Noel Nadesan — a statement was made before LLRC at Colombo on 30/ 11/2010
A good day to you, ladies and gentlemen,
I thank the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission for having invited me to present my point of view. I consider it a privilege to have this opportunity to submit my view on this important occasion. I am an expatriate Sri Lankan from Tamil origin, living in Australia. I have decided to narrate the events on my life as [it interlaces with] the tragic story of the 30-year-crisis that ruined the lives of tens of thousands of innocent civilians of all communities. With this narrative I hope to illustrate how communal relationships can deteriorate overnight and rebuild too. I also hope to demonstrate the various political threads that exacerbated to the communal politics and led to unnecessary violence that could have been avoided by both sides.
At the outset I must mention that I am a member of the Tamil Diaspora Dialogue team engaged actively in working closely with Sri Lankan and international authorities to foster reconciliation, peace and rehabilitation. I must also acknowledge the constructive proposals and ideas made by Dr R. Narendran, Professor of Physiology, who has been a part of the Diaspora Dialogue Team. I have incorporated some of his ideas. However, I must emphasize that I take full responsibility for all the statements made in my submission.
Looking back I think it was my good fortune to be born in this era where I witnessed the major events that shaped our society. As a young veterinarian I spent the days of my early career happily working in Medawachichiya – a predominantly Sinhala area — and traveling to my home in Jaffna every weekend for three years.
The 1983 violence did not affect me personally but I was overwhelmed and traumatized by the violence perpetrated by human beings [upon] other fellow human beings. I must admit that I was scared to work in Medawachchihya which was a border area. I got a transfer to Ragala which is closer to Nuwara Eliya. .
My veterinary office was inside the Ledesdale tea estate. Within a few months — i.e in April 1984 — there was a dispute between the Assistant Superintendant and a laborer working in the tea estate. Because the Assistant Superintendant was Sinhalese and Laborer was Tamil this work related dispute turned into a communal one. People from adjoining village rushed in and set the fire to the entire workers lines or houses. The hostility lasted for several days. I was living within the Estate and knew many workers in the Tea estate. I tried to help the victims. This was not welcomed by many people. I perceived some hostility.
I was in dilemma. I was debating what I should do next. I could not go back to Jaffna or any other place in Sri Lanka. My best option at the time was to spend short time in India. The plight of the Tamils opened my eyes. I thought it was my duty to help those in need and I set up a charity to help the Tamil refugees. I was joined in this project by many volunteers, including my wife who is a medical doctor. Within two years, fighting among the Tamil militant groups threatened my security and suddenly found myself in an environment not conducive to live there. This crisis compelled me to migrate to Australia. I was one of the people who reluctantly left my own country.
As my life experience demonstrates the life of a Tamil was not secure not only among the Sinhalese, but even among the Tamils. It was not secure in Sri Lanka nor was it secure in India. Having experienced a life full of events I am still faced with the critical question of what should be the place of a Tamil in any part of the globe. I think I have found the answer in the conclusion drawn [from the writings of] Prof Sivathamby who says: ‘I want to be a Sri Lankan as well as a Tamilian. I do not want to lose the Sri Lankan identity i[n order to] become Tamilian or become Tamilian to lose the Sri Lankan identity.”
The Tamil people in North and East are made to believe, they are second class citizens in Sri Lanka by Tamil politicians since 1948. They held not only Sri Lankan government but also Sinhala people responsible for this. This issue is debatable and it is unlikely that this controversial issue can be resolved to the satisfaction of all. But whatever the pros and cons may be, the fact remains that tensions mounted and sporadic violence flared up in many forms which ultimately resulted in all out war.
The Sri Lankan constitution states that it provides equal opportunity to all its citizens — Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. IF SO HOW DID THIS PROBLEM COME ABOUT? WHY DID THE TAMILS TAKE UP ARMS? IS IT BECAUSE OF THE FAILURES OF THE SINHALESE TO UNDERSTAND THE PROBLEMS OF THE TAMILS?
