Your Excellency No Cart Before the Horse!
( A response to British High Commissioner David Tatham)
( V. Thangavelu)
According to the Oxford Dictionary, a diplomat is defined as a person “ engaged” in diplomacy or an adroit negotiator. But some cynics define a diplomat as a person sent abroad to lie for his country. The British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka His Excellency David Tatham instead of the traditional role of lying for his country has chosen, may be well-intentioned, nonetheless unsolicited pontification to the Tamil Diaspora.
According to news report filed by AFP date lined August 17,1998 from Colombo the British HC has urged the Tamils living overseas, among other things, “What I would urge you to do is to appeal to the Tamil Diaspora – to your relatives and friends living abroad- to return home and help restore peace to the strife-torn island.”
The news report continued “British High Commissioner (ambassador) David Tatham said Tamils abroad should supplement the efforts of the international community to rebuild the former rebel-held town of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka.
“Tatham told local community leaders during a visit to Jaffna last week that they should ask the Tamil Diaspora to help “not in destroying this island, but in rebuilding it.
“I think you should be asking (Tamil) people living in England, in CANADA, in Australia, wherever, to send money to help restore the library, to help restore life in this city.
“ If they have property here they should repair it, they should come back, they should try and restore the life to Jaffna,” Tatham said.
How a diplomat of Tatham stature could be so naīve as to make these simplistic and uninvited statements passes one’s comprehension. One is tempted to ask the question whether His Excellency was speaking in lighter vein to humour his audience!
To deal with his first statement that “Tamils living overseas should return home and help to restore peace to the strive-torn island “ the less said about it is better. These are empty words devoid any substance and perhaps Tatham knows it. Tamils are familiar with the saying that “if you have nothing to say, say something that pleases your listeners.” As a member of the Tamil Diaspora I am wondering how on earth the Tamils living abroad can “return home and help restore peace to the strife-torn island.”
Government used brutal military force
The inference is that it is the Tamil Diaspora that disturbed the peace and brought about the current conflict in the first place and therefore it has a duty to restore peace! Nothing could be further from the truth. The peace of the island was shattered by a racist Sinhala-Buddhist government as far back as 1961 when that government used the Sinhala army for the first time to thrash Tamils protesting peacefully against oppressive and discriminatory policies and acts of parliament. The use of brutal military force to counter legitimate political demands of the Tamils for equality and dignity escalated over the years culminating in the genocide of the Tamils in 1983. In fact the Tamil Diaspora is largely made up of victims of state terrorism unleashed in 1977, 1979, 1981 and 1983.
So Your Excellency, if peace is to be restored to the strife-torn island, the initiative must come from those who disturbed the peace and started the war against the Tamils! Any student of politics will tell Tatham that the onus of maintaining law and order and good governance rests with the Sinhala government based in Colombo and not with the Tamil Diaspora.
War is in Tamil Homeland
One look at the war front will demonstrate the fact that the war is fought in Tamil Homeland not in the South. The 200,000 strong Sri Lankan army is an invading force engaged in a war of aggression committed in Tamil territory. The LTTE is merely the vanguard-armed force engaged in a defensive war to safeguard Tamils’ traditional land and protect the people. Surely the High Commissioner is not an imbecile to swallow the Sri Lankan government propaganda that the Sinhala army is waging the war to “liberate” the Tamil people from the “clutches of the LTTE”!
During World War II when the allied forces triumphantly entered countries liberated from German Nazi forces, they were welcomed by the people with bouquets and open arms. Can this be said about the Sinhala army when it occupied the Jaffna peninsula in 1995/96? Is it not a fact that all the Tamil villages lying on both sides of Vavunia-Kilinochchi A9 highway were promptly emptied when Tamils ran for safety in LTTE controlled areas in the face of the advancing Sinhala army?
