Kath Noble

Another job for the TNA

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on September 11, 2013

On the party’s manifesto for the Northern Provincial Council elections and its responsibility to lead the Tamil community away from armed struggle

fireA couple of weeks ago, I said that the TNA should intervene with Tamil Nadu politicians on behalf of the fishermen of the North. They should explain that there is no point in having a devolved administration if it cannot solve the immediate and urgent problems of the people who vote for it, and one of these is poaching by the trawlers of Tamil Nadu.

Sadly, there is no mention of the issue in the TNA manifesto for the upcoming provincial council election.

The only reference to fishermen suggests that their livelihoods are at risk not because all the fish in the seas from Puttalam to Trincomalee are being scooped up by somebody else, but due to restrictions by the Security Forces.

Of course just because the Security Forces claim that there are no longer any bans or pass systems in place doesn’t mean that they are not making life difficult for fishermen. The acquisition or occupation of land on the coast is another very important way in which their livelihoods are being affected, and a recent survey of former IDPs by UNHCR says that 3% of respondents (25% of families who make their living from fishing) cite military restrictions on their activities as a major impediment.

But that is not the whole story.

Given that according to the same UNHCR report, around 90% of Northern fishermen live below the already impossibly low official poverty line of Rs. 3,641 per month – Rs. 120 per day – one would have thought that a little more careful consideration of their fate should be a priority for the TNA.

In fact, there are many omissions in its manifesto, and many points on which it deserves to be pulled up, as Dayan Jayatilleka has done in an article that appeared in The Sunday Island, focusing on the way in which it treats the LTTE.

As he points out, it would have been better not to mention the LTTE at all than to include such uncritical and deceitful references.

One paragraph of the manifesto stands out: ‘While no progress was being made on the political front to solve the burning national issue, the LTTE continued its armed struggle. Though initially there were several military outfits, since 1987 the LTTE emerged as the sole military force in pursuing the struggle. Successive governments entered into negotiations with the LTTE and in February 2002 the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka signed a Ceasefire Agreement and later agreed on a set of principles called the Oslo Communiqué. However, the ceasefire did not last and hostilities broke out between the government forces and the LTTE with the military confrontation coming to an end on 19th May 2009.’

Of course the election that the TNA is about to contest is for a body that itself constitutes political progress, thanks to the 13th Amendment. Claiming otherwise is just stupid.

Even more stupid is continuing to whitewash the crimes of the LTTE.

Navi Pillay gave some good advice in her press briefing at the end of her tour of Sri Lanka – she called on the diaspora not to glorify the LTTE. She made a point of describing the LTTE as a ruthless, murderous organisation, and noted that her only other visit to the island had been to attend a commemoration of Neelan Tiruchelvam, who was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber in July 1999.

As she could have added, he is one of many Tamils to have fallen victim to the LTTE.

The latest is Senthilkumaran Ratnasingam, who set himself on fire outside the United Nations office in Geneva on Thursday. LTTE websites claim that he did so because he was disappointed with the outcome of Navi Pillay’s mission.

Obviously she isn’t going to change her opinion of the situation in Sri Lanka as a result of his actions, so he has wasted his life.

Indeed, such violence simply confirms that she was right to address the issue of extremism in the diaspora.

Dayan argues that its manifesto suggests that the TNA is being guided by elements of the diaspora who continue to support the LTTE – presumably in the hope of a reincarnation – or by such feelings within its own ranks or vote base.

If that were the case, why did it nominate Justice Wigneswaran as its Chief Ministerial candidate?

Some observers have claimed that the TNA’s choice was strategic, to conceal its real intentions, but such a strategy should surely have included presenting a less controversial manifesto. It is much easier to ignore a manifesto than to ignore the Chief Minister.

On balance, I believe that the party does want to move in a conciliatory direction, although obviously it could and should be doing so a lot more quickly and clearly.

But after three decades of war, optimism has to be combined with caution.

One of the reasons I argue that the TNA must be bolder in setting a new course for its community is that the people who will suffer the most if the political system breaks down again are of course the Tamils. The TNA has a special responsibility to ensure that it makes democracy work for them, whatever obstacles are put in its way by the Government.

Having supported the LTTE, whose efforts on behalf of Tamils involved an awful lot of them being killed, the TNA cannot complain that this is an unreasonable expectation.

Anyway, there is no alternative to reconciliation.

The TNA has to guide its people away from the armed struggle, whether they are here in Sri Lanka or in the diaspora, and it has to do so before any more 35 year old fathers of three decide to turn themselves into human candles. People take such extreme steps because they have been misled about the situation. They have been convinced that it warrants the sacrifice of their lives, and that their actions will contribute to some kind of change.

They are wrong on both counts, and it is up to the TNA to put them right.

That means being honest about what the LTTE did and didn’t do, and what the consequences were for the Tamil community and why.

It also implies refraining from exaggeration. After all, the real problems are bad enough.

One relatively small example from the manifesto is the section on law and order. There are clearly many reasons to worry about what is happening in the North, and I have written in these columns about incidents like the attacks on the Uthayan newspaper and the disruption of the TNA’s public meetings by thugs apparently connected to or supported by the regime. The North must also be suffering the results of a phenomenon that is affecting the whole of Sri Lanka – the politicisation of the Police. I have expended quite some effort in discussing in particular the way in which the Police stand by while Sinhalese extremist groups attack Muslim holy places and property. Given this behaviour in the South, it would be foolish to imagine that the Police are doing a brilliant job in the North.

But is there a specific crisis, as the TNA suggests?

I don’t know, but the UNHCR survey referred to at the beginning of this article would seem to suggest otherwise. It says that only 1% of former IDPs had experienced a ‘serious security incident’ involving a family member since their return (the fieldwork was done between November 2012 and March 2013). At the same time, 54% felt that safety had improved, while another 36% believed that there had at least been no deterioration.

The research also finds that 89% of respondents would report a crime, while 75% of those who had visited a   police station in the previous year were satisfied with the result.

Only 4% of respondents described the relationship between the Police and the community as bad – 50% said it was good.

However, the report also states that only 60% of women feel safe to stay at home without men being present.

Of course it doesn’t exactly confirm what G.L. Peiris claimed in his response to Navi Pillay’s statement either, that Northerners are essentially happy with the role and presence of the military – 16% were generally positive and 29% were generally negative, with 43% considering that it is not a problem and 12% expressing no opinion.

This may be just the way politics works, but some people take it seriously.

This article was published in The Island on 11th September 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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