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Friday, October 17, 2008

‘Let our people come in peace: Can they?’

‘Let our people come in peace: Can they?’

The article by Dr. Noel Nadesan under the caption "Let my people go in peace" in The Island of September 18, 2008, analyses what the Tamil people of Sri-Lanka have gone through, especially from the time of armed insurgency by Tamil militants, for remedying perceived political and developmental anomalies in the country. His concluding plea triggered tears in my eyes, and I am sure others who read this article would have responded the same way.

What touched my heart and prompted me to write this is his submission …. "with all my experience I find that blaming others is not the answer to our problems. We have to take responsibility for our failure to look at issues critically and take responsibility in areas where we went wrong. Blaming the Sri-Lankan government, India, the international community and others, as we have done throughout our history, has not saved us. The time has come to go beyond blaming outsiders for our blunders. Our duty is to use common sense and end the war sooner than later. This can be achieved only if we make a clear choice between our politics and our people. Are we going save our failed politics or are we going to save our people? That is the question we must answer now. It is hypocritical for us to cry for human right when our people are not even given the choice to decide whether they should be in the middle of the war, facing unnecessary risks and sufferings or given the choice to escape to a safe heaven. How can we feel morally superior when our people are kept against their will to face war which they don’t want? If we can’t decide between war and peace we can at least make a choice between keeping our people as prisoners in the middle of a war or letting them go.// The people have a right to decide where they should stay in times of war. They cannot be kept against their will to face bullets and bombs. Let the people decide with whom they want to stay. It is time we all said: Let My People Go In Peace To Wherever They Want To Go".

After World War II several democratic countries emerged in Asia but quickly they succumbed to majority-domination, authoritarian impulses and army coups, making it difficult to broad base democracy in practice for wider representation of various social groups in legislatures of a country. The Tamils of Sr-Lanka too had felt that successive Sinhalese-majority governments failed to fulfil their aspirations in terms of dividends expected after independence from the British. They complained of marginalization and discrimination against them by the mainstream governance when it came to parity status or nation building. The Tamils would submit that they pleaded and reasoned for rectifying post-independent inequities for long but the government of the time was only concerned in placating the majority community to secure its power. Therefore, the Tamils had no choice but resort to violence for winning a piece of the country as their homeland. Some are even convinced that the Sri-Lankan government took serious notice of the Tamil voice only after bombs exploded in its backyards and decision makers were gripped in fear-psychosis of being blown up even within "armed security cordons’.

In fact, except the Mavil Aru episode and President Rajapaksa’s stance thereafter, all previous governments succumbed and adopted a position that greater the brutality of terror and violence higher the concessions and favours government was prepared to yield. Thus, LTTE operational dictum when dealing with the government of Sri-Lanka was ‘terror for territory’, and ‘terror for taming’ became an useful tool to subdue its own stock – the fellow Tamils- in countries where they migrated to after 1983 or those who remained in the country, stuck to their village roots, with the hope of affinity-protection against the non-Tamil enemies.

History is replete with civil dissensions to effect socio-political changes. Some ended in division of the country as in the separation of East Timor from Indonesia or re-union, after a strangling conflict, as in the case of Aceh when the rebels and the mainstream government of Indonesia decided to live together, as one country, after waging a 30-year bitter war. The case of Biafra declaring unilateral independence in July 1967 and functioning as a separate ‘rogue country’ with clandestine recognition and support of some countries, reuniting with the parent country Nigeria in 1970 after fighting an ethnically motivated secessionist war is another dimension the world has witnessed of a mass civil uprising against an established government at that time. The objective of all these internal strife has been to rectify shortcomings in the governance to create an environment of equity and justice for all the citizens domiciled in a country.

Dr. Nadesan’s article probably reflects the current mood and mindset of most Sri-Lankan Tamils after decades of struggle. He claims to have been an activist and sympathiser of militant groups including the LTTE that pursued Tamil homeland cause. The dramatic change of mood has happened after rigorous analysis and soul searching, and it is a departure from a confident position, not too long ago, of LTTE strength to dictate, on behalf of the Tamils, terms at negotiations with the Sri-Lankan government. If not for some strategic errors, the LTTE-imposed fear psychosis and government’s reluctance to confront the LTTE militarily may have continued as was the case pre-Mavil Aru.

