By Somapala Gunadheera –
To my mind the most shocking news we have had of late is the death of the two Jaffna undergraduates who died on their way home from a get-together. Two young lives heading towards prosperity and renown, in a rough terrain had been nipped in the bud.
I remember how I traveled the length and breadth of the Peninsula as a Cadet, when I was around their age. One day I had a tyre puncture on my way home and I was standing hopelessly near my car. A passing taxi driver stopped his car on seeing me. He changed my wheel dexterously without allowing me even to fetch the spare. As the Good Samaritan took leave of me, I pulled out my purse to compensate him. The man refused to accept payment, appearing to be hurt by my attempt to commercialize civic values.
Such values and comradeship was damaged by politicians on both sides who made racial differences a weapon to catch votes. Despite such exploitation common people on either side made a valiant effort to maintain racial amity. It is significant that the above incident took place at the peak of the ‘Sri’ crisis with my car bearing a ‘Sri’ number plate.
I did the same rounds forty years later, as the Chairman of the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of the North, when the LTTE insurrection was on. Even under such stress. I was as safe as houses though I was never covered by security. With that personal experience, I have the highest regard for the goodwill and hospitality of the North.
Strangely, that standard appears to be deteriorating, despite the end of the conflict and that, under a dispensation committed to reconciliation and good governance. May be under the previous regime discipline was maintained under relentless pressure. If Yahapalanaya wants to change that stance, it has to be quick in finding an amicable system of live and let live. That cannot be done with a magic wand or tiresome public declarations.
One does not have to go far to find instances of interracial conflict under the present Government. The alleged assault on some Sinhala students of the Jaffna University, who performed a Kandyan dance to welcome a new batch, is a clear case in point. That was followed in Peradeniya with an assault on a group of devotees returning from a Hindu shrine. The latest is the death of the two University students followed by presumed reprisals against security personnel stationed in the North. The brewing crisis is fraught with dangerous potential.
But the Government appears to be trying to stop the rising storm by merely sweeping things under the carpet. Though it claims to be committed to reconciliation, not much has happened in that direction, after it came to power, except the setting up of prestigious structures to achieve the object. Of course, one has to sympathize with the problem of having to satisfy the demands of two opposite poles among strange bedfellows. The fact that at least parts of the habitual opponents have been able to come together is a historical achievement. But such coalition will make no meaning if the new partners fail to sail the ship of state on even keel.
Special Commissions have an added duty to help the regime to fill gaps caused by intra-coalition disagreements. One such duty is the onus on the Police Commission to recreate a Police force that is truly national in its composition. Seven years after the end of the armed conflict, the structure of the Police remains much the same as it was compelled to be under the confrontation. I am aware that four years back an attempt was made to recruit minority members into the Police cadres. But the response to the move was minimal, presumably, due to die-hard attitudes generated by the bitter conflict. Fortunately that psychosis appears to be settling down under the new dispensation. Under the emerging liberalism of the enlightened ruling Tamil leadership, Tamils are said to be joining the Police in their hundreds. But still the trend is too weak to make an impact on the public image of the police department.
I am not aware whether there was a single Tamil officer in the Police team that dealt with the two ill-fated undergraduates. If there was at least one Tamil among them, I believe the reaction of the North to the incident would have been quite different. If that team was ethnically more representative of the area, the tragedy would not have created a reaction different to a similar incident in the South. That is where the Police Commission should pull up its socks and build up a representative force, not forgetting of course, the security concerns. If the undergrads’ deaths are found to have been caused by criminal action, the PC should take transparent and prompt legal action against the culprits, in line with what happens in the South in similar situations.
I was delighted to see the University students unions rising in one voice against what happened to the Tamil students. There were demonstrations by them all over the island. I would have gladly joined them, if only I was a few years younger. I am convinced that national protest was the most potent cause that took the wind off the sails of some extremists who tried to create communal tension on the back of the mishap. The protests would have convinced those who felt threatened by the incident, that a vast majority of the nation eschewed communal discrimination.
The University Grants Commission should take a leaf from that experience and hasten to build up a representative inter University advisory committee of students to intervene promptly in situations that have a potential to create communal tension in Universities. They should be the first to be at the scene in such an event, dispelling possible doubts about ethnic bias. The Committee should not be imposed by the UGC but it should be constituted by a process that excludes inter union rivalry. It should be adequately funded and facilitated to become a vibrant factor in reconciliation in the higher education sector.
Even the other Independent Commissions have a duty to be creative outside their routines to help lighten the burden of Yahapalanaya in its struggle to introduce reconciliation in the face of political rivalry. For instance, the Human Rights Commission has an important role to play in the Northern refugee crisis. Their intervention in the proposed move to deny legal advice to crime suspects is an innovative step in the right direction. The Public Service Commission should keep an eagle eye on the distribution of available job opportunities among the respective communities, in a fair manner.