It is nearly three years since the Sinhala army occupied Jaffna and yet there is no civil administration in Jaffna. Twenty-six out of 425 Villages in 15 territorial regions in the Jaffna peninsula are still a no-go zone for the Tamil people. Fishing industry on which 20% of the population rely for a living has been devastated by army imposed bans and restrictions. The army is also forcefully occupying at present hundreds of schools and thousands of houses in Jaffna.
Western aid fuels war
The Tamil Diaspora has consistently pleaded with Paris Aid Consortium countries, including Britain, to stop the massive financial assistance given annually to Sri Lanka on the grounds it oils the Sri Lankan government’s war machinery and thereby helping to prolong the bloody war. All the response the Tamil Diaspora got was a steady increase in the quantum of annual funding which stands now at US$ 870 million! It is this liberal aid that is used or diverted by the Sri Lankan government to procure highly sophisticated military hardware- part of it like hovercraft from the British government itself – to prosecute the war. His Excellency knows that the Sri Lankan government spends 20% of the budget on defense. Current year defence expenditure has climbed to Rs.56.2 from the initial allocation of Rs. 44 billion.
So the ability to restore peace in the strife-torn island rests more in the hands of His Excellency and his government than with the Tamil Diaspora! Of all the governments, the British have a moral duty to help the Tamil people since the present plight of the Tamil Nation is a legacy of British colonialism. Cutting off all financial aid to the racist Sri Lankan government coupled with an embargo on sale of arms will usher in peace to the strife-torn island overnight!
Plight of Tamil refugees in Vanni
I can easily visualise the situation that provoked the undiplomatic statements attributed to the High Commissioner. As one who once held the second top executive job in the Jaffna Municipal Council, I have seen Mayors and officials literally begging for financial assistance from every diplomat who makes courtesy call at the Municipal office. On one such occasion I was thoroughly embarrassed when the Chief Librarian almost went on his knees and pleaded for financial assistance from a visiting diplomat!
This is what must have taken place on the occasion of His Excellency’s last visit to Jaffna. The Mayor of Jaffna must have begged you for financial assistance to re-build the library and the city. So His Excellency’s sermonising “ I think you should be asking (Tamil) people living in England, in CANADA, in Australia, wherever, to send money to help restore the library, to help restore the life in this city.”
The Tamil Diaspora are not foolish enough to help rebuild the library or help to restore life in Jaffna only to see them destroyed by shelling and bombing once again by the Sinhala army. They (Tamil Diaspora) know too well that without a resolution of the national conflict and restoration of just and permanent peace any reconstruction and rehabilitation work will be devoid of meaning. Reconstruction and Rehabilitation must follow PEACE and not precede it – otherwise it will be akin to, borrow an English proverb, “putting the cart before the horse!” Even now the Sinhala army based in Palaly occasionally fires artillery shells which land right inside the heart of the Jaffna City!
It is a pity that His Excellency who is so concerned about the development of Jaffna City has not chosen to visit the hundreds of refugee camps in Vanni, Vaharai, Mutur etc. where close to a million displaced Tamils are languishing in abject poverty without adequate food, shelter, clothing and medicine. At least the people of Jaffna do have some basic necessities of life though not other freedoms, but the unfortunate Tamils in the Vanni live in degrading misery and penury.
One in three Tamils is a refugee !
According to the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority for the North, the total number of displaced persons in the NorthEast province as at 30th April 1998 is 800,845 belonging to 195,195 families. Out of them, a total of 796, 079 persons are in 15 welfare centres in several districts while the rest, numbering 4,766 are living with friends and relatives. What this means is that one in every 22.5 persons of a total population of 18 million is a refugee!
