[full speech at end courtesy Colombo Telegraph, June 13, 2016]
by Laksiri Fernando
( June 17, 2016, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) The leader of the TNA, R. Sampanthan, has moved an important motion in Parliament (10 June 2016), on behalf of the Tamil people in the North and the East. Perhaps as he has moved the motion as the Leader of the Opposition, there is much substance and less rhetoric, both in the motion and the speech that he has delivered. I am not saying that the motion or the speech is completely devoid of ‘political rhetoric.’ But the issues that he has highlighted and the facts and information that he has supplied should draw the attention of not only the government, but also the general public at large who are concerned about the unity and reconciliation in the country. Reconciliation along with ‘justice and equality’ are the key notions that he has also highlighted.
The main issues that Mr Sampanthan has highlighted are fivefold: (1) still remaining large areas of land occupied by the military without handing them over to the original owners, (2) apparent discrimination against the local Tamil youth in recruitment to government jobs, (3) delays in the fulfilment of housing and livelihood requirements of the displaced people, (4) the absence of finality in respect of the missing persons inquiries, and (5) the non-release or delays in processing those who are still in custody under the prevention of terrorism act (PTA).
This article does not intend to address all the issues that Mr Sampanthan has highlighted, but focus on the first three issues outlined above given the competence of the author, and also considering a reasonable length to this article.
Problem 1: Land Issue
Sampanthan has narrated three examples where lands have been acquired but not presently used by the military. First example is in Valikamam, and as he narrates “I went to Valikamam area at the request of some people of that area. I went around. There are large extents of lands in which there are houses which have been damaged, where after several years much jungle has grown, lands on which people lived, lands on which people farmed, which are not being used by anybody, not even being used by the military. But the people cannot return to their homes, the people cannot return to their lands.”
He has validly asked the question: Why not?
Then he relates the case of Ottahapulam area and its people. It is of course slightly different to the scenario in Valikamam. The displaced people are scattered and come from different areas. But the essence of the problem is the same. As he says, “They come to that church [in Ottahapulam] from different parts of Jaffna and after mass they returned to wherever they are now having been displaced, some are in camps. Their houses are unoccupied. Their lands are not being used.”
Again, his question is: why cannot these people return to their lands and houses?
Then he relates his much controversial ‘invasion’ into a military camp in Kilinochchi!
“When I was in Kilinochchi some time ago I went to a place called, ‘Paravipanjan.’People came and complained to me, ‘Sir, our houses are being occupied by the military. Not even they are using it though they are keeping it in their possession. We are unable to go back to our houses. Please come and have a look.’ I went there and looked around. Houses are locked up. No one is using them. Not even the military is using them. The houses are not being used by the people.”
He correctly says: “This cannot go on.”
A Possible Solution
It is possible that most or some of these lands are very close to the military camps proper. I am also not defending the way Mr Sampanthan entered the said military area of Paravipanjan or the way it was defended by M. A. Sumanthiran claiming that they were ‘private lands’! That approach was simply irresponsible or non-cooperative. However, there is a serious land issue affecting the ordinary people and apparently the poor. Land should be primarily with the tillers. This is a universally accepted principle.
It is obvious that during the civil war, the lands were haphazardly taken over for military purposes. It is like locating a major military armoury at Salawa (Athurugiriya) in a civilian area in the South. Now the situation has changed. It may not be possible to completely remove the military camps in the North or the East. However, those can be and should be reduced and limited.
It is also possible to relocate the necessary military camps to state owned lands, releasing the private lands to the original owners. This should not be delayed. In the meanwhile, it would be a good gesture on the part of the military to allow the original owners to come and occupy the land and houses even in their vicinity as an immediate solution. I have myself seen military and civilian areas co-existing in Jaffna even at the height of the war. The reasonable time frame for the relocation could be two years, immediately commenced.
On the other hand, the TNA or the civilians should not consider the necessary and limited military presence in the North with hostility. What has to be eliminated or changed is the overbearing presence of the military.
