During the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesperson and MP MA Sumanthiran spoke with Tamil Guardian on a range of topics, including the latest UN resolution, the economy of the Tamil homeland, the need for an ICC referral and current geopolitical tensions between India and China.
“He’s holding the seat for the Rajapaksa government”
Asked about his views on the Wickremesinghe administration, Sumanthiran noted that whilst he would engage with the administration as he did the last, he remains sceptical about the possibility of progressive reforms.
“He’s proving us correct by agreeing to all the SLPP demands,” the TNA MP noted. Sumanthiran slammed Wickremesinghe as a “Rajapaksa agent” simply “holding the seat for the Rajapaksa family”.
Questioned if he saw the potential for progress on any long-standing Tamil demands, he noted that whilst “we may see a release of some political prisoners”, he won’t be able to deliver “substantially on a political solution”.
13th Amendment is crucial to protect what we have
Commenting on the Indian delegation's push for the implementation of the 13th amendment, Sumanthiran stressed that whilst not a final solution for Tamil political demands, the granting of land powers to the provinces would be “crucial to protect what we have”.
In his explanation, he notes that the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa administration had provided India two assurances; that Sri Lanka would fully implement the 13th amendment; and that the country would go beyond it to achieve meaningful devolution. This was agreed upon in 2011, with three joint statements on this matter in 2012. Through the 13th amendment, control over land and law enforcement would be overseen by the provincial councils but may be overruled by the President.
“Currently, the biggest challenges will be in the areas of land grabs”, through the provincial councils “we could prevent that”, he argued. “When the land is taken away, the existence of the Tamil nation is put in peril [...] That power [over land] is crucial to protect what we have”.
However, he notes that the second part of this commitment acknowledges that the 13th amendment alone is not meaningful devolution. To achieve meaningful devolution, it would mean that “powers given to the provinces ought not to be taken back by the centre unilaterally”. Further to this end, “subjects and functions assigned to the provinces, the provinces must have exclusive control over that”, and the powers of the government should be removed.
These would be the first step, but “we must not stop with that”.
Steps must be taken for an ICC referral
Asked on the need for an ICC referral, Sumanthiran reflected on the difficulties noting that it is almost impossible however, “since nothing has been achieved on accountability”, he maintained that steps must be taken towards this.
“There doesn’t seem to be any prospective of accountability other than by a special prosecutor mechanism or by referral” he told our journalists.
Questioned if aid to Sri Lanka should be conditional on Sri Lanka ratifying the Rome Statue, he declined to comment.
He maintained the TNA’s support and repeated calls for UN member states to prosecute Sri Lankan officials implicated in war crimes under the principles of universal jurisdiction and impose targetted sanctions. He maintained that member countries must take a lead on this.
“I think we need a lot more work done on lobbying the countries to not just vote on the resolution but also lobby them to act in terms of the High Commissioner’s recommendations” he told the Tamil Guardian.
The OMP must be used as a tool to pressure the government
Commenting on the draft resolution’s call to “re-energise” domestic-led initiatives such as the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), Sumanthiran argued that it remains a useful “tool to pressure the government”.
This statement comes despite growing calls by the Families of the Disappeared to abandon OMP, maintaining that it lacks independence and the ability to deliver justice for them.
Sumanthiran notes that the Families of the Disappeared lost confidence in the OMP early on and stated their opposition. He adds that:
“It may have had various flaws in it but there was a mechanism set up, commissioners appointed and had short listed files and commenced investigations before the change in government. This OMP can still be implemented”.
However, speaking with the Tamil Guardian, a member of the Families of the Disappeared explained their objection noting the government’s refusal to consider their recommendations:
“ We have heard of any amendments that have been that favourable to us. They did not even talk to us. We honestly asked for a change [...] They should have at least incorporated the suggestions we provided in the memorandums we submitted that outlined what revisions are needed. They did not even incorporate one [...] There should have definitely been a victim appointed. They have not done any of that.”
