Colombo Telegraph

Ezhuka Tamil: The New Reality – No Threat To Anyone

By Usha S Sri-Skanda Rajah

Usha S Sri-Skanda-Rajah

Democracy is the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves.” – The Cambridge Dictionary

What happened on the 24th of September 2016, was a magnificent exercise in democracy, more profoundly a mobilisation of people for a higher purpose, a dynamic display of people power, with a tempo raising, awe-inspiring slogan, ‘EzhukaTamil’ (‘AriseTamil’) – now seen as the new reality and what must, and is, and will be the oh so confident and convincing pathway for Tamils in attaining their aspirations for equal rights and self governance in the island once called Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka.

Clothed in peace, ‘EzhukaTamil’, is ironically the ‘weapon’ of the future, the only vehicle available for the Tamil speaking people to articulate their aspirations, towards realizing a permanent political solution and to achieving the long eluding reconciliation with their Sinhala brethren, leading to harmony and prosperity for all.

There’s nothing to lose but everything to gain by ‘EzhukaTamil’.

The movement is not against you; it’s not against anyone.

As articulated so eloquently on that day, with much clarity, truth and resolve, by the consummate statesman and gentleman that he is, the former Justice of the Supreme Court, presently Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council and co- chair of the Tamil People’s Council (TPC), ‘EzhukaTamil’ rally, in his words, was not convened to provoke any animosity against anyone at all but to underscore the Tamil speaking people’s fundamental rights and to show their peaceful resistance to all forms of tyranny unleashed against them and to make known to the international community, their legitimate political aspirations – the Chief Minister in his speech covering the whole gamut of serious concerns that the Tamil people have.

The organisation behind ‘EzhukaTamil’, TPC . whose brainchild it is, should be commended for what it achieved that day. TPC, a non-partisan entity of 35 members – comprising, “experts from all areas including religious leaders, professionals, civil societies and political parties,” from the North-East, has as its co-chairs, apart from the Chief Minister, Dr P Lakshman, Consultant Cardiologist at the Teaching Hospital, Jaffna and Mr. T Vasantharajah, the secretary of the Batticaloa Civil Society.

The TPC have come together, according to their profile, “to look into the Tamil people’s wellbeing, safety and integrity.” It was inaugurated on 19.12.2015, pledging, “to function with truthfulness, righteousness and with no ulterior motive so that a conducive situation is established for the Tamil people.”

It was incredible how well the rally was conducted – for us watching live on our computer screens overseas, it was unbelievable, just the logistics alone – it was fascinating to see how masterfully it was accomplished. I was impressed how it went without any untoward incident and how well behaved the crowd was and that there was no visible sign of any need for crowd control.

One had to pinch oneself to see the Chief Minister, addressing the throngs of people who had spilled over the Jaffna esplanade conservatively estimated at around fifteen to twenty thousand, possibly more. Referring to them as people gathered, in the main, to unanimously state publicly their demands for fundamental rights, to express their opposition to the oppressive measures taken against them and to broadcast to the world what their objectives are politically – he made one thing clear – that ‘EzhukaTamil’ wasn’t against anyone:

“The ‘EzhukaTamil’ rally is neither against the regime nor the powers that be; neither is it against the central government, nor our Sinhalese brothers and sisters; nor the Buddhist Sangha, it’s not even against the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchchi, who have expressed support for our policies, in fact many of them being present here, the only difference of opinion centering round the issue of whether the timing was most opportune,” the Chief Minister said, reiterating that no amount of engagement in parliament or through provincial councils would equal the enormous strength people power can wield in their journey towards securing their rights (the Chief Minister tackled very persuasively the question of timing later in his speech) .

‘EzhukaTamil’ must be understood for what it truly stands for. What each and every person should do is to listen to the Chief Minister’s speech to know the concerns the Tamil people have and how justified, fair and lawful their demands are and why ‘EzhukaTamil’ had to be.

Taking time to understand is a courtesy every Sinhalese must show to the Tamil people.

Mindless hawkish elements, must be informed, this is not war declared, far from it – those hawks who, “ruthlessly pursued a military solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict with no concern for civilian safety,” should stop giving the wrong interpretation to pursue their own ends, arousing bad feelings, against what is essentially a cry, a people’s plea for rights.

