Tamils in the North-East and the Rajapakse Regime

" The recent visit of the Mahanayaka of Malwatta to the North was a good sign. His visit and address at the Jaffna Library touched many hearts. Tamil-Sinhala relations at all levels seem to be on the mend. The President inviting the TNA delegation – and they, who shied from such invitations previously - accepting hospitality of the President at Temple Trees - are positive signs. Better still was the news that our High Commissioner in Delhi entertained the TNA MPs delegation when they visited India recently to Dinner. These are all welcome signs to those in the country keen to see her regain her earlier racial tranquility."

by Luxman Arvind

(September 03, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)
It is fifteen long months since “the internal War” against the LTTE was successfully brought to close. Some sections of the global media make the erroneous distinction the war was against the Tamils in the North-East. In the days, weeks and months following the ending of the conflict President Rajapakse and his brothers – Gothabaya, the Defence Secretary and Basil, the senior Minister now – made many high profile announcements the North-East will see “unprecedented development” from then on.

It is no secret similar assurances were given by the VVIP trio to the higher echelons of the Government of India and the donor community as well. The interim period is a fair space in time to subject the administration to a form of audit between Promises and Performances - which probably the same question, inter alia, India’s Foreign Secretary Smt. Nirupama Rao raised with the regime. “While re-settlement of IDPs was welcome, now it is the time to come out with a political settlement” said Mrs. Rao –the first Indian Foreign Secretary to visit the North East. That she will be followed by Shri S.M. Krishna, the Foreign Minister – due to visit in October – bears its own significance in the diplomatic tradition where high officials of this standing normally conduct their affairs in the Capital only. Curiously, the local media in reporting Mrs. Rao’s visit tried to convey the impression the focus of her visit and that of both governments were concentrated more in increased Indian investments here. For good measure it was reported “she was quite satisfied with the steps taken by GoSL in all matters of mutual concern”

Movement of people to and fro

Fairly free travel to and fro the Peninsula for goods and people is something everyone welcomes – more the Tamil people. This is hardly disputed. The opening has gone out to benefit the South – in bringing down the Cost of Living and the movement of goods from the South to the North. Greater movement of Fish, vegetables, Chillies, Onions, Dried Fish has been greeted with pleasant smiles from housewives. The large and regular movement of people to the North from the South and vice versa has increased trade and the inflow of goods to an area that was denied this for nearly 3 decades – no fault of the government or the Sinhala people this self-inflicted fate. But this rapid traffic also has resulted in some complaints in the form of cultural and behaviourial differences. The Police in the North also have been burdened by heightened incidents of thefts, robbery, intimidation etc.,. While the more educated Sinhalese do come to visit, pray and learn there are others who do not sufficiently hide their misconceived role of coming as “victors over the vanquished” – which is, quite rightly, objected to in the North. But this, one concedes, has to be expected as part of the bubble and not part of an engineered programme. Hopefully, this will settle down soon - in the interests of all concerned.

Infra-structure development is lack-lustre

The occasional repair of roads, bridges, hospitals, schools in Jaffna is seen but much needs to be done and sooner. There are more telephones, more electrical power than before, Television sets, Radio, Internet facilities – more the result of private sector endeavour. Newer cars, buses, lorries are a welcome change to the drab pre-1960 vehicles that dotted the Peninsular landscape. But what is most needed is new investment by the State to meet the existing and displaced population that is streaming in to their original habitats. Houses with clean drinking running water, efficient drainage systems need to come up rapidly. Many houses were destroyed by the war and new ones have not come in place. NHDA and the State has been somewhat slower here although some houses have been repaired and some newly built – again more through private and individual enterprise. Better health facilities, schools, repair and building of places of worship of more immediate need to the people here – are somewhat slow in coming. Emphasis on sprucing up the A9 and other major road links, restoring the rail service insensitively destroyed by the LTTE, laying down new tracks and new routes are not only welcome by the Tamil North but also will stimulate economic growth contributing to the national GDP.

The Jaffna Swimming Pool saga

Why the Government slowed down in that high-profile project to provide a Swimming Pool to students and the people located at Jaffna Central School is a low mark in better relations between the two communities. After all, this was opened by no less a person than young Namal Rajapakse, the son of the President - with much fan-fare in the presence of the influential Governor of the Northern Province Maj. Gen. G. A. Chandrasiri. Namal’s personal support “Nil Balakaya (Blue Brigade)” was entrusted with the task but was later found abandoning the project – with cement, steel and all missing – leaving a huge, gaping and potentially dengue-producing hole in the ground. Despite severe public censure here little seems to have been done to avert the situation – that can continue to undermine the credibility of the name of the Rajapakse family itself. Provision of a functioning and modern Swimming Pool in Jaffna Town will be a tremendous plus in the regime’s name is what should be recognized by those running the administration both in Jaffna and Colombo.

