Northerners in Sri Lanka are “not out of the woods yet”

sri-lankan-parliament.jpgBeing lost in the woods is a terrifying experience today, just as it was centuries ago, where the origin of the idiom ‘out of the woods’ can be found. Early pioneers were a hearty bunch and their day started before the sun came up and ended long after it went down because they had to care for their wagons and livestock. They wanted to put as many miles in each day as possible so they could reach their destination as soon as possible. To be caught in the wilderness in the winter was almost certain death. So to save time and find a good camping place with plenty of grass, fresh water and relative easy to defend or safe, they often pushed on to the next natural clearing in the woods. When someone asked when they were going to stop for the night, the standard answer became “when we clear the woods” and that became interchangeable with “not out of the woods yet”. In spite of all the efforts of the new coalition government of Sri Lanka, there are still events occurring in the North like the last week police shooting incident in Jaffna, which only confirms that Northerners are still lost in the woods. Not surprisingly, the success of the spontaneous hartal held in the north confirms that the killing of two youths is looked through the ethnic lens by the Tamil Minorities in Sri Lanka and all over the world. It only brings home the message that the effort of the new government is yet to address the core issues of the Tamils.

When the present coalition government in Sri Lanka was elected to power in 2015, there were hopes among the Northerners, that they would soon see the end to negative peace years that the previous regime had forced on them. When the civil war ended in 2009, it was expected most of the tri-forces personnel would be demobilized and that defense expenditure would be cut down. However, this has not taken place and with most of them still stationed in North and East, prevents return of normalcy in the lives of the Tamil speaking minorities living in those Provinces and it impacts their relatives living elsewhere in the country and overseas. It appears that the new leadership is facing resistance from many legislators with old mind-set on either side in the parliament to resolve issues of the people in the North, of which many issues are connected with the security forces and the leadership is unable to resolve them too. This mind-set is reflected in the 2017 Appropriation Bill, which indicates the allocation for defense in peace time is still at the top and the trend is set to continue in to next year, refer to last posting on the subject in Northern Breeze. The country will never come out of debts with such large allocation for defense in peace time.

The latest incident involving the death of two in Jaffna University undergraduates brings home one message very loud and clear, that the ethnicity of the region is not reflected yet in the region Police force even after seven years of ending the war. The present ills in the country has long been attributed to majority rule imposed on a multi-ethnic population without any protection for the minorities, unless this root cause is addressed properly the nation will continue to bleed. Yet the veteran members in parliament representing the majority community have the habit of spreading fears that their voters may reject them, if the grievances are resolved to the satisfaction of the northerners, which amounts to blatant denial of rights of these minorities.

True, the country was rescued from the wilderness when the people elected a new government twenty months back, but it has not yet taken the people in the northern region to relative safety. Last week incident was a tragedy in itself for the families of the two students, it happened around midnight at Kulappidi junction not far away from the city. The two undergraduates were travelling in a motorcycle, were called to stop by the policemen on duty, but the youngster riding the bike ignored the order and when the motor cycle sped away the police opened fire at close range. The rider lost control of the motor cycle which collided against a parapet wall and were rushed to hospital. On admission both were pronounced dead by the Judicial Medical Officer, who had also reported that the two had been under influence of liquor, a probable reason for them not responding to the call by the police to stop prior to the accident. The government statement acknowledged that the cause of the students’ deaths may not simply be accidental as the rider was found to have had gunshot injuries and have arrested the five police personnel allegedly involved in the incident and contradicted the early police announcement that the deaths were the result of a motorcycle crash. Now investigations are underway on the instructions of the President himself and his directive to the police must be considered a timely intervention to clear the atmosphere of suspicion, mistrust and uncertainty. Tensions were high in the peninsula at the week end as students reportedly gathered to protest the deaths claiming police involvement in the tragedy. Early this week there was a complete hartal in the North and protests elsewhere in the country demanding for a proper conclusion of the investigations. The Chief Minister of the province in his wisdom has appealed to the people of the province, especially the youth, to be calm as they mourn the killing of the undergraduates by the police. This was reflected in the statement made by the Inspector General of Police, who has said though the shooting was not premeditated, the police have taken legal action and awaits court ruling on the matter.

Sadly, it was reported as told by the Defense Secretary of this incident, that such encounters were common occurrence in the country; while the Law and Order Minister has said the incident should not be interpreted through the ethnic lens. Their positions reflects the reality of having people in authority probably with old mind-set unwilling to look at the root cause of problem and only react to its effect a main reason why the country is in ruins. The bigger issue of majority rule imposed on a multi-ethnic population without any protection for the minorities still remains. The Tamil leadership has been for many years calling for the police to be made a devolved subject of the province as per the constitution to enable only locals to be in it, a point sadly missed out by the leadership of the majority at the center. There is no doubt if the state had addressed this basic issue and if the police officers who challenged them to stop were of the same ethnicity the two students would have probably still been alive. If the students had committed any offence, pending inquiry they would have been jailed, instead of been killed. Also all such common occurrence told by the Defense Secretary would not have taken place.

It’s true during the negative peace years of the previous government, there were many incidents of this nature between students and police in the country, particularly in the North and East provinces as well as in Colombo City. Earlier many cases of violence were reported involving the armed forces in which the civilians in all corners of the island nation suffered is lengthy over the decades, as successive governments became increasingly heavy handed in their dealings with civilians. It eventually took the country to a bloody civil war. Sadly, the list of unresolved deaths, disappearances, torture, unjust secret incarcerations and suchlike involving the security forces and authorities is very long and leaves a heavy black mark in the island’s record of human rights and social justice. Many cases of students who have died or been injured in yet-to-be-resolved incidents of violence involving the security authorities are numbers in the mounting victim toll. There are other lists of civilians who have died in incidents involving the security authorities including the IPKF peace keeping forces of India have never been acknowledged by the state.

With such incidents keep propping up in the North which confirms the people living there are “not out of the woods yet”, they have suffered terribly for decades at the hands of the state tri-forces, the Indian forces and the many armed movements that were operating in the region. Though both the President and Prime Minister have repeatedly shown remarkable coordination in their responses to public crises, they needs to be alert that there are extremists in the country, who will not let any such incident pass without trying to take whatever advantage they could derive from it to raise their political stocks. The bigger issue of providing protection for the minorities needs to be resolved at the earliest, as the going is bound to get tougher for these two leaders as the parliament debates the new constitution in the coming year. The success or failure of the coalition rule depends on successful resolution of these issues of the northerners and would clear the path for successful implementation of the 1500 day Economic Development Plan briefed in Parliament by the Prime Minister.