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Right to Return: An unresolved issue in Jaffna

February 9, 2015, 12:00 pm
Last week I had a view of another lagoon—in Jaffna. On Thursday, early in
the morning, I took the Chinese built train to Kankasanturai that ran on
Indian tracks after Vavunia. The train took more than seven hours to reach
Jaffna, my destination. This time I travelled by train after 35 years; my
last train journey to Jaffna was in July 1980, during the time of the general
Extending the railway to North is undoubtedly commendable. My last visit
to Jaffna on A9 was in 2011 for the demonstration and rally organized by
the FUTA. Since 2011, things have changed considerably— new
constructions in Kilinochchi, better roads, housing schemes by the Indian
government. While we were passing Kilinochchi, I asked my Taiwanese
friend who was travelling with me if he could say it was the area where an
intense armed battle occurred about five years back. His answer was an
emphatic ‘no’. As we have always been told appearance could be deceptive
especially when more complex questions are raised. Looking at the new
roads, shopping malls, government offices, public school and hospital
buildings and others, it looked as if Jaffna and the North had come back to
normal after 35 years of war and destruction. However, the story is partly
true and developments there like in other places are deceptive and lopsided.
Now there is a government at the centre supported by the Tamil National
Alliance (TNA) and a provincial council with TNA Chief Minister and the
cabinet. It was said that the TNA supported Maithreepala Sirisena
unconditionally to extend and establish democracy in general. The people
in Jaffna voted overwhelmingly for Sirisena in spite of the fact that the

number of votes to Mahinda Rajapaksa had also shown a significant
increase. By democracy, the people in Jaffna and Vanni might have
thought and expected something different from what the TNA meant.
The TNA led Provincial Council correctly informed the people that it could
not operate according to its plan because of the intervention of the central
government controlled by Rajapaksa. Now things have changed. A new
Governor has been appointed and a new provincial secretary is now in
charge. In such a circumstances, it is totally justified for people in Jaffna
and Vanni to think and expect that things would be moving in the right
direction. People are patiently waiting to get their hopes and expectations
I visited three refugee camps on KKS road. People forcibly displaced have
been living in those camps for 25 years. They were from Kankasanthurai,
Palali and Myleddiy and displaced during President Premadasa regime.
There are 35 camps and I heard altogether nearly 4,000 families are living
in them. By forcibly displacing them from their natural habitat, they were
also excluded from their way of living. Many of these people were either
farmers or fishers. They have been not allowed to engage in these
activities any more. I asked: "Does the government provide money? Or
payment in kind?" They told me that they had been given a ration initially
but during the last five years it had been stopped. So, if work is available
now they work as day labourers. Refugee life has also affected children.
Although they are allowed to attend nearby schools, children have to
encounter two main issues in addition to supply of stationery and other
basic requirements. "I have four children, but I cannot afford to send all
four to school. So, I send the younger children to school and ask elder
children to go and find some work." One woman told us. Secondly, children
from the refugee camps are usually looked down upon in the schools. So
the refugee life is not just a life with poverty; it is a life of deprivation,
dependence and disrespect.
It is interesting to learn that even though these people
are living in appalling conditions, their demands are not
unreasonable. "If the government says part of the land is
needed for expansion of the Palali airport, we have no
objections. But the government can release the remaining land,"one
person told us. "People live near airports." I told them that I also lived
closer to an airport.

In spite of innumerable requests, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government did
not take action to settle the issue of refugees after the conclusion of the
war. I was shown so many petitions and letters sent to various government
authorities asking them an immediate solution to the problems faced by
them. As the Rajapaksa regime failed to resolve the issue, people in the
camps voted in the last presidential election for Maithreepala Sirisena in
the hope that a solution would come within 100 days programme. There
has been a committee for welfare camps that are active in presenting
people’s grievances to various government authorities. They showed me
the latest request they had prepared. They informed me that their hopes
that the new administration would respect their right to return were
gradually waning. The TNA had told them that the solution of the refugee
problem might not be found within 100 days! Once again it has been
proved that the democracy the elitist parties and individuals talk about and
the democracy that the subalterns expect are not one and the same. Elites
want people with voting power while subalterns want people with right to
land and to sea. The refugees in the remaining 35 camps are deprived of
the latter.
Two paths that are not mutually exclusive are open for the people in Jaffna
and Vanni to take in order to find a solution to these unresolved issues.
First they can pressure their elected representatives both at national and
provincial level using existing governmental mechanisms to defend the
right of return for the people in camps. The TNA that supported the
present government should ask the President and the Cabinet for the
inclusion of right of return in the 100 days programme without keeping it
on the back burner until the Parliamentary election. Like in the previous
elections, the issue should not be used as an election ploy.
Secondly, a brief democratic space has been open after January 8. In order
to extend and expand this space, people should intervene positively to get
their issues settled. In the south of Sri Lanka an important, though small,
steps are taken on political issues. Those organisations have raised
demands like ‘free political prisoners’, ‘repeal the PTA’ and ‘defend the
rights of individuals who were forced to leave the island for political
reasons to come back and engage in politics’. Right to return should be
added to these key demands. It is true, campaigns like this would
definitely eventually challenge the neoliberal economics and its culture. As
many studies have shown the main danger to democracy today is not
anarchism but neoliberalism.

The writer is the co-coordinator
of the Marx School.
Posted by Thavam