By Jehan Perera –
Just as in the south in the Sinhalese-majority areas where ethnic nationalism is being used for political advantage, a similar phenomenon is taking place in the north and east of the country in the Tamil-majority areas. It is being used in the north, among others, to protest against the increase in criminal activities that most recently included the rape and murder of a six year old child. The rise in ethnic nationalism is taking place with a corresponding decline in the electoral strength of those who are taking moderate and non-racist positions. This was visible at the recently concluded local government elections where nationalist parties improved their performance at the cost of moderate parties both in the north and south.
Former Minister of State for Child Affairs and member of the government, Vijayakala Maheswaran has shown this political propensity to exploit the latent ethnic nationalism of people by speaking one-sidedly about the past and present. At a public event in Jaffna she highlighted the period of the LTTE as being one in which the security of the Tamil people from criminal activities had been secure. In the presence of government ministers and TNA leaders, whose members had once been victims of the LTTE, she said “Today we realise from the bottom of our heart how we are proud to have lived under the times of LTTE prior to May 18, 2009.” This was in reference to the rape and murder of the child.
The American poet James Russell Lowell (1819–91) wrote, “Be noble! and the nobleness that lies in other men, sleeping, but never dead, will rise in majesty to meet thine own.” If the word “noble is replaced by the word “nationalist” this would be an apt description of the downside of Sri Lankan politics at the present time. Vijayakala Maheswaran’s praise of the LTTE has brought about a veritable storm of denunciation by nationalist politicians in the Sinhalese polity, accused of many crimes themselves, who have been doing their best to create insecurity and stoke up fears in the Sinhalese people of a return of the LTTE.
Having been to the north and east regularly since the war ended I can say that not once did I encounter members of the Tamil community who wanted a return of the LTTE as a force on the ground. This is because they are aware that such a development would lead to violence. The period of the LTTE is now past and will not come again. Nor will there be a Tamil Eelam for which they fought unless Sri Lanka indeed produces an authoritarian and nationalist leadership that violates human rights with impunity and treats ethnic and religious minorities as enemies, as Hitler did, and goes into open conflict with both neighboring and more distant countries, which led to its partition.
For the past several years in the north, and especially after the coming to power of the previous government headed by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa there has been a steady deterioration in the law and order situation with many criminal groups from within the Tamil community attacking each other and seeking to live off the civilian community. The former government sought to control the general population by creating a stronger central government in which the military played a bigger role. However, the ethos of the present government is entirely different.
A television journalist from the mainstream media said to me recently that he had recently been to Jaffna on a private assignment to cover a wedding. He said that the people had welcomed him and his crew. He said they the wedding party had worried that they might be attacked by criminals who now knew of their financial situation. He also said that the people had claimed they preferred the Sri Lankan army being stationed in the north rather than the police being stationed there. This may be due to the fact that when the army was around, they set up a system of checkpoints. Those who were potentially criminals had kept a low profile as they risked being shot at by the army. On the other hand, now that the lightly armed police have replaced the army to keep the civilian peace, the criminals are no longer afraid.
Ironically, the north is paying the price of the return to democracy. This gain to the country, and to the Tamil people, provides the framework within which all other rights may be enjoyed. Previously the army was on the streets ensuring security through their checkpoints. But this was also not to the liking of the people who felt that they were being controlled by a military force outside of their control. The withdrawal of the army from the checkpoints, provided the police with an opportunity to replace them and take up the challenge of ensuring the people’s security as a civilian force. But this has yet to happen even as the composition of the police slowly changes from being a Sinhalese police to being a multi ethnic one.
The words repeatedly flaunted by Vijayakala Maheswaran need to be viewed in perspective and not only as a provocation and a call to arms. They echo with the resentment that the government has not adequately addressed the issue of violence and crime that is within the Tamil community. These are not calls for the revival of a period in time in which hundreds if not thousands of children were forcibly taken from their parents and conscripted into the LTTE armed forces. Her speech was an expression of the frustration of people who feel that the post-war period has not brought them the economic benefit they thought would benefit them nor the truth, justice and reconciliation that both political and civil society groups are trying to advance.
Recently, a senior religious leader echoed the sentiments of most people in the country that it needs a strong leader if it is to develop and not fall into disunity. But he expressed his sentiments in a controversial manner when he urged the potential leader to “Be a Hitler! Go with the military. Take the leadership of the country.” This statement had been used to criticize the venerable prelate. But no one will believe that he wanted gas chambers, concentration camps and the partition of the country, as occurred as a result of Hitler’s rule over Germany. Likewise Vijayakala Maheswaran’s words at the public event need to be seen as a call to the mainstream polity and to the government to act fast and resolve the problems of the people and not for the revival of the LTTE which led to mass destruction and sorrow.