By Imtiaz Gul: Jaffna, the capital of Sri Lanka’s Northern province, represents a grim reminder of the war that Tamil separatists imposed on the country since 1983, until the elimination of their iconic rebel leader Prabhakaran in May 2009. The central government celebrates it as “victory day,” while the Tamils still mourn the “massacre” that eliminated thousands of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) fighters in the multi-pronged final assault.
Discussions — both random and focused — with Tamil academics, ex-combatants, intellectuals , students and their outspoken chief minister, Justice Vigneshwaran — hardly offer any ground to rejoice Sri Lanka’s “successful war against secession.” They also recall the reasons that caused an acute sense of deprivation, translated into the bitter armed struggle, and remain a major source of discontent even today.
Chief minister Vigneshwaran, for instance demands closure of a simmering issue i.e., investigation into the events on and before May 2009. Justice needs to prevail. Without due process of law and investigation justice is not possible, he underlines. He also dismisses monetary rewards as compensation. We need to heal the wounds, not just throw a few thousands at former combatants. Meaningful rehabilitation to allow the ex-combatants live a somewhat respectable life.
Secondly, he points out, admission of injustice and apology, are the real pre-requisite for reconciliation.
Little demonstrable course correction through socio-economic and linguistic rights add more to Tamil frustrations. Tamil nationalists bemoan the fact that despite constitutional guarantees under the 13th Amendment, the central government continues to deny them their due rights.
A high-handed approach by the military, whose 150,000 strong presence is an eyesore for the villagers who have lost thousands of acres of land in the once embattled regions. After the “victory” in May 2009, the army seized some 65,000 acres of land spread over about 47 villages. It has vacated 24 villages under Supreme Court orders but 23 villages still await justice. Those displaced are forced to live as IDPs in Jaffna and Tamil Nadu (India).
Victory Day celebrations, according to rights activist Moheed Jehan, amount to rubbing more salt into the wounds of Tamils — brutalised both by the consequences of the anti-centre insurgency as well as by the wounds inflicted through the brutal final assault. Why not declare it a Day of Reflection, wonder rights activists and a development consultant.
Chief minister Vigneshwaran minces no words in denouncing Colombo’s policies to the disregard of even legitimate demands of the Tamils, who constitute over 20 per cent of Sri Lanka’s total population.
He accuses Colombo and the military of willfully colonising certain areas systematically. Even fishermen from the south being settled in colonies for illegal fishing under the protection of the army, alleges Vigneshwaran, who looks up to India for helping the war-battered eastern and northern provinces.
How can resentment fade away if Tamil concerns remain unaddressed? If the Centre remains indifferent and if India doesn’t help up, frustrated and dispossessed people could take to guns again in 15 years, cautions the chief minister.
The army, it appears, is using the same spectre to maintain heavy presence in Tamil lands. Both the government and the military use the fear of resurgence of the insurgency to persist with political and financial control over Jaffna, where the provincial government is not allowed to mobilise finances for development projects from potential foreign investors and donors.
As a whole, the litany of discontent resentment among Tamil nationalists bears some lessons for countries such as Pakistan. Be it the emasculation of governance in troubled regions (Fata and Balochistan), or demands for investigations into scores of high-profile terrorists strikes and jailbreaks, or missing persons (particularly in Balochistan) — all demand fair investigation and action. Denial of socio-economic rights i.e., refusal and delays in payment of royalties, profits off gas and hydel power).
Rehabilitation and reintegration of ex combatants is another area where Pakistan can learn from the Lankan experience; if the few discussions we had with half a dozen ex-LTTE fighters were an indicator, they clearly point to the fact that governments in countries such as Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Pakistan mostly are high on promise and low on deliver.
The post-deradicalisation life i.e., struggle for survival, livelihood, and the fight against social discrimination are huge challenges that these stigmatised youth face. Most of them live under continuous suspicion.
Similarly, injudicious handling of Tamil IDPs by Colombo or the presence of the army reminds one of the IDPs and the army in Fata or Balochistan. They are a living reminder of a brutal conflict that demands judicious handling. (Tribune)