The politics behind releasing the HSZ lands and other recent displacements

Globally land is often the cause of bitter conflict in plural societies. In the smaller countries with large and growing populations this grave problem assumes dangerous proportions. In his testimony before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse recently confirmed HSZ properties in the Wanni and Gurungar area have been “entirely restored” It is reported 80% of agricultural land in the District fell under the HSZ hammer. The confiscation of such productive land can be translated as the people being confined by design to eventual starvation.

The release of the land the Defence Secretary mentioned is yet to be confirmed by the people of the area. In Santhapuram and Indupuram areas in Kilinochi 1,200 families have been virtually chased out of their land. 300 acres in Thirumurugandy and Mullikulam in Mannar and similar number of displacements in Keppapaluwa in Mullaitivu private land in large extents have been expropriated supposedly to set up large army cantonments. 400 acres of valuable beach-front land in Trinco North Kachaveli, Irrakandy and Kumburupitti areas which are 95% Tamil have been allocated to new Sinhala settlers is something that speaks for itself . Does anyone give any thought where these displaed people – infants, children, women, the old and sick - are to live when their homes are so brutally plundered.

Whether the State requires an army of 100,000-200,000 in peace times is yet another valid question. Nowhere in the world does one find the civilian-army ratio to be in the region of 3 to 4:1. The sum allocated for internal defence, reported to be in the region of Rs.2.5 billion, can be used to house the displaced and the IDPs in utilities in keeping with today’s real world. . It will also help the government’s image - both within and more without - if the other properties seized, except those with uncontested security considerations, are restored soon. To avoid much public skepticism it will help if the Government issues formal Communiques giving details of the properties thus released.

500 Tamil Policemen in the North

Mr Gotabhaya Rajapakse in the same sittings confirmed 500 Tamils from the North are being currently trained for duties at the Kalutara Police Training School and that it is the intention of the government to reduce the military role to be replaced by the local Police. This is something the Tamil people will welcome and which will go a long way in “winning the hearts and minds of the Tamil people – a priority of the regime”

Fishing industry continues to be under-utilised

The centuries-old developed fishing industry in the Peninsula that played such a useful role in the pre-war years – and, indeed the NEP - needs much more State consideration than obtaining now. Freedom for the fishermen to go out to the sea at times of their choice is still either restricted or denied totally. New boats, nets, equipment are still in short supply. The bigger and high-finance Ice factories and modern freezer facilities promised are still to come. Much concern has been expressed by fishermen in the East and the North new arrivals from elsewhere in the country have encroached upon their traditional catches – something that must be looked into and settled before this becomes another serious problem. Though there is more than one ministry supposed to help the fishing industry coordination between the various agencies are seriously flawed.

Signs of economic support from Southern Corporate sources

While the people of the District and the N-EP appreciate the role played by Mr Kumar Devapura of Tri Star Apparels to train and find employment for ex-LTTE cadres and pay them a reasonable remuneration during training period, the number of garment factories that have come up here – the largest foreign-exchange earning sector - are far below expectation. MAS, Brandix, Aitken Spence, Star, Timex Garments and other majors need to get more involved in the District to provide employment and raise the living standards of the people to reflect those of their Southern brethren.

Nestle has given a lead in help establish a Milk-chilling Plant and the creation of collection centres. The development of the Dairy industry, goat-farming, large Poultry farms should be encouraged and set up in these areas. Most of the economic activity should be aimed to benefit the IDPs out of long incarceration. Former senior Civil Servant and now President of the Northern NGOs Mr. C.V.K. Sivagnanam estimates the WB/ADB and other donors will come out with over Rs.50,000 million in the next 3 years. He proposes most of the Contractual work be given to the traders of the area so that the estimated 10% that usually goes as Contracts fee is retained in the District for investment within.

Mr Bernard Gunatilaka, senior diplomat and Government advisor, in his appearance before the LL&RC recalled the 480 World Bank and donor-sponsored Projects that the government placed during the negotiations with the LTTE during the P-Toms talks.

The latter were to reject this for reasons of their own while it was clear if these projects had taken off the Tamil people of the region would have harvested much benefit. There is no reason why most of these projects cannot be revisited again.

Donors and foreign investors step into the Rebuilding process

Rebecca Cohn of USAID announced last July they are ready to provide training for 10,000 jobs in the Jaffna District as follows :- Construction industry/5,000 Garment Industry/1,800 BPO/IT industry/3,200. Ms Cohen said a sum of Rs.4 billion has been ear-marked for this purpose. The US efforts will make a valuable contribution to the Quality of Life of the people in the area.

