Colombo, End of war special edition, Human Rights, Human Security, Identity, IDPs and Refugees, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Reconciliation

What is there to celebrate? Rumblings of a Jaffna Tamil

The question that I have been repeatedly asked by people outside Jaffna is whether we Tamils are not happy that the war is over. An immediate follow up question is whether we are not happy that the LTTE is defeated and the prescription that the defeat of the LTTE should not be considered a defeat of the Tamils, because as they say, clearly both are distinct. The first question is  one that is supposed to ‘trick us over’ (to solicit an affirmative response to the second question) and the second is an obvious political question asked to evaluate whether there are still “tiger sentiments” prevailing among the Tamil populace in Sri Lanka. I always refuse to answer these questions in a paradigm of a yes or a no – people are generally very adamant for a response in either of these solitary words. But like all political questions they just don’t have a one word answer. Let me then get down to answering the questions. Yes I am “happy” that there is no war or in the conflict resolution jargon ‘negative peace’ but it is akin to being happy of the inheritance that one receives when you lose your spouse. The manner in which the war was conducted and won can never make me feel happy about the outcome of the war. My standard response to the second question is that the Tamil people generally had a love-hate relationship with the LTTE and hence the emotions are just very complicated. Beyond the question of whether you liked the LTTE or not there was a feeling of being defeated; an important part of our life being lost; a sense of  feeling drained out; a sense of losing political power. This sense of mixed feeling was well captured by my mother’s domestic aide in Jaffna (who had lost one of her children to the war – he was an LTTE cadre) who cursed Prabhakaran in despair, when she saw his dead body on TV on 18th May – cursing him for taking away her son (and for the futility of purpose in her son’s death) – but who immediately also said  that all was lost for the Tamil people.

What has changed since the war ended? The A9 is open (people are alighted at Omanthai for checking but otherwise can commute between Jaffna and Colombo in about 10 hours), a lot of banks have opened up offices in Jaffna (one Multi National bank employee told me  that ‘Jaffna people have a lot of money’ (?!) and hence the rush to Jaffna), traffic police are in Jaffna after a long time, some check points have been removed, a lot of tourists from the South are continuously flocking to Jaffna (largely to visit Nagadipa and also as one tourist told me ‘to see the war wreckage before the Government develops Jaffna’), goods are available in Jaffna almost at Colombo prices, Jaffna traders are able to take their products to the South with less difficulty, Tissainayagam has been pardoned (but we don’t know whether he is guaranteed freedom of movement) and apparently some Emergency regulations have been withdrawn (the latter two are supposed to satisfy the appetite of the international community and they are not too hungry anymore. They make very meek demands. Susan Rice has welcomed the recently appointed “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission”, styled on the British John Chilcott’s Iraq Inquiry. Most western diplomats that I have met urge us to be patient and be happy with the opportunities created by the ‘liberated’ free market in the North.)

What has not changed? There are still 40,000 troops stationed in Jaffna and probably more in the Vanni. More than 80,000 people reside in the Menik Farm Camp. People who are resettled in Vanni have the least of assistance to regain their livelihood. There are more than 60,000 relocated from the Menik Farm camp in Jaffna who face the same plight. They await the day they could return to Vanni. More than 70,000 ‘old’ IDPs still remain displaced because of the High Security Zones that take up 1/3rd of the arable land and a good portion of the fishing coastline in Jaffna. Permission is denied for deep sea, multi-day fishing. Despite the recent notification of withdrawal of Emergency regulations on this particular subject, the Armed Forces occupy private property in the form of check points (which cluster four or five houses together) in almost every junction in Jaffna. (for those who are not aware of how Governments in the past and present have acted absolutely illegal even where the Emergency Regulations do not provide for such action read Mr M A Sumanthiran, TNA National List MP’s maiden speech in parliament)

What has gotten worse? The Government is interested in archaeological excavations, supporting the construction of hotels, conducting of trade fairs in Jaffna and in building war monuments in the Vanni (Not a single monument for the dead civilians in the conflict though). Almost all LTTE memorials and graveyards in Jaffna and Vanni constructed for their dead have been destroyed. The statue of Thileepan who died observing a hunger strike seeking the withdrawal of the IPKF, has been entirely demolished. The Government is very particular about erasing any memory of the war and conflict. The right to memory of the war and the dead is considered criminal by the Government in the North and East. Only the death of the Sri Lankan armed force personnel is worth remembering. This is the Sri Lankan approach to reconciliation.

