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Transcript- Rajan Asirwatham

18 August, 2010

 Mr.Rajan Asiriwatham


Chairman: Mr.Asiriwatham, for the purposes of the record I have to announce the procedure that we follow, before this commission. You are entitled to give evidence in public or on camera. The choice is yours and after you finish your representation, the commissioners are entitled to ask you questions, to clarify any matter which arises on your representation or which is relevant to the terms of the warrant. You can respond either in public or in private, so the choice is yours. And nobody else can ask you questions.

 Asirwatham: Thank you very much. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to come and share some thoughts with you. Now   I have very simple presentation, my thinking on this matter is that we need to go forward; we can’t keep harping on what has happened in the past, because usual discriminations are of no use. We have all suffered enough, and I think we need to rectify the situation and make our country a better place to live in. Going back a little to 1983, problems arose and as a result many members of the Tamil community were affected and they went abroad and they are very bitter, very unhappy and very resentful and they would want this to continue because they believe they have been treated unjustly. Similarly, after that many ordinary normal simple Sinhalese citizen were affected, not the combatants, but the border villages, in the metropolis, temples and all that, so they also have a sense of resentment feeling that they have suffered and therefore, why should anything be granted. Now, in my case personally my house was burnt in 1983, but it did not take me long to realise that you could not blame the civilians, that it was orchestrated by the government in power and there was no point in getting angry because they were only carrying out what was told to them and by nature the Sinhalese are very kindly and good hearted people. Similarly even the Tamils who have been carrying out these suicide bombings, a lot of them are good natured people but they have been forced into this, brain washed in to this, so we should go forward. Now, talking of what has happened in the last few months, I will talk of what happened personally. After me, the Ministry of legal reforms had this subject coming under their purview. I had asked whether I would like to go and visit these camps of the combatants and I have spent a lot of time in the camps specially the ones relating to what they call child soldiers or ex-combatants. The very first day I went in there, the Major general Daya Ratnayake had made all the arrangements and he came along, and looking at them, I was astounded because they were seated there having a class and they looked so ragged, unkempt, frightened and I asked the Army commander whether I can go and talk to them?. He said yes. And I think for the first time they heard some body talking to them in Tamil. They were all scared. The boys would ask me quietly as to what they would do to us, will they imprison us? Will they shoot us? And so on. But I must pay a tribute the army section that handled this, specially the women soldiers; they were very kind, very good to them. And I use to have long chats with these women solders – and they used to tell me what a sad situation this is – they used to talk to me in Sinhala- they said the problem is – we know that you are talking to them in there own language, they are like our own children but we can’t talk to them, so I used to do a lot of interpreting. They said ‘makea hari asatharana’ and they told me how one girl, even that that day had ‘grown up’ and they were feeling so bad, but as time went on the situation improved, they became used to it because I used to talk to them alone and they never said that they were unhappy. They were happy the way they were treated. They were treated like children. That situation was handled very well because all of them are out. Some of them are at Hindu College at their studies, which they opted to do, some art given professional training, even some have gone back to their parents. That situation – I must say – the government handled very well. The situation of the ex- combatants, that is, children between 12 and 18. If you see them now, you will not recognise them. I tell people I am one of the few who saw them as they came out of jungle as they were. They did not look human, they looked so bad, today they are smart young ladies and gentlemen and they want to do medicine and law and so on. They have got their sense, this was handled very well. But at the same time visiting the prisons, now that is not being handled the way it should be. There are in the prisons thousands who have not been charge yet. Now those who have had charges, that’s ok, trial is delayed, trial may not be fair – nothing can be done. But in so many instances people have not been charged. Couple of examples, there was a gentleman I was talking to, he was an Engineer from London, and he came out to see his father who was dying in Wellawatte. The police came in the night on one of those searches and took him in and then they questioned him and asked ‘Did you fund the LTTE?’ He said “yes while I was in London, all of us fund’. In February he had been to courts 39 times and his case has not yet been heard. The Prisons Commissioner General, who is an army officer, he is the Major General in the prisons is very concerned and treats him very well. He was also telling me – this is very bad, it might take more time. So many instances like that. This is because there is no evidence and they are not being charged.

Asirwatham is asked for the name of the person mentioned.

