Start talks now for devolution

Bishop Duleep warns of possible humanitarian catastrophe after visiting north and east

A highly respected religious prelate warned yesterday that the northeast was on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe and called for an immediate return to the next round of peace talks at which the principle of devolution should be addressed.Colombo’s Anglican Bishop the Rt. Rev. Duleep de Chickera after a vist to the North and Trincomalee said, contrary to what anti-peace forces imagined, the desire and drive for peace grew when conflict increased and he proposed several immediate steps if these aspirations were to be consolidated;

Bishop Duleep said, “I have just returned from one of my regular pastoral visits to the North. I made a similar visit to Trincomalee three weeks ago.

The situation in these areas is tense and dangerously volatile; various groups are engaged in a struggle for ideological, political and geographical space which invariably spills into the routine lives of civilians. Streets are deserted after 2 p.m. and the people live in fear of each other.

“Tamil civilians in particular are helpless and fear all sides. They fear being suspected as LTTE sympathizers or as military informants. They fear the struggle for power between the LTTE and other armed Tamil groups most of whom for very obvious reasons often happen to be either relations, neighbours or associates. They fear for their adolescent children who may be conscripted by the LTTE or arrested by the Sri Lanka Armed Forces.

The civilians in these areas have no one to turn to. Subtle intimidate and whisper campaigns encompass all. Independent Tamil voices are reluctant to speak for fear of being caricatured as ‘the enemy’.I suspect that it was this prevailing culture that prevented Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole from assuming duties as the Vice Chancellor of the Jaffna University. Contrary to some elements or public opinion, his being a Christian had little to do with this resistance. He had much to offer academically and wanted very much to serve the University and the people of Jaffna. He should have been given a chance to prove himself.

In Trincomalee and in Jaffna the presence of an almost entirely non Tamil security Force providing security, though inevitable in the circumstances, creates a worrying polarization. The difficulty that the Forces face is to convey that their presence is meant to provide security for all civilians as well as for the State apparatus and machinery. This is much more difficult in Jaffna, where all civilians are Tamils (there is now a very small Muslim community as well) and all Sri Lankan Armed Forces are non-Tamil. In Trincomalee rightly or wrongly the Tamil civilians have a perception that the Forces are friendlier with the Sinhala population than with the Tamil population.

Much of this, no doubt, has to do with the cultural cum communication gap. Previous communal prejudices and, the dynamic between authority and powerlessness emerge to further widen and intensify this gap when there is a return to violence. The Sinhala soldiers in Jaffna appear apprehensive and ironically vulnerable. When on duty on the roads, they stand at intervals sometimes of 300 to 400 metres in a clearly non-friendly atmosphere. At times their posture of crouching beside walls or standing behind trees, no doubt a requirement from a military perspective, adds to this atmosphere of a presence that distances. The Tamil civilians on the other hand seem to distance themselves from the soldiers possibly due to resentment of their presence or fear of being misunderstood.

I visited the Allaipiddy island and saw for myself the tension that prevailed after the gruesome massacre of civilians, eight of whom belonged to one family.

Surviving members of this family witnessed the killing and are likely to be able to identify the killers.

The movement of civilians from this island following a threatening order presumably by a group adds to the misery of this people and to the complex nature of human suffering. In such instances the people have little desire to move and it is only a speedy investigation into the massacre and deliberate measures of dialogue and trust building between the people and the Sri Lanka Armed Forces that will somewhat stem the fear and panic and dislocation of an already previously displaced people.

In these circumstances I was disturbed to discover that reputed INGOs who we thought were here to protect the most vulnerable seem unable to do what most thought they were here to do. It appears that either their mandate or their interpretation of this mandate prevents them from taking options when necessary to protect the afflicted and the frightened. An apparent policy that seeks concurrence from ‘both sides’ in the discharge of their mandate is hopelessly inadequate and requires review. In today’s context of a subtle and deepening conflict, that also tends to be unreasonably trivial at times, such concurrence could remain illusive thus neutralizing the role of such INGOs.

The exception to this stance is the presence of a small INGO – the Non Violence Peace Force. The policy of this small team of foreign and local peace workers is to visibly stand by victims of violence, and needs commendation.

It is for this reason that the attack by an armed group on their office in Muttur must be condemned. This act has been done by forces that see their presence as a threat. Consequently, all peace loving people must do all they can to appreciate and endorse such vulnerable groups whose mandate is to stand with the vulnerable, and whose only weapon is their moral strength to be able to do so.

Contrary to what anti-peace forces imagine, the desire and drive for peace grows when conflict increases. In the context of where we stand today, the following requires attention if these aspirations are to be consolidated;

I. The speedy investigation of atrocities and action against the perpetrators. Such action mostly can counter fear and build trust,

2. A prompt return to normalcy. E.g the functioning of schools, work places, public transport, etc must be ensured.

3. A more people friendly approach in the provision of security within the realistic parameters of the ground situation.

4. A clear demonstration by the Government of Sri Lanka that the three armed services and the police and the STF are its only authentic representatives for purposes of ensuring security and maintaining law and order.

5. Opportunities need to be provided for Independent Tamils to voice grievances, express concerns and offer solutions. For this a continuing dialogue with the authorities is necessary. Thankfully there are still some outstanding persons in authority who are sensitive to this need. The present Governor of the North and Fast is one such person and his presence and thoughtful initiatives need commendation.

6. An immediate return to the next round of peace talks at which the principle of devolution should be addressed.” [Source: Daily Mirror]

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