No, this is not “extremism” raising its head as some Sinhala extremist politicians and religious fanatics would try to portray, idiotically fanning the flames of Sinhala Buddhist bigotry..

Nothing much can be gained to convince those who think the Chief Minister should be jailed – falsely alleging that he’s expressed hatred against Lord Buddha and Buddhism and breached the constitution, obstructing free movement and freedom of worship..the same applies to those who erroneously claim the whole island is Buddha’s Sacred land and that the Chief Minister should be outlawed with his contingent to India together with bag and baggage, forgetting their own claim according to the Mahavamsa, that they are descendents of Vijaya and his 700 bandits outlawed by India who drifted to the island from where else – nowhere but India.

It is critically important that Sinhalese Buddhists try to understand the sensitivities relating to this deeply polarising and often misunderstood issue of forced ‘Buddhisisation’ of the North and East, that’s inextricably linked with forced colonisation, both backed by the state. They should stop listening to those who are wilfully misconstruing what the Chief Minister said at the rally relating to the erection of Buddhist statues and viharas in non-Buddhist areas – what he said or didn’t say, creating a controversy, which prompted him quite correctly to explain in Sinhalese, at a sports event, with the President in attendance – the Chief Minister thought it important to clarify the Tamil position relating to Buddhist statues mushrooming in far too many places in the North-East where there were very few Buddhists living. This kind of activity is seen by most Tamils as a strategy intended essentially to increase Sinhala colonisation activities to blur the demography in the area, which is a real concern for the Tamils.

In my view the push for integration by Sinhala politicians, manifested in state sponsored colonisation together with the militarisation of the North and East with the army involved in civic activities, will result in the disintegration of the Tamil Nation: Looking at the demographical changes that have taken taken place over the years it is a justifiable concern. Taking the Eastern province alone, according to the 1881census, the Sinhala population was initially 5,947 that’s now grown to 359,136 persons according to the 2012 census.

In terms of the Northern province, the Sinhala population, going by the 1881 census grew from 1,379 to 32,331 persons under the 2012 census.

In addition more importantly, according to the article that appeared in the Colombo Telegraph written in July 2012, the number of security personnel in the Northern province number around 198,000 with one security personnel for every 5 civilians:

“Given that 75% of the army’s divisions are stationed in the Northern Province, in addition to other formations such as task forces and independent brigades and regimental units, it is not unreasonable to assume that at least 60% of the army, i e, approximately 1,80,000 personnel, are stationed across the Northern Province…..

Of course these figures are for the Jaffna peninsula and the islands alone.

However one must add to this 1,80,000, the share of personnel from the navy, the air force, civil defence forces, intelligence and the police, including the special task force, etc, based in the north. Assuming that the combined presence of all these latter entities accounts for 10% of the army’s strength (18,000), again a very conservative estimate, this makes for a total of 1,98,000 security personnel in the province. This amounts to a ratio of 1 security personnel for every 5.04 civilians in the Northern Province or a force density of around 198.4 security personnel per 1,000 civilian population.”

The concerns Tamils have are further exacerbated by how the general landscape has changed in the Tamil areas with security personnel and their families vigorously involved in civic, economic, religious, cultural, agricultural and educational activities with parallel infrastructure being built around this to maintain this never decreasing but fast growing security community, bolstering its activities and needs. Use of alcohol, substance abuse and prostitution is increasing – leading to increased suspicion that these are being promoted and manipulated to weaken and destroy the culture and heritage of the Tamil people.

Any argument comparing this to that of the concentration of Tamil people in the capital Colombo from time immemorial, who are well established and owning property and businesses just like the Sinhalese, is insane. No one is claiming those areas to be territorial units of the Tamil Nation, only the North and East alone, comprising 8 districts.

‘EzhukaTamil’ shouldn’t pose a threat to Tamil politicians, who might be afraid and unwittingly believe the wind has been taken off their sails, thinking unjustly that their position is not secure, that the conveners have political ambitions intended to depose them. Rather, it would be better if Tamil lawmakers realise that having people power behind them, during a challenging time such as now, is indispensible, when they have to deliver to the Tamil people the mandate received, especially in the wake of a new Sri Lanka constitution being drafted as we speak.

