President Maithriapala Sirisena, visiting Jaffna yesterday for ceremonies to mark the 200th anniversary of the Jaffna Central College and other events, reassured that the National Government would take effective steps to bring the North to the mainstream sustainable and eco-friendly development strategies.
After the President and the National Unity Government assumed office last year, several important steps have been taken to restore and consolidate the process for reconciliation and lasting peace through justice. These include the appointment of Tamil National Alliance leader R. Sampanthan as the Leader of the Opposition, the all-party enactment of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, the provision of thousands of acres of lands for displaced people to build houses and find means of livelihood. We also saw wide ranging and widely acclaimed restorative justice with the rehabilitation of thousands of former LTTE members and the setting up of the wide powered Office of Missing Persons to inquire into what happened to thousands who were missing in both the North and the South. As a result, the National Government has won international acclaim for the measures taken to bring about effective reconciliation and peace.
But social justice activists and analysts who visit the North regularly for a dialogue with the people in the grass roots say that fruits of the reconciliation process have still not reached millions of poor and marginalized people, a situation similar to what is happening in the South. As the President said yesterday, tens of thousands of farmers and fisherfolk families were the worst affected by the devastating 30-year war. Equal access to housing and revival of their livelihood, healthcare, quality education for the children and access to hi-technology facilities are among the main factors that need to be addressed urgently and effectively.
During the President’s visit, some 25,000 Northern schoolchildren also signed and handed over the President a petition calling for tougher action to deal with the crisis of large scale heroin trafficking or the peddling of other intoxicating drugs. They also asked that more than 4000 acres where tobacco cultivation was going on, be taken over and given for housing or other development projects. A Vembadi Girls’ High Schoolgirl speaking in fluent Sinhala, appealed to the government to intensify the battle against narcotic drugs and the battle for sustainable eco-friendly development. President Sirisena assured the National Governmentwould act in a manner whereby development and a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources, help education and job facilities could be provided through peaceful means instead of resorting to an arms struggle.
Colombo-based civic rights lawyers and others who visited the North for a dialogue with law students, professionals and other intellectuals there said they received some important and interesting insights. Most people there were not so interested in apologies for any violations of human rights but more so for surveillance structures to be relaxed so that the North could also come into the mainstream of civilian life. They pointed out that even when small meetings were to be held by students or civic action groups they were still being questioned by the CID on who would be attending the meetings and why they were being held. The law students, professionals and other intellectuals also said that the legal process though slow everywhere was even more painfully slow in the North. For instance Habeas Corpus cases dragged on for months. One instance pointed out was the manner in which a recent child rape and murder case was handled and covered. Within a few months the rapist killer was jailed and a national media channel won an award for its coverage. In contrast, a case where an 18-year-old schoolgirl was raped and killed in the North in May last year is still at the investigative stage with 9 suspects arrested and relatively little by way of national media coverage.
In a TV dialogue this week, five civic rights activists spoke of the need to resolve the identity crisis. They agreed we need to go beyond the Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim identity and identify ourselves as Sri Lankans while one of them said he preferred to identify himself as a human being. As Ernest Hemingway has said, we all belong to humanity and every person’s death diminishes us. If our vision could touch such heights, Sri Lanka will be well on the way to all inclusive development.