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Another Opportunity To Overcome 30 Years Of Mistrust

2013 Jul 23

Jehan Perera

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the worst manifestation of inter-ethnic conflict that set Sri Lanka on an irreversible path of civil war that pitted two armies representing the state and rebels against each other.  Inter-ethnic trust and social relationships were sundered, it seemed for all time, when violent mobs went on the rampage, and the security forces of Sri Lanka stood by inactive for the most part.  As the days of that fateful week past, most of the Tamil population living in Colombo fled to welfare centres or were shipped off to the north and east where the Tamil people lived in greater numbers.  The city of Colombo resembled a war zone in which buildings and vehicles were in flames and lifeless bodies could be seen on the roadsides.  But the considerable number of hapless Tamils who were protected by their Sinhalese friends and colleagues testified to the human bonds that transcend ethnicity and continue to lead to inter-ethnic cohabitation and give hope of a Sri Lanka that is united in heart and mind and not only in territory.

As a student studying ethnic conflict even at that time, I chanced upon a mob burning Tamil-owned shops and inquired of them why they were engaging in this destruction.  One of them asked me with anger whether I did not know what the LTTE had done in Jaffna to our boys, and this was their return.  The conflation, or identification, of the Tamil people and LTTE as being one and the same in the minds of that mob, and more perniciously, in the government of that day, was evident when it failed to declare an immediate curfew to put a stop to the rampaging mobs, or order the security forces to maintain law and order.

The tragedy is that even today, thirty years and several governments later, after those terrible days that doomed Sri Lanka to the course of war, and made it one of the poorer and most violent countries in the world, this conflation of the Tamil people and LTTE still remains.  Four years after the end of the war, eminent Tamil leaders of civil society, such as the Bishop of Jaffna, Thomas Savundranayagam, lament that the government continues to view the Tamil people and LTTE as one.  The cause for which the LTTE fought, which was Tamil self-rule, remains dear to the political consciousness of the Tamil people.  But the methods they used, which included terrorism and child recruitment, will be anathema to the Tamil people who suffered so much as a result of it.  The lack of trust by the government in the commitment of the Tamil people and their political leadership to democratic and peaceful means of securing political change remains the biggest present obstacle to national unity.

Omanthai Checkpoint

A few weeks ago, returning from Jaffna on the public bus in the night, I was awakened at the army checkpoint in Omanthai.  This used to be the border between the government and LTTE-controlled territories during the war.  The checkpoint on the A9 highway linking Jaffna to the rest of the country served in those days as a sort of visa and customs control point, where both the government soldiers and LTTE cadre at their separate checkpoints used to inspect the identification papers and luggage of those traveling across the border.  It testifies to the strength of vested interests, that four years after the end of the war, and the elimination of the LTTE’s physical infrastructure and organizational structure, that this checkpoint should remain to do what it did during the war, albeit with only government soldiers manning it.   It also represents the unwillingness of the present government to let go of the past, and move forward to build a united nation, in which the trust of the Tamil people is manifest in the external structures of governance.

So far it appears that the Omanthai checkpoint is kept functioning to be a grim reminder of the terrible war that was fought there, and the continuing role of the military in the governance of the North.  The war victory over the LTTE remains the present government’s biggest achievement and it may wish to constantly remind all who travel to the North what it achieved.  But this manifestation of mistrust is unlikely to do the government any good in terms of winning hearts and minds in the Northern people.  The existence of this massive checkpoint at Omanthai, and the harassment of passengers who have to get down the bus with all their luggage, and lug it for over a hundred meters and subject themselves and their luggage to search by soldiers, is reflective only of negative peace won by war.  But four years after the end of that war there is a need for a demonstration of positive peace.  If the government hopes to improve its electoral performance in the North it needs to consider closing down that checkpoint as a confirmation of the normalcy that has been restored.

Periodically the government announces that it has discovered hidden caches of LTTE arms in the North and East of the country where the war was fought.  The question is whether the A9 highway is the only route to smuggle out such weapons. There are many other roads and jungle trails that lead from the North and East to the rest of the country.  It is counter-productive to a country that seeks to project an image of peace that the military should play such an openly controlling role in the country’s governance.  The Omanthai checkpoint is only the tip of the iceberg.  But it is very symbolic of how, in the midst of change, little has changed in some of the most crucial aspects.  If the government wishes to obtain the gratitude of the Tamil people for ending the war and restoring normalcy to their lives, one of the first things it ought to do would be to restore normal civilian traffic through Omanthai.

Justice Wigneswaran

But there is more to be done, as evidenced in a media conference given by the opposition JVP in the run-up to the Northern Provincial Council elections.  They have publicly said to the media that the situation in the North is totally different from the picture that the government was giving.   “The government’s semi-military administration in the province prevented others from holding peaceful events and even making donations…if we want to hold a drama competition for youth or need to donate school equipment for children, we have to seek prior approval from the military administration… We are planning to donate computers, exercise books etc to some schools in the Kilinochchi district but we cannot reveal the schools because the semi-military administration will try and scuttle the project,” they have said.  There is a virtual unanimity that what is most negative in governance today is the over-concentration of political power in the presidency and government, which has led to high levels of impunity and corruption caused by the breakdown of institutional checks and balances.

Unlike the government which is even resorting to former LTTE leaders to join its candidate list, the TNA has selected a candidate who has a non-violent and service-oriented past.  The TNA’s announcement that former Supreme Court judge C V Wigneswaran will be its chief ministerial candidate has given the moral upper hand to the opposition.  The future administration of the Northern Province may be able to set an example by having higher standards of politicians that will persuade the rest of the country to emulate them. The existence of strong civilian managed institutions, which the provincial councils can be if empowered, that ensure that the needs of the people are met, both at the provincial and community levels, is the most urgent need.   The mere fact that a Tamil-led provincial council will be more assertive and not subservient to the government is no reason to believe it will be detrimental to the country.

The government would need to overcome its lack of trust in the Tamil people that has prompted it to seek the dilution of provincial council powers after the announcement of Northern Provincial Council elections.  It has the best possible negotiating partner in the prospective chief minister of the North.  A senior lawyer recalled how he had packed his car with his Tamil colleagues who had been attending court that fateful day, July 23, when the riots first broke out.  He had taken them to their homes safely.  Two weeks later he received a phone call from Justice C V Wigneswaran saying he had heard of this act of human solidarity, and thanking him for it.  The former Supreme Court judge who today is heading the TNA list for the Northern Provincial Council election, as its chief ministerial candidate, stands as a further testimony to the bonds that bind all Sri Lankans to one another.  Brought up in the multi ethnic environs of Colombo, both his sons married Sinhalese.  Sri Lanka faces another historic opportunity for its two largest ethnic communities to work together as equals, even as in marriage the two are equal, and the ideal is that they should be as one. The forthcoming provincial council election in the North is an opportunity for the government to make a shift in its policy towards the Tamil people.

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