by Sumanasiri Liyanage
When Rahul Gandhi made a statement, on rationally justifiable ground, that he was concerned about the fact that the government of Sri Lanka had not yet done enough for Sri Lankan Tamils in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, many people for multiple reasons got angry and even began lamenting about the breach of sovereignty of Sri Lanka as a nation. They may have thought how Sri Lanka treated its Tamils was her business and not anyone else’s. They have even refused to make an inquiry whether his statement had any truth before criticising him.
Let me connect with this with a statement recently made by the President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The President, I think, addressing officials of the Ministry of Highways, reiterated the importance of road network and its proper maintenance. He particularly mentioned that immediate attention must be paid to roads that connected cricket grounds used for the forthcoming cricket World Cup matches. Cricket lovers, including yours truly, would love that directive in that a good road network will facilitate the movement among the match venues. One may wonder why and how I am going to connect these seemingly unconnected two statements. Of course, there is a missing link. Here, I would like to mention the experience two of my Indian friends faced during a short visit to Sri Lanka.
Two academics from the University of Pondicherry visited Sri Lanka about two weeks ago and while they were here, the University of Jaffna and University of Peradeniya invited them to visit the two places. It took them 12 hours to reach Kandy from Jaffna along A9 highway. It was not only the long time they spent on the road but the nature of the road that made the trip extremely strenuous. I told my Tamil colleagues that when I bought a new car on my duty free vehicle permit it, I intended to visit Jaffna first of all. They asked me jokingly an interesting question: Would you plan to dump your car after the trip in Jaffna or, if you are fortunate, in Kandy on the completion of the trip? I listened carefully to President’s statement on the development of highways and the government’s priorities. No mention was made about A-9.
I remember that a Cabinet Meeting was once held in Kilinochchi and so much publicity given to it. Did the members of the Cabinet including the President reach there by helicopters? Didn’t they experience the road conditions all the way? Did the RDA make patchy repair work only for that particular event? Is the President aware of this deplorable condition of the A-9 Highway beyond Vavuniya?
Let me place it in its proper context. The armed conflict came to an end about 20 months ago. Highly advertised Uthuru Vasanthaya has been in operation for around one and a half years. It was told that the priority would be given to the construction of main roads as it facilitated peoples’ movement. The A-9 Highway in the absence of Kankasanthurai-Colombo railway line is the main link between the Jaffna Peninsula and the rest of the country. There should be something wrong in any development programme that neglects the re-construction of the A-9 highway.
I have no idea what Rahul Gandhi meant when he said that the Sri Lanka government was "not doing enough" for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. However, I am sure that the UPFA government does not understand the Tamil problem and how it and related problems should be addressed. It was said that the UPFA government would hold an election to Northern Provincial Council after the Parliamentary Election. However, nothing has been heard about the full implementation of the 13th Amendment or the formation of the NPC. Meanwhile, we hear bad news about the law and order situation in Jaffna. The matter was raised in the Parliament by Minister Douglas Devananda. The positive suggestion by the Leader of Opposition, Ranil Wickramasinghe that parliamentary delegation visit Jaffna to report back to the Parliament the situation in Jaffna has not taken seriously by the government.
Just because the armed conflict has come to end with a comprehensive defeat of the LTTE, it should not be presumed that the Tamil national conflict has been resolved. The root causes of the problem remain unaddressed. It is true that the way in which return and resettlement of IDPs were addressed by the Sri Lankan government is much better than such efforts in other countries faced with human-made or natural disasters. However, the Tamil national question cannot be reduced to the issue of return and resettlement of the displaced. It has multiple dimensions and many implications. Soon after the war, the leaders of the government seem to have perceived that if the state can fulfil the economic and development needs of the Tamil people, problem would gradually fade away.
The whole idea behind the Uthuru Vasanthaya is that the ethnic problem is essentially a developmental problem. One may see two fundamental weaknesses in this approach. First, the Tamil problem is not similar to the problem of poverty and underdevelopment in the districts like Monaragala. Even if it is similar, communities who are marginalized by the State tend to perceive that the issue of poverty and underdevelopment are related to and part and parcel of the identity-based marginalization. I need not to reiterate what has been written on this subject. Secondly, the bad experience of my academic friends from India demonstrates that even developmental work cannot be carried out to achieve intended results, unless the people who are affected by decisions are not allowed to participate in the decision-making process. The deplorable condition of the A-9 is a good example for this. Developmental priorities are decided upon by the politicians, bureaucrats and military officials in Colombo so that what is necessary for the region are invariably swept under the carpet.
I believe what Rahul Gandhi said was an eye-opener. The UPFA government has not done ‘enough’ for Tamil people or to the areas that are traditionally inhabited by them. If Uturu Vasanthaya turns into bleak and dark ‘winter’, the tragedy will be followed not by farce as Marx told us but by a worst tragedy. So, instead of asking Rahul Gandhi to get more details about the Northern Province from the Sri Lankan High Commission offices in New Delhi and Chennai, it would be more productive, if the delegation from the Ministry of External Relations make a trip to Jaffna along the A-9 highway.