Plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka – Then and Now

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

The present depressing situation particularly for the Tamils in Sri Lanka is the worst since India intervened in 1987 to end the internal strife that had escalated to a violent

campaign for a separate autonomous state of Tamil Eelam in the island’s North-East region. India, keen on preventing the break-up of Sri Lanka urged the Sri Lankan Government to devolve powers to the provinces with the Northern and Eastern provinces merged as one multi-ethnic unit. The agreed devolution scheme was not implemented fully for two main reasons. The LTTE opposed it as this weakened the case for separation and worked intensely to prevent the North-East Provincial Council becoming a permanent component of the Provincial Council system. President JR Jayewardene’s successor President R. Premadasa was also against the presence of Indian soldiers as Peace Keeping Force (the IPKF) and the devolution scheme introduced under the 1987 Indo-Lanka Pact entered during his predecessor’s reign. The LTTE in collaboration with Premadas’s Government succeeded in bringing about the withdrawal of the IPKF from the island and the downfall of the N-E Provincial Council.

[Refugees are worried about the escalating violence – Photo HA]

At present the two main parties to the conflict in Sri Lanka are trying to dupe the international community by giving fitting but doubtful assurances (e.g. imminent APC political solution and commitment to negotiated political settlement), slanted explanations on internally displaced persons, abductions, killings, disappearances and other human rights violations and the aim and nature of the military operations). The government’s estimates of IDPs are also much lower than those of the UN and other independent agencies in Sri Lanka.

Apparently, devolution was not introduced in 1988 with the genuine aim of granting self-governing powers to the regions to enable the people there to decide on routine administrative matters as well as those concerning their present and future welfare. Socio-economic development of the people in the different regions should also be according to their needs. The current disquiet is due to the imbalances arising from the over-centralized political system. The thirst for power amongst the main party leaders has been to meet their own personal ambitions. The present constitution (1978), which is the third since independence (1948) bears testimony to this statement. It has created an avenue for the self-seeking persons to secure influential status and pecuniary benefits, including the entitlement to pension after serving just 5 years as a member of the House.

Plight of civilians

The present pathetic plight of the helpless Tamils in the North-East region is due to the escalation of hostilities between the LTTE and the Government’s security forces after the former having created the suitable conditions for the resumption of the fighting (by the forced boycott of the November 2005 Presidential election), confidently started Eelam War IV early last year by provocative actions. It was said to be the final assault against the State for securing greater, if not full control of the ‘Tamil homeland’. The undeclared war has some special features that have contributed to the immense suffering of the Tamil speaking people with an uncertain future. The closure of A-9 highway at Muhamalai by the Government and the threat by the LTTE to shipping along the North-East coastline has caused considerable hardship to the residents trapped in the Jaffna peninsula.

The chief editor of the Uthayan newspaper, V. Kanamailnathan has written to the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka conveying that publishing the daily is “an increasingly Herculean and dangerous task with armed gunmen continuously threatening its work and staff” The letter stated: “Threats in the last four months have increased. Incidents that have occurred during this period have made our journalists and essential staff to lead a stressful life of fear and insecurity. Complaints to the police and other authorities have not proved fruitful. We are being throttled and systematically targeted – we need your help, now more than ever, to secure our livelihoods, our profession and a shared commitment to the inviolable values of democracy and the freedom of the media”.

Nikhil Mustaffa in his article ‘Peace in any other name’ Daily Mirror March 22 has quoted a recent ILO Report on the impact of the present conflict in Jaffna. The current economy of Jaffna represents a crisis economy with very substantial subsistence characteristics. All 600,000 inhabitants of Jaffna district are in one way or the other directly or indirectly affected in their livelihoods. The suffering lot includes 17,640 fishing families (representing some 78,000 people), and 85,411 farming families (including 2,000 farm labour families) depending on agriculture and 42,500 families active in small and medium enterprises characterized by activities in industries and services. The effects of the confrontation find their expression in significantly contracted productivity and income levels. The main constraints are (i) the suspension of all land transport between Jaffna and the rest of Sri Lanka and (ii) significant limitations on fishing and to a lesser extent on farming activities and mobility of workers of small and medium enterprises. Given the established integrated economy of Sri Lanka, suppliers of input and finished products to Jaffna and traders of products originating from the other parts of Sri Lanka are negatively affected by the current situation. Here is a feeler to get an inkling of what the future holds if the present miserable situation continues.

