No Solution to Ethnic Problem without North-East Merger- Dr.K.Vigneswaran of the AITUF



Interview by Wilson Gnanadass
published in The Nation of 29 April 2007

[Dr. K. Vigneswaran was Secretary to the Chief Minister of the North-East Province, who, later, joined the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) and served the party for 10 years. However, a thirst to serve the Tamils, without being a slave to either the LTTE or the State, prompted Dr. Vigneswaran, a former Member of Parliament to form his own party. As a member of the Expert Panel that prepared the Majority Report for the APRC, Dr. Vigneswaran, in an interview with The Nation, shared his views. The interview was conducted one week before the official proposals of the SLFP were made public, but while the country was subject to many a leak about the proposals.]

Following are excerpts from the interview:

Q: What is the current status of the Majority Report prepared by the Experts Committee?

The report is before the APRC. We have done our part. Now, it is up to the Government to respond. Eleven members of the 17-member expert committee produced the Majority Report. Four members produced a critique of the Majority Report. The other two members had their own riders. The panel report was submitted to the APRC in December 2006. Members of the Cabinet stated that the Majority Report was not the Government’s position and that the Government’s position would be conveyed later. Subsequently, the Chairman, APRC, produced a document for discussion purposes, incorporating 90% of the views of the Majority Report. He also had his own points included. However, I must say that there is a distinction between the Majority Report and the APRC Report. The recommendation to form a Zonal Council for Tamils of Indian origin, was not accepted by the APRC Chairman, Minister Prof. Tissa Vitharana. Our proposal for an asymmetrical devolution to the North-East was also not accepted. The additional point taken into consideration was for an executive prime minister, instead of the executive presidency.

Q: The SLFP’s draft proposals to the APRC suggests a second chamber and maximum power sharing. How does this compare with your report?

In this instance, I would have to speak as the leader of a Tamil political party. Firstly, I am surprised that the SLFP has taken this long, to come out with a proposal. The SLFP had a proposal in 2000, which was unanimously accepted. It would have been very easy to have worked on that, without coming out with a fresh one. So, from what I read in the newspapers, the SLFP proposal is much less than the 2000 proposals. As for the second chamber, that was the recommendation of the experts panel, anyway. The reports do not mention sovereignty in a new structure. Whether sovereignty would be shared between the centre and the provinces, is not clear. Hence, it appears to be another unitary structure, without saying so. As for the Tamil people, this is unacceptable. Even the 2000 proposal was considered to be inadequate. Some of the members who produced the SLFP proposals, were also in the committee that drafted the proposals in 2000.

Q: The SLFP also suggests an executive prime minister. Do you think this is acceptable to the minorities?

A: I think it will be as bad as the executive presidency. Whenever we talk of an executive prime minister or president, they are elected directly. The advantage and disadvantage of having an executive presidency, is now very well understood by the minorities, and substituting this is not going to solve the problems of the minorities. It would be much better, if we have a Westminster style or Indian style, where there is a ceremonial president.

Q: How do you view the legitimacy of the APRC, in the backdrop of the TNA’s absence?

A: It appears that the TNA was not invited for the APRC, on the premise that it may take an extremist position. The TNA too, did not show any keenness to be in the APRC. In that sense, the North-East Tamils are represented only by the EPDP, which is aligned to the State. At a juncture like this, a question would arise only when a solution comes from the APRC. Then, it would be possible for the whole country to see whether the APRC has deviated from the Majority Report or not. The Majority Report is a product of moderate Sinhalese, moderate Tamils and moderate Muslims. A solution to the ethnic problem has to satisfy the majority of the Sinhalese, the majority of the Tamils and the majority of the Muslims, and not the majority of all put together. In essence, the solution has to have the backing of both the UNP and the SLFP. It is important to get the TNA to state its views, either by joining the APRC, or in writing. Otherwise there would certainly be a question of legitimacy.

Q: You were in the EPDP for 10 years. Now, you are out of it and the founder-leader of a new party. What were the reasons?

