R. Sampanthan is a man I respect as a Tamil elder. He is working with the national unity government to solve the problems of the Tamils –lands occupied by the military, being administered in a language we do not understand, being arrested and tortured arbitrarily on mere suspicion using the Prevention of Terrorism Act, using that PTA to arrest Tamils on supposed suspicion and then exacting bribes to free us and in the alternative exacting confessions under torture and using that confession to lock us up for decades without trial, etc.
Recently we were promised good news within two weeks on the release of occupied Tamil lands. Then to ruin that possibility, policemen were cut with swords and the army deployed in search operations, making the release of lands unlikely any time soon. That the army was running former militants including LTTE-ers to do its dirty work has been well known. After people in Chunnakam were recently sword-slashed while the police watched, I certainly believe this as a strong indication that the recent attack on the police was orchestrated by a group within the forces to delay the release of lands. It is a group that was running restaurants and making a lot of money and needs its interests safeguarded as these restaurants and businesses are forced to close one after the other.
Sampanthan deserves, it is widely believed among Tamils, Tamil support for all that he is doing. He has generally voted with the government on most matters to give it the majority it needs for the constitutional resolution of Tamil problems. However, is the government really committed to solving Tamil problems?
The ongoing Central Bank controversy seriously questions the government’s commitment to honesty, to uphold which we elected it. The ability of a minister seemingly to have the backing of the Prime Minister after accepting a multimillion apartment as a gift while saying it was accepted by his wife and daughter from a businessman. Incredibly, that Minister maintains that it did not occur to him to ask his wife and daughter from where they got that much money!
This government has, albeit slowly, been thankfully addressing Tamil problems. It is being thwarted at every turn as in the return of lands. When minority rights come up against votes for it, the government sadly goes for the votes. This is clear in the matter of whether we should have a secular state where all are equal – against Buddhism as a state religion sponsored by the state and Buddhists (who have the largest share of votes) are privileged.
However, many Tamil problems can be solved without a constitutional change and yet the government seems to do nothing. In the North traffic tickets are issued by policemen speaking only Sinhalese. The ticket is written in Sinhalese. The Tamil translation of the temporary licence is wrong and misleading while only the English version speaks of a spot fine. Just to find out the offence and the police station to which the driver needs to go, he or she needs to ask a Sinhalese to read it for him. Courts in the North and East are in Sinhalese. Policemen, even Tamil policemen, prosecute in Sinhalese and issue orders in Sinhalese to those in court. They simply assume that it is our duty to know Sinhalese and get angry when we do not understand. We are reduced to behaving like cattle – the court sergeant bellows in Sinhalese, a few understand and follow his orders and the rest of us like cattle follow those who do what the sergeant demanded. I have found little dignity for a Tamil speaker in our judicial system.
The problem of language, the release of our lands and those held without trial for years, police brutality, etc. – these are problems that can be solved quickly by this government under existing law, especially the 13th amendment. The government not doing it is an indication that its heart is not in the right place and substantive changes to the constitution are unlikely.
This brings me to the 13th Amendment. It gave us article 24 of our constitution which makes Tamil the language of administration in the North and East. It is being violated openly. We were given Provincial Councils under Chapter XVII A of our constitution to run our own affairs. The Northern and Eastern Provinces which were put together as the North-East Province are now separate again while India seems not to care about upholding her word to Tamils after getting Tamil militants to disarm on the strength of the 13th Amendment.
And now the 20thAmendment. It is a sneaky piece. The Bill seems to have been made ready some time ago but suddenly published on 03.08.2017 on the orders of the Prime Minister. Ostensibly, it is to make all Provincial Council Elections be held together on the same day. Effectively it will postpone PC Elections due on 26 Sept., and shortly thereafter to three PCs. The sneakier part is that after article 154E shall be inserted a new article 154EE. Under this 20th Amendment, provincial councils may be abolished early and run by Parliament up to the common date of elections for all councils!
There goes our 13th amendment touted by India as the panacea for Tamil problems. Under this, powers of the PCs may be usurped and arrogated by Parliament! It is a matter involving Tamil rights against the strong possibility of electoral humiliation for the government if elections to the three PCs are held on the due dates. As now to be expected, the government fails to stand up for minorities and decides based on its petty interests. I have seen no discussion among Tamils as this amendment so important to us comes up. What does India say? The JVP is supportive. Will the TNA also support it?
A more fundamental question is this. Will a government that does the reverse of what it claims to do – that is reduce the powers to Provincial Councils rather than enhance them – ever solve the problems of Tamils?
Michelle Alexander states in her New York Times Best Seller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, the US has “not ended racial caste in America. [Americans] have merely redesigned it.”
Our government, in claiming to solve Tamil problems, seems only to redesign the politically inferior status of Tamils. For example, Tamils were put on some independent Commissions as if to show that Tamils now have a chance to contribute to governance. But the reality, as my batch-mate, the Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya said after the postponement of elections, “We are like snake charming gypsies who have lost their snakes.”
The Tamil house is burning. The TNA (technically ITAK) MPs complain there is no party democracy. TNA Batticaloa District MP Yogeswaran loudly draws up phlegm from his chest and spits in front of my priest every time they pass and says Tamil Christians are not Tamils. C.V. Wigneswaran says Arumuga Navalar taught the Bible to the Missionaries. To stand credibly against Sinhalese communalism, we first need to address Tamil communalism in our midst decisively.
Mr. Sampanthan, Sir: this is not the time to play the fiddle like Emperor Nero. Your supporters say it is time for decisive action. Many suggest that sacking from the Federal Party (ITAK) is the way to remove some of the trouble-makers from office. They argue that if they are removed from the ITAK, they automatically lose their seats.
The Prime Minister, these supporters say, needs to be told that your vote cannot be taken for granted in parliament and the government should be put on notice. It really is a matter of our life and death as Sri Lankan Tamils.
It is said that one can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all the people all the time. I hope it is not the case that Tamils can be fooled all the time.
As I write under the hospitality of Sinhalese villagers in the South, I find their intrinsic generosity of spirit as they visit me with young coconut and such simple gifts, missing in the upper classes from schools like Royal College that I see in government who take rather than give.