The breakdown of figures in welfare centres of various districts in the NorthEast according to the same source is as follows:
Jaffna – 331, 065
Kilinochchi – 87, 665
Mullaitivu – 128,931
Mannar – 68,422
Vavunia – 32,197
Trincomalee – 26,542
Batticaloa – 24,010
Amparai – 4,155
Puttalam – 55,181
Anuradhapura – 15,001
Kurunegala – 4,876
Matala – 1,251
Gampaha – 7,735
Other Districts – 13,814
Grand Total 800,845
In other words 87.78% of the refugees (living in the NorthEast) are Tamils! A staggering percentage when it is considered the Tamils in the NorthEast comprises only 12.7% of the total population. This means 1 in every 3 Tamils in the NorthEast province is a refugee! Hence it belies the simplistic statement by His Excellency that “ There is no monopoly of suffering in this country – every community has suffered in this country, some may have suffered more than others but no community wishes the war to continue.” The Tamils do in fact experience “MONOPOLY OF SUFERING” compared to any other community, which is quite self-evident!
This is best illustrated by the United Nations Committee on Economics, Social and Cultural Rights. In their country report on Sri Lanka dated as recently as 13th May, 1998 (exactly one year after Operation Jayasikuru) pertaining to Vanni region and the North said, “The Committee further observed that it is alarmed by the results of an independent survey estimating the incidence of under- nourishment of women and children living in these shelters to be as high as 70% and by reports in this regard that food assistance is being deliberately held back by the government as against Tamil fighters and refugees.”
The Committee then went on to make the following recommendations to ease the pain and suffering of the Tamil refugees-
(1) The establishment of governmental mechanisms to facilitate the flow of humanitarian assistance and to strictly monitor and ensure that the intended recipients actually receive the assistance.
(2) To seek further international assistance to provide permanent housing to displaced persons who have been living in temporary shelters.
(3) To reassess the food assistance programme already in place in affected areas with a view to improving the nutritional standards of food particularly to children and expectant and nursing mother.
But the Sri Lankan government, which is racist from head to toe, simply ignored the Committee’s recommendation. What is worse it has now cut-off and/or reduced dry rations by more than 40% across the board to refugees living in the NorthEast.
Food as weapon of war
On August 20, Ranil Wickramasinghe, Leader of the Opposition moved an adjournment motion in the Parliament charging the government of starving the people of Vanni under the guise of fighting the LTTE. He highlighted the tragic plight of the ordinary civilians in the Vanni and warned the government “NOT TO USE FOOD AS A WEAPON OF WAR.” The Deputy Minister of Defense, who is now hailed as the modern day Duttugemnu by the Buddhist clergy and dyed –in- the wool Sinhala nationalists in reply said,
“ We are not waging a war against our Tamil brethren. We are waging a war to liberate the Tamil brethren from terrorism. We know there is a real human problem in the North. I have seen them when I flew over the territory last December. This problem has not been caused by us. We have been supplying food to members displaced whatever the numbers were. No food has been cut. Absolutely not. I admit we have controlled full supplies after discovering in July that the LTTE is getting all the fuel they need from our supplies.”
This tongue in the cheek reply, specially to the hypocritical reference to “Tamil brethren” provoked Harry Goonetileke, a Sinhalese and former Air Vice Marshall to comment as follows: “This is the man who said at a speech in Kegalle on the 19th January, 1998, just seven months earlier, that “ pure Sinhala blood runs in this body. I have Sinhala emotions of the highest intensity. Similarly, good Buddhists, Buddhist essence, Buddhist civilization – all these are in my blood. None of this- at no time- will we betray regardless of what anyone says” (Translated into English from a Sinhala pamphlet). Just for the record it is the feudal Ratwatte family that betrayed the last king of Kandy for no other reason than he was a Tamil!
Despite the tall claim made by the Deputy Defence Minister that “ No food has been cut”; N.A. Obadage, Commissioner General of Essential Services (CGES) after meeting with the President announced to the whole world on behalf of the government that food aid to refugees and displaced persons will be cut from 1st July. Food rations will be slashed as much as 40% in Jaffna, 20% in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts, and 15% in Mannar and Vavunia districts. In Vanni only 32,200 of the 77,500 families will receive food aid. A prohibition was imposed by the Commissioner on government agents not to provide food aid to about 60,000 people living in Vanni who got displaced from Jaffna following Operation Riviresa II in April 1996.
