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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2643

Sri Lankan national question: When the State failed its Tamil citizens

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Many Tamils of Sri Lanka have endured the indignity and the physical and mental anguish of being verbally and physically attacked simply on account of their ethnicity. It has happened several times in the post-independence period culminating in the disgraceful pogrom against them in July 1983.

While Tamils have suffered these physical and psychological attacks since independence, the difference in 1983 for the Tamils and more broadly for Sri Lanka, was that the State aided and abetted through sheer indifference if not anything else, and allegedly, influential segments of the ruling party at the time even planned that pogrom.

Reportedly more than 300 Tamils died during this pogrom, and thousands were harmed and their homes destroyed. Many fled the country and sought refuge in India and in other countries. The State of Sri Lanka failed to assure a fundamental right of its Tamil citizens.

The 1983 pogrom was a defining moment in the ethnic relations between Tamils and the Sinhalese, and the real turning point in the change in the ultimate objective of Tamil political and military activists.

Although many Sinhala families claim rightly that they provided protection to hundreds of Tamils during those terrible days, and if not for their intervention often at the risk to their lives and property, many more Tamils would have been harmed or killed. No one doubts this and there are enough and more known instances when this happened.

However, what these Sinhala families do not realize is that it is their political representatives administering the State of Sri Lanka in 1983 who let down their Tamil brethren, and that many of these very families had not asked those political representatives to account for what happened. The electorate in fact rewarded the UNP with another victory at the Presidential election held in 1988 and the Parliamentary election of 1989.

What is needed by Tamils, more than anything else perhaps is an environment in which their security is assured as a matter of course, and not as a consequence of a special effort on the part of the State. They should be able to live in an environment where they would be safe and feel safe as much as their Sinhala and Muslim brethren feel safe and take their safety as a given. If as happened in 1983, the State could fail to provide this security, and could even instigate it, very understandably, it would cause concern amongst many moderate minded Tamils who are in Sri Lanka today and others who left Sri Lanka after 1983.

Assurance of security as a given has not been the case for Tamils, and any solution to the national question has to address this issue, and whatever options that are presented have to consider this crucial issue. In this context, devolution and avenues for Tamils to consider their own security options must also be considerations in any solution to the national question.

However, it also needs to be understood that whatever the solution is, it must not become the reason for another problem. In a multi ethnic, multi religious society, social equilibrium is of paramount importance for social and economic stability as well as security of all communities. Solving the national question obviously is not just about the Tamil issue, and it involves the concerns and hopes of all other communities and their ability to live in harmony with everyone else in the island.

It is in this context that Sinhala and Muslim sentiments and concerns as well as fears, and historical accounts and traditions also have to be considered. From that perspective, the fact that more Tamils today live outside the North and East has to be considered, and their security too has to be considered as they live amongst Sinhala and Muslim citizens.

Any special considerations to Tamils living in the North and the East may not only aggravate the national question, but may also expose Tamils outside the North and the East to security concerns if the principle of social equilibrium is not given the highest priority when arriving at a solution.

One should also not overlook some of the irritants that have divided the communities. The concept of a historical homeland of the Tamils has been one such irritant for the Sinhala community. Focusing on this rather than contemporary realities has been one of the stumbling blocks towards finding a solution to the national question.

The foremost place given to Buddhist has also been an irritant for Tamils. Giving such a recognition including by the British colonial power when they signed the acquisition of the Kandyan kingdom in 1815 and since then by all administrations, have not given any effective preferences to Buddhists over others in reality, although it has been used as a political ploy by Tamil activists to claim discrimination against them by Sinhala Buddhist governments. If the special recognition given to Buddhism in Sri Lanka can be viewed from the perspective of its uniqueness in being the oldest seat of Theravada learning in the world today, perhaps it could be diffused as a political issue, and all other communities could be looked upon to protect Buddhism in Sri Lanka for this reason.

In regard to the national question and the security of Tamils, in 1983, it is the government in which the current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe held a cabinet position that let down the Tamils of Sri Lanka. It is indeed a twist of fate that the Tamils of Sri Lanka who suffered that indignity and physical and mental harm, voted for the common opposition led by Mr Wickremasinghe in the last Presidential election in overwhelming numbers and ensured Maithripala Sirisena’s victory over Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Wickremasinghe may not have had anything to do with 1983, but his silence on it and his failure as the leader of the UNP, to even apologise to the Tamil people for what happened to them in 1983 could be interpreted as shielding the truth about 1983.

In the many twists associated with national question, it is also a further twist of fate that the man who led the military against the LTTE, General Sarath Fonseka, was supported by Tamils at the instigation of the TNA, albeit not in large numbers, in the 2010 Presidential election when he stood as the common candidate against Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is no secret that many Tamils identified philosophically then and even now, with the message and even the objectives of the LTTE and it would have been repugnant for them to vote for the man who killed their hero and their dream. Yet, some of them did.

It is true that the United National Party (UNP) has traditionally been more inclusive and had wider multi community participation and the debacle of 1983 was quite out of character for it.

However, one cannot get away from the fact that the leader of the party and the President of the country at the time, J R Jayewardene, did not show leadership and make an effort to prevent the debacle of 1983, but reportedly had a hand in it by turning a blind eye when one of his closest confidantes and a senior cabinet minister was allegedly involved in organizing the pogrom.

