By Jehan Perera –
There is an invigoration of civil society in the North after the holding of the Northern Provincial Council elections. For the first time ever since the end of the colonial period there is the sense of having a government that is their own. There are doubts expressed by some sections in the rest of the country that this political empowerment could lead to the strengthening of separatist sentiment. Sections within the government itself have expressed their concerns. However, when I visited Mannar in the North last week, the impression I received was of a people who celebrate being part of the larger national polity.
It so happened that the day selected by the government for the conduct of the last round of provincial council elections, and that of the first ever election to the Northern Provincial Council, was September 21. This coincidentally was International Day of Peace declared by the UN, which is celebrated worldwide and also within Sri Lanka by those who work for peace and reconciliation. Resources for Peace (RPR), an NGO based in Mannar had to postpone their plans to celebrate peace day on
September 21 due to the elections. They held it on October 11 instead.
As one of the invitees to the celebration of peace day in Mannar, this was an opportunity to see whether there was progress towards normalcy in the North and a progressive reintegration into the national polity. The day’s event began with the hoisting of the national flag by the Government Agent of Mannar who had been invited to the occasion as the Chief Guest. This was followed by the playing of the national anthem. Unfortunately, it could not also be sung by the Tamil-speaking people of Mannar who are not conversant in the Sinhala language. But they all stood to attention while the all three verses of the national anthem were played.
It is strange but true that although both Sinhala and Tamil are official languages, and this is stated in the Constitution, the national anthem is currently not being sung in Tamil at official functions or events at which there are government officials. This is because the after the victory in the war, the government is balking at permitting the national anthem to be sung in Tamil. Some of the less well educated members of the government have gone on record saying that no national anthem in the world is sung in more than one language. But in fact, in some countries, the national anthem is sung in as many as five languages, as in South Africa.
In its wisdom and in its desire to promote the cause of national reconciliation, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the President recommended that the national anthem should be sung in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages. As Tamil is an official language of the country, the Tamil version of the national anthem is available in he Tamil version of the Constitution. At various international forums the government claims to be implementing the LLRC recommendations. But it still has not got round to declaring that the national anthem can be sung in the Tamil language at official functions.
It is very tragic that even Tamil people and others who may wish to sing the national anthem in Tamil are afraid to do so, as they are unsure of what the consequences might be. No one wants to be tried in courts of law for sedition, or be attacked by extremists, merely for singing the national anthem in their own language. Indeed, if the national anthem had been sung in the Tamil language, the Government Agent of Mannar might have felt he had been put into an unforeseen and embarrassing position. He might have feared that he would be subjected to disciplinary sanctions for not complying with government policy and being present as the Chief Guest on the occasion.
It is unfortunate that the government is continuing to drag its feet over implementing the LLRC recommendation with regard to singing the national anthem. Prior to the victory in the war in 2009, the national anthem was routinely sung in the Tamil language in areas where the people were Tamil-speaking. It was only after the war victory, and the special role of the military in civil administration of the former war zones of the North and East, that the issue of which language in which to sing the national anthem arose. The use of Tamil to sing the national anthem became a major issue first in the North.
Fortunately, the Government Agent of Mannar showed himself to be a person who was sensitive to the great pride of the Tamil people in the Tamil language. He delivered his prepared speech not only in the Sinhala language but also read it out in the Tamil language, much to the appreciation of the hundreds who had come to RPR’s peace day celebration. Demonstrating his own pride in the Tamil language, the Bishop of Mannar told me later that day that the Tamil language was one of two classical living languages surviving in the world today, along with Chinese.
Civic groups such as RPR in Mannar have an important role in healing the wounds of war. At their peace day event, they invited representatives of all four religions to give their blessings for the occasion. They had children and adults take part in cultural events that expressed the horrors of the war period and the yearning for a new future in which there would be truth, justice and reconciliation. The coming together of large numbers of people in joyful celebration was itself a contribution to healing the wounds of war.
What is noteworthy at the present time is that the goodwill of the people of the North is being reciprocated by the people of the South. With the end of the war four years ago, and the elimination of the LTTE as an ever present threat to safety of life and limb, and the unity of the country, the suspicion about the threat from the North appears to have sharply subsided in the rest of the country. It also appears that the many years of educational work conducted by different governments at different times, and the educational and bridge-building work done by civil society organizations, has created awareness in the people that the provincial council system is not the threat it was made to seem.
It is not only at the people’s level that this positive sentiment exists. On October 9, more than one half of the members of the Southern Provincial Council met at a workshop organized by another NGO, the National Peace Council, to discuss the relevance of the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. What was most striking and noteworthy was the sense of fraternity demonstrated by these elected provincial politicians to their compatriots in the North. Most encouraging from the perspective of inter-ethnic reconciliation and inter-provincial cooperation was the eagerness of the southern councilors to meet with their northern counterparts to get to know them and to share ideas with them.
At the workshop discussions, the southern councilors displayed a sense of positive expectation regarding the manner in which the Northern Provincial Council would deal with the mundane problems of governance that those in the South had to deal with. They noted the more abundant intellectual and material resources that the Northern Provincial Council might have access to, especially due to better international linkages, which was not available to them. There was no sense of rivalry or hostility to the Northern Provincial Council because of that. Instead there was the hope that answers to their own problems might be forthcoming.
Now what needs to be achieved is mutual understanding and the trust that comes with it. A positive act of reconciliation would be for the members of the different provincial councils to first discuss among themselves the problems encountered in the current functioning of the provincial council system of government. The issue of devolution of power has been at the forefront of the search for a political solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict for the past nearly six decades. The elections in the North and their outcome of constructive engagement between the government and TNA have set in place the political infrastructure that can address the roots of the country’s protracted ethnic conflict and issues of good governance in general.