Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Govt. policy discriminates against Tamils

Rasiah Yogarajan

Govt. must negotiate with LTTE

National ID demand impacted on CWC

No Tamil recruitment to CPC and Ports Authority

A 25% minority have only 8% Govt. jobs

While the APRC is set to deliver yet another report, now with the JHU, JVP, MEP withdrawing from the committee and replaced by the TMVP, minorities continue to suffer from discrimination in Sri Lanka and the war rides on with no end in sight. In this light, The Sunday Leader interviewed Rasiah Yogarajan, the national organiser of Sri Lanka's once-upon-a-time king making political party, the CWC.

Despite having the power to raise governments - and bring others to their knees - the CWC has managed to gain very little from its membership in the present UPFA government. Apart from his insight on the APRC deliberations, Yogarajan expanded on why the CWC stays with the government, disenfranchisement of Tamils at the provincial council elections, and issues facing the Tamils. He said that it is government policy to "discriminate against Tamils" and deny them employment in several segments of the state sector and asserted that the LTTE cannot be destroyed without addressing the grievances of the north-east people.

By Ruan Pethiyagoda

Q: The APRC is continuing its deliberations without the inclusion of the UNP, JVP or TNA, all of whom have refused to participate for their own reasons. Does the CWC feel that the APRC is a meaningful exercise with such poor representation?

A: If you look at the representative character of the members of the APRC, I feel all sections are represented. The Sinhala people are fairly well represented. The leftists who are representative of the Sinhala people but also receptive to minority opinion, are in the process. Up to 95% of the work has been completed. During that process, the Sinhala parties were represented by parties such as the SLFP, the UNP (D) group. The extremist parties such as the MEP and the JHU were represented through 90% of the process. The people of Indian origin are represented by the CWC and Upcountry People's Front. The people of the north are represented by the EPDP. The people of the east are now represented by the TMVP.

We as the CWC have sat not only as a representative of the people of the plantations but also as a spokesperson for minorities in general. So I think opinions have been represented quite fairly. The Muslims have also been well represented with the four Muslim parties - which are all offshoots of the SLMC - being in the process.

Q: The JHU and the MEP have now pulled out of the APRC. What impact will it have on the legitimacy of your final report?

A: I do not think it will have any serious impact on the legitimacy of the final report. Because they have agreed to many of the issues except a few core issues which are being discussed. Even on those their opinions were heard and are available. We would take into consideration some of these opinions before we make a decision.

This has been a process of negotiation, through which we have achieved consensus. All opinions will merge into a final, acceptable solution on 90% of the issues we have already dealt with. I don't think anyone should have any reason to pull themselves away from the final report.

Q: At the last session, it was reported that the APRC discussed financial devolution and units for Muslims and Tamils of Indian origin. How extensive is the financial devolution that is under consideration?

A: We discussed the principles of financial devolution. We had a meeting with the Finance Commission chairman. We also studied a lot of documents on fiscal devolution. It was more of us considering the different principles involved in financial devolution. We have not concluded our discussion.

Both reports of the Experts Committee, the majority and minority reports recognised the need to address the special needs of the people of Indian origin. There should be some sort of constitutional mechanism that can deal with this issue.

We are not insisting on a territorial solution. The CWC has proposed a system like the Belgian system of community parliaments, where each community sits separately to deal with issues of that particular community. In Belgium it is people who speak different languages. In Sri Lanka it is people of different languages and cultures.

It is a system where they are able to deal with issues of education, culture and personal development. Today the grievance of the Indian Tamil people is that they live amongst the Sinhalese, administration is run by the Sinhalese, and we have very little say in how the administration is run and how the government services such as Samurdhi, land allocation and scholarships apply to individuals.

We feel that the decision makers are all Sinhalese and they don't take into consideration the needs of the Tamil people who live among them. In Samurdhi a lot of Tamil people who are equally poor are not considered. They can't speak to the officials and the officials themselves are people who have been appointed through political decision making. They are not concerned about these people. We feel that the Tamil people do not get a fair deal on issues of a personal nature.

Like in Belgium, personal development should be an issue for the community. We need a similar set up in Sri Lanka where provincial council members form into a council given allocations proportional to the population of the community, for education that is unique to them, and their own cultures. This is the principle that I am pursuing in the APRC and I have already submitted papers on this issue.

Q: What areas will the units for the Muslims and Tamils of Indian origin cover in terms of what is discussed ?

A: It will not be a territorial unit. It will be a unit beyond territory where these people can be served wherever they live. We have an experiment on that. The Estate Infrastructure Ministry deals with the issues of people of Indian origin. This allows us to develop those areas from the centre. A similar unit of devolution can allow it to look after those people wherever they live. It will not be a territorial division.

The whole issue of the ethnic problem is that the minorities do not get a fair share. An example is the employment in the state sector, which has 8% representation of all three minorities, whereas their population is 25%. They believe they have been sidelined, I believe, due to political appointments.

Q: Despite being a member of the UPFA government and holding cabinet office, the CWC chose to contest the recent provincial council elections independently. Why?

A: This is not a new thing. In the 2004 provincial council election we were with the UNP, not with this government. When we get into a major party we have to fight for the preference votes.

Q: The CWC always has been a king maker in 21st century Sri Lankan politics, and its support or lack thereof has led governments to rise and fall. Why is it that the CWC could only secure 10,000 votes and not even one seat in last week's Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council elections?

A: We are ourselves probing why it happened. It is a matter of concern to the CWC. We will soon analyse the reasons behind it and take corrective action.

Q: Several election monitoring groups cited disenfranchisement due to the ID card issue as having been a bigger problem on election day than violence and intimidation, especially for estate workers. How did this issue affect your vote base?

A: It is a very important factor but I do not want to say that is the cause for this failure. This was however one contributing factor. Whenever the issue of making ID cards compulsory for elections came up, we have insisted that you cannot disenfranchise somebody on the grounds that they do not have a national identity card.

Our demand was that until every person has been issued an NIC, making it compulsory is indirect disenfranchisement. When the government passed the bill they gave us an assurance that within one year everyone will be issued NICs. But this has not been done. They have just said that they will issue temporary ID cards for the purpose of the election.

But today the voter is not going to spend 200 rupees for the photographs and two days running behind the grama sevaka or some other official, just to cast a vote. Expecting people to do that is unreasonable. Another issue that came up on August 22 was that some people snatched away NICs to prevent people from voting.

Then even those who had NICs were scared to go to the polling booth because they might lose their identity card, which they obtained with great difficulty. If someone wants to vote, and a polling agent from the area objects, then you can prevent impersonation. Not having an ID card shouldn't prevent someone who is well known to all the polling agents from being able to vote.

It happened this time. The polling agents said "I know him," but the senior presiding officer prevented them from voting because they didn't have an ID card. The NIC should be an enabling document for voting, not a bar to vote. Unless this is looked after at any future election, it will be unfair to the people of Indian origin. Especially if we have provincial council elections in the Central Province, where in the Nuwara Eliya District 54% of the voters are people of Indian origin. So the whole decision in that province can vary with 30% of the people of Indian origin not being able to vote because they don't have identity cards. 30% of the people will be disenfranchised, which is totally unfair and against democracy.

Impersonation is not the real issue of concern. It is the rigging and stuffing, which is due to a wrong political culture that this is happening. There are polling booths that are being hijacked. People are coming in and stuffing. That is what must stop. Individual impersonation is a very small percentage of abuse. That political culture must be stopped; it is not the ID card that is the issue.

Q: What action did the CWC take in advance of the election to prevent this from happening, and what action is the party taking to protect its supporters at future elections?

A: One of the reasons I granted this interview today is to educate those who are thinking in one track about ID cards being compulsory. We haven't yet thought of any legal action, but in the Sabaragamuwa Province, in two months, before nominations were done, we held 18 mobile services for issuing NICs. A lot of people came and applied and were given the receipt for the application with the photograph. Some of them took those receipts to the polling booths but they were not accepted as valid identity.

If the Registrar of Persons Department was serious or concerned, they could have issued those ID cards in the two month period, which would have enabled another 5,000 people to cast their votes.

One main shortcoming in issuing ID cards is that our people don't have birth certificates. In the past, maybe 20 years ago, a lot of children were born in the estates. It was the superintendent's duty to register the births but this was not done. Those people don't have their birth registered. This problem has to be solved somehow.

Some special action is required immediately to overcome this problem. Today the young people sitting for the GCE O/Level or A/Level are able to get their ID cards through the school. Only those who drop out are unable to get the NIC through other sources.

Now most births take place in hospitals and the hospitals register the births in a proper manner. It is those births that were not taking place in the hospitals that were not registered properly.

Q: Has this government done enough to ensure the rights of the up-country Tamils? What more can be done?

A: The public sector has only 8% Tamil speaking people. In the plantations, among the Indian origin Tamil people, their share of public sector employment is 0.2% So when they go to an office and try to deal with the government, they have to do it in Sinhala, which they don't understand. Or they have to take a middle man to translate, which is another cost for them. The middle man also becomes a broker for various nefarious payments.

One of the most important things to do is to have a sufficient number of Tamil speaking officers who can deal with these people in their language. In 2003 the Public Administration Ministry wrote to the Attorney General asking how this can be rectified in terms of the 1995 Supreme Court ruling.

It can be done. If it is an affirmative action towards these people, then recruitment on ethnic ratio can be done. This process started in 2003 but unfortunately it has not progressed further.

State sector employment should be shared by all communities. Today the people of Indian origin are a backward community as far as education is concerned. So some affirmative action is necessary to bring them on par with the rest of the country.

Maybe in another 30 years time we will all be equal in education. Then maybe it won't be necessary to have a special arrangement for people of Indian origin. But until we become equally empowered with education and capacity to compete, we have to be given a special arrangement. I'm sure everyone would consider it a fair thing.

If we are to compete equally with the rest of the people, our schools and teachers have to improve. So many things have to be improved and that cannot be done overnight. It will take another generation to improve. It was only in 2006 that we got a teacher student ratio in plantation schools, equivalent to the national ratio, when 3,179 teachers were appointed. This process has to go on for us to come on par.

Q: If this government is not supporting the up country Tamils, why are you supporting them?

A: The citizenship issue was there from 1948 to 1988. Every government we have dealt with we keep urging, and even this government we are urging. It doesn't happen overnight. My Leader, Sauramoorthy Thondaman was with the UNP government from 1978 but only in 1988 he was able to achieve citizenship rights for our people. You don't get everything before you go in. When you are in you keep fighting.

In 2001 we joined the UNP government. After two years we were able to achieve citizenship rights for those persons who had asked to be repatriated. During those two years we dealt with the government and got citizenship granted to about 300,000 people.

Q: Does the party see a problem with the limited Tamil representation in the police forces of the Central Province?

A: During the last two years we (Tamils) have been offered opportunities to join the police service. But we did not have enough applicants to join. They are reluctant to join due to fear of working in the police force. There is some social problem that makes them not willing to serve in the police force. One reason we thought was that they were afraid of going to the north east, which they do not want to do.

There is a need for Tamil speaking police officers around the country, and there is an assurance that they will not be posted to the north east. Still there aren't enough applicants. We advertised and called people for meetings and advised them. But when the Police Department tried to hold interviews only 25 people showed up.

Q: If there is no will amongst the Tamils to join the police force how can you complain about them not being represented adequately in the public service?

A: There is a reluctance and resistance to join the police force. There are enough people willing to join the civilian services as clerks, officers and any other capacity. Take the CPC and Ports Authority, Tamils are banned from recruitment, which is totally unfair. It is government policy.

