Has the Sinhala-Tamil parting of ways shifted to over-drive?

by I. S. Senguttuvan

(January 24, Colombo, Sri lanka Guardian) President Mahinda Rajapakse – like all leaders in history - naturally wishes to go down as one of the great Sinhala political leaders in contemporary times – if not the greatest. He has gained the single most credible of credentials. Fom the Sinhala perspective that is – that eclipses all other. He ensured the decimation of the much dreaded Prabakaran and his LTTE. Something which seniors like J.R. Jayawardena, R. Premadasa and Chandrika Kumaratunga could not do. A divisive and prolonged theatre of conflict based mostly on language initially was allowed to snowball into a a far complex territorial dispute as well by leaders of different political persuasions ruling from Colombo. Under ordinary circumstances Rajapakse victory should have meant the country regaining her long lost way to proceed towards racial tranquility and unity marching hand in hand with the minorities. But that appears to be a long way ahead – if at all, will puzzle many unfamiliar with the divisive political realities of this troubled land and people. In fact, many political analysts seem to share the thought the country remains more divided under President Rajapakse today than ever before.

Has President Rajapakse missed a historic opportunity to usher in unity when he had everything going for him appears to be the most talked of issue in circles that matter in the country, stake-holder India and the now much-feared Tamil diaspora. The many friends of Sri Lanka are perplexed why the Rajapakse regime does not present to the Sinhala Southern Electorate the Tamil issue as an opportunity. That it choses to present it more as a threat may have short term gains but looked from the long run, like the ill-conceived Sinhala Only and Language issue of 1956, this will have disastrous affects in the coming years. Arguing in favour that the chasm has widened particularly in the Tamil-dominated Jaffna District in the North is the most recent advise by the Police “that the people of Jaffna will have to take care of themselves” – meaning their own security, in a fastly deteriorating Law and Order environment. Sri Lankan Tamils will remember the late President J.R. Jayawardena who said the same thing, albeit in different words, sarcastically a few weeks before the raciasl tornado of July 1983 was let loose upon them. . While the government continues to be in denial Ranil Wickramasinghe, Leader of the Opposition – in the floor of Parliament stated "people in Jaffna are living in fear with many afraid to leave their homes". He asked the Speaker to assemble as a matter of urgebcty a Parliamentary All Party Delegation to visit Jaffna – a reasonable request that remains ignored to this day. Prime Minister Jayaratne- widely held as no more than a simpleton – responding says everything in Jaffna is well and insists the negative publicity is the work of anti-government forces.

Tamils, of coursd, this senior Parliamentarian who mocked the wives of those abducted a few years ago with the callous comment "they have all gone abroad. Somne taking their mistresses with them" Vijitha Herath, a senior leader of the JVP, repeats the fears of the Tamils and says the government has “failed our Tamil brethren” and called upon the government to release details of the place held or else the fate of 8,000 former LTTE cadres taken by the army in and after May 2009.One of the finest voices of the current Parliament Lawyer and TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran summed up in the eloquence and careful language that he is identified with, when he described “the law and order machinery in the Jaffna District has collapsed” Unsurprisingly, Douglas Devananda - the regime's trigger-man in the North taking into account the hardening Tamil mood apparently decided to play ball with the Tamils as he joined the charges against the government of the deep concerns of the Jaffna man. Devananda declared this in Parliament adding his own caveat "I do not wish to say anymore as this will enbarrass the government" The Jaffna District is seething with the unwelcome presence of almost a third of the entire army and Police in the tens of thousands in an equation, arguably, said to be a uniformed man to every third Tamil local citizen. That the enemy who attracted this unusual gathering of the forces referred to as "an occupational force" for well over a quarter century was done away with almost two years ago is hardly mentioned by the regime’s spokesmen or apologists. Instead an imaginary bogey of “the Tamil diaspora” is invoked day in and out to keep the Sinhala psyche in the South in a state both of fear and growing hatred – a handsome political gain during times of an entire caravan of elections that dotted the Sinhala South in recent times. . A further series of elections of local Councils are due any moment now. Tamils are unlikely to entertain the thought either the President or senior members of his government are likely to speak on behalf of their good or increased allocations of resources to them in the coming months of electioneering. In the post May 2009 period, the Rajapakses have dubiously converted electoral tussles in the country to a Sinhala Vs Tamil issue. Predicably, they have won every election since reducing the once vibrant Opposition to poor also-rans. The Sinhala electors easily fell prey to the sweet smell of nationalism and triunphalism - with hardly a whimper. Except for a few voices in the wilderness, mainly in what is left of the private media and have a few principled Sinhala academics, there has hardly been a call for a full account of the war save for the recent stand of the JVP – how much was spent and in what manner; a full list of the soldiers on the government side lost; a list of Tamil militants' losses; details of Tamil civilians held being some of the issues.

