By Sumanasiri Liyanage –
On February 5 early morning, I took the Chinese built intercity train to Kankasanturai that ran on an Indian tracks after Vavunia. The train took more than 7 hours to reach Jaffna, my destination. This time I travelled by train after 35 years being my last train journey to Jaffna in July 1980, during the time of the General Strike. I visited Jaffna several times during July strike most of the time with late Comrade U E Perera who was the President of then powerful Railway Workers Union. Opening up of railway to North is undoubtedly commendable. My last visit to Jaffna on A9 was in 2011 for the demonstration and rally organized by the FUTA. Since 2011, things have changed considerably, new constructions in Kilinochchi, better roads, housing schemes by the Indian government. While we were passing Kilinochchi, I asked my Taiwanese friend who was travelling with me if he could say this was the area where an intense armed battle occurred about five years ago. His answer was emphatic no. As we have always been told an appearance may be deceiving especially when more complex questions are raised. Looking at the new roads, shopping malls, government offices, public school and hospital buildings and others, it looked Jaffna and the North have come back to normal after 35 years of war and destruction. However, the story is partly true and developments like in other places are deceptive and lop-sided.
Now there is a government at the center supported by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and a provincial council with TNA Chief Minister and the cabinet. It was said that the TNA supported Maithreepala Sirisena unconditionally to extend and establish democracy in general. The people in Jaffna voted overwhelmingly to Maithreepala Sirisena in spite of the fact that the number of votes to Mahinda Rajapaksa had also shown a significant increase. By democracy, the people in Jaffna and Vanni might have thought and expected something different from what the TNA meant. TNA led Provincial Council correctly informed the people that it cannot operate according to its plan because of the intervention of the central government controlled by Mahinda Rajapaksa. Now thing has changed. A new Governor was appointed, new provincial secretary is now in charge. In such a circumstances, it is totally justified for people in Jaffna and Vanni to think and expect that things would be moving in the right direction. People are patiently waiting to get their hopes and expectations fulfilled.
I visited three refugee camps on KKS road. People who have been forcefully displaced and living in those camps for 25 years. They were from Kankasanthurai, Palali and Myleddiy and displaced during President Premadasa regime. There are 35 camps and I heard altogether nearly 4000 families are living in these camps. Nonetheless, the number of displaced people are not limited to this number as may have been living in relatives and friends. By forcefully displacing them from their natural habitat, they were also excluded from their way of living. Many of these people used to live either by fishing or farming. They have been not allowed to engage in these activities any more. I asked: “Does the government provide money? or payment in kind?” They told me that they were given a ration initially but in the last 5 years it had been stopped. So if work is available now they work as day laborers. Refugee life has also affected children. Although they are allowed to attend nearby schools, children have to encounter two main issues in addition to supply of stationary and other basic requirements. “I have four children, but I cannot afford to send all four to schools. So I send younger children to school and ask elder children to go and find some work.” One woman told us. Secondly, children from the refugee camps are usually downgraded in the schools. So the refugee life is not just a life with poverty, it is a life with deprivation, dependence and disrespect.
It is interesting to learn that even though these people are in despicable and disgraceful condition, their demands are not unreasonable. “If the government says part of the land is needed for expansion of the Palali airport, we have no objection. But the government can release the remaining land. ”One person told us. “People live near airports.” I informed that I live closer to the airport.
In spite of innumerable requests, Mahinda Rajapaksa government did not take action to settle the issue of refugees after the conclusion of war. I was shown so many petitions and letters sent to various government authorities asking them an immediate solution to the problems faced by them. As Mahinda Rajapaksa regime failed to resolve the issue, people in the camps voted in the last presidential election to Maithripala Sirisena with hopes and expectations that a solution would come within 100 days program. There has been a committee of welfare camps (an euphemism to describe these overcrowded camps with no basic facilities) that are active in presenting people’s grievances to various government authorities. They showed me the latest request they have prepared. They informed that their hopes that the new administration would respect their right to return are gradually waning. TNA has informed that the solution of the refugee problem may not be found within 100 days!! Once again it has been proved, the democracy that the elitist parties and individuals talk about and the democracy that the subalterns expect are not the same thing. Elites want people with voting power while subalterns want people with right to land and right to sea. The refugees in the remaining 35 camps are deprived of the latter.
Two paths that are not mutually exclusive are open for the people in Jaffna and Vanni to take in order to find a solution to these unresolved issues. First they can ask and pressurize their elected representatives both at national and provincial level using existing governmental mechanisms to defend the right of return for the people in camps. The TNA that supported the present government should ask the President and the Cabinet for the inclusion of right of return in the 100 days program without keeping it in the back burner until the Parliamentary election. Like in the previous elections, the issue should not be used as an election ploy.
