By Jehan Perera –
Sections of the polity that feel themselves to be excluded from the government’s decision making process and alliances are seeking to gain attention. In the North the Tamil People’s Council organized a largely successful protest march and rally against the failure of the government to adequately address the problems of the war affected Tamil people and also larger political issues of concern to the Tamil polity. In the south the Bodu Bala Sena or Buddhist Power Force (BBS) has been organizing protests against the dangers posed by Tamil nationalism including the event organized by the Tamil People’s Council under the name Ezhuga Thamizh (Tamils arise) and the government’s inaction to face down this challenge. However, it is important to distinguish between these two organizations. The BBS is a fringe group without mainstream Sinhalese backing whereas the Tamil People’s Council has substantial public support in the Tamil majority north.
I was in Jaffna two days before the Ezhuga Thamizh protest event took place. When I went to the university to meet with faculty members about conducting an awareness seminar on the government’s reconciliation process, they were busy and in a hurry as they were helping in the organizing of the protest event. I had come to meet with civil society groups, and it seemed that they too were supporters of this event. One of them showed me a map of some land taken over near Palali airport. He took me there to show it. The peculiarity was that land closer to the airport had been given back to the people. But land further away from the airport was still retained in a spacious military camp, which had a play ground for recreation and some fruit and vegetable cultivation too. Military sources say that this land belonged to the Agriculture Department. But the map that was given to me shows where a large number of houses once existed (see map).
The indication I got was that the intelligentsia of the North, at least in Jaffna, was supportive of the Ezhuga Thamizh event. They were not anti Tamil or anti Sinhalese. They were prepared to collaborate with us who had come from the South to organize the seminar on the government’s reconciliation process. However, it was also evident that they felt the need for pressure to be applied to the government to do more for the Tamil people and to do it without more delay. This is understandable. The Tamil people of the North were the main victims in the last phase of the war. Those who were victims and lost their loved ones, lost their lands, lost their livelihoods and lost their neighbours, cannot wait. They want their problems solved immediately if they were not solved yesterday. On the other hand, those who were not direct victims of the war would not have such urgency in getting their needs attended to.
Those who live outside the North and East are, by and large, able to take a more detached and long term view of what happened and what needs to be done. Most of the intelligentsia in the country outside of the North and East perhaps see that a solution to problems that have festered for over six decades cannot be solved in one year on in two. It is a fact that the greatest leaders this country produced in the past tried to solve the problem but they failed in their endeavours. S W R D Bandaranaike, Dudley Senanayake, S J V Chelvanayakam, J R Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa, A Amirthalingam and Chandrika Kumaratunga tried to resolve it but could not in their periods of leadership. It may therefore require the passage of another generation after the end of the war for a mutually acceptable political solution to be found.
There is satisfaction in liberal sections of society and the international community that the present course that the government is steering is in the direction of a political solution. On other other hand, the Ezhuga Thamizh demonstration had slogans that called for the return of land, finding of missing persons, release of those detained without trial, the resettlement of displaced people, and demilitarization and restoration of full civilian rule. These are urgent needs of the people. Each one of these matters is being addressed today by the government, though the pace of change may be slower than necessary, and is much too slow to the victims who are denied their right to live in dignity. At the same time it is also necessary to take into consideration the positive changes that have taken place in each one of these areas, and continues to take place. The government is often criticized even by its supporters of not communicating its messages to the people.
The Ezhuga Thamizh event also had political demands to make of the government especially in the formulation of the new constitution. There were demands for the unitary state to be replaced by a federal one, and for the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces into one large Tamil-controlled province. However it also necessary to realise that the government can only go as far as the majority of people are prepared to go. No government that is elected, and whose mandate has democratic legitimacy, can make political decisions that do not have majority electoral backing. The majority of the electorate is waiting to be educated and convinced about the need for change, and for the change proposed by the government, as this is what is desired by the Tamil people.
It is unfortunate that the manner in which the Ezhuga Thamizh protest has been articulated is unlikely to win the support of the either the majority of the Sinhalese or Muslim people. There are many Muslims in the East who say they are not for merger. There are even Tamils from the East, who say that they prefer the merger not to take place. In the case of a merger, the administrative power centre would probably shift to the North, which is farther away for many of those living in the East than is Colombo. The stridency with which the Tamil demands are being articulated is also not designed to convince the unconvinced. On the contrary, it serves to bolster the stridency of the ethnic nationalist parties.
The political issues of federalism and the merger of the North and East will most probably require more time in which to work out a mutually acceptable solution. There will be a need for educational campaigns so that the Sinhalese do not automatically equate federalism with separation. Likewise where the merger of the North and East is concerned, there may be a need for a referendum to ascertain the views of the people. At the present time there is a danger of holding a referendum, as wounds are still too fresh and a negative vote by the electoral majority is a possibility. The setback to the peace process in Colombia, where the peace accord signed by the government and FARC rebels has been defeated at a referendum is a warning to Sri Lanka that what is designed and negotiated at the top needs to be accepted by the people. On the other hand, the humanitarian issues of the victims need to be attended to without further delay.
In this context there is a need for the government to prioritise the release of land, resettlement of displaced persons, provision of livelihood assistance, demilitarization of the North and East and finding of missing persons. In doing so, the government can draw upon the passion and goodwill of the Tamil People’s Council and also of the Tamil Diaspora. There was a time when the Diaspora contributed large sums of money for the purpose of waging military war. Now there is an opportunity to demonstrate similar commitment to assist the victims of war. Instead of feeling excluded by the government the Tamil People’s Council and Northern Provincial Council, both of which are led by former Justice of the Supreme Court, C V Wigneswaran who is currently chief minister of the Northern Provincial Council and also convenor of the Tamil People’s Council, could play a leading role as champions of the humanitarian effort. They do not need to wait for others to do the right thing by the victims of war but could start right away.