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Rajapakses and Tamils – Promises and Performances

by Luxman Arvind

(October 01, Colombo,. Sri Lanka Guardian) President Mahinda Rajapakse addressing the United  Nations General Assembly in New York City on September 19 made many happy when he declared for the whole world to hear “no nation on earth can wish Sri Lankan Tamils more fortune than Sri Lanka itself” In the Island, in the world and in the diaspora opinion will be divided on this but  the President deserves to be given  the benefit of the doubt.  There is much for the people of Jaffna – and the now bifurcated Eastern Province  - to feel happier now than when the LTTE held them prisoners and in their Pol Potist grip. The sense of relief of the Jaffna man is eloquently recorded by a recent visiting journalist from New York Ross Tuttle.  He tells of an ordinary man in the street who captures his relief from his captive society thus -   “at least now we have the freedom to travel by by bus to a hospital in Colombo” So the Tamils of the North were reduced by their own “liberators” to a level where going to a Hospital of one’s own volution was considered a luxury.
 
A few comparisons of recent happenings in the Peninsula will be of interest. If we use an hackneyed Hollywood cliché,  the subject may be viewed from three angles – the good, the bad and the ugly.
 
On the good side, there is much now to apportion to the happy part of the discussion.  Basil Rajapakse, arguably, the 3rd most powerful of the quartet of brothers, chaired a meeting of the Jaffna Development Council recently  that saw in attendance every relevant representative from many disciplines – political (Govt. and Opposition)   The ubiquitous SLA and Police, key administrative officials among others were all predictablyd there - in their finery .  For the first time the TNA was represented by influential MPs – Suresh Premachandran, M.A. Sumanthiran,PC  and  Saravanabhavan. . Senion leader R. Sampanthan was conspicuous by his absence - reported to be convalescing in Chennai.  Basil, the President’s brother, had shown keen interest in agricultural performance.  In response to complaints from farmer interests engaged in the cultivation of Onions, Chillies and Paddy,  he had assured them their representations will be attended to on a basis of priority.  When representatives of the fishing industry had complained their supply to the markets at home and to South Sri Lanka are lower than they can deliver as a result of shortage of nets, freezing facilities, Ice factories and the like Mr. Rajapakse had pointed out similar complaints are heard from the South as well. He had, nonetheless, assured the NEP fishermen his support – all of which seems to have been well received at the Tamil side.
 
The news that Northern Province Governor G. A. Chandrasiri is to hand over the Vasavilan Central College on behalf of the government to the school with nearly 1,300 students said to be in the HSZ certainly will be welcomed. It was reported this will be done in the presence of Provincial Education Director P. Vignaswaran
Just as encouraging was the news SLA Jaffna Commander is arranging for IDPs from Vadamaratchi East held in Radhunavil and Kudaththanai Camps will be settled in their own villages in Iyankachchi, Mullaivaadakkal and Radunavil. The first stage of re-settlement will be in chompianpattu North and South, Madurenkerni, Vaththarayan, Uduththurai and.Pazhiyvalai.  It was further announced they will be allowed to engage in their traditional avocation of fishing in their areas.
 
Colonel P.A. Dayananda announced those new and other cars, vans, lorries, motor-bicycles seized from the Tamil population in the Wanni during the conflict will now be released in stages in army camps in Pudumathalan, Mullaitivu, Pudukudiruppu areas. This is yet another matter that caused deep anguish in Tamil minds because many owners of these vehicles – some having invested their lives savings in buying these – still believe they have been robbed of them..
 
There were wide reports of many of these having been illegally cannibalized and sold to brokers in the Anuradhapura area  - in connivance with sources within the army and the Police  Spare-parts traders coming from Colombo, Kurunegala and other parts of the island were reported to be doing rollicking business in these spare-parts. Many of these vehicles have been illegally transferred on fraudulent documents.
 
The TNA is in record of having declared earlier “if the government wants to usher in a period of active cooperation in re-constructing and developing the Tamil areas of the North-East they will not find us wanting”  They appear to be redeeming their pledge they are now in participating – sitting in the same Conferences with their bitter political opponents like Douglas Devananda, Karuna and others.   And so was the signal from the government when the TNA Parliamentary delegation visited Delhi in July our High Commissioner Prasad Kariyawasam had entertained them at Dinner there using the occasion for a free flow of exchange of views.  This meeting could not have taken place without clearance from the highest levels in Colombo.  If KP’s NERDO activities too provide development, badly needed facilities and employment no Tamil will object to this. 
 
