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Exclusive video interview with Somawansa Amarasinghe, the Leader of JVP, in English

Two weeks after I had interviewed Prof. Tissa Vitharana on, among other things, the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, I spoke with the Leader of the JVP Somawansa Amarasinghe for his take on constitutional reform.

During the course of our interview, Mr. Amarasinghe came out strongly in favour of the rights of all minorities, the need to meaningfully look into the well-being of Tamils interned in IDP camps and the importance of a secular State. Recalling the violent history of the JVP, he suggested that it was government that pushed the JVP to violence, yet saw little parallel between this violence and that of militant Tamil nationalism. Acknowledging that inequality, the marginalisation of Tamil youth and the denial of some of their rights led to the rise of violent conflict, Mr. Amarasinghe said the JVP accepted the historic repression of Tamil youth, but that this was justification for the violence to establish Eelam.

On the other hand, he said that he was very concerned that history could repeat itself if legitimate grievances of the Tamil were not addressed after the end of the war, and came out strongly against the continuing and constitutionally enshrined language discrimination in Sri Lanka.

When I asked him about internal self-determination, he said that the JVP was strongly opposed to it. He was also strident in his opposition to the 13th Amendment, stating that it was an ill-drafted piece of legislation imposed by force after India’s invasion of Sri Lanka. He went on to clearly note that power sharing within a unitary state was impossible.

Acknowledging that most of the voters were with the President, Mr. Amarasinghe nevertheless said that many had been misled about the activities of the JVP and that anyone outside of government was today branded as a supporter of the LTTE.

I asked how this was different to the rhetoric of the JVP. For his answer and for the JVP’s vision for the future of Sri Lanka, please watch the interview in full.

  • Justice

    Just makes me wonder,If every ones vision for SL is a multicultural,multiethnic,democracy and people should have powers to do what is necessary for them to prosper as a community,then where is the difference and why we are not able to come to a consensus?
    The sincerity in these statements are called into question.Mr.Vitharana and Mr.Samarasinghe both agree on many fundamental issues yet not able to forge a consensus .
    Mr.Samarasinghe didn’t give a cohesive arquement why he is opposing devolution other than his paranoia, that devolution will be the step towards disintegration.
    Let me ask him has India disintegrated yet?Only states that disintegrated where the once so called Marxist/socialist states ,be it Yugoslavia,Czechoslovakia&USSR.Isn’t that enough prove to demonstrated that his ideological base is non existent in today’s world. Sincerity,transparency,empowering people ,accountability, honesty and rule of law with usual checks and balances to protect abuse power are good governing principle than any so called ideological base be it capitalist or socialist.Be pragmatic.

  • Atheist

    I agree with Somawansa Amarasinge’s idea of having a secular state in which all three langues will be represented. I’ve nothing against religion but it should be practiced at home. I appreciate his forthcoming manner, and participation in this dialogue.

  • Heshan

    He is correct that the 13th Amendment won’t work, but the reason has nothing to do with separatism. On the contrary, the 13th Amendment does not devolve power in any meaningful way. The so-called “Provincial Councils”, for example, can be dissolved at a moments notice by the Center. He is right that the 13th Amendment was the brainchild of India… however, that by itself is a poor justification for not going ahead with it. There is no such thing as a “home-grown” political solution; every political solution has been tried elsewhere at some point in history. In any case, the only political solution that will now work, besides separatism, is federalism. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan Government and its powerful orange-robed companion, the Maha Sangha, have for too long spoon-feed the masses the notion that any form of power-sharing with the minorities is equivalent to separatism. To undo such a mentality in the South is extremely difficult. Federalism cannot be understood by feudal minds; it is a very sophisticated concept – a modern one – that takes for granted the acceptance of multiculturalism, secularism, checks and balances in the civil service, etc. Sri Lanka, sadly, seems to be stuck in the permanent quagmire of nepotism and total repression of civil liberties. Its parliament is staffed by – yes, that’s right, more gentlemen in orange. We should accept that no political solution worth a grain of salt is possible in such an environment. Miraculously enough, I think Somawamsa touched on this, but not as forcefully as one would have liked.

    I pointed out that separatism will work. Yes it will. There is no absolute God-given reason to have a unitary state. Just like there is no absolute, God-given reason for a wife to stay with a man who beats her. Reconciliation is not always possible. True reconciliation cannot be based on mistrust; it is based on a mutual understanding of there being a delicate wound, albeit one still exposed, and carefully and delicately sidestepping that wound, all the while giving it time to heal. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to reopen the wound, to inject it with the old poison of prejudice and vengeance. It is a delicate balancing act that I don’t think “Sri Lanka” is ever capable of performing. The threshold of “no return”, as far as gaining the trust of the minorities, was crossed long ago. The best thing to do now is put aside this silly Westminister Model, to put aside the notion of a unitary state with all power at the Center – and either give the minorities a separate state or a federal state.

