Refugee Kamzy Gunaratnam to Mayor

By Harim Peiris

Meeting President Maithripala Sirisena, earlier this month, for a courtesy call, which lasted longer than originally anticipated, was Jaffna born, Deputy Mayor of the Norwegian capital city of Oslo, Kamzy Gunaratnam. Born in Jaffna, to parents who both hailed from the peninsula, her parents took their young family and fled the fighting up North and the country as refugees, when she was three years old and eventually ended up in Norway.

A little over a decade later, Kamzy as a teenager got actively involved in the youth movement of the left of center Labor party and rose up the ranks of its youth movement. As a politically conscious teenager, she was also active in the Tamil Diaspora politics. She sang and danced at the Maveer Naal remembrances for those who died fighting for the LTTE. In 2011, she was an organizer of a summer political youth camp by her party when the camp was attacked by a single Norwegian right-wing extremist, Anders Breivik, who shot and killed sixty-nine young people on the Island. Kamzy herself had to swim in the sea to escape, as Breivik shot at her and other young campers. It was the worst violence on Norwegian soil since the end of the World War II.

Ten years ago, then still a teenager, at just nineteen years of age, she was elected from the Labor Party as a Municipal Councillor, in Norway’s biggest city and capital of Oslo, setting a record as one of the youngest councillors ever elected.

Re-elected, at twenty-five she became Oslo’s youngest ever Deputy Mayor. Now at the age of twenty-nine, she is a firm favourite to become the next Mayor of Oslo in elections due in September this year. A remarkable journey for a young woman, from Jaffna to the pinnacles of Oslo City Hall, from refugee to mayor.

Mayor Kamzy in Sri Lanka

As a deputy Mayor of Oslo, Kamzy received and hosted at Oslo City Hall, many delegations and politicians from Sri Lanka visiting Oslo at various times and finally decided to accede to their numerous requests that she visit the land of her birth and early childhood. Earlier this year, Mayor Kamzy did just that. Received by their Worships the Mayors of Colombo, Jaffna and Batticaloa, Kamzy visited her counterparts and exchanged experiences, ideas and knowledge. In Colombo she dialogued with Mayor Rosy Senanayake on early kindergarten facilities to enable city women to move back into the workforce after childbirth. In Batticaloa she engaged with Mayor Sarvanapavan on initiatives to have a city safe for women and in Jaffna with Mayor Arnold on the issues of solid waste disposal and potable water. In Colombo she gave a well-received lecture on women’s issues to the policy think tank circuit and in Jaffna, Batticalo and Mullaitivu she met, listened and learned from women, war widows, single mothers, the maimed, orphans, female ex combatants and the families of the missing, all of whom had been affected by the war as indeed her own family had been.

The tragedy surely, is that ten years later, post war these women are still struggling for sustainable solutions to their vulnerability. Mayor Kamzy joined a new breed or rather adopted a fresh approach of some Tamil Diaspora leaders, who like the GTF’s Chairman Rev. Father Emmanuel, who has relocated and based himself in Jaffna, to directly engage with the post war situation on the ground in Sri Lanka and address the myriad of issues facing the Tamil community, democratically and through discourse, practical solutions as well as political dialogue.

Gender issues in post war reconciliation

There is one lesson, which Mayor Kamzy’s life and decade of electoral politics in Norway’s centre left movements and the Labor Party, stands testament to and that is the multi-cultural values and ethos which the cosmopolitan city life of Oslo engenders. Kamzy’s electoral constituency is not limited to Norway’s relatively small Tamil Diaspora community, but she draws support on the basis of her social democratic policies and politics, which includes strong commitments on women and youth empowerment and environmental protection, the latter a common passion she shares with President Sirisena, who is also our Minister of Environment. Her political life in Norway, is an interesting experience in multi-culturalism and is it impossible to envisage that Sri Lankan society would also move beyond identity politics sufficiently so that our politics is driven by policies and diverse views on the merits of the issues of public welfare rather than based on ethnicity, caste or creed.

Deputy Mayor Kamzy and indeed her Labor Party, are strong advocates of quotas or affirmative action for women in public life and she was very interested in Sri Lanka’s recent twenty five percent quota reservation introduced into the local government and provincial council election legislation to increase the participation of women in politics. For the former conflict areas in Sri Lanka in general and the Tamil community in particular, now having a large number of women headed households, the empowerment of these women in their own society through their voices being heard and as economic actors in their communities is crucial.

Mayor Kamzy addressed these and other issues courageously if rather bluntly and without the deference to the traditions of an age gone by. In all this, she did not veer away from the orthodoxies of Tamil Diaspora politics but pragmatically claimed that first the Tamil people, (half of whom are women) must be empowered in their communities and then they can engage meaningfully on their political issues, a position which finds its origins (and defense) actually in Tamil politics, in late LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham, who always argued on behalf of the LTTE, that first the humanitarian needs of the Tamil people must be addressed to enable them to meaningfully engage in political processes. An interesting intervention, a fresh approach and new thinking by a remarkable young woman from Jaffna.

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