By Somapala Gunadheera –
My first return from Jaffna was in 1958, when I finished my cadetship in the Kachcheri there. I felt happy to have worked among a friendly and accommodating people, with my 1 ශ්රී car unscathed, despite the ongoing anti-ශ්රී campaign. Back in Colombo, I walked into a communal riot on the ‘Sinhala Only’ issue. The second return was when I was suddenly recalled in 1998 to save the Southern Development Authority, while I was engaged in rehabilitating the North after ‘Riviresa’. I was the first Chairman of the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority of the North. I returned from Jaffna for the third time last week, after a three day tour organized by Travel Eye for senior citizens.
When I embarked on the tour, my knowledge of what was happening up in the North was based on rumor, gossip, protest and propaganda. Though my ‘flash in the pan’ visit was grossly inadequate to form an incontrovertible opinion on the issues involved, it made me review some impressions I had entertained in absentia. What I had heard about army activity in Jaffna, had created in my mind the picture of an occupied territory. In that background, I was surprised not to see at least a police constable on the many streets through which we were driven on our tour. There was not a single check point on our route. I saw an army officer on duty at the Kantharode ruins and another at Dambakola Patuna. A couple of navy officers were seen at the piers on our way to and from Nagadeepa and Nagapuusani Amman Kovil. All these officers were on legitimate duty and they had nothing to do with us.
A fear psychosis
I managed to make friends with those who were assigned to look after us, thanks to my ability to talk to them in their own language. I had built enough rapport with them to ask them point blank why they were complaining about an occupation army when there was no soldier in sight for miles. The reply was, “They may not be in uniform but they are all over in civvies keeping watch over us.” Whether this assumption is true or not, it appeared to be at the bottom of the aloofness and tension that was writ on the faces of the public that had received me with smiles on my first visit. Doubtlessly, this apprehension is an insurmountable roadblock to reconciliation and the armed forces should do all that is possible to remove the suspicion, if it is really unfounded. This can be done only by a genuine effort to win the confidence of the people.
I am not aware how the forces are dealing with the civilian public now. I had no chance to meet them this time. When I moved up North after Riviresa, I found an army that was prim and proper in their relations with the general public. One of the first officers I met immediately after my appointment, was Brigadier Kalupahana who was in charge of Vavuniya. He, along with his then assistant, General Nanda Mallavaarachchi, had a true Buddhist attitude to the sufferings of the people placed under their charge. Brigadier Kalupahana upstaged reconciliation over control. He was never tired of telling me how other countries had resolved their differences through mutual understanding and negotiation, supplying me with relevant literature. Brigadier Kalupahana’s approach had a dominant impact on my assignment in the North.
The Army’s response to the situation in the Peninsula was not different. General Rohan Daluvatta and his deputies like the late General Janaka Perera had a strictly professional approach to their assignment. They were fighting for their Government to quell a local uprising but they did not identify themselves with the communal undertones of the conflict. At the beginning of my assignment, I had to stay in army barracks as no safe civilian accommodation could be found for me. In the evenings I met the officers at drinks and dinner. All those who came together on these occasions were Sinhalese but never ever did I hear one spiteful or disparaging reference to the ethnic identity of the rebels the forces were trying hard to subdue. The army shops spread over the peninsula supplied scarce commodities to civilians living in their neighbourhood. I remember General Janaka Perera regularly meeting community leaders of his division to maintain a dialogue with them. All the divisional heads of the Army were keeping in cordial touch with my civilian administration by calling me to dine with them every now and then.
A progressive role for the Army
I have referred to these activities in detail to underscore the objective professional contact the Army maintained with civilian life after Riviresa. They were there to preserve the integrity of the country but they had no political or ethnic bias. I have heard that the acclaimed War Hero, General Kobbekaduwa himself was very sympathetic to the plight of the people who were affected by Army activity. Even the Army Commander in charge of the Peninsula at present is reported to have a positive approach to his assignment and that he wanted to be helpful to the public as much as possible under the circumstances. Presumably, his initiatives are getting shot down in the political crossfire.
No one can seriously question a government’s right to guard its territory with adequate facilities, against known and apprehended intrusions. Problems arise only when such facilities are patently excessive or used for political purposes. Now that the armed forces have successfully quelled the insurgency, they have an even more important duty to make way unobtrusively, for the people to settle down to a life of their choice. That calls for confidence building, support and objectivity. Positive action is needed to eradicate the psychological barriers that give the people an impression of living under surveillance. If the apparent atmosphere of tension in the North happens to be unfounded, it is hoped that the armed forces would make a visible effort to disabuse the apprehension and go all out to win hearts and minds, however tough that task would be, in the background of which they are called upon to act.
Breakdown in communication
While my companions were peeping into the Bottomless Well at Puththuur, I walked into the bakery in front to contribute my little bit to a problem that I thought was deeper than the well. That problem is the breakdown in communications. The bakery’s name board contained its name in Sinhala as well. I spoke to the baker in Tamil as he did not know Sinhala. The entrepreneur was Tamil but he had got down his equipment from a Sinhala manufacturer. I congratulated the baker for using Sinhala also on the board and suggested to him that he could increase his turnover if he learnt a little Sinhala to converse with the hundreds of Sinhalese that may be coming to see the Bottomless Well. The baker who was happy about my speaking to him in his mother tongue, promised to learn enough Sinhala to deal with his customers from the South.
