Ahead of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections, the Tamil Guardian interviewed leaders from Tamil political parties contesting in the North-East, to discuss the most important issues that the Tamil homeland faces today.
In this interview, we speak to the leader of the Thamizh Makkal Thesiya Kootani (TMTK), the former Supreme Court Justice and former Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C. V. Wigneswaran, who will be representing the Jaffna district in Sri Lanka's parliament.
We discuss the prospects of international justice, Tamil-Muslim unity, economic development and his response to criticism over his tenure as Chief Minister of the Northern Province.
Q: Sri Lanka made little to no progress in implementing repeated UN resolutions and has now stated it will be withdrawing from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) process completely. What does this mean for accountability and justice for the crimes committed against the Tamil people? What actions must the Tamil people now take to ensure justice is served? If not the UNHRC then where and how can accountability be obtained? How will you and your party engage with international actors in ensuring this?
A: Withdrawing from co-sponsorship does not prohibit the UNHRC pursuing the process. Sri Lanka co-sponsored the consensus resolution, which expected certain commitments and action from Sri Lanka. Now Sri Lanka has withdrawn its co-sponsorship. But the process goes on. We must remember that. In fact, we would have preferred if Sri Lanka did not co-sponsor. It was Sri Lankan foxiness at its height to delay and dissipate the process. Therefore the process must go on and will go on.
We will take all legal and political activities to ensure the continued existence of Tamil people in Sri Lanka and to protect them from genocide and as a next step to refer Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court or to a specially created international criminal tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity. So those are actions which we intend to be taking.
In any event we will be knocking at the door of the UN to obtain a resolution which calls for referendum in the North and East of Sri Lanka to find out what the people of the North and East want as their solution to their problem. We would be part of the process. The rest of the country cannot say they too need to vote at the referendum since this applies to the people of North and East only. There are certain people that say then if there is a referendum it should go to the whole island - no, the whole island need not vote on what its best for the North and East. It is the people of the North and East that should tell what they would like to have.
North and East were never occupied by Sinhalese in great numbers. The Tamil speaking people have always occupied them from pre-historic times. Certainly at least 1000 years before the Sinhala language was born. The North and East and maybe parts of the Western Province have always been Tamil speaking and always been occupied by people who spoke the Tamil language.
Q: How will your party work with Muslim actors to protect from Sinhalisation, particularly in the Eastern Province? How will your party work to build better relations between the two nations? Many Tamil actors have faced criticism for Islamophobia and siding with hardline anti-Muslim elements. How will that be addressed?
A: We have already put out in our manifesto that we are for a separate unit for Muslims in the Eastern Province. The Muslims and the Tamils in the East have been living in amity until the war.
Unfortunately, xenophobic rhetoric against Muslims has significantly increased recently in the wake of the parliamentary elections. The media is reproducing and reinforcing negative stereotypes and hate speeches based on the political statements and actions of some of our power-hungry politicians. This trend is most apparent in the Eastern Province, particularly in Amparai - you would know who it is.
This reinforces the polarization in the society, which is not good for the future of the Tamils and Muslims in this country. We will pursue the path of reconciliation with the Muslims without giving up nor forfeiting our legitimate rights.
Q: There is a lack of women representation in Tamil politics. What is your party doing to encourage the involvement of women in politics?
A: We are expecting to implement a livelihood scheme with a view to improve the life of war widows living in North and East. As a precursor to this we are to perform soon a “Needs Assessment” among the widows. At the same time, we are paying our attention on various problems encountered by women. Although it is insisted that equal chances and opportunities be made available no action is taken to achieve this. The main reason behind women being unable to solve their problems themselves is the lack of power in their hands. One of the ways to equalise this imbalance is increasing the representation of women in politics.
We have two women contesting out of the ten candidates for Jaffna – Kilinochchi. There is one contesting in Vanni and the other in Trinco. Tamil women are now coming out of their self- imposed isolation. As we go on the numbers contesting will increase. We will engage in pursuing solutions to problems socially encountered by women.
Q: The North-East lags behind the rest of the island in several development indicators. What plans do you have for uplifting the livelihoods of those in the North- East? How will your party ward against the centralising of powers within the Presidency and ensure that Tamil people have control over their own livelihood?
A: Two most important visions of our party are self-reliance and self- sufficiency. We would like to pursue these visions with the help of the state and our diaspora.
Our objective is that the people of North and East should attain self-dependent state in economy and their industrial sector should attain growth and development to a level where they could export goods and services. On the basis of this, we will take action to establish an “Economical Research Centre” inducting economic experts in homeland and abroad, to undertake research, collecting of information, to provide expert advice and for identifying opportunities so as to create economic development in North and East. The main tasks of this Centre will be undertaking long, medium and short term development programmes in North and East. It would undertake researches relevant to these and collect and maintain statistics relevant to economy and development.
At the same time, an “Economical Affairs Group” will be formed inclusive of MPs, Kootani stalwarts and intellectuals to pursue economic development activities on behalf of the Thamizh Makkal Theshiya Kootani.
India should play a significant role not only to ensure the protection and recognition to the right of self-determination of Tamil people in Sri Lanka but also for the social and economic reformation of the North and East. We will pursue all activities needed for this. Specifically, extension of Palaly Air Port, inaugurating ship transport between India and to places such as Kankesanthurai, Trincomalee and Thalai Mannar, will lead to economical investments in North and East and pave the way for massive economical growth, we believe. Relevant to this the Thamizh Makkal Theshiya Kootani will undertake negotiations with the Indian central government and the Sri Lankan government. Further, we will engage in activities for taking the economic relationship with the people in Tamil Nadu to a new dimension. We will strengthen the relationship with Universities, Chamber of Commerce and investors to create sector wise development of North and East.
We will further strengthen the Cooperative Sector and undertake projects to build up micro- economy.
Q: How will your party work with the Tamil diaspora to achieve these aims, both politically and economically? What role do you envisage for the diaspora in the future of the Tamil nation?
A: The Diaspora would be an important actor in our political, economic and social regeneration. We consider them our People. Their support morally, financially and in any other appropriate way is very essential for us to pursue our goals of self- rule, self-reliance and self-sufficiency.
Q: You served as the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council. However, despite having only limited powers, the NPC faced criticism for not being able to secure any achievements or any concrete developments to uplift livelihoods during its tenure. What would be your response to that criticism? And going forward what do you see as your relationship with the Sri Lankan state?
A: Not securing any achievements is a canard propagated by the TNA & EPDP mainly. Every cent received from the Central Government was put to good use. No money was ever returned. Due to our exemplary financial management, my Chief Minister’s Ministry was placed first in the island among nearly 850 Departments and Ministries.
We did uplift the livelihoods of our people by building houses, repairing dilapidated houses, completing unfinished houses, digging wells and providing livelihood needs to war affected families. We discussed with the World Bank and obtained the project to convert sea water into fresh water. We have built wind mills to generate Electricity. We made extensive progress in the field of Tourism. If we got the CM’s Fund we could have worked wonders. The Government and my own party, then the TNA, sabotaged my efforts. Nevertheless, we made considerable progress.
Also see our interview with Tamil National Peoples’ Front (TNPF) leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam here.
Interview requests sent to both the leader and spokesperson of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) went unanswered.