Problem 2: Youth Unemployment
Sambanthan has also highlighted the plight of the youth without employment. This is a recipe for political extremism in any part of the country, if not terrorism. What he has revealed, whether it is true to that extent or not, is a complicated political matter. He has said that ‘in giving government jobs, the Tamil youth have always been disregarded and discriminated.’ This is particularly true during the war or even before. What is happening now? He has questioned. His prognosis is the following which should be taken into account and investigated as a human rights issue. The National Human Rights Commission should have the mandate to do so.
“All the Government jobs in the North and the East are being filled on the basis of political influence. There are Ministers in Colombo who give jobs to their constituents in the North and the East. The Ministers from the North and the East give jobs only to their supporters. Muslim Ministers give jobs to their supporters. Tamil Ministers may give some jobs, not as many as others, to their supporters. Sinhalese Ministers send their people to the North and the East. Tamil youth, qualified youth deserving a job, are not given jobs. Even the vacancies of labourers in the North and East are being filled by other people.”
This discrimination or neglect has to stop. However, it is not very clear what exactly Sampanthan is proposing. His expressed ideas borders on intensions of partaking in the same type of political depravity that the other politicians/ministers are indulged in. He has mentioned that during the JR Jayewardene presidency, 1,000 Job Bank forms were given to every Member of Parliament and youth were selected for government jobs on that basis. It is obviously not the task of the politicians to distribute jobs.
Youth unemployment is a perennial problem in the country prevalent in other provinces as well. However, apparent ethnic/political discrimination in recruiting young to government employment cannot be tolerated both in terms of reconciliation and even otherwise, as a major human rights issue. To rectify past injustices, as suggested by Mr Sampanthan, affirmative action needs to be undertaken; however the exact form of such action needs to be carefully worked out.
Establishment of Job Banks (not distribution of forms to MPs!) in every province with effective branches in districts and local government areas might be the mechanisms through which both processing of applications, assessing of available job opportunities and finally the reconciliation of the demand and supply of jobs could be implemented. Given the technological advances in data processing today, these tasks could be undertaken most precisely. However, the service of the Job Banks should not be limited to the government sector. Major areas of job creation both in the North or any part of the country could be in the private sector, entrepreneurship, self-employment and small businesses.
Along with the processing of available jobs, there could be training and retraining in technical and other skills. As it has been already pointed out by others, the role or the responsibility of the provincial councils, particularly the NPC in this context, should not be neglected or underestimated.
Problem 3: Housing Issues
Sampanthan has also highlighted the housing problem as one of the longstanding issues. During the Rajapaksa regime, the attitude had been negative claiming there was no money. It was Mr Sampanthan and his colleagues that apparently had convinced the Indian government to donate 50,000 houses. “Now the Government is doing something,” he says. He is referring to the newly launched project of 65,000 steel houses. However he has emphasized that “They must be given permanent housing in keeping with their civilization, their conventions, their traditions, and livelihood.” This can be a criticism of the ‘steel houses.’
According the Ministry of Rehabilitation, the remaining case load could be in the range of 75,000 or more.
A Possible Solution
Apart from the military occupation of land, Sampanthan has also expressed misgivings about the ‘military engagement in economic activities causing immense harm and deprivation to the local civilian population.’ However, he has not dismissed the security concerns in the North, or demanded a total military withdrawal from the North or the East. While the economic activities of the military – intrusive of the civilian opportunities in engaging in them – should be stopped forthwith, it might be opportune to explore the possibilities of building the remaining required houses by the military, if it is agreeable to the TNA, the NPC and the civilians.
As what the military has done in repairing the houses aftermath of the Salawa (Athurigiriya) explosions, it is obvious that they have the capacity to do so. This would also be a good opportunity to build rapprochement and goodwill between the military and the civilians in the North.
