03 February 2017

Grievances and resolution: the question of true dimensions

Grievances.  ‘Grievances?’ rather.  A word and a question.  The former implies a list or at least two issues that somehow cause distress.  The latter, the question that is, is something that has been customarily ignored or caused much shy-making, toe-watching and navel-gazing.  At best it prompts a highly emotion and even highly stylized narrative which is marked by marking out preserves (of grievances) where there are none and exaggerations where there is some degree of legitimacy to claim.  We are talking of ‘Tamil grievances,’ by the way.

Dr Nirmala Chandrahasan (LLB, LLM, PhD, Attorney-at-Law) in an article titled 'National Question and grievances faced by a minority’ (which she claims is a response to a piece I wrote, ‘Let’s make Sampanthan’s New Year wish come true’) does not indulge in such histrionics.  She offers some sober reflections on the issue, lists grievances and makes recommendations for their resolution.  They demand response.  

Nirmala begins by quoting the LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) report: ‘The Commission takes the view that the root cause of the ethnic conflict lies in the failure of successive governments to address the genuine grievances of the Tamil people (Chapter 9 para 184).'  

One doesn’t have to take the LLRC report as the last word on anything of course.  Those who could be called fellow-travelers in Nirmala’s pro-devolution caravan were shrill in their objections when the LLRC was set up.  The LLRC did not stick to mandate.  A minor misdemeanor, that.  I remember offering some observations on this a few years ago.   When the same shrill voices demanded that LLRC recommendations be implemented forthwith, I pointed out the following important ‘misses’ or ‘forgets’ in their pronouncements: “the LLRC was a far cry from a body enacted to draft a constitution. Secondly, some of the recommendations require constitutional amendment and even referenda. A third ‘forget’ can be added: the Government is not bound (as per the mandate-limitation) to implement all of the recommendations. There’s can-do and cannot-do in all this. There is, moreover, ‘done’, ‘doing’ and ‘forget it’ too. There is wanted-speed and doable-speed.” [For elaboration, please read, 'LLRC and Devolution: the politics of skipping caveats'].

The LLRC note on ‘root cause’ is incomplete.  It is correct that successive governments have been in part responsible on account of their inability to address the genuine grievances of the Tamil people, but that is not the only root cause.  Tamil chauvinism predates the much maligned ‘Sinhala Only’ legislation.  But let’s ignore all that.  The key terms here are ‘root causes’ and ‘genuine grievances’.  We’ll take up ‘root causes’ later; for now, the key descriptive of the word ‘grievances’ is the word ‘genuine’.  This has been ignored by those who have hurrahed the LLRC report.  

‘Genuine’ is about true dimensions — fact, not falsehood; history and not myth-models.  

Nirmala, having started with that LLRC quote appears to have forgotten that the issue is root causes in the main. She’s flagged eight points of contention: 1. Implementation of the Language Act, 2.Equal access to services and opportunities, 3. The principle of equality in the dispensation of justice, 4. Fair and just treatment of those detained, 5. Transitional justice, 6. Return to rightful owners of private properties secured by the state during the conflict (Points 4, 5 and 6 being essentially elaborations of Point 3), 7. Lack of state-sponsored economic development in the northern and eastern provinces, and 8. Non-implementation in full of the 13th Amendment.


Of these, Points 3-6 and 8 are not 'root causes'.  They are issues that have arisen long after tensions snowballed into a full blown armed conflict. Even Point 2, touches on language-related issues, i.e. Point 1.  They are certainly valid concerns and anything less than comprehensive addressing of the same cannot help the cause of reconciliation.  However, to flag these as valid or strong justification for ‘devolution’ is simplistic and demonstrates the pretty thin case for federalism championed by Tamil nationalists long before the LTTE came into the equation.  Indeed, it shows that the unadulterated chauvinism of the Tamil political leadership was as potent a poison as that of their Sinhala counterparts.  They’ve offered therefore a ‘Tamil counterpoint’ to ‘the non-addressing of grievances by successive governments’ by articulating ridiculous aspirations, confusing cause, effect and objective, and thereby feeding militancy among Tamil youth.  They’re as culpable as lax governments in the production of the LTTE and the terrible thirty years of conflict.  

