Camelia Nathaniel in the Sunday Leader, 22 September 2013 where the title reads “We Have No Role In Politics – Maj. Gen. Mahinda Hathurusinghe”
Q. What is your view of the mindset of the Tamil people in the North and their political preferences?
A. The Tamil people are voting for the symbol. They are not particularly concerned about who the person is. The change of mindset of the Tamils between the post independence period and the period just prior to independence took place in different backgrounds. The caste issue in Jaffna is a very big issue, and percentage wise, the lower caste Tamils comprise around 52% to 55% of the population. So, although the TNA and the TULF were gaining power at the time and going to parliament, the disparity in shared resources and the distance between the two segments of the population escalated to a sizable proportion. Prabhakaran’s ideology caught on to a vast majority as he too was not of the upper caste Tamils. They used this as their platform to convert people to their terrorist mindset and that still prevails in some as they identified with him. These are all politics. The distance between the South and North was further strained and widened. It is very difficult to undo this overnight and it takes time for their suspicions and concerns to change given the brainwashing they have been through to think that Southerners are not willing to share power with the Tamils, and their dream of a separate state. Although we have defeated terrorism, the ideology is very much engraved in their minds; it is not impossible to erase that, but it takes time.
Q. Having said that, do you think that based on the fears and concerns of the Tamil people, the TNA would win a considerable number of votes? Also how do you see the Sri Lanka Army working with the TNA if they win the election?
A. Winning will not be easy for the TNA as those with sensible minds will no doubt understand that they are in a far better situation than they were four years ago – except that the lives of those lost will not return. I believe that the majority of the people have understood that both sides have lost many lives to the war, and the only way to overcome further turmoil is for both communities to work together. People’s perceptions are difficult to understand, this is a major issue, and having said that, I believe that the TNA would certainly not have a landslide victory. It could be a close race. In the event that the TNA wins the election, however, we as the army have no problem working with them.
We are under the central government, and will not play second fiddle to them. It is debatable if, in such an event, the army will be able to work with the people on this level. According to the demands of the TNA manifesto, the army should be at pre-1983 levels. That is something that is not going to happen. We will maintain our positions and our camps. Yet, our positive involvement and contribution to the public will continue. If that is a problem for the provincial council, we will not be able to get involved in any of the civilian activities that we are currently engaged in. Then the army can concentrate on their training and usual military exercises etc.
Q. How do the people view the Army and its presence in the North?
A. The ordinary Tamil people are definitely with us. When we were removing certain camps, they were pleading with us not to do so for concern for their security. We had to move from those areas as they were civilian premises. We were not occupying these premises forcibly; we were paying the owners a rental. The places that we were occupying were not those that we had forcibly taken from the people; these were initially occupied by the LTTE. These were used as their offices, training centres, safe houses etc.
Q. How many of these camps or private premises that the Army was utilising have been handed back?
A. We have, in fact, handed back more than 700 houses that were occupied by the various brigades and divisions – paying rent of course. We were occupying hotels, such as Subash and Gnanam, which was also handed back. Around 21,000 acres of land that was demined was handed back to the civilians. Some high security zones in Ariyalai, Colomputhurai, Point Pedro etc. have been handed over. The only place remaining is Palaly and the 52 division in Varany. Construction has commenced at the new location on a land that was bought, and in a couple of months the 52 division too will be shifted. When this happens the army will not be occupying any civilian property or premises.
Q. What is the Army’s presence in the North?
A. There are around 13,152 troops stationed in the North. When I took over as the Jaffna Commander in December 2009 there were 26,400 and now there is less than half. In the midst of the conflict in 2007, 2008 however we had around 43,000.
Q. The TNA claims that there are over 150,000 troops present in Jaffna, is this true?
A. Well their calculations are wrong and grossly exaggerated. How can there be 150,000 troops when the strength of the entire army is only around 180,000? So these figures are simply uttered without any verification or proper analysis to either gain advantage or mislead the international community. There is no logic in their allegations. If 150,000 troops are deployed in Jaffna, does that mean that there are only 30,000 troops deployed in the rest of the country? These are absurd allegations that have absolutely no credibility. They are simply firing allegations, not thinking that there are sensible and logical people in this country who would question these figures.
Q. There are concerns the Army is getting involved in the political work of government supporters and members in the North. Is that true?
A. We have no role in politics. Whoever comes into power, we will work with them. These allegations are made by certain parties who are worried of the fact that the army is very close to the public and that they will be at a disadvantage. Therefore, they are trying to run a wedge between the army and the people. The people invite us for various private functions such as their weddings and other celebrations. What is wrong in that? Still, these politicians accuse us of interfering in the private lives of the people.
Q. How does a group of soldiers who have a war mentality, after fighting the LTTE for so long, adjust to the peace times?
A. We were not fighting with our people but with the terrorists. We had great similarities between the Hindus and the Buddhists, and that has been a close link between us. The greatest example of our army’s compassion and resilience is visible in the fact that today we are building houses for the same terrorists that fought against us, and we are taking care of their children. Can you find anything like this in any part of the world? It is these politicians who are trying to portray us as a brutal and insensitive bunch of soldiers, but that is not the truth.
We fought for the freedom of the people of this country, and we are still working for them and not for our own benefits. We in the army have great values that we uphold. The important point is to not dwell in the past, and for both communities to reconcile and live peacefully. That is the only way to prevent such situations ever arising again.