Sri Lanka's Tamils pin fragile hopes on regional vote

Toronto Star Newspapers
Minority seeks end to military occupation, fresh opportunities for thousands still displaced and destitute four years after civil war’s end. LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP/GETTY IMAGES Sri Lankan army troopers patrol in Jaffna, in Northern Province, where thousands of people will go to the polls this weekend for the first time in a quarter-century.

By: Rosie DiManno Columnist, Published on Fri Sep 20 2013 JAFFNA, SRI LANKA—One is a fisherman who doesn’t fish. One is a farmer who doesn’t farm. No livelihood, no home, no land. But Ganesh Thirukumar and Pownan Savarasa, for the first time in a quarter-century, will have a say — at the ballot box. “Yes, of course I will vote,” says Thirukumar. “No, it won’t make any difference,” says Savarasa. The politics are a curiosity, if also a groundbreaking advancement for the disenfranchised of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, historical homeland to this country’s Tamil minority and ruled from Colombo since hostilities ceased, the angry cur tethered to the chain. They are the losers: of a civil war, of the dream that was Tamil Eelam, a presumptive sovereign state for which countless died in vain — countless because they’re still tallying the dead and the figures are hotly disputed, anywhere from 20,000 to 70,000 non-combatants who lost their lives, most in the final months of the bloody conflict. MORE Photos from Sri Lanka Both Thirukumar and Savarasa are miserably poor, rendered homeless by a war that

formally ended more than four years ago with the utter military defeat of the ferocious and ruthless Tamil Tigers. Yet their peace, these two husbands and fathers, is merely war without bombardment, brutish as ever. They remain casualties of violence, internally displaced, uprooted and thrust into the torrent of a domestic diaspora that has swept along at least 100,000 other wretches in this province alone. It’s not the ghost of the Tigers preventing Thirukumar and Savarasa from returning to their villages, to their livelihoods — as the militants once forbade civilian shields, upon threat of execution, from drifting back to lost territory. It’s the Sri Lankan Army, an occupying force, which has literally usurped their property, razed their houses, left families nomadic and indigent. Thirukumar carefully unwraps the useless deed to his land. He has been carrying it in a plastic pouch since 1990, when he was first forced to flee his village. “My house is in a high-security zone,” he explains. Northern Province is studded with those — army encampments that have sprouted up for the sake of maintaining security, though there are purportedly no terrorist cells left in the region that the Tamils once ruled as a separate entity. Land appropriated, compensation, housing for the displaced, jobs: these are the primary issues in this weekend’s provincial council elections, now that the central government in Colombo has finally caved to international pressure and permitted voting to proceed in the only province — out of nine — where democratic elections had been withheld. Thirukumar and Savarasa have not been back to their ancestral village, Myliddy, in 23 years, though it’s only 100 kilometres away from where they are now haphazardly settled, transients who have put down only the flimsiest of roots on a hard dustpan tract of property owned by a Tamil who lives in Europe. Four of Thirukumar’s five children were born here. “When the war broke out, we had to leave everything behind, just run,” he says. “The army will not let us go back. They’ve taken our land for their purposes. But I know, from someone who’s been to Myliddy since, that my house has been destroyed.” Yet they have managed to create a sort of life here, as straitened as it may be. Proudly, Thirukumar reveals that his oldest son is studying at the University of Jaffna, returning every night to this hovel, reading his textbooks by candlelight because there’s no electricity, no running water, meals cooked over a campfire. His second son, Nisanthan, did not make the A-levels grade, though, and so the 22-year-old idles the days away, restless and doomed with employment opportunities scarce. At most Sri Lankan universities, the entry standard is higher for Tamils — a racist policy implemented in the early ’80s that provoked massive riots. It was justified as a “corrective” to the imbalance created under a century of British colonial rule, when Tamils were favoured over the vast majority Sinhalese, learned English at Christian missionary schools, graduated from university and dominated the civil service. They dominate nothing anymore, not even resentment, which seethes still among Sinhalese, distrustful of the enemy within, scarred by the terrorist atrocities committed by Tamil Tigers during nearly three decades of merciless secessionist operations — the suicide bombings, which the Tigers didn’t invent but perfected long before Iraq and Afghanistan; the massacres at bus depots and trains and police stations, at Buddhist

