As the Leader of the Opposition and leader of the Tamil National Alliance, R. Sampanthan holds a unique position to contribute towards reshaping Sri Lankan’s political culture and constitutional parameters within which the government should operate.
Sampanthan, a leader of coalition of minority parities, is the second such leader to be elected as the Opposition Leader after a gap of over three decades. His predecessor A. Amirthalingam, leader of TULF to which Sampanthan also belongs, became the Opposition Leader in 1977. Unlike Amirthaligam and other Tamil Leaders who either had no opportunity or followed an apathetic approach towards contributing to constitutional building Sampanthan is poised to take an active role in designing of the new constitution. The Daily News spoke to R. Sampanthan on his approach to designing of the new constitution and about the turbulent times in his own party and TNA.
Following are the excerpts of the interview:
Q: You are the second Tamil Party leader to be appointed as the Leader of Opposition. What do you think of this?
A: I don’t think one should view this from the point of view of ethnicity oriented politics. A decision as to who should be the leader is generally made by the Speaker on the basis of certain facts. It so happened that in 1977 Amirthalingam was the leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and the TULF had won the second largest number of seats in the parliament after the United National Party (UNP). So he was an automatic choice.
In the current parliament, although the UPFA as a whole is the second largest party after the United National Front or UNP, several members of the UPFA hold positions in the government and the UPFA is subject to the principle of collective responsibility.
In that position it is not possible for any member of the UPFA to officially lead the Opposition. In those circumstances the ITAK is the next party with the largest number of seats and been accorded with the due recognition by the Speaker.
Q: TNA is considered as a Peripheral political Party by some politicians and fractions of the public. The Party mandate its self concentrates on issues concerning Tamil people of the North and the East mainly. How do you now transform to a national focus with the new position you hold?
A: I don’t think it is correct to call the TNA a peripheral political party, that is insulting, and I reject it.
Northern and Eastern provinces are an integral part of this country and in many respects have more importance than many other parts of this country. I do not know how anyone can regard it as a peripheral territory.
But of course as the leader of the opposition I recognize that I have to play a role that extends beyond the concerns for only the North and the East. I have to play a national role and I and my party are both endeavouring to play that role.
Q: But the Party mandate it self concentrates on issues concerning Tamil people of the North and the East mainly. How do you span out of this view to more national issues that fall under your concern now?
A: The mandate given to the TNA may particularly relate to issues in the North and East. Particularly relating to the resolution of the national question through a new constitution. That also relates to the wellbeing of the whole country and its future. They are all inclusive.
Q: In a situation where you are focusing on more national level issues, do you think you may be neglecting the communities that you directly represent?
A: I don’t think there is a conflict between both. I think both issues are integral and integrated. And I think one can well perform one without conflict with the other. When you focus on the issues of the North and the East you are focusing on issues that relate to a part of this country and which have an impact on the whole country. When you focus on the issues of the rest of the country, you are again focusing on the issues that have an impact on the whole country. I don’t think we should seek to divide these issues. That has been the primary cause of the problems.
Q: Do you think the South has accepted you as the Leader of the Opposition, as your immediate predecessors have been?
A: JVP, JHU, and other parties have welcomed me. The UNP has raised no objection to me, the SLFP, UPFA has raised no objection to me. The Muslim Parties have welcomed me. The Indian National Parties have welcomed me. I have received welcome letters from number of people from all parts of the country. I think public is more sensible and many are prepared to accept.
Q: What does 2016 hold in terms of your focus as the Opposition Leader?
A: Well 2016 is going to be primarily spent on framing the new constitution, abolition the Executive Presidency. Electoral reforms are going to be another part of the new constitution. The resolution of the national question through the constitution would be another focus, a more acceptable Bill of Rights and fundamental freedoms is going to be another feature of the constitution.
Q: As the Leader of the TNA and also the Leader of the Opposition you hold a unique position to contribute to the new constitution representing your communities as opposed to the contributions in the three decades. How do you view this?
A: The making of the constitution is for the whole country. All the issues that constitution deals with concern the whole country. Abolition of the Executive Presidency relates to the whole country, electoral reforms relates to the whole country; resolution of the national problem relates to the whole country, it is just as much a problem as the first two. Everything else relates to the whole country. If things are done on the basis of equality, justice and righteousness then we don’t look at it thorugh a defferant prism; you look at it through the correct perspective.
Q: Doesn’t your position as the leader of the TNA give you better chance to represent the Tamil community the party represents?
A: I don’t look at it that way. I am an elected Member of Parliament and the leader of a political party, I have been recognized as the Leader of the Opposition, I have a role to play in the making of the whole constitution and I will play that role.
Q: So it is as the Leader of the Opposition and a Member of the Parliament that you will design your contribution to constitutional building?
A: I do not see a distinction between one and the other, you want human rights to be preserved, you want fundamental rights to be preserved, and you want equality rule of law to be ensured; these are issues that concern the whole country. I don’t look at it as a Tamil; I look at it as a Member of the Parliament, as the Leader of the Opposition, and also look at it as the Leader of the TNA, that’s inevitable. But there is no confusion the way I look at it as the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the TNA, it is the same.