Asirwatham: His name is Viswalingam Gopidas, he is an Engineer. His wife staying in London. They are in real difficulty, and nobody is talking any action, because there is no evidence whether he funded there, so magistrates keep postponing for three months, three months and it keeps going on, on and on. Well with out boring the commission with too many details – many have not been charged. Now, another guy, he was telling me that he is an Indian from upcountry and he was riding a bicycle at night when a bomb had gone off so the police had stopped him and one of his names is ‘Prabakaran’, now he had been taken in to custody. He had said that he does not where Jaffna is. So he is there for about 8years – you can’t file action that he was riding a bicycle and a bomb went off.  Another person said that he was working in one of these Wellawatte lodges, he was also from upcountry and the police had raided and there were some LTTE people staying in that Lodge so they were taken to the Wellawatte Police Station. The Lodge owned had asked him to go and see as to what had happened to those people. Now he said if I didn’t go he would have thrown me out and he went to the police station. The police said ‘you have come to see them’ and had taken him also into custody and so far no charges. There are enough of instances like these. What I would like to suggest is, why can’t somebody think and say ‘If somebody has been in remand that is not been charged for over ten years – why can’t you release them? After even two years they should file action or drop the case. Here no body wants to take the decision.  

The prison staff and the Commissioner asked how they can help – they said there is a check list that the AG’s department has to go through, this report, IBA report and all. And if the check list is not complete nobody wants to take decision of signing the paper. Now I can understand until May last year there would have been uncertainties because you wouldn’t have known whether the people were involved or whether they would go back and join.  But now there is nowhere for them to join, they should look at that and that is not being handled well and it is very sad, Now that same lot in January this year – they started a ‘Fast unto Death’. So I was told to go and talk to them, with the Bishop of Mannar Bishop Joseph we went and met them. They were all lying on the ground, not eaten for three or four days. Now I was talking to them I told them I said ‘What are you trying to do. What is the purpose of doing this? Now you will die. By you dying what are you achieving? They shouted back to say ‘By living what are we achieving’? This was said in Tamil and it came out very strongly. “Then what are we achieving by living. We are just wasting our lives, its better for us to die’. So to move in this matter would be a good thing.


Then as far as the situation in the North is concerned, the government is doing much but there are among these cadres as there are called – now I visited these camps with the male and female cadres respectively. The female cadres, it is very sad because they say they have children, they are saying they have not seen there children. I know it takes time. You have got to widen out and see whether people are involved or not. But it is now about one and a half years so I would say even charge or send them to jail for five years or what ever it is but move them out because their situation is very sad. And also another point is people also want to – as people are all over the place – these people arrested you find them in Welikada, I have visited them in Thellipallai. Then they are in Boosa, they are in Kalutara, they are in police stations in all over the place so nobody even has a count of them. So that matter also must be looked at.

 In the North people have now gone back, for them it is almost a bereavement because it is grief. They have all suffered for no fault of their own and they are trying to rebuild there lives. At the moment- this is not to be misunderstood – but there are, I know that every body has the right to go anywhere in the country, but there are hordes of people visiting from the Southern part of the country almost like tourists. And there are meagre resources, there is no water, sanitation etc, so when people go for a few days, they dirty the place. So people are very upset, very sad about situation there, they feel that they are being looked at almost like animals in the zoo, people are coming to see and look at them. But it is a difficult situation; it may be advisable for someone to sort of, because of sensitivity to advise them. ‘Now when you go there remember these people have suffered a lot, so be careful don’t make them feel worse than what they are, because they need to be given a little time, because it is like after the funeral people are trying to recover, before you start visiting them. So if that can be done.

 Second thing is that – the government is correct in investmenting there, but it appears that almost every bank and every finance company that wants to open a branch is allowed to open a branch there, so they operate in a big way and naturally they are taking deposits from the people. The Jaffna man is generally a conservative man so he deposits the money, but it is not being spent back there, so it is all brought down here and spent in this part of the country. There has to be something done in, that they should help  invest in the infrastructure or put at least a small percentage of what they are collecting from the area back in to the area they are collecting it from, because the money is collected and brought here without investment in the area. So that unhappiness is also there.

