By Rajiva Wijesinha –
31 years after the tragic events of July 1983, there has still been no serious attempt to heal the wounds. They were grave wounds, and the effect they had still bedevils this country. Though many explanations are offered, some in an effort to justify what occurred, we must recognize that, as Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe put it, ‘The facts however cannot be denied. Thousand of Tamils, old and young, and even little children were assaulted; robbed, killed, bereaved and made refugees. They saw their homes, possessions, vehicles, shops and factories plundered, burnt or destroyed. These people were humiliated, made to live in fear and rendered helpless’
This brutality led to the strengthening of the LTTE. Though we must all be glad that the terrorism the LTTE engaged in is now over, we must also make sure that the sort of terrorism that held sway in July 1983 is never repeated. And we need to understand why some still regret the extermination of the LTTE in Sri Lanka.
One reason is the failure of the Sri Lankan state, following the victory of 2009, to affirm the equality of all its citizens and facilitate their full participation in governance. That must be changed, and we need to ensure full consultation of affected populations in planning for economic and social and political development. The election held for the Northern Provincial Council was a step in the right direction, but unless the constitutional provisions regarding the powers of the elected Provincial government are respected, we must expect disaffection.
But equally important is the need to assuage the fears of those in the diaspora that the events of July 1983 could be repeated. I believe that those Tamils who did not leave Sri Lanka understood the enormity of what the LTTE did, and are by and large relieved that they no longer suffer that repressive rule. If the state does more to satisfy their economic and social needs whilst promoting their participation in governance, I have no doubt they will be satisfied.
But we need to do more to win over the diaspora, because their memories are of deprivation and mayhem, and they have little knowledge of the positive steps successive Sri Lankan governments have taken since 1983. That is why the LLRC stressed the need for a proactive policy with regard to the diaspora, and the failure of government to set this in place is amongst its greatest blunders.
This is the more regrettable in that even the security establishment recognizes that the vast majority of the diaspora is willing to engage with the government. Though much publicity is given to elements which still hanker after separatism, the intelligence agencies of government confirm that not more than 7% of the diaspora is involved in such aspirations. So it is worrying that, while the security forces have set in place mechanisms to deal with this tiny percentage, no other agencies in government have tried to work with the remaining 93%.
We have several instances of valuable contributions by members of the Diaspora to the development process. Diaspora Lanka from Australia has been working very well in Mannar, while recently the Northern Province released the Report of its Northern Education Sector Review which was spearheaded by the famous Sri Lankan athlete Dr Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam. But in both these cases we must register shortcomings. No efforts were made by the government, in the four years it ran the affairs of the North, to engage with experts like Dr Ethirveerasingam. And in Mannar, though the head of Diaspora Lanka established excellent relations with government officials, he had to face continuous hindrance from officials in Colombo, who also questioned the title of his organization, on the grounds that Diaspora spelt danger.
Such self fulfilling fears are what contribute to continuing tensions. Similarly we have not seen enough concerted effort to promote investment by the diaspora. Not just general bureaucratic constraints, but also irrational suspicions, are blocking the active participation of the diaspora in development.
An example of what could be done is available in the two state of the art factories that MAS have established in Kilinochchi. I am frequently asked in the Reconciliation meetings I hold in the Divisional Secretariats whether such factories can be started elsewhere. I am sorry that government has not done more to encourage such initiatives, and I hope that the stirring film, made about the factories but appropriately entitled ‘Being About People’, will be shown widely so that they might be replicated.
I will not say more, because this meeting is for the purposes of discussion. I hope therefore that we can generate ideas as to how engagement of the sorts I have described can be taken further We should focus on the way in which the Sri Lankan state and official and non-official actors should, with mutual respect, develop relationships with members of the Diaspora, as well as with local entrepreneurs and elected politicians, to provide general benefits to all communities and the whole country.
*Introductory remarks of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha – At the consultation convened on 23rd July 2014 by the Minister of National Languages and Social Integration Vasudeva Nanayakkara – in commemoration of the tragedy of July 1983 on “Healing the Wounds: Working with the Diaspora” at the Auditorium of the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration