Halting progress

Print edition : November 06, 2009

The sea as seen from a beach in Trincomalee.-

IN the second week of October, it will be one year and five months since the first Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) in Sri Lanka came into being. The Eastern Province, one of the nine provinces in the island nation, is unique in every conceivable sense, in pre- and post-independence Sri Lanka as well as in the context of the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May this year.

Since the governments success in forcing out the Tamil Tigers in July 2007, the province has been at the centre of a political debate. The Mahinda Rajapaksa regime has showcased it at world fora as proof of its endeavour to seek a consensus for resolving the decades-old ethnic conflict with emphasis on equal treatment and opportunities to minorities.

Twenty-seven months after liberation from the clutches of the LTTE (the government declared the East liberated in July 2007), where does the province stand and how far has the government travelled in implementing its promises? A thorough assessment at this juncture is difficult, but the tentative conclusion is that it is a mixed report card.

Home to the districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara, the Eastern Province covers an area of around 9,800 square kilometres, or about 15 per cent of the countrys land area. The landscape is varied, with paddyfields, forests, scrublands, wetlands and lagoons. The estimated population of the province in 2007 was 1.5 million, or 7.8 per cent of the national provisional population figure. There has been no island-wide census since 1981.

Of all the provinces, the Eastern Province is the most complex; it is multi-ethnic, multilingual and multicultural. As per 2007 statistics, Tamils constitute 42 per cent of its population, and Muslims and Sinhalese 37 and 21 per cent respectively. Among the 7,500-odd other people are Christians, Burghers, Malays and a small group of Kafirs, Muslims who were brought as slaves by the Dutch, the Kandiyan kings and the British.

Tamil nationalists see the province as an integral part of their elusive homeland and complain bitterly about what they perceive as the deliberate attempts by the state to change its ethnic constitution and undermine its Tamil character.

The judgment of the Supreme Court on October 16, declaring the temporary merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces null and void on technical grounds has brought to the fore the divide between the Tamils. Contrary to expectations, there was no uproar in the Eastern Province over the verdict and the subsequent de-merger. The subject hardly figures in the political discourse here.

The Muslim community in general, mostly Tamil-speaking, and the Muslim nationalists in particular, largely a product of the communitys insecurity caused by armed Tamil groups and the Sinhala-dominated government, see parts of the province as their future homeland. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) has demanded that the government designate the Muslim-dominated areas on the lines of the Union Territories in India.

The Sinhala nationalists advocate treatment of the province on a par with the other provinces, with equal opportunities for all Sri Lankans, and passionately debate the need to defend and preserve the hundreds of ancient Buddhist sites littered across the province and what they perceive as a rich Sinhala cultural heritage.

It is against this background that the actions or inactions of the Rajapaksa government in the past 17 months have to be viewed. True, the government has delivered on some of its difficult and what appeared to be ambitious promises. It held relatively peaceful local government and provincial council elections in March and May 2008 respectively, marking the symbolic rebirth of democracy in the province.

On the basis of what it has achieved, the Rajapaksa regime wants to convince the world that terrorism can be defeated and that terrorists can be brought into the democratic mainstream. The breakaway faction of the LTTE, known as the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), contested both the local body and provincial council elections in alliance with the ruling United Peoples Liberation Front (UPLF) and now presides over the EPC with the partys deputy leader S. Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan (27) as the Chief Minister.

Ironically, the erstwhile LTTE eastern commander-turned-rebel, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna Amman, is today Minister of National Integration in the Rajapaksa government and a vice-president of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the largest party in the ruling alliance. He merged his faction of the TMVP with the SLFP and has urged the remaining members of the TMVP to follow suit. Little wonder he is at loggerheads with the Eastern Province Chief Minister on the subject of party identity as well as devolution of powers to provinces. Col Karuna sees no rationale in treating the province as a special case.

Ironically, it was Karunas defection from the LTTE in late 2004 and the Tigers decision in August 2006 to shut the sluice gates of an irrigation project in the east that acted as triggers for Eelam War IV, which lasted 34 months and ended in the decimation of the Tigers and the death of their leader Velupillai Prabakaran.