Of particular interest to the Tamil people will be the declaration by Military Intelligence Chief General Kapila Hendawatta that ”all LTTE under-graduates in custody have  been released”  It will be good if  the TNA confirm or deny this seminal development.
 
The visit to Jaffna and the presentation of a large number of books to the Jaffna Library by the Most. Venerable Thibbotuwawe Sri Sumangala, the Mahanayaka of the Malwatta Chapter  - the first visit in memory in recent times – bears its own significance in the warming of relations between the two major communities.
 
That he was received with solemnity and reverence by the people of Jaffna should be noted in particular.  I feel personally happy about this visit because for sometime I have written a visit from the most influential and powerful of the Buddhist clerical hierarchy will send a message of peace and unity to the Tamil people.
 
The 17th months since the defeat of the LTTE appears to have significantly boosted the country’s tourist potential. Already last year’s figures of  229,000.
 
Tourist arrivals have been surpassed reaching 342,000 till end of July – an impressive 48% increase. New markets have expressed interest to come into the former war-torn Sri Lankan market.  Industry sources predict the target for 2012 set around a million tourists is likely to be realized. The Indian market alone can provide well over a quarter million annually – keen to see Jaffna, Trinco and Batticoloa areas news of which have filled their media for years.  In gearing for this the industry and the Tourist ministry are expanding star accommodation and “products” – meaning the different sites. This will now include various points in the North Eastern Province closed to tourists in the past few decades due to the hostilities. Jet Wing – one of the major tour operators and hotel-owning Group - has announced new construction in Jaffna, Uppuveli and Kuchchaveli immediately.  This will be extended  to other areas in the foreseeable future say Jet Wing sources.  Aitken, Spence, John Keels and the Galle Face Hotel Groups have sent in their own scouts to the Jaffna District to increase tourist-accomodation capacity in the near future.
 
The disappointments that were reported in the building and opening of the modern Swimming Pool in the premises of Jaffna Central College for use of the people of the District appears to have reached a new state of good fortune. The news around is that the completed pool will be available for use in the next few weeks,
which certainly will win over a large reservoir of  youth support in general for the government.
 
The growing Garment-export industry – the largest foreign-exchange earner in the country -  also lends much needed support to the government’s efforts to raise the income and living standards of the  people of the NEP.  This is also expected to create a large number of jobs for the youth and the graduate-unemployed in the area.
 
Nestles of Switzerland,a respected global Corporate leader, has already invested in a high-value Milk Chilling Plant in Kilinochchi and are encouraging Cattle farming in the District.  Mr Basil Rajapakse in his visit last week paid particular attention to the matter of cattle farming and said it has come to his notice due to the war most  goats and cows have left from the care of their original owners and have now gone astray. He asked officials concerned to pay special attention to help people in the area get back to large-scale cattle-farming. Of no less importance is the Poultry industry, which the State should encourage the people in the NEP to get into in a substantial way to ease the current shortage of eggs and chicken meat.
 
The housing boom is gradually beginning to take hold and will not only increase the badly needed housing stock in the Province but also create multiple thousands of jobs and business opportunities for the people of the area.  In addition to the 500 young persons now said to be under training at the Police Training School
further recruitment is also report to be in the pipe-line. USAID is committed to train about 50,000 new hands in several disciplines to meet the growing demand in the post-conflict period. It is believed this process is now under way. The commissioning of the KKS Cement Factory at KKS, Paranthan Chemical Plant, the Paper factory at Valaichenai and the Ilmenite industry at Pulmoodai should, all combined, bring good news to the long suffering population of the NEP.
 
The larger than usual crowd that assembled for the Nallur Kandasamy Temple Festival this year – including multiple thousands from the diaspora – gives an indication many in the diaspora will be more than happy to participate in the re-awakening of the Jaffna economy and society – a far cry from the Separate State image many in the Sinhala South are regularly fed with. American Ross Tuttle’s careful observations in this regard bear much relevance here - “most Tamils were never part of the armed conflict” This outsider’s studied observation gives the lie to the mischievous claim of a noted anti-Tamil lawyer, pseudo-historian, political somersaulter and writer - who does not fail to remind his Sinhala supremacist audience whenever he gets half a chance “all tigers are Tamils and, therefore, it follows all Tamils are tigers”
 
To create a climate of confidence and hope for the future it will be useful if the government arranges to keep the public informed of progress in these commercial activities through media communiqués in all 3 languages. This is also likely to attract investment once news of post-conflict development reaches the ears of the overseas markets.
 
