The Jaffna Intl Airport and 13 points of Tamil political parties
By DR. NIRMALA CHANDRAHASAN
November 8, 2019, 9:55 pm
The opening of the Jaffna International Airport at Palali was an important step both from the point of view of national integration as well as the development of the Northern part of the country. It also helps the reconciliation process, as it gives recognition to the Northern Province and the Tamil speaking people of that province. However, I was dismayed to read an article where the writer was critical of the opening of this Airport, on the grounds that it was inimical to security concerns. He cites the 13 point memorandum as supporting his contention. The joining of two disparate matters in what is alleged to be a Security issue is altogether curious, and in this article, I propose to examine this contention.
The first question is how this memo could be regarded as raising security concerns. It is merely a reiteration of what the Tamil parties consider to be the entitlements of the Tamil People under Constitutional and international law. However, as pointed out by Dr Ahilan Kadirgamar in an earlier article, it seems to be more for the consumption of their own constituents rather than seriously engaging the Presidential Candidates. I would add that some of the points /requests raised in the Memorandum, such as resolving the ethnic problem under a federal system, and recognition of the Tamils as a people with a right of internal self-determination, are not matters which fall within the purview of a President’s executive powers, more so after the passing of the 19th Amendment. These provisions, even if they were to be accepted, would require Constitutional changes and would have to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and a Referendum. Hence they will require the concurrence of the people, which includes Sinhalese, Muslims, Burgher et al. Some of the demands such as return of lands taken over by the Security Forces which were owned by private citizens, and taking up the cases of detainees held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, are matters which could be settled by administrative action and could be agreed upon. The NPP candidate has, in fact, stated that he is willing to discuss these matters. The memorandum also raises the issue of the ongoing state-aided colonization and what is regarded as Sinhalization and Buddhistization. Here too what is being objected to is the State and its agencies participating in this endeavour. However, there is another way of tackling this issue, and that is for the Tamil people and especially the youth to be willing to go to the land and engage in Agriculture and farming; rather than looking to Government jobs and greener pastures abroad. In Israel, the Jews of the diaspora were willing to come back to a land they had left centuries ago, and to go into an occupation namely farming, which they had long ago lost touch with while also fighting off the Arabs already in occupation. As for what is being called Budhistization, it must be recalled that the Tamils of the North and East have a Buddhist heritage dating back many centuries. The many ruins and archaeological Buddhist sites are evidence of this. It is now for the Tamil inhabitants to claim their heritage and come forward to help in the conservation of these sites, and for the Tamil people to be made aware of their Buddhist /Hindu heritage.
I would think that the memorandum of the Tamil parties while bringing to the fore certain issues which have been sidelined, should also lead to a realization that these issues can only be resolved when they have the backing of the majority of the people of the country. Looking to the international community to extend support is not feasible. The experience of the Kurds in Syria and that of the government in Afghanistan shows us the limits of such support. Hence, if the Tamil parties want a Federal Constitution under which the ethnic problem is resolved as stated in the memorandum, they will have to undertake a campaign which addresses the Sinhala people directly in their own language, in order to break down the barriers of prejudice and false propaganda which have approximated Federalism to Separatism. The recent judgement of the Supreme Court in Chandrasoma v Senathiraja, which categorically states that Federalism is not Separatism is a good starting ground and needs to be brought to the attention of the general public.
Meanwhile, there is also a Constitutional process going on in Parliament, which has also constituted itself into a Constitutional Assembly. The work of the Constitutional Assembly which began the process of drafting a new Constitution in 2016 is also a step in the right direction. The Steering Committee report represented a consensus between all the political parties on certain matters inter-alia on the Nature of the State and Devolution of powers to the Provinces. The leaders of all the political parties and senior MPs sat on this Committee which was chaired by the Prime minister. Members of all political parties sat on the Committees dealing with different subjects and reports of these committees have been compiled and are available. Members of the SLFP and the presently constituted SLPP as well as The TNA and other Tamil parties were represented on these Committees. The Steering Committee Report and a discussion paper prepared by the Experts panel in the form of a Draft Constitution, known as Draft Zero would have been submitted to Parliament for its approval but was stymied by the Constitutional coup in October 2018, last year. It was finally presented in January 2019, but by this time the consensus that had existed between the political parties had begun to break down, as the political parties began to gear up for the Presidential and General elections. The Constitutional process lost its steam and has stopped for the time being.
The Draft Constitution envisages the abolition of the Executive Presidency. The nature of the State is defined as being undivided and indivisible. There is also a clause prohibiting secession. It is accepted that there should be power-sharing between the Centre and the periphery and the Devolution of powers is based on the framework of the 13th Amendment. It has been recognized that in order to facilitate power-sharing those features of the 13th Amendment and Provincial Councils Act which are impeding MEANINGFUL DEVOLUTION should be amended or done away with and that there should be administrative reorganization as well as financial viability provided for the efficient functioning of the Provincial Councils. The recently released Election manifesto of the DNF candidate accepts the need for a new Constitution and these provisions. So slowly ‘heming heming’ we may achieve a Constitution which is acceptable to all the communities and fair to all. This is where the matter of Security comes in, because it is only when no community feels marginalised and all citizens are treated equally and fairly that there is less chance of terrorism raising its head and Security for all.
Coming back to the Jaffna International Airport, it cannot pose a security risk as passengers coming in and going out will be documented. It will help to keep disaffection down, as the people of the region will feel less marginalised and proud to have an International Airport in their town. Furthermore, the Airport will help the development not only of Jaffna but the northern region of Sri Lanka, which includes the North-Western province and the North Central Province. Tourism can now be directed to these regions, and not just to the Southern parts of the Country. Industrialists and businessmen from India (particularly the Southern States which incidentally are the most developed states) as well as other parts of the world can be encouraged to start industries in these areas of the Country. There was a time when the North Central Province was more closely aligned to the Northern Province as many families sent their sons to Jaffna schools. Notable examples are Maithripala Senanayake and K. B Ratnayake both prominent SLFP leaders, who were educated in Jaffna and were fluent speakers in the Tamil language. There were and still are ancient Tamil villages in this Province as also in the North Western Province. The Airport may once again build up linkages between these provinces, thereby helping in the process of national integration.
In view of the election round the corner, it might be relevant to look at the factors which would influence Tamil voters in making up their minds as to which candidate they would vote for. I would think that like the voters in the rest of the country they would want a secure and peaceful environment. The Tamil people having gone through the vicissitudes of war would certainly not want to go back to an era of strife and hardship. They would want a candidate who avows democratic values and who gives them democratic space to freely express themselves, without continuous surveillance and reprisals. A candidate who gives or has given them economic benefits can also earn their gratitude. This is illustrated in a previous Presidential election between J.R Jayewardene and the SLFP candidate Hector Kobbekaduwe. Despite all the other electoral districts voting for Jayewardene, the Jaffna district alone voted overwhelmingly for Kobbekaduwe. The reason presumably being that the farmers of the province were grateful to him for stopping the import of onions and potatoes from India, during his term of office as Minister of Agriculture, thereby helping the sales of their produce and the prosperity of the District. At the same election, the Tamil candidate Kumar Ponnambalam came a poor third in the election results, as he had only nationalism to offer. Likewise, the Jaffna International Airport which will bring development to the region is something which will be appreciated by the people of the North.