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Tamil leaders talk politics - Interview with Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam

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 Tamil National Peoples’ Front (TNPF) Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, who will be representing the Jaffna district in Sri Lanka's parliament.

We discuss the path forward for international accountability, Tamil-Muslim politics, the role of the Tamil diaspora and his response to criticism the party has faced in the past.

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: Firstly we have been maintaining for quite some time, in fact from 2012, our position has been that the Human Rights Council will not deliver. And if at all, the Sri Lankan government - whichever government - would merely want to use the Human Rights Council as a tactic to buy time and to show they are engaging the international community. But ultimately, when it comes from a victims’ point of view, the Human Rights Council will achieve nothing. 

So our position has always been, since 2012, that if we are to seriously address accountability and the sort of heinous crimes that are alleged to have taken place, Sri Lanka must be taken before the International Criminal Court (ICC), or at the very least an international ad hoc criminal tribunal must be set up. We believe that is the way to go. 

What is encouraging is that the ICC has recently been giving a fairly broad interpretation to their mandate in trying to prosecute and investigate countries that would normally have not come within their purview because they are not signatories to the Rome Statute - examples being Myanmar and the United States in the case of alleged crimes that were committed in Afghanistan. So these are very encouraging signs. 

I think you have increasingly the world going into another Cold War scenario. And when you have institutions like the UN Security Council, the permanent powers are more likely to use their veto powers also. So for institutions like the ICC that ought to be independent, rightfully taking a broader view on how best to prosecute and maximise the chances of prosecuting international crimes, I think is very encouraging for the Eelam Tamil people. Our belief is advocacy at this crucial stage is fundamental. Our organisation after this election - we hope to fare pretty well - with the mandate of the people, we hope to take the issue of international accountability very seriously and push it as our topmost priority. 


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: In the past ten years since the TNPF was formed after we came out of the TNA, we have tried several times but failed to engage with the Muslim community. Unfortunately, the Muslim political leadership chose not to engage with us deliberately as they wanted to pursue close relations with the TNA. So as a result, we have not been successful in engaging at the political level.

Even at the social level, ultimately as we are not elected and were not endorsed by our own people, the engagement that we attempted was not far-reaching. I think the only time that there was some serious initial engagement was during the Ezhuga Tamil campaign that we did under the Tamil Peoples’ Council (TPC). We had already had a massive rally in Jaffna and we were planning another in Batticaloa in 2017. In that context, since we had shown our strength in mobilising the Tamil public opinion in Jaffna, there was a decent engagement in the East, particularly in Batticaloa. But that too, unfortunately, after Ezhuga Tamil did not materialise into some more institutionalised.

After these elections, we hope to engage the Muslim leadership in both the political and at the civil society level as much as possible. Our position has always been that the problem with this island is that there is a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist agenda, which is mutually exclusive. So initially, it was the Eelam Tamil nation that was the threat. The Sinhala Buddhist nationalist agenda now feels they have broken the back of the Eelam Tamil nation after Mullivaikkal and they believe that the new target now is the Muslims. And they have been doing that for the last 10 years. We have always told the Muslims that this is a common problem and it is imperative that both the Tamils and Muslims take up a common position when it comes to the state. What is at stake is the very existence of our identity, whether we want to pursue a common identity as Tamil-speaking people or whether we want to pursue distinct identities as Tamil and Muslim, that is entirely up to us. But the fact is, whichever identity we chose to take is under threat, because it is essentially seen as something that the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist agenda does not want to have espoused on this island. 

I think there is sufficient reason to believe that since the end of the war and particularly because the Muslim community has been targeted right throughout the island in the last 10 years and they feel extremely vulnerable because anti-Muslim sentiments I don’t think has ever been this high, I think there is a good chance that the Muslim community may also feel that it is time they found partners who are willing to co-operate in espousing their rights their identity and seeking common ground. We believe that gives us opportunities like we’ve never had in the past, so in that sense, I think there is some optimism. 

