It seemed important therefore to look at the grievances on all sides, but in particular those of the Tamils who had sought solutions for their problems through political negotiations, before their cause was taken over by violence and terrorism. It seemed clear to me that changes in language and educational policy, plus a more inclusive administrative system that empowered people in the regions, were essential. In addition there was great need to assuage the worries of those who had suffered most in the conflict, namely the Tamils of the Wanni who had lost out even on the little development there had been in Sri Lanka in the preceding period, and who had suffered appallingly when forced to become hostages of the Tigers in the first five months of 2009.
Many of those who appeared before the Commission spoke however of what had gone wrong in recent years when political negotiations failed. While that is a subject of great interest for historical reasons, it does not contribute much to reconciliation, for clearly we are talking of intransigence on the part of political players who had disproportionate influence at different stages. In the most recent phase, which took up most attention, we were dealing with a terrorist group that repeatedly withdrew from negotiations, even with interlocutors prepared to grant them more than others had ever requested.
Fortunately submissions in this regard did not play a large part in the interim report of the LLRC, which addressed many concerns in a positive fashion. They referred to five areas in which they suggested prompt action.
The first of these was the question of detention. This is perhaps the most obvious instance in which concerns about the past could affect future reconciliation. Testimony has been given suggesting uncertainty about whether loved ones are living or dead, and this uncertainty needs to be addressed as best possible.
It should be noted however that such uncertainty did not extend to those under the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation. From the beginning they could be visited, and their families were aware of where they were. A picture taken on my last visit to Vavuniya shows five young ladies with the mother of one of them. She came from Kilinochchi, which is reasonably near, but the other four girls, including one from far away Tirukkovil in the Amparai District, had also had regular visitors.
However there was uncertainty about those in detention in Boossa and other places that had been used under Emergency Regulations. Government could have done better to make lists available in this regard. And, though those lists are now available, including with the National Human Rights Commission, communication regarding this should be more precise.
The problem however is that many parents, as has happened in similar situations all over the world, are unwilling to accept that their children may be no more. This is apparent from the fact that many representations to the LLRC relate to those who went missing in the nineties and even earlier. While the grief of such needs to be assuaged, it is unfortunate that statistics are used to suggest that there are large numbers missing because of events in the last three years. That that is not the case is apparent from the fact that there have been only 2585 applications in the last two years to the Family Tracing and Reunification Centre set up by the Government Agent in Vavuniya with support from UNICEF.
The issuing of necessary certificates however is a must to ensure closure. This, it should be noted, is also necessary with the large numbers still deemed disappeared in the context of the JVP insurrection of the late eighties. Unfortunately the figures still outstanding from that period are conflated with the far fewer figures relating to the last decade.
A second area which the LLRC addresses is that of land issues. In fact this was raised with the Law Commission some years back, given the law of prescription that obtains in Sri Lanka. Since several people were displaced for well over a decade, including the Muslims expelled from the North by the LTTE, problems could arise when their land was occupied by others for longer than the prescribed period. Thus when people were resettled rapidly in the East in 2007, after the defeat of the LTTE in that province, objections were raised that some of them were those the LTTE had settled in the previous decades in land taken from Muslims who had been displaced earlier.
We had noted some years back the need for clear policies as to what guidelines should be followed. Whilst to my mind the original owners should have priority, those who have been in occupation for some time cannot be ignored. Fortunately in much of the North there is sufficient land to ensure that all are provided for, but any mechanism will need to be carefully worked out.
The third area of concern was law and order, with worries that armed groups still operated, and that extortion was taking place. This was a serious concern at one point, and needs to be guarded against carefully, but with disarming of all groups a priority, the situation has eased. The culture of violence of the last few decades has however been corrosive, so continuing vigilance is a must.
The LLRC also spoke about administration and language issues, which relates to the major problem that led to political agitation. I will not dwell on that here because that relates to a long standing problem that has to be addressed effectively through structural reforms as well as the institutionalization of bilingualism. It should be noted that, while Tamil was made an official language in 1987, nothing was done to make this meaningful, until in 2006 government introduced regulations to make it compulsory for public servants to have knowledge of the second official language for promotion. In schools too both languages have to be learnt, a measure introduced in the nineties, while in 2000 English medium was permitted as an option.
However in all these areas there are still shortcomings, most notably with regard to sufficient teachers. Government needs swiftly to develop alternative systems of teacher training and deployment if the requirement is to be implemented. It should be noted that in all parts of the country there is increasing demand for English, and this will help with regard to the communication gap that still exists between Sinhalese and Tamils who were straitjacketed in monolingualism because of absurd educational policies.
Finally, the LLRC deals with socio-economic and livelihood issues, which again are of longstanding concern. The unequal development from which Sri Lanka suffered led to three youth insurrections in the last forty years, two of them in Sinhala majority areas. Even though the other had an ethnic complexion, the sense of deprivation felt by young Tamils was a crucial factor in increasing support for terrorist movements, and it is vital to provide better economic opportunities in Tamil areas if reconciliation is to be a reality.
(The above extract was presented at the Association of Sri Lankan lawyers in the UK’s
Discussion on Challenges to
reconciliation, the Sri Lankan experience)
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