In spite of all these impressive gains the people of the North-East still live in a state of uncertainty and fear. Abductions, extortions – unfortunately reported to be by sources closely aligned to the government - continue to be committed with impunity. Political patronage at the highest levels by government politicians from the Jaffna region is obtained by colluding them with huge State contracts through inflated price mechanisms. No better effective insurance against censure from the top for the many contradictions that continue to enrage the Jaffna public.  Police protection to the people and the administration of justice still is far from ideal. Compared to the rest of the country it is the people in the NEP who suffered most and fear the draconian features of the Emergency Regulations. It is no secret almost every single country in regular contact with GoSL call for the repealing of the ER -  as an essential feature of the process of reconciliation.  President Rajapakse, fully aware of this assured the UN General Assembly “substantial part of the Emergency Regulations have been removed”  and he plans to repeal “a good part” of the remaining “in the coming months”  Dr. Rajiv Wijesinghe, now MP – and a member of the think-tank close to the regime - assured the Royal Commonwealth Society in London early this month,  the same thing using the same terminology “a substantial part of the ER” will be phased out. It will be noted both were fairly clear the entire gamut of the despised Emergency Regulations – that has bedeviled ordinary Sri Lankans for long sending many of them to prison for trivial reasons of a political nature (Journalist Tissanayagam being one example) - will not be done away with in the near future. One of the saddest cases of the  barbarity of the Emergency Regulations is that of the case mentioned by Deputy Minister Hisbullah, repeated in Parliament by TNA’s Sumanthiran,  of a 13 year old in his area taken in as a LTTE suspect14 years ago. The man is now nearing 30 and has been in prison more than half his life. Sadly, he does not know why he was taken in and is equally unaware what his fate is going to be. To any caring State,  one would feel even the HR rights of a single humble individual should matter – and the party given the benefit of  natural justice. This also gives room to enquire about the status of those authorized eminent members of society as Prison Visitors – yet another protective instrument of the citizen to ensure people are not unlawfully detained by quirks of the process of administration  Was this also done away with?
 
While the people of Jaffna are clamouring for a better quality of life the Cabinet of Ministers recently approved a brand new prison for the region – at a cost of Rs.292 million is a kind of irony of fate Tamil people seem to be subject to.
 
The gradual increase of Sinhala settlers, families of soldiers to whom permanent houses are constructed, proliferation of Buddhist Viharas continue to add to the fears and the woes of the majority Tamil people in their areas.  Hindu temples robbed by outsiders of their gold statues, precious artifacts is a common occurrence that continues unabated.  In what is feared to be a process of forced Sinhalisation name changes of  roads are taking place in ….. regularity.  Okkallapaduwa is a name the majority in the area unable to pronounce on the way to a new Vihara in the Keerimalai road.
 
Re-settlement of IDPs to their original homes and the fate of Tamils held in the post-May 2009 period continues to be a serious and recurring problem.
 
TNA MP  Sumanthiran in Parliament states government admits 11,000 surrendees arrested were taken into custody but is unable to provide details of where they are held or if they are alive – in spite of relentless searches by the immediate families. Sumanthiran continued 80,000 were taken in without Detention Orders – a safeguard to protect citizens from arbitrary arrest enshrined in the Constitutionn important element in the rights of a citizen. These D/Os are expected to be manually signed by Police officers above the rank of ASPs but in almost all cases pre-signed D/Os are presented by Police Constables where thousands were taken in and never heard of again.  The case of surrendee Elilan, a prominent member of the militants came up before the LLRC and his wife complained her husband was never heard of again and that the State refuses to confirm if he is dead or alive.  Sumanthiran complained to Parliament Leave Applications to the Supreme Court to file HR causes can be disposed of in a day or two.  But in many cases it is, said Sumanthiran, it is now the norm for these urgent matters to engage delays of several months.  In the September address in the Royal Commonwealth Society meeting Rajiv Wijesinghe, Government MP now confirms 250,000 of 280,000 IDPs taken in have already been released. Both Sumanthiran and Wijesinghe give different figures for the same issue.Only one of the two can be right..
 