Since the main focus now is on the suffering of the Tamil speaking people in the Eastern province because of the massive displacements of civilians there caused by continuing air raids and heavy artillery shelling, the following discourse deals largely with their plight.

The displacements of tens of thousands of families from their habitats and the continuing stream of abductions and killings that are taking place in the east and north as well as in the very centre of Colombo are also some disturbing trends. There is an astonishing impunity with which the abductions and killings take place, often in broad daylight, in the vicinity of police stations and security checkpoints. Even the displaced, sheltering in overcrowded camps in government-controlled areas feel insecure, because of the lack of basic facilities and security. The presence of paramilitaries is also a contributory factor.

In Batticaloa alone there are more than 150,000 IDPs and the humanitarian aid organizations have warned that they are running short of food and other essential supplies. A host of humanitarian aid organizations including United Nations agencies, the Red Cross, Oxfam and Save the Children voiced concern at the record rising numbers of displaced families. According to Basil Sylvester, district officer for the main aid agency umbrella group, the Consortium for Humanitarian Agencies, many war-displaced persons in Batticaloa were sheltering under tress, because there was no room for them in crammed refugee camps, schools and churches. Amidst reports of human rights abuses threatening the security of the refugees in 88 camps in and around the Batticaloa region, the government announced it has decided to increase police presence there. It is uncertain whether this would give confidence to the anxious people.

John Holmes, United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs in his statement issued after Sri Lanka’s Air Force bombed the rebel base in Thoppigala for a third straight day said: “I am extremely concerned that tens of thousands of civilians have had to flee their homes once again in eastern Sri Lanka due to the new escalation in violence. I appeal to both parties in the conflict to respect the lives of the civilians in accordance with international humanitarian law. He also said: “My main worry at the moment is for the civilians who have been unable to leave the conflict zones. The UN agencies are unable to operate in frontline areas and therefore cannot help the civilians living there. All parties to the Sri Lankan conflict must grant access to humanitarian agencies so that they can help those trapped in the crossfire.”

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) spokesman Simon Pluess said: “The problem is that the stocks are dwindling and we will run out of food supplies by the end of April”. At present, the WFP is supplying food aid to about 60,000 people living in camps in Batticaloa district as well as to another 300,000 people in other districts. WFP Regional Director for Asia, Tony Banbury also said in Bangkok, Thailand on March 20: “Unless we receive new funding very soon, we will run out of food supplies by the end of April. After all the suffering endured by the victims of the fighting in Sri Lanka, they should not be hurt further by a lack of international support and concern.” The need for additional contributions is “critical and urgent”, he added. The Common Humanitarian Action Plan for Sri Lanka has received only 33 per cent of its required funding for food aid and he called the latest influx, a major humanitarian challenge. “We will do everything we can to ensure that all these victims of the conflict – many of them women and children – get the assistance they so desperately need,” he said. In some districts, WFP has already been forced to put on hold its Mother and Child Nutrition and school feeding programmes in order to re-direct its limited resources towards the newly displaced. It has also suspended most food-for-work rehabilitation projects in districts ravaged by the 2004 tsunami. WFP has urged “the Government and the LTTE to guarantee unimpeded access by WFP and other humanitarian organizations to the displaced people”. This has also been urged by other UN agencies and INGOs.

The UN statement also said that the organization “has almost no funds to meet even the most basic requirements of the IDPs. The most urgent need is food, with the World Food Program reporting that they do not have the additional in-country stocks for this latest influx. Other priority areas include shelter, water and sanitation.” John Holmes stressed the need for more international assistance. At present the aid community is assisting nearly 600,000 displaced persons in Sri Lanka – those displaced by the previous conflict and the 2004 tsunami disaster, including those forced to flee in recent months. He said: “The needs of persons internally displaced by the conflict are especially acute. While I welcome the contributions made thus far – by Italy, Sweden, and the United States, as well as Australia, Canada, ECHO (European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office) and Switzerland and the pledges of others – they represent only a fraction of the funds needed to help the people in a timely fashion”. Ironically, the same concern for the plight of the civilians affected by the internal conflict is not seen from the warring parties, especially the Government which is obliged to help its own distressed citizens.