Personally, I believe Tamil problem can be divided into two categories:
1 Real problems, and
2 Perceived problems.
1)1956 the Tamil Language was relegated to 2nd place but later this was rectified. However, the implementation was not done properly. Almost overnight this legislation denied 24 percent citizen of the privilege of functioning or interacting with the state in their mother tongue.
2) The introduction of language-based admission to university, introduced in 1972, further alienated the Tamils and led to Tamil militancy among the Tamil youth.
Present government is understanding this problem and rectifying it.
1. Sinhala colonisation
A small island like Sri Lanka, with its improved health facilities, particularly after the eradication of malaria, was bound to face population explosion. Any government facing this problem would be compelled to release state land for human resettlement. This is understandable and many lands in Northern Province were given to Jaffna people. Lands in eastern province were allocated to people from the south.
2. The communal riots during 1958, 1977 1983.
These are not riots caused by bitter rivalry among the two communities. These riots erupted because of the failure of the government to maintain the law and order. Especially in 1983, Government and armed forces actively took part in the killing and looting. The fact that there were no communal riots after 1983 proves that government action and vigilance is necessary for the maintenance of law and order.
Most of the violence was politically motivated and driven from the top rather than from the bottom. The 30-year-old war was waged from both sides more on divisive politics than on communal bitterness. Both parties committed despicable acts. The burning of the Jaffna library, the killing of civilians, killing prisoners, bombing sacred places, massacring innocents, assassinating politicians were all politically motivated acts rather than acts arising from communal hatred.
The bitter past continues to haunts us. We are now faced with the question: How [can] we Sri Lankans, both Tamils and Sinhalese, leave the past behind and handle the new challenges?
An independent Tamil Eelam within the island of Sri Lanka is virtually dead and buried. Those who are chasing this dream are living in a world of fantasy. Those who are still actively scheming to resurrect the Tamil Eelam project should be aware that they are also simultaneously digging a mass grave for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. What are the alternatives?
Devolution of powers to the periphery, particularly to the northern and eastern provinces, has once again taken the centre stage. It is at the heart of the debate on how to manage the majority-minority equation within the island. Fully-fledged federalism, with extensive devolution of powers, has to be ruled out not only because the Sinhala polity is convinced it is tantamount to separation, but also because the majority of Tamils living in the southern part of Sri Lanka and 2/3 of Easterners are not willing to this constitutional arrangement.
The Sinhala people are now indifferent to the 13th amendment, which gave birth to the Provincial Councils, under Indian pressure. It remains a symbol of insult to Sri Lankan sovereignty for many. These Councils as presently constituted perform some services, but have no major impact on the people they serve. These Councils have been avenues to create unnecessary layers of politicians who are a burden on the people who have pay out of their pockets to keep them going and impeding the traditional local government institutions which are more closer to the people. The Municipal Councils, Urban Councils and the Gam Sabhas (Village Councils) have progressively lost their power to move effectively because a huge white elephant is sitting on top of them.
Devolution, as an exercise to empower the minorities in Sri Lanka, cannot be imposed on an unwilling unconvinced government and a disinclined Sinhala polity. It is pertinent to note that there was no demand for devolution from the Sinhalese and the Provincial Councils were thrust on the seven (out of nine) provinces where they are a majority in order to accommodate the demands of the Tamils. Any greater degree of devolution grudgingly accepted because of external pressures, is likely to be rendered meaningless, [and to suffer the same fate] as the 13th amendment. It is futile to waste our time discussing, debating and demanding the full implementation of the 13th amendment with +/-, or any other devolution mechanism, in the prevailing circumstances. Seeking Indian pressure to force the Sri Lankan government on issues relating to devolution and power sharing will definitely prove counter-productive for the Tamils.
The Tamil politicians of today as those of yester-year have miserably failed to understand the Sinhala psyche. With the escalation of Tamil demands, culminating in the demand for a separate State and a war, the position of the Sinhala politicians and polity, also progressively hardened. The reverse is also true. The Tamils or those who claimed to represent them waged a prolonged war for a separate State, which ended with no gains, but debilitated the Tamils to an unimaginable extent.
