July is a month of many political memories and is primarily remembered for some of the darkest moments in Sri Lanka’s chequered political history. Many a memory is associated with the July 1983 riots that killed around 3,000 Tamils and destroyed valuable property owned by the Tamil community. The cost of the riots in terms of the Sri Lankan economy and her reputation remains incalculable.
Above all, the riots destroyed the trust of the politically conscious Tamil community, forming 12% of the country’s population.
The Sri Lankan conflict was the outcome of multiple political mistakes committed by different leaders from time to time. Yet, it was the 1983 riots that caused serious disintegration between the two communities, the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The riots paved the way for a mass exodus in 1983-1984 when the Tamil community in large numbers migrated to different countries, while close to 250,000 Tamils risked their lives to reach South India as refugees.
The incidents of July 1983 had another outcome, in the form of a Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora that came to view the Sri Lankan State with justifiable suspicion. It fuelled Sri Lanka’s fledging Tamil militancy and gave a reason for neighbouring India to directly intervene and to unashamedly aid the growth of the North-Eastern militancy against the State.
Indo-Lanka Peace Accord
The Indo-Lanka Peace Accord was signed in Colombo on 29 July, 1987 by President J.R. Jayewardene and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi under a state of emergency and tight blanket of security. There was little or no public acceptance of the treaty as there was little understanding of the implications of the agreement. It was also a time when anti-India sentiments ran high with India playing the role of big bully to new heights and the neighbour’s role in training Tamil militants in South India causing much mistrust among the Sinhalese.
Fifteen years after the signing of the treaty, perhaps both countries can afford to be charitable to their former Heads of State, compelled by the circumstances at that time, for their move, the haste, public opposition and the multiple miscalculations notwithstanding. The accord was meant to pave the way for a political solution – in the form of a constitutional amendment and to curb the growing Tamil militancy in the North by deploying Indian troops on Sri Lankan soil.
Among the many dark memories are the events associated with 30 July, 1987 when visiting Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was rifle butt-assaulted by a junior ranking naval cadet, Vijayamunige Rohana de Silva. The young cadet was immediately elevated to the status of a hero by many and the rifle butt-attack characterized the animosity that simmered within the Sinhala psyche. The diplomatic faux pas did nothing to improve the already strained relations between the two countries and to date remains a stain on India’s proud cheek.
The July lessons learnt are innumerable for both Sri Lanka and India. Premier Rajiv Gandhi paid with his life for seeking to correct a terrible political wrong committed by his mother Indira Gandhi, in actively supporting the growth of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka’s north by operating training camps in Tamil Nadu.
His intervention, though late, signalled the attainment of political maturity by the young Indian premier who was highly unpopular for air-dropping food in Sri Lanka’s north to highlight the absence of state duty to ensure food supplies to the country’s north. The accord and the subsequent deployment of Indian troops to curb Northern militancy sent out for the first time a different signal —that India was intent on correcting a historical wrong.
Moments in history
If India did not enjoy the Sinhalese people’s trust, the accord also caused mistrust among the Tamil community. While it was still possible to look to South India as a natural home, for the first time, it was made clear to the Tamil community here that the Indian State had begun to view the Sri Lankan question differently, and this meant, it did not favour increasing militancy in the giant state’s very backyard.
In retrospect, these moments in history are remembered largely as incidents, the underlying significance and the reasons that fuelled the incidents and sparked certain decisions are no longer part of the Sri Lankan psyche. And that’s a tragedy for any nation, specially a post-war nation.
The island’s protracted war was concluded in May 2009 and a process of reconciliation that commenced with the South African-styled Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) submitting multiple recommendations too are now a part of the island’s history.
An ambitious resettlement and rehabilitation programme is now drawing to a close, three years after the war’s end. The LLRC recommendations remain for the large part, an academic exercise. Not even Cabinet ministers are capable of discussing the recommendations in one voice. There is confusion still, about what process or processes would be followed through — to an end.
