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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 110

JHU Proposals Turn Minority Rights Upside Down!

Professor Laksiri Fernando, University of Colombo

After claiming that there is no ‘ethnic conflict’ or ‘national question’ in Sri Lanka, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) – National Sinhala Heritage Party - has turned the internationally accepted rights of the minorities upside down in their proposals to the All Party Representative Committee (APRC).

In a way it is useful that the JHU finally submitted its proposals to the APRC and therefore those can be scrutinized on the basis of human rights, justice and fair play. After all, the JHU represents a trend of opinion - obviously a dangerous one - in the country. In certain ways the JHU views and the present proposals are a strong ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ reaction not only to the separatist LTTE but also to some of the moderate Tamil parties that have been advocating what they call the ‘rights of the Tamils.’

Unlike many of the other parties in the APRC process, the JHU has also opted to go to town with their proposals. They have already conducted one or two press briefings on the subject, quite confidentially perhaps, believing that their views or proposals are correct and justified. Although the APRC process has not been strictly confidential, the general understanding of the other parties seems to be to consider their submitted proposals to be drafts for discussion and not ‘final solutions.’ The SLFP has made this point very clear.

Many political parties already have made some changes or clarifications, for better or worse, for their initial drafts allowing the process to be flexible in achieving some consensus within the APRC. However, the JHU proposals do not give that impression except for a couched statement that “we firmly believe that we should listen to Tamils because they would best know of their grievances.” If the JHU is genuinely ready to listen at least to the moderate Tamil parties, it is well and good. But the nature of the proposals themselves appears to contradict that ‘listening capacity.’

The statement also adds rather humorously, referring to the Tamils in general, that “If, for example, they are able to convince us that their struggle for ‘self-rule or self-determination in the North and East of Sri Lanka’ is legitimate and in terms of history that can be substantiated, the JHU would support them for a separate state.” The above statements can possibly be construed as sarcastic insult.

All in all the JHU proposals appear like a political manifesto aiming at a future general election and not strictly for a consensus building process. This is the unfortunate fact. On the bright side of it, however, “the JHU supports devolution of power and decentralization of administration as a tool of mass empowerment and to improve participatory democracy” - the Introduction to the Proposals declares.

Nature of Conflict

There are no pure ethnic conflicts in the world, let alone in Sri Lanka. Ethnic conflicts are intermixed with other factors, and to a large extent promoted by political forces. In the case of Sri Lanka, at one point in time, it was even difficult to distinguish the Northern rebellion from the Southern ones, in terms of underlying socio-economic causes. Increasingly, the analysts use the term ‘ethno-political conflict’ or simply ‘protracted social conflict’ to denote the conflicts such as in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless the predominant ethnic or communal aspect of the conflict cannot easily be denied. When one uses the ‘ethnic’ adjective before the term ‘conflict’ it points to the general character or orientation of the conflict.

The JHU is by and large correct when it says in the Introduction to the Proposals that “It is generally agreed that polarization on ethnic lines is a fundamental feature of any ethnic conflict and indeed a prerequisite to warrant the ‘ethnic’ label.” The Introduction explains the ideological or the policy premises of the document and the present article is limited primarily to assess these basic premises of the JHU Proposals.

What is controversial or incorrect is the premise that “What has happened in Sri Lanka, however, is not the polarization, but its reverse, as a result of terrorist activities of the LTTE.” It is intriguing to note that the JHU has not attempted to overuse the label of ‘terrorism’ to the LTTE. What it has repeatedly noted is the ‘terrorist activities’ of the organization.

The evidence given for the ‘reverse polarization’ to refute the existence of an ‘ethnic conflict,’ however, amounts to distorted or partial interpretations. The first distortion is to say that “Since 1983 Tamils have been migrating from the so-called Tamil homeland to regions where the Sinhala people form the vast majority.” The date given is surprising without any comment on what actually happened in July 1983.

The general understanding among the analysts is that the polarization intensified after the events of July 1983, mainly on the part of the Tamils, and that exactly was the main objective of the LTTE that provoked the communal backlash in that year. The migration of the Tamils in large numbers to the South occurred much later, particularly aftermath of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement in 1987 and particularly after the suppression of the second JVP insurrection thereafter.

In between, the Tamils in general did not appear to feel safe either in the North or the South. This is apart from their continued demands (not mere grievances) in respect of language use, employment opportunities and safety. There is no question that the LTTE terror and the suppression of dissent also played a major role in addition to the war conditions in the North and the East.

The second distortion or the myth is the statement that “It is well known that Tamils live in peace and harmony with other communities in all parts of the country.” This statement is self-deceptive. The mere co-existence of communities does not mean harmony or peace. There have been localized communal tensions and conflicts in several parts of the country even after 1983.

