by Chamitha Karuppu, ‘Financial Times Sri Lanka,’ Colombo, May 3, 2013
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran asserts it is unnecessary to deploy 150,000 soldiers in the Northern Province. According to Premachandran, of the 200,000 Army personnel in Sri Lanka, 150,000 are stationed in the north. “Let the Government have any amount of Army personnel they want, but please withdraw them from north and take them to Hambantota.”
He stresses that the military in north is functioning as a political unit for the Government. “They want to suppress the Tamil people. They want to keep them under threat.” Premachandran further points out that “killing more than 150,000 innocent civilians is not a triumph” and is not the way to eliminate terrorism.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
Q: Why do you continue to claim that the military is forcibly acquiring land in the north?
A: Hundreds and thousands of people in Northern Province were displaced 25 years ago. They are still in various refugee camps and some are in relatives’ houses. So far, they have not gone back to their land, because those lands are occupied by the Army. In Jaffna District in a place called Valikamam North, more than 10,000 acres of land which belong to people are now controlled by the Army. They are not allowing the people to go back to their land. Now the Government is trying to acquire the land for the purpose of putting up new military camps.
These are fertile lands. People who own these lands want their land back. This is only one example. Likewise, there are several hundreds and thousands of people in Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and Mannar whose land has been forcibly occupied by the military. We feel that the military is going to permanently keep these lands for themselves.
Q: You have been raising a voice against this issue for a long time. What response have you received from the Government?
A: The Government has never come out with any response. They want the land for military purposes. The President’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is the Secretary of Defence, strongly feels that they want these lands; he thinks they can acquire any amount of land, disregarding the concerns of the people. And they are doing it. As far as the Government is concerned, they do not bother about the innocent civilians who are supposed to go back to their houses. Actually from the Government side they are totally working against these innocent civilians and they never come out with any response to this.
Q: The Government maintains they have released more than 12,000 acres of land. So why are you still accusing them?
A: Whether it is 12,000 or 25,000 or 50,000 acres, these lands belongs to the innocent people. The Army has taken a huge amount of land belonging to these people. Little by little they are releasing some of the land. Still they are keeping 10,000 acres of land. Remember, these lands belong to the people. These do not belong to the Government. The Government does not have any authority to forcibly acquire these lands. The Government cannot keep these lands for themselves.
Q: But the Government says it is important for the military to retain these lands?
A: In Sri Lanka there are 200,000 Army personnel and 150,000 are stationed in the Northern Province. That is unnecessary. And for that purpose they are taking all the land. What will happen to the people who own these lands? They are displaced. Let the Government have any amount of Army personnel they want, but please withdraw them from north and take them to Hambantota, Galle or Kolonnawa. There is no need to deploy 150,000 soldiers in the Northern Province. After four years since the end of the war, not even a single violent incident has taken place in the Northern Province. So why does the Government need this many armed personnel in the north?
Q: Why do you think the Government has deployed a large number of soldiers in the Northern Province?
A: They want to suppress the Tamil people. They want to keep them under threat. They want to keep them under Army control. They don’t want to give a democratic state to the people. People here actually can’t open their mouths. They can’t engage in any political activities. They are always under military intelligence. Can you have this kind of a situation in the south? Are they willing to accept it? If they are willing to accept this in the Southern Province, just tell me. Just like you want to have a democratic state in the south, we want to have a democratic state in the north.
We will continue to agitate. People will agitate against the Government and the Army. This peaceful situation will not continue if the Government maintains this kind of behaviour. It all depends upon the Government. If they are not going to release the land, people are prepared to sacrifice their lives. There are over 300,000 people in the north east and they have clearly said that they are prepared to sacrifice their lives to go back to their lands. They will not hesitate to go on a hunger strike or do whatever they can.
Q: Are you prepared for the upcoming elections?
A: So far the Government has not made an announcement. We are waiting for that.
Q: Will you be contesting alone or joining with another political party?
A: We have not decided yet whether to contest alone or whether we should ally with another party.
Q: Do you believe the election to be free and fair?
A: I don’t think so. It is very, very unlikely that the election will be free and fair. The area is virtually under Army control. The Army is now engaged in political activities. Now they are identifying candidates for the Government.
They are disrupting other political party meetings. They are carrying out propaganda for the Government. Actually they are functioning as a political unit for the Government. More than the Army work, they are engaged in political activities. Under these circumstances, how can you expect a free and fair election?
The Government was compelled to announce this election due to pressure from outside and also because the Commonwealth Conference will be held in November. They want to have the election before that and tell the world that “we are very much democratic and we have held elections in the Northern Province too”. This election is only for propaganda purposes.
Q: Are you saying the situation in the north is favourable for the Government?
A: No, the situation is not favourable for the Government; the Army is favourable for the Government. The Army is doing everything that will be favourable for the Government. This Government is using the Army, Navy and Air Force to remain in power.
Q: Do you accept the fact that the Government has carried out many development projects in the Northern Province?
A: The Government is putting culverts here and there; they are giving electricity in some places. Some international organisations are putting up schools in a few places.
The Government is trying to take credit for those projects too so that they could show the world that everything is done by them. I am not denying that this type of work is taking place. But the fact is that development is somewhat different. Settlement is a different matter. Our fight is about settlements.
Q: Why do you always find fault with this government? Don’t you think this regime eliminating terrorism was a major triumph for the country, including the Tamils?
A: I don’t think the price of killing more than 150,000 innocent civilians is any triumph. Killing so many innocent people; is that acceptable? I don’t think that is the way to eliminate terrorism.
Q: Are you saying the Government should have used other methods to eliminate terrorism?
A: But they didn’t do it like that. We do not accept how it was done.
Q: How will the new electricity tariff hike affect the people in the Northern Province?
A: It is a big issue for the people here. Definitely people are not in a position to pay such large amounts of money just for electricity. They always paid much more than Southern Province because they have the diesel generators here.
Q: What has happened to the rift in the TNA?
A: We are a democratic alliance. Normally such democratic alliances face problems and contradictions; we are also having similar situations. But we will solve it ourselves.