When Justice Wigneswaran was selected to be the Chief Ministerial Candidate for the North, I breathed a sigh of relief. Here was a man with so much in common with the two communities and personally known to me as an independent, impartial and intrepid judge, selected for a post that could have helped to integrate the nation much earlier, had the rulers been farsighted and agile.
I believed that we were about to begin the long delayed journey to national integration. But the manifesto released by the TNA took me unawares like a bolt from the blue.
The very timing of the release of what appears to be a sublimation of long suppressed frustrations is short-sighted. The document has supplied fuel to sectarian forces to ignite disunity and rendered yeoman service to a government, desperately in search of vote-catching gimmicks for the oncoming regional elections in the South, by adding thousands of votes to its support base. The UPFA is making unlimited use of the document to remind the Southern voters of their privations during the communal strife and creating a phobia against a repetition, while highlighting their role of saviour. With political opponents like the TNA, the Government does not appear to need supporters at home. In sum with one stroke the TNA has rejuvenated their most powerful adversary.
The TNA has all the freedom to say what they like but they must have a sense of timing to say it. A manifesto is a solemn document intended to obtain maximum advantage with minimum loss. It cannot afford to play to the gallery and please interested parties by creating a backlash to begin with. It is a policy document, not an action plan, much less an exercise in demagogy. In this background the appearance of Suppiramanium Sivathasan’s article on “Manifesto for the Northern Provincial Council”, in the Colombo Telegraph gave me a ray of hope. I felt proud to have worked with Siva when I was GA, Trincomalee in the sixties. He has produced a convincing, and compact model manifesto, creating the least resistance, in just 1,690 words compared to the TNA’s meandering verbiage of 3,238 words that has set the house on fire. Let me briefly compare and contrast the two documents to show the difference.
The TNA manifesto devotes nearly one third of its space to a recital of the well-known and uncontested history of the fate of the Tamil people since Independence and highlights sensitive issues like state-sponsored colonization, oppressive army presence, acquiring large tracts of land for military purposes. Emphasizing that Tamils are a distinct People with historical habitation and right to self-determination, the document calls for a merged Northern and Eastern Province based on a federal structure and devolution of power on the basis of shared sovereignty.
Undoubtedly, the issues raised are paramount to Tamil interests that have to be sorted out as the country resumes its journey on the path of reconciliation; but is it wise to raise them up front and thereby arm the divisive forces with weapons to sabotage the process even before it begins? They can be taken up as we go along and for reasons to be given below, my own view is that if the integration is directed on realistic and proactive lines, they may lose their relevance in due course. That appears to be the path that Siva recommends, from the preamble to his manifesto given below:
“The Northern Provincial Council will hold as sacred and inviolable, the rights and entitlements of all ethnicities in the Province. This enduring principle shall guide and direct the Council’s policies and approaches. The ideal, that the people of the Northern Province shall have no less freedom than the rest of the country, will be deemed the fount for national harmony. The Council shall strive to foster it. Sovereignty lies with you the people and we seek your mandate for the governance we envisage in the Northern Province”.
I give below selected extracts from the TNA Manifesto followed by Siva’s alternatives in italics to facilitate a comparative assessment.
“The TNA firmly believes that sovereignty lies with the People and not with the State. It is not the government in Colombo that holds the right to govern the Tamil People, but the People themselves. In this regard the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka is flawed in that power is concentrated at the Centre and its Agent, the Governor”.
1. “The laws enacted by the National legislature, seen as promoting law, order and good governance in the Northern Province, will be dutifully enforced. The Council will mobilize all its power to get the National legislature to repeal laws considered by the Provincial Council to be iniquitous on society and inimical to progress.”
2. Land Administration
“There is an urgent need to address issues relating to the forcible acquisition of land and use by the State in the North-East. TNA is committed to the Provincial Administration retaining control over land in the North-East. TNA believes that there can be no reconciliation without the reform of the existing policies over land ownership, control and use that target the linguistic and cultural identity of the North-East”
“We realize that in the whole Province, problems of resettlement of the displaced of all ethnicities demand our immediate attention. Issues of land will be resolved individually in order to place the rightful owners in possession. Restitution of property is essential to restore the pre-war scene.”
“The TNA believes that the most effective police force for the North-East would be those directed by the Provincial Council. Currently there is no trust between the people and Police service in the Northern Province.”
“We hold it as self-evident that a people feel a sense of freedom only when they see civilian governance as the symbol of such freedom. To secure that sense, we pledge to assert your right to: See the military presence in the Province drastically reduced, the remaining strength confined to barracks and policing to be done by a Provincial Police Force, which we see as our paramount duty to establish”.