Though there is no official repatriation programme, Sri Lankan refugees living in Tamil Nadu began to voluntarily return since 2010. It indicated changing tides and a measure of trust-building. In the first six months this year, 750 Sri Lankan refugees who were living in India returned under a facilitation scheme by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 2011, a total of 1,728 returned while in 2010, some 2,040 returned home. But all is not well. Instead of returning home, Sri Lankan refugees are fleeing even from their temporary homes in Tamil Nadu. There are other Sri Lankans, mostly Tamils, risking their lives to board dingy boats to cross the Bay of Bengal, not necessarily in search of greener pastures, but to flee from a country that does not recognize their rights and political identity.
Post-war Sri Lanka
Post-war, it was hoped that Sri Lanka would take steps in the right direction, to ensure the return of our skilled workers whose brains and energy enrich foreign soil. Likewise, it was hoped that conditions would be conducive to facilitate the return of Tamil refugees scattered in Tamil Nadu.
Instead, Sri Lanka is the latest launch pad in human smuggling. Thousands brave the seas to escape the fate that awaits them on home soil. It is easy to condemn this mass exodus as an ‘international conspiracy’ to discredit the government. It is a convenient claim as Sri Lanka prepares for a review session on the island’s human rights record this September in Geneva.
The theories apart, successive governments have failed to understand the agony associated with the fleeing masses and the sheer loss of hope that compels them to do so. There is little chance that beyond the illegality of their action, whether it would be ever understood as to why Sri Lankans in large numbers either smuggle themselves out — or officially migrate. The question begs an answer— from the political establishment and all others who define and decide the destiny of the 20 million population.
If there is no honest acknowledgement of some serious governance-related issues, about service delivery, of equity and rights, then Sri Lanka has not learnt any lessons, despite 27 years of bloodshed and unrest.
All the dissent, mistrust and the lack of political hope among those leaving our shores are linked to the absence of a political programme that goes beyond mere rehabilitation and resettlement, post-war. What is needed is a political formula that can build trust between the two communities and moves towards reconciliation.
The foundation was laid with the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, despite the context and the manoeuvring that preceded it. It gave birth to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which is primarily meant for the purpose of devolving power to the periphery. Through the establishment of provincial establishment, it was envisaged that local decisions can be largely made at the periphery, by the local people.
Then, there was also the question of establishing a Provincial Council in the North. Some of the Tamil militant groups were absorbed into mainstream politics with the pledge of a provincial administration which is run by the Tamil-speaking people. It had not come to pass.
With the announcement of PC polls in three provinces last month, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is dangling the northern PC carrot, yet again. But now there is a timeline. He told ‘The Hindu’ that a provincial election will be held in the Northern Province in September 2013. Another year to bite into this and more time-buying in the meantime.
But learning from the other PCs in existence, the northern populace that clamoured at one point for self-determination might not even wish to be associated with a provincial administrative body which is for all intents and purposes, eyewash.
History demands that solutions be sought, actively to prevent another bloodbath and political disenfranchisement. There is a language policy which is not implemented, much to the dismay of the Tamil-speaking people. There is a system of power devolution and PCs that are operational, but not for the north where it is most needed. The PCs are also not the most efficient or empowered institutions, the concurrent list having clipped the provincial wings effectively.
Naturally, though the war has ended, Sri Lankans are still braving the seas to seek refuge elsewhere, not just greener pastures. Tamils still fear reprisal and have no hope of a political dialogue that can settle the national question. Sri Lanka is still a country-in-waiting.
July is a good month for purposes of retrospection. It is the calendar month that is studded with incidents that remind us of the mistakes made, lessons learnt or yet to be imbibed.
It is also a month that serves as a portent reminder of the urgency of solutions to the many questions. Too much time had been lost in academic study, debate and procrastination. To steer towards such active statecraft, we need citizens who can demand responsible action from authorities. As Ralph Nader said, there can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship. Let the many lessons now lead towards action with foresight.