The LTTE is trying to extricate itself militarily based on the “emotional outpourings in Tamil Nadu,” saysSivanesathurai Santhirakanthan
Sivanesathurai Santhirakanthan (nom de guerre Pillayan), Chief Minister of Sri Lanka’s sensitive Eastern Province, is a rebel in transition. A former member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), he split from the group in 2004 when LTTE’s then special commander for the eastern districts of Batticaloa and Amparai, V. Muralitharan (Karuna) formed the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP). In an exclusive interview to The Hindu, Mr. Santhirakanthan welcomed the Eastern Provincial Council elections held this May, as “an excellent practical step.” Equally important, he said, is “to strengthen the Council” and win peoples’ confidence. He is of the view that the LTTE was trying to extricate itself militarily based on the “emotional outpourings in Tamil Nadu.” Any “excessive pressure” from India when Sri Lanka is going through a “critical phase”, he said, “will only be to the advantage of the LTTE again.” Here are the excerpts from an hour-long interview held on October 22 at the Chief Minister’s Secretariat in the capital of the Eastern Province, Trincomalee.
It is 156 days since you were sworn in Chief Minister. How are these initial days?
I spent the first 150 days on administrative matters. After I took charge, we brought in changes in education and agriculture, which will come to fruition in the years ahead. Although not fully satisfied, we are confident that we can usher in reforms in administration, education and agriculture, and then progress further.
You fought for decades for a separate, unified Tamil Eelam, but now you are the first Chief Minister of a de-merged Eastern Province. What are your present views against those realities?
We started the armed struggle to solve our grievances as we lost confidence in governments. I joined the struggle for those reasons. The Tamil people lost a lot due to the armed struggle. At one stage it entered a phase in which Tamils had no prospect for development. This was also because Tamil organisations were unable to unite all Tamils for a single-minded struggle. Moreover, as some of our armed groups, particularly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) indulged in excessive terrorism, the just demands of our people went unappreciated. At one phase, this terrorism spread to foreign soil, with the assassination of India’s Rajiv Gandhi, and as everyone points out, it became impossible to assert the rights of our people effectively.
Several issues surfaced after the ceasefire [in 2002]. The three ethnicities live in the Eastern Province [Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims]. If merged, a new problem, i.e., the predominance of Tamil people will increase, leading to other complications. Therefore, I consider this as an excellent practical step as it has restored some faith in the people, who are happier than they were. Adequate powers should be given to an organisation that has been fighting for 20 years to empower its people. Only by strengthening this Provincial Council, can we win peoples’ confidence and prevent them from thinking along alternative courses of action. Empowering Tamils through elections is a welcome democratic precedent. We owe a debt of gratitude for that. There can be major changes in the North, only if people see evidence of the benefits of further administrative powers in the East. This is a very good opportunity, [but] we can satisfy the Tamil people only if we utilise this properly.
You seek more powers; do you think there is a difference between the Eastern Province and the others in terms of administrative powers?
This is where the problem lies. The Provincial Councils were created to solve Tamils’ problems. The people here needed the powers. The others did not have the need for extensive powers. The other provinces also face problems. I am not saying that they do not, but the war was for powers for people in the North and the East. Isn’t this meant to solve that war? The situation is not the same as in other provinces. This is a special Provincial Council. The needs are different.
Are you confident that the trajectory is towards that end, particularly given the view that in this province where there was no democracy, but a war for nearly 30 years, and that elections were held after decades?
True, there was no democracy because of the conflict. What was the cause of the conflict? Rights. Everyone should understand that. Now as the Chief Minister, I cannot assume that the powers will come overnight. We only want powers that will enable us to implement policies that we would like to for the benefit of the people. That is all. We do not want far-reaching powers, such as secession. We can deliver to the people and win their confidence only if powers are devolved.
Can you specify the powers, and the difficulties of not having them?
For example, we have to protect the people. This is a complicated issue. Sri Lanka is at a critical phase, so is the Provincial Council system and the issue of powers to the Councils. It is against this backdrop that I have started work. At this critical point, our demands must be fair. Whether they like it or not, Sinhalese, some of them, have also come to the view that Tamils should be given powers. The political leaders have also acted favourably. They have put in place a Provincial Council, and are making efforts to devolve powers.
The LTTE is killing people, and abductions are going on. It is a complicated situation.
In this setting, if India exerts excessive pressure, and if the trajectory changes, it will only be to the advantage of the LTTE again. At the same time, if the people are affected by the military actions to tame the LTTE, it causes dissatisfaction. It should not go in favour of the LTTE. We are in a very complicated situation of determining what the alternative plan could be. I will not say that it is a very difficult situation, as there will be other ways to deal with the problem if there is larger agreement.
What do you consider as the three important powers?
Police powers are important, particularly for the eastern province. I do not deny that there are complications in implementing this. A recent decision to appoint a special DIG for the Eastern Province is a very good development. Similarly, there are very few Tamil people in the police because of the conflict. We have a great responsibility of instilling confidence in them. I acknowledge that there are practical problems, but it is a responsibility to start the process.
Regarding finance, although we have powers, the central government is implementing projects that we can implement. These are some direct powers for us under the 13th amendment. If I were to be specific, if the 13th amendment is implemented, the rest will follow, democracy will be strengthened. The people also will gain the mindset that necessary powers will have to be given and politicians will follow suit.
So is the issue of land, where there are several interlinked issues, but we do not want to make a big issue of it. If we gain confidence that issues relating to our province will not be relegated, it is a big achievement.
What do you expect as confidence-building measures?
We have the confidence; otherwise, we will certainly not be here. The very creation of the Eastern Province is a confidence-building measure. It should not end there, it is important to strengthen the Province, step-by-step, and win peoples’ satisfaction. It is important that the confidence we have is not broken.
What are the major lessons you draw from the armed struggle and political life?
In an armed struggle, we execute orders, nothing more; but in politics, particularly as Chief Minister, I will act according to the needs of the people, and perform in a way to win voters’ confidence. In the armed struggle, one thinks of destroying the opponent, but one cannot think like that in politics. One has to reach the ends politically. There is a huge difference.
The Eastern Province is cited as an example of a region that emerged from war to democracy. What is your view?
Yes. The eastern province is an example. It is welcome that those who were in an armed liberation struggle were brought into democracy. It is also a great precedent as it has also created a situation in which the LTTE can be defeated. Concurrently, there is a great responsibility for all to welcome cadres into democracy and take them forward. That is why I reiterate that it is the changes that happen here that will rapidly instil confidence among other people. If some unpleasant incidents occur here, then it will not be possible to create the required confidence among the people there [in the northern districts].
How much confidence have you gained in the present process, in percentage terms?
We are functioning at a confidence level of about 65 per cent - 70 per cent. The remaining has to come.
Do you see any link between the current military situation in northern Sri Lanka, and the recent political developments in India?
The feeling for sufferings of the Tamils is natural. The civilians there [in the northern districts] face difficulties. The changing political situation in Tamil Nadu, coupled with excessive propaganda, resulted in emotional outpourings in Tamil Nadu. The mixture of emotions and politics is what is creating this big eruption. We have to take steps to stop that. There are also diplomatic moves on this front. The LTTE is trying to escape using this opportunity. The Tamil people [in the Northern Province] should be allowed to go where they want to go. The LTTE does not let them go, and they don’t give them food. The Tamil people have to be protected.