Is it time for the Tamils and their politicians to seek a different path towards securing their place within Sri Lanka? Is it time to think out of the box? The political objectives of the Tamils should be defined clearly at this stage. Do the Tamils want power for the sake of grabbing political power and territory or for the sake of improving the quality of lives by living in harmony and peace in a multi-cultural society? The recent history in which the Tamils threw all their might into carving out a separate state has failed and only those who refuse to see the grim consequences to the Tamil people will boast of going down that disastrous path again. Our future political course must first take into consideration the lessons learnt from the total failure of our leaders who took the Tamil people to the lowest depths in their history. If this position is accepted – and history as it stands today does not provide us another realistic scenario — what should be the future course of Tamils? What is it that the Tamils need most now to lay the foundations for their future security, peace and progress? I do not want future generations of Tamils to go through what I and my fellow Tamils had gone through in the last thirty years which ended in Nanthikadal. The Tamils like fellow-Sri Lankans are sick of violence.
To begin with we must have a clear perception of our goals. First and foremost, we must not mix violent politics with our cultural pursuits. We have come a long way from 1956 and we can achieve our goals peacefully without any violence if we have an enlightened leadership like the Muslims and the Indian Tamils. They have achieved their goals, and they have retained their identity without going down the destructive path of the Jaffna Tamils. To achieve this we have to be a Sri Lankan without losing our Tamilness, like the way the Muslims and the Indian Tamils have retained their Muslimness and Indian Tamilness.
The historical conditions that led to the Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976 or even “1983” do not exist now. It is clear that 2010 is not the same as “1983”. Our politics have gone for isolationism, to create an existence of our own cutting off the umbilical cords that links us to other communities. Our community bled to death in going down this suicidal track. This has not only failed but has no future. The viable alternative is to engage with not only the Sinhala community, but also with Muslims, Indian Tamils and other communities as equal partners. This is necessary to secure our place in one big nation. In short, we have to be like Murali – a team player fighting shoulder to shoulder with other communities for common goals.
How do we achieve this?
Primarily the Tamils need help to recover from the devastating effects of the prolonged war. They also need security – of person and property- to live as a free people without fear, equal citizenship rights and equal opportunities in all aspects of life. They have to be guaranteed their cultural and linguistic rights as individuals and a people. During the coming years, the northern and eastern provinces should be developed to provide means of livelihood and higher standards of living for the people. Could there be another way of achieving these objectives?
There are yet Tamils who have failed to understand the current situation in Sri Lanka. The Tamils have been debilitated to an extent that day-to-day survival has become a priority to a very large number. Language, culture, religion and concepts of homeland have become distant considerations. The need to find food, shelter, health-care, livelihood and other basics of plain existence far outweigh the need to exercise power over their affairs as articulated by their so-called leaders. The hunger for power felt by their so-called leaders and leadership aspirants does not reflect the sentiments of the Tamils at large. To quote Prof. Sivathamby again, 90 per cent of the Tamils do not want Eelam. The basic needs of the Tamils are so acute and the northern and eastern provinces so impoverished that only the central government with whatever international assistance it can procure is capable of providing relief. The Provincial Councils in most provinces are very dependent on the central government for their finances, and in the north and east, these provincial bodies have no technical skill, wisdom or political magnanimity. The political realities throw serious doubt on the need for a second tier of government.
The Tamils, while yet persisting with the demands of yester-year, do not also understand that the Sinhala attitudes towards the minorities have changed. They no longer feel a disadvantaged majority. They are a confident people, who now feel their destiny is firmly in their control. They can no longer be described as a ‘Majority with a minority complex’. Issues of language and religion no longer are their greatest concern. The ordinary Sinhala people have found their place in the sun. The extreme elements among the Sinhalese are firmly under the control of this government. They are incapable of rousing divisive passions any longer and cannot strike a chord with the Sinhala people.
