The University of Jaffna


 The latest report of the Jaffna University Teachers for Human Rights is, as with all their previous reports, a document well worth reading. The UTHR always stood steadfast against the LTTE and therefore their reports never contributed to the agenda of that organization. They deserve all respect and anything they write must be looked at in the belief that they mean well by Sri Lanka and all its citizens.    

This does not mean that everything they say is accurate. They too have to rely on information from others, and that information can be mistaken, and not necessarily deliberately. We must understand that people see things from different perspectives, and it is sometimes necessary to make allowances for these. Many of the people who spoke to UTHR could very well have seen things only from their own perspective, and it is possible that UTHR too, in interpreting and recording, also has a particular mindset that could lead to a misleading narrative.    


In the case of the current report we can see the mindset in which incidents were recorded. With characteristic transparency UTHR early on lays down its own defining logic in claiming that ‘The Government is being carried headlong by the disastrous logic of Sinhalese hegemonism, an attitude that has lain dormant much of the time but whose sinister underpinnings are often expressed in local politics and the casual talk of ordinary people, and which sometimes leads to outbursts of communal violence. The recent war victory is seen by some leading elements in the Government as a chance to fulfill their wildest ideological dreams.’    

It is not inconceivable that there are or were elements in government who believe in Sinhalese hegemonism. But a careful study of the actual actions of government, and the attitudes of decision makers, indicate that this is not a government that can be led headlong by such an agenda. Indeed the strongest evidence for the fears of the UTHR, insofar as came up in media reports over the last year or so, was the statement of the former army commander that was taken as indicating that Sri Lanka belonged to the majority race therein.    

In all fairness to General Sarath Fonseka, that may not have been what he meant, and certainly he now seems of an entirely different mindset. But surely it cannot have been forgotten that government at the time pointed out that this was not governmental policy. And surely it cannot be entirely a coincidence that General Fonseka is now firmly with the opposition, and has indeed claimed that distrust between him and the President began initially with the President rejecting his plan to expand the army enormously.    

Significantly, in its peroration, UTHR mentions this – ‘Ideas such as the special economic zone in Trincomalee and a similar arrangement for Killinochchi put forward by the President’s clique; and General Fonseka’s proposal to increase the strength of the peace time army by 100 000 in order to preserve the gains of war, point to such intentions’, namely about ‘denying the Tamils any autonomous space by planting Sinhalese colonies and having a permanent repressive presence of the military in their areas’.    

UTHR must realize that there is a great gulf between colonization and setting up special economic zones. This government has been keen on such zones all over the country, a concept I believe is most welcome – indeed, many years ago, I pointed out how narrow was President Jayawardene’s concept of national development in that he set up such zones only near Colombo. It was only President Premadasa who thought of focusing industrial development in rural areas, and this is where President Rajapakse is moving twice as quickly, also with rapid infrastructural development, after the hiatus of the Kumaratunga years.    

Efforts by government to provide training for the people of the North and East to enable them to take advantage of the opportunities economic development will bring are far in advance of similar initiatives in the South. All visitors to the East recognize the tremendous strides in development that have occurred in the last two years, and it would be foolhardy to be suspicious about similar plans for the North.    

True, had there been 100 000 extra soldiers in the North, UTHR might have had grounds for suspicion. But that idea has been firmly knocked on the head, and UTHR should instead consider the efforts being made by government to make it clear that hegemonic plans belong elsewhere. At its simplest, UTHR should at least acknowledge the efforts of the President to learn Tamil so as to communicate direct with all the people he represents. It is easy to dismiss this as cosmetic, but those who have watched the President working at this understand how deeply committed he is – and it is surely not irrelevant that no previous Sri Lankan leader has embarked on such an initiative.    

UTHR should also recognize that the President was able to get his entire coalition, disparate though it is, to accept the 13th Amendment and Provincial Councils, even though it had been argued previously that he was trying to roll things back. Indeed I pointed out in 2008 to the TNA that, whereas they claimed he was intransigent, it was they who refused to swerve from federation, or indeed virtual confederation, whereas he had not only shown willingness to move, but had actually made clear his leadership capacities in taking his entire coalition with him. Perhaps the bitterness that developed in the JVP in the course of 2008 is related to their understanding that the President had conclusively moved the devolution debate forward, but sadly the UTHR seems to be less aware of realities in this regard.    

