Northern Province Governor Reginald Cooray has focussed on developing the North on par with the rest of the country and resolving the social issues that plague the region. Recently, he visited London to meet the Sri Lankan community and convince them to invest in the region. He believes that there are a lot of opportunities for investment in the fields of solar power, wind power, fishing, salt manufacturing, milk processing, agriculture and tourism. He believes that the diaspora should be encouraged to invest in the province.
Dispelling the notion that the North is plagued with violence and sword gangs, he said on the contrary, the situation in the North is far less serious than that of the South. He blamed the Tamil politicians for creating communal and social issues for their own survival and for political gain.
Joining the Daily News in an interview, he expressed his views on many of the topics that concern the North.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: How would you describe the overall situation in the North, nine years after the war ended?
A. The Northern Province’s political, economic and social contexts are to be taken into consideration. Whatever the electronic and printed media say, I am optimistic about the situation in the North. After 30 years of protracted war, the innocent people have understood the implications through their bitter experiences. Hence their common and natural desire is to live in a peaceful society. They want to look after their families and improve their economic situations. Therefore, they are for peace.
The people in the North suffer because of the climatic conditions throughout the year. Of the 12 months in a year, they get rain only during nine months, and it is very difficult to find drinking water and a lot of diseases plague the people.
At the same time, they also suffer because of the politics in the Northern Province. They normally don’t talk about caste. Though we talk about human rights a lot, this caste system is totally in violation of their basic human rights. The low caste people are sometimes not permitted to enter certain kovils and sometimes the low caste people cannot be buried in certain graveyards as they are reserved only for the high castes. These issues are hidden by the politicians and nobody talks about it. However, I am optimistic about the situation in the North and feel that the politicians cannot get the mass support for another rebellion because the people want to live in peace.
The politicians in the North still hold onto their political slogans of wanting self-determination, federalism, police and land powers and so on. They direct and concentrate all their activities and efforts to fulfil that aim and neglect the development of the area. That is a very sad situation. They want to keep the people below the poverty line as it would be a very strong foundation for their future struggles. If the people are satisfied, they won’t want to disrupt their lives for a rebellion. That is why these politicians want to keep the people beneath the poverty line. Until they gain their political targets, the people must suffer. That is the theory of these politicians. This is a very sad situation.
During the colonial period, 500 years ago, these places were neglected. In the South, even under colonial rule, they started tea, rubber, and coconut factories and even the roads, cities, bridges and harbours were built. But even under colonial leadership, the North was neglected. After independence too, it was the same situation. The development activities in the North are insufficient. We must expedite development.
At present, the government is taking interest and they feel that development is the only way for reconciliation. When the people are satisfied and they won’t need to rebel and that is their intention. But sadly, the Northern politicians are not interested in peace as they would not be able to fulfil their motives.
For development of the Northern Province, there should be cooperation between the centre and peripheries, meaning the central government and the provincial councils. When the government is going to do something in the North, so many barriers arise because of the mentality of the Northern politicians. Sri Lanka is an island and Jaffna is a peninsula. Hence the Northern peninsula is more secluded, more conservative and more closed to society. So they are afraid of tourism and claim that they could lose their cultural identity and fear that the demography would change. They fear that it would be another invasion under the guise of development. That is the situation.
Q: Although you say that the Tamils are a closed society and fear Southern invasion, the majority of the Northern Tamils live in the South among the Sinhalese and other communities. How do you see this situation?
A. Public opinion is created by the people who have vested interests such as the electronic and printed media. They can create fake opinions among the people. Even the war between Elaara and Dutu Gemunu, or Ravana and Rama are wars between kings during feudalistic times and not a war between two communities. However, the Tamil media defines it in today’s context as ‘Sinhalese’ being ‘anti-Tamil’ and ‘Tamil’ being ‘anti-Sinhalese’. These unfortunate situations also prevail and hamper reconciliation.
In the South there is no problem at all and the Tamil people enjoy everything that the rest of the residents do. They can buy land, start businesses and move freely and engage in their religious activities without any hindrance. But in Jaffna, they think that they should reserve that area as a separate area for the Tamil community.
In most Buddhist temples you would find statues of Hindu deities as well. But when someone goes to the North and sets up a temple or erects a statue, they are against it and fear it would be another act of Sinhala invasion. Even in the South, this fear existed in the past where they were reluctant to allow tourism and foreign investment. But they eventually understood that all countries are interdependent and not just independent.
Q: Currently, there is a huge investment in the South even by the Tamil diaspora, but why is this investment not happening in the North?
A. One reason is the political barrier. The diaspora is interested and wants to invest here. But they are not motivated and encouraged. This is the challenge we have and we must break this barrier. They are interested and want to come and invest, given the opportunity.
Q: With regard to the war widows in the North, what has the government done in terms of strengthening their means of income and uplifting their lives?
A. The Samurdhi and Enterprise Sri Lanka schemes are mainly aimed at encouraging and assisting such families. These facilities are available for them, but the problem is that the absence of a husband is not merely an economic impediment. There are so many social issues too that arise due to their vulnerability as well. Hence, we have to take these factors into consideration as well. Some widows still hold onto the belief that their husbands are alive and will return some day. Not only in the North but in the Asian region, widowed women are cornered and isolated. The hegemonism of a man is still existent. As a result, these women face a lot of problems.