All UNP leaders since J R Jayewardene have been silent about 1983, and none had made even the slightest move to find out the truth and punish the offenders. While it is the SLFP led government of Chandrika Kumaratunga that offered an apology to the Tamil people in 2004, more than 20 years after the event and 10 years into her Presidency, no UNP leader or a government had made any attempt to apologise to the Tamil people for the harm done to them although they had been in power until 1994.

Yet, it is this UNP that the Tamils feel will deliver them justice and address their genuine grievances. Perhaps they might, more out of guilt than out of conviction.

It is ironical that while both the UNP and the TNA boycotted the Parliamentary Select Committee set up by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa more than 2 years ago to work out a solution to the national question, as per a report in the Tamilnet, secret discussions have been going on between these parties and the Tamil Diaspora activists including the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) during this period culminating in a meeting in Singapore where the UNP and the TNA had agreed to a 10 point program of action to address the national question. It is reported that it was conditional on there being a regime change.

No wonder neither the UNP nor the TNA wished to join the PSC process as they were already busy having discussions elsewhere on the national question without involving the constituents of the UPFA government.

Tamilnet reports that the 10-points agreed between the Sampanthan (TNA) polity and the regime changers including the new SL Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, at Singapore in 2013 is as follows:

1. In describing the nature of the State what is important is the substance; the labels are secondary.

2. The Constitution shall be based on basic constitutional principles and values including sovereignty of the people, participatory democracy and supremacy of the Constitution which shall form an unalterable basic structure.

3. Power sharing shall be on the basis of self-rule and shared-rule within an undivided Sri Lanka.

4. The Executive Presidency shall be abolished and the form of government shall be Parliamentary.

5. The pluralist character of Sri Lankan society as well as identities and aspirations of the constituent peoples of Sri Lanka shall be constitutionally recognized.

6. There shall be a strong and enforceable Bill of Rights consistent with universally accepted norms and standards.

7. There shall be a separation of powers and an independence of judiciary which includes a Constitutional Court.

8. Important institutions shall be independent and accountable. Appointments to these and High Posts shall be through a transparent mechanism that provides for a national consensus, example Constitutional Council.

9. Institutions of the State shall reflect the pluralist character of Sri Lankan society.

10. The Republic of Sri Lanka shall be a secular state. The Foremost place to Buddhism and equal status to other religions shall be assured.

The Tamilnet report also goes on to state that the GTF was not happy with this agreement.

In this context, it is significant that after assuming office, the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and his Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera have been saying different things in different places. While Mr Wickremasinghe has assured the Sri Lankan public that the Sirisena Presidency and his government will implement the 13th Amendment within a unitary State as the main plank of the solution to the national question, his Foreign Minister has said in India recently that a solution will take into account previous negotiations and principles identified in Thimpu and Oslo, and also the Chandrika Kumaratunga proposal of a united (not unitary) union of regions constitution for Sri Lanka.

The statement made by the Foreign minister Samaraweera in India seems to indicate that the GTF had got to the Indian Prime Minister before Mr Samaraweera, and pressurized Sri Lanka to change its position post Singapore. Mr Samaraweera’s remarks cannot be explained in any other way.

These behind the scenes activities goes to show the intricacy of the national issue on account of external influences and pressures, while it could have been addressed if only it was left to those living in Sri Lanka to negotiate a solution. It is clear that the Diaspora lobby hasn’t given up and that they are the real power behind the Tamil issue and they operate through India and the West.

For all his faults, President Mahinda Rajapaksa managed to keep the Diaspora lobby at bay while becoming the enemy of those who were being courted by the Diaspora lobby. Unfortunately it appears that many Sri Lankans did not understand and appreciate the difficulty President Rajapaksa had in doing what he did and the battles he fought with all these forces from so many fronts to prevent the division of the country even after the war was won.

If as Mr Wickremasinghe says, the 13th Amendment has been agreed between the UNP and the TNA as the basis for addressing the national question, there is a good chance there could be a favourable outcome considering that the SLFP had not been against the 13th Amendment per se although they had reservations about some components of it such as the devolution of Police powers, and land powers.

In fact one could say that during the last 4 years, after the conclusion of the war against the LTTE, the 13th Amendment has been in the process of being implemented in stages and many provincial powers identified in the amendment have been devolved, although agreeably, and understandingly, the center did have an overriding influence and even control over some powers. It would not have been prudent or even practical to have devolved powers beyond this soon after emerging from 30 years of terrorism and war in a large swathe of Sri Lankan territory until there was a degree of stability and peace in those areas.

It is now relatively easy for others to move forward the discussion on a solution to the national question as there is no terrorism, or war, and there is peace, stability and unprecedented economic growth in many areas. This environment was made possible by the previous regime. This needs to be acknowledged.

Conditions are now right for the new regime to move forward and build on what has been achieved in the recent past. It is heartening that one of the positive initiatives of the new regime, the formation of a national executive council (NEC) with the participation of the TNA as well as the JHU and the JVP, to have an overview of the 100 days action program of the regime, has agreed on the constitutional changes that were agreed in their common opposition program.

It is hoped that the NEC will continue even after the 100 days program is completed and general elections held and a new government, UNP or SLFP (or UPFA) is elected by the people to at least oversee the formulation of a solution to the national question and also to oversee its implementation.

- Asian Tribune -

Sri Lankan national question: When the State failed its Tamil citizens
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