By Rathindra Kuruwita
Issuing a report on transitional justice a few days before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting in Geneva, Centre for Human Rights and Research (CHR) stated that neither the government nor NGOs have recognized the suffering of Sinhalese and Muslims who were affected by the conflict.
The report added that the suffering of the two communities must be recognized and the government should recognize their right to return.In a sane universe this fact should have been recognized from day one and steps would have been taken to ensure that the Northern Sinhalese and Muslims were also restituted and their right to return recognized.
If this was done and a concerted attempt was taken to convince the Sinhalese and Muslims that they too are a part of the ‘reconciliation process’, a lot of resistance and suspicion we see today would not be there.
But since successive governments and those working for reconciliation made the entire process about the Northern Tamils, the Sinhalese were automatically deemed the bad eggs and recognizing the sufferings of Muslims, exclusively at the hands of Tamil militant groups, would have muddled the narrative of Tamil victimhood. This explicit (in the case of Sinhalese) and implicit (Muslims) excluded the other two communities; what we now see is a wall of resentment and opposition, especially from the Sinhalese.
Rajapaksa never cared about the Sinhalese
A lot of liberals often label the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration as pro Sinhala supremacist government, for reasons I never understood. Mahinda Rajapaksa was very good at manipulating the resentment and anger of the Sinhalese who were having a rough time since the election of Chandrika Bandaranaike, who has now emerged as some liberal hero. But that does not mean he was pro Sinhalese, if he was he would have done something tangible for the Sinhalese.
And as I have said over and over again he would not have lost in January 2015 if he had actually done anything for the Sinhalese people. I mean can you really name one instance that he has actually taken a step that would benefit the Sinhalese, in a sustainable and tangible manner?
The Rajapaksa administration did not really attempt to restitute the Sinhalese who had to flee Jaffna in the ’70s and ’80s. In the early 1970s there were a significant number of Muslims and Sinhalese in the Northern Province. Statistics from the 1971 Census reveals, that there were 37,855 Muslims (4.31%) and 39,511 Sinhalese (4.50%) in the province. The Sinhalese were mainly concentrated in Jaffna District (20,402 persons which was 2.90% of the district’s population) while the Muslims were concentrated mostly in Mannar District (20,878 persons that is 26.81% of the district’s population).
I remember that a few poor sods who actually believed that they had the backing of Rajapaksa went to Jaffna demanding their homes but they had to return a few months later after they figured out that Mahinda really doesn’t care about their restitution.
Don’t blame Bathiudeen
It has been the same for the Muslims who had to leave the North in 1990 after the LTTE asked them to leave their homes within a few hours. Apart from some attempts made by Rishad Bathiudeen who tried to resettle the Muslims in Mannar, their concerns have also not been addressed in any systematic manner. Rishad Bathiudeen’s settlements were ad hoc and in some cases illegal, for example creating settlements in forest areas adjoining Wilpattu National Park, and as with any unplanned settlements, the side effects of these endeavours have been disastrous. Not only have people been marooned in the middle of nowhere but also these settlements had created anger among the Sinhalese and Tamils who see this as another example of Muslim expansion.
I don’t like Rishad Bathiudeen but I do respect him a lot more than I respect Rajapaksa or Ranil Wickremesinghe because, at the end of the day, he cares about who he considers his people. He is an identitarian and he wants his people to have tangible and sustainable benefits. New land, houses and the sense of dignity that comes with those are tangible and sustainable. So don’t blame Rishad Bathiudeen, don’t call him names, if you want to get angry at someone, get angry at the Rajapaksas because not only did they not do anything for the Sinhalese but they also actively supported Bathiudeen’s settlements. All this could have been avoided if the concerns of displaced Muslims and Sinhalese were also addressed, while recognizing that Northern Tamils did suffer the most during the war.
The road ahead
Investigations into alleged human rights violations is always a sensitive and a tricky business, especially when the majority ethnicity in a country feel that these investigations are a vendetta against them. If the government is to uphold the commitments it made to the international community regarding reconciliation and investigations into alleged human rights violations, it needs to secure the support of the majority of the people in the country. But when the majority of Sri Lankans feel that they are not a part of the reconciliation process, in fact feel that it is against their interests, going ahead with these investigations can be political suicide for a government.