As the Government closes shop and prepares to face what is likely to be a hard fought battle at the Parliament election, the Tamils in the North will be looking back at the past six months to see what President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have done for them before deciding on their vote on August 17.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition Government had promised to improve the lives of the people who had suffered in the North during a 30-year-war and even later. Reconciliation was the key word used at the election campaign ahead of the January 8th Presidential election in the attempt to gather the support of the Tamils in the North who have often rejected Colombo based Sinhalese politicians and simply voted for the Tamil National Alliance.
Ahilan Kadirgamar, a researcher and activist based in Jaffna told The Sunday Leader that in his opinion, over the last six months President Sirisena and the UNP Government have made some contributions to address the grievances in the North, though much more could have been done.
“The most significant development is the opening of democratic space including the freedom of association and expression. The climate of fear that prevailed in the North for decades, including the years after the war has lifted, as people are expressing their concerns even through protests. This opening of space is related to demilitarization of civil administration, particularly the change of the Governor to a civilian Governor and the reduction of the role of the military in civil institutions. Surveillance and intimidation by the military and intelligence is also perceived to be reduced. Furthermore, the announcement of the release of some military held lands and a commitment on the part of the Government to address a whole range of land issues in the near future has given some confidence to the people,” he said.
However, he also noted that the delays in releasing or addressing the few hundred cases of detainees mainly held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) is something the Government could have done if there was genuine concern.
The larger political challenge going forward is addressing the thousands of disappeared during the war, through a credible process.
Kadirgamar also notes that the North is now mired in a serious economic crisis of falling incomes, lack of employment and massive indebtedness. There has been little headway to address this economic crisis over the last six months and that continues to be priority for the broader population in the years ahead.
The Tamil Diaspora has also been very active on keeping the spotlight on the issues of the Northern Tamils. Some Diaspora groups have already had discussions with the new Government in an attempt to address the immediate needs of the Northern Tamils.
Ever since Sirisena and Wickremesinghe took office a clear division was seen in the Tamil Diaspora with some agreeing to give them time to do what they promised to do and others feeling they just cannot be trusted.
The London based Global Tamil Forum (GTF), has over the years, played a key role in influencing the thinking of the international community on the Sri Lankan issue.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Suren Surendiran, the GTF Director of Strategic Initiatives and Spokesperson, said that the GTF feels the current government has taken a few positive steps to address certain immediate concerns of the Tamil people.
These include removing of military Governors and appointing civilians as Governors for the Northern and Eastern Provinces, transferring of small sections of land back to the rightful owners, releasing of a few Tamil political detainees and the review of the proscription of Tamil Diaspora individuals and entities. Though limited in scope they are still significant.
However, he noted that large swathes of private land are still illegally occupied by the military, disproportionate number of military personnel still remain in the North and East, intimidation and arbitrary arrests still continue, military remains engaged in day to day life of Tamils in North and East, sexual violence continue against the tens of thousands of war widows and others, Tamil men and women still live in fear even more so in the Northern and Eastern provinces, several hundreds of political prisoners still remain in custody without being charged, the Prevention of Terrorism Act still not repealed, above all the Tamil National Question remains unresolved.
“Passing of the 19th Amendment and other positive economic initiatives taken through the budget announcement made by the new government to provide limited relief to the entire Sri Lanka does also positively impact the Tamil people. GTF sees, addressing accountability for the alleged breaches of international human rights and humanitarian laws which amounted to war crimes in a credible way that satisfies the victims of war and resolving the Tamil National question as fundamental to building sustainable and durable reconciliation between communities,” he added.
Head of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) V. Rudrakumaran, a US based Tamil Diaspora group which has been very critical of both the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government and the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government, said that the TGTE has not seen any meaningful steps taken by the new administration to address the Tamil National question or the urgent and immediate needs of the war affected people.
Rudrakumaran told The Sunday Leader that in his view there has been no withdrawal of the military, comprised exclusively of the Sinhalese, from what he calls the “Tamil Homeland” and Internationally Displaced People (IDP have also not been resettled. He also notes that not a single political prisoner has been released; not even the list of political prisoners has been released. Adding insult to injury, the President says there are no political prisoners.