There are several other issues that Mr Sampanthan has highlighted. Among them is the need for a ‘comprehensive strategic plan’ to address the questions of rehabilitation, resettlement and reinstatement of livelihoods, if we take the other political/legal issues (missing persons and release of detainees) separately. What is required are not name boards. Even during the past regime, there were ‘Uthuru Wasanthaya’ (Northern Spring) and ‘Nagenahira Udanaya’ (Eastern Awakening). Not only the priorities were misplaced and the funds were misused, but also there was no consultation with the people or the people’s representatives.
Consultation is particularly important in the context of proposed initiatives in having a donor conference in Japan to utilize funding for reconstruction of the North and the East and other affected parts of the country. Consultations with the people’s representatives from the North and the East should commence from day one.
Mr. Speaker, I move the following Adjournment Motion:
“Seven years have elapsed since the end of the armed conflict in the country.
Several hundred thousands of Tamils and others were displaced from their original places of residence in the North and the East during the period of the said armed conflict.
Unambiguous assurances were given by His Excellency the President and others that displaced people would be resettled in their original places. This was stated to be the definite policy of the new Government.
Large numbers of those persons are still prevented from returning to their original homes and to their lands and resuming their livelihood activities/ occupation, primarily due to the fact that the military continues to occupy their lands or due to the fact that though the land is not used, the military has not released the land.
Although some steps have been taken to hand over some parts of the said lands to the original owners, large swathes of land are still occupied by the military, which prevents the owners of those lands from being resettled in their own places, and putting the said lands to productive use.
In addition to the land already under occupation by the military, more lands have been requisitioned by the military, the surveying of which has led to agitations by the people against Government surveyors and other officials.
Assurances were also given last year that most of the prisoners held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act would be released.
However, apart from around 50 persons released on bail, others continue to languish in prisons under law that the Government has promised to repeal. These prisoners complain that other prisoners similarly held have been released in the past and that there is discrimination against them.
There is no structured programme of action taken to address the urgent and essential needs of the affected people to enable these people to rebuild their lives by providing them with housing and livelihood support. The engagement by the military in economic activities causes immense harm and deprivation to the local civilian population.
Serous prejudice has been caused to people indulging in their own livelihood activity by various extraneous factors, as in the case of Mullaitivu and Trincomalee where fishermen from other districts are permitted to engage in unlawful fishing activity.
There is an urgent need for satisfactory finality in regard to the issue of missing persons.
In the case of Government jobs, persons from other districts are given appointments to all positions even to posts such as labourers, when several thousands of locals remain unemployed. Appointments to Government positions are done purely on the basis of political influence and Tamil youth as in the past continue to be ignored and discriminated against.
There are several actions by the State and its Agencies and others with political influence, pertaining to civilian administration, land, to places of religious worship, to cultural places, to development activities and in other areas of importance to the affected Tamil people, harmful to genuine reconciliation and the future well-being of these people in territories which they have historically inhabited;
It is urged:
(i) That all lands possessed or held by the military in the North and the East be immediately returned to the civilians, entitled to same.
(ii) That a structured programme be implemented urgently to enable the displaced and affected people to meaningfully rebuild and recommence their lives;
(iii) That immediate action be taken to reverse, rectify and redress the several actions that have adverse political, economic, social and cultural consequences to the Tamil people and thereby impedes genuine and meaningful reconciliation, and the evolution of permanent peace in the country on the basis of justice and equality.”
That, Sir, is my Adjournment Motion. I do not propose to go into details in regard to the various matters that I have mentioned in my Motion. I will make some general observations. My Colleagues who will follow me will place before the House more detailed information in support of the Motion.
We are, Sir, at an important juncture in the history of this country. Reconciliation amongst the different peoples in the country is the prime need of the country. Reconciliation has become a fundamental need after a long period of injustice and inequality followed by a violent conflict which lasted for more than three decades. A change in Government occurred in January, 2015. This change was further strengthened by the formation of a National Government in August, 2015 by the two main Parties. The President is from one party and the Prime Minister is from the other party. The Members of the Cabinet are from both parties. Structurally, the change in Government was the first major step towards reconciliation. All the people in this country contributed towards this achievement
The most affected people, the people most affected by injustice, inequality and violent conflict, the Tamil people of the North and the East, not merely made a very substantial and significant contribution towards the achievement of this change, but did so with certain definite expectations. They expected justice, equality, restoration of their lives and contentment. They expected conditions to be created for genuine reconciliation. But seven years after the conflict came to an end, seventeen months after a new President was elected, nine months after a new Government was elected, they remain a discontented people. In that context, reconciliation in the proper sense is not yet visible.
