Q and A Interview with Rohan Abewardena, in The Island, 25 & 26 September 2011 under title “Batti political family scion beckons Tamils”
I come from a famous political family in Batticaloa. My father was Sam Tambimuttu, a member of parliament. He was assassinated by the LTTE along with my mother in 1990. They were gunned down in front of the Canadian High Commission at Gregory’s Road. My mother passed away ten days after the shooting. At the time I was about 14 years of age. After the assassination of my parents I went to UKand did my secondary and higher education there. I obtained a degree in economics from theUniversity ofDurham. Then I got involved in investment fund management and I lived away for 20 years. I returned toSri Lanka three times after the assassination of my parents – all three times to renew my passport. I still hold a Sri Lankan passport. I never took a foreign citizenship. I never thought the day would arrive when I would come back to Sri Lanka and specifically to Batticaloa where we are hailing from. When I came back it struck me, it struck me a lot because I travelled the length and breadth of Eastern Province and Sri Lanka as a whole. I always knew our country is very beautiful and resourceful, but if you look at the past 60 years, since independence I feel we failed. We failed in many areas, but primarily our resources and what we have been given in this blessed island,
Sam Thambimuttu but we have not achieved our full potential. So I had to ask questions, especially about Batticaloa, because I feel Batticaloa is immensely resource rich, but nothing has moved. People have not exploited the natural resources of the region. People are still quite poor with lot of unemployment. So I began to ask questions because my family members were part of the political process there. My mother’s father, Senator Manickckam was one of the founding leaders of the Federal Party along with H.A.V. Chelvanayakam. My father of course was a representative of TULF and my mother was an activist from the late 60s. My great granduncle was also a State Council member. He was more a Ceylonese nationalist and not a Tamil nationalist … [For a note on the assassiantion of Sam Thambimuttu in Ben Bavinck's diary see the end of this item in thuppahi].
When I look into history of how my immediate ancestors had an impact. My father was very much liberal, but still their generation could not help what Sri Lankas hould have become. In self-analysis of seeing what went wrong I thought I needed to do something about it. Why do I need to do something about it? Somebody has to make the start and truly understand why we have gone through this? I thought about economics, but it’s also politics. What I found was all the leaders, even astute leaders they may have been have always been in the opposition. So how could they have done any development work? I felt they were spending far too much of their time on trying to create this conflict resolution without understanding the greater scope of this island. So my primary thought was to come and invest and bring lot of investment here. I felt that we could do wonders here and as I came in naturally I also started seeing the political arena. I was invited to join the TNA. My immediate reaction was to reject it because I felt the way it has been propagating its views, is no different from what the TULF was propagating from the 1970s. My view is that the only way one can start to make a change from this historic reality is to break from those historic constraints and take a new path. I joined the SLFP and I am the Chief Organiser for the Batticaloa electorate. It was a bold decision in my opinion because of my background and also seeing the local political realities there.
Q:Why did the LTTE kill your parents?
They were Tamil nationalists. My father who was a lawyer was also a human rights activist. He felt at the time the LTTE was hell bent on destroying Tamil civil society. In fact he was very clear on that. Even when the Indian Peace Keeping Force arrived there his view was that there has to be a genuine political consideration shown by the Tamil leadership to end what went on. He felt that once that can be achieved there should be lasting peace. He was critical of LTTE as it was highly militarised and felt that were never going to come to a solution. He was vocally against the LTTE and propagated the view that the LTTE was committing many human rights violations at the time. The LTTE never accepted decent. When one was critical all they did was to shoot that person. My father was a victim of being an outspoken critic of the LTTE. My view on all this is that the fault line starts from the Federal Party and the TULF. Why? In the 1960s the Federal Party took a stance that anyone who did not conform to its agenda was regarded as unfriendly towards the Tamil cause and then in the 70s the TULF, which became more radical took the view that anyone opposed to their own political stance were traitors and that was taken to a different level by the LTTE and all other militant organisations that grew at the time. Once you let the worm out of the can it just spreads. My view is that was the cause. My father’s view was that the Tamil society had become very much a mono ideological society without any acceptance of different views and alternative ideas. At the time I was very young yet he discussed with me stating that the state of the Tamils is that many mistakes were made and we are going to pay a heavy price. Killing of my parents was not unique because the LTTE and other Tamil militant organisations had carried out many atrocities. If you want to carry out a historic survey of it, I will tell you in every village the memories might be long in people’s minds, but many people were killed because somebody did not agree with their views.
