The Long Wait
How long more can the Tamils bear the pain of the oppression, violence, death and destruction that have shadowed them for many years? The trauma dates back to 1956 when SWRD Bandaranayke PM, shredded the B-C Pact to bits to mollify protesting Buddhist monks, and UNP leader JR Jayawardene’s band of thugs.
It is much worse now! Paradoxically, the Tamils rights have been diminished even more after independence, and a heap of Sinhala prejudice confronting them. Ethnic peace is a thing of the past. But for Tamils, lingering memories are of those who lost their lives sustaining the Tamil struggle in some way.
But there is a twist, as the Rajapaksas are using the Tamil struggle as a threat to the Sinhala nation to further their emerging dynastic ambitions. The Tamils can only look back nostalgically to an earlier time when they, with others, enjoyed a more sedate life, a predictable administration, and the rule of law.
Today, after 65 years, it is as if the Tamils are looking for the legendary philosopher’s stone, waiting for the benefits of independence to trickle down to them!
The War on Tamils
Memories tend to fade with time, so it’s useful to look back and see how the Tamils have suffered and try to understand if there are lessons in it for the future.
The terrible pogroms of 1958, 1961, 1974, 1977, 1979, 1981, and 1983 tell the story of the bloodshed and destruction the Tamils have suffered over the years. In the butchery of 1983 alone over 3,000 Tamils were massacred, 25,000 rendered homeless, 250,000 forced out of the country, and property damage a hefty $300 million. No reparations were made, and the political fortunes of the Tamils did not improve one bit.
The war ended in 2009 in a bloodbath. There were reportedly foreign powers involved in the supply of destructive firepower, defying international law. Some 40,000 Tamil civilians were massacred by the army, but a more recent UN estimate, based on resettlement of Tamils, has those killed or missing at a staggering 70,000, even 100,000. But for the Channel 4 expose, the massacre would have remained hidden.
The expose shocked people, nations, and HR organizations around the world and they cried out for action against Sri Lanka. In its aftermath, the UNHRC in 2012, on a US resolution, supported by India, directed Sri Lanka to account for the charges of war crimes and HR violations in the war, and implement its own LLRC recommendations on reconciliation with the Tamils, and report back in March 2013.
The end of the war brought a standing army of some 50,000 Sinhala soldiers to the North, making life a nightmare for the Tamils. Murders, abductions, extortions, rape and violence have become widespread. No one has doubts about who is committing these crimes, especially when nothing is being done to curb them.
Media freedom is a thing of the past in Sri Lanka. The Working Journalists’ Association of Sri Lanka say that since 2005, 34 journalists have been murdered, and every year 25 leave the country. In the latest attack on April 2013, an armed gang set fire to the machines and premises of Uthayan newspapers in the north.
United Nations Human Rights Council
At the March meeting of the UNHRC, Sri Lanka was roundly condemned for not doing anything to explain its conduct of the war, and the lack of any progress on reconciliation with the Tamils.
At its meeting in March 2013 the UNHRC reviewed what Sri Lanka had done, and members expressed growing international concern over Sri Lanka’s ongoing failure to address serious allegations of human rights violations that occurred in 2009. The Council also expressed concerns regarding threats to judicial independence and the rule of law, reports of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture, and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
The Chinese Puzzle
China established close ties with Sri Lanka as a supplier of weapons and by helping it in its war effort. Predictably this led to its present strong presence on the island to build a port facility for its use.
As an inducement, it has been extending easy credit to the islanders, a country looking for rapid economic development. Sri Lanka has been furiously borrowing from China to finance its economic development. In the process, China also constructed the Hambantota port to facilitate its oil imports from the ME.
As a result Sri Lanka’s per capita debt has soared to a massive Rs.300,000. But the Rajapaksas are on a spending spree, and continuing to dream up new project at every turn. Economists say the level of borrowing will become unsustainable before long, increasing China’s hold over the island nation.
But it raises an important question. Was it so hard to work with the Tamils to establish a vibrant economy, and build a strong nation for all the people, than play a subservient role to China, earn the wrath of the free nations of the world, strain the centuries-old ties with India, and face an uncertain future?
At the same time, the Sinhalese, as good Buddhists, are blind to the atrocities committed in Tibet under Chinese rule. But not even a squeak has come out of the Buddhists hierarchy or the government.
All this is very puzzling, how they can concede so much to foreign authoritarian superpowers, and do its bidding, but hold back for so long on settling with the Tamils.
The 13th Amendment
Provincial Councils were created at India’s insistence and the Indo-Lanka accord, and the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution. While it may have been conceived in the likeness of Indian states, it is but a pale imitation of that model. Unlike in India, in Sri Lanka, the President is the one who will, directly or indirectly, control the destiny of provinces through the Governor appointed by him.
The Amendment is 26 years old, but they are still trying to unravel it, visiting New Delhi endlessly! After the Supreme Court in 2006 declared the merger of the northern and eastern provinces illegal, there is really nothing in it for the Tamils. But it is on the negotiating table, so it’s necessary understand how it operates.
The Governor is also the executive head of the province, and public service. He appoints the Chief Minister, and on his advice, the other members of the Board of Ministers. Decisions of the Board of Ministers are presented to the Governor who, at his discretion, has the power to accept or reject them. In other words, the decisions of the Board of Ministers, the elected representatives of the people, mean nothing!
Funds are allocated by parliament, on the advice of the President. Also police and land powers are outside the purview of the provinces, but the President can direct them through the bodies that exercise them. In effect, it is the President who decides everything for the provinces, through his Governor.
All these years the Tamils governed their two provinces. But now it is disturbing to know that the Tamils are being sidelined. It is already happening in the Eastern province. After the recent elections control, for the first time, has passed to a Sinhala-Muslim combine. The real character of the province is being altered, and control is likely to pass to a Sinhala led group permanently. The implications for the future cannot be clearer.
It is apparent that “devolution of power” as envisaged by the 13th Amendment is a deception. It is a different kettle of fish for the Sinhala provinces, simply because they are Sinhalese. But for the Tamils, it means being ruled from the centre, with nothing decided by the elected representatives of the people!
The last straw was when President Rajapaksa in 2012 said he wanted to “make devolution more meaningful.” On Independence Day 2013 he finally told the world what he really meant. It was “… not practical for this country to have a different administration based on ethnicity.” The meaning was clear. What was good for the Sinhala provinces should be good enough for the Tamils.
But this is patently absurd, when the Tamils have been agitating all their lives as a different and distinct people, and their traditional homelands are the northern and eastern provinces.
The Way Forward
The 13th Amendment, touted as the panacea for the political ills of the country, does no such thing, as will be clear from a reading of the above.
The government never made an unambiguous commitment to pluralism, and the principle of self-determination as a prelude to talks, a serious drawback to negotiations. Without such an unequivocal undertaking there was no way for the Tamils to deal with an unyielding extremist government.
There is a feeling that comes from the realization that life springs from the death of the men and women who fought for a cause, others who fell by the wayside as victims, and brave students agitating against the inequity of a brutal regime bent on the oppression of its own people.
The rights of Tamils are not something doled out to them by another people, or regime. And it’s been a long time waiting with nothing to show. It’s time the Tamils recognized that they must look after their own economic development, welfare and security to survive as a free people in a corner of Sri Lanka.
They will call this space their own, a place to call home, where they can practice their religions, develop their culture, and economy; grow their families, and live their lives freely as their fancy dictates!
Is it not about time the international community looked at Sri Lanka more closely? Will they get the UN to do the same? What are the options open to them? How will they act?
A people are waiting!