The gates of heaven

By Shanthi Sachithanandam

(April 20, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Even by air , Jaffna is a much as 8 hours away. There is over three hours of wait on both sides which includes checking of personal belongings twice and loading and unloading oneself into two buses to be taken to the destination. Once in Jaffna, each traveller is snapped off a digital camera and provided with a pass which allows stay for not more than a month. Interestingly, a photo is snapped on the return journey too making us wonder how all this information was being documented. The only other means of access to Jaffna at present is taking the sea route from Trincomalee to land at KKS. One can imagine how tedious that journey would be.

Jaffna does exhibit this sense of being policed, and being away from it all. Barrack Obama, the impending world economic crisis, all seemed so far away. But more than this sense of isolation, a sombre mood greeted the outsider. The people worried quietly about the lack of access to the Vanni and the southern markets for their agricultural produce. The economy of the fishing communities seemed broken due t o the restrictions on fishing in deep sea. They whispered about the sporadic killings still going in the peninsula. And all of them expressed anxiety over the situation in the Vanni. Many of them had relatives living in the Vanni; either as they originally came from there or settled there after the major displacement which occurred in Jaffna in 1995. There were others who had their relatives serving as government officers in the Vanni. It could be surmised that each household had at the least one distant relative now caught up in the war in Mullaitivu.

The peninsula run Udayan and Thinakkural papers have a daily update on all the injured who are brought to hospitals in Vavuniya, Trincomalee and the refugee centre in Jaffna. Habitually, people make morning calls to each other trying to verify facts and confirm the news of casualties they get from the internet sources. Very often, there is much agitation over the veracity of a particular initial to a given name or the place of incident. The tragedy is not so much not knowing the fate of loved ones trapped in the warfront, but that of not being able to grieve publicly in the event of a death. Understandably for the authorities, all those who remained in the Vanni until the end of 2008 were potential members or supporters of the LTTE.

Therefore, any signs of a household having a relative killed or injured in the Vanni posed the threat of a visit from the intelligence agents sometimes for the whole family to be taken away for questioning. The result was that even if a family obtained information of close relatives being brought to the district, they tended not to visit them. “ Why invite unwanted trouble of people identifying you and following your trail?” shrugged a man who had not visited his own brother who had been admitted to one of the centres. In the case of death, the tragedy is manifold. “I stuff my saree fall in to my mouth to cry in silence. We cannot even hold a funeral… “ sobbed a woman. “We are so alone here with no one to protect us”.

This mood was in sharp contrast to the bright posters splashed all over the peninsula by the EPDP with the pictures of Minister Douglas Devananda and President Mahinda Rajapaksa, declaring “This is our Country, This is our State (government)”.

The Minister had stepped up his activities of meeting the public and promising lots of ‘goodies’, an indication that he was getting ready to face an election in the North. “ The A9 road will open the very gates of heaven to all of you. ….Do not hesitate to speak out all your problems with me, I will try to solve them..” said he in a public meeting with members of the civil society. Actually he echoes the popular sentiment in this country that once the war is over and terrorism eradicated, the development dividends could be distributed to the war affected population to somehow win their trust and make amends. That is how the ‘Spring of the North’ is formulated now, just as the ‘Reawakening of the East’ was conceived of in the aftermath of the liberation of the Eastern Province.

A critique of this strategy necessarily requires an understanding of what is constituted as development. Development is the process of decision making in the allocation of resources and services, based on the congruent plans that meet the needs and interests of different communities with that of the priorities stipulated by professional planners. It will comprise of aspects of building local capacities of State and private institutions, and the skills of the local communities. And, be able to prudently use land and other natural resources available locally. This process pre-supposes freely organised communities that are empowered to articulate the needs of the grass roots, a strong political leadership that could change policies in favour of its constituencies, decision making, control over land and other resources, an independent bureaucracy, and mechanisms at all levels for consultation with all the stakeholders and the mobilisation of their participation. Looking at this definition we can at once surmise that a real development process has to move away from the centre, and the authority for decision making rests within the region in question.

Comparing this ideal with the situation in the North and East, we get a dismal picture. Extremely terrorised people who possessed no way to elect their own leaders for a long time, under a bureaucracy that is trained to obey orders from the centre. Even the decision as to whether they stay as two provinces or one merged province, which decision is central to their security and their access to land and other resources, is made elsewhere. Insert in to this picture a political leadership that cannot dare challenge the authority of the centre due to its particular existential problems, and because of this very central problem it attempts to establish its power base within the region through the twin strategies of playing Santa Claus and intimidation of opponents, it is not difficult to guess what is coming down the line. Actually, history has repeatedly shown us what transpires under these circumstances, we need not even guess. The maximum Jaffna could gain by the opening of the ‘gates of heaven’ will be that the middle class professionals need not pay the exorbitant air fare of Rs 21,300 to travel, and the producers can send their produce to the markets in the South without having to go through military ‘middle men’ channels. Some roads will be constructed and community centre buildings will dot the landscape. Hang on, large numbers of micro credit schemes will abound, and the central government may consider the setting up of garment factories. Meanwhile, a few people would have earned their millions.

Perhaps this is why the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province Mr. Chandrakanthan emphasises the need for expansion of powers to the council at every forum he addresses. “The decision to provide for full powers to the Provincial Councils cannot tarry any longer…. Once powers are given to the Eastern Province, other provincial councils will automatically gain theirs..” he asserts at a gathering of media personnel. It is significant that he sees no ‘gates of heaven’ for the Eastern Province despite now almost one year of development activities. Mr. Chandrakanthan and Mr. Douglas Devananda are some of those who have been fortunate enough to have been seated in positions of power due to quirks in history. They will do well to utilise their positions to continue to agitate for political reform that is necessary for the true development of the people.

Mr. Douglas Devananda explained at the said meeting his metamorphosis from an Eelam-seeking militant to now an ally of President Rajapaksa, because “he feels only Rajapaksa would be able to give due rights to the Tamils”. A man stood up to pose a question. “Sir, suppose President Rajapaksa does not give the due rights to the Tamil people, will you then begin another armed struggle?…” So much for the gates of heaven.

In all of this, the important lesson of history that a puppet government is never able to deliver development, goes unheeded.
-Sri Lanka Guardian