“Tamil youths have been arrested at airports; restrictions were imposed against mourning war victims; tensions between the Northern Province Chief Minister and the Prime Minister; uncivilized verbal affront by the Prime Minister. There is no discussion of a road map for Eelam Tamils to decide their political destiny through direct democracy, no discussion on the critical date for the decolonization of the Sinhala settlers. Former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka and Former Army Commander Jagath Dias, against whom there is credible evidence of war crimes should be behind bars, but have instead been promoted as Field Marshal and appointed as Chief of Staff respectively. With regards to the appointment of Sarath Fonseka, I would like to point out that in India there are only three Field Marshals and all three were involved in war with a foreign country. Both of these men were implicated with international crimes by reputable NGOs such as Human Rights Watch. The appointment of these alleged genociders clearly demonstrates that either in domestic tribunal or domestic tribunal with international standards, or in a hybrid tribunal, Tamils will not get justice. These appointments are not only slaps across the faces of the Tamil victims but also an affront on the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL),” he said.
Rudrakumaran noted that except for the returning of less than a thousand acres of land out of 76,000 acres of land taken by the military from the Tamils, nothing has happened. He says history has demonstrated that a change of guard does not change either the institutionalized racism or the racial environment.
So having said all that, what happens if the people do not show faith in the United National Party as a result of the shortcomings in addressing the reconciliation issue and leave roof for maybe Rajapaksa to become Prime Minister? How will the Tamils in the North see this?
Suren Surendiran says what Rajapaksa will do if he comes to power again is not something which will just be in the minds of the Tamils but the majority of the people of all communities of Sri Lanka including Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist.
“Mahinda Rajapaksa is an overwhelmingly rejected leader, as recently as on 8 January this year, not even 6 months ago. While majority of the minority communities in Sri Lanka, be it Tamil, Muslim or Christian overwhelmingly rejected him and in some electoral districts by over 80%, the majority Sinhala Buddhist community also rejected him as he only mustered 47% of the overall vote in a historical turnout of 81.5%. This abysmal performance was even after illegally deploying the entire state apparatus including the state media in support of his own campaign.
Although alleged before the election, since his defeat in January, a lot more information on the widespread corruption and the magnitude of it has started appearing. Allegedly, his family and he have literally robbed the state. That is depriving Sinhala, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Tamil future generations of this country,” he noted.
Surendiran recalled that Sri Lanka under Mahinda Rajapaksa was one of the most dangerous places for journalists, one of the highest in corruption index.
“We made history by appointing a female Chief Justice and removing her in record time by a politically motivated decision, several resolutions were passed against Sri Lanka at an international institution like the UNHRC for the mistakes of a few, the country was internationally isolated, incompetent unqualified persons represented us at our embassies and international institutions, carrying a Sri Lankan passport felt embarrassing, lost the GSP plus preferential export facility from the European Union, nearly ran out of foreign currency reserves, the highest budget deficit on record, at the worst position since independence for interest bearing loans, lack of governance and financial control that enabled in failed state ventures like Mattala Airport, Mihin Air, Hambantota Harbour which resulted in multimillion dollar losses for the state to bear, above all created a dysfunctional society with religious hatred and communal tension between communities that has never existed to the level that it did, during his tenor,” he said.
He says with this devastating track record, the only people who may campaign and vote for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s return are the ones who have a lot to lose personally in the absence of such a failed state. Rudrakumaran agrees. He says the Tamils used their ballot to punish him. The TGTE stated at that time that given the conspicuous silence on the part of the candidate Sirisena with respect to the Tamil issue, the Tamil votes should be perceived as anti for the brutal genocide conducted against the Tamil Nation by Rajapaksa rather than a vote of hope for Sirisena.
Rudrakumaran says the fact that Rajapaksa was again given nominations by the Sirisena Leadership illustrates how much the Sinhala leaders care about the Tamil sentiment and how much worth the Tamil votes have in the existing political process in the island of Sri Lanka. (Courtesy The Sunday Leader)