By Rajiva Wijesinha –
The failure of politicians in the North who were close to government to command any respect led in turn to the forces having to play a more dominant role, for they were the most efficient representatives of government in the area. Had they instead taken leading citizens into partnership, and indeed given them the leading role, the situation would have been very different.
The contrast with what might have been was apparent in the Islands, where I found that the local bodies had done nothing to improve the prospects of the people they represented. In Delft, the only attempt to provide employment for youngsters was a garment factory run by the navy, which had provided training for the girls of the area. They seemed very happy with their lot, but nothing had been done for the young men.
Having spent half of my decentralized budget each year on training for youngsters of the North, but having concentrated on the Vanni, where I had thought needs were much greater, I was astonished that nothing similar had been done in Jaffna. In the Vanni I had used Aide et Action, having seen the success of their operations elsewhere in the country, including in Vavuniya, and they had done a survey before beginning. As a result they had given engine repair priority in Mullaitivu, which made sense, for the fisher folk there otherwise had to spend vast amounts to repair their boats, with no engine repair workshps having survived the conflict in those parts.
In the Islands it seemed that there had been no facilities ever for such repairs, and everything had to be taken to Jaffna, a long and expensive journey. But the idea of starting courses in those areas, and providing funds to start up small enterprises, had not occurred to the EPDP administration in those areas. It was only in Kayts that I found an imaginative Divisional Secretary who had started some vocational training, but this had not had much impact by the time the Provincial Council election was held. It was understandable then that, in the Islands too, government was trounced.
The failure to build up institutions and ensure active participation of the people was most obvious in the case of the Governor. This was General Chandrasiri, who was an indefatigable worker, and deeply anxious about the development of the area. But he was not encouraged to build up relations with the people of Jaffna, and was dependent for decisions on the PTF and government politicians. In this regard government made a grave mistake in not holding the Provincial Council elections earlier, as it was assumed would happen when the President had pledged implementation of the 13th amendment to the Indian government. Indeed the President noted that the Secretary of Defence had advocated this, and it seems he was far more sensible about the actual situation, before his own fears converted him into an intransigent opponent of what he saw as dangerous concessions. But at that state it was Basil who was thought to be the expert on elections.
But whereas Basil thought that the development programme he had begun would win votes, the delay allowed resentment to build up, and the TNA was able to enhance its political appeal. Had the election been held earlier, the TNA might well have won, as it did in the local elections, but it would have been weaker, and the situation would have been ripe for cooperation between the Governor and the elected administration. By 2013 though the Governor, despite his efficiency and commitment, was seen as the enemy, and the Council indeed, soon after it was inaugurated, passed a motion asking for his removal.
The Governor being a former General was seen as contributing to what was termed the militarization of the North, which was unfair since using retired servicemen in such positions is not uncommon in other countries. Government unfortunately was not able to get it across that such individuals should be seen as civilians, in part because serving officers were also often involved in administrative decisions. This for instance affected the bill government introduced to settle land questions, which was an urgency since there was no clear title in many instances for a variety of reasons.
When I headed the Peace Secretariat I had urged that government should be preparing legislation to deal with this problem, given that deeds were lost, and also that people who had occupied land vacated because of the conflict might claim ownership by prescription given the long time that had lapsed. While it seemed to me the original owners should have priority, this would require legal clarification. In fact the Law Commission told me they had prepared legislation but, despite the interim recommendations of the LLRC, government took a long time to bring in the required regulations, and then they provided their critics with ammunition in involving the military in decision making.
It is difficult to understand why government should have thus complicated life for the military, when it would have been much easier to empower civilians, while allowing the military to advise. But the comparative efficiency of the military led government to forget the norms that should have been observed, and the need to ensure acceptability amongst the people.
Other problems the military faced were with regard to land acquisitions which seemed to go far beyond security needs. This had become apparent in the East, where there were problems with regard to Sampur, the scene of intense LTTE activity in 2006 when they thought they were on the verge of cornering the Sri Lankan forces. The incidents then made it clear that government needed a secure base in the area, but it turned out that more land than the forces actually needed was being acquired. This seemed to be for economic development, but it was foolish of government to confuse the issues, since it led to greater criticism of the military. While it may have been thought easier to confuse the issues, and thus avoid the restrictions on acquisition of land for economic activity, the result was increased resentment. In a sense this was typical of Basil’s approach, for what he could do in a devious way, he never thought of doing straightforwardly.
The largest area of land which government acquired after the conflict was in the North, near the Palaly airport, and this too caused much resentment. Though again there was an obvious need to ensure security for the airport, and also for the naval base at Kankesanthurai, it was apparent that more land was being taken over than was strictly speaking necessary. The impression created was that the forces would be engaging in economic activity too, making use of fertile farming land.
Unfortunately, though it made sense for the forces to be used productively, the methodology for this had not been thought out carefully. Perhaps because Gotabaya and Basil Rajapaksa did not really communicate with regard to their plans, an opportunity to use the forces for development that would benefit the people of the region too was lost. My CBSR team had indeed suggested the development of Agricultural Training Schemes way back in 2009, but though Basil had used some of the photographs they had of a pilot scheme, such ideas were not his forte, and nothing further came of them. Conversely the military began some farming on their own, whereas had they done this in partnership with the owners, and with profit sharing for the community, the positive impact would have been tremendous.
The same went with regard to their ventures in tourism. This also was an area that came under Basil’s Ministry of Economic Development, but working on community projects was not something that occurred to him. So there was talk that the military were going to put up hotels in the land they had acquired around Palaly, whereas what they should have done was develop training programmes for youngsters, in partnership with local government bodies. Indeed, when the new Local Government Bill was being prepared, it suggested such ventures, but there had been no attempt to promote these previously, and it is not likely, given the difficulties government institutions have in coordination, that there will be much progress in these areas.
Underlying all this is the failure of government to plan, and to engage in consultation with stakeholders. Unfortunately, despite his abilities, Basil had always functioned as a loner. Though I had found, when I was at the Peace Secretariat, that he was quick to respond to problems, when he was not in the country nothing moved, since he had no senior officials who could take decisions in his absence. Instead he had a number of youngsters from his home base, who were enthusiastic and keen to help, but who could not grasp complexities or take decisions.
Though he had Mr Divaratne on his Task Force, which did make a difference, the way he ran his Ministry indicated that he had not really changed. He did not have a Secretary of his own, but shared the Secretary to the Treasury, which was absurd since that gentleman was in any case overworked. Between them perhaps they had decided that the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation should be abolished, one of the most disastrous decisions of the 2010 government, along with its getting rid of the Ministry of Human Rights.
Underlying all this was what turned out to be the besetting sin of the second Rajapaksa government. The President himself well understood the problem. Much earlier, when I had told him that his Secretary was overworked, he said that this was because he wanted to grasp everything to himself, and would not delegate. In fact this turned out to be true of all those on whom he relied. Perhaps indeed this was a consequence of his evident reliance on them, in that they did not want to allow for the possibility that others too could perform at least some of their functions. But the result was that things moved only in isolation, and the comprehensive planning the country needed never happened.
And more alarmingly, there was no monitoring of what was going on. Only the agents themselves were responsible for checking on their work, and naturally they failed to see the gaps. And they simply could not work together with others to improve their output or look at the wider impact of what they were or were not doing.