Mano Haran Ganesan is the Leader of the Democratic People’s Front, an opposition political party representing the minority Tamil community in Sri Lanka. A committed Human Rights Activist, he is also Convener of the Civil Monitoring Mission and has worked tirelessly to bring an end to extrajudicial killings, abductions and disappearances that have taken place before, during and in the aftermath of the civil war in the island. His commitment to the upholding the rights and aspirations of his people was honored in 2010, when he was adjudged first runner-up for the US Freedom Defenders Award, given to those that have shown exceptional courage and leadership in the defense of human rights. (NGO Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights won the award that year).
Q: You recently said that there were as many as 900 political prisoners languishing behind bars island wide , some for as long as 15 years. Can you tell us more about these political prisoners?
A: Political prisoners can be split into 3 categories – 1) those that have been convicted and are serving jail sentences, 2) those with ongoing cases caught in the slow machine that is our judicial process and 3) those held as ‘suspects’ -with no charges brought against them yet.
Q: Is this group composed only of Tamils?
A: They are mostly Tamil, but there are Sinhalese and Muslims amongst this lot as well. It is a mixed group composed of men, women, elderly, sick, children born in prison to women detainees, even Hindus and Christian religious leaders.
Q: What sort of activities were these men and women picked up for?
A: The allegations that they aided Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – which was wrong; the LTTE is a banned terrorist organization. But the irony is that the senior LTTE Leaders – like KP, Karuna Amman, Pillayan, Daya Master and George Master have been granted amnesty and are out free.
These former well-known LTTE leaders are enjoying perks and privileges. These suspects if not small-timers – those who acted under the orders of these scot free leaders- on the other hand those who aided by way of shelter, food or information, generally for fear or due to pressure – are still behind bars.
Q: What is it that you expect the Government to do with these prisoners?
A: Our demand is clear – grant general amnesty to all political prisoners. Or, at the very least, if these political prisoners are willing, transfer them to rehabilitation camps so that they may be rehabilitated and then re-integrated to society.
Thamilini, the Leader of the LTTE women’s wing was recently transferred to the Poonthottam Rehabilitation Camp where I hear she is learning to dress brides and also following a course in Information Technology. She was transferred to rehabilitation from prisons based on the agreement reached between the courts, attorney general’s dept, the CID and her.
I am satisfied on these developments. But if the Leaders of the LTTE can be given amnesty and sent for rehabilitation, why can’t the same be granted to these prisoners?
Q: Does this mean that these political prisoners have not received any kind of rehabilitation thus far?
A: These prisoners – the 900-odd political prisoners I am speaking of are not a part of the so-called surrendees that were taken into custody at the end of the war. Those surrendees are being rehabilitated and every so often you hear media reports of their reintegration to society.
These 900 odd political prisoners I am speaking of were picked up at various stages prior to the last Eelam war and have not received anything but indefinite time behind bars. Some of them have been behind bars 5 years, some 10, some 15 – and most of them have not even been charged yet. This is causing an increased state of frustration among the political prisoners.
I want you to put you in their mind frame. They languish in jails in difficult conditions while their leaders who gave them orders are enjoying life with perks and seen at nightclubs. No assurances of the government given to them have been honored. – It was this frustration that led to the unfortunate events of June 29th at the Vavuniya Prison.
Q: You speak of the death of the Nimalaruban?
A: I speak of the murder of Nimalaruban. I speak of the 30 other prisoners who, in the aftermath of the event, were taken from Vavuniya to Anuradhapura, Mahara, Bogambara and tortured, brutally attacked with clubs and iron bars and seriously injured. I speak of another prisoner named Dilrukshan who is currently in a coma at the Ragama Hospital.
We have asked that the Government to publicize the finding on Nimalaruban’s autopsy report – but they haven’t. I hold the Government responsible for his death – it took place within the Prison Complex and there are eyewitnesses to the fact that Nimalaruban was beaten to death. It is these eyewitnesses that are currently being harassed, tortured and injured at various Prisons; the Government’s agenda is to suppress and take revenge on them. They are today just left to die.
