By Laksiri Fernando –
The leader of the TNA, R. Sampanthan, has moved an important motion in Parliament (10 June 2016), on behalf of the Tamil people in the North and the East. Perhaps as he has moved the motion as the Leader of the Opposition, there is much substance and less rhetoric, both in the motion and the speech that he has delivered. I am not saying that the motion or the speech is completely devoid of ‘political rhetoric.’ But the issues that he has highlighted and the facts and information that he has supplied should draw the attention of not only the government, but also the general public at large who are concerned about the unity and reconciliation in the country. Reconciliation along with ‘justice and equality’ are the key notions that he has also highlighted.
The main issues that Mr Sampanthan has highlighted are fivefold: (1) still remaining large areas of land occupied by the military without handing them over to the original owners, (2) apparent discrimination against the local Tamil youth in recruitment to government jobs, (3) delays in the fulfilment of housing and livelihood requirements of the displaced people, (4) the absence of finality in respect of the missing persons inquiries, and (5) the non-release or delays in processing those who are still in custody under the prevention of terrorism act (PTA).
This article does not intend to address all the issues that Mr Sampanthan has highlighted, but focus on the first three issues outlined above given the competence of the author, and also considering a reasonable length to this article.
Problem 1: Land Issue
Sampanthan has narrated three examples where lands have been acquired but not presently used by the military. First example is in Valikamam, and as he narrates “I went to Valikamam area at the request of some people of that area. I went around. There are large extents of lands in which there are houses which have been damaged, where after several years much jungle has grown, lands on which people lived, lands on which people farmed, which are not being used by anybody, not even being used by the military. But the people cannot return to their homes, the people cannot return to their lands.”
He has validly asked the question: Why not?
Then he relates the case of Ottahapulam area and its people. It is of course slightly different to the scenario in Valikamam. The displaced people are scattered and come from different areas. But the essence of the problem is the same. As he says, “They come to that church [in Ottahapulam] from different parts of Jaffna and after mass they returned to wherever they are now having been displaced, some are in camps. Their houses are unoccupied. Their lands are not being used.”
Again, his question is: why cannot these people return to their lands and houses?
Then he relates his much controversial ‘invasion’ into a military camp in Kilinochchi!
“When I was in Kilinochchi some time ago I went to a place called, ‘Paravipanjan.’People came and complained to me, ‘Sir, our houses are being occupied by the military. Not even they are using it though they are keeping it in their possession. We are unable to go back to our houses. Please come and have a look.’ I went there and looked around. Houses are locked up. No one is using them. Not even the military is using them. The houses are not being used by the people.”
He correctly says: “This cannot go on.”
A Possible Solution
It is possible that most or some of these lands are very close to the military camps proper. I am also not defending the way Mr Sampanthan entered the said military area of Paravipanjan or the way it was defended by M. A. Sumanthiran claiming that they were ‘private lands’! That approach was simply irresponsible or non-cooperative. However, there is a serious land issue affecting the ordinary people and apparently the poor. Land should be primarily with the tillers. This is a universally accepted principle.
It is obvious that during the civil war, the lands were haphazardly taken over for military purposes. It is like locating a major military armoury at Salawa (Athurugiriya) in a civilian area in the South. Now the situation has changed. It may not be possible to completely remove the military camps in the North or the East. However, those can be and should be reduced and limited.
It is also possible to relocate the necessary military camps to state owned lands, releasing the private lands to the original owners. This should not be delayed. In the meanwhile, it would be a good gesture on the part of the military to allow the original owners to come and occupy the land and houses even in their vicinity as an immediate solution. I have myself seen military and civilian areas co-existing in Jaffna even at the height of the war. The reasonable time frame for the relocation could be two years, immediately commenced.
On the other hand, the TNA or the civilians should not consider the necessary and limited military presence in the North with hostility. What has to be eliminated or changed is the overbearing presence of the military.
Problem 2: Youth Unemployment
Sambanthan has also highlighted the plight of the youth without employment. This is a recipe for political extremism in any part of the country, if not terrorism. What he has revealed, whether it is true to that extent or not, is a complicated political matter. He has said that ‘in giving government jobs, the Tamil youth have always been disregarded and discriminated.’ This is particularly true during the war or even before. What is happening now? He has questioned. His prognosis is the following which should be taken into account and investigated as a human rights issue. The National Human Rights Commission should have the mandate to do so.
