By Jehan Perera –
Soon after his return from New York where he addressed the UN General Assembly, President Maithripala Sirisena ordered the return of all land in the Northern and Eastern provinces that are owned by the people of those areas. He issued these instructions during a meeting of the Presidential Task Force overlooking the development of the Northern and Eastern provinces. The President has instructed the Presidential Task Force to plan out a time frame and a proper structure in order to implement the project and to present its progress at the next meeting. This is in keeping with the letter and spirit of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 of October 2015. When the president announced that he would go to New York and propose a new course of action before the UN, it was assumed that he might be taking a contrary course of action. Many nationalists hoped that he might announce that Sri Lanka would withdraw its assent to that resolution that immediately became a political matter of much contestation within the country.
The co-sponsored resolution 30/ 1 which calls on Sri Lanka to implement provisions relating to transitional justice remains a subject of much criticism by the opposition. Among others, the resolution has called for the return of all military occupied land and a host of other reforms that would reduce the role of the security forces in the governance of the former war zones of the North and East. It also has many other features, relevant to transitional justice, such as making national laws be in compliance with international standards, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and also with regard to a constitutional settlement relating to inter-ethnic power sharing. In New York, the president limited his proposal to requesting the international community to respect Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and to appreciate the positive changes that have been taking place in the country.
There is a tendency within the country to downplay the positive changes brought about by the government and instead to focus attention on what has not changed. This is notable both in the North and South of the country. What the government has achieved in terms of the Rule of Law, end to enforced disappearances and killings, and the amicable working relations the government has with the political representatives of the ethnic minorities, is a break with the past. In this context, the anticipated meeting between President Sirisena and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa is unlikely to bear much fruit, let alone bear fruit for the political coalition they are said to be negotiating on. A meeting of hearts and minds does not appear to be possible at the present time, when each of these two political rivals have to be thinking of their electoral prospects.
President Sirisena’s declaration that all civilian land will be returned to the people, whether it happens or not, is an indicator that the current thinking of the president and former president are too far apart to be bridged. Former president Rajapaksa continues to hold to the old stance that cost him the presidential election of 2015. The unwavering stance of the former president has been that the forces of national division are on rise, traitors are becoming more prominent, and that the unity of the country is at stake. He has also held that the hard fought military victory over the LTTE in 2009 is being surrendered by the current government which is overly subservient to the international community. He has also affirmed that he will not have any alliance with those who are traitors. President Sirisena’s recent call for the return of all land held by the military in the North and East of the country is at variance with the former president’s exhortations.
With the president ordering the return of land to the Tamil civilians from whom it was taken away, the room for the president and former president to even stand together on the same political platform is remote. However, it is worth noting that the return of military occupied land has been taking place even prior to the change of government in 2015. The previous government also returned land to the people. But neither they nor the present government have been able to resolve the issue. If not for the personality clash it would seem that there is a widespread consensus among the more liberal members of parliament and the national polity and the intelligentsia of the country that this ethnic conflict needs to be brought to a mutually acceptable end.
The problem for the president is that his words have suffered a crisis of confidence. This year alone the president has promised to return the land in January, March and August at different platforms. Three years ago the president visited the North and made a passionate promise to return all land back to the people within six months. But now another two years have elapsed and the job has yet to be done. This has been at the cost of the president’s credibility with the very people who turned out in their numbers to give one of the highest proportions of voter participation at a presidential elections in the North and East and where he swept the polls. With presidential elections due in less than fourteen months the president needs to be more serious this time.
However, the government needs to go further than simply returning the land to the people if it is to do justice by them and win their hearts and minds. Last week I was in Myliddy in the Jaffna peninsula which is near the high security zones of Palaly airport and Kankesanthurai harbour. This was one of the first areas of land to be taken over the military nearly three decades ago. It has also been one the last areas to be handed back to its civilian owners within the last year. As it is near to the high security zones of the airport and harbor, the people believe that the military did not intend to return this land to them at all. In 2012, three years after the war had ended, bulldozers entered the land and completely flattened all remaining buildings, which in any event had become dilapidated due to being vacant for close to three decades.
Remarkably the people who had returned to their homes to find nothing remaining, not even the boundaries that separated their properties, did not show any sign of racial hatred to the ethnic Sinhalese in their midst. This is a phenomenon that most who go to the North and East would experience, that there remains goodwill and the children will be friendly which shows that their parents have not taught them to hate. But surely within their hearts there would be bitter feelings, perhaps directed more at those institutions that failed them than at individuals. The destruction of their homes, places of religious worship, convents, schools, and even cemeteries has scarred them. They even said that cesspits had been connected to the remaining wells preventing them from using the water. These are the wounds that need to be healed.
The resettled people need to be helped and the Sri Lankan state needs to show it cares. They are being helped by numerous state agencies, and civil society and international organisations. But it is only the government that can make the heavy investments in infrastructure that are urgently needed at this time. When asked to rank their top five priorities in terms of their material lives, the people gave public transport, access to nearby schools, hospitals, job opportunities, water and electricity as their priority concerns. As an example of the hardship of their daily lives, they said that to get the nearest primary school they had to walk two and a half kilometers and the nearest secondary school was twelve kilometers away. They said that the military had put up a board two weeks ago saying “No future without forgiveness.” There is also a need for repentance, reparations and justice for forgiveness, that ideal state, to become a reality.