‘Last chance to solve the
ethnic problem’

affna District TNA Parliamentarian,
Gajen Ponnambalam warns this is the
last chance the Tamil people will give
the Sinhalese leadership to solve the
ethnic crisis. He says it is up to the
Sinhalese leadership to seize this
opportunity and go ahead with the full
implementation of the ceasefire
He said successive governments were only merely interested in creating a
cessation of hostilities but never bothered to focus on the very aspects of the
ceasefire agreement. "This is the last chance. No more arm twisting, no more
buying time. We mean it," he warned in an interview with The Sunday Leader.
Following are excerpts:

By Wilson Gnanadass

Q: Both the LTTE and the government have finally agreed to start talks
in Geneva. Is that a positive sign for a lasting solution of the ethnic
conflict in Sri Lanka?

A: The fact that they have agreed on a venue to commence talks is a positive
measure. But I think the most difficult part with regard to save the Ceasefire
Agreement (CFA) and peruse the path of peace is still ahead of us. Our
position has always been that the CFA is the foundation for any possible
peace process. The CFA not only deals with a cessation of hostilities between
the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE, but also has important provisions
with regard to dealing with preserving normalcy and dealing with humanitarian
issues of the war victims.

Unfortunately the last four years have very clearly demonstrated that
successive governments were merely interested in creating a cessation of
hostilities between the armed forces and the LTTE but were not at all
interested in addressing the other aspects of the CFA, namely the question of
normalcy and humanitarian issues as well as dealing with a paramilitary force.

It is these issues that have not been dealt with which has led to the
deterioration of the CFA and the confidence the people have in the CFA.
Clearly what this tells us is that the bona fide of the Sri Lankan state is in
question. Very clearly if the Sri Lankan state was prepared to address the
peace process in good faith we would not be needing four years down the
road talking about proper implementation of the CFA. So the test is going to be
whether the Sri Lankan state could give up its agenda of trying to undermine
the Tamil struggle and move in to a phase where they are prepared to engage
with the Tamils positively in good faith and find a solution.

Q: Now that both parties have agreed to talk at least in Geneva in what
direction do you think they should move first — strengthening the CFA
or talking of the core issues?

A: Since it is universally accepted that the CFA is the foundation for any peace
process, I think talks very clearly have to focus on the full implementation of
the CFA. The onus in our view rests on the state to deliver with regard to the
question of paramilitary forces and their complete dismantling and with regard
to creating normalcy in the northeast. If from the Tamil side there is to be
renewed confidence these actions by the state become an essential

So as an immediate measure the Sri Lankan state will have to stop and
dismantle paramilitary activities and also give orders to the military to stop
killing and harassing the civilian population and they will have to bring about
immediate changes to permit the civilian population to carry on with their day to
day life without the present oppressive presence and conduct of the armed
forces. If we are able to get the state to deliver on these issues as an
immediate step I see no reason why these talks cannot develop into taking on
issues of a more political nature.

Q: Both parties have been haggling over the venue for a long time
during which time many killings have taken place. What do you think
would have been the reason for the LTTE to agree to the new venue?

A: I think the problem with regard to the venue was created by the previous
government. The previous government under President Chandrika
Kumaratunga took up the view that talks would not take place outside Sri
Lanka. These are matters that should be discussed and there should be
mutual acceptance from both parties. It was quite clear that the previous
government and this government were trying to isolate the LTTE from the
international community and particularly the Tamil diaspora.

So the LTTE in turn took up the position that having talks in Sri Lanka was not
practical because of the deteriorating security situation and therefore decided
talks have to be outside Sri Lanka and came up with Oslo because after all
where both parties are concerned Oslo is a neutral venue.

Oslo happens to be the capital of the facilitators — Norway that both parties
have agreed to. Despite the LTTE coming up with this proposal the new
government once again tried to undermine the LTTE by suggesting an Asian
country. Now it is very clear to us that the suggestion was to keep the LTTE
further away from the Tamil diaspora. And therefore the LTTE thought talks in
Oslo was the right place but now they have compromised on Oslo and agreed
to go to Geneva.

As far as I am concerned this compromise clearly indicates that the LTTE is
committed to the peace process. But very clearly they would not tolerate arm
twisting and duplicity from the Sri Lankan state any longer. If the Sri Lankan
state is serious about negotiations they will have to accept and respect the
LTTE as an equal partner and would have to take a reasonable position.