 The other matter is that some of the steps taken by the government for reconciliation should be commended. Now, at the moment all schools, teach all three languages and make it compulsory. Now, this long overdue and you have to give credit for authorities for doing that, therefore people treat the languages very seriously, earlier it was optional and it was not counted for marks, so people didn’t bother to specially study Tamil seriously,. Now it is taken very seriously. Then the fact that even, H E the President makes it a point to at least speak a few words in Tamil at every function also gives the correct signal – that is respecting the language, and the language is important – even addressing the UN in a few words in Tamil – that’s a gesture which must be admired. Therefore people feel that if all of us are able to speak all three languages wouldn’t the problems be minimal? A lot of misunderstanding can be eliminated. So the correct steps are being taken. I was venturing to suggest, I don’t whether it is correct or not to say that they can go a little further. Now what happens is that you study all three languages, you pass it at the O/L levels but you still don’t get any additional credit for them so when it come to university admissions, there it is competitive, and your thing was zero marks, but you should not consider giving some weight to a student who has taken trouble to pass all three languages English, Tamil and Sinhalese at the exam. Secondly, at the year six  scholarship exam if a child has done well in the other language to give some weight to that because the there will be a greater incentive for the people to learn that language.

Then a few other comments are that as far as education is concerned, now, we can’t change history, but sometimes much depends on the emphasis we give to history. And naturally some times people write history subjectively – the way it suits them. But a very popular story we have is the Dutugemunu, Ellala story. There is no saying in the fact that Dutugemunu was a brave worrier. He was upset about the fact that there was a Tamil king there and he went and fought a war there- that is stressed; there is no harm in that. But what is not stressed is the other factor that it was not a Sinhala- Tamil war. Dutugemunu had a Tamil general, Ellala’s army had Sinhalese generals and they fought a single combat so the people didn’t die. Ellala was an old man. He had ruled the country for 44 years. In single combat he died. Dutugemunu respected him so much that he gave him a state funeral. To show respect to the vanquished hero as he called him and also decreed that anybody passing that point should pass it on foot and it is said that a Sinhala king many years later who was running away had to get down. Now that part of the version is not stressed. So Dutugemunu’s magnanimity, his gallantry, his shivalry if it is stressed then people reading it will believe it is not a war between Tamils and Sinhalese. It was a war but see the way they reacted after that. So in teaching history if we are little more sensitive to this it will be better.

Then as far as the rehabilitation work is concerned in the North, I can understand, the government’s concerns about being careful, about misinformation and all that, but there is a decree that no religious organization can work unless registered as a NGO. There are churches that are functioning here for over 200 years. Now the church I belong to, the Anglican Church, is refusing to register as an NGO. They say why should we register as an NGO, we have been operating in this country from late 18th century? So there are flaws to the saying unless you register as an NGO you can’t work. It may be felt that the newer ones are doing things that you should not do, but some consideration should be given to the fact that established churches that have a history here should not have to register as a NGO.  

Then as far as the IDP’s are concerned, unfortunately there is not clear cut policy. Because there is much misunderstanding as they are taken somewhere, then said this is a zone, this is not there, then they are moved somewhere else. So then they feel suspicious and feel there are ulterior motives behind it. If the government put out even a release saying this is our policy regarding IDPs – you can settle in this area, we will give this assistance, we will help you then it is worth it. Because at the moment there is a talk that they given Rs.25,000 for roofing sheets then they start construction, then somebody moves him away saying NO NO in this area you can’t settle. So therefore if a clear cut well thought  policy is out and the people know what the situation is there will be less misunderstanding. Now at the moment as a result all kinds of stories come out that we are going to build cantonments, there are going to move this here, move that there.  So that factor should be cleared.  

Then as far the people in the North are concerned for many years they had a fairly substantial Sinhala population such as the bakers and all that who maintained their identity there, but mingled with the population, got on with them. Now they, the population, who had their roots there, should be encouraged to go back. Similarly, with the Muslims. Muslims play a large part in Jaffna. They were pushed away. Now these people should be encouraged to go back even with some incentive. But if you transport other people in large numbers state sponsored, then there are worries about changes in demography and ulterior motives and all. But sending people back there to their original roots, it’s a good thing. 

