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SL ethnic groups clash over NE merger

Lankan parties like JVP and JHU are trying their best to get the merger of North and East provinces annulled, writes PK Balachandran.
PTI | By COLOMBO DIARY | PK Balachandran
PUBLISHED ON JUL 25, 2006 02:40 PM IST
Current efforts by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) to get the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces annulled, are likely to sharpen the conflict between Sinhala and Tamil sub-nationalisms in Sri Lanka, and create a new hurdle in the island's 58-year old struggle to find a solution to the ethnic conflict.

While the JHU had introduced a private member's bill in August 2005 to annul the amalgamation, top members of the JVP went to the Supreme Court in July 2006 with the same objective.

Sinhala case

The petition filed by a JVP member of parliament LP Wasantha Piyatissa in the Supreme Court, and the JHU's bill in parliament, say that the Tamils have no historical claim to the Eastern province, and that the merger of the East with the North had been bad in law.

The petition says that the Eastern province was historically peopled by the Sinhalas and not the Tamils, and was called Pihitirata.

Sinhala monarchs had built the historic Seruwila and Digavapi Buddhist temples. The Kandyan kingdom had held sway over the East till the British took over Ceylon in 1815.

Archaeologists have found 81 Buddhist shrines in Trincomalee district, 22 in Batticaloa, and 42 in Amparai, it points out.

Historians say that when the Muslims of the coastal areas were persecuted by the Portuguese in the 16th.century, the Kandyan king gave them land to settle on, in what are now called Batticaloa and Amparai districts.

Any foreigner landing in Trincomalee had to contact the Kandyan king to get permission to stay and move about.

According to the JVP MP's petition, it was only during the time of the Portuguese and the Dutch (in the 17th.century) that Tamil settlements began to be seen in Trincomalee.

The petition states that as per the 1981 census, Sinhalas were 26 per cent, the Tamils 32 per cent, and the Muslims 40 per cent in the Eastern Province.

If the East was merged with the North, the Sinhalas would be reduced to 13 per cent, and the Muslims to 18. But the Tamil component would go up to 65 per cent.

"This situation would be most unfair to both the Sinhalas and the Muslims, particularly in securing land and employment," the petition said.

It further states that 52 per cent of the land area in the East is populated by Sinhalas. The figures are 62 per cent in Trincomalee district and 72 per cent in Amparai district.

The petitioner contends that it will be "patently and grossly" unfair to hand over two thirds of Sri Lanka's coastline and one third of its land mass to the Tamils of the North East who "at the present time constitute a mere 5 per cent of the country's population."

In its draft bill to annul the merger, the JHU says that the Eastern Tamils are culturally and socially different from the Northern Tamils.

It also says that the people of Sri Lanka are against ethnic enclaves. Rejecting the concept of a Tamil Homeland, the Sinhalas say that the entire country is a Homeland for everybody, Sinhalas, Tamils and Muslims.

Legal objection to merger

Wasantha Piyatissa's petition says that as per Sec37 (1)(b) of the Provincial Councils Act of 1987, the President of Sri Lanka could not amalgamate the Northern and Eastern Provinces unless he was satisfied that the LTTE had surrendered all its weapons.

But the then Sri Lankan President, JR Jayewardene, changed paragraph (b) of sub section (1) of the said Act by using the Public Security Ordinance, accepted a token surrender of arms as equivalent to a full surrender, and merged the North and the East.

The JVP MP's contentions are: Firstly, the President had no power to amend the law as laws could be amended only by parliament.

Secondly, the emergency regulations under the Public Security Ordinance could be invoked only to ensure law and order and orderly movement of essential supplies, and not to condone the bearing of arms and jeopardise law and order. 

And thirdly, the emergency regulation under which the President had brought about the merger had lapsed after one month, and no attempt had been made since then to renew the regulation.

Therefore, the North and the East stood de-merged, the petitioner said, and pleaded that elections should be held for a separate Eastern provincial council.

Tamil case

The Tamils are dismayed by these moves. The unification of the North and East to form a single Tamil-speaking province has been a cardinal principle of the Tamil struggle in Sri Lanka since independence in 1948.

In a speech in parliament on July 19, Sivajilingam, who represents the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA), warned that annulment of the merger would be construed as a "declaration of war".

He charged that the Sri Lankan government was trying to start a war with the aim of separating the East from the North. "We will never allow this to happen," he declared.

And this is one issue on which the Tamil moderates and the Tamil extremists are united.

However, since March 2004, with the break up of the LTTE and the rise of the renegade "Col" Karuna in the eastern district of Batticaloa, there have been indications that at least a section of the Tamils will not mind a de-merger, if that will relieve them from "Northern domination" or the stranglehold of the LTTE.

But this is not stated openly, given the overall stand of the Tamils in favour of North-East unity, and the commitment of the LTTE to it. Therefore, any attempt to separate the two is likely to be met with stiff resistance.

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