By Jehan Perera –
The political opposition is on the offensive in the North. They are going to the people and highlighting the many failures of the government and its broken promises. However, while they point to the government’s failings, they do not give their own solutions to the problems that the North has. It appears that they have no answers either or they fear that the answers they have will not be to the satisfaction of the Northern people. Chief amongst these are the unresolved issues of the war, which are more and more distant from the minds of people elsewhere in the country, with the exception of the East, which was also a theatre of war. Especially in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, the attention of most people at this time is to contain potential Muslim extremism. For them the war is a rapidly receding memory, especially for those of the younger generation.
But in the North, the emphasis is on the war, which ended ten years ago. Relatives of those missing still continue with their public protests even as their numbers get less due to the vicissitudes of time and age. The fate of the missing persons is an emblematic issue to the northern people. The numbers who went missing was large, one of the largest in the world at that time, and memories of those beloved do not fade for those who living. The hope that the establishment of an office of missing persons would bring a solution has ebbed as no one who disappeared has yet been found either amongst the living or the dead. There is data being collected more systematically than before, but the results are not out yet.
The government has released most of the land that was taken over by the military to be high security zones during the war. But there still remain significant parcels of land that have not been returned as they are considered to be of long term strategic value. It is alleged that Buddhist temples are being built on these lands. The dispossessed people continue to live in welfare centres which is a constant reminder of the price that the ordinary civilians have had to pay as a result of the war. Those arrested and held without charge many years, even a decade or more ago, on strong but legally unverified suspicion that they had a connection with the LTTE, continue to languish in prisons, again a reminder of the unresolved problems of the war.
The civic activist asked me, when will our problems be resolved. She said with despondency, we are losing all the time. Together with her compatriots she proceeded to enumerate those losses. The ones that have become emblems of the war came first. The recent release by the courts of those accused of the murder of five schoolboys on the beach in Trincomalee amplified the loss of confidence in the Sri Lankan system of justice. Most people are inclined to believe that the courts are on the right track, more independent under the 19th Amendment than they have been in the past, and capable of manifesting the higher values of civilization in their judgments. But here was the evidence of the breakdown of the system of justice when it came to tackling the security forces for an action that amounted to a war crime.
As the meeting I had come to attend in Jaffna was an inter-religious one, there was a focus on inter-religious conflict. On the one hand, there was appreciation of the freedom of expression possible in the present period as compared to the past. In particular, the freedom to protest in public without fear of being made to disappear was acknowledged. However, the existence of this freedom without a strong policy with regard to the rights of one religion to encroach on the space of another, has given rise to a series of conflicts between those of different religions. One such problem that was highlighted was the Hindu-Buddhist conflict in Trincomalee over the building of a temple in the vicinity of the Kinniya hot wells, which according to legend was used by King Ravana.
Another similar flashpoint is in Mullaitivu, again between Hindus and Buddhists, over the rights to land and to build temples. Both of these conflicts have led to the local mobilization of hundreds of people to protest. This is where both the criticism and appreciation of the government comes, as the people feel secure enough to protest against the government, but one that they feel is neglecting their interests and permitting an injustice to happen. It is not only Hindus and Buddhists who are in conflict in the North. In the Mannar district the conflict is between Hindus and Christians over the construction of big arches in front of each other’s places of worship that would signify the dominance of one over the other. In this context, the sense of the people of the North is that they are being left to fend for themselves in situations of conflict, and that the institutions of state are not with them to protect and nurture them.
The failure of the government to protect the interests of people who feel themselves to be disempowered, means that there continues to be strong support in the North for the increased devolution of power, which is a promise that has not yet been kept. The main rationale for devolution of power is that those who are elected from the province, and who represent the people of that province, can make the decisions, rather than people who are elected by the country-at-large, as in the case of the central government. The main reason for devolution is not economic efficiency but is the ownership of provincial government by the provincial electors. In most of the country, people see the provincial councils as white elephants and as economically inefficient. The political opposition is in favour of getting rid of the provincial council system entirely.
In the North of the country too, the people see the provincial councils as white elephants, bereft of resources and power. But unlike in the rest of the country, the people of the North want the provincial councils to be empowered with more resources and power so that they can make decisions on behalf of the people living there. The Northern Governor Suren Raghaven gives an indication of what might be possible with the provincial councils in terms of addressing the needs of the people. Instead of seeking to confront the central government, as was done in the past, the governor, who is an appointee of the president and hence of the central government, is trying to make the provincial administration work in cooperation with both the local community as well as the central government in dealing with the problems facing the people.
The governor and his team have plans to have an inter-religious conference in the North in which the people will have an opportunity to contribute their ideas as to how should the problem of inter religious conflict be best addressed. At the present time when the powers and resources of the central government are much more than available to the provincial councils it is important that the central authorities should always take steps to consult with the provincial authorities and bring in provincial insights into the planning and implementation processes. This could be the start point to the asymmetric devolution that the North and East wants, and needs, so that their problems may be addressed in a manner that makes the provincial councils a part of the solution.