Of course it is the state that has pick up after the fact.  Those who funded, armed and in other ways backed the LTTE can adopt and have adopted a hands-off policy in the matter of infrastructure development and other necessary action to rebuild conflict-ridden territories including rebuilding livelihoods.  It’s never enough, of course.  Charles Haviland, one time BBC correspondent in Colombo, once wrote about a ‘rehabilitated’ LTTE militant in Jaffna who was lamenting about being unemployed.  [For an elaboration of the kind of ailment that the likes of Haviland suffer, read 'Towards a post-complicit moment for those in pre-sleep slumber' and 'HRW and Brad Adams need to get some sleep']


Haviland's wail was rich.  Terrorists were offered skills that would help them earn an income, they were allowed to study and sit for examinations, they were released (if anyone wants to know what the countries that champion human rights and have berated Sri Lanka for being 'non-complient', all that is required is to whisper the name 'Guantanamo Bay' several times before and after meals) and the state is required to find them jobs as well?  It’s great if any state anywhere in the world can do a fraction of all this, but this was being demanded of Sri Lanka, a not yet middle-income country, that was in no position to eliminate unemployment and certainly not required to babysit ex-terrorists!   

The issue of justice (Points 3, 4 and 5) are valid. Of course one need not elaborate that injustice is not a badge that only Tamils have to wear.  In fact the entire justice system in its operation heavily favors the privileged.  Privilege is not the preserve of any particular community.   Nirmala’s point is valid when it comes to disappearances.  Proper investigation and follow-up action is necessary and sadly has been most manifest in absence.  

Just to get the ‘ethnic’ dimensions of the perspective right, the kind of justice that is sought was something that was not offered to victims of the 1988/89 insurrection either. And, in the larger narrative of ‘reconciliation’, it has to be remembered that it was not just the security forces that were engaged in strewing misery.  Who conscripted children?  Who killed members of rival Tamil political and military groups?  Were all members of the clergy, intellectuals, professional and ordinary people in the Tamil community killed by the security forces?  The LTTE’s track record is known in all this.  And it was not only ‘innocent Tamil civilians’ who were killed.  There were civilians of all communities who died, some were massacred, some villages were burnt and not all of them warrant the ‘Tamil’ marker.  Widowhood.  Becoming orphans.  Sinhalese know all this.  Muslims too.  The baby belongs to the state by default of course, but when we talk about it, we can’t talk of certain widows and not others, certain orphans and not others.  That’s a crime of selectivity that demands the descriptive 'pernicious'.

Does this absolve the state from finding out what happened to those who were taken into custody and then disappeared?  Can the state shove it all under a carpet called ‘forgive and forget’?  No.  Allegations have to be investigated.  It may take time, but it has to be done.  The LLRC is absolutely right on this.  Nirmala has picked the correct quote which bears re-telling: ‘The government is duty bound to direct the law enforcement officers to take immediate steps to ensure that these allegations are properly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. It will be recalled that this report came out quite a few years ago, but evidently these recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.’ 

It is a problem.  Not a root cause.  Perhaps a ‘cause’ for delay in reconciliation or even a cause for another round of violence, but certainly not a ‘root cause’ that warranted armed insurrection or even a demand for devolution.  It's none of that simply because of the error of chronology.

The same holds for Point 4, the indictment or release of those held in detention.  The release of over 90% of those taken into custody at the end of the conflict, many of them as mentioned above after being provided the opportunity to obtain marketable skills and useful qualifications (something unheard of in countries whose leaders regularly lambast Sri Lanka for ‘doing nothing’ by way of reconciliation), is not a valid excuse for denying justice to those who remain in custody.  Again, as pointed above, ‘not a root cause’ but a consequent whose genesis is not neat, not tidy and marked by multiple traces of 'ethnicity' if that's the preferred frame.  The state has to hold the baby, of course since no one is saying ‘I am an LTTE member’ these days, not even the LTTE’s conflict-time proxy, the TNA, which by saying ‘the LTTE is the sole representative of the Tamils’ covered itself with the Tiger flag.  The state has to hold the baby, yes, but this doesn’t mean that we say nothing of the baby’s parentage. But again, let us not forget, it’s not a ‘root cause’.