Q: It is not only your family even TULF Leader A. Amirthalingam’s family have come to regret some of their earlier beliefs and has since his assassination come to look at things quite differently.
You are right Amirathalingam’s family have regrets and I have spoken to Mrs Amirthalingam. In fact I met her last year.
Q: But why is it that despite having so many of their top leaders being assassinated by the LTTE, people like R. Sampanthan is still in that same line of thinking?
Mr. Sampanthan is a product of a particular time. He is no longer relevant. But unfortunately you have to understand history does play a part, which is Tamil people were radicalised. They were led to believe there were several atrocities committed against them and the Tamil mindset was you go and vote for the Tamil nationalist party. He is a product of that time. Someone like Sampanthan or fellow TNA leaders they can only survive as political leaders in this vacuum where you need an enemy. The enemy becomes a government of the time. May be they are now highly critical of the SLFP and the current government, but they will always be critical of any government of Sri Lankabecause in their mindset they have no room for anything other than hatred. I would say communalist mindset is prevalent among them. People like that will always exist until the people realise what is best for their future. Now when several things are harped on by the TNA on current circumstances in Sri Lanka, it must be said that these are the leaders who were for ever fearful of criticising the LTTE. They towed the LTTE line when the LTTE had the weapons and today they are making no apology for their part in the LTTE inhumanely holding thousands and thousands of civilians as a human shield. In fact they have done this historically and these are the left over leaders who still as I said to you earlier their voices and thinking is no different to 1970s. The ’77 TULF and the 2011 TNA are no different. You asked me why in fact they will continue to be that way, but remember one thing it disturbs people like Mr. Sampanthan when they allege the government is giving favours to win votes. You go to any part of the democratic world governments do developments and governments create jobs to win elections. That is what the governments do and through this allegation of government doing favours they are trying to pollute the minds of the young. The truth is a good quarter of the northern population has voted against the TNA. Younger people are already realising that these people are not going to provide a secure future for them. But we are dealing with historic realities: if you look at the last 20 years any national party in parliamentary or local government polls have hardly won any percentage of Tamil votes. So we are still dealing with the same realities now. But my view is that the changes are there and changes are well on there way. Where we have difficulty is that we do not have enough counter arguments from within the Tamil community. Unfortunately the Tamil community is deprived of people who can think in an alternative fashion.
Q: Usually the troubles start when youth are without jobs and there are no economic opportunities for them to be gainfully occupied. Being a businessman are you tackling that issue as much as the political debate. What are you doing to increase the size of the economic pie?
