Amanda Hodge, in The Weekend Australian, 7/8 March 2015, where the title runs “Sri Lanka’s uneven road to reconciliation and harmony”
ONLY the hardiest soul could sleep through the train ride from Jaffna to Colombo — a curiously bone-jarring new track connecting the once divided north and south of Sri Lanka. Yet the Intercity Express is full of slumbering passengers, lightly snoring their way past Kilinochchi fields once littered with the bodies of warring Sri Lankans, and houses whose roofs still bear the Red Cross signs their residents hoped would protect them from shelling in the last infernal months of the civil war.
Sri Lankans are sleeping easier than they have in years since a coalition of political parties with little in common beyond a unifying distaste for the country’s former ruling Rajapaksa family convinced the health minister to challenge for the presidency.
Under the joint stewardship of President Maithripala Sirisena and third-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, sweeping reforms are under way aimed at restoring South Asia’s oldest democracy. Halfway through its first 100 days in office, the Sirisena government is working through an ambitious checklist: reversing the extraordinary powers of the president, restoring an independent judiciary, lifting wages, returning seized lands, and reuniting the country’s fractured ethnically and religiously diverse communities.
Sri Lanka’s bureaucratic landscape has already changed drastically, with Wickremesinghe sweeping a broom through crony-filled corridors, just as the towering Rajapaksa cut-outs have disappeared from Colombo’s streetscape.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is still a hero to many Sri Lankans for ending the 26-year war between Tamil rebels and the Buddhist Sinhala-majority government and rebuilding war-torn infrastructure. But the former president was punished at the January polls by citizens who were told the war’s end would spell boom-time, only to find their living costs soaring while a few grew rich on the spoils of government contracts.
The new administration has promised to punish those who unfairly profited from the Rajapaksa family’s patronage and hold an independent inquiry into allegations of war crimes by government forces and Tamil Tigers in the months before the rebels’ defeat in May 2009. These are hopeful days for Sri Lanka, notwithstanding some caution that the new government is the same collection of politicians that has ruled for decades and that its “democratic triumphalism” is not dissimilar to the excessive postwar triumphalism of the Rajapaksas.
Bureaucrats talk of their relief at the end of an administration whose resentment of external criticism induced a fortress mentality. Workers have welcomed reductions in the cost of fuel, electricity and essential items, as well as a wages hike.
The most marked change is an absence of fear among a population accustomed to the sometimes violent intrusions of the state. Not that the security apparatus that threw such a long shadow has disappeared; the military presence in the country’s former Tamil Tiger-held north remains overwhelming. The air force operates the only flights into Jaffna, the rebels’ former capital; the military still occupies thousands of hectares of private land; and military intelligence maintains its presence — though no longer with a free hand to intimidate.
The prospects for reconciliation of this long-fractured nation are better than they have been in years, but expectations are huge and many Tamils, sensing their best opportunity to secure political autonomy, are showing a potentially self-defeating impatience with the government.
Last month the Northern Provincial Council, an elected body dominated by the Tamil National Alliance — a government coalition partner — passed a resolution accusing successive Sri Lankan governments of genocide against Tamils and pushing for an international inquiry.
The Rajapaksa government is hardly the first to be accused of crimes against Tamils. The 1983 anti-Tamil pogroms are well documented and foreign news coverage dating back to 1990 documents deliberate military shelling of civilian zones, as well as air force planes “shit bombing” Jaffna with excrement.
But the council’s resolution came just days after the government made two significant goodwill gestures: it sacked the former military Northern Province governor and announced the imminent handback of 400ha of Jaffna land seized by the army, as a first step towards reversing a wholesale land grab.
While conservative Sinhalese commentators branded the resolution extremist, many northern Tamils welcomed it and burned effigies of moderate Tamil politicians who preached caution.
Sri Lankan economist and analyst Nishan de Mel says the issue has highlighted a potential crisis for moderate Tamil politicians — the torchbearers for the reconciliation process — now marooned between Sinhala moderates who won’t meet them in the middle and more extreme Tamil voices.
Despite throwing its support behind the Sirisena coalition, the TNA could not convince it to include on its reform agenda the demilitarisation of the north — an issue as pressing for many Tamils as the need for answers on the fate of thousands of “disappeared” and the return of private lands.
At the same time, international support for the Tamil lobby is diminishing as Western nations and India seek to shore up the new, moderate Sinhala government. The recent deferment until September of a UN Human Rights Council report into alleged war crimes, at the request of the Sirisena government, has fed Tamil paranoia that promised reforms will not materialise and that the West is abandoning them.
Northern Province Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran, a former Supreme Court chief justice, says Tamil impatience is justified. After almost 60 years of institutionalised discrimination (since the 1956 Sinhala First declaration), reform should not be slowed in deference to a majority Sinhala population that has enjoyed decades of preference. “There is a sense of freedom even in the north now, fear is no longer there,” he concedes. “(But) reconciliation is only possible if you know what the truth is. We have suffered under the boot of the army in the north for decades. People who own those lands have been living in welfare camps for 20 years.”
