An Interview with Rathindra Kuruwita
First of all what happened with the North -East Provincial Council (PC) and what led to the infamous Unilateral Declaration of Independence?
Let me tell you first what led to the creation of the PCs. PCs were established by the 13th amendment, which was a result of the Indo-Lanka peace accord, as a solution to the ethnic conflict. But PC elections were only held in the South and we insisted that we want elections because there were no elected representatives for the Tamil people. Using this the LTTE stated that they are the only representative of the Tamils.
I told the government that they will not be able to say that if the people elected another group into power and finally JR agreed to hold elections in November1988 and my government was established in 1988 December. Within a few months JR’s term was over and Premadasa came to power.
Although Premadasa said he will strengthen the 13th amendment he began to undermine the PC system as soon as he became president. I tried my best to talk to the government and opposition leaders and the Indian government officials to push devolution forward. But no one was interested in devolution and Premadasa was undermining the process by cooperating with the LTTE. The LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army were helping each other and our comrades were getting assassinated and our movements were curtailed. We sensed that our days were coming to an end and we decided to leave with a fight.
Before 1987 we were involved in the arms struggle but we surrendered our arms and entered the non violent stream with the Indo-Lanka agreement. But the promises given to us by the Sri Lankan and Indian governments were not kept. Therefore at last my party and the majority in the PC thought we have to make our final demands.
We made a 19 point demand and it was passed with a majority in the PC. We also sent that to the government of India and Sri Lanka. But no one supported our 19 demands although these demands were not even federalist, everything was within unitary system. To add weight to the 19 points we added a counter demand: if the government did not grant these within one year we will go for separation.
Although we are familiar with the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) we are not that much familiar with the 19 points. Nevertheless in hind sight the counter demand was a serious mistake ...?
Well what happened was that there was a serious propaganda campaign against what we did. President Premadasa and Prabhakaran, the two Ps, very shrewdly and cleverly got together and spread the word that Perumal declared Ealam unilaterally. That was not true; my declaration was the 19 point demand. Even now the entire Sinhala nation associate me with the UDI but no one talks abut my 19 points.
I think history has already answered your question. Premadasa and the LTTE managed to throw us out of the country but before we left we warned the Sri Lankan government that they have ushered in an era of bloodshed and misery. By attacking democratically elected representatives and siding with terrorists the government gave a very bad example. Nevertheless Premadasa’s honeymoon with the LTTE didn’t last long. I only feel bad because if Premadasa cooperated at least a bit with us this country could have saved a large number of the 200,000 lives we lost after 1990.This was due to the lack of vision of the Sinhala leaders.
Can you elaborate more on the 19 proposals?
We stated that the essence of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord should be reflected in the constitution. The 13th amendment is not a good law; it prevents proper devolution and leads to more centralization. Another point was to accommodate Tamils and Muslims in the armed forces to reflect the demographics of the country. Then not even 1% of security forces were Tamil, that’s the situation today too.
We also wanted re-demarcation of the North-East, there were Sinhala settlements in many districts of the province and they were worried about their safety. We agreed that they had legitimate concerns and realized that demarcation was necessary to quell fear. We thought that the border areas of the North-East which has a large number of Sinhala settlements should be annexed to the adjoining Sinhala provinces. Settlements in Trincomalee could be adjoined to Polonnaruwa while places in Ampara could be added to Moneragala or Hambanthota. So the large part of the Sinhala population would be included in Sinhala Provinces.
You left the country in 1990. What have you been doing in the last 20 years and what made you come back?
I left in 1990 because it was not safe to live here and even after the death of Premadasa I couldn’t come back under the UNP regime. Then CBK came into power and I spoke to her but there was no positive response. Only in 1998 could she gave the OK. I mean there are no legal reasons stopping me from coming but since the LTTE was around I needed security, security that only the government could provide. I came back in January 1999 and I thought CBK would deliver devolution. We were supportive of her reforms but the UNP, JVP and TULF (TNA) opposed it.
In 2002 Ranil Wickremesinghe came to an agreement with Prabhakaran and this country was given to the grasp of terrorists. My security was removed and all around my house were pro LTTE MPs and the LTTE members visited the Summit Flats without any interference. Even India warned me about my security and once again I had to leave the country in 2003. When the war ended the issue of security didn’t matter that much. Now I feel that I can work here but I am not going to join the government or the opposition, I will carve out my own path again.
What do you think are the main issues faced by the Tamils in the North and East?
The major issue is resettlement. The people are not resettled properly; some tin roofing sheets and some rations are not enough since these people have nothing. The government and the international community should be generous and help them rebuild their livelihood.
I also see a serious lack of cooperation between the government and civil society organizations. The government is trying to do everything using its own machinery but they need the cooperation of the NGOs because they have a better link with the people. The government has to use that; it should not depend on its own administrative mechanism which was corrupted by the LTTE in the last 20 years. Many administrators hung Prabhakaran’s photo in their offices and worked with the LTTE, they have just turned the photo of Prabhakaran around but they are the same people.
Do you plan to contest in the upcoming Northern Provincial Council and/or local council elections?
The most important thing is to rebuild the Pathmanaba Ealam Peoples’ Revolutionary Liberation Front (PEPRLF.) The party will contest in the upcoming election but I’m not sure whether I will contest, it will depend. My main concerns now are my party and buildin unity and consensus among all Tamil parties on basic issues facing Tamils and on devolution. We are still very mush socialists but that’s not the immediate agenda, this country first needs to resolve the ethnic conflict which is still not resolved. When it is resolved the understanding between Sinhalese and Tamils will grow. That will create a ground for a united party.
Are you happy with the present state of affairs in Sri Lanka?
President Rajapaksa has put devolution at the bottom of his agenda. He thinks that he has already achieved democracy in the country and he thinks that development will provide solutions for everything else. But that thinking is not right. Development should go hand in hand with democracy and devolution, without devolution democratic aspirations of the people can not be fulfilled. Without devolution development will not be achieved because political unity depends on devolution. So Mahinda Rajapaksa has to give equal importance to devolution as well as development.
You say that the country needs more devolution but the 18th amendment to the constitution has led to more centralization of power?
Yes, all the power is centred around one man. This is worse than centralizing all the power to a Cabinet of Ministers. Entrusting so much power to one person for a limited time was bad enough but now we have given that power to one man indefinitely. Such a man will not be too happy about sharing power, so the 18th Amendment can be a stumbling block for decentralization and devolution.
What are the positives you see? You should be happy that the war is over and you are able to enter politics again?
We still have a democracy, and hopefully it won’t quickly spiral into a military state. Also no Tamil wants separation. The wish for separation is over but it should be transformed into a positive political system. But for that the political system should be developed, just because we have elections on time does not mean that our political culture is democratic. If we don’t address this issue we will have more issues in the coming years.
Do you still keep in touch with Dayan Jayatillake, one time Minister of the North East PC under you?
He was a half day minister. He took his oath in the noon left the North-East in the evening and never came back. But he still uses that position for credibility. He left NE saying he wants to continue the ideological work of Vijaya Kumaratunge but when he got to Colombo he joined president Premadasa.
I don’t have anything personal against him but I am not too happy with the way he criticized what we did in the North East. Those days he praised everything we did and after 10 years he says we did everything wrong. I don’t know why he is doing this and why he didn’t object back then. He is a prolific writer and an active participant in any seminar but his clarity of vision is very poor. - courtesy: Lakbima News -