Gota’s BBC Interview: ‘Absolute Truth’ about Tamils and the Northern Province

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

The recent interview given by Defence and Urban development secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to Charles Haviland of the BBC in Colombo has resulted in the “Archaeological expert” of the Jathika Hela Urumaya(JHU) showering praises on the presidential sibling.

image courtesy of BBC ~ Gotabhaya Rajapaksa: Sri Lanka north 'not just for Tamils'

JHU parliamentarian Ven.Ellawela Medhananda Thero in a statement to the “Dasa Desin”programme has described the utterances of the Defence secretary as “the most honest truth expressed in this century”.

According to the “Daily News” Medhananda Thero has in the Dasa Desin program appreciated Gotabhaya’s statement that “Sri Lankan’s irrespective of their ethnicity and other differences, should be able to live in any part of the country. He said all Sri Lankans regardless of their race should have the freedom to live in any part of the country.”

Medhananda Thera said the defence secretary stated the absolute truth and people who eschew ethnic and religious differences in this country should pay tribute to him for this statement.

The political Bhikku projected as an Archaeological expert by his followers has also attacked the Tamil Nationalist Alliance as being divisive and then gone on to dispute alleged “Tamil claims to the North” and dished out his own version of the Tamil presence in the Island.

As is customary the Bhikku MP has said that Tamils had no right to call the North their homeland.

Gotabhaya’s BBC interview that has fired up Medhananda in this way has been given the heading “Gotabhaya Rajapaksa: Sri Lanka north “Not just for Tamils” by the BBC. The particular excerpt from the BBC report is as follows-

BBC's Charles Haviland interviewing Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa - May 28, 2012

“So were Tamils correct to view the north as a predominantly Tamil place?

“Why should be that? Why should be that?” Mr Rajapaksa said. “If you are a Sri Lankan citizen you must be able to go and buy the properties from anywhere. I’m not talking about the forced settlements, I’m talking about the freedom for a Sri Lankan to live anywhere in this country.”

Many Tamils favour provincial devolution to give them a greater voice in areas where they predominate.

The government and the largest Tamil party have been holding talks on this issue, but these have currently stalled.”

The BBC report excerpt reproduced above indicates the mindset of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on this subject. I do not know whether the BBC transcript of the interview has been accurately reproduced but from what is stated on record the Defence secretaries response does seem to be an unwarranted answer to what seemed a very simple question. The reaction of Medhananda Thero demonstrates how the “answer” has warmed the hearts of the constituency with which Gotabhaya empathises.

As I stated earlier I do not know whether the BBC transcript of the interview has been accurately or entirely reproduced in the BBC report but if one were to rely on what is available on the BBC website the Defence secretary’s response does seem to reflect a mindset that is extremely troubling.

Let me start with Gotabhaya refusing to accept that the North is predominantly Tamil. Now more than 90% of the Northern population is Tamil by ethnicity. If one were to go by language taking into account the Tamil speaking Muslims then the percentage is more than 95%. What then is wrong in describing a region with more than 90% Tamils a predominantly Tamil area or place.

Is not Hambantota from where the Rajapaksas hail a predominantly Sinhala place because an overwhelming majority of the population is Sinhala? Is not the North – Central province a predominantly Sinhala province?

Now if Hambantota or the North Central province is predominantly Sinhala does it mean that those regions are only for the Sinhala people? Are not people of other ethnicities not living there? Are people of other ethnicities debarred from living there? NO!

Then why this resentment over the Northern province being called predominantly Tamil? Why this harangue about anyone being able to live in any part of the country? Does describing a place as predominantly “this or that” prevent “others” from living or residing there? So why this outburst when the BBC calls the North predominantly Tamil?

Besides has not the Defence ministry saturated the pre-dominantly Tamil speaking Northern province with pre-dominantly Sinhala speaking soldiers ?Calling the North pre-dominantly Tamil has not prevented the stationing of armed soldiers there.

Then comes the remark about only Tamils being able to buy land in Jaffna?

This issue has been explained again and again but always this is raked up. The law “Thesawalamai” governing Jaffna is described as partly personal and partly territorial. According to the “Thesawalamai” one has to sell property first to adjacent land owners or others in the neighbourhood. One can sell to outsiders only if there are no buyers from this category. This is because Jaffna was an agrarian society where land was of crucial importance and also because people wanted property to be within the extended family.

I remember as a child that when my mother wanted to sell her property in Jaffna and had found an outside buyer my aunt in the adjacent property wanted to buy it. So that property had to be sold to my aunt because her claim based on the law was greater and also because of the closer relationship.

Another fact is that the land prices in Jaffna are artificially inflated and exhorbitantly high. Practically it is cheaper to buy land elsewhere. That is another reason why outsiders prefer not to buy land in Jaffna.

But contrary to what Gotabhaya seems to imply lots of people from outside Jaffna are indeed buying land in Jaffna for commercial purposes after the end of the war.

I know of a Tamil family in Canada which sold their property in Koddaddy, Jaffna to a Sinhala entrepreneur because he paid 3 lakhs rupees more for a perch than the closest Tamil offer. So it was profit and not ethnicity which decided the issue.

Then again comes this matter of Medhananda MP saying Tamils have no right to call the North or east their homeland. Now I am not concerned about what political parties or politicians say but I think anyone living in the country can call it their homeland.

Sri Lanka is the homeland of all the people living there. The people can live anywhere they want to.