The KKS Cement Works, the Paranthan Chemical factory, the Valaichenai Paper factory,

Precious earth and Mineral sands in the Pulimuddai area were all State-sponsored high-value Investments that suffered varying degrees of decline in the past 3 decades. In recent times, many well known names in global trade and commerce have expressed interest to re-establish these vital units under expert private guidance, modernisation and new investment. Taken together, these ventures can provide that number of jobs that can virtually take care of the entire employment requirement of the region. Yet another matter of concern on the part of the people particularly in the Jaffna District is the employment-trading opportunities and income that should come their way is finding the hands of outsiders who appear to enjoy much State sponsorship and encouragement. There is also the fear the intention of some powerful sections in the ruling circles is to ensure that the commanding heights of Trade and Commerce in the Tamil areas to be reserved for them while the lower opportunities are to find the hands of the locals. Former senior Civil Servant and now President of the Northern NGOs Mr. C.V.K. Sivagnanam estimatese WB/ADB and other donors will come out with over Rs.50,000 million in the next 3 years. He proposes most of the Contractual work be given to those in the area so that the estimated 10% that usually goes as Contractors fee is retained in the District for investment within. The Jaffna Chamber of Commerce, the Yalpalanam Chamber and private professionals are all likely to provide the required technical and managerial know-how in that policy of the Government to help the Jaffna District find its earlier strength in business.

KP, NERDO and the diaspora

There has been months of keen discussion on the role and future of KP – the former LTTE leader who lived overseas for many years – and is now under State custody. Most Tamils welcome his close rapport with the regime in general and with Deference Secretary – the influential Gothabaya Rajapakse, in particular. They look to the new body NERDO to bring them good tidings – economically and politically. But what is worrisome is the thought that KP is being used only for the purpose of changing high-value overseas LTTE assets to find the hands of VVIPs in the government as quid pro quo for his release. This may or not be true but the speculation is real. The other is that KP is being used to cause the inflow of diaspora funds for the re-building of the NEP. The thinking here is the State must give the lead and start the rebuilding and rehabilitation process without waiting for the diaspora to come in. A period of normalcy and peace should follow after this. It is thereafter the diaspora will gain the necessary confidence to invest in the NEP - either for altruistic, patriotic or economic considerations.

Law and Order worries

While the good intentions of the government is not contested, the people of the North-East Province are still not totally free of fear, insecurity and real/inflicted weaknesses in the law and order system. That this is still unsatisfactory in most areas of the Jaffna District is a major worry of the people. Gun-toting goons under the influence of ministerial sources often run beserk with absolutely no regard to the Police or the Courts. The situation in the Batticoloa District is bad with Pillaiyan and Karuna’s goons not only abducting and killing each other but also endangering the ordinary public. Chavakachcheri Magistrate A.M. Mohamed Reyal openly complained from the Bench that the Police are uncooperative in arresting suspects in murder and abduction cases, a poor reflection on the IGP – already under attack from many quarters.

Recently the media reported the arrest of a 4-man gang in “CID uniform” at Ragama

In the process of relieving a Tamil couple of their cash and jewellery. Simple Tamil folk travelling in trains have been terrorised in Polgahawela, Ragama, Veyangoda and even in the Colombo Fort Railway Station” said this media report. That reports of this nature have come from Vavuniya and Anuradhapura is shocking. One wonders what the Railway Security service was doing while all “this was going on for a long time”

The news Mullaitivu Courts will be manned by a Sinhala Magistrate certainly does not inspire confidence in a District that is almost 100% Tamil. The government should show more respect to minority susceptibilities in the matter of important State appointments is something that hardly needs to be emphasised.

The war and collapse of the system in the Wanni resulted in the confiscation of many cars, vans, buses, lorries, tractors belonging to the wealthier Tamils in the region. These were all requisitioned and kept in various locations under the eye of the army and the Police while the owners of these vehicles lost their homes. When the situation returned to gradual normalcy the owners of these vehicles began their searches for their valuable properties and are disappointed they are all said to be “missing or lost” The fact is most of these have been cannibalized and parts of the newer and new vehicles sold to middle men in the Anuradhapura town area. It is learnt the licence plates of expensive vehicles have been changed and are being used by army and Police personnel for their personal transport.

The government cannot expect private investment or the arrival of the diaspora with long-term investment programmes with an ineffective, grotesque and collapsed security apparatus needs to be appreciated and suitable action taken to create a better climate of trust.

Signs of hope lingers

Still, judged by the havoc in the past few decades, it can be argued we could be on the slow path to recovery - provided the government shows goodwill and determination to win the Tamil people to their side. The recent visit of the Mahanayaka of Malwatta to the North was a good sign. His visit and address at the Jaffna Library touched many hearts. Tamil-Sinhala relations at all levels seem to be on the mend. The President inviting the TNA delegation – and they, who shied from such invitations previously - accepting hospitality of the President at Temple Trees - are positive signs. Better still was the news that our High Commissioner in Delhi entertained the TNA MPs delegation when they visited India recently to Dinner. These are all welcome signs to those in the country keen to see her regain her earlier racial tranquility.