This is not to say that the Government has done nothing, or that the Government has not done anything, but I do think that much more could have been done in the time that has lapsed to bring about a change to have a favourable impact on the lives of people. I am prepared to accept that the new Government’s approach and attitude towards the affected Tamil people is very different from that of the former Government, but it is the Government’s actions that have an impact on the lives of the people and it is in the field of action that we see inadequate performance on the part of the Government.
One cannot understand Sir, why lands cannot be released to the people. I met with the President; I met with the Prime Minister. They are all agreeable to lands being released. I want to just refer to a few instances where I have personally observed certain things. I went to Valikamam area at the request of some people of that area. I went around. There are large extents of lands in which there are houses which have been damaged, where after several years much jungle has grown, lands on which people lived, lands on which people farmed, which are not being used by anybody, not even being used by the military. But the people cannot return to their homes, the people cannot return to their lands. Why not? Why should these lands be kept barren, unused, when there are people who own those lands, who can go and live on those lands and put those lands to productive use.
(மாண்புமிகு சபாநாயகர் அவர்கள்)
(The Hon. Speaker)
Hon. Leader of the Opposition, you wanted more time. So, you were allowed 15 minutes.
ගරු රාජවරෝදියම් සම්පන්දන් මහතා
(மாண்புமிகு இராஜவரோதியம் சம்பந்தன்)
(The Hon. Rajavarothiam Sampanthan)
I have got 15 minutes, Sir. But, I will take more time if necessary.
(மாண்புமிகு சபாநாயகர் அவர்கள்)
(The Hon. Speaker)
It is okay.
ගරු රාජවරෝදියම් සම්පන්දන් මහතා
(மாண்புமிகு இராஜவரோதியம் சம்பந்தன்)
(The Hon. Rajavarothiam Sampanthan)
I went to a place called, Ottahapulam in Jaffna. A large number of Catholic people live in that area. I went there on a Sunday. There was a mass going on in the church. I met the fathers and the nuns and the brothers who were there. I met the people who were there. People live in different parts of Jaffna, on every Sunday morning, they come to the church for mass. That is their village and they like to see mass in their village. They come to that church from different parts of Jaffna and after mass they returned to wherever they are now having been displaced, some are in camps. Their houses are unoccupied. Their lands are not being used. Why cannot these people return to their lands? Why cannot these people return to their houses? Why cannot these lands be restored? When I was in Kilinochchi some time ago I went to a place called, “Paravipanjan”. People came and complained to me, “Sir, our houses are being occupied by the military. Not even they are using it though they are keeping it in their possession. We are unable to go back to our houses. Please come and have a look.” I went there and looked around. Houses are locked up. No one is using them. Not even the military is using them. The houses are not being used by the people. This cannot go on.
We read from the media that His Excellency the President is due to go to Jaffna very shortly in the course of the next few days or weeks. We have also read from the media that His Excellency the President has been having conferences and meetings with both civilians and military officials in regard to the release of lands in the North. I think it is incumbent on the part of His Excellency the President, given his attitude and approach to this whole question, even his commitment to the process of reconciliation, goodwill and harmony among people, that he must take decisions that will result in a very substantial part, if not the entirety of the lands belonging to the civilian population being returned to these people.
I went to Myliddy. People complained to me that they are unable to carry on their occupation there. There is a fisheries harbour there. People want to carry on their occupation. These are industrious people. They are not lazy people. They have never lived on a Government’s dole. They are people who lived through their labour. They are hardworking people. Why are you frustrating them? I think the time has come for the Government to take a decision in regard to this matter.