Point 6 is also an issue of justice.  However, demilitarization is a process and no one can say that this Government or the one before did nothing on this count.  Security is and always will be an issue, but 'return to normalcy' requires that properties secured for whatever reason be returned to rightful owners, subject of course to the often difficult process of establishing legality of claim.  Thorny, but addressable.  A must, in fact.  The fact remains, it is not a ‘root cause’.  Not a grievance that caused conflict of a military nature.  

The implementation of the Language Act has been slow.  Nirmala is correct.  Reasons include lack of resources and lack of political will.  There’s movement on both, however.  It is a grievance that needs to be rectified, the LLRC is correct.  Perhaps it is a root cause in generating a sense of being subject to discrimination, but whether the dimensions are significant enough to warrant insurrection is not clear.

Let us now take on Points 1 and 2

Point 2.  Equal access to services and opportunities.  Of course.  The Tamils were favored by the British in the public service and that edge did erode.  If that’s a grievance and therefore should be addressed by restoring the percentages we had in 1948 then the Sinhalese would be edged out for all time.  We can play the proportions game in many ways.  We call it multi-ethnic and multi-religious as though the population is equally divided among ethnicities and religious communities.  Not true, but it’s not said is it?  

Nirmala, however, is absolutely correct about the low representation of Tamils and Muslims in the armed forces and the Police.  This has to be rectified.  It will be slow, in the case of Tamils at least, for understandable reasons, but progress should be made.  The recruitment of a full complement of Tamil speaking officials as per the requirement of providing meaningful services to all citizens is a non-negotiable.  Here too, Nirmala is absolutely correct.  Point 2 is a demand and it outlines a genuine grievances.  A root cause?  Well, as much or as little as Point 1, as argued above.

As for job opportunities and the lack of effort by governments to set up factories in the conflict-ridden areas (the ‘development-deficit’ discussed in Point 7), one must understand that it was not possible for thirty years and little thanks to those who went around burning all state institutions, factories included.  People all over the country are struggling to make ends meets.  Farmers all over the country are suffering.  It’s not just Tamil farmers.  As for fisherfolk, there was a time when they couldn’t go out to sea and they can thank the LTTE for that!  

Governments can only do so much.  Much has been done, in particular by clearing the ground for development.  It is unfair to expect a country like Sri Lanka to turn a war-torn territory into a flourishing industrial zone overnight.  Nirmala talks about benefits of development not accruing to ordinary people, but then again when was that ever an objective of any government?  Development was never for Tamil ‘ordinary people’ and not for Sinhalese 'ordinary people’.  Nirmala should be commended for noting this.  

The one telling ‘deficit’ is a comprehensive irrigation program for the northern province that matches development in this sphere elsewhere.  The issue of a ‘River to Jaffna’ has been debated for a long time.  There are disputes over technical feasibility.  One must take into account that not all areas have the same complement of resources.  However, if devolution is about each devolved entity making do with what's contained in the relevant geographical boundaries, then the ‘Jaffna River’ is out.  In any event, the lack of development argument only alludes to something that few Tamil nationalists acknowledge or want anyone to mention: 

‘Development-lag is an issue that can gather greater currency if it is dressed in an ethnic garb’.  


Let’s consider devolution.  There’s nothing in Nirmala’s ‘Seven Point List of Grievances’ that makes a case for ‘devolution’.  Point seven, in fact, is dependent on the ‘center’ and not periphery.  It’s not a root cause or a grievance.  An aspiration, yes, but not a grievance.   The grievances, the genuine ones that is, call for action and resolution but nothing that can be pinned on devolution of power.  If there’s a wound in a foot, one doesn’t apply medicine on the neck.  Apples and oranges.  Call it whatever you will. The 13th Amendment is an aberration.  It presumes historicity and scientific validity of arbitrarily drawn lines and markers that neither the Tamils nor the Sinhalese had anything to do with.  The President himself has correctly pointed this out and the most ardent devolutionists have maintained a deafening silence on the matter.  