In town, I met a Muslim trader who initially mistook me for a Tamil. He had opened a hardware store vacated by one of his kind in the exodus. He told me that forty or fifty of them had returned out of a total of about two thousand. He had no problems. Business was good. Several Sinhala bakers who monopolized the pastry market in the good old days also were reported to have returned. The returnees were said to be working in collaboration with Tamil bakers who had entered the market in their absence. All in all resettlement appeared to have had a smooth start. The deserted roads on which I raced from pothole to pothole in my previous visit were now congested but smooth. New and taller houses were coming up on both sides of the road. I learnt from the minor staff at the hotel at which we stayed that employment was scarce even in the labour grades. From where was money coming for the visible development? I was told that the bulk of investments came from the Diaspora. Even the beautiful hotel in which we stayed was owned by a Tamil couple resident in Australia.
Travel in the ‘Yarldevi” was comfortable and enjoyable. On the way back from Jaffna I sat away from our group in a sub compartment with two double seats facing each other. All four of us seated there sat silently until I started a conversation with the person seated next to me. He thought I was a Tamil until I told him who I was. He was a teacher from Kilinochchi who had passed out of the Jaffna University. By and by, the passenger opposite me, joined the conversation. He himself was a teacher in Trincomalee and a product from a different campus of the same university. The fourth joined the conversation much later and he himself was a teacher, I believe. My co-travelers spoke to me about the difficulty of finding employment in the North. The highest posts that they could get came from the teaching profession. As the train reached the Fort Railway station, the teacher from Trincomalee said, “If each of us learnt the other’s language like this gentleman here, we will have no problem.” And everybody smiled in agreement.
I had an intriguing experience at Kantharode. The Panel fixed by the Department of Archeology at the site stated that Sangili who invaded Jajjna in the 16th century, had killed 60 Buddhist monks resident at the site in an effort to wipe out Buddhism from the area. The ruins at the shrine consisted mainly of the tombs of the dead monks. They appeared to be untouched. Kantharode was completely under the thumb of Prabakaran when he was in full control of the area and I wondered why he had not done a ‘Sangili’, seeing to it that this telltale evidence was eradicated. As I pondered on the seeming paradox, it dawned on me that although the two persons had a common ethnic origin, their orientation was different. Sangili was an aggressor from another country seeking to annex foreign territory by hook or crook. Prabakaran was a citizen of this country naturalized over time like all other immigrants who arrived from India. Kantharode was a part of the culture he shared with his compatriots, a culture that had common and compatible roots, giving rise to what Gunadasa Amarasekara calls ‘Jaathika Chintanaya” – a shared thought process born of lengthy coexistence.
Another presumption that appears to obstruct reconciliation is that devolution would automatically lead to disintegration. That argument presupposes that Sri Lankan Tamils are identical in all respects with those living in South India. This assumption betrays ignorance of the distinguishing cultural traits of the two people. A comparative study would highlight the differences not only in lifestyle but also in the accent. Attachment of the Sri Lankan Tamils to their country of birth is evidenced by the influx of SL Tamil refugees from India, whenever there was a letup in the fighting. Even the Diaspora in the West is delighted to return to their native country for their holidays, except in rare cases where their exit was associated with bitter memories. Of course, in the case of the Western Diaspora, economic factors are severing their cultural roots imperceptibly.
Politics vs. Self-help
Boys selling joss sticks opposite Nagavihara could not speak Sinhala, despite the fact that the bulk of their clientele consisted of Sinhala visitors to the shrine. They had solved the language problem by enlisting a Sinhalese to their venture. I bought a bottle of soft drinks from them and left half of it to be consumed after my return from the temple. There was a large cutout of the President in front of the shop. I tried to involve the boys in a discussion on the hoarding by asking them to translate its wording for me, whilst consuming the drink I had left with them. They were evasive and their comments were inaudible. Several such cutouts erected in connection with the recent visit of the President were seen at prominent places. They looked meticulously preserved. Whether their preservation is due to diffidence or deference is a question that the oncoming elections should answer.
Our respective political parties have been at a tug of war to resolve the ethnic issue ever since the end of the armed conflict. Five years after, we do not see a light even at the end of the tunnel. There is no spirit of give and take. In that sense, the “Yarldevi” appears to be making a greater contribution to reconciliation than all our politicians put together. They are engaged in an empty battle of wits holding the county to ransom. When this inaction ultimately produces a failed nation, the brunt of it has to be borne by all citizens, irrespective of ethnicity and religion.
For that reason, civil society has to take note of this hiatus and organize itself promptly to avert that calamity. The effort calls for the organized participation of opinion leaders, heads of religions, intelligentsia, administrators, professionals and the thinking public on all sides. Even the armed forces have a positive role to play in this campaign. North-South tour operators have to deviate from traditional methods of route planning and create more space for their clients to meet their counterparts to engage them in a dialogue of discovery. A good part of our tour ran through miles and miles of causeways and uninhabited territory. Although our tour took us to the ruins of Mahavamsa, it did not give us a chance to meet the high priest of the Jaffna Buddhist temple for us to learn what he thought of the current situation. While my companions were being shown the inside of an empty cathedral, I crept out to leave a message of thanks to the Bishop of Jaffna who was a tower of strength to me, when I headed the RRAN. My Tamil impressed the Bishop’s Secretary so much that he broke all protocol to arrange an impromptu audience with his Lordship.
The Indian Ocean that has surrounded this little island relentlessly from times immemorial, shall hold us and our progeny together until dooms day. It is only a miniscule of the privileged who are able to cross the shores to live in strange climes even as their third class citizens. The rest of us will have to live here willy-nilly, irrespective of our cultural backgrounds. Self-seeking politicians have always used us as a cat’s-paw to acquire or remain in power. They have used our petty differences to achieve their egocentric objectives. The continuing confrontation has placed us in the predicament of the two proverbial cats who fought each other, until only their tails were left. Let us be wise enough to realize this danger and work hand in hand towards a free and fair society, in which all of us can live in dignity, peace and harmony, despite the diversity of our respective cultures. I see ‘Yarldevi’ as the harbinger of this message.