With the impending meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, international attention is once again focused on happenings in Sri Lanka. As the International Crisis Group, in its briefing note, has pointed out, “Failure is most obvious with respect to accountability of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the final phase of the civil war, but also by the lack of devolution of power, ongoing militarization of the north and the east, and deepening authoritarianism in the country.” The UN High Commissioner in her report to the UN General Assembly has highlighted that Colombo has not “adequately engaged civil societies in support of a more consultative and inclusive reconciliation process”. The report also makes a mention of “extrajudicial killings, abductions and enforced disappearance in the past year” and drew attention to the urgency of UN involvement to “combat impunity”.
Adding to the discomfiture of the Sri Lankan government was the resolution passed by the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) supporting the demand for an international enquiry into human rights violations. Colombo was taken aback by the resolution. What Colombo did not realise is the fact that the election manifesto of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had called for an “independent international investigation” into allegation of human rights violations not only by the government, but also by the Tigers.
The end of the civil war in 2009 provided a rare opportunity for Mahinda Rajapaksa to heal the wounds of war and usher in a more forward-looking policy on nation building. But subsequent policies belied the expectations. Instead of respecting diversity and upholding pluralist traditions, the government policy turned out to be one of unbridled majoritarianism. It led to the slogan, “one country, one people”. The president proclaimed, “There is no majority or minority in Sri Lanka, only patriots and traitors.” An example of trampling Tamil sensitivities is the insistence on the singing of the national anthem in Sinhala alone. Contrast this with South Africa, the rainbow nation, where the national anthem is sung in five languages.
The six-month-old NPC is facing numerous difficulties. It should be pointed that the Colombo was deliberately delaying democratic process in the province. It was Indian insistence that finally led to provincial council elections. The unprecedented turnout and the landslide victory of the TNA convincingly proved that not only was the alliance the most representative organisation, it was also willing to work within the existing constitutional framework. But it takes two hands to clap. Rajapaksa and his colleagues have created a situation where the Northern Province government is finding it extremely difficult to carry on day-to-day administration. Unlike India, where the chief minister has complete freedom to choose the chief secretary, Wigneswaran is saddled with a chief secretary imposed by Colombo. The efforts made by the TNA to get the military governor replaced by a civilian have not succeeded so far. Development programmes in the Northern Province is formulated and implemented by the Presidential Task Force and people’s representatives cannot make any inputs into them. If the objective of development, as Mahbub ul Haq, author of the Human Development Report, has pointed out “is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives”, Sri Lanka is far away from that goal. The jobs created as a result of these projects have not gone to the local Tamils, but mainly to the Sinhalese. Travel by the A9 highway, which links Jaffna to the mainland, a majority of restaurants that you come across are owned by the Sinhalese.
The huge army presence in the Northern Province adversely affects daily life of the people. Be it a sports meet, a birthday party or a public lecture, army clearance is essential. Establishment of high security zones have resulted in the displacement of people from their traditional habitation. There is no indication that the army will be confined to the barracks and the maintenance of law and order, as in India, will be under the control of police working under provincial administration. Recently there was a controversy about the exact number of military personnel. The president, in a speech in Tellipalai in the Northern Province, said that there were only 12,000 military personnel. The secretary to the president later clarified that the number was 70,000. The TNA estimate is that there are 1,50,000 army personnel in the province.
The enshrinement of majoritarianism has brought about a departure in the mode of negotiations to resolve the ethnic crisis. As a result of international pressure, Colombo started negotiations with the TNA in 2011. The 18 rounds of talks did not accomplish anything. The government then made a sudden volte-face and declared that issues relating to ethnicity and nation building will be deliberated in the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). In the PSC, the TNA will be outnumbered and outmanoeuvred by rabid Sinhalese groups. As Wigneswaran has pointed out Sri Lanka is “a post-war society, not post-conflict society”. Since underlying causes of the conflict have not been addressed, ethnic reconciliation remains a distant dream. In an interview with Lanka Guardian Wigneswaran summed up the reality as follows: “If you allow us to live in peace in the North, we will live in peace. When there is rewriting of history in a partisan manner, when there is planned colonisation to change the demography of the NP, when you have an occupation army in place interfering with all aspects of daily life, when you refuse to grant rights already in the law to run our provincial council, how on earth can we live in peace?”
It goes to the credit of Wigneswaran and Sampanthan that even under these adverse circumstances, they have not given up hope of working together with the Sinhalese in a united Sri Lanka. To quote Wigneswaran, “The moment you (Sinhalese) come out of your prejudices and conditionings, there is every chance that we could work out a durable solution to our problems. Tamil speaking peoples have given a clear mandate. They eschew violence and support a political solution within a united Sri Lanka. They love this country as much as you do. What they seek is human security, fundamental freedoms and the right to manage their affairs in their traditional habitation.” Will the Sinhalese leadership positively respond to these genuine aspirations? The coming days will provide the answer.
The writer is former senior professor, the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras.