Batti political family scion beckons Tamils away from politics of hateSeptember 25, 2011, 7:14 pm
by Rohan Abewardena
Q: You have grand ideas, but you are yet relatively unknown here as a businessman and politician so can you tell us something about your self and your background.
I come from a famous political family in Batticaloa. My father was Sam Tambimuttu, a member of parliament. He was assassinated by the LTTE along with my mother in 1990. They were gunned down in front of the Canadian High Commission at Gregory's Road. My mother passed away ten days after the shooting. At the time I was about 14 years of age. After the assassination of my parents I went to UK and did my secondary and higher education there. I obtained a degree in economics from the University of Durham. Then I got involved in investment fund management and I lived away for 20 years. I returned to Sri Lanka three times after the assassination of my parents - all three times to renew my passport. I still hold a Sri Lankan passport. I never took a foreign citizenship. I never thought the day would arrive when I would come back to Sri Lanka and specifically to Batticaloa where we are hailing from. When I came back it struck me, it struck me a lot because I travelled the length and breadth of Eastern Province and Sri Lanka as a whole. I always knew our country is very beautiful and resourceful, but if you look at the past 60 years, since independence I feel we failed. We failed in many areas, but primarily our resources and what we have been given in this blessed island, but we have not achieved our full potential. So I had to ask questions, especially about Batticaloa, because I feel Batticaloa is immensely resource rich, but nothing has moved. People have not exploited the natural resources of the region. People are still quite poor with lot of unemployment. So I began to ask questions because my family members were part of the political process there. My mother's father, Senator Manickckam was one of the founding leaders of the Federal Party along with H.A.V. Chelvanayakam. My father of course was a representative of TULF and my mother was an activist from the late 60s. My great granduncle was also a State Council member. He was more a Ceylonese nationalist and not a Tamil nationalist.
When I look into history of how my immediate ancestors had an impact. My father was very much liberal, but still their generation could not help what Sri Lanka should have become. In self-analysis of seeing what went wrong I thought I needed to do something about it. Why do I need to do something about it? Somebody has to make the start and truly understand why we have gone through this? I thought about economics, but it's also politics. What I found was all the leaders, even astute leaders they may have been have always been in the opposition. So how could they have done any development work? I felt they were spending far too much of their time on trying to create this conflict resolution without understanding the greater scope of this island. So my primary thought was to come and invest and bring lot of investment here. I felt that we could do wonders here and as I came in naturally I also started seeing the political arena. I was invited to join the TNA. My immediate reaction was to reject it because I felt the way it has been propagating its views, is no different from what the TULF was propagating from the 1970s. My view is that the only way one can start to make a change from this historic reality is to break from those historic constraints and take a new path. I joined the SLFP and I am the Chief Organiser for the Batticaloa electorate. It was a bold decision in my opinion because of my background and also seeing the local political realities there.
Q:Why did the LTTE kill your parents?
They were Tamil nationalists. My father who was a lawyer was also a human rights activist. He felt at the time the LTTE was hell bent on destroying Tamil civil society. In fact he was very clear on that. Even when the Indian Peace Keeping Force arrived there his view was that there has to be a genuine political consideration shown by the Tamil leadership to end what went on. He felt that once that can be achieved there should be lasting peace. He was critical of LTTE as it was highly militarised and felt that were never going to come to a solution. He was vocally against the LTTE and propagated the view that the LTTE was committing many human rights violations at the time. The LTTE never accepted decent. When one was critical all they did was to shoot that person. My father was a victim of being an outspoken critic of the LTTE. My view on all this is that the fault line starts from the Federal Party and the TULF. Why? In the 1960s the Federal Party took a stance that anyone who did not conform to its agenda was regarded as unfriendly towards the Tamil cause and then in the 70s the TULF, which became more radical took the view that anyone opposed to their own political stance were traitors and that was taken to a different level by the LTTE and all other militant organisations that grew at the time. Once you let the worm out of the can it just spreads. My view is that was the cause. My father's view was that the Tamil society had become very much a mono ideological society without any acceptance of different views and alternative ideas. At the time I was very young yet he discussed with me stating that the state of the Tamils is that many mistakes were made and we are going to pay a heavy price. Killing of my parents was not unique because the LTTE and other Tamil militant organisations had carried out many atrocities. If you want to carry out a historic survey of it, I will tell you in every village the memories might be long in people's minds, but many people were killed because somebody did not agree with their views.
Q: It is not only your family even TULF Leader A. Amirthalingam's family have come to regret some of their earlier beliefs and has since his assassination come to look at things quite differently.
