‘One’ Sri Lanka?

Somewhere in the jungles of Wanni, Velupillai Prabhakaran is rubbing his hands in glee. The actions of the Sri Lankan Government during the last week, however quickly reversed, best served his interests, and his alone.
When the police department in its wisdom, decided that the only way to rid Colombo of LTTE cadres was by ridding the city of Tamil people from the north east, the ensuing period proved a costly one for Sri Lanka.
The 24 hours, in which the eviction saga unfolded, stunned Sri Lanka and the world by virtue of its brazen lack of sensitivity to an issue that has occupied the national focus for over two decades. For the first time since 1983, Tamils were made to feel, even if only for a day, that they had less right to travel to the capital and that they were being singled out – blatantly – for harassment.
An impassioned Tamil National Alliance MP, protesting the forcible eviction in Parliament on Friday, made a chilling statement. “Bring them back if this is really one country.” How can a state and an administration that has been making so much noise about Sri Lanka being ‘one country’ have dreamt of such a course of action? How could it have escaped the notice of the powers that be – and the hitherto unknown ‘official’ that ordered this eviction – that such action would be tantamount to saying, ‘you belong somewhere else; this is not your place’? It is this blindness, in the horrific aftermath of the saga, that is the most intolerable.
Every citizen’s right to move freely and choose their area of residence, is enshrined in Article 14 (h) of the Constitution. The state’s right to forfeit that right in times of threat to national security is enshrined in the next article, and is duly noted by the public at large. What cannot however be fathomed or excused, is the government’s use of its law enforcement arm to evict a section of people from a certain area, based on nothing except their ethnicity and region of origin. There is only one other area of this island that such a restriction exists – in those rebel-held territories in the north and east, where Tiger law holds sway and no man shall walk without official sanction of the LTTE.
When a legitimately elected government enforces a similar restriction on its own citizenry visiting the capital; that is when it becomes overwhelmingly obvious – something certainly is rotten in this state of ours.
Thankfully, some of the damage was mitigated by the Supreme Court decision against the continuance of the drastic measure and the state’s decision to retract the action and bring the residents back to the capital. There has to be a special word of praise also for the opposition parties in Parliament for taking up the cause with so much vigour. Ranil Wickremesinghe, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Rauff Hakeem, Mano Ganesan and the countless other parliamentarians – the unlikely allies who banded together and demanded an answer from the government and insisted the state desist from harassing the Tamil community.
Our bouquets are especially for civil society organisations – so often at the receiving end of the slurs about being pro-Tiger, whose efforts so untiring and relentless resulted in the Supreme Court order, which ended the madness and forced the hand of the government to bring back the evictees. The Centre for Policy Alternatives has certainly displayed its commitment, and not for the first time, towards ensuring a truly free and democratic Sri Lanka for all its citizens. All these efforts made something very clear – enough pressure, sufficient opposition and the power of a people supporting a righteous cause could move mountains – and governments that seem otherwise immovable.
The outcry from all quarters also gives rise to hope that on other occasions, when the dignity of human life is at stake, victims will not be left without a voice. The Sri Lankan people and her representatives told the Tamil community last week that the actions of the administration of the day notwithstanding, our commitment to ensuring that anything even remotely resembling 1983 will never happen again, has not wavered.
For all the swiftness of the remedial action, the damage may already have been done. Over 100 lodgers who were taken to the north, refused to come back. For so many years, detractors of the LTTE have argued that more Tamils live outside of the north east because they have found freedom from the clutches of terror here. We have argued that the numbers speak for the lack of support for the LTTE’s separatism, that the state guarantees their safety and represents them better than the Tigers ever could. The few short hours of Thursday (7) reversed all this.
In returning them to their ‘homes,’ we have denied that this whole island, from Point Pedro and Dondra Head, continues to be their homeland too. In telling them that they have ‘overstayed’ their visit to Colombo, we insinuated that they were here on visas. In forcing them back into the north east, ‘where they come from and where they should live’ we gave credence to LTTE claims that the Tamil people require ‘territory’ of their own because the rest of the country was being closed to them. The treatment of a people – who are very much our own – makes the government’s claims about ‘liberating’ a people from the LTTE, ring very hollow.
Perhaps the time for tearing our hair out and beating our chests is past. Perhaps the quickest form of healing is to move on – hopefully in the assurance that the government will not attempt such a thing again. For to do that, would surely be political suicide and give Kilinochchi, and only Kilinochchi, cause to celebrate.