It was reportedly the largest media event ever held in the island. The scale of the international and local media interest reflected the impact Mr. Vellupillai Pirapaharan has on Sri Lanka’s politics. His first press conference in over a decade – announced just a week in advance – drew almost six hundred reporters, photographers and cameramen from around the world to the war devastated town of Kilinochchi.
Flanked by the LTTE’s chief negotiator and political strategist, Mr. Anton Balasingham, Mr. Thamil Chelan, head of the LTTE’s political section and – unexpectedly – by two of his top commanders, Col. Karuna and Col. Pathuman, Mr. Pirapaharan fielded questions for over two and a half sometimes chaotic hours. Mr. Balasingham translated English questions and all of Mr. Pirapaharan’s responses for the benefit of the international press. As the LTTE’s chief negotiator and political strategist he also fielded questions or expanded on Mr. Pirapaharan’s responses.
Hon.V. Prabhakaran : Press Conference at Killinochi 2002 Q&A
As indicated on the movement’s press release announcing the conference, Mr. Pirapaharan spoke at length on the Norwegian peace initiative.
“I am very, very, pleased with the development of the peace process and I want to compliment Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for the bold action he has taken to promote [this] and the goodwill measures in the north east,” he said.
“We want to use the Norwegian facilitation to engage … with Sri Lanka and we hope that [the peace process] will succeed,” he said. “We are sincerely and seriously committed to peace.”
Dismissing accusations the LTTE was insincere about peace and that the Tigers were under pressure due to the international war on terrorism, Mr. Pirapaharan pointed out his organisation had, among other moves, unilaterally observed a ceasefire for four months early last year. (The truce was rejected by Sri Lanka.)
“The LTTE has undertaken peace initiatives before the September 11th,” he said. “[Apart from the unilateral truce], I met with the Norwegian peace envoy Eric Solheim [ In Nov 1999]and gave him an assurance that the LTTE wanted peace and a negotiated political settlement.”
When asked if the ‘Tiger was changing its stripes’ as the LTTE was now adopting a political path after 25 years of armed struggle, Mr. Pirapaharan said “Our political struggle for the Tamil people began in the form of non violence., through peaceful methods. … It is because these non violent peaceful agitations were crushed by military means, by repression, that we were forced to take up arms to defend ourselves.”
“It is because of the objective conditions, the historic conditions that we were compelled to take up arms but whenever there were opportunities for peace in the past, we have opted for peaceful methods to resolve these problems,” he said further.
When asked about reports of violations of the indefinite ceasefire by the LTTE, Mr. Pirapaharan said the monitoring committee has not lodged any complaints or accusations that we have violated the terms of the ceasefire.
The LTTE leaders reiterated that the proscription of the LTTE would have to be lifted before they would participate in imminent negotiations in Thailand. They stressed they would not accept a temporary suspension of the ban.
“We want to be described properly. And the PTA has to be amended,” Mr. Balasingham said. “We want to be accepted as the authentic representatives of our people, so we can participate in talks with equal status.”
When asked if he would now renounce the independent state the LTTE has been fighting for and accept an alternative, Mr. Pirapaharan said “the right conditions have not arisen for the LTTE to abandon the policy of an independent statehood.”
“So far as the demand for Eelam is concerned , the LTTE has not made any decision so far as whether to give up the demand or accept an alternative,” Mr. Pirapaharan said.
“The struggle for political independence and statehood, the struggle for Tamil Eelam, is the demand of the Tamil people, not the LTTE as such,” he said further, stating that the popular endorsement given in 1977 by the electorate to the Tamil United Liberation Front’s independent state policy underpinned the LTTE’s objectives.
When queried as to what the LTTE required for a solution to be acceptable, Mr. Pirapaharan said: “There are three fundamentals; that is Tamil homeland, Tamil nationality and Tamil right to self-determination.”
“Once these fundamentals are accepted or a political solution is put forward by Sri Lanka recognizing these three fundamentals and if our people are satisfied with the framework of a solution that recognises these core issues then, we will consider giving up the demand for Eelam,” he said.
When queried what the LTTE meant by self-determination, Mr. Balasingham, in his capacity as the movement’s theoretician, replied: “we mean the right of people to decide their own political destiny – it can also apply to autonomy and self governance.”
“If autonomy and self governance is given to our people we can say that internal self-determination is to some extent met,” he said. “But if the Sri Lanka government rejects our demand for autonomy and self governance and continues with repression, then as a last resort we will opt for cessation – that also comes under self-determination.”
“Therefore we say if the Sri Lanka government offers the Tamil people a form of self government and autonomy in recognition of our homeland, nationality and the right to self-determination, then we will consider that offer,” Mr. Balasingham said further.
When asked if the LTTE would give up the armed struggle following a permanent solution, Mr. Pirapaharan said: “We will seriously consider renouncing our armed struggle if a solution acceptable to the people is worked out.”
However the LTTE leaders cautioned that the Wickremesinghe government was not stable and that it lacked sufficient leverage to solve the ethnic problem. A proposed interim administration would permit the de-escalation of the conflict, while allowing the newly elected government leeway to strengthen its position, they said.
