”
The role of the diaspora
Tamil Guardian asked Ponnambalam what more the Tamil diaspora can do to help Tamils in the homeland in a meaningful way.
“The whole problem is that if you want to actually improve the economy, you have to go through the Colombo government and then the moment you do that, then it ceases to be something that the North-East would want,” he said.
“As far as, you know, helping the sort of relatives and, you know, directly helping people -thats’s happening. I mean, it has happened at the worst of times, the height of the war and it is happening now. And for that, I think, obviously, everybody's extremely thankful. And I think that should continue. Because if the diaspora doesn't do it, and you know, times now, even in these countries where the diaspora is more or less based, which is the West, the economic situation in these countries are also not all that great. So despite that, those remittances I think, are saving lives. I'm not just saying making life easier. I'm literally saying saving lives because if these remittances don't come you know the situation is quite bad.”
Representation in Tamil politics
As the TNPF only have two MPs representing the Tamils in Parliament, the Tamil Guardian asked Ponnambalam whether he thinks the TNPF are credible representatives of the Tamil people, to which he replied:
“I mean if you look at the statistics, we are the only party that is growing. Everybody else is in decline. And I believe that after we got elected in 2020, we have managed to literally change Tamil political culture.”
“I think, to a great extent we have managed to establish credibility, both in the homeland as well as in the diaspora. I think, you know, whatever we say, we we mean and you know, if we take a position on something, then we will not go back on it. And sometimes people don't like that.”
In the North-East, the political space is dominated by men and female representatives are rare. Tamil Guardian asked Ponnambalam what the TNPF are doing to engage Tamil women and young people with their party and politics generally.
“If you look at if you look at the sort of lists that we have been fielding, I think we have consistently fielded at least 30% of our candidates, as women. If you look at the percentages of others, and that is, you will find that almost 50% or more is youth so, as a party, the youth is like a magnet.”
“Percentage wise, I can count in my two hands. You know, members who are above say 50,” Ponnambalam added.
Ponnambalam stated that the party have a policy target that aims for 50% female representation at all levels of their party structure by 2028.
He also added that the harassment of Tamil politicians, particularly from the TNPF, has been a deterrent in attracting female members to the party.
“In the news, you know, we come across as protesting them getting, you know, assaulted by the police, being arrested you know, all of that - it is becoming a bit of a challenge,” he noted but also recognised that the TNPF have “much more work” to do in increasing their female membership.