Amnesty International is also concerned over abductions from IDP camps in Batticaloa. Purna Sen, Asia Pacific Director Amnesty International said, “We are hearing reports of armed men, wearing the uniforms of Karuna faction roaming around the camps and even distributing relief goods. This group appears to operate throughout Batticaloa town with the complicity of the Sri Lankan authorities”. Amnesty said: “The people who have been forced to flee the fighting are in an extremely vulnerable position. They have left behind their livelihoods and their homes; they may not know the area and are likely to be very scared. The Government has a responsibility to ensure the camps are safe and civilian in nature … it is unacceptable for men with guns to be wandering around as if they are in control.” Addressing the weekly defence news briefing March 14, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella – Government defense spokesman said “investigations had been launched into complaints of the involvement of the Karuna faction in activities other than political work in Batticaloa.” This is the usual response of the Sri Lankan Government to the concerns raised by foreign governments and international organizations. Its effectiveness can only be judged from the results of promised actions.

The lethargic ways committees and commissions appointed by the Government operate in Sri Lanka are well known, particularly when its own people are alleged to be the offenders. The investigation of the murder last August of 17 aid workers employed by the French charity group Action Against Hunger (ACF) is a case in point. It expressed concern on March 14 that the CID did not follow the correct legal procedure. The ACF statement said: “All evidence must be investigated and made available to the Court in a legal and secure manner in order to identify the culprits. ACF complies with the Sri Lankan law process and hopes the CID will also follow legal procedures or Court orders during its investigation. ACF is still strongly committed to discover the truth, seven months after the unprecedented massacre of the 17 ACF aid workers.” The statement also said the organization urged the Sri Lankan authorities, the CID and Australian observers to conduct a ballistic examination as rapidly as possible, as ordered by the Magistrate on December 6 last year. “This ballistic examination is crucial to find a credible lead to those responsible for the massacre of our 17 colleagues at Mutur,” it said. No direct testimony was heard by the Court concerning the killings, because of the lack of any legal mechanism in Sri Lanka to protect witnesses. Since this has been the case lately in many inquiries, other concerned organizations too have called for concrete measures to remedy this shortcoming.

According to government sources the first phase of the Vakarai resettlement programme is over. 11,542 IDPs (3361 families) from 22 villages have already been resettled. Although some returnees were happy to get back to their native places, they were sad to find their homes damaged and/or empty as everything including pots and pans had been looted. Human Rights Watch (HRW) complained, Sri Lankan authorities were using threats and intimidation to force the war-displaced civilians to return home. Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW said, “The Sri Lankan government says it will never force civilians to return home after they have been displaced by fighting, but there is clear and incontrovertible evidence that forced returns have begun, right under the noses of international observers”.

Simon Gardner in his March 19 Reuters report filed from Vakarai has said: “Their houses have been hit by artillery fire, their belongings looted and drinking water supplies contaminated, but the greatest menace facing Sri Lanka’s resettled war refugees are landmines and unexploded bombs. In this former Tamil Tiger stronghold, troops estimate the rebels laid around 6,000 mines to slow an army offensive to evict them. Lieutenant Colonel Chandana Weerakoon, who heads the brigade overseeing the resettlement of Vakarai, is reported to have said: “We have found about 2,000 mines and are expecting another 3,000-4,000 mines in the area”. Sri Lanka was on its way to clearing an estimated one million landmines laid before the 2002 ceasefire. But before the completion of this painstaking task, fresh minefields have been laid in the conflict areas. Hundreds of thousands of mines laid earlier are still in the ground.

Daily Mirror March 22 reported – “With the government allegedly failing to adhere to an assurance given that it would not forcibly resettle civilians displaced by the recent hostilities in the east, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has pulled out from the resettlement process in Batticaloa and Trincomalee”. UNHCR has issued a circular to humanitarian agencies operating in the East informing them, the pullout is to ensure that legitimacy is not given to the government moves (forced return) but that it stands prepared to assist the displaced if the need arises once they are resettled in former conflict ridden areas. It said: “Any return to places of origin in accordance with the guiding principles of internal displacement should be voluntary, in safety and with dignity. UNHCR and other agencies have not yet done in-depth assessments in Vakarai. This is linked to sustainability and safety of return.”

