In a recent article in the Daily mirror of January 5, 2017, titled “Let’s make Sampanthan’s New Year wish come true, the writer refers to the fact that the Opposition Leader has pinned his hopes for a peaceful and prosperous country in 2017 on a resolution of the National Question. The writer poses the question, ‘What is the National Question’. He takes the view that it boils down to, what the grievances are of the Tamil people, which he says should be spelt out.
In this article, I am attempting to list out some of the grievances, and would like to quote from the LLRC report which states as follows. “The Commission takes the view that the root cause of the ethnic conflict lies in the failure of successive governments to address the genuine grievances of the Tamil people”-Chapter 9 para 184. This is the conclusion of a very eminent panel after an exhaustive examination of the subject, and has to be treated with due respect. The Commission’s statement hardly fits into the writer’s notion of “tired ethnocentric narratives typical of Tamil nationalists”.
If the leader of the Opposition wish is to come true, a prerequisite is that the citizens of the country belonging to all communities feel that they are equal and that the State provides services to all equally. This would require;
1. That the official languages policy is implemented in full, and this includes the Central ministries, and that Tamil-speaking citizens (and Sinhala-speaking citizens living in North and East) are able to communicate with and receive communications from the State in their language in any part of the country. Although the Tamil language has been one of the official languages of the country from 1987, and this is set out in the Constitution, this provision is still to be implemented fully. This fact is mentioned in the LLRC report as a grievance
to be rectified.
2. That all citizens must have equal access to services and opportunities, and this includes employment in the government services. As of now, the number of Tamil persons in the Central ministries, armed forces police etc is very low. Colombo the capital city which is 52% Tamil-speaking, is a telling example where there are very few public officials (example Grama Niladaris or police officers able to speak and provide services to the Tamil-speaking public in Tamil. The long wait for a solitary Tamil-speaking officer who is expected to double up as a translator is a familiar experience of most Tamil-speaking public who cannot communicate in Sinhala or are unable to take someone with them to interpret.
3. That justice is administered to all citizens equally, and that all citizens are equally subject to the law. At present the public perception is that certain categories of persons, are given immunity. It is an obligation of the State to investigate and take action on complaints made. In this context I refer to the crime of ‘enforced disappearance’ which is one of the most heinous crimes. Although numerous Commissions have been set up to hear such complaints there is little in the way of action taken.
The Paranagama Commission which was the last such Commission, heard and recorded 23 thousand complainants the large majority of whom were Tamil civilians who had been caught up in the armed conflict in the northern and eastern provinces. Many of the complainants while repeating their sad stories were also able to give specific details of to whom and where they had handed over their loved ones, or who the persons were who took them away (being public officers of the armed forces, the police or the STF as well as Tamil para military groups associated with the armed forces). However, no meaningful action has been taken apart from and I here quote from an article by Kishali Pinto Jayawardene, in the Sunday Times on January 8, 2017, “A stuttering Office of Missing Persons and a victim-protection system which includes members accused with good reason of terrorizing witnesses in the previous regime”. The LLRC Report Chapter 9.146 states “The government is duty bound to direct the law enforcement officers to take immediate steps to ensure that these allegations are properly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. It will be recalled that this report came out quite a few years ago, but evidently these recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.
4. Furthermore a justice system requires that indictments should be duly filed in respect of those held in detention whether they be ex combatants, terrorist suspects or ordinary criminals and they be tried for their crimes, and depending on the verdict either released, rehabilitated or further imprisoned. However so many years after the end of the armed conflict many ex-combatant and terrorist suspects remain in limbo without being brought to trial. Although the numbers of such persons have reduced the proper administration of justice and not the numbers affected is still the issue, and the perception of discrimination is still to be erased.