While there is no reason to exaggerate the frictions or localized conflicts, the complete denial of rather ‘silent dissatisfaction’ of the Tamils or the Muslims today linked to their ethnic or religious identity is not reasonable on the part of the majority community. It is a common understanding in a ‘protracted social conflict’ that at certain junctures or circumstances the ‘grievances of communities’ can become submerged or hidden particularly when the events are taken over by extreme or terrorist organizations like the LTTE. That is why those conflicts are called ‘protracted.’

If the grievances or the legitimate rights are denied on the easy excuse of terrorism, then the situation could lead to the recreation of conflict cycles again and again. There is a formidable task of winning the Tamils decisively from the LTTE to establish sustainable peace in the country. That cannot be done only through the military suppression of the LTTE. The ordinary Tamils are silenced not only by the LTTE terror. They are silenced today also by an ‘ideological movement’ making the Tamils feel guilty of the LTTE terror. The JHU seems to be a part of that ‘ideological movement.’

Roots of Conflict

The JHU has given a partial or a distorted picture of the roots of the conflict. There is no question that the colonial rule should be blamed for creating conditions for mistrust and antagonism between the communities. The creation of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, like in countries like Rwanda (Hutu and Tutsi), is part of the colonial legacy. The divide and rule policy, however, was applied not only to create wedge between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, but also between the Sinhalese and the Muslims. At times it created frictions among the Sinhalese themselves on up-country and low country lines.

But there was more to the situation linked to the transition of our society from (caste based) feudalism to market capitalism with social mobility and the emergence of modern communication, social mobility and the media. It is erroneous and divisive now to state that “The Tamil community has enjoyed a privileged position in Sri Lanka during Western colonial rule.”

It is clear from the given examples by the JHU, that those who enjoyed privileges (dead and gone) were confined to a small group of elite and not the whole Tamil community. It is also clear that the ‘facts and figures’ given by the JHU should be taken with much circumspect. There is no question that anyone can make mistakes in quoting available statistics. But apparently there is more to the mistakes. The quotations of this article are taken from the JHU Proposals published in Daily Mirror (1 June 2007).

For example, when referring to the first election in 1911, Tamils were claimed to have comprised “only 13% of the total population.” Then referring to the electoral system in 1923, just after 12 years, the Tamils have been reduced to “a mere 11% of the population.” Let us forget about those mistakes as mistakes. But perhaps the most callous figure given for the “Ceylon Tamils in Sri Lanka” at present is just 9% compared to various ethnic minorities in other countries, to refute their claim for federalism.

“If there is no ethnic conflict or national question in Sri Lanka,” the JHU has admitted that, “then it is necessary to identify the nature of the present conflict.” However, the interpretation given is completely bias and shrouded with contention. In respect of the initial stages of the conflict after independence, the following is the interpretation given.

“Tamil elite lost this privileged position in the post independent Sri Lanka once the Sinhalese began to claim their due share in society. It is the loss of an undeserved privileged position that has been interpreted as discrimination of Tamils by the Tamil elite who were substantially affected by these turns of events.”

There is no question that the privileged sections both among the Tamils and the Sinhalese were disturbed by some of the turn of events after independence, particularly after 1956. But there was more to it. The citizenship acts and the Sinhala only policy were discriminatory not only against the elite, but for large masses of Tamils. The JHU has been reluctant to accept this fact. It is strange that the JHU is completely silent on the language issue in the Proposals.

What is mainly absent from the JHU analysis is any reference to nationalism - Sinhalese or Tamil. Nationalism has been the main political dynamic of post-independence Sri Lanka until today. It is the nature of nationalism, and ethno-nationalism to be sure, which has been problematic, and the main culprit of conflict after independence.

Sri Lanka failed to achieve or develop civic nationalism uniting all communities in a democratic fashion after or even before independence. Instead, what became dominant was ethno-nationalism with claims and counter claims, suspicion and divisiveness, that has been the underlying single most decisive factor of the conflict in Sri Lanka.

It is in that sense, and referring to the dominant ethno-element of the conflict that the conflict in Sri Lanka can be considered an ethnic conflict even after admitting the political, terrorist or other aspects of the conflict. It is not just terrorism that we encounter from the LTTE today. It is ethno-terrorism.

The discourses put forward by the LTTE or the JHU should be considered part and parcel of the divergent discourses of ethno-nationalism. Therefore, the apparent failure of the JHU to understand the correct nature of the conflict in its Proposals is not surprising.

Minority Rights

The most extreme form of Sinhala ethno-nationalism is evident from the JHU Proposal. As it says, “The JHU emphatically states that Sri Lanka forms one nation that is Sinhalese because Sri Lanka is the homeland of the Sinhalese civilization.” Whatever the reason given, which is undoubtedly subject to dispute, the ‘emphatic’ characterization of ‘Sri Lanka as a Sinhala nation’ completely excludes other national or ethnic minorities in principle. It defies plurality and the multi-ethnic character of the country. There is no room in theory to accept minority rights in the above formulation.