In 2016, members of the Association for Relatives of Enforced Disappearances took on leadership roles in the government-created Consultation Task Force which was promoted as an independent civil society-led organisation. However, the OMP bill was passed without hearing the consultations of this task force and once the CTF had completed its final report then President Maithripala Sirisena refused to meet with the task force to accept it.
Repeated attempts to put forwards their recommendations, which included a hybrid court, were refused by the government with senior figures accusing the task force of stepping beyond its bounds to talk about accountability.
This repeated failure has led the Families of the Disappeared to stage protests on the roadside which have lasted over 2,000 days. An estimated 140 members of the protest have died without knowing the fate of their loved ones.
Read more here.
The latest report from the High Commissioner highlights that since the OMP’s establishment “it has not been able to trace a single disappeared person or clarify the fate of the disappeared in meaningful ways, and its current orientation is to expedite the closure of files”.
“The confidence and trust of the relatives of victims in the OMP as an independent and credible national mechanism has been severely eroded, particularly since 2020, following a series of problematic appointments of chairperson and commissioners, and needs to be re-established”.
Speaking to Tamil Guardian, the member of the Families of the Disappeared slammed attempts by the Sri Lankan government to show the OMP as a sign of progress stating:
“They are saying all this to act in front of foreign countries and the UN. Tamil MPs have been complicit and serve as a mouthpiece to the government - we strongly condemn this”.
Sumanthiran, maintained however, that the OMP can still be used as a tool to commence investigations.
“Our strategy must be whenever the government agrees on something, we must put them to the test to deliver on that rather than saying that it is useless as it gives a convenient excuse for the government to escape responsibility”.
“It is a very emotional issue but we must act strategically” he told our journalists adding that “we must use all the tools available to us”.
He further notes that even international institutions such as the UNHCR have their flaws but that they have been “useful in preventing further deterioration” of human rights but the extent to which can only be speculated.
Speaking on rising geopolitical tensions since the docking of the Chinese “spy ship” in the Chinese owned port of Hambantota, Sumanthiran highlighted that the TNA publicly condemned this visit.
“I have said that India’s legitimate concerns must be taken into account as this is just in India’s backyard. Similarly if Sri Lanka was located in the South China Sea, we would recognise China’s legitimate concerns” Sumanthiran told our journalists.
Sumanthiran spoke on a growing concern in the West of containing China and stressed that “we must work ourselves, where we are seen as one of the answers to containing China”.
“We have said that China has taken over the West and the South. We are the natural allies to India in the North and East” he noted and argued that this connection to India should be emphasised.
Sumanthiran added that “in allowing India to secure that area for their defence purposes, a measure of autonomy to the Tamils must be in the Indian interests”
The full impact of the crash has not hit the North-East
Commenting on the financial crisis, he notes that the North-East has in someways been safeguarded from the full impact of the crash.
“There seems to be a bubble” he explains noting that in some ways the North-East has been less reliant on fuel with most children still able to attend school as they cycle in. He also highlights that the remembrance of the war which has in-built a resilience in the Tamil community as well as the remittance economy which has kept the North-East afloat.
He warns however,
“When the full impacts we will be far worse of than the rest of the country because of the war devestation and lack of economic activity”.
Speaking on India he noted that over the last three years there have been continued discussions with India about investments in the North-East, particularly with private investors.
Sumanthiran highlights that in March he had meet with the finance minister of Tamil Nadu and spoke on this issue.
“We are trying to devise a system in which, even the Tamil diaspora investors who are interested but are reprehensive about going to Sri Lanka directly can go to Tamil Nadu and invest in companies there which might in turn invest in Sri Lanka”.
This, this he notes has captured the interest of the central government, and how work is now being done to work out a tripartite solution between diaspora investors, India’s central government and Tamil Nadu businesses.
“This is also a means by which SL can get out of its economic crisis because the IMF will only enable us to borrow more but to fully come out of it we need investment and loads of it”.