I am doing my part to bring in lot of investment into the East, the North and the rest of the country. This problem is not economic and in fact my argument is that it is not isolated to the North and the East. I have spoken to many people from Batticaloa, who have accepted that Batticaloa has gained more in the last couple of years after the war ended with so much rebuilding, lot of investment, good roads than other parts of the country. I have travelled to many areas of Sri Lankawhere there is still lot to be done. Economic realities are a national problem and I take a very different view when it comes to economic realities. Economic realities are a common problem affecting people from North, South, East and West, which is the increasing cost of living. In a post war economy where ever it may be Germany, Britain anywhere the cost of living goes up because people want more and productivity is now only starting to progress. The challenge for any government is to keep the cost of living down, ensure more employment is created and wages are increased. Remember our people are still quite poorly paid inSri Lanka. At the moment I am really looking at the housing system, it is one of two areas which are fundamental toSri Lanka’s future. A majority of our people in my opinion live in poor quality houses. Even when a middleclass person spends three to four million rupees to build a house, that house’s standard is still quite poor compared to a country likeSouth KoreaorChinafor the same amount of money. That means we have to bring in 22nd century technology toSri Lankaso that we can start building low cost, high quality housing. So we are looking at one of those areas. The second area is food. We have to increase food production and we need to ensure food reaches the end user, the general population at a cheap price. An example would be a can of fish inSri Lankais about Rs 180 or Rs190 or sometimes it can be even Rs200. The same can if you buy it in theUKin rupee terms it will be Rs 60 to 80. My question is we are an island surrounded by much ocean resources. We have French vessels coming here to take away our catch, but we are unable to produce fish for less than hundred rupees. We are looking at investments where we can ensure the bringing down of the cost of food. As I see it this problem does not have a colour, ethnicity or religion. It is a problem for every man. If you take the TNA Leaders they don’t talk about food because they don’t have that problem. If you take any TNA leader’s children, they are living and studying abroad. How dare they talk about common man’s problems? I was also living abroad, but I am not coming here to say that people don’t want development and people only want their political rights. Talk about political rights, but economically these people need to be uplifted and if the government is doing that why grumble. I will tell you in fifty years hardly any bridges were built, but today every single bridge is being rebuilt or new bridges have come up where people earlier depended on ferries. That is an example of efforts put in by the government. Now the TNA Leader Sampanthan was claiming that Ministers were travelling to the North to try and convince the people. The criticism they had years back was that no Minister was travelling to the North because they were only interested in the South. So if you go there it is a problem and if you don’t go there it is also a problem. This is simply trivialising for cheap political gain. I think we need to move away from that.
Q: You are a person who has lived in the West for a greater part of your life, but why is it that they are not playing an understanding role here?
That is a good question. I have packed my bags and come back here fully. Why should the West understandSri Lanka? Why do you think theUKfor example takes an interest inSri Lanka? There is a large Tamil population inUKwho are immigrants and the British government or the British politicians try to win their votes. That is influencing the Western governments because many of the Western nations have a considerable Tamil population and a significant proportion of them are hell bent with a view to see the separation ofSri Lanka. So, the Western governments are influenced by these people. You also have INGOs and lobbyists who have their own interests in influencing these governments. You are right. In fact the West has not understood, but my opinion is we as a nation cannot expect others to understand rather we need to start thinking about our future. The West can be good friends of ours and if they can help us all the good, but if they don’t want to help us, please stay out and that is my view. Why am I taking that view? It is because there are fundamental issues. Let’s talk about conflict resolution and ethnic harmony inSri Lanka. This is important in terms of where this country is going forward in the future. Now, a view has been raised by many that in order to achieve reconciliation inSri Lankayou need to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. What they are talking about is the granting of police and land powers to the Provincial Councils. I have gone through a study which has seen the reality of the 13th Amendment. In fact, my father in 1987 was a supporter of the 13th Amendment, but I myself have looked through and seen the potential impact of the 13th Amendment and I personally feel the 13th Amendment to the Constitution talks aboutSri Lankadivided into nine provinces with land and police powers to individual councils. Let’s look at history of what happened in the last 30 years. You had a temporary merger of the Northern andEasternProvinceswhen the Indian intervention happened under the Chief Minister Vartharaja Perumal. They created a de facto government. They conscripted young children and those children were made to become the Tamil National Army and the Commander of the Tamil National Army was the current TNA parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran. The Tamil National Army massacred people and in turn they too got massacred. Young innocent children who were conscripted lost their lives and that is a crime against humanity. I am not specifically mentioning about one individual, but that was a crime against humanity because you forced young innocent Children to fight a war they had no idea about.
