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Reconciliation, reconstruction:

Sri Lanka ready for the challenge

Sri Lanka’s 27-year conflict ended suddenly and comprehensively on May 18, 2009.


Civilians fleeing the LTTE

The guns fell silent and the nation celebrated ecstatically. While defeating the LTTE was a mighty achievement, given their reputation for invincibility, effectively including all Sri Lankans in the reconstruction and reconciliation processes poses a significant challenge.

Reconciliation, and fostering confidence and trust among all Sri Lankans, was already a part of the Government’s strategy, even as it slowly lost faith in a negotiated settlement to the conflict which had raged for over 27 years.

It is important to remember that the Government’s decision to engage the LTTE terrorists militarily followed the LTTE’s continued pattern of reneging on peace negotiations to revert to large-scale terrorist attacks.

In 2006, Government delegations met the LTTE three times, with the assistance of the Norwegian facilitators, to discuss a peaceful end to the conflict. I myself led a delegation to Oslo. The President pledged in public, to meet the LTTE leader anywhere to discuss peace, but was rebuffed.

Confident of its invincibility, the LTTE continued its acts of horrendous violence and terrorism, exacting a heavy toll on civilian lives and property, national security assets, sacred world heritage sites and vital economic installations and simply outpaced the tolerance threshold of the vast majority of the people of the country and of the international community.

It came to a point that an elected government could no longer restrain itself further and remain credible. However, the Government laid down clear markers from the beginning of its renewed offensive in 2006. A clearly demarcated distinction between the terrorist LTTE and Tamil civilians was established.

With this approach in place, the Government characterised its final military offensive against the LTTE terrorist group as a humanitarian rescue operation - an operation to rescue Tamil civilians from the stranglehold of the LTTE terrorists. Its policy of zero civilian casualties had a deep resonance among the country’s professional armed services.


Clearing of landmines in progress

The Government’s policy was also designed to convey to the Tamil civilians that it would provide them with greater safety, care and governance, in the immediate and long-term, than the LTTE.

We believe that it was because of the Government’s carefully calibrated approach that the LTTE, as never before, was compelled to forcibly use thousands of civilians as human shields to protect itself. Furthermore, in 2007 and 2008, over 60,000 Tamil civilians fled from the LTTE dominated areas to the south of the country.

Let us reflect on the nature of Sri Lankans for a moment. The humanitarian impulse is intrinsic to the Sri Lankan people, given their cultural and religious underpinnings and the society’s moorings in the welfare state. Sri Lankans are influenced by four great religions of the world and a tolerant culture that goes back thousands of years.

Even during the height of the conflict, successive governments, setting the tone for the post-conflict period, had ensured a continuous supply of essential goods and services, such as free healthcare and education, to the Tamil civilians in the North and the East under the domination of the LTTE.

For over 27 years, despite all the economic and logistical difficulties, Sri Lanka sent food and medical supplies to the North. All the schools and hospitals were funded and staffed by the Government in Colombo.

Sri Lanka also interacted closely with the international community, United Nations agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and local and international non-governmental organisations to ensure that the essential needs of civilians in the North were met.

Humanitarian actors

The ICRC had access to the LTTE-dominated areas almost till the very end of the conflict. This caring attitude towards civilians continued and was reinforced once the conflict ended. Al-Jazeera filmed the civilians escaping from the LTTE from a boat bobbing up and down in the lagoon.

The Government’s partnership with the UN agencies and other humanitarian actors on the ground, who had access to areas controlled by the LTTE, was essentially based on trust. Trust would have been the first casualty of any politicisation of this process.

Therefore, it was imperative that these humanitarian agencies carried out their work based on the principles of neutrality and impartiality, that they conformed to the legal and administrative framework of the country, that their activities matched the identified policy priorities of the Government as the host and that they were sensitive to local, political, cultural and social nuances.

It is even more critical that their conduct was perceived as such by the larger public. Where public opinion influences political dynamics, and where the public is highly literate and politically conscious, the public order and political stability ramifications are many and critical.

Therefore, neutrality, impartiality and trust acquire renewed significance. There were injudicious situations where actions and statements by UN employees and NGOs impacted on this delicate balance. But despite difficulties, the UN and the NGOs have continued to play a vital role in the reconstruction effort.

