THE five-day march from the eastern town of Pottuvil to the northern capital of Jaffna, given the name P2P — Pottuvil to Polikandi march — came to a peaceful end having made its point to the people of the north and east and to the international community. The culmination of the march in Jaffna saw large crowds participating. But the point was largely lost in the rest of the country where the focus of attention was on other matters such as Independence Day celebrations. The government needs to do the heeding. The marchers had slogans that, among others called for the need to ascertain the fate of missing persons, to permit events held in their memory and return of land taken over for security purposes during the war. There was also the issue of LTTE suspects who have been held for over a decade without being subjected to legal processes.
There were also more recent issues that the marchers sought to bring to public attention. One of them was the concern that land in the north and east, and those which there are archaeological monuments, are being claimed as state property and sites of Hindu temples are being claimed as Buddhist. This is accompanied by the fear of resulting Sinhala settlements. The government has appointed a committee to look into these issues, but as the committee is dominated by members of the majority community including Buddhist clergy, the ethnic and religious minorities feel that the findings and judgements made on them will not be objective. Significantly, the P2P march brought up the issues of not just the Tamil community but also those of the Muslims and Indian-origin Tamils as well with the backing of their political parties.
Issues relating to the Muslim and Indian-origin Tamil communities were included in the list of grievances that the marchers wished to bring to public notice. Among these was the issue of enforced cremations of those who die due to being infected with COVID-19. This requirement is applicable to members of all communities. But it impacts most grievously the Muslim community to whom burial is an article of faith. The fact that this practice of enforced cremation only takes place in Sri Lanka and is not in keeping with international guidelines adds to the sense of grievance. Another issue was that of the payment of a daily wage of Rs 1000 to plantation workers who are overwhelmingly Indian-origin Tamils.
WHILE the latter issues are relatively new ones, the former issues have been in the public realm for over a decade or more. A reason for them to be canvassed at the present juncture would be the forthcoming sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Despite new international issues coming to the fore, Sri Lanka is certain to figure as a country of interest in the aftermath of the presentation of the report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The ethnic and religious minorities who have found themselves unable to move the government to attend to the needs that they deem to be important see this as an alternative forum to achieve justice. Some of those issues were manifested in the messages during the P2P march.
The election of the present government in 2019 and its decision to withdraw from the agreement signed with the UNHRC in October 2015 has provided the context for the latest initiative by sections of the Tamil polity, civil society and the Tamil diaspora to combine to bring international pressure to bear upon the government. Their inability to influence the government within the country would induce them to make their case before an international forum that they hope would be in a position to influence the government. The current situation in Sri Lanka is that the ethnic and religious minorities have little say in the governance of the country. This is not as it should be. Sections of the international community are susceptible to appeals by groups that are marginalised and lack the power to create internal change themselves.
The most recent UN report on Sri Lanka constitutes a serious challenge to the Sri Lankan government along with a call for punitive actions. However, the problem with the UN report is that it assumes that international pressure and the threat of punitive actions will make the government change course. However, this is unlikely to be the case. One of the main campaign themes at the last presidential and general elections both of which the government won with large majorities was the disaster of the Easter Sunday bombing. This was blamed on the weakening of national security due to the previous government’s succumbing to international pressure and therefore not giving national security pride of place. The present government was able to win the last two elections by mobilising the nationalism of the ethnic majority community who voted overwhelmingly for the government.
THE government’s sense of mission with regard to upholding Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty in the face of internal and external challenges is to be seen in its dismissal of the UN report as being biased and hypocritical. The importance of national sovereignty both to the government and to its support base is also to be seen in the manner in which the government has withdrawn from a memorandum of cooperation with the Indian and Japanese governments with regard to investing in Colombo port. The implementation of this agreement was cancelled due to strong opposition by port workers, influential Buddhist monks and various unions threatening to go on strike, and also by division within the government on the grounds of national sovereignty.
The priority of the government would be to consolidate and expand its base of support within the country. At the same time, a rational government would also be aware of the need to maintain relations all round. It is to be hoped that the government and its international partners do not get into confrontation but resolve their differences through negotiation with mutual accommodation. In particular, the government needs to be sensitive to Indian concerns regarding the handing over of contracts for power generation projects to China on three islands that are only 30 kilometres away from India. With regard to Colombo port, the government is reported to have offered the undeveloped Western Terminal of Colombo port as an alternative site for Indian investment in place of the more developed Eastern Terminal.
With regard to the forthcoming session of the UNHRC in Geneva, the government has mentioned the possibility of a consensus resolution. Sri Lanka’s position in terms of economic development, human rights and democratic freedoms will be best preserved if the government is motivated by circumstances and confidence in its relations to make promises, make plans and undertake the implementation of its promises. A government and majority community who are secure are more likely to be fair by their ethnic and religious minorities and to listen and pay heed to their grievances, such as those outlined in the P2P march that took place in the north and east of the country. This will preclude the need for external intervention. The worst case scenario in which national interests would suffer would be a confrontation in which the government embraces one side only and excludes others, both in its internal and external relations.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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