“We do not think that Ranil Wickremesinghe is capable of addressing the core issues and offer us a permanent solution at this stage; because the executive powers of governance are vested with the president and his powers are limited to parliament,” Mr. Pirapaharan said.
“But we wish to insist that the Ranil’s government is not politically stable or authoritative or powerful enough to take up the core demands of the Tamils and offer us a permanent solution,” the LTTE leader stated.
“But, it is because of that we are suggesting the formulation of an interim administration set up in which the LTTE can participate in the north east. In the meantime Ranil Wickremesinghe will have enough space to build up southern Sri Lanka economically,” he said.
“As far as we are concerned we have faith in the present government and we will continue to work with [it] until a solution is reached,” Mr. Balasingham said.
Mr. Pirapaharan said he did not think President Chandrika Kumaratunga could derail the peace process. “Even if she tries to scuttle the peace process it is up to Ranil Wickremesinghe to ensure that such difficulties do not arise and ensure the peace process succeeds.”
Elaborating on the interim administration, Mr. Pirapaharan said the LTTE’s negotiators, led by Mr. Balasingham “are going to Thailand with the objective of discussing the formation of an interim administration.”
“The functions and duties of the interim government, the distribution of power, are issues that we have to discuss . So we cannot comment on the structure and nature of the interim administration now,” he said further.
On being asked if the LTTE would allow other Tamil political parties to operate, Mr. Pirapaharan said: “We can assure you that other political parties – whatever their policies may be – will be allowed to function in the north east and participate in the democratic electoral process.”
When asked why that assurance should be accepted, the LTTE leader pointed out “we are going to meet four Tamil political parties in two days. These are the parties once upon a time that had serious contradictions with our organisation. Now the whole scenario has changed and we are inviting them here to talk and discuss about various issues.”
“If we are an authoritarian organisation trying to repress other political organisations, there is no need for us to call them and with discuss with them. Similarly we are calling the Muslim leadership and the plantation Tamils’ leadership also,” he said. “Therefore the time has change and we are adopting new strategies.”
The LTTE leaders reiterated the movement’s earlier requests to the Indian government for a renewed, friendly relationship. “Without India’s active support and sympathy, this [ethnic] problem will not find a permanent settlement,” Mr. Balasingham said. “India’s active participation in the peace process is crucial for the Tamil people. … We don’t want to alienate or isolate India in the peace process.”
Mr. Pirapaharan refused to comment on the Rajiv Gandhi issue, point out that “this case is going on. There are four persons who have been condemned to death. They are seeking an amnesty from the government of India. Therefore at this critical juncture we don’t want to make any comments that might affect their status.”
When some Indian reporters persisted on the subject, Mr. Balasingham also said no more questions would be entertained on the subject. “You are raising an issue that has happened ten years ago,” he told one reported. “It is a tragic incident and therefore we are not in a position to make any comments at this stage.”
Asked if the LTTE was prepared to forget about the war with the Indian Peace Keeping Force, Mr. Balasingham said “at a particular stage in history, the government of India wanted to help the Tamil people by resolving the problem. They mediated; and unfortunately the proposals envisaged by government did India did not satisfy the aspirations of Tamil people’s.”
“We had discussions, and expressed our disapproval and finally the contradictions between India and the LTTE led to an armed conflict, and the IPKF committed quite a lot of atrocities amongst our people,” he said.
“But yet, with all that, our people love and respect India. India and the people of India are different from the power structures or the armed apparatus of India. We are culturally and ethnically linked to the Indian subcontinent. As Tamils we have our roots in India,” he added.
When asked his opinion of the Sinhala-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP), Mr. Pirapaharan said “we do not consider the JVP a progressive political force because of their chauvinistic attitudes towards the Tamil people.”
Asked about the estate Tamil community, Mr. Pirapaharan said “We want build a better relationship with the leadership of the plantation Tamils. We have invited them here. We will discuss their concerns and problems and cooperate with them in their struggle for the political rights of the plantation Tamils.”
Mr. Pirapaharan rejected as “untenable and unacceptable” accusations the LTTE was using child soldiers. “There is no need for us at this present stage for us to recruit children. It is impossible for the LTTE to conduct an effective conventional war with child soldiers,” he said
“Recently, following the UN resolution, we have decided to recruit people from the age of 18. In future we want to recruit for the purpose of involving our youth in political and administrative purposes,” he added.
Commenting on international bans on the LTTE, Mr. Pirapaharan said “Those countries who are waging a war against terror should come out with a clear and precise definition as to who constitutes a terrorist and who are freedom fighters.
“We are not a terrorist organization, but a liberation movement. We are fighting for the liberation of our people,” he said.
Asked about prisoners of war being held by the LTTE, Mr. Balasingham said only six personnel were being held, and that the ICRC regularly visits them and has established contacts with the PoWs and their families.
When asked about the LTTE’s taxes, Mr. Pirapaharan said that “just as the Sri Lanka government taxes Sri Lankans in its controlled areas to run the state administration, to run the administration in our controlled areas, we levy a tax system.”
Asked about the LTTE’s economic philosophy, Mr. Pirapaharan said an “open market economy.” But he pointed out that: “We can only think about a proper economic structure when the ethnic problem is resolved. … What form and what structure this economic system is to be instituted in can only be worked when we have a permanent settlement or independent state.”