The other situation is, unfortunately in our country as for as devolution is concerned, there is a general misconception that it is devolved into Tamil areas and Sinhala areas. Now, I remember about 20 odd years ago Dr.Colvin R De Silva gave a lecture and he put it well. He said ‘Don’t devolve on this basis, try to make people remember the grandeur of Ruhuna, the majestic of Rajarata, the history of Subragamuwa, Vyamba, so people will always remember their roots; they will want sufficient part in that. They may live in Colombo, they may live abroad but they will want to go back to their roots. Now at the moment unfortunately, as far as the provinces are concerned they are not getting credit as much as they should. Everything is Colombo centered. Say in any other country in the world you play cricket and the tournaments are between states. Here it is all clubs. If it can be made known that people are going to be – the province is going prominent. Within a united Sri Lanka we are proud of our provinces as well as the country but unfortunately the emphasis is not what it should be. Well we can look at that. 

Then as far as the,  it may be difficult at this stage, but you should have an ideal situation where you can encourage say like children go out in the scholarships, spend two years in some country, New Zealand or US or something where you have children from the South going in there, studying in their schools, playing in their teams, children from there being brought out here, so that they mix and now more so with English that can be done. All three languages. Say if you have a Tamil boy playing for a Rahula College or a Sinhala boy playing for Hartley college, it will make the whole mind set change., and it may not be for long, just for a couple of years. Because our art students whenever you apply for scholarships abroad there are a lot of aspirants so if you can encourage that situation in a small way it will help because the parents will go along with it.  

Then the other thing is as far as the mindset of people is concerned, now people abroad, what they call the Tamil Diaspora, they need to do something concrete. There are investment opportunities in the North in which they should partake. They should also see whether they can help in the rehabilitation. That is why if the IDP situation is clarified and if the government says the we want to build 25000 houses and it cost so much, then those people should be asked to come and help this.  Now the excuse is that where are we to invest, we don’t know a thing.  Secondly, they should also be more sensitive and should not make provocative statements to upset the people here by making claims there that affect the people living in this country. So they should be more mindful and more sensitive to the ground situation in our country. As far as the LTTE cadres are concerned, if a time frame could be set, for those people also, I am not talking about others, because, they must be either rehabilitated or imprisoned, or sent back home, then people would get back to normalcy.  

Final thing is that there are many homes in Jaffna, they are youngsters or husband have been taken away be the police and army over the last so many years. There is no record or idea whether they are living or not, so what they ask is please let us know whether the person you took away is alive or not. If he is dead, never mind, he may have died of natural causes, mysterious circumstances- it doesn’t matter, because we want to be in a position to perform our religious obligations. If the person is no longer there, the Hindus, the Buddhist, the Christians, all of them, they feel something is lacking if they do not perform their final religious obligations to those who have passed away. So their request is, kindly let us know, never mind we won’t query, and that can be done because there is a record of who is taken away. These are people who have not fought in the war and died, these are people taken away by the forces. They must be in one of these camps if not, you must inform them, and they will be comforted in doing something for them, the last thing they can do is to fulfill the religious obligations where they feel the comforting merit or whatever it is. And at the start itself I want to say we must not harping on the past, we must learn from our mistakes and go forward, but if you are not going forward then we are only harping on the past which is not good. We must decide, this is the opportunity for us to go forward and make a go at our lives because one generation has gone away at least the next lot, and also we can, people who want to come back professional, academics should be given some sort of , where probably, the bureaucratic delays can be reduced to or eliminated to help them fit into society. If they want to take up to university or set up a medical practice, lawyers, to quicken the process because have being talking, they also should encouraged. 

Thank you very much.


Q & A session:

 Q: Now, being associated with the private sector probably right through your working life, we would like to know how investment could be encouraged in those areas and what type of investments could be encouraged which would generate employment.

