Time to defeat extremism in north and south: Northern Province Governor Cooray

Wednesday, 27 July 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Northern Province Governor Reginald Cooray


Untitled-1By Shanika Sriyananda

Q: What do you have to say about the recent clash between two students groups from Jaffna University? 

I don’t see this incident as a reflection of communal differences in this island. University is a place where young students are studying and they mostly act according to their feelings and emotions. Therefore, something emotional sparked this incident. Since the two groups belonged to two communities, it was defined as communal tension.

Sri Lankans are living in an era where reconciliation is taking place after a 30-year-long war. The top priority on the national agenda is reconciliation and the Government firmly believes that there is no future for the country without reconciliation. It is very unfortunate that this incident happened as it will affect the reconciliation process. This is why we need to react wisely.

Q: What was the progress of the investigations into the incident?

During the meeting between the Vice Chancellor of the university, her staff and police officials, they decided to make three decisions - first to hold an internal inquiry led by university authorities, secondly to bring the culprits before the law and thirdly to reopen the university. While the internal inquiry is going on now, a student was arrested and granted bailed last week. The university authorities have also taken the decision to start lessons in some faculties after analysing the situation. However, the wrongdoers will be punished under the law.

Q: Some politicians have claimed that a powerful group was behind the incident and acted to provoke students. Is that true?

It is not reasonable for me to give my opinion without knowing the actual facts. Anyone can have suspicions about anything or anyone. But this incident needs to be investigated to find out the truth. We can’t rush to conclusions without finding out the facts. Since an investigation is underway, we need to be patient without jumping to our own imaginary conclusions.

I want to talk about the extremists and fundamentalists in Sri Lanka. Seemingly, the northern and southern extremists are against each other but the true picture is different. They are inter-dependant. The southern extremists help the northern extremists and vice versa. When this incident took place among the two student groups, these two extremists reaped the benefits. If there is no extremism they won’t be able to survive. So they promote the incident and raise a strong voice for it. I think this is the time to defeat extremism in the country as well. 

Q: Is there any major issue affecting the reconciliation process in the north?

Yes, the major hindrance is a lack of awareness about peaceful coexistence. Some of the people in the north are not yet ready to live together. They still lack the knowledge of the art of living in unity. Though we have differences in culture, religion and language, we lived together for centuries but the war has greatly affected this unity. The mindset of people has transformed and this should be changed gradually.

Q: How do you think this mindset can be changed?

We need to do many things to change this mindset. Most importantly it can be changed through constitutional changes. It can also be changed through administration, development, technology and culture. 

Another vital aspect is changing their mindset ideologically. By initiating constitutional amendments we can’t iron out ethnic differences and bring communal harmony. The Government can’t change this mindset but people need to understand each other. Social responsibility also plays a key role here. 

I think reconstruction is not so difficult but reconciliation is complicated and we have to be very patient as it will take time. These types of incidents will happen but irrespective of such incidents we need to continue to unite the two communities.

Q: You can converse fluently in Tamil. How important is the language factor in the reconciliation process?

Language is a major factor that triggered the three-decade-long conflict. It plays a vital role in the entire reconciliation process. People of the Northern Province like me as a politician mainly because of my ability to speak in Tamil. They can understand me and I can understand their problems. They do not need an interpreter when sharing their problems with me. They come directly to me. We need to promote the language of both communities in the south, north and east. This will prevent others from creating a picture which differs from reality.

Q: What have been the initiatives taken so far to promote the Sinhala language in the north?

Teaching Sinhala in northern schools and teaching Tamil in southern schools is one important decision that the Government has taken to promote linguistic harmony between the two communities. It is successfully progressing in the schools in the South but not in the Tamil schools in the north due to a lack of Sinhala teachers. 

The Education Ministry has now made a decision to recruit 600 teachers to teach Sinhala in the schools in the Northern Province. I hope this will be a successful remedy. 

Q: People in the north complain about a lack of livelihood opportunities, resettlement and land issues. 

For over 30 years we experienced the war and its deadliness. And we are still experiencing the repercussions of the war. Even though the war ended six years ago, the Government will not be able to solve all the problems overnight. What existed in the north for centuries was destroyed during the war and the Government has to rebuild. 

Within the six years after the war we have been able to reconstruct infrastructure facilities, including railways and highways, houses and hospitals while restoring education facilities and the local administration. We have resettled 160,000 families and the remaining 12,000 families will be resettled soon. 

Untitled-3Of the 12,000 families to be resettled, most of them are from the Jaffna District. Resettling these families got delayed due to a scarcity of land in the Jaffna Peninsula. The Government needs to find land for them.