That is not the only part of the irony. President Rajapaksa is a beneficiary of the actions of not only Karuna but also Prabakaran. The November 2005 election victory of Rajapaksa was with the active support of the Tigers, thanks to their diktat to Tamils to boycott the polls. Rajapaksa fought against his rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe, on a platform critical of the peace process.

In his November 2005 Heros Day speech, Prabakaran described Rajapaksa as a pragmatist and said his outfit would give him the benefit of the doubt to do justice to Tamils. All that changed within months. Provocative actions of the LTTE, including the attempt on the life of the then Army chief Sarath Fonseka, are part of well-recorded contemporary history.

In July 2006, the military launched a humanitarian operation to force open the sluice gates of the irrigation project, and by mid-July 2007, it had succeeded in clearing the east of the LTTE. The military success came at a heavy human cost. As per conservative estimates, 300 civilians were killed and some 165,000 were displaced. Civilians suffered multiple displacements in the face of intense war and remained in camps for many months.

Today, evidently, life has improved and the overwhelming majority of the displaced have returned to their homes. However, the calm is only on the surface. Twenty years of destruction and insecurity, as well as displacement by the December 2004 tsunami, have brought with them a host of administrative problems that contribute directly to land disputes.

Some of the thoughtless actions of the government, such as the nomination of Rear Admiral (retd) Wijewickrama, a member of the majority community with a military background, as Governor of the province, have not been helpful in the battle to win the hearts and minds of the people. In the first week of October, the Ceylon Teacher Union complained to the President that although most of the teachers and students in the provinces schools communicated in Tamil, the top-most officials were Sinhalese and so all documents had to be translated.

On account of the conflict and the tsunami, the numbers of orphan children and disabled persons in the province have increased. Nearly 120,000 houses were damaged or destroyed in the province. Sixty-five per cent of the damaged houses are uninhabitable. Of these, 95 per cent are in Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts.

Furthermore, during the conflict period most children faced physical intimidation or assault and became offenders. A number of children and women were exposed to physical and sexual abuse, and some of them continue to face such situations. Given the dangerous situation and poverty in the conflict areas, a significant number of men and women migrated to other countries, often leaving their families behind. The state of economic and physical dependency of the elderly, particularly when traditional family support have broken down, requires attention.

After the formation of the EPC, the government promised devolution of powers to local and provincial politicians but there is little evidence of action on this front. The Chief Minister complains that he is totally powerless and wants the government to devolve police and land powers to the provinces.

He has made efforts to reach out to Muslims and the Sinhalese, but a section of Muslims continues to distrust the TMVPs intentions. Both Tamils and Muslims harbour suspicions that the government plans to Sinhalise the east through development projects. The development plans for Trincomalee district, in conjunction with a high security zone that has forced some 8,000 Tamils off their land, are objects of particular suspicion. In an October 2008 report titled Sri lankas Eastern Province: land, development, conflict, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) noted: Sri Lankas government must address the security needs and land-related grievances of all ethnic communities in its Eastern Province or risk losing a unique opportunity for development and peace.

The physical change as one crosses into the Eastern Province is difficult to miss. The bumpy roads have become less bumpy and the innumerable security checkpoints that dotted the landscape have disappeared.

The road from Habarana Junction (gateway to the east) up to near Kantale has been black-topped and widened from five metres to eight metres, and hundreds of workers can be seen building rudimentary infrastructure.

The military gains and other progress made in the east could wither away unless credible and fast-paced measures are taken for a meaningful devolution of power and the redress of the legitimate grievances of all communities. Given the tensions in the past over the demographic change brought about by state-sponsored colonisation, there was a suggestion from some quarters to go in for a rotation arrangement, in which the chief ministership is shared by the Muslim and Tamil groups that did well at the polls. Not only has it gone unheeded but there are no indications that those who matter are even considering it.

The tasks before the government are daunting but achievable if there is political will. Among the challenges are complete rehabilitation of the displaced, rebuilding of the war-affected areas and disarming of the militant groups, especially the cadre of the Karuna faction, and their integration into civil society and democratic politics.

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