Q: Following the co-sponsoring of the UN resolution on Sri Lanka, there has not been much progress. How do you think the country should progress in resolving the National Issue? What type of influence can you exert in this sense?
A: The government has co-sponsored the resolution; the resolution has been unanimously adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, the present government has been able to persuade the international community to revise its opinion about Sri Lanka.
That is because they are not pursuing the rather rigid closed door policy of the Rajapaksa government. At the same time Sri Lanka being a co-sponsor of the resolution, we have to honestly implement the resolution. Our objective must not be to promote further conflict, our objective must be to ensure that justice is done, without promoting further conflict.
Q: Do you see a lot of hurdles in the path to achieving these goals?
A: It all depends on what happens. The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights is expected to come to Sri Lanka within the course of the next few weeks. What happens eventually will have to be positive. It may not be positive for all individuals, but it will be positive for this country.
Q: Earlier the TNA was supportive towards LTTE politics. What was the reason for this?
A: One has to be careful about the choice of words, when talking of these things. I was never supportive of LTTE politics. But the LTTE was an important player in the national question.
Successive governments held talks with the LTTE whether it was the UNP or the SLFP. The international community talked to the LTTE. They all did so because the LTTE was a relevant factor in the evolution of a political solution. The TNA also talked to the LTTE for the same reasons. There was no difference between the TNA talking to the LTTE and the government talking to the LTTE, they all talked of a political solution.
I was never a part of the military apparatus of the LTTE, I still don’t know how to load a gun. I have talked to Prabhakaran, I spoke of a political solution, I did not ask about which camp he was going to attack next!
Q: The Chief Minister of the Northern Province, TNA member C. V. Wigneswaran has been very outspoken and has taken a very hard-line view regarding the post war issues. This has been a deviation of the current political approach of the TNA. How do you view the current conduct of Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran?
A: Wigneswaran was elected the Chief Minister of the Northern Province as the nominee of the TNA and as the Chief Ministerial candidate of the ITAK. The policy of the TNA is enunciated in the TNA manifesto. It has been the same policy enunciated to the people at all elections; at national or provincial or local authority elections. It was on the basis of these policies that Wigneswaran became the Chief Minister. He is bound by these policies.
Since January this year, there had been a radical change in this country. When there is the opportunity of the national issue being addressed positively, which did not exist at all during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, this opportunity must be utilized and must not be missed.
Unduly rigid and strident postures are not helpful. Any resolution has to be adopted by two thirds majority in Parliament; it must be approved by the people at a referendum, which means in a constitutional resolution of the national question we should be able to carry along the majority of the people with us.
Resolution must be reasonable, acceptable, workable and durable. If this can be achieved without adopting rigid and strident postures, which efforts should be made. Political parties had adopted strident and rigid postures, during elections particularly the last parliamentary elections held in 2015 had been rejected by the people, which really means that their policies have been rejected by the people.
We are prepared to listen to any one’s views on a political solution. But unfortunately Wigneswaran seems to be entangled with political parties and policies which had been rejected by the people. This is not acceptable. Developments are being kept under observation. But we are strongly of the view that the people are sensible, and are solidly behind the Tamil National Alliance.
Q: In a meeting in Batticaloa, you stated that you are willing to step down from the leadership of TNA. Does that still stand?
A: What I said was, I am leader of the TNA, the main political parties in the TNA have chosen me as their leader and the people have accepted this. I am not in competition with any one for this post and if it is the wish of the TNA and the wish of the people that they want to change, I am certainly prepared to move out in a moment.
Q: Don’t you fear that if you do move out there would be a departure from the “relatively liberal” approach the TNA follows at present?
A: It is up to the people to make the decision. It is up to me to guide the people to make the decision. I’ll guide my people to make the correct decision, but the people must make that decision.
Q: Recently you held discussions with Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran. How were the discussions?
A: Talks were cordial, I told him that his conduct during the last Parliamentary election was not acceptable to either the TNA or the ITAK, that he did not support the TNA, on the contrary, the statements made by him were interpreted as supportive of the forces that he is now aligned with, and that was unacceptable. We discussed several other issues and we agreed to meet again.
Q: How do you view the recent formation of “Tamil Peoples’ Alliance” by C. V. Wigneswaran as opposed to TNA’s role as the main representative of Tamil community?
A: We respect and recognize the right of Tamil civil society and Tamil public to express their views regarding matters of great concern for them like a political solution. But unfortunately particularly political alliance comprises of people who are generally opposed to the TNA, who have propounded very strident policies before the people and who have been rejected by the people and also some people for various reasons have developed some ill will towards the TNA; persons who have not been given seats in the national list, it comprises largely of such people.
Q: In this regard, is there any disciplinary action to be taken on the conduct of the Chief Minister?
A: There was a proposal at a meeting of the ITAK that the conduct of the Chief Minister during the parliamentary elections needs to be scrutinized and appropriate action taken. But there has been nothing further. We are watching the developments.