Transcript: Sri Lanka's Pillayan
'A Just Struggle was Turned Into a Terrorist One'
FEBRUARY 1, 2009 WSJ
@The Wall Street
The Wall Street Journal's Peter Wonacott interviewed Sivanesathurai Santhirakanthan, a former Tamil Tiger child soldier who goes by Pillayan, on Jan. 18, 2009. Pillayan is no longer a rebel -- now he's the government-backed, democratically-elected chief minister of the eastern province of Sri Lanka. Below is an edited transcript, translated from Tamil by Thava Sajitharan.
The Wall Street Journal: Can you tell us why and when you joined the Tamil Tigers?
Pillayan: I joined in 1991. The Tamil Tigers launched what is known as the Eelam war II. Violence erupted in many parts of the country and a large number of people were killed. As a result, Tamil youth increasingly began to join the Tigers. The organization recruited a formidable number of members from the East during that period. I was one of them. Two of my classmates were killed in the conflict at that time.
WSJ: What was life like as a Tamil Tiger?
Pillayan: I joined the outfit when I was very young. In the first six months, I was given military training. Then I was attached to the political wing of the Tigers. I was stationed in Batticaloa.
WSJ: What is a political wing? What are its activities?
Pillayan: The Tigers have several units such as political wing, military wing, intelligence wing, financial wing, et cetera. There were several duties assigned to the political wing. One task was to study the history and educate the public about it. The duties also included carrying out propaganda and recruiting members.
WSJ: During these years, did you have any doubts about what you were doing?
Pillayan: We didn't have doubts. Not only me, the entire Tamil community had faith in the Tigers.
The history of the Tamil struggle in this country is long. The democratic struggles staged by Tamils at the earlier stages of the post-independence era were suppressed by those who ruled the country at that time. There were non-violent protests. After these efforts were subdued, Tamils took to arms.
WSJ: In 1997, the U.S. declared the Tamil Tigers a terrorist organization. You were with them at that time. Did you believe it was a terrorist organization? Did you see things then that you now believe were wrong?
Pillayan: If you see the issue at stake from a historical perspective, you will understand that at the beginning, Tamils launched the military struggle with the view of winning their rights. But during the course of that struggle, leadership tussles began to crop up. That led to internecine conflicts. As a result, the voice of the Tamils fragmented. The Tigers started killing all [their] opponents. At the same time the world's perception toward terrorism began to change. It also became apparent that the Tiger leader (Velupillai Prabhakaran) was a self-centered person seeking revenge for his personal grievances… A just struggle was turned into a terrorist one.
WSJ: What did you think of Mr. Prabhakaran at that time?
Pillayan: When I was with the Tamil Tigers, he was a good leader. In terms of discipline, he is one of the best leaders that the Tamil community has had. I and so many others were impressed by him at that time. But because of his excessive passion for the Tamils -- you can even call it 'frenzy' -- and his lack of foresightedness, the community was weakened and the struggle branded as a terrorist one.
His nature was such that all he was eager to do was to attack those who came to attack him. He never had a thought as to how it would affect the community; how it would damage the organization.
WSJ: How big was the organization in the 1990s?
Pillayan: Approximately, there were 25,000 members in the organization.
WSJ: Now they reportedly have only 1, 600 in the Northeast, is that right?
Pillayan: Could be. A large number of carders have been killed.
WSJ: Why did you come out of the Tigers?
Pillayan: It was not a personal decision. Divisions began to emerge within the organization based on whether a member was from Jaffna or Batticaloa. During the cease-fire period, there were disputes within the organization concerning the administrative process. At the same time there were personal differences between Prabakharan and Col. Karuna Amman who was in charge of us in the East. So we broke away in 2004.
WSJ: What was the problem between Mr. Prabakharan and Col. Karuna?
Pillayan: What the Vanni leadership said was that Karuna Amman lacked discipline. We at that time saw Karuna Amman as our leader. And there were these simmering internal disputes. That caused the split.
WSJ: There was obviously a lot of anger about how the government was treating the Tamils. How did you plan to continue fighting for Tamil rights apart from the Tamil Tigers? What was the plan?
Pillayan: We joined the movement with the view of achieving liberation for our people who were living in misery. We reached a point where we realized that those rights we were fighting for could not be achieved militarily.
The world was changing rapidly. By then the Tigers had been branded as a terrorist outfit. And we thought the government would no longer be able to continue deceiving the international community and deny the Tamils their due rights. It was with this hope that we split up. We believed we could build ourselves up into a strong political force.
We broke away during the ceasefire period. The Tigers had a plan to drag the war out. After the split, the Tigers started killing members of our faction. That necessitated retaliatory action from our side. And there were frequent attacks. The government made good use of it and launched assaults against the Tigers.
WSJ: Who is the leader of your political party?