Sources close to the government agree the regime feels a change of the 300,000 + Tamil diaspora is a high priority and have asked Tamil friends  to come out with ideas. KP and Daya Master coming over to the government side has been a major victory. However, with the government rewarding senior and retiring SLA plums of office in the more prominent embassies this can hardly win the diaspora to the government side.  Many of these senior SLA men have been invariably linked to HR and War crimes against relatives of those in the diaspora. Naturally, they would rather not be seen dead next to these army officers. However, there is no denying the fact President Rajapakse has to do many thngs to win the Tamils over to his side – if the donor and international community are to be convinced of he government’s sincerity.
 
President Rajapakse in his address at the UNGA recognizing global criticism of various forms of discrimination against the Tamil community sought to appease the world by declaring “the greatest challenge to us is healing of wounds of the recent past” and assured his initiative to appoint the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission is to “give full expressions to the principles of accountability” While the objective appears laudable,  the modus appears to be flawed.  While the point that broke the camel’s back, as it were, was the massive pogrom of July 1983 the terms of reference of the LLRC avoiding this seminal event tends to remove whatever credibility that was expected in the government’s initiative. It is also well known even that Commission that went into the 1983 events under former CJ S. Sharvananda many of the awards then made never found the hands of those who suffered.  In the matter of the highest award of Rs.750,000 in respect of a successful millionaire who lost over Rs.30 million the interest recommened even to this paltry sum was not paid. Even a sum of Rs.5 million that REPPIA was asked to consider even this was sabotaged by various dilatory tactics of the State Bank concerned – who insisted on asking the party concerned to provide assets guarantee worth thrice the sum.  This was not possible because that former millionaire found all his assets destroyed and stolen in 7/83. Eventually, after much canvassing political VIPs the State Bank asked him to come out with an acceptable Gurantor. The party was able to locate a successful relative who had filed details of assets worth Rs.90 million. The distress loan was refused – this time on the grounds the Guarantor was “old”.
 
He was 56. It is believed the party told a government official “you do not find many teenagers building up assets over Rs.90 million these days” So that is the justice Tamils are likely to engage even in the future – unless there is a sea change of attitudes on the part of GoSL under the Rajapakses.
 
It is not that the Rajapakses do not understand the fear of the Tamils and the feelings of the ordinary Sinhala masses – now under the heavy weight of an unbearable Cost of Living factor.  If sources close to Temple Trees are to be believed it appears the regime, taking the example of Deng Chiao Peng of China, is bent on
strengthening the economy. President Rajapakse attempted to impress the USA with “we have doubled our Per Capita in a short period”  This is not denied but a Per Capita increases loses its meaning when the actual rate of inflation is as high as it is in today’s Sri Lanka where people are unable to even provide 1 square meal to their families in the day.  If the CoL factor is brought down to the level of two years ago todays higher Per Capita will make many Lankans happy.
 
The Rajapakses have much work to do before they can rest on the laurels of their War Victory. Uniting the country, ushering in peace, winning over the Tamils and the diaspora and taking Sri Lanka to a Per Capital of more than US$8,000 is well within their reach. President Rajapakse must take advantage of his new armoury- the 18th Amendment – to bring the Tamil people in the NEP to the national fold. It is not everyone out there in the world is critical of him. The much respect Wall Street Journal had this to say  “one of  Sri Lanka’s achievements was preserving the democratic rule throughout 26years of bloody conflict” While WSJ may not be perfectly right in its assessment that many features of democracy are wobbling along is something to sing about – it can be argued looking at what is happening in Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh in the region.
 
President Rajapakse probably dreamed of a 2/3rd majority of going down in history as the man who united the Sinhalese and the Tamils after 60 years of estrangenement; of having secured the confidence of Tamils they are now part of a united land; and of being truly a President for all the people in the country.
It is upto him to change the opinionof what the respected “Economist” from London – a non-partisan observer –  recently remarked “ he has put the consolidation of his power ahead of a sorely needed national reconciliation with an aggrieved Tamil minority is a decision Sri Lanka will regret at leisure”

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