By Kalinga Seneviratne
Amid reports that an internal document, made public on November 14 by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, has triggered soul-searching in the world organisation on its failure to protect non-combatants in Sri Lanka’s civil war, a visit to the country shows that the army and the people in the Northern Province are busy rebuilding the infrastructure destroyed by 30 years of a gruesome conflict.
During a recent visit to Jaffna, this writer noticed a marked improvement in the relationship between the army – which was once seen as the “enemy” by the Tamils – and the local population. Even one Tamil fisherman referred to the Sri Lankan Navy as “our Navy” which is trying to help them to drive away the Tamil Nadu fisherman poaching on Sri Lankan waters.
The desire to reconcile is apparent on both sides. Increasingly finding common ground, the people of the north and the south are now beginning to interact. There is increased tourism from the south of the country to Jaffna, especially Sinhalese Buddhist pilgrims who visit the sacred Nagadvipa shrine in Nainativu Island off Jaffna. This shrine was closed to Buddhist pilgrims for almost 30 years and it has been newly renovated with the help of army personnel.
At the army checkpoint before entering the northern zone at Kilinochchi every Sinhalese traveller is given a one-page sheet of paper in Sinhalese signed by Northern Division Police chief Gamini de Silva. In it he points out that in the Jaffna area there are a number of sacred Hindu temples and asks the people to dress properly in its vicinity, not to be intoxicated, respect their culture and treat all Tamil people during their visit with utmost courtesy and friendship.
Tamils themselves seem to be returning this courtesy as I found out during my 3-day stay in Jaffna. Since I don’t speak Tamil and if they don’t speak English, they tried to communicate with me in Sinhalese, something unimaginable a few years ago.
“Damage done in 30 years can’t be cured in 3 years.” argues Ishwara Sarma, a 82 year old Hindu philosopher and teacher who has lived in Jaffna throughout the conflict. “We need to forget the past and build a future together. This country is too small to be divided.”
Travelling on the road between Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu is reflective of what many people in the Indian Ocean Island hopes is the building of a new Sri Lanka. This is the route where fierce battles took place in the early parts of 2009 between the government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leading to the annihilation of the LTTE on banks of the Mullaitivu lagoon in May 2009.
These are the battles the BBC and some other western news agencies prefer to harp on as “war crimes”. But, the people there seem to want to forget the past and build a new future of peace and co-existence.
On either side of the road you still see the bullet-hole ridden walls of houses without roofs and unoccupied, even burned out mangled wreckages of buses, jeeps, vans and cars belonging to both the LTTE and the army. Yet, the roads are being built at a hectic pace with new asphalt carpeting with the predominantly Sinhalese army personnel mostly in civilian clothes working with the local Tamil people.
Hand in hand with the army
According to the Jaffna District Government Agent’s office, over USD 230 million has been spent up to May 2012 on road construction projects in the north through funds allocated from the Ministry of Economic Development, Governments of China and Sweden, and the Asian Development Bank. The A9 highway which was heavily mined during the war and closed for over two-decades is now open with newly-laid asphalt coating that makes travel to Jaffna as smooth as never before.
Though the highway is dotted with a number of army camps that has raised the ire of some human rights activists overseas, what impresses many visitors is the cordial rapport the army seems to have established with the local people since the hostilities ended. When working on road construction or driving tractor-driven trucks on the road, the soldiers are not even carrying guns. Three years ago they were shooting at each other or the local people were held as human shields against an advancing army firing mortar shells.
“(After the war ended) we understood that we needed to change the soldier from a fighting force to protector of the people,” Maj Gen Mahinda Hathurusinghe, Security Forces Commander in Jaffna said in an interview with this writer at the Palali camp. “We now use our resources to uplift the peoples’ lives and help them to create wealth,” he added.
The government has taken the stance that the priority for the people is to uplift their living standards rather than indulge in divisive debates about political reforms. Thus, the army is utilized to speed up the development activities and rebuild infrastructure destroyed by 30 years of war.
“Those days (during the war) life used to stop at 6 pm because there were curfews, now it’s like in Colombo, but there are now problems like robberies (due to the extra freedoms),” said school teacher Gopalakrishnan Gopikrishna. He also pointed out that with electricity now available the young people are finding life better with television and Internet at their disposal, but, they are using it for entertainment rather than for education, even accessing pornography. “Youngsters were unable to move during war time, now they are flashing out and us teachers are finding it difficult to cope with them.”
According to Government Agent (GA) of Jaffna, S. Arumainayagam, the local economy has made great strides in the past 3 years. He said that the development model for the north based on improving infrastructure and building industries and tourism is based on the Korean and Singapore development models. He said that the government has already invested Rs 200 million (USD 1.6 million) to start an industrial zone in Jaffna.
Arumainayagam pointed out that over the past 3 years more than 250 km of roads have been improved; paddy harvest has increased by over 100 percent, red onion (a specialty of the Jaffna region) has seen its harvest increase from 23,000 metric tons in 2008 to more than 63,000 metric tons this year. Production of chilies – another specialty of the region – has increased by 120 percent.
During an interview at his office, the GA claimed that the most remarkable increase has been in the fisheries sector. “In 2008 we only got 2,600 tons a year and in 2011 it has increased to 25,000 tons. This is due to a number of factors. During that time there were restrictions imposed on fishing by the government, but, today the government has distributed boats to fishermen, provided a fuel subsidy and established sales centres (for their catch),” he explained.
During the hostilities because the LTTE used to transport supplies by sea to their bases in the north-east, the Navy restricted fishing in the area.
Sinnaiya Thavaratnam, President of the Northern Provinces Fisheries Alliance does not agree with the GA’s assessment. “Last 25 years Sri Lankan waters have been disturbed by Indian fishermen. They are fishing in trawlers with big nets. So our catch is badly effected,” he complained.
The Jaffna-based fisherman claims that in 1985 nearly 50,000 tons of fish were caught by their fishermen, but now it dwindled to below 20,000 tons. “We need to stop Indian trawlers fishing in our seas – once that happens it will take 3 to 4 years to restore the fish resources for us to catch,” he estimates.
Though the Sri Lanka government has banned them coming in, the Indians still fish in Sri Lankan waters and the Navy has been unable to stop this incursion. “I think the government is not that interested, because of certain pressures. Navy is trying to protect our resources but the Sri Lanka government is not giving them enough support,” he lamented.
In September this year, India’s Hindu newspaper said that records obtained from the Indian government indicated that between January and June 2012, Indian trawlers crossing into Sri Lanka numbered 20,662. Fishermen from Jaffna have been urging their Navy to chase the Indians out and in one incident in February 2011, Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen resorted to direct action, rounding up more than 100 Indian fishermen, and handed them over to their Navy.
Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha, who has in recent years tried to champion Tamil self-determination in Sri Lanka, claims that the Sri Lankan Navy is harassing Indian fishermen and according to the Hindu has written some 12 letters to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh criticizing him for being soft on Sri Lanka.
She is another of those vocal Tamils overseas who want to stand up for Tamil’s political rights in Sri Lanka. She has refused to accept an invitation for the Sri Lankan government to visit Jaffna to find out for herself what the Tamil people on the ground needs at the moment. A number of Tamils in Jaffna told me that Tamil politicians want to create division and not reconcile.
“There is no question about it that the absence of war, absence of destruction, the ability of transact business and the ability to travel freely is being appreciated,” says Jeevan Thiagarajah, Executive Director of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies. “Something we need to ask is in the process of rebuilding what is the role of the government and at what point market forces take over. This question is not being asked yet.”