Last week I had a view of another lagoon—in Jaffna. On Thursday, early in the morning, I took the Chinese built train to Kankasanturai that ran on Indian tracks after Vavunia. The train took more than seven hours to reach Jaffna, my destination. This time I travelled by train after 35 years; my last train journey to Jaffna was in July 1980, during the time of the general strike.
Extending the railway to North is undoubtedly commendable. My last visit to Jaffna on A9 was in 2011 for the demonstration and rally organized by the FUTA. Since 2011, things have changed considerably— new constructions in Kilinochchi, better roads, housing schemes by the Indian government. While we were passing Kilinochchi, I asked my Taiwanese friend who was travelling with me if he could say it was the area where an intense armed battle occurred about five years back. His answer was an emphatic ‘no’. As we have always been told appearance could be deceptive especially when more complex questions are raised. Looking at the new roads, shopping malls, government offices, public school and hospital buildings and others, it looked as if Jaffna and the North had come back to normal after 35 years of war and destruction. However, the story is partly true and developments there like in other places are deceptive and lop-sided.
Now there is a government at the centre supported by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and a provincial council with TNA Chief Minister and the cabinet. It was said that the TNA supported Maithreepala Sirisena unconditionally to extend and establish democracy in general. The people in Jaffna voted overwhelmingly for Sirisena in spite of the fact that the number of votes to Mahinda Rajapaksa had also shown a significant increase. By democracy, the people in Jaffna and Vanni might have thought and expected something different from what the TNA meant.
The TNA led Provincial Council correctly informed the people that it could not operate according to its plan because of the intervention of the central government controlled by Rajapaksa. Now things have changed. A new Governor has been appointed and a new provincial secretary is now in charge. In such a circumstances, it is totally justified for people in Jaffna and Vanni to think and expect that things would be moving in the right direction. People are patiently waiting to get their hopes and expectations fulfilled.
I visited three refugee camps on KKS road. People forcibly displaced have been living in those camps for 25 years. They were from Kankasanthurai, Palali and Myleddiy and displaced during President Premadasa regime. There are 35 camps and I heard altogether nearly 4,000 families are living in them. By forcibly displacing them from their natural habitat, they were also excluded from their way of living. Many of these people were either farmers or fishers. They have been not allowed to engage in these activities any more. I asked: “Does the government provide money? Or payment in kind?” They told me that they had been given a ration initially but during the last five years it had been stopped. So, if work is available now they work as day labourers. Refugee life has also affected children. Although they are allowed to attend nearby schools, children have to encounter two main issues in addition to supply of stationery and other basic requirements. “I have four children, but I cannot afford to send all four to school. So, I send the younger children to school and ask elder children to go and find some work.” One woman told us. Secondly, children from the refugee camps are usually looked down upon in the schools. So the refugee life is not just a life with poverty; it is a life of deprivation, dependence and disrespect.
It is interesting to learn that even though these people are living in appalling conditions, their demands are not unreasonable. “If the government says part of the land is needed for expansion of the Palali airport, we have no objections. But the government can release the remaining land,”one person told us. “People live near airports.” I told them that I also lived closer to an airport.
In spite of innumerable requests, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government did not take action to settle the issue of refugees after the conclusion of the war. I was shown so many petitions and letters sent to various government authorities asking them an immediate solution to the problems faced by them. As the Rajapaksa regime failed to resolve the issue, people in the camps voted in the last presidential election for Maithreepala Sirisena in the hope that a solution would come within 100 days programme. There has been a committee for welfare camps that are active in presenting people’s grievances to various government authorities. They showed me the latest request they had prepared. They informed me that their hopes that the new administration would respect their right to return were gradually waning. The TNA had told them that the solution of the refugee problem might not be found within 100 days! Once again it has been proved that the democracy the elitist parties and individuals talk about and the democracy that the subalterns expect are not one and the same. Elites want people with voting power while subalterns want people with right to land and to sea. The refugees in the remaining 35 camps are deprived of the latter.
Two paths that are not mutually exclusive are open for the people in Jaffna and Vanni to take in order to find a solution to these unresolved issues.
First they can pressure their elected representatives both at national and provincial level using existing governmental mechanisms to defend the right of return for the people in camps. The TNA that supported the present government should ask the President and the Cabinet for the inclusion of right of return in the 100 days programme without keeping it on the back burner until the Parliamentary election. Like in the previous elections, the issue should not be used as an election ploy.
Secondly, a brief democratic space has been open after January 8. In order to extend and expand this space, people should intervene positively to get their issues settled. In the south of Sri Lanka an important, though small, steps are taken on political issues. Those organisations have raised demands like ‘free political prisoners’, ‘repeal the PTA’ and ‘defend the rights of individuals who were forced to leave the island for political reasons to come back and engage in politics’. Right to return should be added to these key demands. It is true, campaigns like this would definitely eventually challenge the neoliberal economics and its culture. As many studies have shown the main danger to democracy today is not anarchism but neoliberalism.
The writer is the co-coordinator of the Marx School.
(This article first appeared in The Island)