By Elilini Hoole -
“When the people live together in unity, there are no racial or religious differences [...] The solution is to live together in this country with equal rights for all communities,” said President M. Rajapakse in Trincomalee during his Independence Day speech, most ironically forgetting the context in which he spoke. Trinco, like much of the North and East, is a symbol of the ‘peace and justice’ Tamils and minorities receive under today’s order of government.
Almost seven years ago, on the 27th August 2006 to be exact, the military took control of 5,000 acres of Sampoor, Trincomalee from the LTTE and converted the land into a high security zone in the process. On 4th September 2006, Mahinda Rajapakse announced that the capture was for the “welfare and benefit of the people living there.” Military Spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe later confirmed that, “the threat posed by the LTTE to the Trincomalee harbor and the adjoining naval base was no more, following the successful operation involving the three forces.” It was a farcical statement of commitment to the minority people which resonates with the hypocritical eloquence of today’s political leaders. To this day 2,000 IDPs from the HSZ remain in the appalling “transit” sites set up in 2007, while their lands are sold at huge profit to private entities for business development. Last August, some 500 houses were destroyed to make way for the new Coal Power Plant now being constructed on this wrongfully acquired land. The government calls this economic development; but most of us call surreptitiously selling another’s lands without consultation or compensation, stealing.
It is clear that both the LTTE and the GoSL are responsible for the displacement of the people of Sampoor, but it is equally clear where the responsibility lies today in not returning the displaced civilians to their homes.
To Never Question that I am an Equal
Since 2009, the government has spent more energy celebrating and commemorating ‘new independence’ than understanding the divided country and reconciling the different, but equal, sections. The government continues to lie to us about the true state of equality and rights in Sri Lanka.
What the Rajapakses and many Sri Lankans fail to realize is that we minorities just want to live in such a way that we never have to question whether we are equal. Working in the Vanni taught me that the equality promised to us does not exist. Fear is the mode in which Tamils live in the North. Fear is so strong that the Protection Working Group (PWG) in the North is conducted under every attempt at secrecy. Early last year when a rape case addressed at the group was leaked to the public, the raped victim committed suicide in fear of reprisal. Fear is not a sign of equality.
On one occasion, last June, I was enjoying the beach in Vadamarachchi when three Army men bearing guns accosted me and my friends with loud voices and forbade us from being on the beach after 6 pm. I had been on that beach several times before and several times after without a problem, but it seemed they enjoyed enforcing bizarre regulations and inciting fear. As incensed as I was that I had no freedom to dig my toes into the beautiful marble white beaches of Jaffna, it is difficult to argue with men holding guns.
This is a simple example, just the tip of the iceberg for Tamils in the military kingdom of the North. When a mother and daughter were raped and brutally murdered by a military gang in Kilinochchi, the village had no police or other authority to complain to or seek protection under. As a Tamil and a woman, I lost all sense of security. I felt fear engulfing my whole self whenever I passed the military check point next to my church, St. James in Nallur, Jaffna.
In Vavuniya, upon resettlement, the entire village was photographed and given a ‘village identity card’ written entirely in Sinhalese which they had to show the military during random searches. I asked the widow I spoke to if she even knew whether they had written down the names of her family correctly, but she had no clue and was too afraid to ask questions. (Every single card I saw, which was produced by the military, is written in Sinhalese unlike the neat cards in English produced for the international community and shown in the government’s “Action Plan”). Similarly, when the government planned to forcibly relocate Jaffna families to the jungles of Mullaithivu in order to maintain the HSZ, the people were too afraid to protest. In Sampur especially, people have faced injustice for nearly a decade with little resistance. At Omanthai, the bane of my existence and a farcical affair called a checkpoint, those travelling South are forcibly subject to military harassment but are too afraid to protest. I did once, but who could understand my ramblings in English? But I did understand the, Eya Dhemala (i.e., She’s a Tamil), spoken with disdain as the military threw my knapsack on the table.
Is this what the nation has in store for us under the banner of equality? And why should the Tamils in the North and East have to live under military rule when the military should absolutely not be involved in civilian affairs?
A Military Era
Immediately after 2009 there was hope, even among us Tamils, that a united nation would emerge, bringing equality and freedoms not afforded under the LTTE. However, Sri Lanka is fast becoming a global study of what a sick democracy is. It may even emerge as a failed nation if the elite keep exploiting the poor, and xenophobia remains ingrained in the very structure of government ideology, and nothing is changed. One could go further to say, this so called Socialist Republic is hardly even socialist when our welfare system, which is not only defunct but also mismanaged, is considerably less of a priority than sustaining a military despite the times of peace! If we are define peace in terms of money, peace surely should be indicated by a significantly diminished military budget no greater than required to sustain an inactive military, or just your basic military reserve. Instead in Sri Lanka the military is allocated Rs 235 billion (21%) of the budget – while health and education for all citizens combined is a pitiful 12% of the budget (according to the budget posted by Law and Society Trust).
Besides, it begs the question, why is such a huge allocation for military expenses essential in a post-war time of peace? What is the purpose and what is the opportunity cost of building such a large military? While the purpose is still questionable, the opportunity cost is easy to see. The nation will face a budget deficit of several billion rupees this year; that is, we will spend much more on the military than we can afford while other social priorities languish.
When I was working in Kilinochchi, nearly every family I visited had a member with a shell piece still lodged in their body, sometimes in the brain, or a debilitating dismembering of muscles from bone, or a severe cough developed from walking hundreds of miles in the summer and monsoon at the point of near starvation. One little 12 year old boy, I cannot forget, had a rather lopsided hunch – a hunch resulting from a bomb shrapnel searing away a good 4 inches of his right hand side of the body. He could not have been more than 9 years old when he was injured. It was the ICRC that saved his life then, and today it is not the government but NGOs who are building his future.
This is not how our nation should be. Many, like this thambi, will spend their lives without medical or disability assistance unless the people in government remind themselves that they are elected not to be served by the people but to serve the people.
Read the Sinhala translation here. Translation by Yahapalanaya Lank.