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SRI LANKA: Will Tamils Have A Say In Reconstruction?

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Jun 7 2009 (IPS) - For people in Sri Lanka’s war-torn North, for many years life has meant virtually living out of a suitcase while moving from place to place to escape the rigours of war and bloody combat.

In the late 1980s when government troops were battling Tamil separatist rebels for control of the northern capital of Jaffna, journalists from the Tamil daily newspaper Udayan – who themselves were fleeing the fighting – printed the newspaper, virtually on the run.

“We moved an entire printing press out of Jaffna and published the paper while being among the displaced,” said a veteran journalist of the Jaffna newspaper, reflecting on a common problem faced by many northerners during nearly three decades of war.

Weeks after government troops crushed Tamil rebels and their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, the government is pushing ahead with a massive reconstruction and rehabilitation effort – prioritising resettling most of the nearly 300,000 civilians who are housed in internally displaced person (IDP) camps in the northern town of Vavuniya.

These civilians – held hostage by Tamil Tiger guerrillas for months, or too frightened to flee rebel-controlled areas – are being housed in overcrowded, government-run camps which U.N. agencies say need more attention in terms of basic needs.

Central Bank (CB) Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal said the immediate priority is resettling displaced people as quickly as possible and providing them basic facilities like roads, power and other infrastructure. “We will fast track this work,” Cabraal, part of a special Government Taskforce on Rebuilding the North, told IPS.

Chairman of the Taskforce, Basil Rajapaksa told a group of Tamil professionals in Colombo on Friday that they planned to resettle 80 percent of the displaced by the end of the year.

Firzan Hashim, Deputy Executive Director at the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), says northern residents have been displaced multiple times – and in some cases, more than 10 times over the past several years. “Whenever there was fighting and their lives were threatened, they had to move on,” he said, adding the hope that finally residents in the North will be able to settle down in their own homes, permanently.

Thousands of people have died in the fighting over a separate homeland for the minority Tamil community since 1983, when the conflict escalated after a rash of attacks on Tamils by groups from the majority Sinhalese community.

The Taskforce led by Rajapaksa, Presidential Advisor and younger brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is conscious of the need to consult the Tamils in redeveloping the North where few Sinhalese and Muslims – another minority – live. Friday’s meeting with about 30 Tamil professionals was aimed at seeking their views and comments on the huge reconstruction programme ahead.

“It’s good that the government wants to interact with others and get views from the public on development issues,” said a lawyer, present at the meeting. This is a very different approach to how the government shut out any outside observers from the nearly 2-year military campaign that crushed the rebels. In spite of this virtual blackout on credible information the government drew criticism from the international community and U.N. agencies that civilians were dying as a result of the campaign.

The government has rejected the claims and snubbed many foreign leaders, noting that the rebels were the main culprits – for herding the civilians while on the move and using them as human shields.

The lawyer said Rajapaksa gave a detailed description of the plan and said that the ‘return to normalcy’ in these areas was of paramount importance. When asked whether the residents are being consulted, Rajapaksa gave one instance – from the eastern development phase – where, when a bridge was being built, residents said they were unhappy as it was not being built for their purpose but for a tourism investor. “It was then explained to the people that this infrastructure is for the people’s purpose,” Rajapaksa was quoted as saying.

Cabraal said with landmines strewn all over the North, intensive de-mining has begun to clear the towns and then the outlying areas. Ten new de-mining machines are being brought in. – each to work with 65 de-mining professionals.

The CB is also planning to lend 200,000 rupees (about 1,740 dollars) per individual for small business, animal husbandry, fisheries and other activity under a 3 billion-rupee (26 million dollar) project to rejuvenate the former livelihoods of the displaced – many of whom are farmers and fishermen.

“We want to get cracking on roads, schools, police stations and power connections. In the first phase the government will focus on returning the families to their homes, and will rebuild the cities, in the next phase,” Cabraal said. This stretch of the war has seen some of the worst fighting in recent times as both government forces and rebels used all weapons at their disposal, causing enormous destruction of property.

To fund the development, the government is relying on a combination of support from friendly, non-western countries – including China, India, Iran, Jordan, Libya and Pakistan – together with re-allocation of public resources intended for projects in other parts of Sri Lanka.

Hashim said fresh issues would arise with new high security zones or no-go zones being established in former rebel-controlled areas. Army camps, air and navy bases and police stations will be constructed as part of an overall security plan in the area. “While security is necessary it is also important that these people are resettled with facilities that are equal or even better than before,” he said. “They should not be allowed to linger on roadsides for handouts.”

The CHA and other civil society groups are seeking representation on the Taskforce. “There is a need for open discussion and engagement with civil society on the needs of the people and it appears the Taskforce is amenable to such a discussion.”

Everything rests on how quickly the government restores normalcy in the North. “There is a need to restore confidence and trust,” the lawyer said, adding that this was stressed at Friday’s meeting.

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