Housing is another big problem. We should discuss things, resolve things regarding the matter of housing. My Friends who will speak after me will go into further details. We must start housing. People must be given houses. When President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President I went around the Vanni, to about 30 villages, with some of my Colleagues and I gave President Rajapaksa a report in regard to the situation prevailing in the Vanni and requested housing. His response was, “Where am I to go for money? I have no money to build houses.” When I was in India, I and my Colleagues, discussed the matter with the Indian Prime Minister and there are 50,000 houses given by the Indian Government to the people of the North. Now the Government is doing something. But, it must be done. They must be given proper housing. They must be given housing which will last for at least one or two generations, two or three generations. They must be given permanent housing in keeping with their civilization, their conventions, their traditions, and livelihood. What have you done in the matter of livelihood? Have you given the farmers their agricultural equipment? Have you given the fishermen their fishing equipment? Have you given the people who live on livestock development livestock to be able to carry on their activities?
Have you started small industries? Agriculture, farming, fishing, these are the occupations of our people. What is being done in these areas? Everything is ad hoc. Nothing is properly coordinated. There is no proper plan for the restoration of the livelihood of these people. We cannot allow this situation to be continued.
In giving Government jobs, Tamil youth were always disregarded, Tamil youth were discriminated against for a long period of time. What is happening now? All the Government jobs in the North and the East are being filled on the basis of political influence. There are Ministers in Colombo who give jobs to their constituents in the North and the East. The Ministers from the North and the East give jobs only to their supporters. Muslim Ministers give jobs to their supporters. Tamil Ministers may give some jobs, not as many as others, to their supporters. Sinhalese Ministers send their people to the North and the East. Tamil youth, qualified youth deserving a job, are not given jobs. Even the vacancies of labourers in the North and East are being filled by other people. This cannot go on, Sir. Political influence cannot be the reason for the denial and deprivation of Tamil youth of jobs. I want to mention something. We have eighteen Tamil Members of Parliament from the North and the East in the present Parliament. Of these eighteen Tamil Members of Parliament from the North and East in the present Parliament sixteen are from the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi, the Tamil National Alliance.
Sixteen out of eighteen Tamil Members of Parliament from the North and the East are from the ITAK or the TNA. We command more than 85 per cent of the Tamil representation of the North and East in this House. Can they be ignored? Is this democracy? Is that equality?
I remember, Sir, during the time of the late President J.R. Jayewardene, he distributed 1,000 job bank forms to every Member of Parliament. We all got 1,000 job bank forms. I remember jobs were given in various areas through various Members of Parliament. They were given jobs in the same way and we chose them on the basis of merit, on the basis of qualification and on the basis of acceptability. I am not asking that we be given jobs but, I am asking that our youth be given jobs. It is criminal to deprive Tamil youth of employment in this country. True, we are not a part of the Government. We could have been a part of the Government. But, we and our people are committed not to being a part of the Government until there are democratic and equitable arrangements in the Constitution in regard to the governance of this country. We want to bring about a political solution; we want to bring about constitutional changes that will ensure that democracy and equity prevail. That is why we are not in Government. But, does the fact that we are not in Government mean that you can deny, deprive our youth of their just entitlement to employment?
I think, Sir, there is a duty on the part of the Government. I would have much wished that the Hon. Prime Minister was here. Very unfortunately, at this late hour – lunchtime – he is not here. There must be an affirmative action programme to redress and address this issue of discrimination in employment. I would call upon the Government to kindly place before this House the number of the Tamil youth in the North and the East who have been given jobs after you came into power. I would also call upon you to place before this House figures in respect of the number of Sinhalese youth and Muslim youth who have got jobs in this county after you came into power. Then, the injustice will become apparent and when it becomes apparent, there must be an affirmative action programme in terms of which you will provide sufficient jobs to the Tamil youth who have not been given jobs.
Sir, in bringing forward this Motion, it is not my intention to confront this Government. But it is certainly my intention to raise these issues in such a way that the Government will give its mind to these issues and resolve them. You do not consult us as the Members of Parliament of the North and the East in regard to any matter.