“All the Government jobs in the North and the East are being filled on the basis of political influence. There are Ministers in Colombo who give jobs to their constituents in the North and the East. The Ministers from the North and the East give jobs only to their supporters. Muslim Ministers give jobs to their supporters. Tamil Ministers may give some jobs, not as many as others, to their supporters. Sinhalese Ministers send their people to the North and the East. Tamil youth, qualified youth deserving a job, are not given jobs. Even the vacancies of labourers in the North and East are being filled by other people.”
This discrimination or neglect has to stop. However, it is not very clear what exactly Sampanthan is proposing. His expressed ideas borders on intensions of partaking in the same type of political depravity that the other politicians/ministers are indulged in. He has mentioned that during the JR Jayewardene presidency, 1,000 Job Bank forms were given to every Member of Parliament and youth were selected for government jobs on that basis. It is obviously not the task of the politicians to distribute jobs.
Youth unemployment is a perennial problem in the country prevalent in other provinces as well. However, apparent ethnic/political discrimination in recruiting young to government employment cannot be tolerated both in terms of reconciliation and even otherwise, as a major human rights issue. To rectify past injustices, as suggested by Mr Sampanthan, affirmative action needs to be undertaken; however the exact form of such action needs to be carefully worked out.
Establishment of Job Banks (not distribution of forms to MPs!) in every province with effective branches in districts and local government areas might be the mechanisms through which both processing of applications, assessing of available job opportunities and finally the reconciliation of the demand and supply of jobs could be implemented. Given the technological advances in data processing today, these tasks could be undertaken most precisely. However, the service of the Job Banks should not be limited to the government sector. Major areas of job creation both in the North or any part of the country could be in the private sector, entrepreneurship, self-employment and small businesses.
Along with the processing of available jobs, there could be training and retraining in technical and other skills. As it has been already pointed out by others, the role or the responsibility of the provincial councils, particularly the NPC in this context, should not be neglected or underestimated.
Problem 3: Housing Issues
Sampanthan has also highlighted the housing problem as one of the longstanding issues. During the Rajapaksa regime, the attitude had been negative claiming there was no money. It was Mr Sampanthan and his colleagues that apparently had convinced the Indian government to donate 50,000 houses. “Now the Government is doing something,” he says. He is referring to the newly launched project of 65,000 steel houses. However he has emphasized that “They must be given permanent housing in keeping with their civilization, their conventions, their traditions, and livelihood.” This can be a criticism of the ‘steel houses.’
According the Ministry of Rehabilitation, the remaining case load could be in the range of 75,000 or more.
A Possible Solution
Apart from the military occupation of land, Sampanthan has also expressed misgivings about the ‘military engagement in economic activities causing immense harm and deprivation to the local civilian population.’ However, he has not dismissed the security concerns in the North, or demanded a total military withdrawal from the North or the East. While the economic activities of the military – intrusive of the civilian opportunities in engaging in them – should be stopped forthwith, it might be opportune to explore the possibilities of building the remaining required houses by the military, if it is agreeable to the TNA, the NPC and the civilians.
As what the military has done in repairing the houses aftermath of the Salawa (Athurigiriya) explosions, it is obvious that they have the capacity to do so. This would also be a good opportunity to build rapprochement and goodwill between the military and the civilians in the North.
There are several other issues that Mr Sampanthan has highlighted. Among them is the need for a ‘comprehensive strategic plan’ to address the questions of rehabilitation, resettlement and reinstatement of livelihoods, if we take the other political/legal issues (missing persons and release of detainees) separately. What is required are not name boards. Even during the past regime, there were ‘Uthuru Wasanthaya’ (Northern Spring) and ‘Nagenahira Udanaya’ (Eastern Awakening). Not only the priorities were misplaced and the funds were misused, but also there was no consultation with the people or the people’s representatives.
Consultation is particularly important in the context of proposed initiatives in having a donor conference in Japan to utilize funding for reconstruction of the North and the East and other affected parts of the country. Consultations with the people’s representatives from the North and the East should commence from day one.