Lankan Tamils all over were inflicted a form of shared pain when Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne visited Jaffna in December when Tamil children were coerced to sing the National Anthem in Sinhalese at a time in the country when there was wide overheated condemnation in Minister John Seneviratne presenting a Cabinet Paper to disturb the long existing practice of singing the Anthem in Tamil in the North-East. How this secured pride of place in the Cabinet Agenda, at a time when there are much greater priorities like the Cost of Living, hardly enhances the regime’s sense of fairplay. That it was done only days after the President returned from London following the Oxford University debacle added to the widely held suspicion of vendetta. The President could have easily won over some of the Tamils in the North only if he had caused the singing of the anthem in Tamil when he visited there recently But it was not to be. The festering wound is deepened almost deliberately. The sacrifice of the life of Deputy Zonal Director of Education Markandu Sivalingam will not be in vain whisper many Tamils in the Peninsula , the country and elsewhere. Adding credence to the theory Tamils in the North and East will be ruled by a Gestapo-like environment by the uniformed men placed as all-powerful Governors both in the North and Eastern Provinces was also that incident at the Jaffna Library during the visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary Smt. Nirupama Rao a few months ago. Insisting she must hear the voice of the citizens of Jaffna she agreed to a meeting at the Jaffna Library.

Some academics present did ask sensitive questions that exceeded the norms of decorum expected of them on that occasion. The Governor present tried to stop the questioning in what was a misplaced sense of propriety. Madam Rao, in the high traditions of democracy and transparency, waved this off and encouraged the questions. It was chilling to learn after the meeting army men approached those who asked the questions, demanded to know their identity, addresses and threatened them.

Tamils ask if the same thing happens to the Sinhalese in the South. Worse, is to learn

when the LLRC met in Mannar the entire proceedings were video-taped by the army resulting in many Tamils fearing to tell the Commission of their plight.

The much-hyped self-rule of Tamils in the Eastern Province is a veritable joke. No less a person than the government’s own creature Chief Minister Pillaiyan rattles out a litany of woes as frustrating his work. The latest is the one involving BTT revenue. While this should be the mainstay of the income of his Province he complains this is now hijacked by the Centre. He also scoffs at the so-called benefits of the 13th Amendment the regime tries to convince India and the world with. He points out that the directive from Colombo that insists no Circulars should be issued by the CM or the EP administration unless they are approved by Colombo makes a mockery of this sham devolution. Pillaiyan – no favourite of either EP or other Tamils - asks “where is the benefits of devolution to the people of my Province in the circumstances?”

Not merely Tamils in the North-East but those in better policed Colombo too live in various degrees of apprehension. Late October last several Policemen in civvies visited shops at Sea Street in Colombo ’s Pettah and extorted over 100 gold sovereigns valued at over Rs.4 million in broad daylight. Representations made to the Police have been ignored. A delegation of members of Sea Street Jewellers met with the Defence Secretary thereafter seeking assurances both of their safety and their right to continue their lawful trading – something that should have been theirs in the normal course of constitutional government. They came back gifting Rs.2 million to a social organization under the Defence Secretary’s supervision. A few weeks ago in busy Galle Road at Wellawatta, a gang of armed men attacked a Tamil-owned Jewellery shop and escaped with several lakhs worth of jewellery while hundreds were watchihng. How this can happen late in the morning of a busy working day at Galle Road, where the Police and army presence is all too conspicuous, adds to the confusion. Many Tamils continue to worry if Tamils are still a legitimate targer

for attack , rape and robbery is now an established fact in Sinhala minds.