Those resettled in Vanni live in a highly militarized environment. We in the civil society in Jaffna are receiving reports both from credible and unverifiable sources of friction between the resettled IDPs and the armed forces. This Government is adamant on reducing the involvement of non state actors (NGOs, INGOs) in the resettlement process and we have a supra legal structure called the Presidential Task Force which from Colombo is making all decisions relating to resettlement and development. It is Basil Rajapaksa and his all-purpose Ministry of Economic Development which is tasked with the responsibility of managing “All Regional Development Programmes (including District Development Programmes)” as per the Gazette notification on the allocation of departments and functions to the different ministries. The elected representatives of the Tamil people (including Douglas Devananda, who has now been a Cabinet Minister for over 15 years, are not consulted as part of this process. From information that I have none of the INGOs or the NGOs in Jaffna seem to be involved in any programmes relating to housing and reconstruction for those resettled in the Vanni. There seems to be no programme at all as of now.

In Jaffna there is an increase in the number of abductions which has led to at least one death. The murder is linked to an EPDP member and the EPDP is accused of threatening the Chavahacheri Magistrate who is handling the case. At the time of writing this piece lawyers attached to the Northern Province were boycotting courts protesting against the threat on the judge. One does not understand for what purpose these former Tamil militant groups are holding on to their weapons one year after the LTTE has been wiped out. There are also many mysterious deaths being reported. More than two dozen deaths where bodies were found inside wells have been reported.

And what of the political process? Post-May 2009, the TNA has compromised significantly as was exhibited in their General Elections Manifesto – retracting on the claim for a separate state and agreeing to reconfigure the benchmark of a solution to federalism. So this becomes the new ‘maximalist’ standard of the demand of the most important Tamil political formation of the Tamil people. This can only mean that they are willing to settle for a solution below the federal benchmark – within a unitary structure or a quasi federal structure, despite rejecting the 13th amendment as a solution in their manifesto (Anyone who understands the basics of negotiations will know, a party articulates its most desired solution so that through compromise you may achieve something less eventually). This is made clear by confirmed reports that the TNA will run for the upcoming Northern Provincial elections. It seems like the Government will compliment TNA’s stand by providing for a Senate which gives an illusion of moving past the 13th amendment (13++?) while there remain provisions of the 13th amendment which clearly will not be implemented. The TNA seems like it will be satisfied with federalism being a target to which the present system could evolve to. The main splinter group from the TNA (called the Tamil Nation’s People Front – TNPF) have expressed serious dissatisfaction with this approach of the TNA. While agreeing that federalism is what the Tamils should settle for they disagree with making federalism the benchmark for a solution. They are for an articulation of the demands through the lens’ of principles than frameworks. The TNPF’s approach sought to make sure that the Tamils do not settle for devolution within a unitary state but they lost badly at the General Elections. The Tamils largely voted for preserving unity within the Tamil political space – the TNA. The TNPF was seen as breaking the unity amongst the Tamil political forces the ‘founding rationale’of the TNA.

Post-war is no Post-Conflict. The South has not shown a single evidence of maturing as a democracy that is not defined in majoritarian terms. For all these reasons I say there is no reason for celebration. The moment is for introspection, deep reflection and for remembering the dead, whatever political colouring they might belong to. I refuse to be forced into optimism. I refuse to believe in false hope.

End of War Special Edition