Dr. Nadesan’s question, "why is it that the majority of the Tamils prefer to live outside their ‘homeland’?" indicates that Tamils, given the choice to "decide with whom they wish to stay", would voluntarily choose to live away from their perceived ‘homeland’. The present situation, I believe, is an opportunity the government and others who care to preserve the territorial integrity cannot miss, and therefore should hasten to declare – Let Our People (the Tamils) Come in Peace. Such overtures have been tried in the past. President Chandrika in her moments of magnanimity admitted mistakes and offered an apology to the Tamils but it was not matched by actions to blot out inter communal prejudices and distrust accrued over many years of abrasive and exterminatory approaches of the fighting factions.

According to Dr. Nadesan the Tamil community has been let down by the leadership that promised better living conditions in a separate homeland. The Tamil community cannot understand the logic of the very group claiming sole authority to liberate the Tamil people from the Sinhalese hegemony and oppression using greater force and brutal methods to extract allegiance even from Tamils who remained trapped in their enforced ‘homeland’. The large number of Tamils who had taken refuge outside the northern and the eastern provinces and the constant stream of people leaving these two provinces illustrate feeling of their relative safety among other ethnic groups. As more and more Tamils now feel threatened in their ‘homeland’ the accelerated military pursuit is being justified as a response from a responsible government to retrieve Tamils from a failing but revengeful leadership that had kept them under its iron grips for many years.

A growing complacent mood in the country is that the LTTE is going to be crushed soon but, it will be too naïve to expect that peace is around the corner. There is no visible evidence yet of a sincere attitudinal change to build a multiethnic and pluralistic country with all the safeguards for all its citizens to claim that the Country Belongs to All. What prompted some of the citizens to rebel against the system of governance still remains very much the same. The Tamils have complained of Tamil language not being given the rightful official status then but even today, except a statutory provision for the use of Tamil, nothing much has changed on the ground. The Tamil people undergo the same hassle and encumbrances when they have to go through the officialdom of the country, and while trying to decipher, for example, whether to turn right or left at a road diversion which, instructs only in the Sinhalese language, is a daily occurrence. The Tamils had complained about discrimination and favouritism in resource allocation and recruitments which, according to them, had led to development inequalities. Over concentration of resources and developmental activities in some provinces than others is not helpful to convince that the government policies are fair by all citizens. Extreme Sinhala nationalistic pronouncements that are increasingly being voiced from highly placed individuals and political parties in the country are also counterproductive at a time when trust and confidence among the different communities are what required regaining and strengthening.

Sri Lanka is at a crossroad of building a future from lessons learnt along the rugged path it has traveled since independence. On this path ethnic, religious, lingual and cultural sentiments have pushed some groups to the brink of claiming supremacy of rights and privileges over others in the same country. With military at work to defeat terrorism, gaining more of rebel territory will not be enough to win the hearts of the innocent people tapped there for long in misery. Many of them are in their teens, and may not know more than hurling a grenade and that, there is a vast expanse of land outside their kraals. Compulsion of fate now demands that (Dr.Nadesans’s) people trapped will have to be led from the misery to safety. Dr.Nadesan may not have suggested where his people could be safe at this point in time had he been unsure of the place to where he is sending them. How ready are we to receive this (our) people back to the main fold? Do we have the compassion and readiness to share and care to comfort each other, particularly the Tamils who have suffered an imposed misery in their ‘homeland’? Can there be a repeat of the Biafran story in Sri-Lanka? Although not widely cited in the conflict resolution literature, historians find magnanimity of the Nigerians and the extra distance the Head of State General Yakubu Gowon took to embrace (as fellow compatriots) the rebels when they decided to return to the fold of Nigeria, is unmatched in recent history.

Sadly, there are signs of extremity in some quarters calling the military advantage Sri Lanka government has at the present as an opportunity to consolidate the path of majority-led supremacy and hegemony further into the future. To the majority of right thinking patriotic people of this country it is an opportunity indeed only if used to create a new path of co-existence, recognizing that everyone has a space to live and right to pursue life goals in the spirit of equality and justice. If there is still reluctance to create the new path collectively -by confluence of political parties- the people on whose behalf Dr.Nadesan appealed for their safety may be better off left undisturbed wherever they are, but no one can prevent them from hoping that someday someone will have a better chance to take them to their ‘homeland’. For the moment, Dr. Nadasan can be happy that he had not led his people from a land of misery to a land of wilderness.

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