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Sri Lanka’s post-war scenario – dawn

[MISC, Wednesday, 11 November 2009 09:56 No Comment]

 Armed with a fresh mandate, President Rajapaksa hopes to rule unchallenged for another five years. –Photo by AFP Although the fighting in the north of Sri Lanka ended six months ago, you wouldn’t know it from the security checks still in place in and around Colombo, as well as across the rest of the country. Manned by the army as well as the police, these are stark and ever-present reminders of the brutal civil war that saw over 80,000 dead in 34 years of conventional and guerrilla warfare.

Having won the war, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is now struggling to win the peace. After the fighting ended in May, over a quarter of a million Tamils found themselves in enclosed camps, living in appalling conditions. But gradually, the situation has improved, and according to the UN, nearly a hundred thousand internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been released. But whether they have much to return to is questionable. Years of fighting have devastated their villages and farms, apart from wrecking the infrastructure in the north and the east.

Another problem many of these unfortunate Tamils are likely to face in the future is the legal issue of establishing their title to the property they return to. In the early Eighties when the civil war began, many Sinhalese were driven from their homes by the LTTE.

The number of these displaced people was swollen a decade later when the Tamil Tigers resorted to ethnic cleansing and forced the region’s Muslim population to flee. The land thus available was redistributed to poor Tamils who, in their turn, were forced to vacate these farms and homes by the fighting.

Now, many of the original owners and their descendants are filing claims for the return of their homes, their property. These competing claims are bound to further exacerbate tensions between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The latter, exhausted and demoralised by the crushing defeat inflicted by government troops on the LTTE, are presently down and out. But the seeds of future conflict are now being sown unless the government can address this and other issues.

In one sense, the government would like to see large numbers of Sinhalese moving to the north. There is talk about redistributing Tamil IDPs to other parts of the island. By scattering the Tamil population, the government would ensure that they are never again in a position to claim a part of the country for their own homeland as the LTTE had done in the north. Meanwhile, the official response to the lowered demand of Tamil autonomy is on hold as Rajapaksa ponders his political options.

Another lesson to be drawn from the Sri Lankan experience is about the fleeting nature of military victory. Just six months ago, the President and the ruling party were riding high, buoyed by a popular wave of Sinhala triumphalism. The opposition was forced to add to this chorus to avoid the risk of being branded as unpatriotic. But half a year in politics is a long time, and when confronted by ever-rising prices and large-scale unemployment, ordinary people understandably begin to wonder what the sacrifices were all about.

The other hero of the war, General Fonseka, has also seen a big change in his fortunes. Instead of getting an extension in his post of army chief, he has been kicked upstairs as joint chief of staff, a largely symbolic position, much as it is in Pakistan. There is now talk of him becoming a presidential candidate, supported by the joint opposition, in the next election.

This contest for the country’s top job is not due for another two years. However, it is almost certain that it will be held soon, allowing Rajapaksa to cash in on his residual post-war popularity, rather than wait for negative developments to sap his appeal. This is likely to be quickly followed by parliamentary elections. Armed with a fresh mandate, President Rajapaksa hopes to rule unchallenged for another five years.

If he succeeds in his gamble, he will not lack for challenges and problems. His government has been accused by many states and human rights organisations of forcing Tamil IDPs to suffer unnecessarily in encampments that resemble concentration camps.

Since the war ended, the western media has been full of horror stories about Tamil suffering. And to compound its difficulties, the government has largely refused access to these camps to foreign reporters and NGOs. This virtual news blackout has given currency to all sorts of claims and charges that have appeared in the press and on TV, as there was no way of checking them for accuracy. This is what happens whenever a government attempts to control the news.

The economy, badly hit by years of war, is being kept afloat by an IMF loan, as well as by Iranian assistance. Currently, Tehran is providing Sri Lanka with oil on deferred payments, and has extended loans totalling $1.5 billion to finance village electrification, a hydro-electric project, and the doubling of the capacity of a petroleum refinery. Although China supplied many of the arms to the Sri Lankan forces at highly concessionary rates during the last few years of the war, the country needs a huge investment in its infrastructure, especially in the shattered northern areas.

Already, there are signs of increasing private investment. Trincomalee, the spectacular port city on the north-eastern coast, is seeing a boom as new hotels are being built at a feverish pace. Further south, the Chinese are building a large port at Hambantota. Viewed with suspicion by Western observers, this port will allow large Chinese ships to drop off containers destined for regional markets on their way to Europe and Africa. Many see this as a part of the Chinese ‘string of pearls’, a series of naval facilities situated along major sea lanes to protect Chinese shipping. No doubt they will also allow China to project its growing naval might.

One reason Sri Lanka has turned to China and Iran is that their help does not come attached with human rights concerns, as does western assistance. And in the recent past, the government has been repeatedly criticised for flouting democratic norms. Journalists have been beaten up and even killed by mysterious assailants who have never been apprehended.

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