I also hold the former co-chairs to Sri Lanka’s national question – USA, EU, Japan and Norway and also India responsible, because they supported the war machine of this Government to the letter, believing that once the war was over, peace and justice would return to this unfortunate land as was promised by the GoSL- but it is clear today that both Sri Lankans and the international community have been taken for a ride by the GoSL
A UN report has recognized that thousands were killed during the last stages of the war – but what has been done in that regard? Nothing, all that has taken place thus far is that the UNHRC resolution was passed against Sri Lanka – nothing more. This war victory with civilian death and destruction has made the Government of Sri Lanka feel like they can commit any crime and get away with it. What is happening with the political prisoners in Sri Lanka is a crime – a crime that is occurring three years after the culmination of the war. What is being done about this?
I also want to question the Bar Association of Sri Lanka – and this is not personal; I have many friends within the legal community, and the President of the BASL and UNP MP Wijedasa Rajapakse is also a friend – but I want to ask them how it is that pelting of stones at a Courthouse is a bigger issue than that of the brutal killing of a prisoner within the prison complex – especially when the post-mortem report is withheld from the public. Shouldn’t this and the injured prisoners who are now left die are issues to the legal community, shouldn’t this prick their conscience? Do they refrain from acting because these prisoners are Tamils?
Q: You say these political prisoners have been behind bars for a long time – have they given up all hope of freedom?
A: They have not given up. They and their families talk to those of us from the Civil Monitoring Commission because we monitor, support and campaign on behalf of political prisoners in Sri Lanka. Some of them are telling us ‘we did such and such a thing because Karuna ordered us to but now Karuna is outside and we are inside’ – they are agitated and want to be released.
We have spoken to the media on this issue numerous times and conducting peoples protest campaigns with many other organizations. We have written to the President on this matter numerous times, but not once have we received a reply.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the reason for the Government’s refusal to charge, release, or rehabilitate these prisoners?
A: It is because the Government has no clear policy on matters relating to political prisoners. Furthermore, as the Leader of DPF I can tell you that this Government has no clear policy on anything. It only makes promises.
Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva promised that separate courts would be established to expedite the cases of political prisoners – this was first in 2005. It is now 2012 and nothing has happened. Now again he made same promise in May/2012 and said his govt will announce the logistics in 30 days, when the prisoners went on fasting unto death.
Q: What is your opinion of the recently unveiled Action Plan for the implementation of the LLRC recommendation?
A: When announcing the Action Plan, External Affairs Minister G.L Peiris and Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga both said that 50% of the recommendations in the LLRC report have either already been implemented or were being implemented. I would like to challenge them to come out with proof and evidences to that statement. I am a Sri Lankan, I live in this country, I don’t see any implementation of the recommendations – only more and more violations, patterns and trends going against them (the recommendations). If they prove me wrong, I will be happy.
Many Commissions and committees have been set up in the past to look into the various issues highlighted by the LLRC report, but not one of them has contributed meaningfully to change for the better – they have only proven to be time-buying exercises. The External Affairs Minister G.L Peiris and Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga can use this opportunity to prove that this ‘so called’ Action Plan is not another attempt to buy time, by ending the long pending issue of political prisoners.
This is a challenge and I am throwing at them. Will they take it?
Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga had also said that some of the recommendations would only be implemented after the Parliamentary Select Committee commences And some need to wait until the ‘political solution’. Cabinet Spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella has said that constitutional changes would be necessary before some of the recommendations in the LLRC report can be implemented – but neither is necessary. You don’t need amendments or the PSC to resolve issues relating to political prisoners, issuing the name lists of all detainees, disarming the armed groups, reducing the involvement of the security forces in the civilian lives in the north etc.
Rights are already guaranteed to us in the Constitution – they just have to be recognized and upheld. Take for instance the recommendation that the Tamil language be given status as an official language- this is already in our laws, and yet it is not being implemented. So what is this talk of having to change laws and having to wait for the results of the Parliamentary Select Committee sessions before implementing the recommendations?
As a citizen of Sri Lanka and the Leader of Democratic People’s Front I can only say that the track record of the Government is forcing us to have less and less confidence in them and dismiss this so called action plan as another time buying exercise.