Nirmala asks if devolution is good for everyone, not just Tamils, never mind that devolution to the current ‘lines’ will concretize the myth-models of Tamil chauvinism.  She quotes Mahinda Rajapaksa on this, ‘people in their own localities should be able to guide their own destinies’.  This of course presupposed a neat and equal distribution of resources, but even if that were true, then the devolution logic demands that we move to village councils and not stop at provinces.  Nirmala says decentralization can do it but strangely does not apply that logic to the only two valid ‘issues’ she has flagged (Points 1 and 2).  

Many have misquoted or selectively quoted the LLRC report on the issue of devolution.  Nirmala is not an exception.   I strongly recommend a re-reading of the LLRC report with close examination of Section 9.231 which interjects 4 caveats to the principle of ‘devolution.

Section 9.231 of the LLRC report, which interjects 4 caveats to the principle of ‘devolution’:  (A) Devolution should essentially promote greater harmony and unity and not disharmony and disunity among the people of the country, (B) The focus should be to ensure that the people belonging to all communities are empowered at every level especially in all tiers of Government, (C) The democratic empowerment of the people should take place within the broader framework of the promotion and protection of human rights, and (D) In addressing the question of devolution two matters require the attention of the government: empowering the Local Government institutions to ensure greater peoples’ participation at the grass roots level, and lessons learnt from the shortcomings in the functioning of the Provincial Councils system be taken into account in devising an appropriate system of devolution that addresses the needs of the people, (and finally) it should at the same time provide for safeguarding the territorial integrity and unity of Sri Lanka whilst fostering its rich diversity.

Caveat A imposes the condition of ‘harmony’. Now if devolution uses the current provincial boundaries (randomly drawn, let us not forget), which constitute the basis for the (diminished) Eelamist demarcation, if the majority of Tamils people live outside the North and East (for example), devolution along these chauvinist lines powered by myth-models and exaggeration cannot inspire anything but suspicion and anxiety among the Sinhalese.

Caveat B speaks of empowerment and calls for much better governance and greater affirmation of citizenship-meaning.  Caveat C is about human rights. The upholding or subverting of human rights has nothing to do with the structure of the state (for example, whether it is a federal, unitary or other arrangement). So Caveat C, like Caveat B, is an add-on that is not devolution-specific.

Finally, Caveat D. It is about ‘building on what we have’, i.e. the local government institutions. It is about greater and meaningful participation. Such ‘democracy,’ again does not require devolution as per the 13th Amendment, 13 Plus posturing etc., but about scripting in checks and balances into the relevant articles of the constitution. Caveat D also unequivocally salutes the need to ‘provide for safeguarding the territorial integrity and unity of Sri Lanka whilst fostering its rich diversity’. The devolution debate has gone too far with taking as ‘fact’ and ‘legitimate’ the extrapolations of Tamil chauvinism for any power-devolution to established provincial lines not be seen as a threat to territorial integrity and unity.

A common and not very innocent ‘error’ is to confuse ‘devolution’ with ‘power sharing’.  Power sharing is about checks and balances that forbid the abuse of power, celebrate equality of opportunity in letter, spirit and practice, and about leveling playing fields to the extent possible in a capitalist economy.  Devolution is certainly not a necessary pre-condition; more robust legislation that insulates citizens from power-abuse is.  

Back to basics.  Root causes.  Trotting out issues produced by an armed conflict where the blame for the dismemberment, death, displacement and destruction cannot be placed at a single door is not an enumeration of ‘root causes’ but a description of what any conflict inevitably produces.  The only legitimate grievance Nirmala has expressed is about the language issue and here again it is more about sloth than anything else that one can complain about.  

‘Genuine,’ let me repeat, is about true dimensions — fact, not falsehood; history and not myth-models.  Genuine grievances are about true dimensions.  And resolution is about a solution that engages with grievance.  Devolution doesn’t arise from any of the genuine grievances Nirmala has outlined and certainly not the devolution to the Eelamist lines that are taken erroneously as a ‘goes without saying’ which, we all know, comes from a ‘comes without saying’ that has nothing to do with grievance.
*A shorter version of this article was published in the Daily Mirror on February 2, 2017.


Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene.  
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