Every time he picks up the telephone at his Colombo residence to answer a call or dial a number, C V Wigneswaran, Chief Minister of Sri Lanka’s Northern Provincial Council, says he hears an additional beep before he is connected.
On a day when votes were cast for the seventh presidential elections in the island nation of 21 million, the man who represents nearly 7 lakh Tamilians in the war-stricken northern districts, has levelled a disturbing allegation: he fears that all his telephones, cellphones and computers are being tapped by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.
“It is one of the worst situations despite the fact that I am heading a democratic state of Tamils and sitting at the helm of a provincial council in the north,” Wigneswaran told The Indian Express.
And it’s this kind of fear, he suggests, that may be one of the reasons why parties representing Tamilians are rooting for the opposition coalition’s Maithripala Sirisena against Rajapaksa, who is seeking an unprecedented third term in power.
Four years after the civil war with LTTE ended in 2009, Wigneswaran, a former Sri Lankan high court judge, was elected to head the Northern Provincial Council, the first elected democratic body for Tamilians here in the last 25 years. “But even a Chief Minister is feared to be under the surveillance of government intelligence. Isn’t it a difficult situation?” he asked.
Wigneswaran, who represents the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) from Jaffna, called the surveillance of leaders “pure intimidation”, but said it was nothing compared to the situation in the northern provinces. There, he claimed, he is just a “namesake Chief Minister while the show is being run from under the fist of the governor and the bureaucracy”.
“For instance, I do not have the powers to choose my chief secretary or appoint a peon or even to take a decision to build a new latrine or toilet in a hospital. There is no account for the Chief Minister and whatever little money that is remitted to the government will go to the account of the state governor,” he said.
According to him, the situation is such that the CM has to get a clearance from the Ministry of Defence to visit many places in his own state. “A few months ago, the army had razed a school and a temple in Valigamam, in the northwestern corner of the peninsula, where they are already occupying more than 6,000 acres of land. When I visited the place, the army insisted that the CM needed a clearance from the ministry, ie, from Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (the minister who is also the President’s brother). That is the extent of the army’s powers in the northern province,” Wigneswaran said.
Along with many other TNA leaders, he now hopes that the system will change if Sirisena comes to power. “I am the Chief Minister of 80,000 widows who lost their husbands and children in the war and now struggle for their bread and butter everyday. I see over 4,800 families living in 34 welfare centres in the northern provinces who were literally starving without any livelihood options. Their land, from which they were evicted during the war, is now being used to build palatial bungalows for the President and army generals. Acres of their land are now being turned into golf courses and swimming pools while the original owners remain at welfare centres,” Wigweswaran said.
The Chief Minister also criticised some Tamil leaders who called for a poll boycott this time. “Unfortunately, they forget that we have to choose our enemy carefully. They also forget that when a Tamil decides not to cast his vote, the possibility of President Mahinda Rajapaksa winning the election increases,” he said.
As proof, he cited an example from 2005, when the LTTE’s successful appeal to boycott the elections helped Rajapaksa win with a margin of 1.86 lakh votes. “But unfortunately, these leaders still continue to appeal to the Tamils to boycott elections,” he said.
Wigneswaran admitted that Tamil leaders have been unable to trigger any “election fever” among the Tamilians in Sri Lanka who believe that a Sinhalese-majority government will never look into their problems. “But we cannot be silent politically,” he said.