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Let's go beyond the ethnic issue

2013 Jul 21

It was during a week like this, 30 years ago (July 23, 1983), that this country experienced a game-changer; a watershed in its modern history. This was the July 1983 riots triggered from the ambush and killing of 13 soldiers, including a young officer at Thinnaveli in Jaffna by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The riots in Colombo and other major towns in the ‘South’ witnessed the savagely brutish murders of nearly 500 innocent Sri Lankan Tamil people, the wanton destruction of property, the instilling of fear in the minds of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, and eventually the fleeing of tens of thousands to foreign lands. From there, many organisations were to sprout, some in anger, some opportunistic, to finance the LTTE to wage war against the State – and the people back home.

In the North, the riots helped swell the hitherto depleted ranks of the LTTE. Neighbouring India, which had initially trained and funded the LTTE became a ‘hands-on’ component of Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs, exactly as it had planned it, and Sri Lanka went through agonising years of blood, sweat and tears by all communities coping with a vicious insurgency and the counter insurgency measures that were adopted.

To this Government goes the eternal credit for ending that insurgency. It was not that governments past did not try to end the armed uprising. They tried militarily, and they tried politically. In 1987, India militarily and diplomatically intervened when the LTTE was on its last legs. The LTTE repaid Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by assassinating him later.

Governments in Colombo tried the negotiating option with the LTTE, many times. Even this Government made it option number one, but each and every time, the LTTE kicked the negotiating table on one excuse or another and returned to the battlefield and its terror tactics: bombing civilian buildings, killing child-monks, men in prayer, women in village huts and opponents, both in rival guerrilla groups and politicians. It was clear that surgery was the only cure for this major ailment that afflicted this country for so long. That chapter of contemporary history is now behind us. Or is it really?

The country seems to be dogged by the so-called ‘ethnic issue’ and it has been elevated in some quarters to the highfalutin’ status of ‘The National Question’. India’s continuing breathing down Sri Lanka’s neck is audible. It gets harder when elections loom across the Palk Strait and the number of votes from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu becomes crucial in the coalition politics that rules in that country.

This Government that won the eternal gratitude of the majority of this country for ending the Northern insurgency partly by asking the interfering West to ‘go to hell’ is now at the receiving end of questions as to why it has now succumbed to Western and Indian pressure. Legitimate questions are being asked if it is in return for a mess of pottage — hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) later this year, unimpeded.

The sudden move to gazette the Northern Provincial Council and hold elections before CHOGM makes the point all too succinctly; it is not based on what is best for the country, but on extraneous issues.

Take the case of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) – yes, this country has even gone through its own version of a Truth Commission. Never mind if it was, again, forced upon this Government and essentially was set up to ward off an international war crimes tribunal; there it was, with a significant name attached to it.

Now, on the eve of CHOGM and both, the arrival of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the September sessions of the UN Human Rights Council, the Government seems to be pressing panic buttons and includes 53 more recommendations (of the 285 plus recommendations of the LLRC’s findings) to the paltry few it began inquiring on a year after the report was handed over at the end of 2011.

No one would have expected the Government to begin implementing every one of the LLRC’s recommendations, but one did expect the Government to act in good faith and make an early call on which of them it was willing to seriously look at and follow up on, without waiting for some kind of ‘final call’ due to outside pressures. It makes a mockery of all the chest-thumping and drum beating to whip up the local electorate, accusing all and sundry, with or without justification of being agents of external forces, only to meekly cave in to these very forces at the end of the day.

One of the key additions to the National Plan of Action (renamed from the National Action Plan lest the acronym NAP be misconstrued) is the decision to “consider” redress for those who were affected by the shelling of hospitals and the short supply of medicines in those difficult last days of the war. This would have somewhat appeased the bloodhounds baying for this Government that defeated the LTTE, although it is poor compensation for not being able to have a war crimes tribunal on Sri Lanka.

Another significant recommendation the NPA (not NAP) has taken on board is to study the recommendations of past commissions on this vexed issue. A reader sent us a letter recently saying that had the Sansoni Commission that made recommendations on the 1977 race riots been heeded, 1983 may have been avoided. Who knows?

Unfortunately, the NPA is concentrating on the recommendations based on the ‘ethnic issue’ put forward by the LLRC, and not the broader recommendations of good governance in general, which the Commissioners also dealt with. There is but a passing reference to the recommendation that leadership must be provided to a political process that “should culminate in a constitutional foundation and mechanisms that provide opportunities for development and implementation of necessary socio-economic policies”. This is a wide ranging recommendation and easier said than done. It is also not something that needs to be limited to a particular geographical area. But in the dust of the Northern insurgency, many have all but forgotten the seeds that grew to a full blown Southern insurgency in 1971.

Sri Lanka has somewhat lost its way over the past decades after re-entering the modern global market post-1977, i.e. until the Northern insurgency and a parallel Southern insurgency drained its resources, both human and financial. They dragged the country back decades. The nation and its people have overcome many hurdles and at a staggering price. It is worth reflecting on the past, but not living in it. The need of the hour is to learn lessons from it and get out of this rut of living the ‘ethnic issue’ 24x7x365. Rather to think of the bigger common issues facing all Sri Lankans — and there are so many. In a country where governance has got more and more centralised, the onus becomes greater on those who have acquired such powers for themselves to provide the deliverance that their countrymen expect, and deserve.

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