A: From about the tsunami period, I found that the EPDP was losing its sense of direction, with steps initiated by me to correct them, not producing results. On the question of the ethnic problem, though the party had a written policy, it did not follow it. So, there was no purpose in my continued presence within the party. Then, I looked around. The other Tamil parties that were active, were either captives of the LTTE or of the State. I felt that such parties could not provide leadership to the Tamils. It is for that reason that I formed this party, with a clear cut policy of a federal solution to the ethnic problem with a merged North-East as a single unit, having adequate safeguards for the Muslims and Sinhalese living in it. The party also gives a lot of emphasis to human rights and political pluralism.

Q: The Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) signed in 2000, has come under criticism. What are your party’s views?

A: As a result of the CFA, a large number of displaced people were able to return home, though, some Muslims could not. Several schools and hospitals in the North and East, closed for many years, were re-opened. Gradually, village tanks and roads were rehabilitated. There was a general feeling of security, though, the LTTE targeted political opponents. The country benefited out of this. However, the shortcoming of the CFA was that the importance of political discussion not being emphasised. There should have been a provision for political discussion with all stakeholders, like in South Africa. That aspect was not deeply thought of, before signing the CFA. That is why the APRC was set up. However, sadly, even the APRC does not include all the stakeholders.

Q: Karuna says that the CFA was used by the LTTE to procure arms?

A: According to the CFA, the seas around Sri Lanka is under Government control. If anybody says that the LTTE was procuring arms during the CFA, I think this reflects badly on the Government, as it could have prevented it through the Navy.

Q: The general perception in the South is that, while 54% of the Tamils and 60% of the Tamil speaking people live outside the North and East, there is no necessity for a separate State or, even for that matter, a merged province. How do you view this?

A: How did the situation come about? Right from the time of independence, there had been very few job opportunities for people of the North and East. There had been only three industries set up in the North and East and that too, during the time when a Tamil was the minister of industries and fisheries. The cement factory in Kankesanturai, the chemical factory in Paranthan and the paper factory in Valachchenai were set up when the late G.G. Ponnambalam was the minister. For nearly 60 years, these were the only factories set up. Successive governments failed to provide job opportunities to the people of the North and East. This situation forced the people to come out. Secondly, due to the war, schools and hospitals became substandard, again forcing people to move out to provide better schooling and medical facilities for their children. These also compelled many to quit the country. According to the latest estimate, 600,000 to 700,000 Tamils have left the country. If the war continues, another 500,000 will leave the country. These figures should not deny the fact that there is an ethnic problem.

Q: Why then claim for a merged North and East?

A: As to why the North and East should be merged and considered a historical habitation of the Tamils, one must understand the feeling of insecurity among the Tamils. It is true that only 30% of the Muslims live in the N&E but, they live in a concentrated area. If you go back to the question of historical habitation, it is not new to the country. If one takes the UK as an example, Scotland is the historical habitation of the Scots but, they belong to the UK. Scotland occupies 32% of the land in the UK, with only 8.7 % of the population. I think, our people must look at the rest of the world. Let us look at the population in the East. In 1881, in the Eastern Province, the percentage of Sinhalese was 4.7%. In 1946, they were 9.9%. Thereafter, it increased due to State aided colonization, and now, it could be about 30%.

Q: Historically, was not Batticaloa under the Kandyan kingdom?

A: In fact, Batticaloa was ruled by the Tamil Vanniyars who were under Kandyan suzerainty. The population was Tamil. We also know that the Kandyan kings were of Nayakkar descent. What is important is the population, not who rules.

Q: Another grouse the South has against the North and East merger, is that the land area includes two thirds of the coastline?

A: Historically, the Tamils were a seafaring people. This is evidenced by the fact that it was the Tamil kingdoms of South India that spread Indian culture to the Far-East, using their Navies. In India, the Tamils are only 6% of the population but, the Tamil Nadu coastline is 15%. So it is still far in excess.

Q: What course of action does your new party intend taking against the Government on the issue of de-merger?

A: As for our party, we believe that without a permanent merger, there is no solution to the ethnic problem. This, we have been explaining to the international community and are requesting them to mount pressure on the present government.