Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP, Attorney-at-Law M.A. Sumanthiran spoke to the Nation regarding the state of affairs within the Party/Alliance, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the question of foreign judges in a hybrid court, issues faced by the Tamils, their dealings with the Government, constitutional reforms, the postponement of the Local Government election, devolution of power, legal reforms, the role of the Diaspora, Tamil Nadu relations, and the country’s economy.
Q In the current political context, where do you place and position yourself?
A : I am a member of the TNA. The TNA has chartered a particular course towards seeking a lasting, permanent solution to the national issue and obtaining relief for our people. I am in the Constitutional Assembly’s Steering Committee along with Leader of the TNA and Leader of the Opposition, R. Sampanthan. This requires quite a lot of attention. I also co-chair the management committee of the said Steering Committee. This work requires attention in terms of coordinating experts and research teams. Aside to this, there is work involving the constituencies and day-to- day affairs which require immediate attention. These are my responsibilities within the Party.
Q What is the state of the second tier leadership within the TNA?
A : There are quite a number of second tier politicians. There are MPs in their 30s, 40s and 50s. In the Provincial Councils, there are a number of young members. In the case of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), of the 30 Councillors, at least 10 can be described as young. Before their terms ran out, in Local Government bodies such as in the pradeshiya sabhas, there were quite a number of young persons. Although, senior leaders are in their 70s and 80s, thereafter there is the second tier leadership.
Q There has been some controversy surrounding the statements issued by the TNA with regard to the UNHRC sessions.
A : No. We issued two statements. One was the Parliamentary Group’s unanimous view. The second statement involved MPs and the members of the Provincial Councils. We had a full day’s meeting after which we arrived at a consensus and adjusted the wording to appease all present. Subsequently, the Secretary of the Padmanaba/Pathmanabha wing of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), T. Sritharan informed that they cannot subscribe to the statement. Everyone was there. Leader of the EPRLF and Secretary of the Suresh wing of the EPRLF, Suresh Premachandran cannot say that the statement was only the statement of one faction of the TNA. There was the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization and the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi. The EPRLF participated.
Q During the period of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime, the TNA presented a united stand. Now the TNA is fragmented. Is the political situation detrimental to internal unity?
A : This is normal. We are one Party. We are four political parties forming a loose alliance. Parties come and go and come back and go back out. This has been happening for a period of time. The Tamil United Liberation Front left in 2003, came back in 2011 and left again in 2013.
Q The TNA focuses on the national problem and politics as opposed to addressing the burning day-to-day issues and basic needs faced by the families of the missing persons, ex-cadres and female headed households. How do you care to respond?
A: We have quite a bit of involvement. On the issue of the disappeared, it was upon our insistence that the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) law was enacted. We objected to the first draft of the said law. It was then changed. We are disappointed that the Office is not in operation yet. We are working on their livelihood issues and the ex-cadres. We are not part of the Government. We however encourage the Diaspora to help vulnerable groups. We have suggested that the Government implement a special scheme providing opportunities for them. Regarding the ex-cadres, we met with President Maithripala Sirisena to put in place a special programme for their livelihoods as they don’t integrate into society that easily. With regard to women, a project to provide assistance to them should be implemented instead of sending them out to work. The Government should pay something like a social security payment as women engage in care-related work with regard to their disabled husbands, aging parents, and their children. They also have to work to earn a living. The Government must take steps in this regard. We are constantly engaging in order to find relief for them.
Q Who does the TNA deal with in the Government – President Sirisena or Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe?
A : We deal with both of them. In general, we deal with Wickremesinghe on specific problems. We also deal with Sirisena. For an example, regarding the housing issue, we objected to the Government’s pre-fabricated housing. We alternately proposed brick and mortar constructions where we put forward that 100,000 such houses could be built with the same monetary commitment made for pre-fabricated housing, which was however not taken up by the Government. The scheme is however there. Since then, the former one has been stopped. In batches, they are planning on constructing 5,000 houses for 800,000 persons per each batch. In some way, we have therefore influenced the process to get the pre-fab housing project stopped. For this we dealt with Wickremesinghe and eventually Sirisena.