Now, I see from the media that you have great plans for development of the North and the East, that foreign funding is being sought. In fact, there is a possibility of a conference being held in Japan very soon where you will receive funds for the development of the North and the East. These funds are being given by foreign donors, foreign agencies and foreign countries to benefit the affected people. They want the lives of the affected people to be restructured in such a way that they will be able to commence normal lives. That is why this funding is being made available. Is it not obligatory on your part to engage in a process of consultation with democratically elected representatives of these people? Is that not your bounden duty?
But, that is not happening; I am not saying that it will not happen. As I said before, we are conscious of the fact that your Government has a new attitude, a new approach but, you are going by default. In your mind, you are having a different attitude and a different approach. What you have in your mind, what you have in your thinking is not translated into action on the ground that has an impact on the lives of people that brings about a change in the lives of people.
Sir, I would like the Government to take note of these matters. My Colleagues, the Hon. Members of Parliament from the North and the East who will speak after me, will refer to many of these issues particularly on land, jobs and prisoners. I have discussed it with the President; I have discussed it with the Prime Minister. They are very favourable to the prisoners being released.
Maybe, some of them cannot be released and that is something that we all can understand. But, thus far, despite numerous efforts on our part, despite the prisoners staging various demonstrations and fast and so on and so forth, about 50 persons have been released on bail but yet another 150 people continue to languish in jail and these prisoners want to know why they are being treated differently. There have been JVP insurgents who have been pardoned and sent home. There have been LTTE cadres who have been pardoned by the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government even have been rehabilitated and sent home. Why cannot those prisoners be released?
I want to know, Sir, whether there are some obstacles in the way of the Government functioning. We know that certain people are talking in terms of national security and they think that anything done for the Tamil people will have an adverse impact on national security. National security cannot be secured in that way. National security can only be secured if there is justice, equality and equal treatment of our people.
Even the release of lands, there is a feeling amongst some sections of thinking society that the Government is not acting on account of this imaginary, exaggerated, fabricated fears on the part of some people that if lands are released to the owners of those lands who are Tamil people, national security would be affected. On the contrary, if these lands are released, those lands will be put to productive use and there will be much greater production in this country than at present and the Government has stated that they will release those lands. So, on the question of lands, on the question of prisoners, on the question of jobs, I want to impress upon the Government that there is no room for delay.
There must be action on the question of missing persons. In fact, in an Adjournment Debate some weeks ago, I raised the question of missing persons and I believe that the Government is taking some action now. Many of these matters have been referred to in the Resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council. You are expected to make your views to the Council which is recommencing its next Session, sometime next week. On the 29th of this month, the High Commissioner for Human Rights will make its oral report to the UN Human Rights Council in regard to the current situation. Early next year, there will a sitting where there will be a written report. So, I think, these questions need to be addressed. These are not questions which can be delayed any longer. Restoration of justice and equality in the lives of the Tamil people in the North and the East and the commencement of a genuine programme of action towards reconciliation can no longer be delayed. Some of these things that I have mentioned can be done immediately, can be done very early.
I would submit that the Government should not be deterred in taking action in regard to some of these matters by some of the imaginary, fabricated and exaggerated fears that are expressed by people with jaundiced thinking, the thinking that is communal in nature, not intended to achieve unity in this country, but to preserve disunity in this country for their own political reasons and for their own political advantage. The Government, which has been returned to power on the basis of genuine reconciliation, on the basis of inclusivity, on the basis that all people will be treated equally through a new Constitution, will ensure that powers of the governance are so structured to ensure equality. If that happened, probably, many of the things that I am complaining about, would be addressed under that new structure of government. Therefore, Sir, this cannot continue. I would earnestly appeal to the Government to take stock of the situation; kindly consult us; we are prepared to be involved with you in the matter of reconciliation, in the matter of ensuring that the lives of our people are restructured, but please do not delay. Delay is not going to do any good to anyone of us.
Thank you, Sir.