The Commissioner informed GA’s of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi that dry rations would be granted only to those who enter refugee camps in cleared areas of Mannar and that too only to those refugees who were displaced from Jaffna.
In Batticaloa 8,500 persons comprising 2,165 families are facing starvation due to the cut in their rations. Up till end of June, 479 families in refugee camps and 5,316 families living with friends and relatives received dry rations. But from July 01, only 3,151 families (out of 5,316 families) living with friends and relatives were issued with rations.
Families facing virtual starvation
As a result of this arbitrary slashing of rations the number of families facing virtual starvation are as follows –
Valaichenai – 914,
Eravur – 758
Porativu – 259
Araiyampati – 59
Manmunai – 42
Vaharai – 44
Kaluvanchikudi – 28
This cut in dry rations will dramatically affect children belonging to 2,165 families who are already suffering from malnutrition. (Virakesari – July 21).
In May 1997, the number of people receiving food aid was arbitrarily reduced from 420, 000 to 185,000 although according to UNHCR the number of refugees were estimated at 310,000.
The reason or reasons for the cut imposed by the government is not far to seek. Firstly the government wants to force those refugees under LTTE controlled territory to move into army controlled areas. Secondly the ever-increasing Defense expenditure has forced the government to impose cuts in expenditure. And what better target to effect the cut other than the vulnerable Tamil refugees?
According to reports the government slashed supply of food to Vanni through ESC and Co-operative Societies in May this year to 2,034 tonnes, which is 808 tonnes less than the quota delivered in the previous month of April 1998. Even the 2,034 tonnes sent in May was 40% less than the monthly average delivery for the previous 24 months!
As for fuel supply, Kilinochchi district used to be supplied with 2,550 barrels initially. This was reduced at the beginning of this year to 1,000 and from July 01 to a mere 545 barrels! Likewise for Mullaitivu district initially the number of barrels supplied was 2,66, later reduced to 1,000 and now further reduced to 700. (Virakesari – September 13).
Budget allocation for food cut by 32%
The refugee budget allocation for food totalled Rs.1.5 billion enough only for six months, and for the balance period Treasury has given only an additional Rs.500 million. The Government Agent, Jaffna K.Shanmuganathan told the Weekend Express (July 18-19) that “decision to impose cuts at a time when we are expecting another 29,000 displaced families (not persons) to return to Jaffna over the next nine months could well lead to a crisis. The 32% cut in expenditure from Rs. 70 million to Rs. 55 million per month which went into effect from 1st July, will reduce the target group displaced families from the present 84,000 to 55,000 families. It was also not clear as to what yardstick was to be used in deciphering as to who would continue to benefit from food rations and who would not.’’
Food before library
This then is the miserable plight of refugees in the North after Operations Riviresa and Jayasikuru. Any further advance by the army along Vavunia- Kilinochchi A9 highway will add further numbers to the refugee population. Yet His Excellency makes the audacious statement that the Tamil Diaspora should help restore the library, to help restore life in Jaffna City when a million Tamils are starving. This is sanctimonious deception under the cloak of diplomacy. It would have made plenty of sense and act of munificence had His Excellency suggested that Overseas Tamils should remit funds to provide food relief to the starving Tamil refugees, which they do as humanly possible, in the NorthEast! His Excellency should visit Vanni to witness in person the thousands of Tamils who have from August 06 gone on rotating hunger strike outside the UNHCR office in Mallavi and government offices in Vanni demanding the restoration of refugee rations. According to reports from Vanni many women with their babies in their arms have joined the fast in weltering heat.