D. B. S. Jeyaraj in his March 20 article (TamilWeek) Batticaloa Becoming a District of Displaced Tamils has exposed the callous ways the Sri Lankan Government is dealing with the current humanitarian problem in the East, where the victims are mainly the minority Tamils. Instead of focusing on the real issues caused by the massive displacement of civilians, efforts are made to downplay the crisis. DBS has scrupulously pointed out the devious attempt by the authorities in Colombo to minimize the actual IDPs figures. He has given the two sets of contrasting figures in his article highlighting the wide variation. He has also made another valid charge against the present government. To quote: “The treatment meted out to Tamil civilians contrasts sharply from how Sinhala civilian IDP’s were treated in Trincomalee. There are blatant double standards. The Tamil people of Batticaloa are regarded as children of a lesser God?”

Hindustan Times reported on March 19 that a group of anti-war and human rights activists in Sri Lanka has alleged that the government is using the on-going military operations against the LTTE in the East to lessen the number of Tamil-speaking people vis-à-vis the Sinhalese there. Addressing the media under the auspices of the multi-party Anti-War Front (AWF), the veteran leftist leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara warned that the move to bring about demographic changes in the East would be “disastrous” as it would take the ethnic conflict to a “dangerous terrain” and further internationalise it. He also recalled that the Tamil-Sinhala problem began in the early decades of Sri Lanka’s independence because the governments then implemented schemes to colonize the predominantly Tamil-speaking East with Sinhalese from outside.

[Kiran Grounds Welfare camp – Photo Humanity Ashore]

The photos of refugees in Kiran taken by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai portray their real physical and mental state. These can be seen in the TamilWeek March 18-24 under the Photo Essay title – “Kiran IDPs fear for their safety”. There are 134 families-591 persons sheltering in Kiran Grounds Welfare camp. Most of the refugees here are from Vakarai and Kathiraveli, some of them have fled Sampoor last year and had lived in Vakarai until forced to flee again. Refugees have been living in the welfare camp for more than two months and want to return to their homes, but fear for their safety. Women in the welfare camps sell their jewelleries to meet their urgent expenses.

The position of the Tamils now in Sri Lanka is like the drum that gets hammered on both sides. The hammering on one side is by the LTTE and on the other it is the security forces. Apparently, there are other groups exploiting the chaotic situation to take revenge or gain some tangible benefit. The civilians in the Eastern province, where the fighting has been intense since April last year are the worst affected victims.

Abductions in Colombo

Traders in the Old Moor street, Quarry road, Sea street, Armour street and other business areas in Petah, Gintupitiya and Kotahena closed their shops on March 17 in protest against the government’s failure to stop armed gangs extorting money from them. The traders had told the reporters that armed gangs had walked into their shops in broad daylight and extorted hundreds of thousands of rupees at gun point to which police was turning a blind eye. More than 30 traders had received threatening calls during the previous week demanding huge sums as extortion to evade abduction. Reports about an unknown group traveling in the notorious “White Van” to abduct selected persons in Colombo have appeared frequently with no sign of any effort to trace the daring culprits. Allegations have been made by independent observers that the illegal operations are being carried out with the backing of the authorities and in some cases with the direct involvement of present and past members of the security forces. The Inspector General of the Sri Lanka police, Victor Perera, told the media on March 13, that 433 persons, including a number of policemen and security forces personnel, had been arrested since September last year in the filed cases of alleged abduction. But going by the past experience, since the escalation of the armed conflict there has been little success in prosecuting the real culprits. The continuing unlawful operations which the authorities are unable or unwilling to stop are shocking given the country’s cultural heritage and government’s often declared commitment to uphold and observe human rights, law and order and sanctity of the island nation.