Q There have been various views on the cancellation of the visit to Sri Lanka of actor, Rajinikanth. What is your view?
A : I have no thoughts on this matter. It has nothing to do with our politics.
Q The TNA welcomed the latest Resolution. Yet, Sampanthan stated that the Tamils had reached the limits of their tolerance. What does all this mean and what will be the interventions the TNA makes in the time to come?
A : Like in the case of the OMP, we have made significant contributions. In the case of the first draft of the proposed Counter Terrorism Act, we said that it was worse than the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Since then, a new draft is being made. All our efforts will be to fully participate to ensure effective mechanisms for the people’s lives of today. Certain statutes are not in place and the people haven’t tasted the benefits of the statutes that are in place. That is the reason for making that statement. We will fully cooperate and work with the Government. The programme involves not merely bringing in laws but also seeing to their implementation.
Q What about the Government’s position on foreign judges and a hybrid court?
A : On the question of foreign judges, the wording in the UNHRC Resolution 30/1 on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka adopted on 2015 October 1, is very clear. It has separate categories including judges, prosecutors, lawyers including defence counsels and investigators.
Internationals are not mentioned in the said Resolution in the capacity of consultants or as those providing technical assistance. If the latter was the case, the Resolution would state such. The roles are instead specified. Any intelligent person can read and understand it. Sri Lanka co-sponsored the said Resolution not once, but twice. The second time involves the UNHRC Resolution 34/1 on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka. Both contain the same words. Whatever that is said by anyone to the contrary, outside the process, elsewhere, the two Resolutions, commitments are given to the world. We insist and we will continue to insist that it will be kept to the letter. This will however not happen tomorrow or day after. The accountability and judicial mechanism will come at the tail end of the processes. There are many processes to come before it such as the OMP, the truth seeking commission and the office of reparations. In addition, laws must be passed to criminalize some of these crimes. Only a Bill for the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances has been brought. These crimes must be declared and made official by way of laws. This aspect of the process will take up quite a bit of time.
Thus, there is no point in arguing or debating at this juncture as to what form the judicial mechanism with a special counsel, will take. We will ensure that the Government keeps to its promises.
Q Females in the North are sexually abused. What is the TNA doing in this regard?
A : This is a very serious issue. It is often not very publicly articulated. But anybody who works with these people at the ground level and grassroots level knows that it is a reality. It is not just military personnel, or public officials among whom are also Tamils, but shop owners who also engage in such. Everybody takes advantage of these women and females. The military environment contributes to and is conducive to such.
Demilitarization is the answer. The military must remain in the North and the East to meet the just security demands, however anything beyond what is required is unnecessary. The military presence at present is highly excessive.
Q What is the NPC’s role?
A : The NPC will go on till next year. We have to frame the new constitution before the first term of the NPC runs out. We must make power sharing arrangements more meaningful. This must be done properly. We are currently engaged in the process of the drafting of a new constitution.
Q There is a division within the Government on the question of whether or not to go for a referendum with regard to constitutional reforms.
A : This debate is not necessary. All one has to do is to read the motion for the appointment of a Constitutional Assembly, the resolution for which was adopted unanimously on 2016 March 9, including with the participation of the Joint Opposition (JO). The Constitutional Assembly was set up to draft a constitution, the process for approving which involves obtaining a two thirds majority in/of Parliament and a referendum before the people. These steps are clearly mentioned. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party or the JO, none of them can talk differently. They cannot responsibly say so. This was negotiated for two full months. No responsible political party or Parliamentarian can change their position. How can they do so?
Q What do you make of the Local Government election being postponed indefinitely?
A : There shouldn’t be the postponement of an election. This is not good for democracy. In the case of the Local Government election, the amending of the laws has not been done properly. There are still a lot of issues that have not been fully dealt with. The Government has to either rectify these urgently and hold the election or revert to the old, former law and hold the election. Not holding the election is not acceptable at all.
Q What about the fact that minority parties (parties representing religious and ethnic minorities and parties with a scattered vote base) will be sidelined under the new electoral system?
A : This is another matter which has to be dealt with under electoral system reforms. This has nothing to do with the election.
Q Where do you stand on the question of devolution?