The Sinhalese are now seeking development and economic prosperity above everything else. They understand that unless there is peace in the country these objectives cannot be achieved. They now have a stake in the economic pie. They want to learn English now to pursue their ambitions, in a culturally and economically globalizing world. English is no longer the ‘kaduwa’ (sword) they once despised. The other welcome development is that the shift from 1956 to 2010 has brought about a new realization among the enlightened Sinhala community that the Tamil grievances need to be addressed within the framework of a unitary Sri Lanka. Having experienced the war and seen the aftermath, they empathize with the Tamils. The Rajapakse government has shown all signs of moving in this direction. When the Rajapakse government talks of a homespun solution, it is articulating a desire to find a solution that will address the aspirations of all communities. Models of devolution imposed from outside may not satisfy these criteria. But I believe that a new model of nation-building has begun.
The window of opportunity that has opened for all minorities including the Tamils should not be missed this time. Politics is the art of the possible and compromise is its essence. Of course, many Tamils influenced by the politics of confrontation of the past would ask why the Tamils should compromise. My answer would be that it is common sense to do so and the height of hypocrisy and stupidity not to accept current realities. The Tamils leaped to reach the skies but they ended up falling into the lowest depths. Their task now is to climb to the top once again and they cannot secure their future if they decide to go back to the past.
Tamils have to compromise and move away from their failed past to achieve attainable goals. The Tamils cannot talk the language of a minority with a majority complex any more. History, as perceived by many Tamils, may prove that they had an independent kingdom before the Portuguese invasion and hence they have a right to self-rule of sorts, if not a separate State. Unfortunately, history that is more recent has pointed the Tamils in the direction of finding their place within a unitary Sri Lankan state. Rather than accepting flawed and debilitated Provincial Councils, it may be prudent for the Tamils to seek alternate arrangements, which would be easily acceptable to the Sinhala polity and cater to their current needs and those of at least the next few decades.
In my opinion, the best solution to resolve minority-majority issues is not through confrontation but through cooperation and consensual politics. Besides, in the foreseeable future it will not be possible to force the Sinhala majority through violence. Peaceful engagement with the majority is the only viable option available to the minorities. Pragmatic politics dictates that the only option available is to join the mainstream which is destined to direct the nation in the days ahead. This is not political cynicism or a total surrender. To me anything is better that violence. We have gone through enough and it is time to say that enough is enough. And this is nothing new either. If we look back we have gained most by being in the mainstream politics than in finding new routes to Nanthikadal.
I suggest in broad outline approaches that have the potential to find viable routes to attainable goals. I do not want to go down the path that I outlined at the start ever again. I think all the communities have bright future if they abandon their bleak past. Ensure for the minorities what they seek:
1. A bill of rights, covenant or social contract in the constitution that will enshrine as an entrenched principle that all citizens are equal and have inalienable rights to,
a. Security of person and property, wherever they freely choose to live in the island.
b. Equal opportunities in education, chosen profession and employment, based on merit.
c. Live in accordance to their culture; be educated in the language of their choice (Sinhala, Tamil, English or a combination of these) and practice their religion.
d. Total and unqualified equality at all legal, political, administrative processes.
e. Non-discrimination based on professed identity, language, religion, beliefs, political affiliations and place of residence.
f. Preserve and develop their distinctive identity and its associated visible symbols.
g. Deal with the government at various levels and its agencies in Sinhala, Tamil or English.
In conclusion, I wish to state that Tamil politics has gone through its most bitter and traumatic period. Our experiences must teach us new lessons. The primary lesson that no one can miss is that we can never go back to the past. It will be suicidal for the Tamils to repeat their failed history. Under no circumstances can Tamil resort to violence. We have to find a new leadership that will guide the Tamils to a new future. The Tamils have suffered the most and they must, at any cost, avoid the sufferings of the past. Our duty is to find our way into the mainstream democratic politics. Like the other two Tamil-speaking communities we will have a lot to gain from joining the democratic mainstream. Any other course of action would drag further back into a place worse than Nandikadal.