5. Transitional justice requires that citizens adversely affected by war and ethnic conflict as in the case of those whose properties have been destroyed, or who have been disabled or have lost the support of their family members should in the aftermath of the war be given some form of reparations by the State. In the aftermath of the armed conflict there are in the Northern Province approximately 50,000 women who have been widowed and who are now the breadwinners of their families, i.e. women-headed households. Similarly in the Eastern Province. These persons need livelihood support, as also psychosocial support and counselling for the trauma hey have undergone. Government resources are not being adequately allocated towards alleviating the hardships of these people. As these women are subjected to exploitation and sexual harassment the observation made in the LLRC report that the women need to live in a safe environment is a pertinent one. This requires the provision of more police stations and Tamil- speaking policewomen. The absence of sufficient and adequately-staffed police stations in the North is also allowing free reign for criminals and gangsters.
6. That the State returns to the rightful owners lands and properties taken over for the military or other purposes. Security concerns can be met by setting up such establishments in state land and releasing the people’s property. Although this process is taking place it remains extremely slow and there are still IDP camps across from Army camps or farms run by the Army, where the original owners can see others making use of their property to which they themselves have no access? 7. Ever since independence, there has been little State-sponsored economic development of the northern and eastern provinces.
"If the leader of the Opposition wish is to come true, a prerequisite is that the citizens of the country belonging to all communities feel that they are equal and that the State provides services to all equally"
The exceptions such as the cement factory at KKS, Paranthan Chemical Factory, Kanthalai and Hingurana sugar factories and the paper factory in Valaichennai (all now defunct) set up in the D.S. Senanayake era. Among a few garment factories and the Trinco port are the only evidence of any State sponsored development, and even these need to be revived. There have similarly been no major irrigation schemes for the development of agriculture in the northern province. In the eastern province such schemes have been largely with a view to aiding colonization by persons from outside the province rather than looking to the interests of the farmers of the province. Similarly there has been no development of the fisheries sector in comparison with the rest of the country. Today the northern fisherman are struggling to make a livelihood, the farmers are doing likewise as so many small tanks destroyed during the war have still to be repaired. Development in the north has remained confined to a few sectors especially the service sector, hotels and promoting tourism in which the military and wealthy businesses from outside the province have the major share. This does not bring benefits to the ordinary people who are crippled by debt and unable to move forward with their lives because of an absence of employment opportunities.
8. We now come to the issue of devolution. Non-implementation in full of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution especially in its spirit is probably the most obvious example of how the state has failed in its commitment to respond to the demand for greater and more meaningful devolution.
Can effective devolution resolve the grievances? We must recognize that the grievances though largely pertaining to the Tamil-speaking people are not confined to them or one part of the country. There are other provinces in the South too which have not seen much economic development. The manner in which justice is being administered and the culture of impunity are also adversely affecting people in all parts of the country. Poor urban dwellers in Colombo and farmers in Monaragala and Hambantota find themselves being disposed, just as the IDPs in the North. Hence instead of confining the subject to an ethnic dimension the’ National Question’ could be viewed from a broader perspective. Will devolution be good for the country as a whole, and can the delivery of services be better provided by a decentralized system.
Some guidelines on this were given by Former President Mahinda Rajapakse in 2006, during his opening address to the Experts Committee which he had constituted to advise the APRC (All Party Representative Committee) on the resolution of the National Question, he said that people in their own localities should be able to guide their own destinies. True democracy functions where there is sharing of power and empowerment of the people. However devolution must be subject to two riders. Devolution must not be confined to the Provincial Councils alone.
It must also result in empowering the local government institutions to ensure greater peoples participation. Furthermore as pointed out in the LLRC Report the shortcomings in the functioning of the Provincial Council system must be taken into account in devising an appropriate system of devolution, which addresses the needs of the people. The LLRC Report states “The effective functioning of the democratic system within the framework of devolution will also provide the answer to the grievances of the minorities”.
However, I would submit that some of the grievances cannot be addressed only at the Provincial level and this calls for power sharing at the centre and the establishment of a second chamber comprising representatives from the provinces so that they too have a voice in the legislative decision making process. So, yes, a new Constitution which seeks to address these questions through greater sharing of power with citizens leading to a fairer distribution of resources and improved service provision will address not only the grievances of the Tamil-speaking people but of a large majority of people of all communities and thus address what is truly a national question.