By Jehan Perera –
Foreign assistance to Sri Lanka has been falling partly on account of Sri Lanka’s post-war accession to the ranks of middle income countries, albeit of those at the lower end. It is from this perspective that an old friend of Sri Lanka, former Japanese peace envoy to Sri Lanka, Yasushi Akashi, has been quoted by the Presidential Spokesman’s Office as having said that he was “amazed by the ability of government officials, starting from the leadership, to mobilize the extra efforts in a very effective manner” according to a news story in the national media. He was also quoted as saying he was “sure that the government and people of Sri Lanka will wish to move much more rapidly, but with Sri Lanka’s limited resources what it has done by itself is amazing.”
Despite this internationally commended post-war success, there is a sense of inevitability that the country is going to be subjected to yet another negative resolution against the Sri Lankan government at the ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Invitations have been given to skeptics to peruse the web and see how transparent the Sri Lankan government is when it cites its achievements. But hard hitting statements made by Sri Lankan government representatives appear designed for domestic rather than international consumption, as they have been counter-productive in serving to antagonize the UN system and its supporters even more.
What is necessary is more concrete evidence from the ground that the lives of those worst affected by the long years of war are in the process of being restored. This would be the measure of post-war success in reconciliation. In this context it is not enough to observe the improvements being made to national infrastructure, which includes roads, governmental buildings and airports. It is also important that the dwellings of people are upgraded to some level of normalcy, and they know the fate of those missing in the war. A fatal weakness in post-war Sri Lanka is the absence of any attention given by the government to facilitating the search for missing and disappeared persons, every one of whom would have been an irreplaceable member of some family.
The government seeks to claim credit where resettlement of the war-affected people is concerned. The returnee community of Sannar in the Mannar district in the North would be an example. There are about 180 families that have been resettled there. Most are Tamils who lived in that part of Mannar but who had to flee due to the war. They have continued to live in temporary housing consisting of tin roofed shacks although nearly four years have passed since the end of the war. Those who have seen the reality of war and natural disaster induced displacements in other parts of the world may find that four years is not a long period of time. But in Sri Lanka, with its small size and availability of resources which are being spent in the billions on a new airport near the President’s birth place, four years is a lot of time for people to languish in tin shacks that they have to call their homes.
It has only been in the last few months that Habitat for Humanities, an NGO, has commenced a programme of activities in Sannar to provide the people with toilets and tube wells. So far the people have lacked even these basic amenities. The next step will be to provide them with better quality housing. If not for the intervention by this NGO the resettled people of Sannar would have been left to fend for themselves. As one of them said, it is has been difficult for them to think of building their houses by themselves as they lack both the money to purchase the necessary housing material, and they also do not have the time, as they have to go out into the market place to sell their labour to bring back food for the day to their families.
Just across the road is a military camp, one of the large number that continue to dot the North and East of the country, despite the decimation of the LTTE in the last battle and the passage of four years of peaceful conditions. When I went into the village, I saw two military personnel keeping some sort of watch inside the village. They looked like two boys, but they had guns, and their presence served as a reminder of the war and that normalcy has still not been restored to the North. The constant complaint of those who live in the North and East is that military intelligence personnel are ubiquitous in their lives, and their presence on street corners, in market places and even at private functions that people organize, serves to dampen their sense of being normal and free to speak as they wish. It also serves as a reminder that even four years after the war, normalcy has still not been restored.
The resettlement taking place in Sannar is important for another reason too. It shows that antagonistic relationships that exist between ethnic communities can be eased if not healed through creative solutions. This is particularly important in view of the recent rise in Buddhist-Muslim tensions following the rise of an extreme Buddhist group, the Bodhu Bala Sena which is questioning some of the practices of the Muslim community. A few months ago there were reports of localized Tamil-Muslim tensions in Mannar over conflicting claims of the two communities to land and fishing resources. Some of these issues are now before the courts of law and others await more consensual solutions. These tensions had spreads to Sannar as well, due to concerns that Tamils who had settled in Sannar would be forcibly moved out to accommodate Muslims there.
However, these tensions have now eased due to the clearing of several hundred acres of forest land to provide for the returning Muslim community. This shows that solutions to inter-ethnic tensions are possible if adequate resources are available and distributed in a manner that is equitable. The Tamils are the majority community in Mannar, and their representatives control the local level government bodies. They also have the stronger civil society representation, especially through the Catholic Church and affiliated NGOs. On the other hand, the Muslims have a powerful minister in the central government who has been effective in providing them with governmental resources. But it is not healthy for inter-ethnic relations if actions of the government and of NGOs are perceived as helping one community at the expense of the other. The people of Sannar have grievances on this score.
The observations of former Japanese peace envoy Yasushi Akashi are particularly relevant at this juncture. He is quoted as having said, “I think everyone tends to judge a situation from his or her own background. That is why I feel that it is rather unfair for some developed countries, which have much more resources than Sri Lanka, to express impatience with Sri Lanka and its development; but this is not fair and this is not objective.” Despite the large proportion of displaced persons who have been resettled, the quality of their resettlement, and human rights problems, do not yet qualify the Sri Lankan experience to be cited as a model for international emulation. The international can contribute constructively to greater reconciliation in Sri Lanka, not only by putting pressure on it for a political solution and human rights accountability, but also by ensuring that there are more resources to be distributed to all who are in post-war recovery.