Asirwatham: Private sector has always considered this an area that was closed to them and therefore they are willing to go there in a big way. The common thing that every one is talking about is tourism but tourism should not be overdone in Jaffna because if you are talking of beaches, the beaches on the west coast or East coast are better. There is from a point of view of climate, people visiting their relatives and friends are ok but talking about foreign tourists. There will be too many hotels there but I was told recently that the BPO industry, the outsourcing industry, which India is doing very well on and we are not doing well, that could be something set up there because whatever it is even consider the average student in Jaffna is hard working and he is conscientious and he will do what is told. So if that type of industry can be plus employment generation, now the basic things are, the two things that could have been done in Jaffna right through are agriculture and fisheries. If investments could go into those areas because fishing, even now fishing is done virtually on the coast line they done go into deep sea, because the Indians come and take away what is in the mid seas. The Jaffna farmer really works hard. So in those three areas if investment could be encouraged it will, you don’t have a long training period and results also would come in fast because things like agriculture, fisheries you get the results almost immediately. 

Q: Yes, but agriculture, one problem that they encounter is the lack of water, I am not talking about Jaffna but in the entire area. One problem, now we were in Vavuniya, where there is a vast expanse of land, but unfortunately there are problems of water. So that is the problem where agriculture is concerned. So we were just wondering how we could develop those areas where jobs could be created for the people and then you would automatically improve the quality of life for the people. 

Asirwatham: That you are quite right sir, but agriculture is quite right that water is essential, but modern method of agriculture don’t need as much water as earlier, though it is essential. There are also things that grow there, like grapes and tobacco, which have been grown for long long time. Now somebody suggested to me the grapes are grown in Jaffna they are brought to Colombo here why doesn’t somebody set up a winery there and even export the thing, make a mark and export it from here. Now, the average Jaffna parent, places great stress on education so anything in the education field they would love to do because they encourage their children to go into education. So IT is an area where you can do IT work from there as long as there is connectivity to the rest of the world. Those children will pick it up fast. So if the infrastructure is available, things like on IT and education, that also will help in generating employment, and making people also think and broaden the horizon. Now at the moment they have gone through such a traumatic time their horizons are limited; they could broaden it. 

Q: I think in Vavuniya we saw, I don’t know we never went in there but we certainly saw huge board there where ‘VIRTUSA’ has come in and set up some computer training facility there. We were just wondering how we could generate employment, opportunities in those areas. That is something that as an area we have to make recommendations on. So we thought since you are a person who has been always involved in the private sector that you will have ideas that could be made use by us in making certain recommendations. 

Asirwatham: Now John Keells and Cargills have both agreed to set up supermarkets and both have said that they will train the people. They are even willing to take the cadres, train them operate from there because supermarkets need a fair amount of youthful labour as it were. Not only, IT they can operate stocking from there and they will train the people there. Of course if transport costs are high then the market is not as economical as it should be but some of these companies are willing to bear that cost and start off there if given the green light. Of course one of the things is, until this question of land allocation is settled even companies who want to go into agriculture are unable to do so. There is this gentleman from ‘DILMA’, Mr. Meryl Fernando, he wants 1000 acres of land which he will develop at his own cost to grow mangoes, can it and export it and he said he will give shares also to the people there but they are unable to get that land. So in many instances land is a problem because until this military thing is sorted out a lot of land the military has not yet decided whether they will need it or not due to mines also.  

Q: Thank you Mr.Asirwatham for some of the very practical and down to earth things that you have said. I just want to get your thoughts on something. Almost everybody who comes before the Commission talks about the diaspora and how to engage it. You yourself said it. Now can you tell us, is it that the government should take the initiative government, being some people like us? Some say the government of being selective in tackling and it is not good they say. Is it the Tamil politicians who should do it? Then others accuse the Tamil politcians of being fragmented and their colonial partisan interests.  Is it the civil society that should do it and who should do it or there should be a mechanism?  Is it a government mechanism or joint private sector /government mechanism? There have been other instances where in other countries, obliviously there is a great potential for investment and also for reconciliation to infuse large amounts of money. Now money is being spent by families for consumption. These can be directed to value addition investments, so what are your views being a business person plus well-wisher, how should one set about that?  

