‘Mr. Chief Minister!’

Monday, 23 September 2013 00:43 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

On Saturday, 21 September, C.V. Wigneswaran was elected with a resounding majority, to become the very first Chief Minister of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. The highly respected former Justice of the Supreme Court has found his popularity eroded in the island’s south somewhat however, after he made several controversial remarks during an election rally in Jaffna during the campaign season. After weeks of hectic campaigning, on the eve of a historic election, Justice Wigneswaran spoke to the Daily FT about the remarks, why he was prepared to stake his moderate credentials over a campaign speech and how much the perception of the Tamil struggle differs between the north and the south. Following are excerpts of that interview: By Dharisha Bastians Q: Reports say you made a highly controversial speech at Velvettithurai, where Prabhakaran was born. Did you call him a “great hero”? A: The Velvettithurai statement has been misreported. Someone had said I had called him a mahaveeran and various things. I said the person who had given him that status was not I. It was the President who had really given that status to him. When he was living, the President said 13 plus plus. Then after he is gone, he says no more 13. The one who has given him so much recognition as a mahaveeran is the President himself. These are the things I have been saying at the rallies. Some things are added and subtracted and then people get annoyed. As far as I am concerned I am a vegetarian. I don’t kill. I have no ideas of killing anybody. I am peaceful and I would like to be non-violent in every way. People should be careful to refer to people using certain words when someone else may well be guilty of the same thing. Q: Don’t you think it affects your credentials as a Tamil moderate when you stop short of calling Prabhakaran a terrorist? Is the TNA using nationalistic rhetoric on their campaign platforms just to win votes? A: The question of whether to call him a terrorist or not is not undertaken by anyone in this party for the simple reason that we know the peoples’ feelings towards him. Merely because the Sinhalese person feels he is a terrorist or he is called by different names does not mean that this is the same interpretation or perception of the Tamil people. We are not trying to profit by saying these things, but at the same time we will not hurt the feelings of the people in that form because that is not how they see him. Generally if you just go into the roads now again and you ask them whether he is a terrorist, they will reply no he is not, he is a hero. These are their feelings, right or wrong. That is why I said Keppitipola Disawe is a good example. At one stage of our lives he was criminalised, at this stage he is known differently. If that perception is considered to be inflammatory and Sinhala people are getting annoyed by it, then I am sorry to hear of it. We have no hatred towards the Sinhalese or anyone. We understand how people react to certain words. The reaction in these parts however, is different. Personally I don’t see anything objectionable in what I said. There is one set of rules with regard to us and another set of rules for others. It does not matter to me if I lose my election tomorrow and go home. I just came into politics to see if I could benefit the people some way. But the benefit I have is that I have made people start thinking as a result of the things I am saying. That is part of my personality. I would like to say what I want to say. That has been my style. Q: If he is indeed perceived as a hero in these parts and the TNA is seen to reflect or endorse that view and receives a mandate in tomorrow’s election, wouldn’t that contribute to a further break down of trust between the Government and the Council? A: It all depends on how the history of the struggle of the Tamils is look upon by the Sinhalese. And it is in consonance with that that I said what I just said. In our struggle, the first 30 years was of civil disobedience, non-violence and so on. When they came up with the Vaddukoddai Resolution where they said we have tried everything and failed, the youth took over. And in charge of them was Prabhakaran. Thirty years of armed insurrection and finally it is with the help of various international governments that he was killed. When I was called into this whole business, I came in as a complete fresher to the field of politics. How I gave leadership to this whole thing was to say the past is past. We start upon a democratic path. Let us work the democratic institutions available to us. We have the added strength of the international community having come to know what exactly are the problems faced by the Tamil community. Since that benefit is there for us, we have a two pronged approach. We go according to law and the institutions available and never wanting to do anything beyond the law or contrary to law, while at the same time knowing that the international community is aware of our problems. So if after having not granted anything for the last 60 years, the Government is not going to grant the Tamils anything, well then we have the help of the international community to come to our aid. And I think my perception is correct. India was in a position to pressure the Government to have this election tomorrow. Every other agreement between the majority community and the minority community was thrown to the winds; whether the Band-Chelva pact or the Dudley Chelva pact or the District Councils Act. This is the only one, the 13th Amendment that survives because of backing by India. So my position is, let us make use of the fact that the international community is aware of our problems and are willing to help us and at the same time going on the path of law. Q: Given the petitions now before the Supreme Court over the TNA’s election manifesto, in your opinion as a former Supreme Court Judge, is it possible that the TNA could be proscribed? A: I saw the sections dealing with it. What is says is that the sixth amendment says one cannot espouse and promote a separate state within the boundaries of Sri Lanka. It is interpreted by those who have filed this action that this means even an area of exclusiveness is a separate entity. That is not the interpretation given to that section. What it means is that there are the boundaries of Sri Lanka today and if you promote or espouse or carve out an area out of the existing boundaries to be separate, then it is illegal and unconstitutional. It does not mean that if you have an area of exclusivity within that boundary that is also illegitimate under that section because the Central Government has rights to go in there, the people have rights to come in here, you are still within the Government and the same area of jurisdiction. If someone were to have looked at this very impartially, I would have preferred these cases to have been dismissed yesterday when they came up. But then today, with two Chief Justices being there, we can expect all kind of orders. All depends on the interpretation to be given, but this is a very childish interpretation. What it means is that if you carve out and excise that area from the existing state. Then it is separate. Federalism is not that. Federalism is two areas of jurisdiction but governmental process is the same. They have self rule within particular areas, because they have certain characteristics of their own. Q: In some parts of the North, especially in Mannar there is a very real fear that a Tamil majority in the NPC will not safeguard Muslim rights. The eviction of the Muslims by the LTTE in 1990 still rankles. What would you do to reassure them if you were elected tomorrow? A: We have been very specific about it that it was wrong. Therefore we are going to be very beneficial to them in every way in order to bring them back and allow their lives to go on without any impediments. In fact yesterday we had a lovely meeting with the Jaffna Muslims, and there was great camaraderie and coming together. They are feeling not very happy with the Muslim Congress. The SLMC leadership according to them are very selfish in their attitudes. Since we have been saying that we must forge this unity between the Muslims and the Tamils they are accepting our position. Sometimes it helps to stand on principle, despite criticism. The TNA has stood by what it has said and never faltered in their way. That seems to have given the Muslims a certain amount of confidence with regard to us. The time might come one day that the Sinhalese too will come to appreciate us like the Muslims, for standing by certain principles. They will realise that we do not hate the Sinhalese, the Muslims nor anybody.