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Politics of Engagement Must Replace Politics of Boycott

The Tamil Nadu Assembly has passed a resolution demanding India's boycott to the upcoming Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to be held in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Newsclick talks to Ahilan Kadirgamar, member of the Collective for Economic Democratisation, about the issues behind the boycott, about the recent victory of Tamil National Alliance in Northern Provincial polls, and the controversy of Sri Lankan Navy arresting Tamil fishermen.

Kadirgamar also points out that although there is a need to investigate into the gruesome violation of human rights after the 2009 civil war, the need of the hour is to deal with the present economic and social crisis facing Sri Lanka's Tamil-dominated Northern Province. He further says that the "politics of boycott" must be replaced with "politics of engagement" that attempts to make a difference on the ground.


Srinivasan Ramani (S.R): Hello and welcome to Newsclick. The prospective visit of the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to a meeting of the Heads of Governments of the Commonwealth nations in Sri Lanka has created a controversy. The Tamil Nadu State Assembly has recently passed a resolution that has clearly said that the Prime Minister should not visit Sri Lanka in light of the angst and anger in Tamil Nadu at the brutal civil war that took place 4 years ago. Today we have with us Ahilan Kadirgamar, a member of a Collective for Economic Democratization and a researcher who is based in Jaffna. And we shall ask him as to what expectations that the ordinary Sri Lankan Tamil has in Sri Lanka vis-à-vis this issue. Ahilan, welcome to Newsclick.

Ahilan Kadirgamar (A.K): Thank you for having me.

S.R: Before asking you about this present issue... recent elections to the Provincial Council in north in Sri Lanka after a very long time and the Tamil National Alliance was elected overwhelmingly. While this is a positive development in the sense that the mandate of the Tamil people is pretty clear. This doesn't mean that the challenges for TNA are not quite there. They have humongous challenges. Could you elaborate on those challenges that they face vis-à-vis the issue of devolution of powers, vis-à-vis what they would do considering they are in some sense isolated in the larger Sri Lankan polity.

AK: That's right. This recent election has created an important opening I would say, perhaps the biggest opening since the end of the war with respect to the Northern province. While the TNA has got the overwhelming mandate, now they have 30 out of 38 seats in the northern provincial council, there are many challenges. The first challenge is... for the last four and a half years and even during the war, the administration in the North has been militarized and we could even say in many ways, it has been military administration. The governor for the Northern province, for example, continues to be a former military general. So, for example, even the government agent for the Mannar district. So one major challenge, and I think the TNA is conscious of this, is to transform this military administration into a civil administration – a civil administration under the Norther provincial council led by chief Minister Wigneswaran. So that hopefully will also begin a process of demilitarization. The military presence in the North should be reduced. The military should go back to the barracks. Now, related to that there has been much debate about what are called police and land powers under the thirteenth amendment of the constitution which defines the powers of the provincial councils. Now, the question of whether there will be a local police force and to what extent the provincial council will be able to alienate land and control of land and this comes in context of larger concerns about the military acquiring land in the North. While this has been extensively debated, I think the real challenge is in terms of the role that the Norther Province council can play on the economic front, both in terms of the day to day economic needs... Now it has been four and a half years since the end of the war but very little in the form of economic development that really helps the people. There has been infrastructure that has been built and large roads have been built, and to the credit of the government they have also electrified parts of the rural north which is significant, and the Indian government is also contributing fifty thousand houses mainly to the North but also to some other regions including east and I believe the Up Country where the plantation Tamil lives. But while these initiatives are going forward, what we see in the country side in the North now is the huge amount of indebtedness. In the other words over the last few years, the local economy has been running on debt. Livelihoods have really not picked up and agriculture has been disrupted, unfortunately also by the bad rains over the two years. So agriculture incomes remain low. Fisheries... Agriculture and fisheries are the two major livelihood creation sectors. Fisheries has also been disrupted and this mainly... and the main cause of this are Indian trawlers from Tamil Nadu poaching the Northern seas. So these are issues that have to be addressed. The real need now is steady incomes. In other words, some kind of employment that people get... steady incomes. There is need for investment. And these are the major economic challenges and what role can the Northern Provincial Council play in this context. Now, if you look at the budgetary allocations, the actual budgetary allocations for most provincial councils is very minimal. Now, in Sri Lankan Rupees our GDP is something like 75 billion Sri Lankan Rupees but the allocation for the entire the budget is somewhere on the order of 1.5 billion rupees, but for the northern... sorry, 1.5 trillion rupees and for the norther province recurrent and capital expenditure put together is only 18 billion rupees and much of that would be used for the salaries of provincial staff be it teachers, nurses and so on. In terms of capital expenditure, the northern provincial council have very little. There is a huge need in terms of investment and development. So the role that Northern Provincial Council can play in this context is to work with the centre and try to get international development projects for the North. Now that would have to be an agreement signed between Central Government and the international actors but the Northern Provincial Council can play a facilitation role. They can continue to engage the central government on the priorities. So I mentioned the priorities are large scale infrastructure which does little for rural population and much of the North is the rural population. On the economic front there is much on the Northern Provincial Council needs to do.

