By K. Mukunthan –
Sri Lanka’s moment of truth is fast approaching. The expectation is that significant initiatives will be taken this year towards addressing the two issues that are vitally important to the Tamil people – a political resolution and accountability for war-time violations.
What is equally important is to maintain a consistent, discernible and sustained momentum towards reconciliation, bolstered by actions that make practical difference to the day to day life of the people and on this aspect, a lot to be desired in terms of commitment and drive.
The stalled progress on demilitarisation and land and prisoner release; extra-ordinary delay in repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act; condoning actions that could distort the established demography and religious landscape of the predominantly Tamil speaking regions; lack of consultations with Tamil leaders on development initiatives affecting the North-East; and the apparent backtracking on the extent of international participation in the judicial mechanism counselled in the UN resolution – all these have undoubtedly caused a degree of concern and frustration in the minds of Tamil people, and ought to be addressed swiftly.
Sri Lanka has a long history of missed opportunities for resolving its national crisis. More often than not, calculated activities by hard-line elements on both sides escalated minor differences into unmanageable levels, leading to total failure at the end. It is therefore important that no scope is given to such possibilities by the present day political leadership of all communities.
In this context, it is vital that the Tamil political leadership, including those in the Diaspora, reach out to all communities in Sri Lanka in addressing their respective concerns and fears, and seek their support for accommodating the aspirations of the Tamil community.
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera during his visit to Australia in April last year gave assurances regarding substantive changes envisioned for Sri Lanka and the government’s intention to arrive at a broad consensus, with a cornerstone being the consent of the elected Tamil political leadership. Such strong commitments were well-received by all stakeholders interested in the well-being of Sri Lanka.
The Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop hosted a luncheon in honour of the visiting Sri Lankan Foreign Minister at the Kirribilli House (the Australian Prime Minister’s official residence in Sydney). I had the pleasure of attending the luncheon on behalf of the Australian Tamil Congress (ATC), and used that opportunity to reinforce our willingness to constructively contribute to positive developments in Sri Lanka. An abridged version of the following speech was delivered at the event. Though several months have passed, the contents of it are still relevant and worth reiterating.
This is the second time I am in the environs of the prestigious Kirribilli House. On the first occasion, in April 2009, I was one of the thousands of Tamils protesting outside this house, seeking Australian intervention to stop the dreadful war in Sri Lanka, a protest generally not acknowledged by the powers of the day. Today I am here inside this house, in this luncheon, in honour of the Foreign Minister Samaraweera. Undoubtedly the times have changed.
So, what is really different now? One, this reflects the political changes that have occurred in the context of Sri Lanka. More specifically, from a Tamil diaspora perspective, this is an outcome of the moderate, engagement-type of politics ardently followed by organisations such as ours. We are grateful for such recognition and trust bestowed upon us by the Australian government.
Despite such changed circumstances, the hard truth is that two important factors – political resolution of the Tamil problem and addressing the serious human rights violations committed by all sides – being the cause and outcome of the long drawn out conflict, remain unresolved seven years after the end of the war.
However, Sri Lanka for sure, appears to be a country in transition, and we are in the thrust of what seems to be a once in a generation opportunity, where a coalition government has taken steps – to democratise the state, to cooperate with the UNHRC, and to draft a new constitution – initiatives unthinkable just over an year ago.
But, I will not be honest if I don’t articulate the fact that there is a debate, sometimes intense, about how much this government can be trusted, and at times, it appears that a pessimistic point of view is the dominant narrative among our constituency, the Tamil diaspora. Nevertheless, there is also a strong counter point of view, an optimistic one that the Tamil community should do everything possible to consolidate the progressive changes so far, to solve this decades-old problem forever.
One common thread in this discourse is that Minister Samaraweera is the most prominent political leader in Sri Lanka, who is working with single-minded determination and dedication in all facets of the reconciliation process. His famous appeal and pledge, “Trust Us – Don’t Judge Us by the Past”, originally delivered at the UNHRC and later in Washington and Jaffna, hugely resonates with the Tamil community.
This brings Minister Samaraweera and us as partners in peace to a common future where our stakes are intimately linked.
For those of our constituents telling us “we are naive and overly trusting”, our reaction has been “we are not blindly trusting; our level of engagement is linked to real progress on the ground; but, we are keen to take initiatives ourselves (rather than waiting for events to take their own course), to build mutual trust and to increase the chances of success.”
And, for me personally, even if failure eventuates, taking a proactive approach towards peace and reconciliation is a more worthwhile and conscionable option, than remaining uninvolved, and contribute to the chances of letting this opportunity slip away.
For those pointing to us “we are not conscious of the history with litany of failures”, our response is “when an opportunity arises to change the course of history – that needs to be identified and grasped with both hands.” And in our mind, that is exactly the approach we are espousing.
But, we are acutely conscious that though political leadership often involves bravely marching along unchartered territory, if the majority of the people are left behind, failure can eventuate. And history has valuable lessons on several such failures.
With such concerns at the forefront of our mind, we are offering our hands of friendship to the Minister and in return seek his partnership for the difficult journey ahead. Any concrete actions from the government that will make our positions more acceptable to our people, and any initiatives from our side (the Tamil diaspora) that will make the government more appealing to its constituents, will tremendously help to consolidate the fragile path we are cautiously treading. Some of the initiatives we are working on, with immense help from Australia, are precisely aimed at this.
That brings me to my adopted country, Australia, to conclude this speech. There are times we were disappointed with Australian policies related to our issues, and I am sure it is bound to happen in the future too. But, beyond such policy positions and outcomes, the access we have had to our government – to the Foreign Ministers and to the Senior Officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – and not just the access but also the sympathetic hearing and importance that is given, the recognition that is bestowed, and the extent to which Australia is prepared to help Sri Lanka to march along this progressive path ….….. In me, it brings a feeling of awe.
I have often expressed my sentiments to my friends and colleagues, both Tamil and non-Tamil, “The more I am involved in Tamil advocacy, the more I feel an Australian.” This emotion is, obviously, not linked to my citizenship status or the type of passport I carry, but a feeling arises due to the way I am treated in this country, the way I am listened to and the way I am respected – even though the issues I raise with the government are not the most pressing issues this country faces. Obviously, there are several avenues to develop one’s sense of citizenship.
It is such feeling of belonging to one’s country that has been lacking in Sri Lanka for a significant segment of its population. As a child and later as a youth growing up in Jaffna, I was fully adapted to the thoughts that, “I will be discriminated in this country, opportunities will be denied to me in this country, and ultimately I don’t fully belong to this country.” Most fundamentally, it is this, such a narrative, such an emotion and such a feeling that needs to change. No doubt, it will be a long and hard process. But, this is a dream worth having and an ambition worth working towards.
So, let’s dream of a Sri Lanka, where a child born to Tamil parents will feel proud to be a Tamil and at the same time truly feel a Sri Lankan – not because this was the country he was born in, but because of the manner in which the country treats him, and the way he naturally feels about his citizenship.
Let’s commit ourselves to collaborate and work together, to make this dream a reality with the dedicated help of our international friends. And I have no doubt, Australia will be at the forefront doing more than its fair share.
*Dr. K. Mukunthan is one of the Executive Directors of the Australian Tamil Congress (ATC). He is also a Director of Global Tamil Forum (GTF) where he is a Senior Member of the Strategic Initiatives Team.