In looking at the question of national integration, which should be our principal goal now that we have eliminated terrorism from at least Sri Lankan shores, we need to begin by considering the factors that so nearly caused disintegration.
Firstly there was the sustained neglect of areas in which minorities lived. This was not particularly targeted at the minorities, since Sri Lanka suffered for more than 50 years after independence from development without equity. This has resulted in the Western Province hogging the lion’s share of per capita income, which is why many areas in the country still suffer from high levels of poverty even though the country as a whole has now moved to middle income level.
Secondly, there were measures which in intention as well as in effect were clearly discriminatory. The most upsetting in this regard was language policy, not only the constitutional measure declaring Sinhala the only official language after an electoral campaign in which both major parties seemed to think being negative about Tamil was the key to electoral success, but also the educational system that straitjacketed many children in monolingualism. Another upsetting measure, still remembered with bitterness as I found last week in dialogue with Tamil members of the diaspora in London, was discrimination with regard to University admission. This is all the more significant in that Mr Prabhakaran’s was the first school cohort affected by the new system, even though in its overtly racist form it was only formulated in 1978.
Both these areas pertain to political decisions, and should have been resolved through political means. However with the advent to power of J R Jayewardene the situation changed, and systematic violence against Tamils gave rise not only to lasting bitterness but also to recourse to violence that now had more supporters. Unfortunately the Cold War adventurism of the government also led to a forceful Indian reaction, which helped to bring terrorism to centre stage, a position it continued to occupy for a quarter of a century.
It should be noted that, with the exception of the Tigers, other former terrorist groups abandoned militancy with the Indo-Lankan Accord of 1987. Though I believe there is no excuse for terrorism, there was no longer any pretext even for the Tiger continuation of intransigent violence, given that there has been no repetition after 1983 of the type of ethnic violence the Jayewardene government seemed to countenance. Sadly, given the indulgence the Tigers received, briefly from successive Sri Lankan governments, and also from some elements in the West – though never thankfully by India again – they were able to grow from strength to strength, until they over-reached themselves spectacularly, refused all compromise and negotiation, and ended up defeated.
If then the third reason for ethnic tensions, violence encouraged if not supported by the state, was a thing of the past, the other two however still remained. Though Tamil had been made an Official Language in terms of the Indo-Lankan Accord, implementation of this was slow. Most students were still essentially stuck in one language or the other, and it was generally impossible for Tamils to deal in their own language with public servants. This also continued to affect recruitment to the public service, with Tamils and minorities generally having far fewer representatives than their numbers warranted.
However the government of President Kumaratunga began a policy of ensuring that children would also learn the second official language in schools. She also permitted English medium classes in the state system, which should lead in time to more children of different language groups being able to learn together. President Rajapakse’s government more recently took even more effective measures in this regard in making it compulsory for new recruits to the public service to learn the other official language. Existing employees are also encouraged to learn this, and steps are being taken to increase minority representation in the public service. This is happening apace in the police, which could otherwise seem an alien force to many Tamils and, with security concerns less pressing, the policy can be extended to the armed forces too.
With regard to education, one of the most important innovations planned by government is the introduction of private education at tertiary level. Previously, given the state monopoly, there had been no alternatives for those minority students who suffer because of the current policy of positive discrimination. At the same time it is important to ensure even more radical reform of the education system so as to ensure that talents, in particular in socially deprived areas, are not suppressed.
This holds true for other aspects of social policy that will promote national integration. Though what has happened thus far suggests a commitment to more equitable policies, these should be fast forwarded with the cooperation of all stakeholders, and in particular private investors. Higher quality vocational training programmes, greater effort with regard to soft skills and other qualifications for employment, stress on confidence and social awareness and personality skills, are all essential, and need to be pursued with vigour.
This is the more important in view of the comparative success of the government programme of infrastructure development. In addition to ensuring basic facilities, extending to fully functional schools, for those who had been displaced by the conflict, most of whom have now been returned to their places of residence, government has laid stress on better communications, through electronic connectivity as well as roads. Irrigation facilities which had lain disused for years are being restored, and efforts are being made to train farmers in processing while ensuring better methods of distribution.
Investment is being encouraged, the plan being to turn an area which only saw subsistence agriculture into one in which the producers are economically active. But all these will need as much concentration on human resource development as on the development of the physical infrastructure. Of course this is an area in which the rest of the country too needs support, in terms of the massive changes with regard to infrastructural development taking place elsewhere too. We have already seen the increased prosperity in the East, given the developments that had been introduced even while the war in the North was being concluded. However, given the much longer period of suffering endured by the people of the North, clearly there is need for intense and concerted efforts in all the areas I have outlined above, and more.