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Sunday, April 14, 2024

People in the North Should Have the Same Rights

by Dr Laksiri Fernando
The discriminatory application of rights of the people in the North and the South came into sharp focus, when the police prohibited peaceful protests to be launched in front of the Jaffna bus stand on 19th Tuesday, as the police hurriedly obtained a court order the previous day.
The same day, protests took place in Colombo in front of the Fort Railway Station, and four days before, in front of the University Grants Commission (UGC), of course on different issues.

When the bus stand area was declared a  prohibited zone for the protest, the protesters gathered near the Tellipalai Thurkka  Amman Temple to air their grievances, with a  religious flavour. Even they were not allowed to  enter the temple premises to have a meeting. 

Protests have been a recurrent scene in Colombo even during the height of the war in many places; Lipton Circus and the Fort Railway Station or even Parliament junction, Battaramulla, being quite famous. It is a fundamental human right, exercised by trade unions, political parties or citizen’s organizations, that should be employed of course, peacefully, whether in Colombo or Jaffna. But even three years after the war, the people in Jaffna are not allowed to stage a peaceful protest on a matter quite fundamental to their day to day life.

The protests were mainly by the families of Valikaamam North, who have been displaced by the High Security Zone in the area since around 1990, who are now eager to get back to their original private land. Instead of giving them back their own land, the military is reported to be using the land to build permanent structures including Buddhist temples, the Asian Tribune reported (21 June 2012) quoting Mavai Senathirajah, TNA MP for Jaffna. Nearly 12,000 families have applied for resettlement to the Divisional Secretariat.

The Asian Tribune (AT) is not an anti-government website. Its editor, K. T. Rajasingham, is one of the living senior most SLFP members in the country. The AT reported that the matter will be brought before the UN, seeking redress, as the government seems to be quite oblivious to the demands of the people of Jaffna.

When the bus stand area was declared a prohibited zone for the protest, the protesters gathered near the Tellipalai Thurkka Amman Temple to air their grievances, with a religious flavour. Even they were not allowed to enter the temple premises to have a meeting. However, the protesters were determined to go to the Divisional Secretariat to hand over a petition.
The procession was dispersed by the riot police and only four persons were allowed to meet the Divisional Secretary, at the Secretariat, where land matters in the area are currently handled. It was reported by other sources that when some of the protesters from Vadamarachchi area were on their way back in a bus, it was attacked, but physical harm was averted, thanks to timely action by the bus driver.

Although the Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, claims that High Security Zones have been ‘drastically’ reduced, that is in fact not the case. Even according to his own figures, out of a previous 4,096 hectares, 2,582 hectares are still under the military for HSZs (Colombo Page, 19 June 2012). Most of them are not state land, but private land belonging to ordinary citizens.

Perhaps the military officials in charge of high security zones in Jaffna, rightly ask the question: “Where can the army go?” because the Defence Ministry wants them to stay. There are some clear recommendations by the LLRC, both in the final and the interim reports, after fairly investigating all sides of the matter. But these recommendations are not being implemented. For example, the LLRC recommended payments in the form of rents or fees for the period that the lands have been used in the past, since around 1990. Instead of doing so, the military or the Defence Ministry is offering rent to retain land for the future, thus distorting and aggravating the whole process.

There is no question that unravelling the land or the HSZ issue is a complicated matter. But there should be a clear ‘political will’ to do so, without letting it drag on for far too long, even complicating security issues in the country again. If the government needs rational solutions in this respect, the best thing to do is to involve some of the key members of the LLRC to serve as a ‘Land or HSZ Reconciliation Committee’ and resolve the matters as fast as possible. They are the best people, who are knowledgeable about these issues now.

Even if the government believes that there can be future security issues, although this is hardly the case, the deployment of the army is not a complicated matter, given the available technology, transport and ‘normalcy’ in the country. Most of the soldiers and officers are keen to come back home after the end of the war. But keeping the people of Jaffna continuously under the ‘military jackboot’ can be a harbinger for new security issues, or a factor to disturb the prevailing normalcy.

There have been some people who were asking me, as regards my previous articles, ‘what are the rights that the Tamil people don’t exercise, that are not common to the Sinhalese?’ Well, I have given some answers, and the ‘denial of the right to peaceful protest’ is another. Most blatant is the withholding of the Provincial Council elections in the North. Under the 13th Amendment (of the present Constitution), land is a matter that comes under the provincial councils. This is the very reason why the government should have discussed and negotiated land issues in the high security zones at least with the elected representatives to Parliament from the North, without taking unilateral or dictatorial decisions.

It may be the case that the government would soon move to curtail the peaceful protests in the South as well. An indication of this trend was shown when the police obtained permission from the judiciary to curtail the burial rituals of the slain JVP members in Hambantota, on exaggerated security grounds. The cynics might argue that in that sense, the government could level or equalize the rights of the North and the South! That may well be the case soon, but those are not the ‘rights exercised,’ but the ‘rights denied or suppressed.’

What is increasingly apparent is the interconnection between the human rights issues in the North and the South. When a government denies the rights of one section, it eventually denies the rights of the other sections as well. One positive feature of the protests in Jaffna on the 19th was at least the symbolic participation of some organizations from the South. Although the exercise of rights is unequal, the denial of rights is equal.


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