By Elilini Hoole –
In the last provincial council elections, the TNA gained sweeping victories across the North. Tamils may have done well to choose the TNA which continues to voice Tamil concerns. For, just this last June, the government implanted a military camp in Thirumurukandy, Mullaithivu by stripping those who lost their permits in the war, of their land.
I learnt from witnesses, while working in the Vanni, how the military enforced this land decision (though how the military is involved in civilian matters beats me!), mocking Tamil resettlers in Sinhalese, calling them dogs and asking what right they had to ask for that land. While even UNHCR and human rights NGOs stood mutely on the sidelines, the TNA immediately organized a protest bringing due attention to this blatant injustice. When the 18th Amendment threatened the democratic rights of Sri Lankans, the TNA bravely spoke its minds in Parliament despite obscene comments of ‘Kotiya’ from government MPs.
The Betel Leaf has become a symbol of violence and betrayal in Tamil minds. If you think about it, no other symbol has evacuated 100% of two whole districts, Mullaithivu and Kilinochchi, as well as large portions of Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna! It is that mere association of the government with these iniquities which led to the failure of the EPDP in the Vanni; even potent candidates who reached out under the betel lead were rejected by most Northern and Eastern Tamils.
And yet, even the TNA has failed to provide the people of the Vanni with solutions because money and services are distributed by the government. As a result the TNA is unfairly seen as a weak party represented by elites who have forgotten the living essence of the Vanni. No matter the party affliation, all politicians, even those of the TNA, have done little to address the shocking rise of poverty and social disintegration of the Vanni. A government study of food security in the North and East (2011) reports that the median income in the Northern Province is 1,667/= per month, whereas the national poverty line in Sri Lanka is 3,534/= month. Additionally, 80% of families in Kilinochchi do not know when, how and if they will have their next meal. Little do politicians seem to care that the people of the Vanni have lost everything. The Vanni has been reduced to little more than a battleground for votes. It is true, a poor man cares little for his rights if his child starves before his very eyes, and that does negate the power of his voice in the national discourse, thereby worsening his lot.
The government practically deserted the returning Tamil population during resettlement, proving itself either incapable or un-caring in protecting and defending the rights and freedoms of its citizens. In subtle ways it continues to alienate the North by, for example, posting signs on empty lands proclaiming “This is the military’s inheritance” or hanging billowing signs of the President with only Sinhalese captions. In my travels through the Vanni, I have heard it expressed numerous times that, had only the government let them out of Menik Farm sooner, or helped them restart living on their war devastated lands, they would have been much more welcoming of the President.
But instead, the government allowed other nations to bear the brunt of post-war rehabilitation expenses and the NGO community to provide on the ground assistance. The Indian government proved its deep commitment to resettling families by providing diverse material assistance, from tin sheets through the GoSL, to emergency resettlement tools through UNHCR, and now permanent housing to approximately 40,000 families. Northern and Eastern community rebuilding is more shaped by the USA, EU, Australian and a host of other nations who have laid the foundations for reconstruction in Sri Lanka. But this is entirely unhealthy when you take into consideration race relations and rejection of the indigenous identities of community, relationships and coping mechanisms. Identities of women, family and collective being as we understand them are especially rejected by western aides (For example, women in self-help groups are demanded to leave their homes for community work at the expense of family obligations, resulting in spousal abuse). Healing needs to come from within, and for this the people must have genuine, supportive political leaders.
But we Tamils should not have to demand freedom and rights from the State, as if they are the State’s to ration out. What we require is that our freedoms and rights, which are inherently ours, are not swallowed up by the broader political agenda of the State. In this regard, it is not just the Tamils who have a just cause. Every citizen of Sri Lanka faces oppression of their naturally endowed privileges as humans. For example, the dozens of communities illegally displaced by the fast paced highway development schemes, or the fact that citizens and journalists cannot voice their opinions without deeply suspicious scrutiny by the State and peers alike, or our inadequacy to battle corruption in our schools, churches and temples, work place and, especially, the government.
Symptomatic of reduced freedom and rights is that our country is no longer run “for the people, by the people” as a democracy should. Corrupt politicians control the future of our nation according to personal whims and fancies. And instead of holding leaders accountable to their constituents, we feel powerless to change the system – to exert our democratic voice!
Politicians have used their posts to fill their coffers, but have failed to value the unique qualities of Sri Lanka which have marvelled travellers throughout history. The rich get richer by trampling on our future. Graduates who have been advantaged by the free education system migrate by the droves to other countries which appreciate their vast treasuries of talent. They simply cannot survive in a country which relies on nepotism and privilege instead of education and talent. Yet, like the CEO of a business, politicians care only about the bottom line – their bottom line.
Having won the war, Mahinda Rajapakse bears a great responsibility to lead the nation as a united body. Abused by the past and the present, Tamils do not need armed or unarmed crusaders. What is needed are friends and politicians who will accept and help them move beyond the scars of the past to a united Sri Lanka.