When the conflict ended, resettling the displaced, who had streamed into the camps prepared in advance by the Government, was the immediate challenge to a government which had a policy goal of embarking immediately on the reconstruction phase.


The humanitarian operation

First, the Government was confronted with the massive task of housing, feeding and ensuring healthcare for 294,000 IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) and also responding to a virulently negative propaganda barrage.

Certain interested parties who should have known better, including elements at the UN, the media, and the NGO community were making dark statements of Tamil concentration camps of a permanent nature, the possibility of widespread epidemics and food shortages. One should recall that the persons displaced in the Eastern Province in 2007, 187,000, were returned to their homes within months.

Despite all the reservations expressed at the time, especially by the NGO community, and the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) these IDPs were successfully returned to their villages and towns because the Government took an early decision to return them to their homes for social and economic reasons.

Despite the cost of over US$ 1 million a day to feed them three meals a day, this was done. The UN, the bilateral donors and the NGOs played a helpful role.

Today over 95 percent of the original 294,000 IDPs in the North have returned to their villages. Of those remaining, many, about 17,000, have been permitted to leave, but have chosen to remain because of the facilities available in the welfare camps.

A serious challenge to returning IDPs continues to be posed by unmapped LTTE minefields in the North. This task is being handled with the assistance of the international community.

The Government has purchased 15 flailing machines and over 500 mine detectors. The recent floods have complicated matters. The Government estimates that there are over 402 Sq. kms. of minefields to be cleared.

Over 1.5 million mines had been laid. Seventy percent of the demining has been achieved by the Sri Lankan Army. Japan, Australia, Norway, India, the US and the UN and many of our bilateral friends have assisted in the demining process.

A French deminer with an NGO paid with his life as he served this worthy cause. The Government plans to build over 100,000 houses, with Indian assistance, for the returnees.

More confidence

With the defeat of the LTTE, a remarkable level of confidence has returned to the country contributing to the reconstruction effort. This is particularly evident in the business community. The Government for its part has firmly focused on economic development as a key element in the reconciliation and reconstruction process.

The record upward movement in the stock market and increased inward investment flows reflect this confidence. The stock market has continued to surge and has improved by over 180 percent.

Inward tourism has rebounded by over 50 percent since January 2010. Considerable interest has been shown by foreign investors, including large hotel chains. Shangri-La has agreed to invest over US$ 500 million. The agricultural and fisheries production in the former LTTE-controlled areas has continued to surge.

A massive increase in fish production, 70,000 tons per month, has been recorded.

There are innumerable opportunities for the private sector also to engage itself in the development process. Many Sri Lankan companies established overseas have already expressed interest in exploring the opportunities opening up.

Special tax incentives are provided for investing in the North and the East. This is in addition to the incentives provided for all investments from overseas. The agricultural infrastructure that was destroyed by the LTTE to build defensive earth works and trenches is now being restored.

Hundreds of miles of roads have been widened, electricity is being re-connected or connected for the first time, shop fronts are being spruced up, new restaurants and hotels are being opened and economic activity is resuming at a feverish pace. Real estate prices are escalating.

Reaching out to the people politically, the Government has continued to enlarge its support base, winning a series of elections emphatically. The President was re-elected with over 58 percent of the ballot.

In fact, no government has enjoyed so much popular support after five years in office and the governing party won close to two thirds of the seats in Parliament at the elections held in April 2010.

Now it controls over two thirds of the seats. There is very little doubt that the vast majority of the people in the country are solidly behind the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and its policies.

The same economic, social and political opportunities enjoyed by the 54 percent of Tamils who live in the South must also be available to all those displaced as they return to their homes. Many are grasping these opportunities quickly. For them and their children, the return to normalcy is paramount.

To ignore these political and economic realities and keep scratching the old wound to exert political pressure on the government from the outside, as is evidenced by the international manoeuvring of some, is to miss an unparalleled opportunity in history to help all the people of the country to heal their wounds and move forward.

To maintain the rage may be the goal of some - a goal that is not shared by all those who remember the nightmare of terrorism and, certainly, by the people living in the country.