The first lands to be handed back lie within 12km of prime coastal frontage seized in June 1991 after government forces attacked Tamil fishing villages and dropped leaflets demanding their evacuation. But restitution will not be easy. Since 2013 the military has demolished thousands of houses, temples, churches and schools on the land, making it impossible for displaced families to identify their properties without a new survey. Not everyone managed to grab their land deeds as they ran for their lives.
Besides, families have since multiplied, meaning lands must be divided between greater numbers. How to finance the rebuilding of these razed communities is also a problem yet to be settled.
Puvenaswary met her fisherman husband Antony Wimalathas in a refugee camp and has raised four children in a sand-floored hut near Jaffna’s Point Pedro. They have never seen their ancestral land and no one is more eager to return to it than her eldest daughter, Krishanthy, 17. “This is somebody else’s land, every day we want to leave this place,” Krishanthy tells Inquirer. She is too embarrassed to bring home friends who live in proper houses, and subject them to hurricane lamps and common toilets.
Puvaneswary says life has already improved markedly since the elections. “The price of imported foodstuff and oil has gone down and there are fewer restrictions to move here and there. Earlier, intelligence people visited these houses almost daily. If anyone came, foreigners or locals, they would come and ask, ‘Who were they? What did they want?’ Now it’s very much reduced.”
Antony Wimalathas, his wife Puvenaswary and daughter Krishanthy — Pic by Couch -News Corp Australia
But for thousands of other families hoping to return to their land, the issue is complicated by substantial military development. The army now runs tourist resorts, a golf course, a restaurant, an officers’ recreation club, a bakery and farm plots on seized Jaffna land. North of Mullaitivu, it has built holiday bungalows on the edge of the Nanthi Kadal lagoon where thousands of civilians died, trapped between an advancing military and a remnant rebel force.
Wickremesinghe tells Inquirer he is “committed to returning the lands taken over by military in all parts of the country that have been made into high security zones”, though security forces will remain in the north. The Prime Minister talks of a new era of transparent development and of his determination to unravel contracts secured under the former government and financed with Chinese loans at interest levels so far above market rates they appeared “more an exercise in money laundering than genuine investment”.
The government is again talking with South Africa about establishing a truth and reconciliation commission — a process that began under Rajapaksa. “Everyone is impatient for reform,” Wickremesinghe says, but the genocide resolution was “irresponsible” and gave ammunition to Rajapaksa allies seeking a return to power through the June parliamentary elections.
He has also promised to release “hundreds” of prisoners held without charge under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, though not before he has compiled a “comprehensive list” of detainees. Chief Minister Wigneswaran says many being held on petty charges could be immediately released but the government will not risk doing so before the elections.
Stories of secret prisons where detainees are tortured have circulated in Sri Lanka for decades, seeping out in the accounts of refugees and in the grim reports of human rights groups. In recent weeks more allegations have emerged: of a secret prison at a Trincomalee navy base, and of rehabilitation camps in the Rajapaksa-loyal south where suspected Tamil Tigers are used for menial labour.
It was from one such camp that a Tamil man presumed dead for 24 years was released last December. K. Vairavanathan was caught in a police round-up of Tamils following bomb blasts in 1991 in Colombo and, like thousands of others, disappeared into the state security system. The Jaffna-based family of the now 54-year-old, who has a history of mental illness, searched in vain and finally gave him up for dead, until a letter arrived last November, asking that he be collected from a camp in Ambalantota, in southern Sri Lanka.
It was his cousin S. Thesalogeswaran who drove the length of the country to fetch him. “I asked them why they were releasing him now and they said there was an election coming up. They tried to release him earlier but there was no file on him,” Thesalogeswaran says.
Whether out of genuine confusion or fear, Vairavanathan claims to remember little of his experience. By his estimate the work camp housed 600 Tamil men and women. “I asked several times to contact my family,” he tells Inquirer. “They said they sent so many letters, but I don’t believe them.”
News of his release has electrified thousands of Tamil families still praying for the safe return of missing loved ones. Dozens have come to Vairavanathan’s tiny hut in recent weeks clutching faded photographs of their “disappeared” in the hope he might recognise them. All have left disappointed. However, Wigneswaran says that if such a fate is possible for even one person, “there must be so many more”.
BACK in old-money Colombo, Rajiva Wijesinha pours tea in the grand parlour of his ancestral home. The former reconciliation adviser to Rajapaksa was among the first to defect to the coalition opposition last year, disillusioned with the former president’s failure to honour postwar commitments. He says the election result proved that “Sri Lanka is still a viable democratic society, crushed a bit by the overwhelming power of the Rajapaksas”.
Yet he has since also quit the new government, believing it to be too obsessed with parliamentary elections at the expense of promised reforms. “We were ready for change and we voted for it, but we want the promises that were made (to be kept),” he says. “They have done a lot, but not as much as they should.”
Just eight weeks into the new government’s tenure, it is a refrain echoed by impatient constituencies across the length of this island nation. After 26 years of war and another six of unequal peace, the road to reconciliation will not be smooth.
Amanda Hodge is based in New Delhi ….