It is not only the traders who are targeted by the abductors, innocent professionals and other civilians including visiting expatriate Sri Lankan Tamils have also been abducted since early last year. Ransom is not the motive in all cases. For example the abduction of Prof. S. Raveendranath, Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University of Sri Lanka on December 15, 2006 when he was attending the annual session of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science was not for money. His whereabouts still remains unknown. The mutilated bodies of some victims went missing were later found in faraway places but many remain in the missing list. Regarding the abduction of the VC, the Association for the Advancement of Science observed: “This reads more like something that could happen to a mafia boss, rather than to a respected professor, the head of an academic institution peacefully attending a research conference. Yet, what this shows is that scientists, scholars and educators are not free from harassment and even violent death (as in the cases of Neelan Tiruchelvam and Rajani Thiranagama), at the hands of terrorist and criminal elements that rule the roost in Sri Lanka today. .. Many politicians appear to be in the pay of these underworld elements or at least owe their positions to them. What defence do we as scientists have against these criminals?”

University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) UTHR(Jaffna), Sri Lanka in the Briefing No.6 of 22nd January 2007 titled “The Human Rights and Humanitarian Fallout from the Sri Lankan Government’s Eastern Agenda and the LTTE’s Obduracy” stated: “On 15th December 2006, Prof. Raveendranath disappeared in a very high security area of Colombo after a scientific conference. Who could believe the Government and the Police, when they say they haven’t a clue? Witnesses present that day in the high security Bullers Rd. area, which contains the BMICH, state television and many high profile institutions and residences, said the place was bristling with security personnel. The best opinion we have is that whoever abducted Raveendranath would have had in their company someone with authorisation to get past security checks instantly. The series of murders by state actors also represents a condition of burgeoning anarchy. The President has delegated powers to disparate actors and their actions are not all in his interests”.

The briefing also refers to the hidden agenda of the Rajapaksa Government to influence the Eastern province electorate. “The President promised that only the people of the East would decide their future. The East has been legally and administratively severed from the North. But it seems that the game goes much deeper and the people of the East are the ones who have least to do with what is being done to them in their name…. It appears the present agenda of the Government is centred on holding elections to an Eastern Provincial Council to install Karuna by hook or crook. Some argue that this is the Chechnyan solution!”

It noted further – “What is being played out in Sri Lanka’s East today was begun by the State in 1984. A large number of Tamil villages in North Trincomalee District were cleansed, and remain deserted to this day, as were villages in South Mullaitivu, and strategic Sinhalese settlements were established to service military camps. Further moves were halted by the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. The Agenda lay buried within the State machinery, but no Government since then was rash enough to recommence it fearing repercussions in relations with India, until the present one”.

“Sri Lanka has entered a time warp carrying us back to former National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali’s statement in Parliament of the Government’s programme of settling Sinhalese ruffians in the North-East on the eve of the planned ethnic violence of July 1983. Athulathmudali spoke in effect, it has been said that Tamils lived in the North and the Sinhalese in the South, but in future Tamils will live among the Sinhalese and no place would be peculiarly Tamil. Despite all the obloquy heaped on that Government for July 1983 it went ahead with killings and displacement of Tamils to establish the Sinhalese settlement of Weli Oya on the border of Trincomalee and Mullaitivu districts. Global realities forced Athulathmudali to throw his plans into the dustbin. 20 years later we have a new clique of ideologically blinded bigots who learnt nothing from this country’s tragic history, to put into operation plans fished out of the dustbin”.

Concerted campaigns by civil society groups to halt the abductions and disappearances of civilians in Colombo have had no impact. The Civil Monitoring Committee announced recently that it had received about 100 complaints from the family members of missing persons. Most of them were from Tamils residing in Colombo. According to a member of the Committee, the government has failed miserably to provide security for the citizens and lawlessness prevails in the country. The vulnerable people are living in fear mainly because of the malfunctioning of the law enforcement and crime prevention system even in the high security zones. The problem also exists in the so-called ‘un-cleared’ areas mainly because of forced conscription of Tamils by the two rival rebel Tiger groups in the North and East.