Even to get a pass as a wharf clerk to enter the port, for a Tamil person entering this field, it is impossible. The police are asked to give police reports, which are not given. This is definitely discrimination.

Q: You're saying that the government deliberately discriminates against Tamils here?

A: The security system, or the defence system in the country is discriminating against Tamils. They cannot join the Petroleum Corporation or the Ports Authority. There may be other institutions as well, but these two institutions do not recruit any Tamils.

Q: Is the CWC in agreement with the government that the Tigers must be wiped out before looking to implement a political solution?

A: No I do not think the Tigers can be destroyed. They are not individuals or persons. It is a movement. Until the needs of the people of the north east are met, the LTTE will not be destroyed. That movement will exist.

Q: The UNP has highlighted the need for the entire government to speak with one voice with regards to solving the ethnic conflict via the APRC. Does the CWC see the diversity of requirements from various parties as a stumbling block to this process?

A: That is their opinion. If they were willing to participate in creating that consensus it would have been better. But at least they have openly stated that they are willing to consider a federal solution. We appreciate that. Today they are saying that if there is a consensus within the government parties they will support it.

The chairman of the APRC has announced that he is going to forward them a document which represents the 95% consensus that we have reached.

That is progress. If the UNP looks at it and comes back with their suggestions, that will be very welcome, and I hope they will do it. In this process everyone has to be sincere.

Q: There is a perception especially in Colombo that the CWC is taking advantage of its influence over the Indian Tamils and politically manipulating them for its own benefit, but joining every government but not confronting governments head on about issues facing their people. What is your response to this?

A: The CWC is doing everything possible towards the needs of the people of Indian origin, and no one can say it is not being done. We are taking up our issues in the appropriate forum. It doesn't mean that we get on the streets and hold placards just for public consumption.

We are working in a different, more effective way. We talk to the government, we convince them and get them to do the right thing. That is more productive than coming out on stage and making statements that do not help anybody. You might have seen people were mass arrested and taken to Boossa. We could have had a picketing in some place and made noisy statements to come in the media and press.

We did a more practical thing. We went and met the people who were arrested. We got the needed information and went to the Supreme Court, and got the court to order the government to release them. We effectively served these people in a better way than making noise for public propaganda to build up a political base. That's not how we do it.

One thing is we are not running behind publicity, but we're doing a lot of work.

Q: What are the CWC's goals and milestones for its remaining years under this government?

A: We don't have goals for two years. We have goals for our people, for them to be equal like any other community in this country. Our target is to make it happen as quickly as possible, and we are working towards that. All our demands are to achieve equality for our people.

Q: What impact has the lack of land ownership had on the Indian-origin Tamils? What has the CWC done to address this?

A: Until 1988 we didn't have the right to own property. The people existed in the line rooms given by the estate managements. So they don't have any rights to those houses even today. In 1994 the UNP said they were giving us deeds for the line rooms and the accompanying lands. Up to today it has not become reality. This is something that we have been fighting for.

We are also asking that these dwellings, that are just line rooms today become proper individual houses. That is the greatest need of our people today. Towards this goal we want 20,000 houses to be built per year, for the next 10 years so we will achieve housing for our people in 10 years' time.

In 2005, 4,500 houses were started but even those have not been completed. Holding land for cultivation is a bigger thing, but at least they must have a house to live in, as their homestead. We are not demanding this, but when others are given land we must also be considered. This is why we need that power to devolve a council for the people of Indian origin.

Q: If the CWC were able to walk into the President's House today and have Mahinda Rajapakse grant any single wish, with no limit or restriction and guaranteed delivery, what would it be?

A: If he will give us immediately an assurance that he will provide enough funds to build 200,000 houses for the landless families of Indian origin, that would be a great milestone for the CWC in bringing equality for our people.

courtesy : editor@thesundayleader.lk

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