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Archive for December 2014

minister of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province

PIC: SONIA SARKAR
The war in Sri Lanka may be over, but the battles continue. The 30-year-long civil war in the Northern Province ended five years ago. Yet, for the people of this troubled area, there is no end to the conflict.

“The official war has ended but the unofficial war has just started,” says C.V. Wigneswaran, the province’s first Tamil chief minister.

Four years after the rebel group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was wiped out by the Sri Lankan army, elections were held in the war-torn Northern Province of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya. Wigneswaran was appointed the CM in the 2013 polls, which was held after 25 years.

The chief minister, who was in Delhi last week to attend the World Hindu Congress, organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, may be looking at informal alliances in India. “There is need of Hindu solidarity as far as the Northern Province is concerned. So I came,” he says in his first interview to an English paper in India after his election.

Many Sri Lanka watchers in India, however, stress that Wigneswaran’s attitude towards India has been ambivalent. For instance, he refused to be part of the Sri Lankan delegation, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which attended the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May.

“It was nothing against India,” he clarifies. “By asking me to be part of the delegation, Rajapaksa wanted to show the world that we were all together. That was nonsense.”

How does he compare the two leaders of the neighbouring nations? “Modi is like Rama and Rajapaksa is like Ravana,” he laughs. Does he see Modi as a strong leader? “He could be strong but those who are strong need to be humane too. Your humanity shouldn’t be deadly,” he replies.

The chief minister is more direct when asked to comment about the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which have been espousing the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils. Wigneswaran believes that it’s time they stopped worrying about the Lankan Tamil community.

“There is no need for the political parties in the South to become our spokespersons. Now we are here to voice the issue of Tamils.”

A staunch critic of Rajapaksa, Wigneswaran says that his presidency is no less than a dictatorship. He accuses the government and the army of human rights violations.

The huge presence of the army in the Northern Province is a reason the region is still troubled. “The soldier to civilian ratio in the north is 1:8,” Wigneswaran says. “Acres of lands have been taken by the army to set up camps. There are areas where even I, as chief minister, cannot enter without the permission of the army,” he complains.

He blames the “flawed” 13th Amendment for much of the province’s problem. The amendment was a product of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, signed by then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene.

Under this, the “only official with executive powers” is the governor, who is appointed by the President. “Without the governor’s approval, the council and the chief minister are ineffective,” he points out.

He says that there is starvation in some areas of the province, but the government has neither given it funds nor allowed the UN World Food Programme to reach out to the people. He also accuses the government of discriminating against Tamil fishermen who, unlike Sinhalese anglers, are not allowed to use trawlers.

What about the issue of Indian fishermen who are often jailed in Sri Lanka? On Wednesday, Modi thanked Rajapaksa in Kathmandu for releasing five Indian fishermen sentenced to death for drug trafficking.

Wigneswaran is not impressed. “Rajapaksa wants to show the world that he is majestic enough to oblige Modi by releasing the five fishermen,” he says. But the irony, he says, is that three Sri Lankan fishermen, who were also sentenced to death in the same case, have not been pardoned.

Wigneswaran, who calls himself a “reluctant” politician, was a judge in Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court and a fierce critic of Rajapaksa even before he joined politics.

Getting into politics was accidental, he explains. He was persuaded to fight the election five months before the polls by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a conglomeration of five groups – Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi, the Tamil United Liberation Front, the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation. The TNA won 30 seats in the 38-member provincial council.

He believes that India should now follow in the footsteps of the European Union and lift the ban on the LTTE. The 75-year-old politician, sitting in his room in a five-star hotel in Delhi’s diplomatic enclave, Chanakyapuri, shrugs off apprehensions voiced by Sri Lankan government officials that giving away too much power to the Tamil-dominated TNA could lead to the resurgence of the LTTE.

“This is nonsense. There has been no activity of violence for five years,” he says.

Wigneswaran believes that Rajapaksa’s popularity is diminishing in Sri Lanka and he predicts that he will face a drubbing in snap polls scheduled for January 8, 2015. Rajapaksa’s fading popularity is evident from the fact that his party won the recent polls in the southeastern province of Uva, but with 21 per cent fewer votes than in 2009. Many members of his government and party, the United People’s Freedom Alliance, have joined the Opposition, unhappy about the concentration of power round Rajapaksa and his family members who hold key positions in the government.

“The Rajapaksa family has taken control of the economy, power and the party in the country. They should go,” he says.