  • The Underdog

    Thanks Sanjana for that excellent interview. I am pleasantly surprised by Mr Amarasinghe. Though there is much that I disagree with, namely his confused justification of violence, he expressed some salient points and opened my eyes to a different way of perceiving the national question. Two fantastic points he made: this country must be secular–to hear a largely sinhala-buddhist party say this boldly is refreshing; the government must not have a declared language–they should simply communicate in whatever language the people communicate in (in this case sinhala, tamil, and english). And the most important point is that the JVP dislikes the 13th mainly because it is viewed as something foreign, forced on us by the Indians. Though it seems childish to oppose it purely for this reason, clearly this view is shared by large swathes of the public. The term devolution too seems to carry a secessionist bent to it (for whatever reason). So why not call it decentralization (Mr Amarasinghe’s term, and a new term in the political landscape so to speak); why not do away with the 13th, and implement a so called ‘indigenous’ piece of legislation that grants all the decentralizing powers of the 13th and more. Mr Amarasinghe clearly stated that decentralization WITH funds is what is needed. And I think we can all agree on that (prof. Vitharana included–his ideas on devolving power to the villages after all is decentralization, is it not?). So perhaps what we need is to change the language of how we sell this to the public. What is striking to me is that the opposing views on the national question seem to be suggesting the same solution, but are disagreeing on how to label it. It looks like we already have a consensus. Someone just needs to find a way to use that.

  • Milly

    Interesting interview. Seems JVP wants decentralisation whereas government wants devolution of power without decentralization (where President appoints provincial governor). What I gather is that JVP thinks the 13th Amendment will only mean tight control of the provinces by the centre (and thus ultimately not a genuine devolution of power). Perhaps he’s right. JVP wants constitutional change to provide guarantees against fascist-type rule. Other people too have spoken of 13th Amendment as a structure that will allow the Sinhalese-dominated central government to control the provinces while appearing not to do so.

    Also, JVP thinks the 13th Amendment will provide space in the future for Tamil separation (though he doesn’t make clear why he thinks this).

    JVP doesn’t want MR’s party to use the coalition on which it came to power against JVP as one of the coalition’s partners. He says his party never gave the President the mandate to make such constitutional changes.

  • Basu

    Minorities need a secular state, political solution, where ever majority dominates equality, for example, no standardization that is the equality

    Majority should not talk anything that preserves the majority. If anything said about that that will be racism, maximalism, chauvanism, IC get angry, IC will be upset, India will be upset.

    Look at an old country UK. It has only the English as the major language. Anglican church is the major religion. Everybody accepts Englich – British Culture. But, British havn’t banned other religeons. Other languages can used in their homes. but, they won’t be able to get a job with their mother foreign tongue.

    Then look at all the New world countries. English and the Christian church is the major language and the religion.

    So, what is the logics that people don’t want to understand.

  • jan

    Hundred odd minister in central Government another set of ministers in the provincial government ,then another set of politicians in the local government another set of political appointees in public service and foreign dipolomatic service. Can SL afford to up keep all these politicians and there henchman ? 13th amendment is only bringing in added burdens on the poor of this country who are suffering. It should be banned.

  • Upali Ranatunga

    No any one should be fear of 13. We had since our kings period power distributions such as , Korale Nilame, Rate mahathtaya, Etc. Now it has come to the stage of Chief Minister level. Central government should decide what stage of power should be given what should not.

  • cassandra

    The 13th Amendment is clearly not the answer to the problem. It was forced on the country by India, was hastily and poorly conceived . The Tamils have not shown much enthusiasm for it either and we might as well forget it and find a better solution. I don’t like the concept of ‘power sharing’. This implies the existence of separate parties, which is one of the things we must get away from. However, the just grievances of the minorities must be addressed and met and the majority must realise that sheer numbers don’t give them the right to lord it over the minorities. Importantly, we also need to find a solution without too much delay. The longer the ‘problem’ remains the longer that politicians will be able to exploit it to their advantage and resort to all manner of undemocratic things. It is not merely the minorities who have legitimate grievances – all groups have. The authorities can afford to ignore these if there is a national ‘problem’ behind which to seek refuge.

  • Realist

    Firstly I must say that it is not economically feasible to implement both languages throughout the Island as envisaged. it is too costly and unnecessary. That is why devolution of power to the North & East can prove a solution to the language problem of the Tamil people. Decentralization menas power continues with the bureaucracy and the provincial bureaucracy was always under tight control of the central bureaucracy. So devolution of power to elected officials rather than appointed bureaucrats is the only way to make the people to influence decision-making at the local level which matters to them.If all cittizens activities can be done at the Provincial level and below then it would not be necessary for them to insist on both languages being used.Land is vested in the State on behalf of the peope and hence it should be vested in the PCs for how the land is to be used must be decided by the local people not the central government except for certain large scale national projects where the central government should decide in consultation witth the PCs.