Present dilemma

Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda has pointedly said: “What has happened with the ethnic war in the past 25 years is that it had redefined ethnic relations, community relations, in an adversarial manner”. The Tamils are neither close to getting the promised Tamil Eelam nor the President’s ‘maximum devolution’. The merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces brought about by India’s initiative via the 1987 Agreement with Sri Lanka has now been overturned. The champions of Tamil Eelam must realize there is a noticeable decline since 1995 even in the opportunities for a dignified political settlement. The ethnic division is more conspicuous than before with the extremists in the South trying to influence national policies. They feel powerful now because of the international community’s silence. Earlier, continual aerial bombardments of areas close to civilian settlements in the North-East would have evoked strong protest by foreign governments. There is not even a whimper from any part of the world now. The cavalier way the Eelam struggle was waged has distanced many friendly nations, especially India. Damage to the unity of the Tamil speaking people has also been a consequence of rash actions.

According to the Minority Rights Group International (MRG) annual ‘State of the World’s Minorities’ report, which was released March 20 at the UN in New York, Sri Lanka jumped 47 places since the previous year and is now in the top-20 list of countries where minority communities are currently under threat. The report also said: “Minority Tamils and Muslims are not only caught up in fighting between the government and rebels but are specifically targeted for rights abuses, including abductions and disappearances because of their minority status”.

The Rajapaksa government is calling for support to its peace efforts from the international community. The sincerity of the peace efforts cannot be judged without knowing the kind of solution sought for the national problem. The international community had some idea at the time (June 2003) the donors pledged $4.5 billion for financing development projects and programmes. The disbursement was conditional on progress being made in the peace effort linked to the final settlement based on federalism.

The Oslo Statement was the key to the hope of realizing a negotiated political settlement. It is now in the archive along with other papers that gave false hope.

The present situation with blatant ceasefire and human rights violations, the victims being mostly innocent Tamil civilians is counterproductive to both the political and peace goals. Instead of creating a climate for reconciliation and mutual trust essential for political settlement within united country, it will sustain the division and mistrust in the multi-ethnic society. What the international community should urge both parties to the protracted conflict is to stop immediately the attacks and counter attacks and the law enforcement authorities to restore the rule of law especially in Colombo and the suburbs.

Continuation of the deadlock will only keep the people in the poverty trap. The war fought at great cost to the people has impoverished millions without the prospect of a better future for them. The humanitarian crisis that hit the unfortunate people has stirred the conscience of many leaders in foreign countries. But the local political leaders and extremists seem to be unmoved by the crisis. Their ego, chauvinism, political ambition and the opportunity to exploit the unstable conditions for political advantage (in some cases for personal gain) have made them unable to take a realistic view of the future of the people and the country which depends crucially on creating and sustaining the conditions for lasting peace and sustainable development beneficial to all communities.

Human Rights Monitoring Mission

At present there is a desperate effort by the Sinhalese nationalists to prevent any direct UN involvement, even for monitoring human rights in Sri Lanka. The move by some US legislators to send a special peace envoy to promote a peace process has also been dismissed by the SL Government as unnecessary. The reason is the concern that their direct involvement would make it difficult to continue the plan to take full control over the Eastern Province and impose a solution that ensures the center’s (Sinhalese) grip over the entire island. There is also the concern that UN involvement might lead to some permanent political arrangement contrary to their liking. The JVP is in the forefront campaigning against inviting international monitors and peace envoys.

James Ross, Senior Legal Advisor Human Rights Watch in the March 22 Daily Mirror has explained, “Why a United Nations monitoring mission will benefit Sri Lanka”. He was responding to the objection to “a proposal by European Union states, senior United Nations officials, and local and international human rights groups to establish an international human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka”. He has said what are obvious from an enlightened perspective. “A monitoring mission will make it harder for those who commit serious human rights abuses to deny responsibility. Perhaps most importantly, the presence of international monitors on the ground could deter some atrocities – of which Sri Lankans have endured too many for too long – from ever taking place.

While a monitoring mission under UN auspices cannot end all serious abuses in Sri Lanka, it can help reverse the deterioration in the human rights situation that now threaten Sri Lankans of all communities. What would an international human rights monitoring mission mean for Sri Lanka? To be effective, the mission would be mandated to investigate serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), government forces, and armed groups such as the Karuna faction; report publicly on its findings; and play a mediating role to help reduce local tensions”.

