By Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan
The outcome of the local government elections this year has made one fact evident. Whatever may be the reasons attributed it clearly shows the Peoples’ disappointment with the performance of the present government and the parties in power both in the North and in the South. In the North the TNA lost ground because it was perceived by the voters as not having achieved more in solving the problems of the Tamil people. I would submit that these problems have less to do with the delays in Constitution making or non implementation of the transitional justice mechanisms, but are more related to the existential needs of the people.
This is particularly evident in the districts of Mannar, Killinochchi and Mullaitivu where there was a marked decrease in the TNA’s vote. These are districts in which the people are primarily engaged in agriculture and fishing and where livelihood opportunities and possession of land to cultivate are more important considerations than academic controversies and nationalist theories.
The decrease in the votes in the above mentioned districts also indicates that the voters are not satisfied with the performance of the TNA administered Provincial Council. While admittedly the Provincial Councils are ham strung by Central interference, lack of coordination between Central agencies and provincial agencies, the Governor’s powers over finance etc, all matters which could be remedied by Constitutional adjustments, nevertheless the Provincial Council could have done more to promote the concerns of the people, as in promoting Agriculture and Fisheries, increasing employment opportunities, building up the Cooperative sector which in earlier times had been an effective institution, and focusing on primary education in the province through provision of adequate teachers in Science and mathematics, as well as providing travelling facilities by opening up of additional bus routes for children to easily access the schools, these being some of the concerns of the people. These are all matters which come within the purview of the Provincial Administration, under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
Presently the Tamil political parties primarily the TNA and the Tamil Congress are focusing on the Human Rights Council’s Geneva resolution No.31 of 2015, and the issue of Accountability for war crimes. However equally important is the question of military occupation of lands in the northern Province which are owned by the farmers, or fisherfolk of the area. Even if they cannot always prove their title to the lands in question, they are people who have been living and working on these lands for generations. Hence it is only just that Arable land be returned to the former owners, and the Army camps moved to Government land. Members of Tamil political parties and members of the Tamil diaspora organizations are reportedly travelling to Geneva for the Human Rights Council sessions to present petitions and documents to the Council and other UN Institutions. This puts me in mind of the Jewish diaspora who rather than petitioning the international community gave their material resources to develop the land in Palestine, as well as their people young and old to settle and work on the Kibbutz farms in Palestine, thereby holding the land for the future state of Israel. The leaders of the Tamil political parties and the Diaspora organizations could in a similar but less exacting way at least participate and give their backing to the farmers and fisherfolk who are peacefully agitating for the return of their lands occupied by the armed forces as in Keppapilavu for over one year, and in many other places in the northern province. The Government argument that lands are being returned does not hold water as only small pieces of land are being returned and that too not in a condition in which they can be used for cultivation, with the original houses and other structures demolished and wells destroyed or blocked. No doubt sweating it out in the scorching sun of the Vanni is no substitute for the scenic beauty and salubrious climate of Geneva and Switzerland, but this to my mind is where the real action lies and this is where Tamil politicians and diaspora representatives could prove their real commitment to the cause, by making representations to the Government regarding return of the lands as well as materially and or physically helping those owners to whom the land has been returned with the task of settling up their farms and fisherfolk with their fishing tackle and boats to resume fishing operations .
Taking the case of war crimes and missing persons and the setting up of accountability mechanisms, to the international press and bringing it up at the Human Rights Council sessions at Geneva will admittedly have some impact and is also a path which can be usefully pursued. But it has to be kept in mind that internationalizing an issue is not always followed by any positive action on the part of the international players. Looking at the current international situation it becomes clear that States act according to their own interests. The war crimes and humanitarian disaster in the ongoing wars in the Yemen and in Syria and the plight of the Rhohingya refugees fleeing from Burma (now Myanmar), subjected to ethnic cleansing and human rights violations which include deprivation of citizenship, are cases in point. In the above instances and there are others too, we are still to see any effective U.N action being taken. This does not mean that the question of accountability for war crimes can be shelved . But i would submit that the Tamil political parties and Diaspora organizations, could in addition to approaching the international community also initiate a parallel campaign carried on within the country in the Sinhala and Tamil print and electronic media, to show that Accountability as a general principle especially as applied to those in positions of Governmental authority is a part of democracy and in the interests of all the communities living in the country. To allow impunity for criminal acts is dangerous in the long run. It can be shown that acts prohibited under the laws of war such as orders to kill civilians, or combatants who surrender, or to commit rape , once carried out in the theatre of the war, can breed the culture of brutality which will continue after the war and in other parts of the country, as seen in the Rathupaswela shootings of civilians agitating for clean water and the Prison massacre at the Welikade jail. Similarly it can lead to the violence visited on certain targeted communities as seen in the recent anti Muslim riots, and would in the course of time be used to put down even peaceful strikes or agitation by workers and students for their rights. Hence impunity where certain people are exempted from criminal prosecutions can have dangerous consequences for ordinary people whether they be Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims or Burghers. This is the lesson that must be brought home to the country at large.
Criminal acts against all citizens by those in Authority whosoever they may be, have to be punished. It will have to be made evident that condemning war crimes and impunity for such crimes, is not just a means of punishing Sinhalese soldiers, for winning the war as is commonly believed, but is a matter of principle. It has to be made clear that it is not the soldiers, who only carry out the orders, but those persons in Authority who give illegal orders who are Accountable. Persons so accused must be willing to face a fair trial where they can explain their case or show exculpating factors. But the need for accountability mechanisms and criminal prosecutions is part of a democratic polity and also necessary in order to maintain the moral fibre of the nation. The HRC Resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, should not be the only reason for taking action although it is important in the international context, and Sri Lanka should also be seen to be implementing its international obligations.
On the question of Constitutional changes and sharing of powers in the State it must be once again pointed out that this will have a greater chance of being achieved by reaching out to the Sinhalese speaking public and showing them that devolution of powers or even federalism is not the first steps to separation. Here again a media campaign in the national languages and in the media channels is required to dispel the wrong messages that have been given to the Sinhalese people through false propaganda. Such a campaign could be funded by the Diaspora so as to train translators and provide the reading material on these subjects in the national languages, as well as employing persons who will have to go among the people taking this message. The Government of the day should have, but did not take this necessary step before initiating Constitutional reforms, as for example was done during the Presidency of Ms. Kumaratunga who started the Nelum Mal campaign to educate the people on these issues and which campaign showed tangible results. It will also be in the interests of the Tamil parties to work towards a consensus both among themselves and with the Sinhalese parties. All the Sinhalese parties should be approached and taken on board and not just a few political parties who appear to be congenial. The support of President Rajapaksa for example should also be sought, for a satisfactory resolution of the national question. His support would be useful in the context that President Rajapaksa has earned the gratitude of the Sinhalese people for having brought the war to a finish and established peace in the country. Now it is for him to earn the gratitude of the Tamil speaking people (Tamils and Muslims) by giving his support for a political solution in which the Tamil speaking people can share in the dividends of the peace through a constitutional process of genuine power sharing.