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Wednesday, 19 September 2018
Wednesday, 19 September 2018 | Sri Lanka Watch
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The first steps to restoring tamil confidence PDF Print E-mail
The end of the war has not brought Tamil alienation to an end.  This is not surprising because the Tamil people had grievances about their place in Sri Lanka even before the war began.  In fact the ground for the war was laid by the failure of successive Sri Lankan governments to address their grievances. The war itself brought to the fore a whole host of new grievances, the worst being the personal vulnerability of their lives and property.  The end of the war has significantly reduced this latter vulnerability, but the desire of the Tamil people for a just political solution continues to remain, along with their sense of alienation.

On the other hand, the war ended less than two months ago in military showdown that few anticipated and therefore did not prepare for fully.  Putting right problems that arose in the course of the three decades of war, and the period that preceded it, is likely to take several years and not months to resolve.  This would require patience that people who are suffering will find it difficult to accept.  The country was torn asunder by its internal conflict to which it could not find a peaceful and negotiated solution.  The country would necessarily be polarized in the immediate aftermath of the war in addressing the immediate consequences of the war, let alone its roots.
The most controversial issue that has the potential to divide the government, if not the country, is that of a political solution to the ethnic conflict.  The standard prescription to this problem has been to find structure of inter-ethnic power sharing through the devolution of power and regional autonomy.  The extent to which this should or should not be done has been bitterly divisive.  It has given rise to primordial fears that the ancient past can become the future with foreign forces playing a diabolical role.  Therefore leaders of government who face elections, with the notable exception of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, have generally sought to postpone giving leadership to such a solution.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has now announced that the final political solution will only be presented to the people after the next presidential poll, which is not scheduled for another two years.  It is therefore clear that a breakthrough to a political solution will not happen any time soon.  Certainly it will not happen before the next General Elections which have to be held before April 2010.  The government is unlikely to do anything that will open up divisions within the majority Sinhalese electorate prior to these elections.  The dangers to the government’s own unity have surfaced in the repeated threats of nationalist allies of the government to break ranks if the process of further devolution of powers to the provinces is taken forward.
In these circumstances the government needs to find other ways in which to demonstrate to the Tamil people its concern for their welfare as citizens of a united and peaceful Sri Lanka.  There have been positive signs of such concern including the infrastructure development projects being undertaken in the east of the country and the decision to open up the northern seas for fishing and the northern highway to commercial traffic. It is also likely that infrastructure development currently taking place in the east will be replicated in the north.
The government is also mindful of the need to support those initiatives of civil society groups that are seeking of promote inter-ethnic reconciliation by means of dialogue.  However, establishing peace and reconciliation committees in the north and east is not seen as a priority by community leaders in those areas.  Their attention is fixed elsewhere, especially on the plight of the 300,000 internally displaced persons in the welfare centres.  They are also mindful of the need to address the problems of the thousands who have lost their lives and limbs in the course of the war, and to help their families to cope with the disaster of separation and loss.
Therefore if the government wishes to reconcile the Tamil people to the post-war situation, it needs to address the problem of the internally displaced persons who are confined behind barbed wire fences in the welfare centres.  The fact that the entire population of two districts of the country, including well-to-do and educated people, are so detained and guarded by the security forces has been deeply wounding to the larger Tamil population, and not merely to the 300,000 inside the camps.  There is no registering of people in a transparent manner. Hence even if people disappear there is no way to trace them. The separation of family members, some of whom are in one camp, while the others are in other camps, is also a very grave concern that needs to be rectified without further delays.
There are two key reasons that the government has given for its decision to keep the displaced population strictly inside the welfare camps.  One is that there are hard core LTTE cadres amongst them who need to be screened out.  The other is that the home areas of these people have been heavily mined and needs to be de-mined.  The government’s position is that both the screening and demining processes are time consuming ones. The argument of some government spokespersons that the situation inside these camps is better than in certain African countries gives these people, their relatives outside, and the general Tamil population little comfort.
The government needs to consider releasing that section of the displaced people who can be considered to be in the low risk category with immediate effect.  Even now the government has decided to permit those above the age of 60 to leave the camps.  It needs to extend this option to others as well, mindful of the possibilities of corrupt practices arising when some have power over the fate of others.  There can be no legal or moral basis for keeping an entire civilian population detained behind barbed wires.  Most of the people living in the welfare camps have their relatives living outside who will be prepared to accommodate them.
In the meantime, there is a specific confidence building action that the government can take without too much difficulty or controversy.   There are said to be between 35,000 to 50,000 children of school going age in the welfare centres.  The government has itself announced that around 750 of them will be eligible to sit for the Advanced Level examinations that will be held in August.  However, these unfortunate children will be disadvantaged as their studies would have been severely disrupted in the past months.
Nearly all the people in the welfare centres were living in the war zone of the North until May this year.  Most of them were living displaced from their homes and with the barest of facilities.  They clearly need to have more time to prepare for their Advanced Level examinations.  It is possible for the government to arrange for special examinations to be held for them and for other children facing important examinations at a later date.  There have been precedents for this practice in the past.  Such an action, if coupled with the other measures specified above would do much to restore confidence in the internally displaced persons, and larger population, that the government is committed to the restoration of normalcy and reconciliation and to winning the hearts and minds of its Tamil citizens.

--Jehan Perera

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