Asirwatham: I think that is a very valid point you made sir. My view on that is in this so called diaspora there are some people who are very resentful and who don’t want things to do here, they will never invest. There are others who are keen and eager to do so .There are some others who are waiting for a start to be made. So it is like the first person, When you open something and the first person comes in and the others follow if the investment opportunities are made known and it is publicised that there is investment opportunities for this venture, it will easy to get them to invest. Big people, many people  have told us personally, ‘we don’t even want a return but we want to make sure that our money is well spent that it is not used for illicit purposes’ because there is a lot of bad mouthing saying ‘you sent it there they will never use it for, they will use it somewhere else’. So if the private sector has some project and invites these people money will come in. Second thing is now many of them in this so called diaspora have relatives, close acquaintances who have been affected, like these people in jails, people who have not got back their houses. So they are getting the wrong message. Moment that situation is resolved they have more confidence because the amount of money that we require to get this place going is comparatively small compared to what they are spending there. So the main thing is to get a start on that and establish credibility. Credibility has not been established yet among the genuine well wishers who want to do something, who want to help their brothers back home; those who are not interested in politics or separate state but who are still not sure whether the time is opportune whether the mechanism is available to start this process. 

Q: Government mechanism or private sector or what? 

Asirwatham: Like this sir, like this question of no sort of release on the IDPs. If there is a release from the government saying, we are willing to approve say X number of hotels, we are willing to approve X number of projects in the fisheries sector. Now you can think there are enough conduits here, blue chip companies here who are willing to take the initiative and get the balance investment from there but the start has not yet been made because at the moment if you take, except for the banks and finance companies who went in there, no industries have gone in there. I think even the hotel that was started that did not take into account sensitivities ran into problems. They decided to build a hotel nine storey building on land that is over- looking the Nallur Kandasamy temple which is which is the most sacred to the Hindus and they were very upset. So therefore there is lack of sensitivity. If they could have spoken to the people and got proper information and got them involved they will also want to participate. Make them feel that they are part of it, instead of coming in and imposing something on them. If that message were to say we are opening and also there good intentions but main thing is to get it going and there are people who are not even interested in return but want to help but still not confident enough that the time is correct. 

Q: Mr.Asirwatham thank you very much for the very practical suggestion you have made before the commission, my question is from the point of view of generating employment. You are well aware that one of the problems particularly in Jaffna where the middle class were dependent on public service from the colonial times, as we just mentioned the industry, large scale industries never moved except for the period where Mr. Ponampalam was minister and the Paranthan factory and so on. You did mention at the beginning the banking and the financial sectors and of course the need to reinvest in those areas. From the perspective of generating employment from within those areas has the banking and financial sector made a start if not a dent in generating employment within the peninsula and may be within the province? 

Asirwatham: They have no doubt made a start but it is not very noticeable for this very reason, because banking is specialised field so you can’t take a school leaver and put him into banking. You might have a cashier or a person at the counter, but otherwise it needs training so that takes time. There fore in numbers it is not making a appreciable dent in the unemployment problem. Now the  ILO profiled the child cadres and they profiled all these people some of them LTTE , those children were well trained as drivers, as welders, as mechanics, they were as good as any body as good as down here. They work very hard and they can be gainfully employed. If there are projects going there, say buildings being constructed, hospitals being constructed, all these people could be made use of and something that is going to benefit. Now, in Jaffna there is the Jaffna hospital no doubt the hospital is quite good now but the cancer hospital is in a mess and you have to come to Colombo for treatment. For transplant we have to come to Colombo. If the hospital health sector can be strengthened it is a win-win situation there, helping the people there and also immediate employment can be generated because the people there are well trained and work very hard in this field. So certain selected areas may be high priority areas which should be worked in to make a appreciable dent on this and also because of the fact we can’t have garments factories here these any way generate a fair number of employment for female and they make an immediate impact. We can’t have it there obviously in today’s context.  

Commissioners: MAS factory has gone in. 

Asirwatham: In the East I think sir. In the East not the North. Brandix in the East, that’s right but North they can’t.

 Commissioners: I agree with you on your emphasis on training, now we were last weekend in  Vavuniya district where we visited the rehabilitation camp where we saw those former cadres, majority girls doing advanced computer designing and we were told that it is normally done at undergraduate level, and these people have not even got through the O/Ls. Given the opportunity and the exposure they were doing a very very good job so I think the starting point is the opportunity and the training.

 Asirwatham: That’s quite correct sir, in fact one of the things that the government should do is when they provide vocational training, this was one of the areas they provided training in, because they told these children , you have three option – you want to go on education, vocational training or go back to your parents. 

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