By M.A. Sumanthiran M.P
There is a growing trend in the political culture of the North that the rest of the country does not seem to have taken note of.
The advent of the ‘grease yaka’ saw people coming out on to the streets in large numbers to apprehend these offenders, and in several instances, confront military personnel who they thought were harbouring the offenders.
The people were not afraid to confront the military openly, and even after the brutality with which they were attacked in Navanthurai, were willing to face the risk of retaliation by the military. This mood was seen clearly, a year ago, when a Tamil National Alliance election meeting held at Alaveddy on the 16th of June 2011 was violently broken up by the Sri Lankan Army.
Though the public was beaten with batons and chased away on that day, two days later, when the TNA called for another meeting in Nallur, people turned up in their hundreds. Through this and other acts of defiance, our supporters and others signalled that they were willing to show their protest against oppression and injustice.
For many decades, the fear of state violence that gripped the Tamil people was palpable. Lying deep in the collective psyche of our people is the fear that if we deigned to stand up for our rights, violence would follow. It is a fear we confront every day, and for many – especially those living in military controlled towns and villages – that fear is actively reinforced through a daily ritual of humiliation and intrusion.
We share this fear with many of our Sinhala, Muslim, Burgher and Malay friends who have spoken out in incredibly courageous ways; but the foreboding sense of impending brutality is, for the Tamil community, borne out through the experiences of systematic violence in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981, 1983 and the devastating brutality of the war.
Despite our position on the governance of the North and East – including the intense militarization and Sinhalization of areas traditionally inhabited by Tamils and Muslims, the lack of any tangible progress on evolving a political solution, the humiliation and brutal treatment of political prisoners – being made clear repeatedly, the government continues to be intransigent, insincere and indifferent.
It has disregarded the views of friends, forcing it into a corner on the international stage. All the while, the yoke of oppression on our people has not lifted. Despite this, little known to those outside, the people in the North and East are in the process of doing something remarkable.
One of the serious injustices inflicted upon the people of the North and East is the deprivation of the right to live in houses and cultivate property that they privately own, and also engage in fishing in the seas near their own areas. In the North, the so-called ‘High Security Zone’ has forcibly displaced over a hundred thousand people. Even in other areas the military occupies several private houses and thereby deprives the owners access to their own homes.
About one month ago, when we heard of attempts by the military to expropriate more land in the Northern Province, a group of activists from the Tamil National People’s Front – a political party sometimes scathingly critical of my party, the TNA – organized a protest to be held at the Jaffna bus stand. We planned to join this protest and stated that we supported it wholeheartedly.
This protest was not unlike other protests held in Jaffna. Yet, this time, the Jaffna Police – acting contrary to the constitutional rights of our people – obtained an order from the Magistrate stopping the protest.
The very next day, the General Secretary of the TNA, Mavai Senathirajah, led a protesting group of internally displaced persons in Tellipalai, where people have not been allowed to resettle for over 25 years.
This group was prevented from proceeding as planned, but a smaller delegation was allowed to hand over a petition to the divisional secretary. Men on motorbikes attacked these protesters, many of whom have been living in a welfare centre, with rocks and stones while the protestors were returning after the protest. The bus in which they were travelling was damaged, and waste oil was poured on those inside.
Perhaps it was the sight of video footage showing elderly IDPs speaking of the attack on them, but something remarkable has been happening since that day. When we conducted a planned protest in Thiru Murigandy later on 26 June 2012, the military was out in full force, warning people in the area not to join the protest.
The IDPs who were due to protest with us were whisked back to Manik Farm in secret the previous night. Yet, despite being surrounded by a tight military presence, more than 200 people turned up to protest. If the IDPs who were removed the night before were not taken away, the number would have been much larger.
At the next protest in Mannar on 30 June 2012, approximately 1,000 people joined our protest. Nelson Mandela once said, “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” There is now a renewed sense of energy and vigour amongst our people, and a gradual unshackling of ourselves from paralytic fear. Despite visible and invisible threats, our people’s movement is gaining momentum, slowly, but surely.
The resilience that manifests at these protests will not be easily shaken. It is a resilience that demands change. It demands democratic rights. It is indeed a beautiful testament to the strength of the human spirit.
In addition to issues concerning land, our people have taken to the streets to object to the treatment meted out to Tamil political prisoners and concerning the issue of disappearances. The recent attack on political prisoners in the Vavuniya Prison, in which Nimalaruban was murdered, has again galvanized the people’s protests.
Many progressive forces in the South have also now joined our non-violent protests. Similarly, the Tamil National Alliance has participated in joint opposition protests against the rising cost of living and the assault on democracy in various parts of the country.
What now? Even as we continue to protest, we are also teaching ourselves the lessons learnt from other non-violent freedom struggles. We must now begin a process of thinking critically about how we approach the future. What strategies must we employ to advance our struggle beyond just street protests, and progress toward a cohesive non-violent resistance campaign?
How do we adopt the lessons we have learnt from other non-violent campaigns to chart our own course?
We will not be rash, allow ourselves to be motivated by hate, or be hasty.
Yet, we will act purposefully and with full knowledge and anticipation of a day that will come when we will indeed be free.
We are not cowed down by fear, but we are alert to dangers that surround us. For our part, we are firmly resolved that even if attacked, we will emphatically reject violence. Still, we must not test history. Three years ago, we failed to prevent a horrific episode of bloodletting that has shocked the collective conscience of the world.
The Sri Lankan Government must be told that violent suppression of democratic resistance will not be tolerated. It is not an option. Instead, the citizens of Sri Lanka and the international community must make it absolutely clear to the government that it must change.
We must present the regime with a clear choice: make a dramatic break with the past, or be prepared to face the consequences of domestic and international scorn.