A clue to the rationale for all this can be seen in the repeated references of the UTHR to the dispensation President Jayewardene presided over, in support of its diagnosis of the thinking of the current government. I can understand the UTHR reasons for this obsession, since I am accused by the green groupies amongst my friends of a similar obsession. There is no doubt that President Jayewardene is largely responsible for the sense of alienation felt by Tamils, and I feel sympathy for the UTHR view that he ‘viewed communal violence as a way of countering Tamil terrorism by destroying once and for all any notion of a Tamil Homeland, a victory he then consolidated by planting military-backed Sinhalese settlements in their areas.’    

UTHR also mentions an incident I too saw as seminal in the altering of mindsets, namely the attack on students in Peradeniya as to which UTHR claims that a prevalent ‘atmosphere of inclusiveness was to a great extent diminished by the politically backed attack on Tamil students by fellow Sinhalese students affiliated to the UNP in May 1983.’ Significantly, given the current context, the Jayewardene government tried then, and with the even more appalling July 1983 riots too, to throw the blame for its pogroms on first JVP student unions and then the JVP (along with the Communist Party and the NLSSP).    

I believe none of these leftist groups were involved in communalism at that period, though sadly the JVP, having been forced to go underground, abandoned the stance that had made it the only major political party to contest the 1981 District Development Council elections, and instead took up a more chauvinist line that culminated in violent opposition to the Indo-Lankan Accord. Sadly it now seems to be taking a similar path in its current political affiliations.    

The UTHR remembers more of history as when it talks of the folly of activists taking disastrous short cuts when ‘they courted the UNP’s Ranil Wickremasinghe in 1999 on his West-driven idea of appeasement with the LTTE and aided his opportunistic undermining of the political settlement put forward by President Kumaratunge in 2000…. Once more the UNP which tried to ride, disastrously, the Sinhala Only wave in 1955, is presently trying to ride the ascendancy of chauvinism by means of a dangerous and inflammable shortcut – General Fonseka.’    

But correspondingly the UTHR, traumatized if understandably by its experience of President Jayewardene and his protégés, also assumes that President Rajapakse is similar. I am reminded then of the explanation offered by a British intellectual of Antony Eden’s strange Suez adventure. No one has ever doubted that Eden was an enormously decent man, but I was told that he had been so affected by appeasement of Hitler in 1938 that he thought Nasser was similar.    

I suspect, reading the UTHR report, that they have been similarly carried away by worries about President Rajapakse, to the extent of ignoring the differences between him and President Jayewardene. They ignore the fact that Jayewardene, the darling of elite Tamil groupings in 1977, moved steadily against Tamil interests – sensing which from the start the people of the North voted against him in the 1982 Presidential election when their Colombo counterparts were still starry-eyed about him. Conversely, whereas elite Tamil opinion saw President Rajapakse as chauvinist, he has, while refusing to give in to terrorism or system change that will endanger the unity of the country, ensured that those who advocated extreme chauvinistic strategies parted company with him of their own free will.    

So UTHR now issues a report that is based on the assumption that the displaced will be kept permanently in camps without freedom of movement, just at the time when it is clear that the vast majority have gone back for resettlement, and the remainder are free to go out if they wish. UTHR does record that the process was not smooth at an earlier stage, and they are probably right in citing a report in a newspaper about ‘an influential section of the security establishment not just wanting to extend the confinement, but also to further isolate them so as to avoid the bad publicity resulting from their conditions’. But, whilst no one could second guess the security establishment as a whole, that particular section of it did not prove quite so influential, and things have eased considerably.    

I should confess that I too was worried when things were moving slowly as it seemed to me, but the response to the position paper I prepared was that government was on schedule to fulfil its commitment. Full confidence was expressed that the bulk of the IDPs – and now it seems almost all of them – would be resettled by the end of January. I was also told firmly, and of course it made sense, that finishing a job like this in six months did not mean that half of it would be done in three. The example of the successful resettlement programme in the East was cited, and certainly it seems those responsible for that have once again achieved in the North too what no other country in the world did so swiftly.    

This would not have happened without the total commitment of the President. Naturally he could not question the advice of those responsible for security but, when one looks at the result, it is clear that his agenda is pluralistic and conciliatory. He has fulfilled this with no fuss, and with no public controversies with those of his supporters who may have thought otherwise, except indeed for General Fonseka’s public criticism of the government for expediting the resettlement process. In this light it would be more useful, given their ideals and the commitment that UTHR has displayed in the past, if they could look more closely at the evidence and try to adjust their perspective in future to the actual situation.    

I should note that there are other questions raised in the report, but for the moment it would be good if those who stood firm against terrorism, and also are able still to register some of the root causes of the suffering the country and in particular our Tamil citizens have undergone, noted that things are changing. The process of reconciliation and rebuilding needs all the support it can get, and UTHR should also be part of this process.