The Government has taken steps to acquire land to distribute to these families. Recently 62 acres from the cement factory in Kankesanthurai was acquired to resettle 150 families. Another 32 acres will be acquired from Palali to resettle 300 families from Elephant Pass. We are in the process of solving the land issues step by step.

Q: The Government took some steps to remove some army camps in the north but still people claim that there is a heavy military presence in the north. Is there any decision to reduce the military further?

We had a military victory. To overpower the LTTE, previous governments had to deploy troops in the north. The military itself didn’t step into the north. They had to fight with the LTTE to control the situation. All these camps were built because of the war and the LTTE’s terrorism. 

I need to clear this point. Much of the people’s land and houses were forcibly grabbed by the LTTE to build their hideouts and command structures to strengthen themselves. They were mingling with people and attacking the soldiers. When the troops were fighting the LTTE, they had to recapture those houses and land from the LTTE. When the Sri Lankan troops defeated the LTTE, the military had occupied those properties captured from the LTTE. This is the truth.

The Sri Lankan military didn’t grab people’s properties. They took them from the LTTE after heavy fighting. However, today we have to return these lands to the people. We have done a lot to hand over these lands and the rest will be handed over gradually.

Q: You said that a lot of work was done during the last five years in the Northern Province. It seems that you agree that the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa Government has done a lot to achieving the three Rs - reconstruction, resettlement and reconciliation.

Yes, I agree that the previous Government had contributed a lot in reconstruction and resettlement. And this Government has to do more. 

One major unsolved problem is unemployment and livelihood restoration. We have to do more to solve these two issues. We are satisfied with the development work carried out by the former Government. But they were not interested in reconciling the two communities. No one will disagree with the fact that they carried out an excellent reconstruction process in the north and east. This Government is concentrating mainly on reconciliation. 

Q: What are the major factors that need to be addressed to implement a meaningful reconciliation process? 

I think overcoming the language problem and fostering equality and respect between each community will help in reconciliation to a great extent. I agree that developing infrastructure will also contribute to reconciling the two communities as they will feel that both are enjoying equal facilities. Sri Lanka is an island and Jaffna is a peninsula. Because of this they are more secular than others. 

We still have the feudalistic remnants in Sri Lanka. They are not interconnected, interrelated and interwoven. Therefore, through transportation we are interconnected and through modern communication we are interconnected and also through education, irrigation and development. 

At the same time the people of the north are concerned about their respect. This should be protected and that is why the Government took a decision to sing the national anthem in Tamil. This is one way of respecting them. 

Q: What is the response you get from the Tamil diaspora?

We have taken a decision to invite the Tamil diaspora to invest in the north. Creating investment opportunities is a very important factor to addressing unemployment and creating livelihood opportunities for the northern people. 

We have planed an investment forum for the next Nallur Festival season. We will set up an office in the Jaffna Kachcheri to provide all the information on this investment forum and we will invite the Tamil diaspora to join us at this forum. 

Q: Some northern political parties, including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), are critical about the Government’s initiatives. How do you get their support for the reconciliation process?

Yes, we have differences as well as similarities. We always talk about differences but there are similarities too. One thing is they want to develop their area and we also want to do that. Unity is vital. Both have agreed to be in a united Sri Lanka. They also think that this country should not be divided. We too think the same. Both want to work hard towards reconciliation. Therefore we can both work together. 

Q: However, the TNA accuses the Government of allowing some Buddhist temples to be built in the north. Is that true?

There are only 13 Buddhist temples in the Northern Province. The two new temples, which are nearing completion, are among them. Yes, the TNA says that these temples are new but the Sinhalese people say they are not new. What are the hindrances to building new kovils in Jaffna? 

These two religions are not like Christianity, which doesn’t just allow for the construction of churches here and there. Since there are no restrictions, Buddhist temples and Hindu Kovils can be built according to their wishes. When there is private land the devotees build kovils and it is the same with Buddhists.  

Q: But what the TNA claim is that this temple is being built in a predominantly Tamil village where there is not a single Sinhala family. 

There are mosques in every village. Even if there are 20 families there will be a mosque. They can’t cast blame for building temples as there are army camps in those villages and the soldiers who are Buddhists have a right to worship Lord Buddha. Isn’t it so? Most of the Buddhist temples are built near army camps because soldiers are Buddhists. 

Q: Do you think that the LTTE ideology still exists in the Northern Province?

What is the ideology of the LTTE? It is to have a separate country for Tamils. I must say that this is not the ideology of the majority of Tamils in the North as well as those living in all other parts of Sri Lanka.