NEW DELHI: India has so far, kept powerful Diaspora groups at an arms length, preferring to deal with the main Tamil political party Tamil National Alliance for engagement with the community.
In an interview with The New Indian Express, spokesperson of the London-based Global Tamil Forum, Suren Surendiran said that India should urgently open a formal dialogue with Lankan Tamil diaspora groups to strengthen moderate voices at this critical juncture in the reconciliation process.
Full transcript of interview with Suren Surendiran, Spokesperson and Director of Strategic Initiatives, Global Tamil Forum, London
Q: What are your views about India’s Sri Lanka policy in recent years? Do you see any difference between the approaches by UPA and Modi government?
A: Indian foreign policy has course corrected from being subdued and reactionary to being proactively taking the regional leadership role. The Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has made two separate visits to Sri Lanka within the past 12 months and Prime Minister Modi has visited once, which was the first bilateral visit to the country by an Indian premier in over 25 years. These facts show that the diplomatic engagement with Sri Lanka is now at a different scale than before.
India, quite rightly so, has taken a different approach also due to the changes in administration in Sri Lanka.
Q: Did you have any hopes about any change in India’s policy after Modi took over as PM? If yes, have those hopes been met or are you disappointed?
A: On the day after taking charge as PM, Mr Modi had met former President Rajapaksa, who was an invited guest at his inauguration event. A few weeks later, he met the then Parliamentarians of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). However, before meeting any formal Sri Lanka’s government delegation or the then official opposition party in Sri Lankan Parliament, PM Modi choosing to meet the Parliamentarians of TNA, underscored the significance. PM, Modi was the second Prime Minister of another country to pay a visit to the Tamil dominated northern Sri Lanka to see for himself the destructions of the war, to hear first-hand from people and their representatives of their needs and conditions on the ground.
I believe PM, Modi had been firm with President Rajapaksa in emphasising the need for a negotiated political settlement for the Tamil national question. Since President Sirisena has taken over with a mandate to resolve the Tamil issue, India has been encouraging Sri Lanka to progress.
Although progress has been very slow during the past 12 months of President Sirisena’s reign, progress there have been, nevertheless.
Q: Do you think it is time that India is more assertive in speaking its mind about the need for Sirisena government to show progress in key issues like resettlement, release of land, demilitarisation and release of political prisoners?
A: India is the regional super power and the closest neighbour. India has a Tamil constituency of over seventy million people. India still houses tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. Therefore, India has legitimate reasons why she should encourage progress with all those issues that you have highlighted in your question and more
Q: What has been GTF’s relationship been with the Indian government, described as the key external actor in Sri Lanka?
A: Although members of GTF have met with BJP Leadership in Tamil Nadu and in Delhi, reality compared to GTF’s aspirational relationship with the Indian Government has been minimal, unfortunately.
Q: Do you think that Indian government should formally reach out to GTF? Would GTF be interested in talking with India at this juncture?
A: Yes and yes. As a strategy, GTF believes that India should and must play an active role in resolving the Tamil national question in Sri Lanka not just as the regional super power but as the closest neighbour who also has a large Tamil constituency. Historically, India has played an active role in attempting to resolve the Tamil national question.
The new Government of Sri Lanka has unlisted GTF and other member organisations that were listed as proscribed organisations by the Rajapaksa Regime. The new President of Sri Lanka has met the President and members of the GTF. Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka has met members of GTF at several meetings last year. The new government of Sri Lanka acknowledges the Diaspora as an important stakeholder. GTF has constructively engaged with the various stakeholders in Sri Lanka including the new government. GTF believes that formal engagement and acknowledgement by the Indian Government is essential and an urgent need to strengthen the moderate voices within the Diaspora. This, we believe in turn will strengthen the collective moderate stands within and outside Sri Lanka.
Q: Before the presidential elections, GTF urged the Tamils in Sri Lanka to exercise their vote and then again asked for the new dispensation to be victorious before parliamentary elections. Why did GTF take this stance, when it had previously been critical of the Sri Lankan polity?