shrines and mosques; the political assassinations. With the advent of peace and the Tiger forces crushed — few around the world spared any tears — the Sinhalese, 90 per cent of the population, are making the Tamils pay. This election frightens them. C.V. Wigneswaran, an upper-caste Tamil, is a revered former Supreme Court judge from Colombo, admired even by the Sinhalese. On the bench he was known for imposing heavy sentences against Tigers who had the misfortune to be caught and tried. At age 74, he is stepping out of retirement to vie for the chief ministerial position on the provincial council. “I did not come into politics of my own volition,” he insists, folding his long limbs into a plastic chair under the shade of an arbour. “I was dragged into it. I had no alternative.” The greybeard is running as marquee candidate for the Tamil National Alliance, a party that has 13 MPs (out of 225 seats) championing Tamil rights in the national legislature and widely viewed by Sinhalese as a toxic rump of insurgent aspirations — to achieve politically what was thwarted for the Tigers militarily, despite the TNA taking an oath against pursuing separation. In the past week, however, Wigneswaran has provided ample fodder for critics who condemn the TNA as Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in threadbare disguise. First Wigneswaran heartily endorsed a TNA council election manifesto that was pounced upon as Tigers Lite, even though the document clearly denounces Tamil militancy and urges promotion of Tamil rights within a federal structure. The manifesto states the obvious: that Tamils are a distinct people, with their own language, primarily Hindu — the Sinhalese are Buddhist — who “from time immemorial have inhabited this island together with the Sinhalese and others.” But there were red flags galore for Sinhalese. Power-sharing arrangements must be established, the manifesto states. “Devolution of power on the basis of shared sovereignty shall necessarily be over land, law and order, socio-economic development including health and education, resources and fiscal powers.” To Sinhalese, that sounds an awful lot like secession by administration rather than the gun. Then, in a rally speech, Wigneswaran described Tigers revolutionary leader Velupillai Prabhakaran — supreme commander of the LTTE, bogeyman of Sinhalese nightmares, killed during the rebels’ last stand in May 2009 — as a “great soldier.” In Sri Lanka, it is illegal to “glorify” the Tigers. Hailing Prabhakaran as a great soldier — though he was indeed a remarkable military man — left just about everyone aghast. Wigneswaran was pilloried, and not only in the government-controlled media. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has all but turned his office into a dictatorship, led the hysteria. The retired judge is unrepentant. “The question was asked of me by a journalist: Was Prabhakaran a terrorist? I said no. The president himself, while Prabhakaran was alive, said that he was a man of stature. If I find Prabhakaran to be a good soldier, it is because the president himself acknowledged that fact.

“If I were to say that Prabhakaran was a terrorist, then I would have to say that the Sinhalese leaders who are called heroes, who committed the same type of war crimes, are also terrorists. If this man is a terrorist, then they are terrorists. “I reflected the feelings of the Tamil people.” But Wigneswaran has more vital matters on his mind. His campaign slate starts with the army and the land it occupies in Northern Province: some 6,000 acres (2,400 hectares) appropriated for a standing force he maintains is no longer required. “Get the army out. Because the army is the biggest problem that we are faced with. Four years have passed since the war. There is no need for the army to be here. They say it is for our protection, they say it’s for security. But if they have already got rid of the belligerents, there’s no need for them to now say that they’re here to give us protection. “It is my opinion that they are here for political reasons. This is a sort of occupational army kept by the government with a view to get their mandate from the Sinhalese public in respect of the elections.” Wryly, Wigneswaran has suggested the troops be sent off to do duty as UN peacekeepers instead. “If you take away the army, our lands will be free of occupation. Our people will be free of the intrusions and interference by their army in their day-to-day lives. We will not be subject to unnecessary harassment. And what for? Obviously, they want to control the provincial council as well as look after their own interests.” Six thousand acres, Wigneswaran continues, wasted on cantonments and a sprawling new army base, while Tamil citizens “are living in shacks.” “They raze the people’s houses and put up palaces for high army officers and for the president to come and stay, golf courses, swimming pools for their friends from Colombo to enjoy.” The disgust drips from his words. “I hear the people. They are crying: ‘Our houses are gone, our livelihood is good. We can’t go back. Give us lands to build up again.’” Wigneswaran expects to get two-thirds of the vote, and that’s a modest prediction. “If this is a free a fair election, five-sixths of the vote, I would say.” The elections are being contested in three of Sri Lanka’s nine provinces, with 4,358,263 citizens eligible to vote. Upwards of 700,000 of them are voting for the first time since 1988 in the five districts that make up Northern Province. Twenty-five political parties and independent groups are running candidates across the three provinces. At stake are 148 seats. Each council is composed of a chief minister and four other ministers. Their role is to “advise and aid” the provincial governor, who is still appointed by the president. In Northern Province, that’s a military man and he can completely ignore the council’s input. There’s the rub, for all the excitement engendered by these elections. The president can override everything, even dissolve the councils, if he so chooses. Only international pressure finally pushed President Rajapaksa, who heads the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, into finally permitting a council election in Northern Province. Frankly, nobody knows how this will play out in Northern Province, the only province

left with a Tamil majority after Sinhalese colonization in the other two over the past decade. It’s a deeply flawed construct — perhaps a sop, a novelty act to satisfy the international community — and many are not buying in. But it’s all they have.

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