After finding one’s way up four flights of the dusty and poorly lit outside staircase to Rajavarothiam Sampanthan’s flat in the MP’s housing scheme at Keppetipola Mawatha, Colombo, on Friday evening, one cannot but feel for the 82-year-old lawyer-cum-political leader. But, despite the usual health challenges of age, physically frail, the somewhat portly, cherubic patriarch of Tamil politics is not. And this veteran politician remains as mentally astute as he always has been over his decades-long leadership of his community as, relaxing in verti and bush-shirt in his tiny sitting room, he laughs away concerns about his housing inadequacies, and replies probing questions about his outlook as ‘Leader of the Opposition’ in Parliament.
Q: All these years you have been known as the pre-eminent leader of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, having outlived all those militant leaderships, including the LTTE. As Leader of the Opposition, you will be actually monitoring the work of the Government over the next five years on behalf of not just the Tamils but on behalf of ALL the citizens of the country irrespective of ethnicity, religion or class. Do you see it like that? Will there be any clash of interests between your direct electoral mandate as a Tamil parliamentarian and your required constitutional role as Opposition Leader?
A: I belong to Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka also belongs to me. I have become leader of the opposition as a Sri Lankan Parliamentarian representating all the citizens of this country. There are many vital issues in this country that need to be resolved. I will continue to work for a reasonable, workable and durable solution to the Tamil question. This will be also of significance for the whole polity and all of its people. On all issues, I will work closely with all the parties in the Opposition. We will oppose the Government whenever it needs to be opposed, and we will support the Government on all progressive moves and legislature to meet the urgent national needs.
Q: Although you say you will work with all Opposition parties, there could be issues where the positions of different parties in the Opposition will be too divergent to allow for consensus – especially on the Tamil Question and the issue of power-sharing and autonomy arrangements. Some Opposition parties may oppose Government initiatives in this regard whereas the TNA may wish to support. How could you then function as Opposition Leader?
A: We will always try to build a consensus on issues. But certain issues may never see a real consensus and we should not be delayed by that. We will endeavour to explain and clarify issues and our positions on them as much as possible. In some cases we may have to go along with the greatest collective agreement on a particular issue even if some groups do not agree and choose to remain on the margins. We want to ensure the maximum possible agreement on power-sharing and devolution. If certain forces choose to be difficult, then it is inevitable that the more moderate forces will come together and move forward.
Q: As head of the TNA, in recent weeks you have said that the TNA, even while remaining in the Opposition, is prepared to support a UNP-led coalition government to stay in power. Does not such a position confuse the public about your legitimacy as the main parliamentary ‘opposition’?
A. We supported President Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency to ensure an end to a very corrupt and dictatorial regime, and we are still committed to sustaining the good governance movement that has been initiated through Mr. Sirisena’s victory. The parliamentary elections of August have heralded a further transformation of governance.
Q: In the most recent elections at national level, there has been a more enthusiastic participation by the mass of Tamil voters as can be seen in the voter participation rates in the North and the East. Does this mean that, after decades of sympathy, if not active support for, separatism, the Tamils are now on a different track that excludes secession? Will this be a useful platform for negotiations on power-sharing?
A: It is not very accurate to say that there was active mass support for secession. In fact as far back as in the 1970 general election, the Federal Party (ITAK), in its manifesto, called on Tamils to oppose separatism and to defeat candidates espousing secession. In that election, every candidate who espoused separatism was defeated. It was the enactment of the 1972 Constitution which did not accommodate the reasonable Tamil proposals, that resulted in the Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976 demanding restoration of Tamil sovereignty.
If the tragedy of the 1983 riots encouraged more sympathy for separatism, the 1987 Indo-Lanka Agreement was a turning point with Tamil sentiment moving away from separatist leanings and an acceptance of devolution within an undivided Sri Lanka. Even in 1977, when the TULF was elected on a separatist platform, the then TULF leader (Appapillai) Amirthalingam, did not cling to separatism. He later moderated his position. Today all communities have realised that violence can get them nowhere, that violence can make things more difficult. The Tamil people today vote overwhelmingly for a platform that advocates a settlement based on an unified Sri Lanka.
Q: But can you say that “all communities” have given up on violence? Isn’t it possible to argue that, since the armed forces defeated the LTTE militarily in 2009 (which certainly brought a modicum of stability), there could be many Sri Lankans – especially the Sinhalese – who will feel that violence can and has worked?
A: The military operations against the LTTE, which was a violent movement, cannot be equated with violence against the Tamils. I refer to the violence against innocent Tamil civilians. Today, the lesson has been learnt that it is not the way to deal with the Tamil question. The LTTE’s violence was the consequence of the serial failure to resolve the Tamil querstion in engagement with the Tamil moderate leaderships. For example, the non-implementation of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact, the failure of our proposals for the 1972 Constitution, etc.
Q: At a time when the LTTE was claiming to be the ‘sole representative of the Tamil people’, the TNA was seen to be in coalition with them. Was this a result of coercion? After all the Tigers assassinated many Tamil civilian political leaders.
A: The TNA’s engagement with the LTTE was similar to the engagement by successive Sri Lankan governments with the Tigers in efforts to bring about an end to the war. Not only Sri Lanka governments, but foreign governments, international bodies and many NGOs engaged with the LTTE in such peace endeavours. So it was our responsibility to make every effort to engage with them in whatever way possible. It was not easy but we had to try, whatever others may say.
Q: The TNA has chosen to coordinate with the JVP in the Opposition. But in 1987, the JVP was firmly opposed to the provincial devolution mechanism although it later did participate in Provincial Councils. Is it easier to work with them today?
A: There are many groups that took up hardline positions in the past but have realised the complexities and have become far more flexible today.
Q: When you talk of a comprehensive settlement of the ethnic problem, do you have in mind any particular track or format to initiate moves – such as an all-party conference?
A: It is too early to make any indications immediately. Let us see how things develop in the coming months. There are many people and groups all with various useful ideas. There is much to be done.
Q: The UN Human Rights Council meeting comes up this month. There is a constant refrain among some groups about ‘war crimes’. How central is this ‘war crimes’ issue to the resolution of the Tamil question. Isn’t the issue of war crimes only one of interpretation of the wide range of human rights violations that occurred during the war? Will this be an obstacle to negotiations?
A: Our objective as the TNA is for a comprehensive settlement of the Tamil question and we will not be distracted just by subsidiary issues. For a comprehensive settlement we first need to establish the truth about what has happened and rectify these issues. Justice must brought to all violations of rights and it should be based on the truth. Those who are found to be responsible, must be made accountable.
Q: Will you attempt to revive the useful parliamentary practice of a Shadow Cabinet? Any idea of appointing shadow ministers to monitor government action?
A: That is a useful practice, but we have to see how the current Opposition coordinates before we can hope to have that kind of sophisticated system of Opposition parliamentary politics.
Q: As Leader of the Opposition, what are your immediate and most urgent priorities at national level?
A: Our priorities in Parliament are the achievement of good governance, the restoration of law and order, an end to corruption, an end to economic waste arising from corruption and poor governance, a redressing of human rights violations and compensation for victims of violence. We want to put the whole system right again.
Q: But what about your electoral mandate to resolve the Tamil question?
A. The Tamil question is one of the burning issues of the failure of governance and will necessarily be part of the restoration of good governance. That is only one issue at national level.
Q: Northern Province Chief Minister Wigneswaran is a TNA member but seems to be out of synch with the TNA at national level ….
A: Mr. Wigneswaran is a provincial leader with his own outlook on regional affairs. This is a matter of internal party coordination of policy. We are working on that. This is not a political issue. (Sunday Observer)