All these arguments make sense if the political leaders are really concerned about the human rights of all the people and the long-term implication of their sustained violations to the society as a whole. Perhaps James Ross is unaware the Sri Lankan government has not signed the treaty to ban landmines. There are two more important factors with regard to the present conflict in Sri Lanka. First, the Government capitalizing on the so-called ‘war against terrorism’ considers niceties like human rights are hindrances in the move to defeat terrorism in Sri Lanka. Second, the conflict is perceived by the Sinhala extremists as between permanent enemies and peace is possible only when the enemy is defeated totally by whatever means. This also explains why the human rights activists, who showed great concern over human rights violations during the JVP uprisings, are silent now!

The irony is both the warring parties claim – (i) they have not abandoned the February 2002 ceasefire agreement (CFA) while admitting that it remains only on paper; (ii) they are committed to peace and negotiated settlement; and (iii) they are fighting for the liberation of the same people from the tyranny of their enemy! The reality is the people are used as pawns in this war game. They are the ones who have been at the receiving end of the attacks and counter attacks incurring unbearable pain and unaffordable losses. In the short term, neither the Government nor the LTTE is on the losing side as long as there is no mutually agreed permanent settlement to the conflict. Their desired terms are miles apart. In the case of the State, it is non-federal with the centre controlling substantial powers (as desired by Sinhala ultra nationalists), while the LTTE wants more than a federal arrangement with the centre having minimal controlling powers as implied in their ISGA proposals. The strategy of the present government is to create a situation where there is no choice but accept its proposal for some adjustment within the existing structure. This is obviously incompatible with the peace goal desired by the realists. If the Sri Lankan government thinks it could force its political aim on the ethnic minorities by defeating the LTTE militarily, one can say with high confidence, the durable peace needed for rapid development of the country and the welfare of the people in all provinces will continue to remain a mirage.

The UTHR-J briefing note has also highlighted the dire consequences for the country, if the government proceeds with its present short-range biased agenda. To quote: “President Rajapaksa inherited a State that was fairly respectable in international eyes, quite restrained in its approach to LTTE provocations, thus making it look the main obstacle to peace, and a state credible enough for others to make deals with. All this is now in ruins and so rapid is the deterioration that one would soon hesitate to call Sri Lanka a democracy in any recognisable form. For the Government there seems no turning back and what we are seeing today is the reversal of the discourse of the last dozen of years, and a reassertion of utterly discredited Sinhalese hegemonic positions. How much room does it allow the minorities to call themselves honestly Sri Lankan and work for Sri Lanka’s interests?” Sri Lanka can ill afford to get isolated like some rogue states by the international community because of her critical dependency on foreign aid, investment and trade. The thinking of the JVP in this particular field is not different from that of the LTTE. The Tamil people are now in a quandary because of the latter’s self-reliant hawkish approach to gain power disregarding international norms and the need to maintain good connection with the international community.

Conclusion

Sir Ivor Jennings, the first Vice-Chancellor (1942-1955) of the University of Ceylon, Chairman of the Ceylon Social Services Commission (1944-1946) and a member of the Commission on the Ceylon Constitution (1948) later when he was the Master of Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge told a group of Ceylonese post-graduate students that the Commission was led to believe by D. S. Senanayake that unity was assured and there won’t be any problem in all the ethnic groups jointly governing independent Ceylon as one united country. The main interest of the leaders then was the transfer of powers to the natives, who impressed the constitutional experts that they were capable of managing justly the affairs of the State for the benefit of all citizens.

Thus, the unitary system in the first (1948 Soulbury) Constitution was based on the premise that there would be unity among the different ethnic communities and democracy will prevail with the majority acting with the consent of the minorities on matters that concern their interests and aspirations. Unity and the attendant common national interest and identity are indispensable for the smooth functioning of a unitary system acceptable to all in pluralistic societies. In the case of Sri Lanka, the true national interest has been lacking even among the powerful political parties led by Sinhalese politicians. Very often political interest of the parties or that of the Sinhalese electorate is considered as national interest. The idea that unity can be secured solely through unitary system in multi-ethnic multi-regional democratic countries is mistaken belief, as proved by Sri Lanka’s past experience since independence. An alternative system to unite the different communities, promote a common national identity and safeguard the territorial integrity of the island nation is needed as the unitary system has failed since 1948, despite having changed twice the country’s Constitution.

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Print this page