S.R: You are telling me that the immediate necessity or the immediate priority in the Northern Province relate to that of ameliorating livelihoods. That's the immediate priority. But in India, the general opinion is that the Sri Lankan government should be taken to task for what it did during the brutal face of the civil war ibn 2009. That has driven the angst and the anger in the neighboring province of Tamil Nadu and that has perhaps put pressure on political parties to come up with this resolution which calls for a boycott of the Commonwealth Summit. Do you think this is in line with what the ordinary Sri Lankan Tamil would want?

AK: Yeah, now, I can not represent the entire perspective of the local population here, and like in any place there are varied lines or varied thinking on what the response of international actors should be. What I can say and I think there is a sizable section of population which also shares this obviously there has to be some accounting for what happened at the end of the war. In a brutal war like that, many people have disappeared; many people were killed and there has to be an accounting of what happened to the less important or the local people. If people have lost their ones, they would want to now what happened, who is responsible and so forth. Even the governments own lessons learnt in the reconciliation, its report two years ago is very forthright in saying that there has to be some accounting. So that is indeed an important concern. At the same time, as I mentioned it has been four and half years since the end of the war and in parts of the Vanni where some of the most brutal fighting took place and the destruction, now, we are facing a situation where some families are eating only one meal a day. The economic situation has become quite dire and they are looking at malnutrition and even starvation if something is not done immediately about the kind of mounting economic crisis. In the long term also we don't see much of a future. So in this context, my concern is that internationally whether it is Tamil Nadu or the Tamil diaspora that has become dominant is a politics of boycott. In other word, all they call for is a boycott of Sri Lanka and some sanctions. I think it is necessary and there needs to be engagement in the international forum such as UN Human Rights Council or the General Assembly on the situation in Sri Lanka including the past. But there should be a politics of engagement that attempts to make a difference on the ground. So I would put these two forms of politics in tension -- politics of boycott versus politics of engagement -- because what we saw was that even in August this year prior to the Northern Provincial Council elections when the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights visited North and East that was High Commissioner Navi Pillai, that opened up some space, that emboldened the local population. Similarly, you know in holding the Commonwealth Conference, the pressure that was mounted on the government led to the holding of the Northern Provincial Council elections. That has also created an opening. This is what I call politics of engagement. This does not mean the compromise of principles we have to stick to our principles and they are as mentioned earlier the question of accountability is important. At the same time, the question of economic situation facing the local population and the long term political settlement is also important. So how do we engage the government at the centre? How do we change the direction in the country which has become more and more polarized since the end of the war so that there are concrete changes on the ground? For that I believe more actors from India, the Prime Minister, or the Foreign Minister, whether it is delegation of members of parliament, intellectuals, artists, then visiting the North will open up space here. I would say same about also progressive intellectuals actors from Southern Sri Lanka, from the Sinhala community also visiting the North will open up the space here for others to take up this transformation that is necessary as I mentioned earlier to a militarized situation to a situation where there is a civil administration.

SR: So you're saying you would not only welcome Indian Prime Minister to visit the Heads of Government Summit, but also that we should visit the Northern Province and get the perspective on what people there want?

AK: That's correct, and hopefully his visit would lead to forms of support to the population here. As I mentioned, you know, one of the largest projects in the North and it benefits people, people many of whose houses were destroyed, many of them who lived only in mud huts but for the first time they had the opportunity to build a concrete house. In this Indian house schemes, 50,000 houses, which is significant. The population of the North is one million and given that for a population like that, 50,000 houses is significant. As I mentioned if we do a simple calculation, 50,000 houses at 50,000 rupees each would be equivalent of 27.5 billion rupees. So if you compare that to the Northern Provincial Council budget which I mentioned earlier, 17.2 billion, it is significant. I think those kinds of support is important and the reality is that while there had been a number of western governments who have been very vocal on the issues in the north, when it comes to actual development aid it has been minimal. It is partly because of the economic crisis after 2008 and Sri Lanka is no longer seen as a conflict country. I think India's engagement in particular in this context would be important if this war-time population is to move forward.

