M.A. Sumanthiran is a prominent Tamil rights lawyer, and a member of the Tamil National Alliance. Elected into Parliament this year via the National List, Sumanthiran has often spoken on the rights and urgent needs of Tamils in the North and East. The Sunday Leader met with Sumanthiran in Parliament to discuss Budget 2011 and other issues with him.
Q: During the second reading of the budget, the TNA abstained from voting. Do you think that was a good decision?
A: We made a statement saying we cannot support this budget. During the second reading, all our members who spoke criticised Budget 2011 and gave reasons for it. For far too long, people (particularly those in conflict areas) have remained in the same state. Despite our continually urging the government to involve us in the resettlement process, that hasn’t happened to date. It isn’t that the government refused to do that, they did ask and obtain Member’s names to be a part of the mechanism. We decided we needed to do something more than words, to express our honest willingness to participate in these processes. Abstaining from voting against the budget at the second reading was that gesture of goodwill and good faith. Now, it’s left to be seen whether the government will start these processes as promised.
Q: What are your personal thoughts on the budget? You spoke of the allocations for resettlement and so on not being sufficient?
A: No allocation has been given for housing at all. That has been admitted by the government. That is one of our fundamental objections against the budget, but if the government says they’re committed to rehabilitate the North and East, the budget should reflect that. This budget doesn’t.
Q: The Defence Secretary was quoted by the media as saying the TNA and JVP were responsible for the continued extension of Emergency Regulations. What is your response to this?
A: It is our bounden duty to raise that issue. The Secretary of Defence cannot expect us to remain silent and fail in discharging our duties, merely for his own convenience.
It is nonsensical to say that the Emergency Regulations need to be extended because we are doing our duty as representatives of the people.
Q: Do you think we are any closer to arriving at an agreement on a political solution? If no, what do you think is impeding progress?
A: We are keen to engage with the government on the question of finding a political solution. We have repeatedly expressed our willingness to be involved in that exercise, but that process hasn’t started yet. We are not any closer to a solution to the national question than we have been at several points in time for the last couple of decades. The government does not seem to think that such a solution is necessary. There has to be a great attitude change in the government. If it continues with an attitude of triumphalism we cannot see a solution very soon. Once the reality of Sri Lanka being a pluralistic society dawns on the government, then we’ll be close to a solution, accommodating all the communities in a power-sharing arrangement.
Q: The TNA has been vocal about Sinhalese people settling in the North, and of people being barred access to their land. Do you think this is a problem?
A: The issue of planned government colonisation with a view to changing the demographic of the North and East has been there since Independence. Successive governments have been very successful in this enterprise. That will be plain from the census statistics. We are not opposed to the natural migration of people from one part of the country to another. What we say is, this should not be contrived with a view to making the Tamil community a numerical minority, even in the historical areas in which they have been a numerical majority.
Q: Do you ever feel discouraged, being a member of the opposition facing an overwhelming majority in the UPFA?
A: It’s not a question of being discouraged, but one of being dismayed, and the thinking of MPs belonging in minority communities, that in order to serve their people, they have to necessarily join the government. We don’t agree with that approach, but we realise that we are alone in this belief. Our people have consistently voted for the ITAK for 60 years, despite the ITAK not collaborating or joining the government, or precisely for that reason. The only time the ITAK participated in the government was in 1965. That too by forbidding a member of the Senate, Mr. Thiruchelvam, to hold a cabinet portfolio. Even that was short-lived, and Mr. Thiruchelvam resigned in 1968. That is our proud tradition, not just of ITAK, but of the Tamil people we represent, who even after all the devastation they have had to suffer, still vote for us knowing very well that we will not join the government, taking benefits at the cost of our policies.