Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

North Belongs to Who?

by Indi Samarajiva, The Nation, Colombo, June 3, 2012

In Sri Lanka you can say that the North belongs to everybody, but then equal rights belong to everybody as well. So… need some work on that.

Property is almost guaranteed beef within any family. Sri Lanka is no different. Right now a few quotes seem to be driving the perennial debate, namely those from Def Sec Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (in a BBC interview) and ITAK party leader Sampanthan. Their issue? Who exactly does the North and East belong to?

Here’s Gota:

‘“Earlier before the war, all were Sinhalese,” Mr. Rajapaksa said. Just as “a lot of” Tamil officers worked in southern districts, Sinhalese and Muslims should be able to work in the North. “It is part of Sri Lanka.”

So were Tamils correct to view the North as a predominantly Tamil place?

“Why should be that? Why should be that?” Mr. Rajapaksa said. “If you are a Sri Lankan citizen you must be able to go and buy the properties from anywhere. I’m not talking about the forced settlements, I’m talking about the freedom for a Sri Lankan to live anywhere in this country.”’ (Beeb)

and here’s Sampanathan:

‘The position that the North and East of Sri Lanka are the areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking people cannot be compromised in this structure of government. We must have unrestricted authority to govern our own land, protect our own people, and develop our own economy, culture and tradition’. (via DBS Jeyaraj)

So, there we go. In GENERAL spirit I must say I’m with Gota, if not in tone. Sri Lanka belongs to Sri Lankans. Sampanathan, as is somewhat traditional for his party, reaches way too far and will likely end up with nothing. He’s careful to say ‘Tamil speaking’ people (including Muslims), but the rest of his speech is about a Tamil nation that the Muslims aren’t really a part of. Which makes the East a problem. By 2007 estimates, Tamils are a minority there at about 40%, outnumbered by Muslims and Sinhalese. In my travels there, Muslims and Tamils don’t especially get along.

Even in the North, other people need to be able to live there too. And what about Tamils in the South, or in Colombo? Again ITAK seems to be going away from a broad based, national civil rights platform and favoring a racial, territorial stance. Which A) doesn’t work and B) isn’t right. There’s no particular moral impetus to a Tamil homeland unless you’re Tamil (that wants to live there), but there’s a deep moral resonance to a Sri Lanka with equal rights to all, anywhere. It’s as if Martin Luther King campaigned for a permanent black homeland in, like, Alabama (unlikely, I know). You wouldn’t get a Barack Obama out of that.

Gotabhaya, of course, is no MLK. He has a reasonable point, but the tone and deeper worldview behind it is kinda… offensive. People in the North have felt threatened and are surrounded by military. They have harder times doing business or reclaiming property than, oftentimes, outsiders. They’re dealing with security forces and administration that often doesn’t speak their language.

I’ve heard about free legal clinics that get disrupted by thugs on motorbikes, slashing tires and threatening violence. And the cops harass the victims instead of the thugs. That’s not cool, it doesn’t make people feel secure about personal or property rights, and this is under Gotabhaya’s purview.

So, yeah, all of Sri Lanka for all Sri Lankans, but we all need equal rights, which currently we don’t have. Not for everybody, especially for people that aren’t Sinhala, aren’t connected and aren’t Rajapaksa, in that order. The ITAK is calling for a backwards, provincial view, but Gota’s view that ‘everything is fine, pipe down’ isn’t right either. Freedom means freedom for everybody, to quote Dick Cheney in a moment of inadvertent humanity. In Sri Lanka you can say that the North belongs to everybody, but then equal rights belong to everybody as well. So… need some work on that.