Likewise Sinhalese living for generations in the Wayamba or Tamils living in the North for generations or Muslims living in the East for generations or Indian Tamils living for generations in Nuwara -Eliya or Burghers living for Generations in Komari in the East or Malays living for generations in Hambantota can also call their particular regions their homelands.What is wrong in that?

Calling ones place ones homeland does not have to prevent “others” from living there too. Why such a big fuss when Tamils call the North their homeland?It is as if Tamils are claiming exclusive rights over specific territory thereby denying non – Tamils the right to live there.

In this context let me reproduce the First clause of the Indo-Lanka accord of July 29th 1987 in full here-

1.1 desiring to preserve the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka,

1.2 acknowledging that Sri Lanka is a “multi-ethnic and multi-lingual plural society” consisting, inter-alia, of Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims (Moors) and Burgers,

1.3 recognising that each ethnic group has a distinct cultural and linguistic identity, which has to be carefully nurtured,

1.4 Also recognising that the northern and the eastern provinces have been areas of historical habitation of Sri Lankan Tamil speaking peoples, who have at all times hitherto lived together in this territory with other ethnic groups,

1.5 conscious of the necessity of strengthening the forces contributing to the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, and preserving its character as a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi- religious plural society in which all citizens can live in equality, safety and harmony, and prosper and fulfil their aspirations,

Please note that it says the North and East are areas of historic habitation of the Tamil speaking peoples who have lived there with other ethnicities.

There is also another dimension to the Tamil emphasis on a homeland. The genesis of this concept was due to two reasons.

Firstly the device of state aided colonisation schemes through which demography was altered so that Tamils became progressively lesser in percentage in areas of their historic habitation. The Eastern province was 56%Tamil, 40%Muslim and 4%Sinhala in 1921. But today the Tamils are less than 40 % in the province while the Sinhalese are nearly 30%.

The second point in the Homeland concept was security. Notwithstanding Gotabhaya’s lofty pronouncement about everyone being entitled to live in any part of the Country let us remember that Tamils were not allowed to live in any part of the country peacefully in the past.

The pogroms and anti – Tamil riots of 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983 demonstrated that Tamils were not safe in the Sinhala majority areas and could seek safety only in areas where they were concentrated in large numbers

The Sri Lankan Governments that transported Tamils by train, ship and plane to the North and East in 1958,77 and 83 demonstrated clearly that those were the ” homelands” of the Tamils where they could be safe. So Demography and security lie at the heart of the Homeland concept of the Tamils.

The Defence secretary who takes umbrage about anyone being able to live in any part of Sri Lanka must examine the recent past and do some soul searching himself.

It was in June 2007 that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ordered 376 Tamils hailing from the North who were in Colombo be expelled as alleged “security risks”. They were put on buses forcibly by the Police and taken to the North. It was after the CPA filed a fundamental rights petition on their behalf that the Supreme Courts issued an injunction

Of course Gota and his minions will justify the action on grounds of security but the point I make is how Gota himself had no qualms about denying a section of the population their right to reside in any part of the country and how the same man is now crying himself hoarse about the right of every one to live in any part of the country. Obviously in Gota’s eyes what is sauce for the Tamil goose is NOT sauce for the Sinhala gander.

Speaking of security can one forget how the basic rights of Tamils to live in Colombo and suburbs were infringed upon again and again during the war years? Here were a people fleeing the war ravaged north and residing in the Sinhala majority areas.

A people allegedly fighting a war to separate from the Sinhalese were seeking refuge among the very same Sinhalese. But how were they treated? Requirements to register frequently, cordons and searches, arbitrary arrests etc.They were continually harassed in the name of security.

People are entitled to live anywhere asserts Gotabhaya. But again what is happening in the North and East? Tamils and Muslims are being denied the right to live in their historic habitats in the name of security. High security zones have deprived people of their homes.

They are being forcibly relocated alsewhere. The right of return too is being severely curtailed in the name of security. When original residents of the North are being deprived of the right to return to their homes the Defence secretary waxes eloquent about the right of every one to live in the North.

Let us also not forget that the Sri Lankan state engaged in blatant ethnic cleansing in the Manal Aaru/Weli Oya region where the traditional Tamil inhabitants were driven out through state sponsored violence and a string of armed Sinhala settler colonies established along with a complex of military camps.

The politico-military objective was to interdict the territorial contiguity of the Northern and Eastern provinces. Where then was/is the right of the Tamils in the villages and hamlets of the Manal Aaru/Weli Oya region to reside in their ancestral homes?

What about the people of Karaithuraipattru in Mullaitheevu district or people of Sampoor in Trincomalee district who are being denied the right to return and reside in their historic habitat? Will they ever be allowed to go back?

How hypocritical then is the Defence secretary in loftily pronouncing that anyone can live in the North when many people of the North are unable to live in their own villages?

I could go and on in this way but I will stop now after posing a few questions to the Defence secretary about a few matters.

If every one is entitled to live anywhere in Sri Lanka why are the Mosques of the Muslims of Dambulla and Dehiwela under threat?

If every one is entitled to live anywhere in Sri Lanka can non – Sinhalese set up businesses in Kadawatte and Kiribathgoda?

If anyone can live anywhere in Sri Lanka and no place is exclusive for any particular segment would the Rajapaksa regime set up a state aided settlement scheme in Hambantota district whereby Tamils and Muslims can be relocated in large numbers through which the Sinhala population would become a minority in the region?

Above all what is wrong in people concentrated in particular regions seeking a greater say and role in running their affairs within a united, sovereign and territirially integrated Sri Lanka?

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at