A : We haven’t made any reference to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Power sharing must be within a united, undivided, indivisible country. Rajapaksa previously made three joint statements with India. One he made with Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh. The other two were made by then Minister of External Affairs, Prof. G.L. Peiris with his Indian counterpart, S.M. Krishna. The phraseology in all three is the same. Sri Lanka must fully implement the provisions of the 13th Amendment and go beyond for any meaningful devolution. In the second instance, it acknowledges that the 13th Amendment does not constitute any meaningful devolution. Whatever the provisions that are holding meaningful devolution back, must be removed. These primarily involve the powers afforded to the Government. When sharing power, it must be shared with the people through their elected representatives. Under the 13th Amendment, judicial power is not devolved. Regarding Governmental powers which concern the legislature and the Executive, in the case of legislative power, although Provincial Councils can make statutes on certain matters in the Provincial List, the assent of the Governor is required. Certain situations have arisen in the East, when the Governor was Mohan Wijewickrama, and also in other Provinces, where the Governors have unreasonably withheld assent. Executive power, on the other hand, is entirely in the hands of the Governor, who is an appointee of the President. Thus, to sum up, judicial power is not at all devolved, legislative power though devolved to a certain degree and point, is controlled fully by the Governor, and Executive power is entirely with the Governor. The 13th Amendment scheme of devolution is one where the power is not shared with the people. In fact, there is no power devolution at all really. If Rajapaksa’s claims are to be made meaningful, power must be devolved to the people and their representatives.
Q Personal laws oppress women. There are calls for reforms, in particular in the case of Muslim Law and the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act. What is your stance?
A : The repeal of Article 16 doesn’t automatically repeal the personal laws. It will only repeal those provisions in the laws that violate provisions in the Articles preceding Article 16, particularly those concerning equality. This is a welcome move. One’s gender should not affect one’s equal status before the law. Whether it is Muslim Law or Thesavalamai/ Thesawalamai Law, if it robs women of equal position, it must be changed.
Q The Thesavalamai/Thesawalamai Law too has issues.
A : In the case of Thesavalamai/Thesawalamai, there is one issue. Married women don’t have the contractual capacity. This right is there however prior to marriage. This is a strange thing. It must be removed.
Q Recently, violent youth gangs such as the Ava Group have been found operating in the North. What has the TNA done to address this issue?
A : We are working with the communities at the community level and with school principals in this regard. This issue seems to be the fallout of the three decades long violent environment that prevailed. This must be dealt with seriously. Job opportunities are scarce. It is a remittance economy that is running the place. There are young people with money. The monies however are not what they have themselves earned. All of this can contribute to social issues. Normally, films with violence are banned from being shown due to the effect on their lives. In this case, they have lived through the violence. This is a matter of national importance.
Q How does the TNA deal with the Diaspora?
A : The Diaspora is not at loggerheads on this issue. I recently saw a clip of Leader of the Tamil National People’s Front and General Secretary of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam in Geneva, Switzerland, naming five large Diaspora groups (the Global Tamil Forum, the British Tamils Forum, the Australian Tamil Congress, the Canadian Tamil Congress and the United States Tamil Political Action Council) and accusing them of working with the TNA and thereby engaging in treacherous conduct. A large section of the Diaspora is supportive of the work that we do. It is only a minute section of the Diaspora comprised of peripheral groups that is making a huge noise and thereby acting against the interests of the Tamil people.
Q What is the situation with regard to the Tamil Nadu factor?
A : Tamil Nadu’s support has always been for Tamils. The affinity cannot be broken. It is based on language, culture and religion. If they perceive that the Tamils are being unjustly treated, they will raise their voice. Their support will continue.
Q The TNA is silent on the economy. What do you think should be done in this regard?
A : The economy must make a turnaround. The Hambantota harbour/port deal is because of the heavy debt left by the previous regime. It is not an envious position to be in, given the state of the economy. We have to come out of this. The sale of State assets is necessary. There is no other way around this issue. If the new constitution is made, and confidence is restored, the Diaspora will make a significant contribution including investing in the country’s economy. The Diaspora is keen to do so. We guarantee that they will in fact do so. They are only waiting until the aforementioned aspects are done.