While the Rajapakse regime keeps Tamils guessing whether they are a part of the Lankan family or not, the region and the world recognize Tamils continue to be discriminated against – as some would argue - in a much more pronounced way. The powerful General Secretary of the Congress Party Rahul Gandhi, in his most recent visit to Tamilandu, speaking to the Press declared “Justice to Lankan Tamils through appropriate sources in the Centre” is on the way. Similar pledges have been made both by Chief Minister Karunanidhi as well as her bitter opponent Jayalalitha – both of whom are flexing their muscles to catch the eye of the Congress Party in yet another Coalition endeavour in the Indian General Elections probably due by next year.

While organizers of the Galle Literary Festival due January 26-30 do their best to attract the bigger names that assembled in India for the Jaipur Literary Festival such influential names like Reformer-Thinker Noam Chomsky, Writer-Activist Arundathi Roy, Socialist Tariq Ali and many others signed an appeal to the big names that attended the JLF not to lend their names to the Galle LF on grounds “their attendance will legitimize the fascistic regime of the Rajapakses now engaged in genocide against Lankan Tamils and a bitter campaign to eliminate freedom of speech and writing in the bloody isle where leading journalists are killed, hunted down and the independence of the media is brutally suppressed” Nobel Laureates Turkey's Orhan Pamuk and Kiran Desai – who had agreed to come – have withdrawn “with regret”

Predictably, the once respected Indian newspaper Hihdu, whose chief editor N. Ram is now an open apologist of the Rajapakses , has offered a twist and reported Pamuk and Desai have changed their minds only in view of difficulties in getting Re-Entry Visas to India if they visit Colombo . This feeble excuse is far too shallow to comment upon. It will be interesting to learn Hindu’s version of the “sudden” visit of the Rajapakses to the USA within a day's arrival of Richard Armitage, the former Deputy US Secretary of State – now the Professional Go-between playing the role of Britain’s Bell-Pottinger PR outfit. Armitage remains in Colombo inviting wags to comment “he is held hostage until Rajapakse returns” What is curious is what is the Quid Pro Quo in this Armitage drama.

There are many who believe the Rajapakse family have come to the carefully considered view to keep the Tamils down with the implicit message “No War” and the Sinhalese “No peace with the Tamils” The spin doctors of this theory are convinced this will guarantee uninterrupted rule of the county for the next 2 decades or more. A wiser and more pragmatic approach will be to treat the Tamils - “ my people” - a description the President has used many times earlier; to impress the region and the world of his honourable intentions. Sangupiddy Bridge at the cost of Rs.1,000 million is a good move. But more important will be improvement of

the A9 to ensure faster and more comfortable travel that is prevented by the poor state of the road in most places. A more statesman-like and unambiguous declaration on the National Anthem is now overdue. The “We are Sinhalese” and “they are Tamil” strategy vigorously marketed under different brandings has brought the regime a rich crop of votes from the Sinhala South. But this is only a short-term benefits. The Rajapakse regime must aim more on long term strategies if they really mean business to bring Tamils aboard their wagon. Such a reality does come to the fore now and then as when Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne said the flow of marine catches from the North post-May 2009 helps to keep down fish prices in the South. Governor CBSL Nivaard Cabraal was to admit, speaking on the consequence of recent floods on rice prices, that supplies from the North is also encouraging and adds to the country’s food security.

Unless the Tamil issue is settled soon, satisfactorily and with the required degree of sincerity, the parting of the ways between the Sinhalese and Tamils that eminent Lankan journalist and visionaryTarzie Vittachi lamented 53 years ago will go into fast track under this Rajapakse regime. That surely is not the way Mahinda Rajapakse, his many brothers and the dozens in the extended family would like history to remember them.

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