At high-noon in Jaffna yesterday, the National Thai Pongal festival turned out to be of deep significance for the rebuilding of a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural unity in diversity. Among those present at the Veerasingham Hall ceremony were Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Britain’s visiting Deputy Foreign Minister Hugo Swire, cabinet ministers, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumarathunge and Chief Minister C.V Wigneswaran.
President Maithripala Sirisena, who received a massive vote from the minorities at the presidential election on January 8 last year, was scheduled to be the chief guest but was not present due to unavoidable circumstances. In a message to mark the Hindu cultural festival, the President said Thai Pongal signified the everlasting relationship between human beings and nature. It also signified the people’s gratitude to Mother Earth that nurtured them. It was also an occasion to show gratitude to the most powerful element in nature - the sun.
The President said he hoped that through sacred events such as this, the love of humans towards each other would pour out and the light of lamps would dispel the darkness and lead the way to genuine co-existence.
The Prime Minister, making the keynote speech, gave several solemn pledges to the Tamil-speaking people who had languished in differing degrees of despair, destitution and degradation for several decades. Mr. Wickremesinghe pledged that within two months the national government would find a just and fair solution to issues relating to about 4,600 acres of land in the Northern and Eastern provinces. He said several ministries and the Presidential task force headed by Ms. Kumarathunge would decide how much of this land should be given back to the people for their livelihood, how much was necessary for national development and how much was necessary for security purposes. The recommendations would be put to President Sirisena and implemented before the National New Year in April.
Chief Minister Wigneswaran in his speech had complained that even recently he had received a letter from the police in Sinhala though the national languages policy made provision for a Tamil translation. The Prime Minister said the National Government was taking steps to appoint at least 500 hundred more Tamil translators so that language issues could be resolved.
Going beyond rhetoric and referring to practical issues the Prime Minister said another major problem was the lack of Tamil-speaking personnel in the armed services and the police. He said immediate and effective steps would be taken to recruit more Tamil-speaking personnel, especially youth and he had given this responsibility to Ruwan Wijewardena, the Minister of State for Defence. The Prime Minister said thousands of security forces’ personnel were nearing their retirement age and the national government was working out projects to give them professional training to continue in productive and fulfilling jobs. He also announced that talks were being held with the United Nations peace-keeping authorities for hundreds if not thousands of Sri Lankan troops to be sent for peace-keeping operations in the African continent and elsewhere.
With education being given top priority in the national development process, the Prime Minister said North Eastern province schools also would be upgraded and taken in to the digital world so that tens of thousands of students would have the opportunity to move in to jobs where their creative and innovative skills could be tapped to the fullest. Referring to the growing number of appeals for the withdrawal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Prime Minister said the national government was working on a review. He said there was no threat of terrorism erupting in Sri Lanka again but there was a growing threat of international terrorism and the national government would work out a new law based on United Nations conventions against terrorism.
The Prime Minister and other speakers including the visiting British minister expressed the hope that before the next Thai Pongal festival a just and fair political solution would have been found to the ethnic conflict and there would be a new Sri Lanka where the principles of diversity and plurality would be respected, promoted and celebrated. As the traditional Pongal greeting proclaims, when the new month is born a new way will be opened or in Tamil, ‘Thai Piranthal, Vali Pirakkum’.