Rwanda type starvation
Comparatively during the time of the UNP government, food, medicines and supplies were continuously sent in adequate quantities to areas that were not under army control. Hospitals were properly staffed and functioned fairly effectively. So were the schools and other government institutions. NGOs were permitted to operate freely in both areas under the control of the security forces and the LTTE. All these were reversed after the present government came to power. In terms of physical and mental suffering of the Tamil people, under Chandrika’s ultra chauvinistic government, they have experienced the worst degradation and misery. The entire NorthEast has been turned into an open prison for the Tamils with the prospect of a Rwandan type starvation staring at their faces.
Not surprisingly President Chandrika and her government remain unmoved and unconcerned to the plight of the Tamil refugees. This indifference is quite in harmony with the policy of starving the Tamils into submission to Sinhala hegemonic rule.
It is with this objective in view that her government is continuing the economic blockade of the NorthEast since 1995. The government has also effectively stopped NGOs like the ICRC, UNHCR etc to operate freely to provide food aid to the refugees. The NGOs have been told that they can provide only non-food relief and that too subject to government supervision.
Peace Brigade International quits Sri Lanka
The Refugee Council, UK in a news release issued last June titled “Denying NGO freedom” states, and I quote “In March this year Human Rights NGO, Peace Brigade International (PBI) was forced to close its offices and quit Sri Lanka following difficulties with the government in renewing its agreement to operate in the island.
“In a Relief and Rehabilitation (RRN) paper titled The Coordination of humanitarian action: the case of Sri Lanka, the author Koenraad Van Brabant, says that the single most important impediment to effective humanitarian coordination is the Sri Lankan government, more particularly, the MILITARY, retaining the final authority and keeping agencies outside their mechanisms.”
His Excellency has also urged the expatriate Tamils “ to help, not in destroying this island, but in rebuilding.” Behind this statement is the insinuation that it is the expatriate Tamils who are “funding the war” and “destroying the country.” As to who is funding and who is destroying the island His Excellency should look in the mirror! As mentioned earlier it is the US$ 870 million that is generously doled out by the British government and her friends that is fuelling the war.
Perhaps carried away by the warmth of the civic reception accorded to him by the Mayor and the Quisling groups, His Excellency drew a parallel between the city of Jaffna and city of Colombo. He said “ I am not saying there are no problems by and large it is a city that works together and works well. If you go to a street in Colombo, you will see a Tamil, a Muslim name and an English name.” Members of diplomatic fraternity are presumed to be knowledgeable, resourceful and intelligent persons. But His Excellency Tatham is a great disappointment as far as the Tamil problem is concerned. He has mixed his priorities and digressed into trivialities.
If you see a Muslim name, a Tamil name and an English name in Colombo City does that suggest that everything is rosy in the garden for the Tamil people? If so then it is patently an erroneous proposition.
Arbitrary arrests of Tamils in Colombo
It looks though His Excellency is wearing blinkers or he is suffering from a sudden bout of selective amnesia.
Tamils living in Colombo are treated as second class citizens and live under trying conditions. Hundreds, if not thousands of Tamils, are arrested routinely by the security forces during cordon-off and search operations. They are arrested merely because they happened to be Tamils and taken to police stations in vehicles like caged animals. Many are subsequently released but only after receiving heavy bribes.
All Tamils residing in Colombo should register their names with the Police and carry special identification papers as though they are aliens. So are visitors to Colombo. Lodgings in Colombo run by Tamils have been raided times without number by the Police and inmates and their belongings thrown out lock, stock and barrel on to the streets in dead of night. The possession of valid documents provides no immunity from arrest as long that person is Tamil not Sinhalese.
During the UNP regime a large number of up-country Tamil youths found employment in Colombo and other parts of the country. After this government came to power, the increasing harassment, arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Emergency Regulations have forced these Tamil youths to quit their jobs and go back to the estates to live with their parents or relatives without gainful employment.
