Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Rebellions, Leaders and Our Future

by Jeevan Thiagarajah, Sunday Leader, December 29, 2007

There has been universal outrage at Benazir's assassination. Outrage in equal measure should accompany for every person who suffered losses due to war.

As the Anglican Bishop of Colombo ventured to state on July 23 this year,  "war can never be right. The responsibility of democratic leadership then, is to work earnestly and urgently to end war and achieve a just and stable socio-economic order through nonviolent, negotiated means."

"If we can initiate negotiations on our own, then we must do so immediately. If we cannot we must ask for help clearly and purposefully. To claim to know the path ahead and watch the country plunge into a precipice without turning for help is perhaps the most serious breach of democratic trust."

Twenty four years back this writer lost part of his faith in the Ceylon of his forefathers and the Sri Lanka of present when the infamous July '83 broke our back as a nation.

This piece was prompted first when listening to listener comments on the radio on 26th morning while the station counted down to 9.20 am. It came on the back of numerous pieces of writing on the tsunami and the pros and cons of what has transpired since 2004.

The Transparency International (TISL) write up threw challenges while the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) piece catalogued facts and figures. There are, though, larger issues which loom large, one of which is the impact of manmade and natural disasters in a large swath of land in the north and east, vividly captured in this presentation downloaded by Groundviews from a UK publication.

At the Development Forum in January of 2007, in an address to the President and attendees the cumulative impact of the disasters referred earlier was stressed as:

 Close upon three decades of civil strife, regional disparities in economic dividends for growth and peace with the impact of the tsunami of 2004, has left the country with deficits in the realm of human security.

 A deficit which has resulted in conflict affected regions becoming isolated from the development framework, the yearning for a return to normalcy to manage expectations from peace and a need to target specific socioeconomic measures for safe land, housing, essential services, development of skills, employment, credit and financing. 

  The government, donors and humanitarian agencies alike have to question whether they have done enough to ease the plight of those who are affected. People surviving from the conflict have been living in substandard temporary shelters in the north and east.

In temporary shelters

To this day there are those who survived the tsunami who have been living in temporary shelters since the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. Some day, we may have to admit our failure to provide adequately the most vital of things to the tsunami affected population, just as we did to those affected by the conflict almost 20 years ago. The overall  impact was what was illustrated in the mention of listener views. Likewise TISL was seeking answers.

Adding to our woes is the graphic presentation from published public media reports of killings, abductions and injury to civilians during the period February-December 2007,  a result of derogation from peace and return to war. 

Each of the reports carries a toll on families and surviving members. War crimes loom incessantly at the perpetrators. It should be understood in the context of the year.

In an address at the European Parliament committee sittings on Sri Lanka, the toll was described as:

'War derogates human rights and our country has not been immune. The Ceasefire Agreement was said to have frozen war. It has melted now, garrisoning in places people with terrifying consequences. A focus on human rights must have a focus on human lives.

'Accompanying losses to life, forced displacement, involuntary disappearances, reports of abductions, hostage taking for ransom, conscription, fear of attacks which disrupt day to day life and stringent measures adopted to secure cities and urban life run counter to civil liberties of sections of our populace, which in turn accentuates existing cleavages amongst  stakeholders and  communities.'

The return to war and enhanced security measures lead to many causes for unhappiness. One such narrative comes from a recent journey to Jaffna which had special reason too evidently given suspicion regarding two passengers who had travelled on the first flight.

Journey to Jaffna

It was a bumpy ride to Jaffna and back, which took almost 10 hours to get to Jaffna. We decided to take the 11.00 a.m flight. If we were to take the morning flight (6.45 a.m) we have to be at the airline office by 3.45 a.m. A return ticket is Rs 18,000.

In our case we were to be there by 6.45 a.m for the 11 a.m flight.  We were taken to the airport only at 9.30 a.m. Till then, all the passengers were asked to stand outside the office without any shelter or chairs for the travellers. All the passengers are made to stand outside the pavement in front of the office of the airline irrespective of  age. We witnessed three children who were sleeping on their travelling bag as they had to get up early in the morning.

Once we reached the Ratmalana Airport, we were asked to collect our luggage from the lorry and stand in the empty space in the hot sun without any shelter or chairs for three hours outside the luggage checking area by the forces.

Some of us were very tired; so we decided to sit under the Bo-tree only to get shouted at by the airforce personnel.  Here too all the travellers have to go through the ordeal of standing or sitting on the ground for three hours till all the luggage is checked and sent back to the bus. Some had their breakfast while waiting.

On that particular day we noticed that many travellers were very old persons and some had young children from two years to eight years.

Security measures set down could be justified given the country's situation. But the measures taken to provide better facilities for the travelers is not sufficient at all.

Over in Jaffna clearly the events and the day to day experiences of the population is anything but terrifying. There is what one would characterise an assault on the dignity and decency of every day life.

Violent death

Taking a leaf from the region the shock of the violent death of the youngest and first woman prime minister of a Muslim country Benazir Bhutto brought up many issues. She had been preceded in the region by Rajiv Gandhi with whom she had a good relationship as leaders.

Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh escaped death though a novel method of hurling grenades from rooftops was used. Sri Lanka has seen a president, two important political aspirants to the leadership of a party and scores of other leaders dying at the hands of suicide bombers.  JRJ had to roll off a grenade which found its way onto a table while Lalith Athulathmudali was not so lucky, all in parliament!

While it is easy to label all such assassins as creations or carriers of extremism, it is vital to appreciate how ordinary folk become human bombs. Iraq has seen a surfeit and Pakistan too, as have many of our neighbours and a few more around the world. What are the terrible acts of omission or commission which have driven people to such terrifying violence and resultant losses and destruction?

An unfortunate facet of the working life of this writer has been observations of many of the leaders of South Asia including Benazir. On the last occasion she was the personal guest of Anura Bandaranaike on his completion of 20 years in politics/parliament.

She was groomed from head to toe for public life and office with an unfortunate legacy of tragedies in her family, besmirched further by allegations of mal governance.  An observation in many instances of tragedies and the march of folly of leaders and loss of trust in politics with extremely sad legacies of innumerable losses to lives and destruction to countries.

Universal outrage

There has been universal outrage at Benazir's assassination. Outrage in equal measure should accompany for every person who suffered losses due to war.

As the Anglican Bishop of Colombo ventured to state on July 23 this year,  "war can never be right. The responsibility of democratic leadership then, is to work earnestly and urgently to end war and achieve a just and stable socio-economic order through nonviolent, negotiated means."

"If we can initiate negotiations on our own, then we must do so immediately. If we cannot we must ask for help clearly and purposefully. To claim to know the path ahead and watch the country plunge into a precipice without turning for help is perhaps the most serious breach of democratic trust."

Twenty four years back this writer lost part of his faith in the Ceylon of his forefathers and the Sri Lanka of present when the infamous July '83 broke our back as a nation.

All round us there is a crisis in the confidence on democratic trust. Our leaders here and in the region would imagine laws or tactics or time would blow such ill winds away. It seems not. One is reminded of the steps on a hillock in the capital city in South Africa where Nelson Mandela had stood tall in taking the salute of the armed forces on the inauguration of office of the government following apartheid.

He stood as the president of all South Africans including blacks, afrikanaars and all other citizens of the country. It is an example which many leaders find hard to emulate with the resultant legacies of the tragedies which we witness in our country, our neighbours and in many troubled situations in other continents.