Sri Lanka’s next challenge, as it seeks reconciliation and reconstruction, is to ensure security and prosperity for all our citizens, from Dondra Head in the South to Point Pedro in the North. We note that hardly a sign remains to remind us of the devastation caused by the tsunami.

For over 27 years, our resources remained under-utilised, were diverted to the war effort, sometimes haphazardly, enterprises struggled to survive, tourism and inward investment suffered seriously, the cream of our youth went gallantly and voluntarily to battle and many paid with their lives, others were maimed, while quite a few took the easy way out and left the country.

Consequently, a country that was meant to be a beacon to the region, stagnated in the global backwater. There are thousands of women throughout the country widowed by the conflict. Now that the conflict is behind us, Sri Lanka has the opportunity to stand up, dust itself, and rejoin the world as a proud and confident country.

Targeted measures

Targeted measures designed to assist this reconciliation process are progressing.

The former LTTE cadre in the camps 11,700 identified, were initially separated and sent for rehabilitation. The Government, having decided to treat most of them as victims rather than as criminals, has permitted over 6,000 to return to their homes and communities, in less than 15 months, their rehabilitation program having been completed. They were given training in basic life skills.

Over 1,440 are being further investigated. Over 17,000 individuals, separated from their families, have been reunited. The Government has implemented a clear policy to return the children to their own families, communities and schools.

Unlike many of their colleagues who were thrown up as cannon fodder by the LTTE and their young lives vainly sacrificed to satisfy a megalomaniac’s deluded dream, it is everyone’s hope that these children who survived, must grow up to be useful citizens and achieve their dreams in their own way.

Thousands of children were recruited as child soldiers by the LTTE. According to the UNICEF, over 5,700! HRW estimates that the number was much higher.

Child combatants who surrendered were placed in rehabilitation centres in Ambepussa which will be closed this year. This centre has received high praise from visitors. Children were given vocational training and training in English and IT. The centre established in Ratmalana trained children for the Ordinary Level examination.

All of them have now been returned to their own communities and parents. For too long have the children of the North been regarded as a dispensable asset in a terrible war machine. We can ensure that at least the next generation gets the opportunities that were denied to the present.

The possibility of assisting these children in advancing their studies deserves our attention. Some may need financial assistance. The Government has designated Jaffna as a centre of excellence for IT and English.

The Government’s policy is to ensure that the IDPs return to an environment where democracy prevails, where people elect their own representatives to govern them and where no legacy of an all powerful and eternal ‘supremo’ remains.

What is taken for granted elsewhere in Sri Lanka by way of democratic governance must be theirs to demand. Over the last two years elections have been held in eight provinces.

Local Government Elections are being held. The Government will not permit a situation where freely elected representatives of the Tamil people were murdered by the dozen simply for not toeing the LTTE line, where dissent was suppressed and non-conformist views were buried with those who held them.

A long line of Tamils who dissented, starting with Alfred Duraiappa, Mayor of Jaffna, and including my deputy, Kethish Loganathan, were eliminated by the LTTE. If what happened in the East is something to go by, then we can have confidence in the future. In the East, a former child soldier has been elected as the Chief Minister.

Elections in North

Elections have been held in Jaffna and Vavuniya.

There are over 1,350 NGOs registered in Sri Lanka and they play a useful role in our reconstruction efforts. Forty-five local NGOs and INGOs and 11 UN agencies are currently working in partnership with the Government of Sri Lanka on rehabilitation and reconstruction programs in the Northern Province.

The NGOs and INGOs have registered with the NGO Secretariat and have linked themselves with a line ministry to provide identified and needed services consistent with national policy priorities and programs.

Where necessary, the process would also mandate the NGOs signing an MoU with a particular line ministry that would include the scope of their work, geographic locality and subject matter.

The services provided by these NGOs and INGOs are important for the communities they serve and the Government.

Sri Lanka firmly believes that establishing parallel services to that of the government by NGOs, which are not sustainable, cannot have a long-term bearing on the welfare of the people they intend to serve.

Unless NGOs have the capacity and the funding to work with the government on prioritised policy areas and activities, their impact to improve the situation would be meaningless.