Many of the up-country Tamils do not possess National Identity Cards. They have difficulty in obtaining the relevant cards largely because of the antagonism displayed by Sinhalese officers. Because of this these youths are arrested if they venture to come out of the estates.
Did London Police arrested Irish citizens in London?
I ask His Excellency David Tatham – did the London Police arrest Irish citizens in the streets when IRA bombs went off in London? Did the law enforcement officers subject them to such humiliating and degrading treatment? Britain is too civilized a country to resort to such barbaric behaviour!
Thousands of Tamils lodged in refugee camps in Vavunia, Trincomalee and Mannar are treated as no more than slaves living under primitive conditions. They are housed in tents and sheds and toilet facilities are atrocious. Infectious diseases are rampant and take their toll on them. They are not allowed to leave till “clearance” given by security forces. President Chandrika bragged about “One Country, One People”, but an ordinary Tamil has to obtain a visa to visit Colombo on business, travel abroad or studies. What is worse the government and the army has effectively vetoed NGOs entering these “concentration camps” and helping the Tamils.
The AI in its report titled “Reports of Arbitrary Arrest and Detention” issued in February 1994 said, “ Thousands of Tamil people, including prisoners of conscience, were arbitrarily arrested and detained, solely on account of their ethnicity, especially in Colombo. Some were arrested by plainclothed officers in the middle of the night and driven off, blindfolded, in unmarked vehicles. Many were held in unacknowledged detention for days, at least before being released, sometimes on payment of a bribe. Some were brought before the Magistrates and released on bail or kept in custody even though the police had not specified their connection to any known offence. In June 1993, the government promised Tamil political leaders that safeguards in arrest would be introduced. These safeguards, which included the requirement for relatives to be informed where prisoners were being taken, were not implemented. It will thus be seen scant respect is being paid to law and order by law officers themselves.”
The situation today has not changed a wee bit and in fact it is worse. AI in its report dated November 27, 1997 stated categorically that “ Out of the 700 odd Tamils arrested, approximately 540 Tamil people `disappeared’ in the Jaffna peninsula within the six months of 1996 alone. Nearly all of them are likely to have died under torture or to have been deliberately killed by (Sri Lankan security forces)”. The first accused in the rape and murder of Krishanti Kumaraswamy has confirmed in open court that he did bury 300-400 of them at Chemmani on the orders of his superior officers!
Devolution proposals in limbo!
Finally His Excellency’s statement “ War was wished on the government in 1995 – it was not the desire of the government and I believe that the government wishes to see a political solution.” Et tu ? Your Excellency?” Believing is one thing, but reality is quite different.
It is more than 4 years since this government came to power and it is 3 years since it placed the Devolution Proposals before the parliament. Yet even the watered-down devolution proposals is in limbo. No one, not even the government-controlled press does mention a word about it now.
The proposals to become law has to be approved by a two-thirds majority of Parliament and a simple majority of the electorate of Sri Lanka in a national referendum. The opposition UNP has refused to support the devolution proposals despite the famous agreement brokered between President Chandrika and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickramasinghe by ex-Junior Minister Dr. Fox for a political a consensus and a bi-partisan stand on the national conflict. Is His Excellency expecting a hitherto absent miracle to suddenly materialise from thin air on the political horizon?
First just peace then development – not vice versa!
The Tamil Diaspora will play its historical role to galvanise all resources at their command to economically develop not only the Jaffna City, but also the whole of NorthEast when the right political climate is created. Right now Tamil homeland is under the jack-boot of an oppressive Sinhala army and our people under the tyrannical rule of the majority Sinhalese- a situation unprecedented in the annals of history. To the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhala army “ Jaffna will remain no more than the acquisition of a piece of real estate” as prophetically stated by Steve Mann, US State Department’s Director for South Asia at the Conference on Sri Lanka held at Harvard University in 1997.
Tamil Diaspora is gifted with enough intelligence and common sense as not to put the cart before the horse as suggested by His Excellency!