Ethnic Cohesion – the need of the hour

(Excerpts from the speech delivered by S. Thavarajah, former Member of Parliament and APRC member at the ‘Oxford Union’ in London on 05.06.2009)

By S. Thavarajah

(June 11, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Chairman while introducing me said that I belonged to a party that gave up the armed struggle and joined the democratic mainstream after the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987. But he had failed to mention one important point; in that process the party I belonged to have paid a very high price. More than seventy of our party members, most of them senior members, were assassinated by the LTTE. In one instance they shot dead one of our important member while he was going with his five year old daughter in Puttalam and told that five year child to go and tell the mother that her father was shot dead. In such inhumane cruel manner the LTTE terrorism attacked our members for the only reason that we gave up militancy and join the democratic mainstream.

The leader of the party Minister Douglas Devananda has survived many attempts on his live by the LTTE. In one incident when he visited the Kalutura prison, in the southern suburb of Colombo, with the Deputy Attorney General in order to resolve the issues of the detainees, he was attacked by the LTTE inmates and in that incident he sustained major injuries and was almost dead. As a result he lost the vision of one eye and his survival is a miracle. In another incident his house in Colombo was attacked in a commando type operation in which four of his personal guards died and he survived by jumping over the parapet wall. In another attempt a female suicide bomber was sent to his ministry office. At the entrance to his office room when that suicide bomber refused to cooperate with the security personal she was taken to the nearest police station where she exploded the explosive device killing her and four police officials. In the last two incidents I too had a narrow escape because I was with Mr. Devananda when these attempts took place. This is the facet of terrorism we have witnessed.

This terrorist activity of the LTTE has today resulted in about 380,000 people living in IDP camps. The sufferings of these people are immense. More than twenty five thousand people, civilians as well as fighters on both sides are made disabled. Thousands of fighters on both sides have lost their lives. In addition to the recently displaced people, there are about 25,000 families in Jaffna still continued to be displaced. About 75, 000 people are living in 113 refugee camps in South India according to Indian official figures. About 75, 000 Muslims who were chased out from Jaffna and Mannar two decades ago are still living in refugee camps in Puuttlam; their population may be much more now.

On top of the immediate needs of those displaced recently, in the post terrorism period as the theme of the meeting today, there are lot more to be done to resettle these people, to rebuild the infrastructure, to develop the war torn areas and to provide means of livelihood such as farm equipments, fishing gears and so on. Above all there is an important thing to be done – that is ethnic reconciliation or ethnic cohesion. I am going to focus my speech on ethnic cohesion, without which all other efforts on post terrorism period will become futile one day.

Yesterday (04.06.09) I attended a consultation meeting at the Sri Lankan embassy in London, chaired by Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama. Half of the participants in that meeting were Sinhalese and the balance half Tamils. During the course of the speech, when reference was made to the ‘victory of the army’ I could notice almost all the Sinhalese clapped their hands, but I didn’t see any Tamils clapping their hands. This is in spite most of those Tamil participants, whom I know, are not supportive of LTTE. We cannot ignore this fact if we are really interested in bringing ethnic cohesion amongst Sri Lankan communities. Day by day this division, between Sinhalese and Tamils is widening and is getting polarised. This ethnic division is not only in Sri Lanka, but also it is omnipresent wherever Sri Lankans live in large numbers. To reconcile this ethnic division, we must understand the cause for it.

Some say that in Sothern Sri Lanka, particularly in Colombo and suburbs, Tamils are living in large numbers equally as that of Sinhalese. There is no problem for them; they live as any other Sinhalese live. My answer to that is you must get into the hearts and minds of those Tamils and ask the question whether they feel they are equally treated; whether they feel they are not discriminated. Their answer would be definitely no.

Another view is that the LTTE terrorism was the cause for everything and that now the LTTE is wiped out from Sri Lankan soil, there is no problem. Terrorism is a recent phenomenon. It was originally militancy that started in the 1970s. But subsequently LTTE emerged as a terrorist organization adopting the characteristics of terrorism. Prior to 1970 not a single shot was fired from the Tamil side for political reason. But the Tamil leaders, from the time of independence have continued to agitate against the indiscriminative acts and in equal treatment of Tamils. They have shown their resent through democratic means, through parliamentary democracy as well as other democratic means. Anybody who wants to know what the grievances of the Tamil people are, please refer to the Bandaranyake- Chelvanayakam pact and Dudley – Chelvanayakam pact which is available on internet, I do not want to spend my time on those details. The fact to be reckoned here is that Bandaranayake (speaker pointing the finger to the large portrait of Bandaranayake hanging on the wall of ‘Oxford Union’) entered into a pact with Chelvanayakam is itself acceptance of the fact there are issues to be resolved. Although it was not implemented, the fact remains that the grievances of the Tamils are identified and recognised through this agreement. It is the same with Dudley Senanayake and Chelvanayakakam pact.

These are grievances identified prior to 1970. But lot more have got added since 1970. For example, the introduction of ethnic quota system for the University admission in 1970, I too was a victim of this standardisation. The standardisation ignited the youths into violence, which subsequently evolved into militancy.

The militancy produced certain results. The Indo-Lanka accord and the subsequent amendments to the constitution addressed to those grievances extensively, although not fully. If you look at the Banda- Chelva pact it was agreed to devolve powers to regions on certain subjects. The subjects enlisted in the provincial list of the 13th amendment are greater than the subjects identified in the Banda-Chelva pact. On language issue the 13th amendment and the 16th amendment to the constitution, which was enacted one year after the 13th amendment in December 1988, extensively deals with the language issue as agreed in the Banda-Chelva pact. The 16th amendment specifically deals with the language of administration and records; as the language of administration and records of all the provinces other than the North and East shall be Sinhalese and in the North and East it shall be Tamil. Then you may ask if the Tamil grievances are resolved to some extent, what more?

But unfortunately, these are only constitutional provisions; these constitutional provisions remain to be implemented in full on ground. For example I will take the same constitutional amendment, the 16th amendment, to show how discriminately it is implemented. There is a provision in the 16th amendment that the President shall direct that in any assistant government area divisions where there is substantial number of other communities living, the President shall declare those AGA divisions as bi-lingual divisions. This is to facilitate the Sinhalese living in North and East to deal with government offices in those areas in Sinhalese and similarly for Tamils living in South to deal with government institutions in Tamil.

Accordingly, to date, 29 AGA divisions have been declared as bi-lingual divisions from time to time. Some of them are in the North and East mainly in East and most of them, more than 20, are in the South. However when it comes to implementation , in all those AGA divisions that are declared bilingual in the North and East the Sinhalese can engage with Government offices in Sinhala, but in the South in non of those AGA divisions that are declared bilingual, the Tamils can transact their business in Tamil with the Government offices. You could see from this example as to how the same constitutional provision is implemented discriminately. Here, the discrimination emanates not from the provisions of the law, but from the way it is implemented.

This is only an example. I can go on citing more examples as to the non-implementation of the constitutional provisions, particularly with regard to the devolution of powers as provided for in the 13th amendment; the time is my limitation. What is to be noted here is we can talk about political solutions or about bringing constitutional amendments, but without the will to implement them we will end up in square one. Unless we resolutely address these issues, we would not be able to bring ethnic cohesion. The need of the hour is the will to act resolutely to implement the provisions of the constitution, particularly the 13th and the 16th amendments in its entirety and then to proceed to bring in more amendments to address to the remaining issues.
-Sri Lanka Guardian