Secondly, a brief democratic space has been open after January 8. In order to extend and expand this space, people should intervene positively to get their issues is settled. In the south of Sri Lanka an important, though small, steps are taken on political issues. Those organizations have raised demands like free political prisoners, repeal the PTA, defend the rights of individuals who were forced to leave the island for political reasons to come back and engage in politics. Right to return should be added as one of the key demands. It is true, campaigns like this would definitely eventually challenge the neoliberal economics and its culture. As many studies have shown the main danger to democracy today is not anarchism but neoliberalism.
The statement of the Deputy Minister of Defence, Ruwan Wijewardene in his recent visit to the Northern Province has made it clear that the present government at the center, at least some sections of it, is not really interested in resolving the issue of these people who has been living in so-called welfare centers since 1990. In this backdrop, Chief Minister’s response by presenting a resolution at the Northern Provincial Council against the Sri Lankan government is understandable. I think that my friend, Minister Rajitha Senaratne’s comment of ‘extremism’ on the part of the CM of the NPC is not by any means justified since the government itself has opted to take an ‘extreme’ position with regard to displaced people.
Right to return has two aspects. First is the right of people who were displaced for whatever reasons have a right to return to their natural locale. In case their former natural locale was unrepairably destroyed, people affected should be given alternative places according to their choice. The second aspect of right to return entails the right of people who were forced to leave the island because of incessant threat to their lives to return back when they think that the situation warrants to do so.
Right to Return 2
An issue related to the second aspect of right to return was discussed in Colombo that also has shown the attitude of the present government. Kumar Gunarathnam was born in Kegalle to Tamil parents. He was grown up in Kegalle. Like his brother, he joined the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) at the young age and was active member of the party in the late 1980s. His work and behavior had not shown any intention of him to leave the country searching for green pasture. However, because of his political work and ideology, he was forced to leave the island for Australia. As often happens, he also had to change his name and get a passport in a different name. He returned to Sri Lanka and worked for the setting up of Frontline Socialist Part. The result was his disappearance and deportation. Just before the election he was granted visa to come back his own country, the country he wishes to live and work. What was taken away from him was his basic right to return and right to engage in politics. This is not a technical legal issue, this is a fundamental political issue associated with basic democratic and human rights. Those who talk about the technicality of the matter in fact are trying to put this democratic dimension under the carpet. As the Article 27 (2) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka informs us “the state is pledged to establish in Sri Lanka a democratic socialist society, the objectives of which include (a) the full realization of the fundamental rights and freedoms of all persons.” He was forced to leave the island as he was not allowed to enjoy the rights enshrined in the Article 14 of the Constitution. Such a person under a democratic set up should have the right and freedom to as 14 (i) return to Sri Lanka. All the events and processes that occurred between forced migration and return to the country should be evaluated from the perspective of democratic justice.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was overthrown at the last presidential election, many tend to believe that the right of return in both senses would be materialized. There were statements made by important personal in the government to the effect that the new government would in fact facilitate this process. Media Minister asked the journalists who were forced to leave the island because of the harassment and threat by the previous government to return to the island. It was an open invitation. Of course, this appeal should not be only for journalists. There are many people who left the island for political reasons. Once Rosa Luxemburg said that democracy should ensure rights and freedom of the people who actually hold different views and opinions. Secondly, people who have been forcefully displaced since 1990 have every right to expect from the new government their right to return. The new government has so far failed to do so.
When the government fails to ensure the right to return, the effected people as well those who respect that right have to win the right to return by their own action. I understand that the displaced people in Jaffna are prepared to re-occupy their land. That is how democracy works.
In my last trip to Jaffna, I also met Kumaran Pathmanathan in Kilinochci, a person whose status has not yet been made clear. Before and after the election, he was subjected to most demonized campaign. One may not agree with what he believes or what he had dome in the past. Nonetheless, all legal and administrative mechanisms are conspicuously silent over the charges publicly made by prominent political leaders. Is he a political prisoner? I am raising this issue primarily because of the fact that many people have been held without charges more than 25 years. The excuse that the police given was that inquiries were not yet completed and is still in progress. This has been revealed on February 10 when Balendra Jayakumari was produced before the magistrate in Colombo. After 331days in detention and investigation, the police came up with their usual story, inquiries are in progress. It seems that there are people living in this country who does not actually have clear status. During and after the election, there were many talks on citizen rights. Does the presence of the above category tell us that there are second class citizens, non-citizens and many other hybrid categories among us living in the same land mass?
*The writer is the co-coordinator of the Marx School- e-mail: email@example.com