Head of Northern Province:
‘If Southerners Knew What Happened In The North, They Would Feel For Us’
The chief minister of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, a Tamil-majority area, believes the only way to unite the country is by dividing it, with a federal system.
Outspoken Tamil politician, C.V. Wigneswaran, the Chief Minister of the Northern Province, is a cause of concern to some Sri Lankans and a cause for celebration for others. Leader of the Tamil National Alliance, Wigneswaran has been staunch in his pursuit of Tamil rights and for domestic and international recognition that not all Tamils are terrorists. He talked to The Catamaran about why he believes the best way for Sri Lankans to reconcile is the long-promised devolution of political power to the country’s provincial governments, both in the north and the south.
The Catamaran: It seems that people have very different opinions about you, depending on whether they are in the north or the south of Sri Lanka. Can you explain this?
C.V. Wigneswaran: I don’t change. I am always the same. It’s just that many southerners only know me through the media or via information they get from other people.
I believe that is because when I say something about the south, it is communicated in a very different way. For example, when a certain temple was being built I said it was wrong to build a Buddhist temple without adhering to the country’s laws. And I did not approve of the fact that the security forces were used to help build that temple. But in the south, this was reported in the media with a headline like: Northern chief says Buddhist temples should be banned and not built.
I don’t even think the government knows how much land the military has taken in the north.
There are so many big fat lies being told about me in the south. I have no need to say anything that would divide the country.
The Catamaran: You say you think the northern provinces should be given more power and independence. What’s stopping this from happening?
Wigneswaran: In 1987 the provinces were given power under the Indo-Sri-Lanka Accord [this peace deal with the Tamil Tigers involved the central government in Colombo promising to give more power to the northern provinces]. Then in 1991, that was taken away again. Now our administrations work in parallel to the central government. But that doesn’t work.
Whenever we do something, they come in and do something else. People have a problem with that. But if they just left us to it, the people would have no problem.
There should be no difference between the provincial government and the central government in terms of what we deliver. We work on behalf of the Sri Lankan people and we adhere to laws made by the government.
The Catamaran: What are your feelings about potential changes to this new Sri Lankan Constitution that may impact on the provinces?
Wigneswaran: I don’t know exactly what those changes are. We had heard that they wanted to go beyond the 13th Amendment [this was an amendment made to the country’s Constitution in 1987 which promised power to the provinces]. But even if there are no changes, then let them simply implement the 13th amendment the way it was intended. Because what is taken by one hand, must be given by the other.
Given all that, I would argue that the central government should be willing to share power. They need to start thinking this way. We have no problem if power is devolved to the southern provinces. But give us our power too. But as always, they try and keep everything in their own hands [in Colombo].
The Catamaran: The new Constitution is apparently going to give northerners more police powers.
Wigneswaran: I’m not sure. We had heard that police powers below the rank of Deputy Inspector General of Police would be given. But then they said it would be only below the rank of Senior Superintendent of Police. At the moment, we have only one Tamil Senior Superintendent. Other than that, it’s just Assistant Superintendents.
We are not sure what can be done under those circumstances. There are 150,000 security personnel in the north. We can’t do anything about them. And people are afraid. These security people are taking people’s homes and gardens and keeping them.
I believe that if the Sinhala people knew what was going on in our areas, they would not think badly of us.
The Catamaran: You have said that the military is keeping a lot of land for themselves in the north, even though the fighting finished long ago.
Wigneswaran: Of the land they seized [after the civil war ended] only a small amount has been released back to the locals. The military tell the government: Don’t give the land back, the country will be divided in half. But if they don’t give it back and they wait another 15 years, then some other group will rise up and really divide the country again.
I know that if we are in charge the country will not be divided. And to be honest I don’t even think the government knows how much land the military has taken in the north.
The Catamaran: How do you think the new Sri Lankan Constitution can help to resolve ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka?
Wigneswaran: The Northern Province’s council has given the government a proposal. We suggest a more federal system, one that will not divide the country but unite it.
Canada is not divided. The United Kingdom has a federal system. Many small territories make up Switzerland.
The Sinhala politicians are afraid of this truth. But the people should be made aware of it.