If the Sri Lankan state is prepared to do that and if reasonable suggestions
are put forward the LTTE would certainly be prepared to cooperate. I also feel
that the LTTE has offered a last opportunity to the government to take the
CFA seriously and to perform its entire obligation. As I said earlier the onus is
on the government to deliver. The government must understand the gravity of
the situation and let us hope they will do the right thing.

Q: What do you think of the position of the JVP which was instrumental
in forcing the government not to agree to Oslo as the venue for talks.
Do you think the JVP won the day?

A: My personal view is that as long as the government thinks that they need to
keep the JVP on board and gives in to JVP pressure the chances of the peace
process becoming meaningful will remain low. To me it is quite clear that the
JVP has made this peace process the issue on which they are going to
challenge the credibility of the other parties and the SLFP in particular in order
for them to become strong enough as a political force to either form a
government or to become the second force.

Therefore however much sense one makes in trying to get the JVP on board
on the question of the peace process the JVP would simply not be convinced
of such arguments. Because it would go counter to their political agenda that
they have set for themselves.

The fact that the government did not go to Oslo when we saw no reason for
the government not to go to Oslo except JVP pressure in my view has only
benefited the JVP and no one else. Because the government was giving in to
JVP pressure, the situation became so grave where not only have LTTE
cadres and armed forces personnel died, but also innocent civilians. So I think
all those who are serious about wanting the negotiation process to succeed will
have to take a close look at what has been happening over the last few weeks
in particular and take a firm decision. Anything short of that I still think would
not produce the results that would be required to save this process.

Q: A new situation that has just arisen is the crossing over of UNP MPs
to the government side. Does this become a concern for the TNA at a
time when both the government and the LTTE are beginning to talk
given the fact that it is only the two major Sinhala parties that can
actually play the biggest role in achieving peace?

A: The fact that the present government is wooing members from the UNP to
cross over is in my view very unprincipled politics. But then we must also be
honest in that it is not only this government but previous governments also
have practised these types of activities. Both the UNP and the PA have
created this unprincipled political culture and that is the truth. So simply to
blame this government I don’t think it is going to solve anything. It is these two
parties that should decide whether they are going to carry on in this
unsatisfactory way.

Q: UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has threatened to withdraw his
party’s support to the President for trying to woo UNP MPs to his side.
Will this now seriously affect the outcome of talks because consensus
between these two parties is vital for the implementation of any

A: I agree that the lack of southern consensus particularly the inability of the
two major parties to work together has been the cause for not being able to
find a solution for a long time. In fact it is this tragic party rivalry that the Tamils
have been repeatedly pointing out that the Sinhalese leadership does not only
have the will but also is unable to solve the ethnic problem. It is true that by
wooing members of the UNP into joining the government and by splitting the
UNP the UNP will have cause for concern. And will also find such actions by the
government unacceptable.

But I really think that whilst the government might be in the wrong, the UNP
must not make once again the ethnic issue the matter on which they show their
displeasure towards the government. That is certainly the view of the TNA.
Whatever it may be we have absolutely no doubts in our minds that this is the
last opportunity that the Sinhala leadership will have in solving the ethnic
problem. There might be reasons for the UNP to get angry with the PA and
vice versa. But if they make the ethnic problem the issue on which they are
going to vent their anger and frustration on each other, and by doing so this
peace process fails, you will not have the Tamil people give the Sinhala
leadership another chance.

Q: What is the progress of all the Tamil parties trying to come under
one umbrella?

A: We have already had several rounds of talks and there is an agreement
that we would work together both in parliament and outside. What is happening
today is not something that could be singled out but clearly is a problem that is
affecting everyone with a Tamil identity.

Thousands of innocent civilians being rounded up on new year’s eve, and in
their nightclothes being humiliated did not happen in the northeast. Thousands
being harassed through cordon and search operations and people being
arbitrarily taken into custody is happening in the hill country. So there is a
need for all the Tamil parties to work together.

The recent protest in parliament with the blessings and active support of all
four major Tamil parties like the TNA, CWC, UPF and WPF was a great
success. The leaders of the four parties submitted a common petition signed
by all four leaders to the President regarding the reasons for our protest in
parliament and pointing out the ground situation and also what the government
needs to do immediately depending on the situation that faces the Tamil
people. We will continue our cooperation both in parliament and outside.
[Courtesy: Sunday Leader]