The need to streamline processes related NGO and INGO activity in Sri Lanka is conditioned by the experience of NGO involvement following the December 2004 tsunami emergency response and recovery.

The massive influx of INGOs following this mammoth disaster, dubbed by the national press as the “second tsunami”, overwhelmed the country’s administrative apparatus, and the economies at the local and national levels and skewed the policy and programmatic focus.

The subsequent report card on the work accomplished by most INGOs and NGOs in the recovery phase revealed that many lacked the funds and the capacity to respond to the scale of the needs of the recovery phase and that the overall work of a majority of the INGOs and NGOs lacked effective coordination and program coherence leading to a lack of responsible use and management of resources and program outcomes.

The Tamil community scattered around the world is an important factor in the reconciliation and reconstruction effort. Many of those who have returned to their villages have relatives elsewhere in the world. There are many in the diaspora who have been fed a constant diet of anti-Sinhala propaganda by the LTTE and by a willing media ever searching for cheap headlines.

Journalists who sacrifice their principles and impartiality to advance personal agendas, even those who may not have experienced the horrors of 1983, or have been to Sri Lanka recently, may have lived a life filled with such propaganda.

One of the key challenges will be to reassure the Sri Lankan Tamil community overseas that today’s Sri Lanka will not tolerate anything like 1983 again.

It is a fact that despite the LTTE’s repeated bloody provocations, like the attacks on the Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha and the Sri Maha Bodhi, two of the holiest Buddhist sites in the world, or the massacre of Muslims at the Kaththankudy Mosque, there have been no reprisals aimed at Tamil citizens elsewhere in the country.

Civilian reprisals

The civilian reprisals so desperately sought by the LTTE as part of its devilish strategy, did not eventuate. Minorities have continued to prosper in Sinhala-dominated areas of the country, including Colombo.

Tamils constitute over 40 percent of the population of Colombo. Some of the leading business houses in Colombo are minority owned. Many of the leading professionals in Colombo come from the minority communities and no restriction exists on their lives, socially or economically.

The inconveniences faced by those with no familiarity with Sinhala or English will disappear in time with the implementation of the Official Languages Policy.

Even the nuisance of road blocks and sudden searches have become a thing of the past with the all pervading fear generated by LTTE suicide bombers gone and a greater level of confidence restored.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has repeatedly invited Sri Lankan Tamils from around the world to return to their homeland and become parties to the nation building effort.

The Government has established a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) consisting of a number of eminent persons.

This Commission, constituting of very eminent personalities including from the minorities, has a wide mandate, to look into the factors that gave rise to the conflict and infractions of international standards, and make recommendations to avoid similar situations in the future.

So far the LLRC has had a number of sittings in various parts of the country and has invited anyone, including critics from abroad, to present evidence before it.

Hundreds of persons from within and outside the country have appeared before the Commission. It even invited AI, HRW and ICG to present any evidence of infractions of global standards. These organisations have jointly decided to decline this invitation. We, for our part, are very disappointed.

A set of interim recommendations have been made and are being implemented by an inter-ministerial committee chaired by the Attorney General. It is hoped that the LLRC will address the concerns expressed by interested persons, primarily with a view to facilitating the return to normalcy and helping the country to recover from its 27-year nightmare of terrorism.

The Government is also determined to reach out to all our friends and even critics, as it sets about the task of nation building. Sri Lanka’s attitudes will be conditioned by national interest and principle.

In a fast changing world, the goal is not to establish friendships of convenience. It is a time for friends to help in healing the wounds - not keeping them open. There are many lessons for the world from this epic struggle and the response designed to facilitate a quick return to normalcy.

There are many lessons for Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s policy of clearly distinguishing the civilians from the terrorist LTTE was crucial. The zero civilian casualty policy was very important. Sri Lanka is at a critical juncture in its history and has a unique opportunity to bring its people together and make their island home a better place for all.

As the Bard said, time and tide waits for no man. Sri Lanka must grab this chance and ride the tide as it rushes in. Having dealt with the tragedy of the tsunami far better than most others have dealt with their own natural calamities, I am confident that we will deal with the aftermath of our victory over terrorism equally well.

Dr. Palitha T.B. Kohona is the Permanent Representative to the United Nations, New York. The above was from a presentation he made at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

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