TNA changes policy, plays politics of peace with President

By Satarupa Bhattacharjya

The coffee was warm, the hoppers fresh. At the end of three hours, very few picked up what was on offer. Seven members of Parliament of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had walked into Temple Trees on September 7 with sheaves of papers in their hands and thoughts of uneasy reconciliations. The TNA’s embryonic past with the LTTE and its political future with the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration were playing on their minds.

“The main objective of our meeting with the President was to urge the government to send the internally displaced persons (IDPs) of the north back to their homes from camps in Vavuniya before the onset of the monsoon,” Suresh Kandaiah Premachandran of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), told the Sunday Times.

The TNA delegation meeting the President

Premachandran who had attended the meeting as a TNA delegate was referring to the north-east monsoon which is likely to hit the country in about two weeks. The TNA is concerned about the well being of the 280,000 IDPs housed in the Menik Farm camps in Vavuniya as the monsoon would affect the northern and eastern districts. “How will people in the camps cope with the flooding of those areas? How will they get clean drinking water?” the EPRLF parliamentarian from the Jaffna district said he had asked government representatives present at the meeting.

It was the first official meeting between the two sides since the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May. TNA leaders said that they had informal exchanges with President Rajapaksa at a conference of all major political parties on July 2 when they had made a formal request for a meeting with him. A source in the President’s media unit said that the TNA had been invited for talks with the government on seven earlier occasions but had turned down the requests. Two ministers and a group of important officials had accompanied President Rajapaksa to the meeting. The President’s brother and political advisor Basil Rajapaksa who is chairperson of the government task force on rehabilitation and resettlement of the IDPs was also present. The TNA’s demand of resettling the war displaced people in their original homes within the next two weeks was rejected by the Presidential side, Premachandran said.

President Rajapaksa and his colleagues told the TNA delegation, the “practical difficulties,” in addressing its demand. “On this particular matter the talks were not fruitful,” Premachandran said. Basil Rajapaksa, according to Nallathamby Srikantha, mentioned that there needed to be a “pragmatic approach” to the issue of resettling the IDPs. “It is unlikely that the government will be able to complete resettlement of the IDPs in the next four months,” Srikantha told the Sunday Times. He is another TNA parliamentarian from Jaffna who was present at the meeting.

Srikantha added that government representatives present at the meeting insisted that between 60 and 80 per cent of the war displaced would be sent to their homes by year-end or early next year. Almost the entire population of the Wanni region had been displaced in the long bloody war that ended in May this year. Close to 300,000 people had started living inside temporary shelters in Menik Farm in Vavuniya. At the end of May, the government had promised to relocate the displaced back to their homes within six months. Only a few thousands have so far been moved out.

The Rajapaksa regime has maintained that people could not be hurried back to their homes from camps because the northern districts are densely sown with anti-personnel claymore mines and other explosive devices that had been buried by the Tamil rebels. The TNA MPs were given a lengthy and detailed presentation on current demining activities being undertaken by 600 personnel of the Sri Lankan Army assisted by a handful of Indian and other demining NGOs. The presentation on demining is said to have taken up most of the time in the 180-minutes-long meeting.

According to the 77-year-old leader of the TNA parliamentary group, Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, the alliance presented the government with a list of areas in the north where demining would either not be needed or be necessary only minimally. “While discussing the modalities of demining, we gave them names of places where mines might not be located,” Sampanthan told the Sunday Times. The veteran Trincomalee politician said that the TNA wanted the government to settle people in their homes in such areas soon.

TNA leaders, however, continue to raise questions over the government’s mine action project. Premachandran for instance asked: “Why is demining progressing slowly in Mullaitivu or Kilinochchi?” “Why are only parts of Mannar and Vavuniya being taken up for demining?”

The Rajapaksa regime appears keen on handling security concerns first. In a statement released after the meeting, the President’s office said that President Rajapaksa had informed the TNA representatives that the demining process would be “expedited” and that “emphasis had been given in government policy on the need to ensure security and welfare of the people.” The Tamil parties have sought more transparency in the government’s process of screening the displaced persons. “We asked the government for names and personal details of all the people who have been taken and kept in detention centres.” Sampanthan said. Although estimates from people within the government’s legal affairs establishment suggest that there could be more than 20,000 people detained on grounds of suspicion across different safe houses in the island, the police are yet to formalise a comprehensive list. “The government cannot lose sight of the humanitarian problem in the camps for IDPs,” Srikantha said.

“Many of the detainees are not LTTE operatives. They are non-combatant Tamil civilians who are finding it difficult to go through the screening process,” Sampanthan added.. The TNA MPs say that their electorates often tell them of “mysterious disappearances” of young men and women from the camps.
It has been over three months since LTTE leader Prabhakaran died. The island nation’s new political reality has changed the game for the TNA, forever. In its 2004 election manifesto, the TNA had said that it would “accept the LTTE’s leadership of the Tamil people and the LTTE as the sole and authentic representative of the Tamil people.”

The TNA has already accepted that different situations call for different responses. “We are working on a proposal which will argue for adequate autonomy for the Tamil people within the framework of a united Sri Lanka,” Sampanthan told the Sunday Times. Till three months ago, the TNA used to endorse the LTTE’s idea of an interim self -governing authority. A diplomatic source in the Indian high commission in Colombo said that New Delhi would be willing to take the TNA more seriously than it presently does “only if the alliance brings clarity to its political vision.”

Today, the TNA is forced to engage with the Rajapaksa government. This is probably the only option that the alliance has if it wants to stay in active politics.

The dialogue table is possibly the only place where it can bargain for a better life of the battered Tamil population. It is hoped that thousands who have become destitutes in their own country will benefit from the politics of peace.

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