A: The presidential election of 8th January 2015 was a turning point in the recent political history of Sri Lanka where the voters overwhelmingly rejected the undemocratic, corrupt, intolerant and violent political culture practiced at that time. Undoubtedly that election outcome brought welcome changes that included the adoption of the progressive 19th amendment to the constitution, the expansion of the democratic space available for freedom of expression and rule of law, and the reduced fear for the minority communities from ethno-religious extremism. We also recognised positive steps the government has taken to address certain immediate concerns of the Tamil people. These included removing of military Governors and appointing civilians as Governors for the Northern and Eastern Provinces, transferring of small sections of land back to the rightful owners, releasing of a few Tamil political detainees and the review of the proscription of Tamil diaspora individuals and entities. Though limited in scope, collectively, they are still significant.
Prior to 8 January 2015, these would have been unimaginable. Hence, GTF dealt with the previous regime differently and was critical.
Q: When GTF met with the Sri Lankan government – both president and FM earlier this year – there had been some commitments made by Colombo. What is you assessment about progress, if at all, made in any of those three key areas that Mr Samaraweera outlined in his parliament speech?
A: I have described above, some of the positives that have been delivered by this new President and the new government.
However, large swathes of private land are still illegally occupied by the military, disproportionate number of military personnel still remain in the North and East, intimidation and arbitrary arrests still continue, military remains engaged in day to day life of Tamils in North and East, sexual violence continue against the tens of thousands of war widows and others, Over two hundred political prisoners still remain in custody without being charged, the Prevention of Terrorism Act is still not repealed, above all the Tamil National Question remains unresolved, although a new constitution drafting process has been discussed recently but formal processes haven’t begun.
Although Sri Lanka co-sponsored the UNHRC resolution in October 2015, recently leaders have started to send mixed messages on implementing the resolution in full. These have caused serious concerns in the victims’ minds.
Q. How united is the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in supporting GTF’s stance on the Sirisena government? Are there still extremists in diaspora who assert that GTF has gone too far in talking with the government and do you feel a lot of pressure?
When so many of the key concerns of the Tamil people remain unresolved and when progress has been unbelievably slow, growing of suspicion, anxiety, despair and disbelief are inevitable.
When absolute democratic space exists in adopted countries without any constitutional or other restrictions or limitations, espousing different views and aspirations are part of democratic rights of people.
Politically active and vociferous, Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora is relatively a minority community around the world compared to the large silent majority that seeks a just, reasonable and durable political resolution to problems faced by their brethren in Sri Lanka. GTF stands with that large majority and the overwhelmingly democratically elected representatives of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.
Q: If so, do you think that Sri Lankan government should at least take action for some quick deliverables? How long are you willing to wait?
A: Indeed, Government of Sri Lanka must up the game and deliver faster.
When someone is imprisoned under draconian laws and kept for many years without being charged in a court of law, when private land where people have lived for many generations are taken and held illegally by the military, when military and military families enjoy privileges at the expense of historic habitants of a particular area, when a large and intimidating presence of a military who do not speak the inhabitants’ language exists in one’s neighbourhood where there are disproportionate number of war widows in thousands live, when a peoples do not feel being treated equal and feel being treated as second class citizens, when families do not know what happened to their disappeared loved ones, when citizens feel that some members of their own government and military targeted them in various ways putting their lives at risk and due to those actions they lost their loved ones and don’t feel justice will ever be served in an acceptable manner – these are genuine grievances of human beings.
Above all, these are the same people who also voted overwhelmingly to install this new president and government.
The president and the government represent all of the people of Sri Lanka.
Therefore, if these genuine grievances of one community being resolved in an equitable way will displease another community, be it from the majority community or religion or party members, cannot be accepted as reasons for delays and dithering.
Q: What is your view on National Anthem being sung in Tamil at the Independence Day celebrations?
A: A very progressive step indeed towards reconciliation, especially after over nine years of extreme Sinhala nationalistic rhetoric of the Rajapaksa regime! However, I also do not understand the reasons for this hullabaloo regarding the National Anthem being sung in Tamil, as when I went to school, we always sang the National Anthem in Tamil even when Prime Ministers and Presidents of the time have been chief guests at school events.