There is a sense of Islamophobia amongst the Tamils. We realise that. We are opposed to that. When it comes to our party, we are very strict that there cannot be any form of Islamophobia. We will not tolerate it. But at the same time, there are issues between the two communities. The Tamil people face genuine problems, particularly in the East. Likewise, I am sure the Muslims face genuine problems with regards to the Tamils as well. These issues must be frankly discussed and solutions found. We are not for one moment trying to suggest to the Tamil people because we need to find common ground that we should not sort out outstanding issues. I think it must be a very fair relationship. It must be an open relationship where we discuss and find solutions. I do not think that is going to be difficult to succeed in, particularly because, I think for the first time as I said before, the Muslim population would feel that they genuinely need partners. All this while the Sri Lankan state essentially was wooing them to divide and rule the Tamil-speaking people. For the first time the Muslim leadership, be it political or civil society, is now a target. However unfortunate that we are hoping it will give us opportunities only under these circumstances, but nonetheless, I truly believe there are those opportunities. 

After the elections, in the event that we get a strong mandate, we will pursue common positions with the Muslim political leadership and civil society leadership.

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: Women leadership in Tamil politics is dismal. We had a conference 2 years ago, in March 2018. We had done quite a bit of groundwork for almost 2 months prior to that conference and we had a very strong turnout from the general public as well as our own party female leadership. We made certain pledges, in fact, those pledges are made public, in our office, we have a banner that puts down those pledges so that any member of the public or of our party who walks into our office will see that these pledges have been made and those commitments must be met. One of the most important parts of the commitment is by 10 years time - by 2028 -  our party will hopefully by then guarantee 50% membership across our structures for women. Now, whilst I believe that initially, it is absolutely important to ensure quotas, the eventual target is that we don’t have this distinction of male and female. That we don’t need to think in that way. That we build enough capacity and confidence amongst our women membership that they can stand in their own right and thereby compete. That is the eventual target.

At the last general election we had very good - relatively speaking, obviously - women representation in the list we fielded. This year, at this election, very, unfortunately, our target of at least 25% was not even met in Jaffna. We only have 20% - out of ten candidates we only have two women. In the other districts representation is 25% but still, it should have increased. Our ideal target would have been around 30—35%. 

One thing is that we are encouraged. The most active part of our membership are women. So, they will take leadership. There are already several projects that they decided they were going to pursue this year, but unfortunately the coronavirus lockdown came in-between and those projects could not be pursued. For our party, we are very encouraged because I think when it comes to leadership and going down to the grassroots in changing opinions and creating awareness, not only with regards to women’s rights but also with regards to our own political question, our womenfolk are by far the leaders. We believe that there is the will in our party to bring about gender equality and obviously we need to have the change happen at home before we can go out into society. Within the next two years, the target of our party structure having a minimum representation of 25% right across all tiers, will be met. That is for certain. We are on target for that.

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: Our election manifesto talks of two main targets. One is when it comes to dealing with the Sri Lankan state, our position is that the North-East must be declared a war-affected zone and thereby creating a distinction between the North-East and the rest of the island.

For over 30 years the North-East has been deliberately destroyed through war. We’ve also had during the most part of the 32 years, economic embargoes, so draconian and oppressive that a litre of petrol used to cost something like Rs. 1,500 - Rs. 2,000. So those were the conditions under which the Tamil people had to survive. It was just a very basic existence. Since the end of the war, the economy of the Tamil people lags behind by a good 30 years. If not for the diaspora and the injection a significant amount of money to their relatives, to expect the Tamils of the North-East to compete with the rest of the island was something that was going to drive them more into debt and to more severe financial crises.

That is the reality. So with our engagement with the government, we hope to take up the issue of declaring the North-East a war-affected zone and creating a buffer. And to give sufficient time for the people of the North-East to have the economy back to at least some degree before they can compete at a somewhat level playing field.