SR: Ahilan, another festering issue that exercises the government of Tamil Nadu in particular and also the opposition is the very regular arrest of fishermen that come from Tamil Nadu and go in trawlers to fish in the waters of Sri Lanka. Is there a solution that is humanitarian in nature and not necessarily legal in nature that would satisfy both the people of the North in Sri Lanka as well as the fishermen in Tamil Nadu?

AK: Now, this trawling is banned in Sri Lanka for very good reasons because as you know bottom trawling is extremely environmentally destructive. It drags the bottom of the Ocean. It is not sustainable. The fish stock continues to decrease. So I think, there needs to be a solution that is found that on the one hand, increasingly the fishing community in the Northern Sri Lanka many of them having to even give up their their life. Some of them even have to do mason work and so on because on the three days Indian trawlers come to Sri Lanka because there is an agreement between small fishermen and mechanized boats in India after a major conflict there that trawlers only will come out three days on Saturday, Monday and Wednesday nights. On those days our fishermen do not even go to sea. So automatically half their fishing days have been decreased. And also catch has become smaller because of this destructive form of trawling. Now, given the kind of difficulties that Northern fishing communities faced during the war, they were not allowed to go to sea they were already economically devastated, so in that context, many fisherman say that... have come to the position in the North that the maritime boundary is important; that Indian... not only trawlers but other fishermen should not come this side because they see a direct relationship to their fall in livelihoods. But, as you mentioned there needs to be some kind of a solution to this problem. I think many analysts in India side have also advocated is that perhaps there needs to be some kind of a buy-back scheme by the Central Government or the Tamil Nadu government so that it decommissions these trawlers which is a very destructive fishing practice and may be that they change to deep sea fishing. Similarly, while this is the most immediate and urgent issue for the fishermen in the North, there also needs to be some amount of investment in the fishing sector in the North. You know, many of the fishermen tell me that back in the early eighties, something like 30% of fish production in Sri Lank came from Jaffna which was a major mainstay and there was a quite a bit of capital accumulation. But now, that number is much smaller. So there needs to be refrigeration facilities, harbours have to be developed and this kind of assistance also is necessary. Instead of this conflict between the Indian fishermen and Northern Sri Lankan fishermen this is becoming a major conflict. There is a lot of anger in Jaffna in the North about Indian trawling which can put a wedge between relations between the Sri Lankan Tamil population and Tamil Nadu. So it is in the interest of also the Tamil Nadu government to solve this issue. Now I think many of us have also taken the position that in no way shouuld violence be used against the Indian fishermen even if they cross the border. Hopefully, that message is also is clear to the Sri Lankan navy. But there have been arrests and more recently what has happened is that the Sri Lankan government has taken the position that the fishermen will be released and some of them have lagged on much longer than we would like to see. But that may be the trawlers will be confiscated. This is the new strategy that the Sri Lankan government seems to be taking and to be honest that has some resonance within the Northern fishing community as well. Now, this is also on the Sri Lankan side there are other dynamics. Now, the TNA that represents the North has been reluctant to take this issue up both internationally... because they feel that politically, the support from Tamil Nadu and India is important and there are caste, class, dynamics within the Sri Lankan North where the marginalized fishing community concerns are sidelined in the interest of other political concerns. But I take the view that this is as political and as important an issue because in Jaffna, there is something like 20,000 families. Over, I would say, close to 15% of the Northern population depends on fishing and the fishery sector. So this is not something that we can ignore and solution to this is important and I hope that Indian government will expedite talks. There needs to be talks between the local fishing community here and the fishing community in Tamil Nadu. There were talks in 2010 but neither of the governments then took forward those talks towards an agreement between two governments. So there needs to be talks between the fishing communities, there needs to be talks between the governments – the central government in India and government in Sri Lank as well as now the Northern Provincial Council chief minister as well0 the Tamil Nadu government can be involved in these talks to arrive at a solution soon.

SR: Thanks Ahilan

AK: Thank you.

Some related articles on the fishing issue vis-a-vis India and northern Sri Lanka - 

Between the Devil and the Not so Deep Blue Sea by Joeri Scholtens, Johny Stephen and Ajit Menon…

State Sovereignty and the Market by Ahilan Kadirgamar…


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