By Somapala Gunadheera –
It is my belief that one of the main reasons for the frictions between the North and the South is limited chances for the two sides to meet face to face. As the first Chairman of the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority of the North, I organized tours for groups from the North to come down South and meet their countrymen in 1998. The first to come was a group of school children who had come on top at the AL exam. When the participants arrived by boat at Trincomalee, they looked tense and scared. Little wonder, as they were not sure what the reaction of the LTTE to their tour would be and as they were about to meet a people painted to them as a ‘nasty lot’.
But the children relaxed as they were taken round right down to Kataragama, meeting the President and their counterparts and visiting Parliament, civil society institutions, sites of historical interest, places of worship and courts of law. They were followed by a group of leading farmers nominated by the Divisions. The reception the children received was so warm that at the end of the tour, they had confided to a Tamil assistant of mine that they were surprised to find that the Sinhalese were such a friendly and hospitable people. Such was the opinion of the farmers as well. Both groups were echoing my own impression after I had spent some time in Jaffna as a public servant in 1956.
Those whose duty it is to integrate the nation after its recent turmoil should lose no opportunity to create fora, wherever possible, for the communities to come together to discover one another. The ‘Yarldevi’s much advertised run appears to be such a valuable opportunity. The train has bridged a gap imposed between the people for over two decades and made it possible for them to come face to face literally. Thousands of commuters now travel up and down daily to and from Jaffna, sitting together for more than seven hours. They kill that time incognito and incommunicado, anxiously waiting for the end of the journey. The time they waste yawning, is a massive opportunity for integration. Purposeful action to utilize this coming together should be taken fast so that the prospect created by the expensive investment on the rail track to Jaffna, is not wasted.
The Railway Department which appears to be overjoyed by the massive income it is earning from ‘Yarldevi’ can make the run gainful to the entire nation by devising ways of making the travellers to communicate with one another on the run. This process can start by initially identifying one bogie as the ‘Chat Compartment’. A compartment consists of about 10 rows of double seats separated by a passageway.
Normally these seats face the same direction. This was the arrangement of seats when I went to Jaffna recently. The seat arrangement limited my contact to the lady sitting next to me. She had been born and bred in Jaffna but now she was settled in Colombo. The lady was going up to attend a funeral service for one of her relatives. I found that the double seats could be adjusted to face each other easily by turning a knob, thereby making cubicles of four seats each. On my return, I got the double seats so arranged and enjoyed the company of three Tamil travellers throughout the journey.
All that the Railway Department has to do is to make cubicles of four seats in the ‘Chat Compartment’ and allocate each cubicle to a mixed set of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims who wish to travel together. That arrangement will give about 40 persons of the three communities a rare chance of communicating with one another. This arrangement will make acquaintances of at least 40 passengers of the respective communities on each trip.
As the train makes two trips up and down a day, the possible introductions add up to 160 per day. More ‘Chat Compartments’ can be allocated as the demand increases, with the result that over a period, millions of citizens would be routinely put in touch with their countrymen whom they would not have met otherwise. This would undoubtedly start an imperceptible linkage between communities that would have a tremendous impact on integration in the long run, next to learning one another’s language.
It is unfortunate that the restaurant van of ‘Yarldevi’ is not yet functional. Availability of refreshments on the run should make more and more people come across others and make friends with them. Resourceful civil society organizations like lion clubs, religious associations and NGOs that are committed to national integration, particularly those operating beside the track, can make a contribution to this venture by taking turns to supply refreshments to the ‘Chat Compartment’ through a Caterer. That would certainly lengthen the queue for reservations for travel together and if the operation is imaginatively handled, very soon the entire Yarldevi would be transformed into a Train of Friendship.
aratai / November 19, 2014
You can have not just one Yarldevi but Ten Yarldevi’s and Ten Chat Rooms.
But, the people who thinks this island is for them only are never in the chat room.
Tamils think North and East is theirs. Muslims think East is theirs. Sinhalese think all Island is theirs.
kp / November 19, 2014
Very true. But it’s a start; at least get the ‘on-the-fence’ people to see and understand and form bonds.
S,Sivathasan / November 19, 2014
It is more than 48 years since Mr. Gunadheera and I met to work together in Trincomalee. Since then and ever after there is hardly a thing on heaven and earth that we have not discussed. As a Sangam work describes, meet over a delightful exchange and then part with the yearning when do we meet again.