Q: What is your take on the Parliamentary Select Committee and the Tamil National Alliances reluctance to be involved with its process?
A: The Government and its Ministers are trying to project the PSC as a Crystal Ball that has all the answers to the Tamil and Muslim communities’ in the country. They keep extending invitations to the TNA to participate in the sessions and are trying to make it seem like all that is standing between war and peace is the TNA’s non-participation.
Tamil opinion is against TNA participating in the PSC sessions without any basis for discussion. There are a number of documents that can be used as the basis for discussion – the 13th Amendment, the 13 plus, the Banda-Chelva agreement, Chandrika’s package, the APC’s Majority Report etc. Mind it, the so called ‘Majority report’ is the product of the APC convened and nominated under chairmanship of Minister Tissa Vitarana by the current regime!
All of these are proposals aimed at ending the ethnic issue in this country and one of these must be put forth as the basis for discussions. The Government has not done that – instead, they want to begin the entire process again. This is like getting a graduate to go back to Montessori school. We must move forward by taking the findings and recommendations of the previous reports instead of wasting time moving backwards.
Q: The Government has invested its time and energy on massive development projects island-wide – do you feel this necessary?
A: Well, development in infrastructure is very important for the development of a country. I will not disagree with it. But the infrastructure development that is taking place in Sri Lanka is not happening in the way in which it is portrayed to the people through the state media. There is corruption, wastage and I feel that major donors like the Asian Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank must monitor the development and other projects they are financing. They are not lending this money to the UPFA Government but to the State of Sri Lanka. And it is the people and any and all future governments that will end up having to take responsibility for paying off the debts and loans taken by this Government.
Q: Your party, the Democratic People’s Front has decided to contest the Sabaragamuwa Elections together with the Ceylon Workers Congress and the Up Country People’s Front – this is move had come as a surprise to many – what is the reason for it?
A: We are fielding a common list, together with the CWC and the UPF at the Sabaragamuwa elections. The move has surprised the nation because we are a vibrant, opposition party and the CWC and the UPF are Government coalition partners.
We have especially noted that the UNP seems the most irritated at our move, accusing us playing double game. However, we all know that double games go on within the UNP and so they should look inwards
The Democratic People’s Front is a party that represents the Tamil people, and as the Leader of the DPF my first loyalty is to my people. We would need at least 20, 000 votes in order to win a seat in the nomination list of a large party like the UNP or UPFA, and we don’t have those numbers – there is only a very small tamil voter community in the Ratnapura and Kegalle districts that constitute the Sabaragamuwa Province. But we can win under the ‘balance-vote-basis’ in Ratnapura and Kegalle if we collect mini mum of 10,000 votes.
For this reason we thought it wiser to pool the Tamil votes and that is why we decided to share a common list with these two parties. This way we can ensure the goals of democratic representation of the vulnerable, poor Tamil plantation community are met.
Yes, we are an opposition party – you may mark it down, we are more vibrant in opposition than the UNP- and we will not rest till we collectively defeat this Government, but the needs of my people come first, and their democratic representation is very important to us.
Q: You spoke of defeating the Government. If you were to be successful in that Endeavour what would be the first reforms you make to the existing structure of governance?
A: There are many reforms and changes necessary but there are four majors that I think are most important – 1) Re establishing and strengthening the parliamentary democracy by doing away with the Executive Presidency 2) Achieving the genuine national unity by addressing the national question with a political solution that will allow for sharing of political power with between Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims 3) Re-establish the rule of law by ending the culture of impunity, blunt violations of human rights and media freedom 4) Establish the economic principles of socio-democracy by putting an end to corruption, robbing of national assets, wastage and mismanagement in the economical arena.
Above stated goals, I think should be the common minimum program for a mass movement to defeat this anti people, corrupt, murderous racist regime. I envisage a non electoral common opposition alliance of political parties, civil groups, trade unions and clergy of all sects to achieve our goals. DPF will be an active partner in any such alliance. We will add the Tamil color to such an alliance and help it to look ‘national’ rather than just ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’. (Ceylon Today)