What is the core issue inSri Lanka? The core issue will give us an understanding of the 13th Amendment. The core issue was what should, or do all, communities inSri Lankarequire to ensure a society in which they feel in harmony with each other. To achieve that all you require is a belief among Sri Lankans that they are equal and they are treated equally and they feel they are part of the national fabric and they have the opportunity to improve their lives and play a part according to their own merit. That should be the fundamental. Now, does the 13th Amendment to the Constitution enable us to have that? I think it doesn’t because the 13th Amendment even though it does not refer to it in terms is creating divisions and homelands. My point is what no Tamil leader in the past ever understood, or understood and never agreed that what the Sinhala population of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans as a whole are against this devolution. Whether it is a devolution requiring federal system or a provincial system they are against the idea of dividing this country into Tamil, Sinhala, Muslim or Burgher areas. By stating theNorthern Provinceand theEasternProvinceneed Tamil leadership what you are saying is that they are Tamil areas and the rest of the country is Sinhala area. Look at reality today, a majority of Tamils inSri Lankalive outside the North and East. If you sayJaffnais a Tamil homeland then what is Nuwara Eliya? A Sinhala homeland? Are you going to tell those Tamil people to move out of Nuwara Eliya? Are you going to tell the Tamil people living inColomboto move out ofColombo? That is where the fundamental flaw in the 13th Amendment lies.Sri Lankais a small island so how can you replicate a system thatIndiahas.Indiahas billion plus people. I will agree with 13th Amendment ifIndialets each of its districts in states to have police powers, becauseSri Lankais about the size of a state inIndia. So will they create separate police in each district of Kerala orMaharashtra? They will not. So, likewise inSri Lankathe police power or land power can create further disharmony amongst our population. Instead, if you try to ensure there is equity between communities you create an Equal Opportunity Commission or introduce an Equal Opportunity Amendment to the Constitution. It is already there in my opinion and it only needs to be fine tuned and all citizens treated equally.
My question is how would one guarantee that a provincial system with powers over land and police will treat the people ofSri Lankaequally? Instead of that what you need is to move forward to a system where the communities whether Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher do not feel that they are different. There are no homelands and in fact my opinion is that the opposition has come historically in Sri Lanka since 1958 after successive governments have failed to agree to a devolution system, whatever it may be, devolving power to districts or provinces they all failed because the majority of Sri Lankans do not want to see that happen because it is not politically feasible. What the majority wants is to see that the country’s unitary structure is preserved. I have no problem with that and I too agree. Why? Within a unitary state if you want equality that’s good. Now Tamil and Sinhala languages should have equality. The two languages should be made compulsory for all children. That is the only answer. A young child growing up, whether he is a Sinhala or Tamil should feel like a Sri Lankan. They should not grow up saying I am a Tamil this is my area. This is what has been happening to this day. When you talk with people they refer to Tamil areas, Sinhala areas. This is all created as a consequence of historic injustices. All I say is we need to think about the future and Mr. Sampanthan and the rest of the TNA politicians have to realize that the future of all Sri Lankans are intertwined. You cannot start creating systems just because foreign powers are misunderstanding and not realizing why Sri Lankans are against a devolved federal system because you cannot have provincial administrations in a small island. Our economic policies have to be geared to avoid any future conflicts. There should be nothing but equal opportunities.
I speak to lot of youngsters among the Tamil Diaspora. I ask them ‘you are living in theUKwhat is it that you want?’ They almost always say equality and equal opportunity. Then I tell them whether they want to see equality and equal opportunity inSri Lanka. Then they say ‘no that is a Tamil area’. I said no it is for everyone who lives on the island and that has to be accepted. I am afraid not a single politician from the minority communities and especially from the Tamil community has understood this. They must understand Sinhalese people are not against equality. They have never, ever been against equality at least a majority of them have never been. The only thing they have been against is the idea to devolve and rightly so as the Tamil nationalist parties have claimed that they will first take district powers and then ask for more powers and more powers and then create separation. My question is what does the separation lead to? Are you happy just having that particular area. But if most people really deeply think they will agree they would like to travel acrossSri Lanka. They would like to go toColomboor Kataragama, but the problem is these vicious politicians are with outdated ideologies, even though the world has changed. They are still clinging on to old concepts. That is where we need to make a change.
Q: What are your views on finding a solution through a Parliamentary Select Committee?