There is another serious issue where men who are abroad come to Sri Lanka and marry local girls who know nothing of their background. The men could be married elsewhere, but they come here and flash their money and pretend to be very successful and most often, these innocent women in the North get caught to these tricksters. The men obtain huge dowries from the women, promise to go back and send for them, but instead, take off with the dowries and are never heard of again.
During the period of war too, some young men in the North married in order to escape from being forced into fighting. The parents encouraged early marriages just to prevent their children from being dragged away to fight in the war. But, after the war, there are many divorces as a result. Previously, you very rarely heard of divorce in the Tamil community, but today it has changed and the number of divorces is rising rapidly. Therefore, it will take some time for these social problems to settle even if the economic problems are settled much sooner.
Q: There is great interest in the sword gangs in the North currently. How do you see this situation?
A. All these incidents are to be taken relatively and comparatively. When you compare the crimes in the South, the North is nil. I am in the government and I get the reports of the whole island and compare them. In comparison to other districts, Jaffna is far better. But always, even a simple incident in the North is highlighted.
In the South, there are various serious crimes taking place and numerous gangs are involved in serious crime. Comparatively, in the North, these are youth gangs and they use small knives and homemade swords. Not that I am saying this is acceptable, but compared to the South, these gangs in the North are relatively less destructive. In the South on the other hand, these gangs are using AK-47s, bombs and other modern weapons and committing serious crimes. So why don’t we ask the same question from the South? Why are we only pointing fingers at the North?
Even in developed countries you see such groups. We are always used to seeing Jaffna in a peculiar manner. Even a simple incident is highlighted and exaggerated. But the actual situation is not as bad.
Q: The Northern Chief Minister and other Tamil politicians constantly call for the removal of the military camps in the North. Will this happen any time soon?
A. First let me ask, who invited the military to the North? Earlier, there were no military camps in the North, only police stations. However, because of this protracted guerrilla war, the Army was compelled to go there to protect the integrity of the land. Before that, these lands were taken over by the LTTE, but nobody talks about that. They set up camps and forcibly acquired people’s lands. They are the ones who started these activities. Not just the lands, but even small children were kidnapped for their purposes. That was a result of that protracted war.
Hence, my view is that if we remove all these camps from the North, that policy should be applied to the South as well. But, can we do that to a country? No!
Because of the bitter experiences in the past, we must maintain these military camps for some time until the security in that region is ensured. It’s not the number of camps and soldiers that matter, we must see if they are suppressing and oppressing the people in that area.
The truth is far from that. In fact, these soldiers are helping the poor a lot in the North. When there is an epidemic or a natural disaster, it is the Army that is first at hand to help these people. Lack of skilled people is one of the greatest challenges in the North, as almost all the educated people have left the area. Only the poor and marginalised are left behind.
Hence, when we want to develop the area, there is a lack of a skilled labour and we are unable to find engineers, doctors, nurses, teachers and contractors. In such situations, it is the Army that steps in. Many schools, hospitals and even houses have been built by the Army without any labour charges. Hence, I don’t think that the Army being there is a problem for the people, but on the contrary, it is the politicians who try to make it look so. But, they must vacate the private lands they occupy. Almost 90 percent of the lands have been released and the rest too would be released in the near future.
Q: The Northern Chief Minister is adamant that Buddhist temples should not be established in the North and that Tamils should be allowed to rule the North which should be solely an area for the Tamils. What is your take on this?
A. The Chief Minister was earlier a reputed judge and he is a very good gentleman. However, politically, I feel he is incapable and does not understand reality. These politicians think of winning the next election, but statesmen think of the next generation. Hence, he is doing all this just to be elected again. The easiest way to be a leader is by rousing racial, territorial and religious sentiments. Now sadly, this reputed judge is also playing this game of politics.
Q: The Tamils feel that the war is over, but justice has not been done. Do you agree?
A. Realistically, we must understand it in relative terms. What is the injustice that is done to them? They must be specific. They have all their rights and no one has deprived them of it. They have the same political rights and human rights that the rest of the country enjoys. Economic development issues exist, but that is not only in the North, this situation is prevalent in the other provinces too. We must address these issues, but the people in the North do enjoy all political and legal rights. Justice is being done.
Q: Tamil politicians are of the view that the drug menace has been introduced to the North by the South to destroy the Tamils. How would you respond?
A. Some areas in the North are notorious for smuggling and even in the past it was so. In the past, these areas did not smuggle Kerala cannabis or drugs, they smuggled cheaper goods from South India. The distance between India and Sri Lanka is a mere 20km and India can be reached easily. There are thousands of fishing boats in that area and these boats are being used for drug trafficking and they are paid highly. Everyone is focussing on the drug menace in the North, but what about the drug menace in the South? It is far worse. I feel that contrary to what they say, the Northerners are bringing these drugs and we in the South are consuming it. The drug menace is not just confined to Sri Lanka, it is a global issue. It’s very difficult to control. The issue is that we are not looking at this situation objectively, as it is the Tamils who are bringing these drugs from India. Hence we must tackle this problem collectively and no one can address this situation singlehandedly.