Pillayan: It's a complicated issue. As I said, after the split, the Tigers started attacking us and we were left to fight against them at the frontiers of our region. Then the East was liberated (by the government). When we registered the TMVP (Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal) as a political party, Karuna Amman was not in the country. Therefore we had to name someone else as the leader of the party. In March 2008, we contested the local polls in Batticaloa and registered a landslide victory. Subsequently we captured the Provincial Councils. Afterwards, Karuna Amman returned to the country.
WSJ: Did you believe the Tigers were coming after you?
Pillayan: They attempted to destroy all of us completely. That is why we were compelled to fight back.
WSJ: You had the elections and you became chief minister… Was there any negotiation with Col. Karuna as to whether he will be chief minister or not?
Pillayan: As I stated earlier, when we registered our party, we mentioned Mr. Kumaraswamy Nanthagopan as the president since Karuna Amman was not present in the country. Had he (Karuna) been in the country at that time, he would have officially been declared the leader. He could have even become the chief minister. But that was not to be. I was in charge of the leadership. We contested the provincial elections in alliance with the ruling party (at the center) and won.
Under the Sri Lankan constitution, Karuna Amman could not be appointed as the chief minister (as he was not elected by the people).
WSJ: How do you divide your duties and responsibilities? It sounds like you have an official leader and an unofficial leader….
Pillayan: Well, it has become a dilemma. I had respect for Amman (Karuna). I even considered offering my chief minister post to him. Yet, the laws did not provide for such an appointment. Moreover, even our supporters were not in favor of such a move. 'Why should somebody who is dishonest and not elected by the people be given the position?' they asked.
WSJ: Is Karuna playing a supportive role now in parliament or is he playing a negative role?
Pillayan: It's problematic. Even though we honored him (by getting a parliamentary seat for him), he is refusing to honor us in turn. He has gone to the extent of criticizing our provincial council.
WSJ: Do you think the central government is trying to resolve the conflict between you and Col. Karuna or is it exploiting the conflict to weaken the provincial council?
Pillayan: Definitely, this has created a favorable situation for the central government. On one hand, the government doesn't want to give powers to the provincial council. On the other, it is trying to keep the TMVP under its thumb by influencing Karuna. The central government is trying to create problems in the region.
WSJ: What are your priorities to develop this part of the country and what are the obstacles?
Pillayan: I am of the view that law and order and development of the region should be brought under the purview of the provincial council. Only then can we carry out the development activities the way we want to. We should have the power to collect taxes from our people and expend that money for their betterment.
Even though seven months have elapsed since the Eastern Provincial Council began to operate, the laws to enable the implementation of these things have not been introduced as yet.
WSJ: Can you be specific? What would you like to do that you can't do now?
Pillayan: There are several difficulties. We can't collect taxes. We can't even employ the people that we want to. There is a need to appoint 50 teachers to schools in remote villages. We are unable to do it.
WSJ: Do you also want police power?
WSJ: The central government says they have an independent police commission that appoints the police. So what is the problem?
Pillayan: The power is in the hands of central government. The government thinks if they gave that power to us, then all other provinces will also start asking for it.
WSJ: Do you have the power to attract foreign investment Or does the central government control that too?
Pillayan: There are obstacles in obtaining foreign investments, too. The central government allocates to us only the funds that are given specifically for the purpose of developing North and East by foreign governments. It does not share other foreign funds with us.
WSJ: What has the U.S. contributed to the development of the Eastern Province?
Pillayan: They have contributed quite a lot. They have helped us develop our economy as well as the educational sector. The U.S. army commander of the Pacific region is keenly interested in the development of the region. He visited the backward areas of the East recently. We are encouraged by the help of the international community.
But the provincial council ought to be strengthened by means of devolving more power. That is vital to sustain the development in the long run and make it viable.
WSJ: With all these problems, do you think the provincial council is a good model to apply to the north?
Pillayan: The government will go for a similar model in the North too. There is no other option. Once the ongoing war is over, the government will hold provincial elections there. Nonetheless, the North is different from the East. Even if they destroyed the Tamil Tiger leadership, it will take a long time for the central government to win the hearts of the people there because they have long been subject to repression. The government will need to strive hard.
WSJ: Are you optimistic about provincial councils or is the structure flawed?
Pillayan: We have accepted the provincial council structure. But we need to be vested with due powers so as to fulfill the needs of the people.
WSJ: Because you don't have police powers, do you still need your own paramilitary forces to protect you?
Pillayan: Few of our members are still armed. We will hand over those weapons once the war is brought to an end. We are in the process of rehabilitating our armed cadres. We established a political party because we realized that we weren't going to accomplish anything from a military fight. There is no need for us to remain armed. When we get the necessary political powers, the weapons in our possession will disappear.