  • dingiri

    Questions I would have like asked and answered honestsly..

    1. Let us assume for arguments sake that the 13th amendment arose from within Sri Lanka and was not imposed by India. Can you tell me in point form what exactly you disagree with it’s provisions and why?

    2. You say you are against devolution but are for decentralisation. Could you please explain to our listeners what you see as the difference between the two. For instance, if we can partition the land fairly between the communities, do you object to Tamils directly electing their own leaders, collecting their own revenues through taxation and deciding on how those revenues are spent on education, health and public services. Do you think it is necessary for a head of state elected predominantly by the Sinhalese to interefere with this process?

  • SHANE

    Mr. Amarasinghe is totally wrong when he said that Tamil (youths) did not ‘try’ alternative ‘non-violent’ methods before taking up arms. JVP leader should study the Tamil civil disobedient non violent struggle from 1948 to 1980 in the north and east. It also once occurred in Colombo’s gall face green near the then Parliament. Mr. Amarasinghe’s other blunder is that he justifies JVP’s right to take up arms against state terrorism while dismissing the same right to Tamils. He says he is against armed action against state but quickly take cover by referring to JVP’s own armed violence as ‘reaction to state oppression’. We are aware of some level of state oppression practiced against JVP in 1970s and 1980s. But they were not massive enough to give JVP’s Deshapremi terrorists an automatic license to take up arms. Besides the state terrorism against JVP was the reaction of the state. The state had to react to JVP’s armed violence against the 13th amendment during the 1989 period. Of course there was state terrorism in the forms of extra judicial killings and enforced disappearances similar what happens to Tamils today. But these 1989 chain of events were started by JVP by it’s violent opposition to a piece of law passed in the Parliament of Sri Lanka. SLFP too opposed the 13th amendment then but did not resort to armed struggle against the legitimate government. It is only JVP took up arms. The end result was over 50,000 mostly Sinhala youths were killed. In that terror run, the temple of democracy, the Parliament and the temple of tooth, the Dalada Mandiraya both were bombed by JVP. By going by his own argument one could ask Mr. Amarasinghe, why his party did not chose non violent methods to oppose 13th amendment? This writer is not for any armed violence with Tamil or Sinhala or Muslims tags but only wanted to expose the double talk and unfaithfulness of the JVP leader Mr. Amarasinghe. – SHANE

  • kichchi

    I think that I am a very late participant in the above topic. Better late than never.

    Most of the participants seem to be like-minded. While agreeing with most of the ideas expressed above by the participants I do disagree with one idea of the JVP leader. He goes on to clearly note that power sharing within a unitary state was impossible because most probably he has not read my suggestions for a new concept in sharing of power. In my humble opinion “devolution of power” is different from “sharing of power”.

    Please find below the new concept “for sharing power” for good governance in he country. It is truly home-grown solution and if accepted and implemented, would be model to the world to fight bribery, corruption, discrimination and injustice, the four pillars of an evil society

    The best political solution to address the problems faced by various sections of the Sri Lankan society – particularly the poor, the politically weak and the “minorities” who do not carry any “political weight” – would be to DILUTE the powers of all elected representatives of the people by separating the various powers of the Parliament and by horizontally empowering different sets of people’s representatives elected on different area basis to administer the different sets of the separated powers at different locations.

    It has to be “sharing of power” HORIZONTALLY where each and every set of representatives would be in the SAME LEVEL as equals and in par and NOT VERTICALLY, where one set of representatives would be above (more powerful than) the other, which is the normal adopted practice when talking of devolution, in this power-hungry world. It is because “devolution of power” has been evolved “vertically”, we have all the trouble in this power-hungry world. So, for sustainable peace it should not be the present form of “devolution of power” but “dilution of powers” or “meaningful sharing of powers” in such a way that no single person or single set of people’s representatives be “superior” to another.

    This system would help to eradicate injustice, discrimination, bribery and corruption – the four pillars of an evil society – and help to establish the “Rule of Law” and “Rule by ALL” for sustainable peace, tranquility and prosperity and a pleasant harmonious living with dignity and respect for all the inhabitants in the country. Everyone must have “equal” powers, rights, duties and responsibilities and most importantly everyone should be deemed “equal” and treated “equally” before the law not only on paper but also practically – be it the Head of State, The Chief Justice or the voiceless and weightless poor of the poorest in the country.