By Jehan Perera –
The last week of November has generally been a difficult time in Sri Lanka for the past two or more decades. During the long period of war, the LTTE used to commemorate its fallen cadre with Martyrs’ Day ceremonies on November 26-27. There was a combination in varying degrees of events meant to mobilize and sustain support for their cause. There were march pasts by LTTE cadre, including the Black Tiger suicide squads. There were also memorial services at the LTTE cemeteries. There were also heightened attacks on enemy targets intended to reaffirm the military prowess of the LTTE and strike fear in the larger society.
After the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009 these public events came to a stop. The former government prevented LTTE supporters or even the general public from holding any sort of commemoration on that day. Attempts by university students to hold memorial events by lighting candles or holding meetings were prevented and any attempt to do so was thwarted by raids by security forces who would arrest those participating in such events. Even memorial services by religious clergy in places of worship were not permitted as these were seen to be supportive of the LTTE. However, the new government has adopted a more flexible approach. This was seen in the commemoration this year of the May 19 anniversary of the end of the war.
On the one hand, the government continued the tradition set by its predecessor government of having a victory parade in which the military might of the Sri Lankan security forces was on display. But it also issued a statement that for the first time commemorated all those who had lost their lives in the course of the war. The government also did not disrupt memorial services in the north for those who had lost their lives. The condition it set was that there would be no commemoration of the LTTE as an organization. On the occasion of the Martyrs Day commemoration the government’s position once again was that the LTTE could not be memorialized. But space was given for the people and religious clergy to remember the dead.
However, the suicide of a schoolboy in Jaffna who jumped in front of a train, leaving behind a message that he was doing this on behalf of Tamil political prisoners, is a reminder of the volatile nature of the situation in the north of the country. The government closed the schools to prevent any student agitation from gaining ground. Doubts have been expressed whether the boy was manipulated into making this sacrifice of himself for a larger cause. There was no major effort to politicize the issue. But his death, and the government’s response to it, show that the present stability and peacefulness in the north, which was the epicenter of the three decade long war, cannot be taken as a given.
Apart from the need to improve to improve economic and livelihood conditions of the people of the north, which is a problem common to the majority of people living in all parts of the country, there is an urgent need for the government to address the issues of burning concern to the people of the north. These are the ones pertaining to missing persons, detained prisoners, land acquired by the armed forces and demilitarization, all of which have been longstanding problems spanning the past two to three decades. The piecemeal approach that the government has been following in dealing with these problems is not seen as an adequate response.
From the government’s perspective, it has taken policy decisions which are a break from the past. It has decided to probe the issue of missing persons more thoroughly in accordance with the resolution it co-sponsored in Geneva with the UN Human Rights Council. It has started the process of releasing long term detainees held in custody with about 30 being released on bail and more to follow. It has started to return land, such as the approximately 600 acres in Sampur. It has instructed the armed forces not to be intrusive in dealing with civilian activities.
The perspective in the north is different. When the Tamil people throughout the country, including the north, voted for the change of government that took place in January at the presidential election and was reaffirmed in August at the general election, they expected the government to make a more decisive break with the past. They expected the problems that had lasted for two to three decades to be resolved without further delay as they cannot bear to have them continue any longer. The government’s failure to resolve these problems speedily has led to extreme frustration, and even doubt as the government’s sincerity. One tragic manifestation of this was the suicide of the schoolboy.
The ship of state is taking its time to turn. The presidential and general elections that took place earlier this year saw the change of the topmost leadership in the government. The country has a new president, new prime minister and most of the cabinet are new to their positions. Not all in the cabinet are new. The government is a coalition with many old faces amongst the new. Equally significantly, the next layer of government, comprising the top rungs of the judiciary, attorney general’s department, public service and security forces remain those who held high positions under the previous government. They imbibed their security-centered view of the world, and narrow approach to problem solving which mistrusted the ethnic and religious minorities.
This mistrustful approach to governance has also had its impact on the general population. Today’s popular consciousness is one that has been shaped by the previous government’s approach to governance. There is a need to create a different mode of thinking both within state institutions and civil society in general if life in the country is to be different, and the expectation of the ethnic and religious minorities to live as equal citizens are to be met. If this does not happen, and a new consciousness amongst the people does not arise, the government will find it difficult to meet with its targets of releasing detainees and lands, and demilitarization of the north and east as these will be seen as a threat to national security by the majority of people.
The government needs to actively engage with the general population, including the public service, to create a new vision of governance that leads to reconciliation. It needs to do this engaging both those in the north and south who work at the community level and in the local government structures, including provincial councils. It is not enough for the government to make policy declarations that satisfy the international community. These declarations need to be implemented without delay, and those who do the implementing need to be convinced that this is the best way to reconciliation and unifying the people living in the country so that they all share the common goal of reconciliation. There needs to be more open government, in which dialogue and public education takes a more central place.