Development of former war zones neglects reconciliation

by Jehan Perera

(May 31, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) President Mahinda Rajapaksa replied to his government’s detractors at the second anniversary celebration of the war victory over the LTTE. Although the President showed no signs of anxiety that his government was under siege by sections of the international community on the issue of human rights violations in the last phase of the war he sought to address those concerns. He argued that the war victory and elimination of terrorism had established genuine human rights in the country. What was important, he opined, was to liberate the people so that they could enjoy their human rights. In addition, the President stressed the importance of ensuring development for the people and emphasized the role of the victorious troops in this development process.

 Despite the impressive signposts of development, there is a problem of reconciliation that festers. There still remains a problem of thousands of LTTE cadre held incommunicado by the military. The government has failed to provide the name lists to their families. 

So far the main showpieces of the government’s success in achieving development have been in the area of infrastructure development. The claims of high rates of economic growth have been vitiated in the minds of most people due to the high inflation that has eaten away at their purchasing power. But the hope of future prosperity has been sustained by the infrastructure projects, that include the new port built at Hambantota, the power plant at Norochcholai and the international airport being constructed at Weerawila. Without a doubt the most widespread sign of infrastructure development has been the road network being upgraded in different parts of the country. A black and gleaming road with white lines in the middle can transform the appearance of an area. Parts of the hill country have been a beneficiary of this investment, with the carpeted roads in lush green and terraced surroundings making a beautiful picture.

The approach road to the town of Mannar in the north west extremity of the country is another such example, though it is the sea that provides the background not mountains. Mannar is a town that has long being neglected both on account of having been in a war zone for three decades and being far from the mainstream of the economic life of the country. However, the new road that connects Mannar to the rest of the country, and the long bridge that connects Mannar Island to the mainland, is an impressive sight that conveys an impression of modernity.


Residents of Mannar concur that the town has seen more development of its infrastructure in the past two years after the end of the war than in the decades that came before. During most of the war period, Mannar Island on which the town of Mannar is located, remained under the control of the government. There was also a brief period in the early 1990s when it came under LTTE control.

It became a site of heavy fighting in the battles for its control. At that time the population evacuated setting a precedent for later evacuations in other parts of the north that culminated in the tragedy of the last phase of war, with its hostage and human shield situation that was exploited by the LTTE. The scars of war can still be seen with the shells of buildings destroyed in the fighting still remaining. The upgraded road to the important Catholic shrine of Madhu Church is a part of the development that has taken place in Mannar. The Madhu shrine is an important symbol of the links that bind the north and south, Sinhalese and Tamils together, as it is a place of common religious worship. During the period of war, Madhu was home to one of the largest welfare centres for internally displaced persons.

Even today there still remain a few thousands of internally displaced people in the area. But overshadowing their presence is the fact that the Madhu shrine has once again become a site of pilgrimage for people from all parts of the country. This also enhances the prospect of Mannar as a tourist destination in the future. The tourist potential of Mannar Island will be further enhanced once the railroad to Talaimannar are laid again. The railway lines were sabotaged during the war by the LTTE, and used to make bunkers.

The railroad bed has now been cleared of jungle and land mines with the assistance of the Indian government. Once the railway is functioning it will be possible to restart the ferry service to India, from the Talaimannar pier which is the closest point to India. It was reported that Indian workers have been at work, including Sikhs with their turbans, which makes them unmistakable. A complaint that community leaders in Mannar made was that so far employment opportunities for the local people on the rail road project have been limited and it is hoped that this will change.


Despite the impressive signposts of development, there is a problem of reconciliation that festers. There still remains a problem of thousands of LTTE cadre held incommunicado by the military. The government has failed to provide the name lists to their families. As a result no one knows whether they are living or dead. The lack of closure which prevents families from closing the door to the past, creates bitterness and frustration which is the reverse of reconciliation that is needed after war. The government’s focus on infrastructure development is not going to resolve this problem, which requires a commitment to human rights that is implemented at the community level in accordance with the vision spelt out by President Rajapaksa in his latest victory speech..

Another problem that requires attention is the competition between adherents of the different religions who wish to stamp their identity and ensure their place. In Mannar, with its predominantly Catholic population, it is the Catholic Church that is taking a leading role in consolidating its presence. This is causing tension with the Hindu and Muslim adherents. A Christian statue that has come up on public land at the entrance to the town is an example of a phenomenon that takes place in other parts of the country as well, where the majority religion of the area asserts itself. Another source of inter religious tension is the activity of the omnipresent military which is putting up Buddhist shrines, especially in locations where there are Bo trees.

A new temple is coming up at Murunkan on a piece of land that has a small Hindu shrine where there is a Bo tree. With the military dominating civil governance in Mannar, as it does in the rest of the north and east, the people find it difficult to look to the government to be a neutral arbiter in resolving these conflicts. Until such time as the government restores civil administration in Mannar, and indeed the rest of the north and east, it is likely to be only NGOs and civil society groups that could do such peace and reconciliation work with credibility. However, they are not given permission by the government to form community groups for such purposes. It appears that the government is concerned about anti-government and pro-LTTE ideologies being imparted to people that could stir up trouble in the future. Even in death, and amidst victory celebrations, it appears that the ghost of the LTTE haunts the government and reconciliation is yet to come.
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