After some depression about not achieving very much with regard to either Reconciliation, or the Human Rights Action Plan, I was heartened by several factors last week. In the four Divisional Secretariat meetings I attended in the Wanni, it was clear that things were improving all the time. Several problems were brought to my attention, but these were largely practical problems, similar to those prevalent in other parts of the country. The impact of inclement weather on agriculture, the need for better roads for rural connectivity, and for better electricity connections, shortages of teachers for essential subjects, are national problems, not consequences of the conflict.
Of course much more needs to be done for the people of the Wanni, given what they suffered, and for the first time I felt sad that I cannot contribute more to education, since the Ministry as it now stands is incapable of increasing teacher supply or ensuring better distribution. But, with regard to the other matters, there is much appreciation of progress with regard to roads and electricity, and also understanding that government paved the way through its support for agriculture for abundant harvests in the last few years, even though this year floods have caused problems.
I should note here the appreciation amongst officials and community organizations of the Japanese Peace Project, which has done much for small scale irrigation works in the last few years. A meeting at the Japanese Embassy later in the week confirmed my view of the intelligence and sympathy of their approach. Equally the Indian Housing Project has generated much confidence that things are getting better, though government must do more to publicize both that and the other large scale housing support provided by the military and other agencies, in particular the Swiss, who also work relatively quietly.
Two other factors were particularly pleasing. One was the widespread appreciation of the police, and I cannot stress enough how the new approach developed by the present Inspector General has strengthened community relations. In one Division I felt that more could be done, but that Division was in general slow to move – despite the efforts of one or two of the new Graduate Trainees to introduce better systems. In all the others, the enthusiasm of the officials and community organizations for police support, and the commitment of the police officers, was fantastic. In one place the OIC was building a Community Centre for the people to watch television since that area had not yet got electricity – an initiative that reminded me of the account former IGP Rudra Rajasingham has written of Osmund de Silva’s commitment, as the first Sri Lankan IGP promoted to the position from within the force, to community welfare. As his wife Ena de Silva has noted, he realized that people also needed occupation and entertainment – and the understanding the police and the communities I spoke to evinced of alcoholism suggested that they knew this had to be treated not as a crime but as a social problem.
The second pleasing factor was that in some Divisions the arrangements for regular consultation that I had tried to put in place were working well, with systematic recording of problems and efforts to either solve them or put in place a plan and time frame for improving matters. I had tried earlier to get the Ministry of Public Administration to provide guidance as to simple principles of administration and accountability but, though this had not succeeded, it is clear that bright young public officials can engender effective systems by themselves.
All this was heartening, but in Jaffna itself it is clear that much more needs to be done. There too the police are doing very well, but the main concerns the people expressed were emotional rather than practical. In particular, many were deeply concerned about the failure of government to function in Tamil.
This is something about which government really must do better. I think those who raised the problem appreciated our discussion, and the fact that the self-centred governmental policies of the past had been changed. But we must accept that nothing practical was done for years about the constitutional change of 1987 that made Tamil also an official language. And, though the Kumaratunga government set in place enlightened policies about language learning in schools, and though the present government, through the seminal contribution of D E W Gunasekara, made bilingualism compulsory for government officials if they are to be promoted, clearly much more needs to be done to develop competencies as well as change attitudes.
The present Minister is obviously deeply idealistic, but having had no previous administrative experience he simply does not know to work round the system, and overcome the fact that he does not have command of ample resources. In order to enforce the language rights the Constitution now upholds, you need practical measures as well as policy pronouncements.
The people of Jaffna, and even more the people in the Wanni, expressed a desire to learn Sinhala, but there are no teachers. We must therefore develop Volunteer teaching, but this should be accompanied by a parallel commitment on the part of the Sinhalese to learn Tamil. Fortunately both the police and the forces have enough men and women willing to conduct spoken Sinhala classes while also learning spoken Tamil themselves. But there is need of some official encouragement to make this happen on the required scale.
In the long term however we need more and better teacher training. I have submitted several proposals in this regard, that involve the services of the non-profit sector, but there has been a deafening silence from the different authorities I have addressed. Sadly those without any ideas themselves are unwilling to consider the ideas of those who think outside the box. But unless we move swiftly, we will continue to suffer from resentments, that can so easily be overcome.