However, in a paradoxical spin of analysis, the JHU also claims to accept the rights of Tamils as minority rights and even equal to the rights of other citizens. The JHU characterizes the Tamils as an ethnic minority. The thinking behind is not difficult to guess although not spelled out clearly.

From the time of L. H. Mettananda, there was an argument on the part of Sinhala ethno-nationalists to superficially recognize the rights of Tamils as individuals, but not as a group. This is in contrast to claiming all group rights for the Sinhalese as a nation including ‘homeland’ and the right to ‘self-determination.’

The most intriguing is the statement that, “Furthermore, they are entitled to enjoy the minority rights recognized by the United Nations Organization in their resolution titled “Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.” Perhaps the JHU is not fully aware of the contents of the UN Declaration on Minority rights.

The title as well as the contents of the UN Declaration does not make any distinction between an ethnic minority and a national minority. It is apparently left for the relevant countries to select the appropriate term. But the JHU seems to make a distinction. The Declaration particularly is meant to apply to countries where there are overt or latent ethnic or communal conflicts/frictions like in Sri Lanka. If there are no conflicts, then the relevance of the Declaration is only in the sphere of promotion but not protection. The JHU seems to deny the existence of any type of issues or grievances on the part of the minorities in Sri Lanka.

After making a superficial adherence to the UN Declaration, what the JHU statement says is that “Sri Lanka has already granted rights, privileges and benefits to the minorities far exceeding the provisions of the aforesaid resolution.” This makes a mockery of the adherence, without making any convincing case for the claim that the minorities enjoy not only rights but also privileges and benefits far exceeding the Declaration.

I also submit that the JHU should understand that the above international human rights instrument, the Declaration, is no longer a resolution. While all instruments i.e. declarations, covenants or conventions are adopted through resolutions, once they are adopted, they are no longer resolutions. Moreover, the Declaration does not talk about privileges or benefits that the JHU perhaps ignorantly attributed to it.

The JHU’s emphatic emphasis on ‘Sri Lanka as Sinhala nation’ completely defies both the spirit and the letter of the UN Declaration. The JHU is not ready to accept any type of ‘territorial affinity’ to the Tamils not to speak of the Muslims. The following is what Article 1.1 of the Declaration states in this respect.

“States shall protect the existence and the national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity of minorities within their respective territories and shall encourage conditions for the promotion of that identity” (My emphasis). Above is a clear recognition of group identity of minorities within their respective territories that the JHU proposes to deny to the Tamils.

The onus is on the JHU to show what the existing measures are - let alone the far exceeding ones – to recognize the existence of Tamil identity in the North and the East at least in general form, along with other communities of course, except the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that the JHU seems to disagree on.

It is agreeable to state that devolution or federalism should not be introduced to Sri Lanka purely on ethnic or communal lines. The JHU is partly correct in this respect. But federalism or maximum devolution is required not only as a ‘tool of general mass empowerment or democratization’ but also to address the minority rights as underlined in the said UN Declaration and other human rights instruments.

The following is what Article 2.3 of the Declaration states in respect of effective minority participation at the national as well as the regional level. It does not say about local participation. The local participation is something well understood or assumed in a democratic country.

“Persons belonging to minorities have the right to participate effectively in decisions on the national and, where appropriate, regional level concerning the minority to which they belong or the regions in which they live, in a manner not incompatible with national legislation” (My emphasis).

The JHU may argue that the article is qualified in respect of regional participation and regional participation is relevant only where it is appropriate. This is true. But can the JHU give any reason why the Tamils or the Muslims in Sri Lanka should not effectively participate in governance at the regional level, which in the case of Sri Lanka means provinces? Secondly, since the JHU has claimed that it accepts the Declaration and the Sri Lankan practice far exceeds its provisions, then why does it oppose devolution at the regional level as the Declaration has very clearly stipulated?

The JHU proposals say, referring to the Tamils and relegating them to an ambiguous category, “They can, however, enjoy any right enjoyed by any other citizen in the country.” But how can they “however” enjoy ‘any right enjoyed by any other citizen’ if they are proposed to be relegated to ‘second class citizens’ whose homeland is supposed to be somewhere else (Tamil Nadu) and who does not constitute a part of the Sri Lankan nation, which is exclusively preserved for the Sinhalese according to the JHU Proposals?

This is how the JHU has turned the minority rights upside down. Its position can also be construed as racial discrimination. If the JHU agrees with the UN ‘Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992),’ then it should also able to agree with the UN ‘Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1963).’ The following is what it sates in Article 1.

“Discrimination between human beings on the ground of race, colour or ethnic origin is an offence to human dignity and shall be condemned as a denial of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, as a violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as an obstacle to friendly and peaceful relations among nations and as a fact capable of disturbing peace and security among peoples.” .

- Asian Tribune -

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