Whilst, this is true, (the point about delivery on the Tamil side I mean), the trials and tribulations of Tamil politicians since independence, having to work with an insensitive, unwilling and uncooperative bunch, called the Sinhala Buddhist establishment, is also so very true. Only a few days ago Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe seemed to break the vow of secrecy that members of the sub committees appointed to help draft the new Sri Lanka constitution signed up to, by announcing publicly and most incorrectly that all parties, and even TNA agreed to Buddhism having the foremost place in the constitution, when contrary to that, TNA believed in a secular constitution giving equal place to all religions practiced in the island. It’s heartening to hear M A Sumanthiran MP release a video to clarify TNA’s true position, showing the kind of leadership Tamil people expect from their representatives. Further, his public condemnation of the draft legislation written to replace the ‘Prevention of Terrorism Act’ (PTA) was also welcome, comparing it to, “old wine in a new bottle.”

Similarly, the opposition leader R Sampanthan’s defence of both the ‘EzhukuTamil’ rally and the Chief Minister in parliament is another encouraging sign that Tamil politicians who may have been wavering, whether to stand behind this manifestation of people power, because they were involved in the reconciliation process, are seeing the light, that they need the people’s backing in their deliberations and engagement with their Sinhala counterparts as they undertake the task of securing Tamil rights for posterity. It is the way to go – building solidarity among Tamils is key, as the narrative that matters – the fight for the right to self-determination is moved along to fruition with people power.

There are those who sadly do not think ‘EzhukaTamil’ achieved a massive victory for the Tamil people because nothing has been realized yet. On the contrary, in truth, the courage shown by the people, under military occupation, leaving war-fatigue, loss, injury and misery behind them, in coming out of their shell and rallying – embracing non- violence and sworn to democratic principles, must not be under-estimated..Sinhala regimes aren’t going to give us our rights on a silver platter, amidst pomp and pageantry, jubilantly jumping up with drums beating and all.

‘EzhukaTamil’ will be there for the long haul, if it has to. Hope it won’t be long..

No need to worry about the likes of whom who regretfully perpetuate an inferiority complex among the Tamil people, by saying the Chief Minister unbeknown to him is actually a plant of the Sinhala Buddhist racist bigots, who want to create enmity towards the more reasonable among the Sinhalese, that this could further distance the Sinhala people and hurt their feelings, forcing the Tamil people towards subscribing to failure once again – believing this gives fodder to the Sinhala media which relishes with its tongue out, waiting for such instances which exacerbate racial hatred, taking the Tamil people on their next path to destruction..I am not saying this, some losers did.

It is a pain to hear those who think that the Tamil people haven’t adequately made their aspirations known to the Sinhala people! What an outrageous claim for some Tamils to think not enough is being done to talk, to negotiate when considering the numerous broken pacts and the failed peace process which are a testament to the patience of the Tamil people. It’s important for people know that the TPC have expressed a strong desire for a substantive discussion, emphasising the, “need for a political agreement prior to a constitutional enactment.” It’s not known if the TNA members on the steering committee of the Constitutional Assembly have engaged in talks with the TPC on their ‘final proposals’, a great model that must be considered in its entirety along with TNA’s proposals in the constitution drafting process – a meeting of minds and a united front by the Tamils avoiding any fallout is such a priority at this crucial hour.

Let’s not forget the resolution to turn the Sri Lankan parliament into a Constitutional Assembly introduced by Ranil Wickremesinghe in January was adopted in March, sadly, minus the section in the original resolution, which talked of, “providing a constitutional resolution of the Tamil national question.”

All politicians and cabinet ministers who say, “Sri Lanka will be a unitary state,” and there would be no stopping to establishing more military camps in the Tamil areas are once again making the same mistakes their colleagues and predecessors made that would necessarily create an impasse which is quite definitely detrimental to all the players. Rejecting any move to continuing a unitary constitution, the TPC has prepared a document containing “final proposals” for, “finding a political solution to the ‘Tamil National Question'”. It’s a fully comprehensive and substantive document, a must, must read, describing the framework upon which a federal constitution must be written, the relationship and the division of power between the ‘Federation” and the ‘States’, extensively listing the powers devolved to the States including fiscal, land and police powers and powers to attract and entertain and control foreign investments. The proposals have at the outset expressed the, “need for a political agreement prior to a constitutional enactment,” which illustrate how much the Tamil people want their demands heard before Sri Lanka’s 4th constitution is enacted:

