South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in GroundViews on Sep. 05 :: Photo courtesy Sri Lanka Campaign ::

History concealed   

An acquaintance returned from a recent visit to Jaffna to announce it as one of the best holidays she had ever had. The hotels were good, the food delicious, there were numerous places to visit and of course the roads were excellent.

The oral tradition

My recent visit to the North however stirred different impressions.  In conversation with people, two realities kept surfacing. These were alienation and desperation—both massive obstacles to reconciliation.

Alienation and Desperation

The sense of alienation was provoked by Colombo’s four-pronged strategy of Militarisation, Southernisation, Marginalisation and Modernisation—which in turn feed the desperation. Stories from the south such as Rathupaswala, the Welikada prison riot killings, the arbitrary eviction of urban dwellers, the sky-rocketing cost of living and the unlawful impeachment of the Chief Justice, aggravate this desperation. “If it is like this there, what chance do we have here?” was how it was put.  There was an element of surprise that the ‘there’ which had to be more settled and better provided for, was not.

The four-pronged strategy  

Militarisation conveys that people are being watched all the time. A line separates ‘terrorism’ from ‘good behaviour’ and is not to be crossed. Normalcy; democratic dissent and the human clamour for privacy and community discourse are all lumped on the opposite side of ‘good behaviour’. An added feature of militarisation is the immense power it commands. The status of land for instance simply changes if the military wants it, and peoples’ organisations for instance can only operate if the military allows it.

Southernisation;- occurs through the steady reconstruction of the distinct northern identity and ethos in the image of the south,- that goes beyond the spontaneous and welcome mix of equally dignified cultures. It is seen in the periodic movement of construction workers, hotel staff etc. from elsewhere;—which refuses to recognise the availability of able human resources in the north;—discerned in plans to locate Sinhala peasant farmers from elsewhere; disliked because it receives state patronage; and feared because it will fragment and disconnect the homogeneous nature of the Tamil community. The total impact of this arbitrary trend clearly disregards the collective confidence of an already insecure northern people.

Marginalisation neutralises the impact of alternative forces which can make a difference to the quality of life of the northern people such as the Northern Provincial Council, community organisations, the minority religions, peoples’ cooperatives and so on. With the erosion of their space and consequent caricature of these agents of change as defunct bodies, the corresponding elevation of the centre as the sole protector and provider is just one step away.

Modernisation is another word for the rapid supply of services and goods and mass scale development which route profits elsewhere. This is why numerous banks and finance companies accompany improved roads, electricity and IT facilities. The response of the economically crushed northern Sri Lankan to this far too rapid and cruel flood of enticement is financial indebtedness. Parents for instance have no peace till loans secure TVs seen for the first time by children.

Spectators of decline

While some in the North seem to welcome this exchange of dignity for expediency, the majority have been reduced to spectators of their own decline. Struggling for economic stability with no financial resources and denied of political space to engage in community discourse on the calamitous events which engulfed them and which the rest of the world is ironically free to talk about, the people helplessly watch as these military, socio-cultural, political and economic currents overtake their struggle for daily existence to usurp the polity and resources that are equally and rightly theirs.

The whispered question

‘When and where will this end’, is the whispered question on the lips of sensitive and informed Sri Lankans. There seem to be at least four possibilities.

  1. The rise of pockets of internal resistance. The combination of caste discrimination, now raising its head in the Tamil community, and the lure of nationalistic separatism could tip the balance to drive disillusioned and desperate youth into militant liberation movements once again.
  2. External interference to either save the north or save Colombo, but certainly with an eye on acquiring our resources and securing strategic advantages. In today’s world no one helps anyone, not even us, for free.
  3. A mix of the first two possibilities leading to a protracted conflict on the lines of a mini Syria. Human need and human greed have a strange way of collaborating to spread human conflict and human suffering.
  4. A land of contradiction; comprising a subdued, remnant people and powerful ambitious forces, in search of wealth and leisure; similar to the contradiction in parts of the idyllic hill country where the other oppressed Tamil Community is cleverly hidden behind a different type of- “ line”.

Hope through vulnerability 

Since none of these possibilities are in the best interest of a reconciled and integrated Sri Lanka, one clearly correct option stands tall. This is for Colombo to even now come to its senses and do the right thing by collaborating with Jaffna -( under the moderate leadership of the Chief Minister)- in a deliberate shift towards democratisation through humanisation, beginning with the Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala multi-violated war victims.

To cater mostly to the economically and politically powerful, when a mass of our own flesh and blood remain crushed and nursing a web of bruises, demonstrates a breach of wise governance and an ignorance of history. Wise governance in any civilised society directs its primary energy to enhance those deprived most. And history teaches that those deprived for long periods inevitably rise in search of liberation; converting a conflict manageable through compassionate common sense into a complex crisis.

When on the other hand the vulnerable receive primary attention, those in different seats of political governance are compelled to review their respective exclusive strategies. For Colombo and Jaffna this will mean a shift away from any and all shades of Sinhala and Tamil nationalistic chauvinism; the very positions that caused and aggravated the conflict and continue to obstruct collaboration, reconciliation and integration.

A just way forward

In practice, democratisation through humanisation among the multi violated vulnerable will first be expected to ensure a dignified life style based on socio-economic stability. Considering the colossal amounts being spent on other, often less urgent infrastructure development programmes, providing substantial livelihood support and housing for the multi vulnerable is within easy reach of the national budget.

In making these priority provisions it will be necessary to recognise that those repeatedly displaced and resettled have had to return to a parched land and tattered nets. Consequently substantial livelihood support must include subsistence until there are steady and viable economic returns which make a dignified life style possible. It is only then that the violated can be left to fend for them-selves. This is why the “one- off” assistance schemes will simply not do.

Once stabilised these rural and semi urban communities will display a resilience and initiative that will both meet their own needs and also empower the wider regional-national economy. Livelihood support, say for instance for multi violated farming or fishing communities, is never a long term drain on national resources. When undertaken professionally and implemented beyond the machinations of politicians and in direct consultation with these communities, such programmes can be steered to become viable investments for future economic growth.

The crucial question

What bearing this will have on the current Geneva tremors is anybody’s guess. The situation is grave but there is a clear lesson that history teaches. When the crushed are treated with just dignity a fresh ethos of compassion, truth and goodwill is generated that enables people to look beyond hurting each other to the more essential human obligation of living together in dignity, freedom and equality in a generous and hospitable land.

It is from here and here mostly that the more complex issues of devolution and independent democratic institutions, the rule of law and good governance, the missing and those killed and the ethics of our behaviour during times of war and conflict, for which we are certainly accountable to ourselves, each other and our children, must and will be addressed.  A return to humanisation is always the precursor to justice and democracy followed by healing and reconciliation.

The inhumanity of the apartheid evil had first to be dismantled for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to fall into place. It was from here that steps towards healing became possible in this previously torn and divided Nation.

This sequence of just dignity first, followed by truth and generosity is undoubtedly the right path to sustained healing and reconciliation; everywhere and always. Our beloved Sri Lanka is no exception.

With Peace and Blessings to all.