MILITARY personnel stationed in the north are often perplexed when told that their continued presence is objectionable to the local population. Their experience is different. When they ask the people about their presence, the answer they say is a positive one whether in term of preserving law and order or in terms of providing material assistance. The sceptic would point out that no civilian population in a post-war setting would be willing to tell uniformed military personnel that their continued presence was objectionable. But this may not be the only truth of the matter.
On a visit to the north we went to the northernmost point of the country in Point Pedro. A plaque there says that this area was cleared and made fit for public viewing by the army. There is also a signboard that says unity in diversity is the strength of the country. The tourists who go there to take photographs are from all parts of the country. When we were there we saw a group of young women come on their own and cross over the rocks and corrals that form the front barrier of the built-up viewing point. They waded into the sea to take photos and selfies of themselves. They appeared to be local people.
We stopped for lunch at the army-run hotel called ‘Thalsevana’ (shade of the palmyra tree) in Kankasanthurai which had once been the site of full scale war. Although the time we got there was past 2:00pm, the hotel was full of local people who had gone there for lunch and to enjoy the swimming pool. Many of them had come with their relatives from the diaspora. The issue of the military running civilian businesses, such as hotels and farms is an issue that is often brought up by human rights and political activists. But to the local population and the diaspora community who may be politically less motivated, the army is providing a quality service at a reasonable price and from which they wish to benefit. It needs to be noted that ending the role of the military in commercial enterprises in the north is one of the commitments of the government in the UN Human Rights Council resolution of October 2015, which is yet to be implemented fully.
On the road down from Point Pedro to Jaffna we passed new housing projects, some completed others just beginning. At the ones that are just beginning there are signboards with the photos of the president and prime minister on either side. The fact that these two governmental leaders, whose political rivalry is a major source of political analysis and speculation, should come together on the signboards of housing projects for war-affected people in the north, gives an impression of governmental unity in developing the north. Their rivalry to be the government candidate for the next presidential election in 2019 has not stood in the way of portraying them as being equally committed to the welfare of the northern people.
THE towns we passed through coming down from Point Pedro, such as Nelliady, looked bustling and modern with large new government buildings and wide roads without a sense of the clutter and disorganisation that is symptomatic of older towns. These are all towns that were more or less destroyed during the war, and which have been reconstructed in recent years. The net result is that they seem to be no less booming and bustling than their counterparts in the southern parts of the country. The appearance of prosperity in the north is no doubt supplemented by the generosity of relatives who are now in the diaspora. However, despite these visible signs of progress and development there is dissatisfaction that fills the polity in the north.
As befits a plural society, there are different strata and groups in the north who see things differently. This was observable during the local government elections held in February this year when Tamil nationalist parties that are very critical of the government initiatives improved their performance at the expense of the Tamil parties that seek to collaborate with the government. Improving the infrastructure and economy is not the only priority concern of the people who also look at other unmet concerns. These are their grievances about the war and those who went missing in the war, particularly those who were surrendered by their families to the military at the end of the war. Although the government has established an Office of Missing Persons earlier this year, this mechanism is yet to start giving answers, which has prompted sections of the northern people to denounce this government effort and to continue to press for international intervention.
Another reason why the Tamil nationalist parties are gaining in strength is due to the government’s failure to deliver on the promised political reforms that include constitutional reform. The themes of Tamil nationhood, right to self- determination and Tamil homeland continue to resonate powerfully within the Tamil polity as it has done for the past sixty years before the war began and today more than nine years after it ended. Unless the government’s heart and mind strategies include constitutional reform that address these issues, the country will be fated to see the continuation of Tamil grievances and the rise of nationalism.
THE challenge for the government is to find a political solution that can transcend the nationalism in the north and south, and east and west, and yields a polity that is plural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious and in which no citizen has an advantage or disadvantage because of his or her community in any part of the country. The Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim people, and their mainstream political representatives need to feel that they are treated equitably and are joint-decision makers in creating the future in a united Sri Lanka. The best opportunity that the country has to chart out from this shared future is now when the president and prime minister and the two major political parties they separately lead are united with the ethnic minority parties and their leaderships in seeking a mutually acceptable political solution.
The commitment of the president and prime minister to the national reconciliation process was recently seen at the ceremony held at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium to appreciate the students who achieved distinction passes for Sinhala and Tamil from the ‘If you know, teach, if you do not know, learn’ radio programme 2017 organised by the National Integration, Reconciliation and Official Languages Ministry under minister Mano Ganesan. More than 3000 schoolchildren from all parts of the country attended the function at which prizes were awarded to those schools that had performed best in teaching a second language in their schools. Minister Ganesan pledged that the programme would expand and said that many more students would follow the programme next year so that the ceremony to appreciate their achievements would have to be held at the Gall Face Green.
Although they have unresolved issues of leadership in the government, both president Sirisena and prime minister Wickremesinghe need to put their differences aside to come together with the schoolchildren of the country for the sake of national reconciliation. As leaders of their respective political parties, they need to be more assertive in communicating the success of the government in developing the north and in strengthening the role of civilian administration. They need to take their commitment a step further and work jointly for the constitutional change that addresses the aspirations and grievances of the Tamil people while taking the rest of the country along with them, for which their respective political parties too need to work together.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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