“THE NEED FOR A POLITICAL AGREEMENT PRIOR TO A CONSTITUTIONAL ENACTMENT:

The finding of a political solution cannot be a mere constitution writing exercise. The root cause of the national conflict is Sri Lanka being a Sinhala-Buddhist Nation State – a State that is identified with a single nation and demos and has a hierarchical structure with the Sinhala Buddhist Nation that sits on the top of the hierarchy. This hierarchy is represented in the unitary character of the State. Both major parties in the South (SLFP and UNP) stand by a Sinhala Buddhist unitary State, which is unacceptable to all shades of Tamil public opinion. It would not be possible to engage in a constitution making exercise without agreeing to the basic vision of the State. For Sri Lanka to become a secular non-hierarchical State, the Sinhala Buddhist polity will have to recognize that there needs to be a new social contract drawn between the Tamil Nation and the Sinhala Nation in Sri Lanka through which would emerge a new State – a new plurinational Sri Lanka. This would mean recognizing the Tamil People’s uniqueness and their right to self-determination and recognition of the political aspirations of the Muslims and Up Country Tamils. The 13th amendment to the present Constitution failed not just by the fact that it was set within a unitary framework and because of its flawed institutional design but also because of a conception of a hierarchical state with Sinhala Buddhist Nation at its helm. Even a federal Constitution would not be workable unless the hierarchical conception of the State is altered. Hence we insist on the pre-constitutional recognition of the Tamil Nationhood and self-determination in a new constitutional scheme. It is from such a political vision that a new Constitution can be enacted. In the absence of such an understanding a constitutional process will, like in all previous instances be majoritarian and unilateral and bound to fail. We think that a pre-constitutional agreement in the form of a treaty (like the Dayton Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement) is necessary prior to the constitution making process. The treaty should inter alia recognize the Tamil nation’s right to self-determination, its sovereignty and constituent power and its traditional homeland in the areas of historical habitation of the Tamil people. The treaty should provide that in the event of the arrangements being unilaterally abrogated by the numerically larger Sinhala Buddhist majority and its political representatives and in the absence of any other alternatives, the Tamil people may decide to hold a referendum to further determine their political status. This treaty which we think should be underwritten by a third party (foreign governments such as the US/India or the UN) will help to bring international/external guarantee to the durability of the solution arrived at, beyond the contours of a constitution that otherwise rests within the domain of domestic law. This agreement should also spell out inter alia measures to be taken for accountability and justice, address issues relating to disappearances, release of political prisoners, release of land occupied by the Armed forces in the North-East, demilitarization, state-sponsored colonization, security sector reforms and contain guarantees of non-recurrence. It would be impossible to create a safe and open environment for the discussion of these political/constitutional issues without creating the above enabling conditions in the North-East. “

Again the declaration at the ‘EzhukaTamil’ rally, listing the demands of the Tamil people, states: “It’s disconcerting to the Tamil people that the new constitution is being drafted in utmost secrecy. The report which followed the consultations for the new constitution also completely failed to include the genuine political aspirations of the Tamil people. An open, public and democratic consultation process should be allowed before the drafting of the proposed constitution. Discussion for a new constitution cannot be held under the present oppressive structures. We stress that the Prevention of Terrorism Act should be repealed and demilitarization carried out immediately for an open dialogue on the constitution to be held in the North and East.

Meanwhile I can now easily and constructively respond to Mahendran Thiruvarangan’s contention in the Colombo Telegraph that the ‘EzhukaTamil’ movement in their pursuit to achieving self-determination have a skewed vision by alienating the Muslim community. At the outset, “EzhukaTamil’ is a movement to mobilise peacefully to fight for equal rights for all Tamil speaking people, rejecting any kind of religious divide between Hindu Christian, Buddhist or Muslim. TPC have in their proposals provisions for the Muslim Community, the Sinhalese living in the North-East State, as well as for the up-country Tamils. Under Section 5, which sets out the ‘system of governance’, section 5.1. provides that, “Sri Lanka shall be a Federal Republic,” and 5.2. provides that, “there shall be two tiers of government; the Federation and the State,” TPC’s ‘final proposals‘ also provides a ‘note’ which explains an intention for discussions with the Muslim Community, “with regard to accommodating their interests and aspirations in an institutional form within the merged NorthEast:

We recognize the distinctive political character of the Muslim Community in the North-East. We are committed to discussing with the Muslim Community any proposal they put forward with regard to accommodating their interests and aspirations in an institutional form within the merged NorthEast. b) Sinhalese living in the North-East State shall enjoy all rights enshrined in the Constitution and the laws additionally to be enacted by the North-East State Assembly through its own enactments on human rights. c) We similarly express our commitment to the rights of the Up-Country Tamils to a measure of institutional rights that safeguard their collective interest in their areas of habitation. We are absolutely committed to working with Up-Country political parties and civil societies in this regard.

Come on board I say to the Muslim community.

So listen understand and hold your peace who mistakenly fear “EzhukaTamil’ is some form of separatist rancour, a terrorist threat, a breach of peace – be informed this is but an advocacy movement, for securing among other, the inalienable fundamental right to self determination for the Tamil speaking people, enshrined in the United Nations Treaties and Declarations.

Under the ‘final proposals’ of the TPC, section 1.3 provides, “the Tamil Nation’s territorial unit shall be the Northern and Eastern Provinces as demarcated by the 1978 Constitution, being the areas of historical habitation of the Tamils,” and 1.4. provides, “Tamil people are a distinct Nation with the inalienable right to self-determination.”

It must be noted that the TPC has included a pledge, making a commitment to, “a united and undivided Sri Lanka,” provided further under section 1.4 that, “the Tamil Nation pledges its commitment to a united and undivided Sri Lanka which respects and affirms the right to self- determination of the Tamils.”

So to be honest I would appeal to the Tamil people, those hesitating to rally behind ‘EzhukaTamil’ to believe in it and espouse it both back home and in the Diaspora. While Sri Lanka is involved in constitutional reform, and busy drafting a new constitution, all Tamils must concern themselves, treating it as their sacred duty, to be diligent and more importantly engaged in the ensuing discussion pertaining to the making of the constitution, the outcome of which is of paramount and critical importance to the Tamil people – in which their destiny would be decided. By that I mean, where their rights and powers will be entrenched in Sri Lanka’s constitution!

While Tamil politicians stand perplexed and helpless, just consider what is at stake when a Sinhala Buddhist constitution would be imposed on the Tamil people like the last three (more so the last two) constitutions before it. The old but dressed up 13th Amendment governing the powers and functions of the existing provinces in the island, that’s been found to be toothless and woefully lacking in real autonomy based not on self- determination, will not do at all for Tamils. But that’s what the Sinhala Buddhist establishment would do – stuff it down our throats whether we like it or not, through a choking Sinhala majoritarian stranglehold facilitated by an island wide referendum.

In the event of an island wide referendum on a Sinhala Buddhist constitution, the question we should be asking is, who do you think will win, and we must know the answer to that? Even if the SLFP and UNP are split, and a two thirds majority would be difficult to achieve, the question put forward in the referendum would unlikely be something the Tamil people could vote for, again giving their vote away like they do in every general election only to be further oppressed and enslaved.

I appeal to the Tamil people to mobilise and rally behind the people power movement, ‘EzhukaTamil’ and join the clarion call for self-governance founded on four basic tenets: Tamils as a distinct Nation, Tamil Sovereignty, Right to Self-determination and Federalism.

Please do not let Tamil rights be determined by someone else. Please do not let Tamil rights be compromised. I said it here and I am saying it again, building solidarity among Tamils is key, as the narrative that matters to us – the fight for the right to self-determination is moved along to fruition with people power.

There’s also a huge problem for the Sinhalese politicians too, it’s to do with their conscience. Something they have to grapple with and can’t postpone. i.e. relating to establishing a truly independent domestic inquiry with the inclusion of foreign judges and prosecutors, one they signed up to plus ensuring Tamils enjoy the right to self-determination just as much as the Sinhalese – under a federation.

Get ready for a tumultuous ride Tamil people as we confront the challenge of constitution making by the Sinhalese, but fortunately there’s ‘EzhukaTamil’, a manifestation of mammoth Tamil people power rising up for fundamental rights, the new reality, the only vehicle open to Tamils, clothed in peace, the ‘weapon’ of the future, right in our palm.

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