We’ve been engaging with the diaspora quite significantly for the last 10 years. Ever since we left the TNA one of our areas that we’ve been most successful has been with regards to diaspora engagement. What we have noticed is the diaspora is ever ready to help, in the form of just outright help without expecting anything in return. But also, is prepared to invest. The concerns, of course, is that those investments must be done in a way that they can invest int he way they like and not have to be told that their investments can only be done in a particular way. The past experiences with the state getting involved have been that through BOI and various other larger project institutions they’ve redirected a substantial amount of diaspora funding to areas that the diaspora is not interested in. Our strategy is we do not want to encourage diaspora members to initially invest at the BOI level, but instead at the small and medium scale industries where their direct investment can be secured and the sort of red tape that is required is minimal. And where they can find easily partners at the local level and the sort of direct empowerment that these projects will provide. It is something that is very real, both for the investor and obviously for the employees. 

We’ve also had very encouraging discussions with people, like for example the Bishop of Jaffna, Justin Gnanapragasam. When we went to meet him to get his blessings for our party - and even for the 2018 elections - he did tell us that he himself can secure a substantial amount of diaspora investment at both the small and medium scale industries. But unfortunately, there has been no political leadership to take advantage of his services. Obviously being a Bishop he himself cannot take responsibility for such work. But through his contacts and through his good offices, he could bring in a substantial amount of investment. When we have people such as him, when we have diaspora organisations also willing to co-operate we see no reason as to why we cannot make a significant contribution to the economies of every family. 

We are also aware that the diaspora is now a good 30-40 years since they’ve established themselves in mainly European and Western countries. They have financial burdens, although quite significant, particularly with coronavirus. But in that 30-40 years, they have in practically every country have established themselves remarkably. Every country that I have been to, governments speak very highly of the achievements of the Tamil diaspora. Per capita, they stand at the highest brackets in the amount of income that they earn. So in every sense, I don’t see any reason as to why we can’t have a significant amount of investment and at the same time, why the local population cannot be empowered.

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: In principle where we probably differ from everyone else is that we have always stated that the Tamil nation includes the diaspora. As far as we are concerned, the Tamil nations citizenship includes the diaspora, it just means that there is a significant part of our citizenship that does not physically live in the homeland. That means that we have to have structures in place, where we have institutionalised engagement at all levels with the homeland. 

One of the structures that we have been mooting since 2010, which is when the TNPF was formed, is for the formation of a Tamil national council. That council essentially would be comprising of elected members in the Tamil homeland - civil society members in the Tamil homeland and the equivalent in the diaspora. And that council would essentially, we hope, evolve into a counter-power centre to Colombo. We believe that is fundamental if we are to create leverage. 

Now whilst that in no way - being people that have to function within Sri Lanka - whilst the formation of a Tamil national council will in no way go in the direction of espousing directly or indirectly the creation of a separate state, or will in any way threatened the 6th Amendment in that sense. Nonetheless, what we do hope to create is a sufficient amount of power within intellectual as well as financial, to create a sufficient impact on all matters concerning the North-East. So if the biggest threat that we feel to centralisation of power in the forthcoming 5 years, this is the way that we can racily make sure that that centralisation of not only political but economic power gets defeated. We need to create our own structures outside that of the state, that can counterbalance at every level. So that is the plan that we’ve been espousing since 2010. Even in 2015, our election manifesto emphasised the need for a Tamil national council. This time also our manifesto is very clear on that. We will do it. If we get the relevant mandate and the diaspora is believed to accept that mandate for us at the homeland level, then I see no reason why we should not be able to achieve that task.

Q: The TNPF has faced criticism in the past for being merely an opposition party and not articulating a clear set of policies it will implement if it comes to power. What is your vision for the Tamil nation on the island?

