THE reopening of the Jaffna University has placed a challenge of trust before the Government. The quest is to promote trust and good will, to forge genuine peace and equality in that embattled region. In November, clashes erupted between university students and the Army when they had attempted to hold a march to remember those slain during the war. The Government, ever wary of any links to the LTTE, saw this as an attempt to undermine its authority and sow discord among the northern population.
Even though the Government will see this as a threat, from a humanitarian perspective, the people who died are still beloved members of a family. They are someone’s father, brother, sister, and daughter. Forgetting these human ties and the deep social connection between the people in the north and east would be a grave insensitivity that will not stand well for reconciliation.
This connection, together with the untold suffering that these people endured for decades on end, cannot be erased overnight. There should be more understanding of their emotions without insecurity and suspicion being allowed to govern all actions. The attack of the Army on the Jaffna University and the subsequent tension will also erode confidence in the Government and make peace building mechanisms difficult, including civilian governance of the north.
What was even more startling was that four of the students that were arrested had “volunteered” to be rehabilitated in Government run camps for former LTTE cadres despite not having any charges proved against them or even submitted to a court of law. Such random acts can be seen as repressive, thus worsening relations with the Government.
The slim silver lining was that mainstream media also criticised the detention of students without dismissing them under the common brand of “LTTE rump”. The ability to differentiate between the aspirations of a community and not confuse them with that of terrorists is an important part of reconciliation.
The fear, mistrust, and suspicion caused by this event cannot be allowed to fester. Real development cannot be achieved without political rights, freedom of movement and speech, as well as a frank engagement with State entities that includes the Police and the Army. The civil administration of Jaffna must be empowered to deal with such instances armed by the rule of law. Arbitrarily dealing with students due to security fears is likely to increase them rather than reconstructing peace in the region.
During the war universities were seldom closed for security reasons and Jaffna defied the odds in remaining a valued institution. This cannot now be tossed away due to suspicion, insecurity and insensitivity.
In real terms, development is yet to reach the north. All stakeholders, particularly the private sector, need to take a more proactive role to allow the north to heal through taking economic opportunities there. The Achchuveli investment zone together with garment manufacturers has spearheaded this task but a lot more needs to be done. These industrious people need capital, technology, and market access, among other resources to rebuild their world. For peace to have any meaning, they must be assisted on political, social, and economic dimensions.
Graduates need to be given jobs so that they and the economy can improve. As was recently pointed out by a Canadian Minister during his visit here, political and economic issues are the main drivers of illegal migration. Without such comprehensive assistance, there is every danger that a vicious cycle of suppression and violence will undermine Sri Lanka’s precious chance for peace.