SOME countries learn from their mistakes, some don`t. Sri Lanka belongs to the latter category. The sufferings of the Tamils, a minority, and the privations of the Sinhalese, the majority, should have made the country realise that both have to live together and that violence will not solve any problem. Still, the Sri Lankan government has bombed some areas in the northern parts where the Tamils live. Civilian casualties are natural, although trained Pakistani pilots are reportedly connected with the operation.
True, President, Mr Mahinda Rajapakse won elections one year ago on the plank of toughness. But he also promised equal participation to all communities. When he rushed to India soon after assuming power to meet the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, it was evident that Mr Rajapakse had chosen the path of making up with the Tamils. The process leading to the Geneva talks confirmed that. However, Colombo`s stand at Geneva falsified the assumption because it refused to open the blocked road connecting South with North. Even when it would have meant a step towards normalisation and facilitated movement of food convoys to the Tamils in Jaffna, the Rajapakse government did not relent. The military and the monks, the two powerful entities influencing Mr Rajapakse, had their way. But the government lost an opportunity to pin down the LTTE, a militant outfit, to peaceful methods.
Even after the failure, Mr Rajapakse could have picked up the pieces from Geneva and reassembled them at Colombo. He had already spanned the distance with opposition leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe and lessened dependence on the JVP, Sri Lanka`s RSS. Instead, the President went for the military option. This would only push the Tamils further into the lap of the LTTE which had become their shield, much to the disappointment of liberals among them. ?Where do we go?? asked an aged Tamil MP at Colombo. The Sinhalese who constitute more than 70 per cent of the country`s population of 19 million blame the Tamils for strengthening the LTTE which has killed even moderate Tamil leaders to be the only representative of the community. But the Sinhalese do not seem to realise that the LTTE is the symptom, not the disease.
The disease is mistrust and the decades-old-neglect of the Tamils. They have no jobs, no sense of security and no status in the society which is dominated and dictated by the Sinhalese. Had the latter tried to retrieve them and given them back their pride which they lost at the hands of chauvinist Sinhalese, the Tamils would have revolted against the ruthless LTTE and its fascist leader V Prabhakaran. The shoddy treatment meted out to the Tamils is the grist to LTTE`s propaganda mill. It has only to point out how the Tamils have been edged out from practically every field. Even the language, Tamil, supposed to be at par with the Sinhala, is hardly used in the bureaucracy, the police or any official organ. For example, the police in Jaffna, a Tamil town, records complaints only in Sinhala. They have no Sinhalese in the force.
This situation prevails almost all over in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese and the Tamils live in the world of their own, with very little contact. Muslims, nearly 8 per cent of the population, could become a bridge between the two communities. But although they are Tamil speaking, of Indian origin, they tend to side with the Sinhalese. One, because the latter are the rulers and, two, because the LTTE has forcibly ousted the Muslims from their lands in the eastern province which the LTTE claim. (The Supreme Court has annulled the merger of the two provinces and has asked the government to implement its verdict.)
Although the hardliners among the Sinhalese are having their way, the general desire is to harness the support of the Tamils who are nearly 20 per cent. They are diligent, hardworking and ready to cooperate. But the price which they demand is the participation in the affairs of Sri Lanka. Mr Rajapakse knows this. He has appointed a committee of experts to prepare a blueprint for `devolution` of power. Mr Wickremasinghe said that after its approval by an all-party conference, it would be implemented even if the LTTE rejected it. The blueprint, it seems, is the document which Mr Rajapakse may bring to Delhi when he visits it in the last week of November.
There is no firm information about the blueprint. But the different leaders say that it is based on the ?Indian model.? Still, nobody is willing to commit himself to a federal structure. Some ministers talk about the pup which India`s Minister for Panchayati Raj, Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar, has sold them in the shape of panchayat system to decentralise power. But this indicates that the Sinhalese do not want to part with real power. The much vaunted provincial councils, brought about by amending the constitution, have been a failure. They cannot have any legislation passed. It is for parliament to do so. Even trivial things like a culvert or an electricity pole are decided by the minister in charge.
Therefore, it is not surprising to find that the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE did not find any common ground at Geneva. The LTTE delegation had, indeed, expected some resilience from the government. The delegation is said to have planned even a short trip to Europe to relax. But it had to return immediately to explain to their people what went wrong. I was at Colombo at that time.
That was the night when there was a knock at my door at a hotel in Colombo. Some 12 police men were there to search the room. They examined my passport and looked into the cupboard. And then they went away, without offering an apology. ?We were checking,? one policeman said. My hotel was in a Tamil area and hence the search to find if some of the LTTE men was hiding there.
Currently, the Tamils are a target of extortions. Practically, every day there is an incident when a Tamil businessman is kidnapped for ransom of millions of rupees. The President has been given details of many cases, with no result. The abducted have bargained on their own and paid the ransom. The suspicion is that an armed group, in connivance with the authorities, has come up with an understanding with the Karuna faction, a breakaway group of the LTTE.
It may be a dismal scene. But some of us, NGOs, have spent five days in Colombo to bring the Sinhalese and the Tamils nearer to one another. It is an effort to foster people-to-people contact. If it could work between Indians and Pakistanis, why can`t it between the Tamils and the Sinhalese?