You are right Amirathalingam's family have regrets and I have spoken to Mrs Amirthalingam. In fact I met her last year.
Q: But why is it that despite having so many of their top leaders being assassinated by the LTTE, people like R. Sampanthan is still in that same line of thinking?
Mr. Sampanthan is a product of a particular time. He is no longer relevant. But unfortunately you have to understand history does play a part, which is Tamil people were radicalised. They were led to believe there were several atrocities committed against them and the Tamil mindset was you go and vote for the Tamil nationalist party. He is a product of that time. Someone like Sampanthan or fellow TNA leaders they can only survive as political leaders in this vacuum where you need an enemy. The enemy becomes a government of the time. May be they are now highly critical of the SLFP and the current government, but they will always be critical of any government of Sri Lanka because in their mindset they have no room for anything other than hatred. I would say communalist mindset is prevalent among them. People like that will always exist until the people realise what is best for their future. Now when several things are harped on by the TNA on current circumstances in Sri Lanka, it must be said that these are the leaders who were for ever fearful of criticising the LTTE. They towed the LTTE line when the LTTE had the weapons and today they are making no apology for their part in the LTTE inhumanely holding thousands and thousands of civilians as a human shield. In fact they have done this historically and these are the left over leaders who still as I said to you earlier their voices and thinking is no different to 1970s. The '77 TULF and the 2011 TNA are no different. You asked me why in fact they will continue to be that way, but remember one thing it disturbs people like Mr. Sampanthan when they allege the government is giving favours to win votes. You go to any part of the democratic world governments do developments and governments create jobs to win elections. That is what the governments do and through this allegation of government doing favours they are trying to pollute the minds of the young. The truth is a good quarter of the northern population has voted against the TNA. Younger people are already realising that these people are not going to provide a secure future for them. But we are dealing with historic realities: if you look at the last 20 years any national party in parliamentary or local government polls have hardly won any percentage of Tamil votes. So we are still dealing with the same realities now. But my view is that the changes are there and changes are well on there way. Where we have difficulty is that we do not have enough counter arguments from within the Tamil community. Unfortunately the Tamil community is deprived of people who can think in an alternative fashion.
Q: Usually the troubles start when youth are without jobs and there are no economic opportunities for them to be gainfully occupied. Being a businessman are you tackling that issue as much as the political debate. What are you doing to increase the size of the economic pie?
I am doing my part to bring in lot of investment into the East, the North and the rest of the country. This problem is not economic and in fact my argument is that it is not isolated to the North and the East. I have spoken to many people from Batticaloa, who have accepted that Batticaloa has gained more in the last couple of years after the war ended with so much rebuilding, lot of investment, good roads than other parts of the country. I have travelled to many areas of Sri Lanka where there is still lot to be done. Economic realities are a national problem and I take a very different view when it comes to economic realities. Economic realities are a common problem affecting people from North, South, East and West, which is the increasing cost of living. In a post war economy where ever it may be Germany, Britain anywhere the cost of living goes up because people want more and productivity is now only starting to progress. The challenge for any government is to keep the cost of living down, ensure more employment is created and wages are increased. Remember our people are still quite poorly paid in Sri Lanka. At the moment I am really looking at the housing system, it is one of two areas which are fundamental to Sri Lanka's future. A majority of our people in my opinion live in poor quality houses. Even when a middleclass person spends three to four million rupees to build a house, that house's standard is still quite poor compared to a country like South Korea or China for the same amount of money. That means we have to bring in 22nd century technology to Sri Lanka so that we can start building low cost, high quality housing. So we are looking at one of those areas. The second area is food. We have to increase food production and we need to ensure food reaches the end user, the general population at a cheap price. An example would be a can of fish in Sri Lanka is about Rs 180 or Rs190 or sometimes it can be even Rs200. The same can if you buy it in the UK in rupee terms it will be Rs 60 to 80. My question is we are an island surrounded by much ocean resources. We have French vessels coming here to take away our catch, but we are unable to produce fish for less than hundred rupees. We are looking at investments where we can ensure the bringing down of the cost of food. As I see it this problem does not have a colour, ethnicity or religion. It is a problem for every man. If you take the TNA Leaders they don't talk about food because they don't have that problem. If you take any TNA leader's children, they are living and studying abroad. How dare they talk about common man's problems? I was also living abroad, but I am not coming here to say that people don't want development and people only want their political rights. Talk about political rights, but economically these people need to be uplifted and if the government is doing that why grumble. I will tell you in fifty years hardly any bridges were built, but today every single bridge is being rebuilt or new bridges have come up where people earlier depended on ferries. That is an example of efforts put in by the government.
(To be continued
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