“The Tamil diaspora is an important segment in the securing of regeneration and wellbeing for the affected people and we would obtain their invaluable aid and expertise, not only in the area of development but also in our quest to find a just, workable and durable political solution. The TNA is firmly of the view that justice to all Peoples who inhabit Sri Lanka and genuine reconciliation through permanent peace is only achievable under international auspices. We will seek to enforce the recommendations made by the Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary General and the Resolutions adopted at the UN Human Rights Council in March 2012 and March 2013”.
“The expatriate Tamils have through their valiant efforts kept alive the struggle of the Tamils for their rights and liberty. They have very successfully brought the issues to the attention of the International Community. The Northern Provincial Council, with a clear mandate from the people and with their hands strengthened by a constant feel of the pulse will interact with the expatriate Tamils proactively. We shall move together and act in unison, in the best interests of all Tamils”.
Knowing Siva as I do, I have no doubt that he is no less a Tamil than those who espouse the Tamil cause from their rooftops. Only in his sensitivity to language, he uses his words as an ‘instrument of persuasion’, not as ‘a lethal weapon’. He has a sense of timing and a sense of the possible. Siva is no coward. He has stood by me resolutely whenever I faced a communal confrontation, even outside his Division. If those who dominate the TNA were similarly gifted, the approaching NPC election could have been made a centripetal force for national integration, instead of the cantankerous confrontation it is turning out to be.
Trust and Integration
I made the observation above that the contentious issues the TNA is aggressively advocating in their manifesto may lose their relevance in due course. I say this from my assessment of a trend that I observe to be developing imperceptibly among the races, independent of the cat and dog fights of the racial debate. I believe that the ordinary people on both sides have come a long way from the confrontations, mostly engineered by chauvinists, before the close of the last century. Throughout the war, the majority had developed a mind-set that could stand the depredations of the Tigers with equanimity.
In addition they had acquired a fund of sympathy for their war-torn siblings of the North as evidenced by the flood of charity that flowed into the North soon after the defeat of the LTTE. At the time I made an appeal to the government to make positive use of that sympathy to bring the communities closer together. One proposal I made was for each AGA Division in the South to adopt a village in the North for resettlement. But my appeal fell on deaf ears, probably due to the tensions and risks prevalent at the time. Had it been implemented imaginatively the inter-racial dialogue would have attained a much higher pitch than what obtains now.
I firmly believe that racial integration has to be achieved by bringing the communities together rather than through theoretical debates. When I was Chairman of the RRAN, I organized selected groups of school children, farmers, and local leaders to travel to the South on familiarization tours. With the Tigers breathing down our backs it was a risky operation. I was on pins when the first batch of school children arrived by ship in Trincomalee to start their tour. They were themselves tense with apprehensions of enmity and reprisals from both sides. But with the spontaneous reception they received wherever they were taken, the visitors soon relaxed and were all smiles as they made friends with their Southern counterparts. They were so much moved by the warm reception they received, that they were in tears when they got back to the ship for their return. Many of them had remarked to my Secretary who was a Tamil lady, “After all the Sinhalese are not such nasty people as we were made to believe at home”.
I grew up among a representative habitat of races and faiths. My children spent their childhood in exclusive official residencies. The girls went to a mono stream school. The boy’s school was multi stream but they ran parallel without space for interaction. That setup has failed to sensitize the growing minds to racial interaction and empathy. My grandson went to his father’s school but by his time the curriculum included Tamil as a second language. He has Tamils and Muslims in his rugger team with whom he is on ‘machan’ terms. He would fight tooth and nail against a move to replace his competent ‘fly half’, ‘Murugathasan’ with a mediocre ‘Buddhadasa’, for parochial reasons.
It is true that the incidents mentioned here are anecdotal and minuscule but to my mind they indicate the direction to which our future generations ought to be guided. I am not aware of any serious research that has been undertaken in this area. In addition to the scarcity of research needed to formulate a plan of action, the biggest obstacles to national integration today are the, low priority given to the task and dispersal of resources over a multiplicity of authorities responsible for delivery. The real challenge is to create mutual confidence among the communities through direct contact and to grant equal rights and recognition.
That is a massive undertaking that calls for relentless application at the highest level. Basically that burden lies on the shoulders of those entrusted with the implementation of the LLRC report, on the success of which depends the future of our Nation. That is a task beyond the reach of individual bureaucrats, however competent they may be.
That is why I have repeatedly called for a Standing Presidential Commission to undertake this job. The President has been repeatedly declaring his commitment to building a nation out of the many communities that inhabit this island. If he really means business, let him set up the machinery essential to achieve that objective without further delay. At the present rate of achievement on the implementation of the LLRC recommendations, one cannot be too optimistic about the UNHCR report expected on the subject.
If the latent tendencies of our people towards forgiveness, sympathy and magnanimity are liberally activated through inter-racial contact, pluralism, and social justice, I will not be surprised to see our Obama emerge from the North long before the end of the century. I wish he had someone like Siva to write his manifesto.