On amity neither of us ever differed. S G has always been consistent that very many unspectacular rivulets flowing together can make for a great river. To me, political reordering for an ethnic balance in the economy is the principal tributary to make the flow perennial.
Yet, awaiting the ideal, I would concede that the very practical proposal of a ‘Chat Compartment’ coming off a sincere desire is worthy to be made real.
Peace Lover / November 19, 2014
how about a loony compartment and we can put together K A Sumanasekera,Jim Soflty,Abaya,Javi,Ella Kolla ,Donald Gnanakone ,Thondammanar,Siva Sankaran ‘Blacker’ Sarma in it
@Ben Hurling and Native Vedha,do you chaps have any suggestions to my list above?
Delta / November 19, 2014
Add Fathima Fukushima to the list
truth / November 19, 2014
The suggestion of this “chat compartment” looks very childish to me. Tamils have worked, studied, ran successful businesses in Colombo and other southern towns and villages, I presume from the 19th century!! Every village had an apothecary, a postmaster, an overseer, station master, teachers, surveyors etc.
Most of these people could manage to speak in sinhala. All this came to an end when the sinhala only came in and the politicians who were waiting in the wing too long to come into lime light got impatient and thought of provoking the Sinhalese thugs to attack the innocent Tamils.
There was no enmity between the ordinary sinhalese and the ordinary Tamil then and now. First of all Tamils have to have their rights and not treated as second class citizens. Jobs, admissions to universities have to be on merit. Lives of Tamils and their properties have to be safeguarded. All Tamil prisoners who are held in unknown locations have to be released. The parents have to be informed whether their children are dead or alive.
First of all Executive Presidency have to be abolished before the next elections. Nepotism, corruption, abductions, rapes, murders have to be investigated. There should be law and order. Justice have to be meted out to everyone irrespective of the language they speak or the religion they practice!! Army and the para military thugs should not interfere in the lives of ordinary Tamils. Land grabbing from the Tamils should stop. All the properties which were forcefully taken from the Tamils should be given back as soon as possible. Sri lanka should become a secular state.
I think Yal Devi has become an “election symbol”
A Tamil from TN / November 19, 2014
Though I agree with you Truth, what I see here in this article is a noble thought of a noble man, that needs to be appreciated.
truth / November 19, 2014
“Noble people” should have done something to alleviate the suffering of the innocent Tamils. What have they done for more than half a century of Tamils suffering. All they seem to be saying is that “since you are a minority you have to grin and bear”
Even now it is not too late. He should first try to improve the lot for the Tamil people. Tamils are affected in every aspect from education, job allotment, land grab, freedom, historical falsification, too numerous to list. You cannot preach to people who is being cornered by the “establishment”
Pacs / November 19, 2014
people who travelled in the crowded mail train and Yarldevi would not have forgotten the humiliation and insult done to them in the name of checking for contrabands. Speaking about these Trains does not mean pleasant memories.
Nihal Gunatilake / November 19, 2014
Hi- “Chat Compartment” is a good idea. But the following words cannot be used in this compartment (thahanam vachanaya)- 13th amendment, separation, language, genocide. otherwise there will be several Boxing Rings in these compartments. This is not a joke, please. bye -nihalg
Davidson Panabokke / November 19, 2014
Chats and tours don’t solve the ethnic conflict. Only political will to change the structure of the state:
eg the destruction of education in Jaffna University by Tamil and Sinhala stooges of the govt:
USAID DEMOCRACY AND GOVERNANCE : SRI LANKA ASSESSMENT, December2006: ”Donor-funded peace building efforts are often disconnected from structural changes in the state; conflict exists not simply because people don’t like each other but because of unjust institutions and structures. Without fixing the institutions and structures, it is not clear how much progress can be made in working with communities alone”.
Punitham / November 19, 2014
It is a shame on the part of the author and an insult to Tamils to think that ”refreshments on a train” will make ”national integration” when farming, fishing and other economic activities are grabbed by occupying armed forces depriving the people of livelihood.
This author was a very different person when he worked in Jaffna. In the last few years he has been easily obliged by the government to write a series of ”articles” that make NO sense.