A: I don't agree with this sixth question... The TNPF has been critical of the TNA, obviously. That’s a major part of what our work ought to be. We have to keep those elected… we have to hold them to account. The TNA more than anyone else really had to do that, because we were the party 10 years ago, soon after the war, that came out and said ‘look the TNA is not what it claims to be’. And 10 years down the road I think we have been completely vindicated. And today the public response towards us and towards what we say is… there has been a sea change in attitudes. The TNA today is in the position that the TNPF was in 10 years ago.

Now all this couldn’t have happened if we had not exposed the duplicity of the TNA and all their failings. But at the same time, since 2010, we have also very clearly said what we are all about. We have said that our goal is to have a constitutional change that would recognise the existence of the Tamil nation of this island in a merged North-East Tamil homeland, that the Tamil nation’s distinct sovereignty has to be recognised and it is on the basis of that Tamil nation and its own distinct sovereignty, that a federal arrangement has to be met. That has been the political agenda with regards to finding a political solution. 

We have gone beyond mere rhetoric. In 2016, where we became part of the Tamil Peoples’ Council. The TNPF played a major role, if not the most dominant role within that council, to draft a set of political proposals that we are committed to even today. Our election manifesto specifically mentions the Tamil Peoples’ Council political proposals that we handed over to the task force that was formed by the government to understand peoples opinions on constitutional reform. We’ve gone beyond mere rhetoric when it comes to what political solution we are talking about. It is a very detailed proposal. I think it is unmatched in Tamil political history with regards to a political formation coming up with those sort of proposals. The only proposal that goes beyond that sort of strength - so to speak - is the LTTE’s ISGA proposals. But those proposals were in a completely different set of circumstances which is why I don’t like to compare the ISGA with what our party has done with the TPC. 

The second issue is with regards to accountability. We have been very very frank, to the point that we have sometimes been accused of being spoilers. But, we believe in saying what we feel. And our view is that the Human Rights Council is a dead end. We have consistently accused the sections of the international community of using the Human Rights Council and the Tamil issue purely for geopolitical considerations to put pressure on the administration’s - particularly the Rajapaksa administration - but actually not being victim-centric in the sense of finding accountability for the victims. That has been a very strong position that we have taken. We still hold that view. Our view is that in Sri Lanka the only way you can have accountability is through international criminal justice, there can be no local element to it. I think the last 10 years goes well beyond anybody’s slightest doubt that expecting a domestic angle to anything to do with accountability is going to be a dead end.

Our view is that with international criminal accountability the best way to go about is through the ICC or the string up of an ad hoc international criminal tribunal on Sri Lanka. The ICC has a better bet simply because in the last two years the ICC itself is giving a very broad interpretation to the mandate it has and is looking at ways of means, actively, to somehow workaround and not get caught into the security council veto problems that could arise with the change of international politics going into another Cold War era. All of this is encouraging.  

Our view is that there are other ways also for international accountability. Already certain steps have been taken. In the United States, in certain other countries on the basis of universal jurisdiction - those can happen. But as a political party, our view is that we will focus on the need for accountability through the ICC or through an international criminal tribunal. That we are absolutely certain about.

The economic angle I have already explained. We don’t have massive plans, we can’t possibly have massive plans when we don’t have self-governance when we are not in control of our own destinies in this island. Certainly within the framework of what Sri Lanka is today - an ethnocracy that is actively trying to dismantle our economy, to try to physically drive us out of this island and hour homeland - given those circumstances, we have a fairly moderate, what we believe to be workable targets to uplift the economic levels of our population. To such an extent, that we will be able to challenge the Sri Lankan state’s agenda of driving us out. Obviously the diaspora plays a massive role in that. In order to get the diaspora involved at every level and be partners in this project of economic empowerment. I have already mentioned the creation of a Tamil national council, which we will do the moment these elections are over and we get a strong mandate and are credible in the eyes of the diaspora to pursue that avenue.


Also see our interview with Thamizh Makkal Thesiya Kootani​ (TMTK) leader C. V. Wigneswaran here.

Interview requests sent to both the leader and spokesperson of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) went unanswered.

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