Tamil parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran speaks exclusively to Padma Rao Sundarji on assignment for the Hindustan Times in Colombo, on his Tamil National Alliance's (TNA) sensational announcement of support to Maithripala Sirisena, the man challenging Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential elections later this week.
HT: Your party was once sympathetic to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which waged and lost a 30 year civil war. All mainstream Colombo parties are anathema to you. And yet, your Tamil National Alliance (TNA) earlier this week announced support for Maithripala Sirisena, the candidate for the opposition who will challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential election later this week. What gives you the confidence to support him? After all, Sirisena too, belongs to Colombo's 'old guard'.Sumanthiran: Our primary, chief motivation is to ensure Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa's defeat and deny him a third term as president. Two terms were enough, they were absolute misery. Not only for us Tamils but the whole country. The minute he called for early elections with an eye on a third term, it was obvious to us, too, that we can't give it to him.
Sumanthiran: Who won the Northern Province elections in September 2013 with an unprecedented 80% majority, defeating Mr Rajapaksa's coalition? The TNA. The people you speak of are a minute percentage. When goodies are distributed, of course some will feel gratitude and obligation. But the overwhelming sentiment of Tamils both in the north and east right now is that Rajapaksa must go - this feeling rings right through.
HT: If there is such unity among your ranks, why did your own provincial councillor in the Northern Province (and wife of a former LTTE cadre) Ananthi Sasitharan and your youth wing leader Sivaharan, call for a boycott of the forthcoming election and publicly oppose your support to Sirisena?
Sumanthiran: The decision to support Sumanthiran was a unanimous one and taken after consultations which included the two members you mention. They conceded that at our meetings but reserved their right to not vote themselves - that is their personal decision. But yes, they went a step too far by publicly canvassing for a boycott. Overwhelmingly, our party cadres have called for disciplinary action against them and we will take it. Anyone who will not support Sirisena, will be indirectly supporting Rajapaksa.
HT: Getting rid of Rajapaksa is one thing. But what makes you so sure that Sirisena - if he wins - will further the aspirations of the Tamils of the North and East?
Sumanthiran: Since the war ended in 2009, our people have not been able to recover their own land - the army is using them as golf courses. The army there has snatched property. There is severe oppression, women are threatened. Then, Rajapaksa did not keep his promise of 'going beyond' the 13th Amendment (which promises devolution and greater powers to the Northern Province), let alone implement it. We hope all this will change.
HT: But Sirisena reiterated yesterday that the army will never been withdrawn from the Northern Province, so that there will never be a lacuna in security and a possible resurgence of separatism.Sumanthiran: That is fine. We are not asking for the army to be withdrawn fully. It must be there for national security and that is acceptable to us. But the size of its presence and its illegal activities must be scaled down and brought to an end.
HT: Astoundingly, your support to Sirisena finds you breaking bread with Sinhalese nationalist parties JVP and JHU, both of which are also supporting him. Defeating Rajapaksa may have brought you together in this unlikely, rainbow coalition. But surely it is one doomed to split up over these very Tamil-Sinhalese issues? If fresh elections called within six months of Sirisena winning them, surely your electorate will feel bitterly let down?
Sumanthiran: Let's wait and see. We are not entertaining too many hopes but we are not ruling anything out either. Most urgently, we need a break from Rajapaksa. The electorate knows fully well that if he returns to power, there will be no change. Whereas a change of regime may bring fresh winds.