by Lynn Ockersz
At long last, the Lankan state has taken what may be seen as a few ‘baby steps’ towards addressing some hitherto unmet crucial needs of the Tamil-speaking citizenry of the Northern and Eastern provinces. Considering that the government could not have been described as getting down to addressing post-conflict issues thus far with any notable aplomb and zeal, the recent decision by the state to recruit Tamil persons as police officers, for the express purpose of serving in the North and East, needs to be welcomed as a step in the right direction.
We are given to understand that some 2000 Tamil police officers would be recruited to serve in the North and East from among particularly the youth of those areas and could not help but feel that such measures could go some distance, if carried out with the best of intentions and are followed-up and expanded on, in meeting the crucial Tamil need of having law and order authorities in these former strife-torn regions of this country, who could speak their language fluently and thereby meet their needs more expeditiously, besides giving them a more sensitive hearing. The heavy toll taken by the decades of war on the able administration of North-East affairs could be gauged, among other things, by the progressive and phenomenal decline in the number of Tamil officers serving in the country’s Police and security forces.
This yawning lacuna in the law and order machinery, had an aggravating impact on the ethnic conflict because throughout the war years, Police and security forces personnel operating in the North-East were viewed by some sections of the ordinary people of those provinces as an alien and hostile presence who could not be relied on to be in tune with their needs and aspirations. If Tamil-speaking personnel were present in abundance in the law-enforcement machinery, the conflict in the North-East would not have grown to the unmanageable proportions it finally did, because the vital needs of the ordinary citizenry would have been met with relative sensitivity and expeditiousness by the law enforcers.
This positive factor would have enabled the law enforcers to be seen as a people-friendly presence and not as an ‘occupation force’. Consequently, the LTTE would not have been in a position to establish sections sympathetic to it among the general populace.
It needs to be swiftly clarified, though, that the majority of the North-East people were not supporters of the separatist cause. Right throughout the war years this writer was given to understand by residents of long standing in the strife-torn areas that the sympathies of the majority of the North-East citizenry were not with the militant separatists.
Very many people, no doubt, had grievances, but they preferred these to be resolved by political means through their parliamentary representatives. In other words, the majority of the people of the North-East were of a peaceful disposition and this should be borne in mind by those who at one time considered it quite in order for even scores of innocent Tamil lives to be snuffed out if the Tigers could be militarily neutralized in the process. These dangerous, self-serving pedagogues would do well to learn that the end could never be conceived as justifying the means. After all, the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were also seen as necessary to end World War 2. It will be only a matter of time before these elements who are baying for blood and those with whom they are in league, would learn that peace could come only by peaceful means.
Coming back to the points at issue, the government’s decision to recruit Tamil police officers would have the added benefit of enabling the Tamil youth of the relevant areas to feel a stronger sense of identity with the Lankan state. This would come about as a result of the sense that they are needed by the state. Thus far, sections of the Tamil youth were compelled to alienate themselves from the state on account of the perception that they were discriminated against in the provision of employment opportunities by successive governments. Their recruitment as law enforcers and the prospect of sustainable and gainful employment could go some distance in enabling these young persons to overcome this sense of being alienated from the Lankan state. In fact, the state’s move could have a unifying impact on those sections of the citizenry who have hitherto felt estranged from it.
There is no doubt that ordinary Tamil citizens would see the judiciousness of these measures because, thus far, a complaint often voiced by them is that police stations in particular were not manned by personnel who could converse fluently with them, understand their needs and swiftly meet them. Hopefully, this nightmare would now progressively come to an end but the government should not delude itself into believing that a big load is now off its chest. To begin with, the scheme in mind should be successfully implemented.
Not only must more and more Tamil youth be provided employment in the state agencies of the North-East, but the bilingual policy of the state must be fully implemented. That is, every public servant should be required to be fluent in both Sinhala and Tamil. Although the necessary state machinery was established to implement this policy, these efforts, apparently, have proved futile. Now that a Ministry of National Languages and National Integration has been established, we hope the needful would be done sooner rather than later. Sincerity of purpose, as we see it, would prove the most major catalyst of positive change in this context.
The enormity of the task facing the state has been underscored by reports of a growing ‘fear psychosis’ in the North. These reports are proof that all is far from well in the war-torn region of yesteryear. Peace, very clearly, does not come from ‘the barrel of a gun’. Nor could it be generated by eye-catching infrastructure development programmes. Even a measure of peace could be achieved only on the basis of equity and justice. In the absence of the latter, the North-East conflict could not be expected to be resolved.
The government is obliged to ensure that the single step it has taken forward in the form of the Tamil police personnel recruitment scheme is not nullified, by it taking two or more steps backwards by allowing the law and order situation to deteriorate in the North. The government is duty-bound to use the legitimate means at its disposal to end the resurgent violence in the North and to bring law-breakers to justice.