A PSC can analyse. That is very good because it is representing the parliament of this country. That hopefully will represent the people of this nation, but I cannot still understand and accept how things are conducted by the two sides. It is like an India-Pakistan cricket match. So when you try to have two party negotiations that itself is wrong. If you want to go down that path then you can’t rebuildSri Lanka. Acceptable solution toSri Lankais only one thing that is accepting the fact that we have made hell of a lot of mistakes. Just understand that future here for every man, woman and child need one thing that is a secure environment to rebuild their lives. So the Parliamentary Select Committee must understand why historically Sri Lankan political leadership found it difficult to find a solution because the solution that people are putting forward has always been one group wanting to divide it and another group wanting to unite it. My point is very simple that is no government can realistically start by putting foundations for division ofSri Lankathen expect a majority of people to support it. Most people don’t want to see that happen. Instead I keep on asking and keep on telling that somehow people think that equal opportunity is only there in word. It doesn’t have to be limited to a word. You put in a strong constitution and constitutional systems to ensure that. Instead of wasting time about Provincial Councils getting police and land powers through the 13th Amendment, because all are unworkable. Then one region will develop another will warp. You are asking the provincial leadership to somehow create future economic policy. It won’t work like that. Instead we will be better off creating a second chamber possibly to ensure that the equality is preserved and I am not talking about minority rights I am talking about equality – equality mean between you and me as individuals. Don’t treat me as a Tamil or a Sinhalese or a Muslim. I am just a man, a human being and a Sri Lankan. I have as much passion for this country of mine as anyone else. I keep on telling the people this is something that everyone must understand. It doesn’t matter who came to this island first. I didn’t come here I was born here. May be somebody came from my ancestors or somebody came from your ancestors, but what we have to accept is either we all share to live here or we keep on telling this is mine. The latter system will not work. I tell the international community to understand something before you advocate it. The fact is you can’t advocate something without understanding the historic routes. There is no Tamil homeland. I have asked the question from many TNA politicians to tell me when in history Batticaloa andJaffnawere ruled by a common ruler. Actually only once under Chief Minister Varatharaja Perumal in the late ‘80s and not before and not since. That has been our history and some people don’t like to admit it.
They argue that lot of Buddhist structures are being built inJaffna. Most of the allegations are untrue. Even if it were what is wrong in that? The greatest thing about this island, unlike in other countries, where you can travel and see, you can’t build any structures, but here you can have Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. I am in favour of building by anyone in any part of the country as long as it conforms to the planning laws.
Q: Though the West is always lecturing to us on various freedoms, in a city like Cologne which has a sizeable Muslim population, has not given planning approval to build a mosque for years, where as in this country you find a mosque or a church in almost every town.
I totally accept it. I made a video in fact acrossSri Lankato get people to understand, especially the young Tamil Diaspora because most of them are being misinformed. You get people who go out there and tell ’you don’t know history. You don’t know what happened in Chelvanayakam’s time or what happened during Jayewardene’s time. They keep repeating those things. The result is those outside still don’t think the young people in Vavuniya orJaffnadon’t have mobile phones. Only thing I tell them is we have to move against one thing inSri Lankathat is narrow ethnic nationalism. Even inUKthere are laws that prohibit you from creating disharmony in the country—Equal Opportunities Law and Non Discriminatory Law.Singaporehas that.Sri Lankashould have that. They are not telling you not to express your religious identity. It can be expressed as long as it is not at the expense of someone else or creating disharmony.
Extract from Ben bavinck’s Diary for 10th May 1990, Colombo: …. “On May 7th followed the Buddhist Vesak festival.This too was celebrated with great abandon. Groups of youths kept going the whole night. It was clear that it was a decision of the president [Premadasa] that both feasts had to be celebrated with enthusiasm. All government departments therefore made a real effort to obey by hoisting flags, fixing coloured lights and running decorated floats. In this way, the message was underlined that everything is normal. But it is too artificial and therefore not credible.
This was demonstrated most clearly when, in the midst of all this festive rush, the EPRLF MP for Batticaloa, Sam Thambimuttu, was shot and killed in front of the Canadian High Commission in Colombo. Mrs. Thambimuttu was severely wounded. If things like this can happen, in broad daylight in Colombo 7, the fable of normalcy is immediately discredited. This act makes it clear that the LTTE is no longer bothered about what people may think of them. They coolly continue working through their hit-list.”