Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

East: The Lost Battle for Survival

by Shakuntala Perera, Daily Mirror (Colombo), August 9, 2007

Interesting how disbanding the government-sponsored paramilitaries is now an issue, now that the cease-fire is finished.

Disbanding these paramilitaries was a key provision of the 2002 Cease-Fire Agreement and, it can be argued that the government's failure to disband them in 2002 is what led to the cease-fire's failure. -- Ed. Comm.

The Eastern province was always going to be our success story. It was where the country was going to test the formula for peaceful co-existence and development. The success of any Sri Lankan government at a long term solution to the ethnic conflict was going to be proven in the East. But today, the province stands devastated, desolate and alienated. The effects of a three decade old war are all on show here.

A recent visit to the war- ravaged districts of the Eastern province showed that it will be a long time before the province will lift its head in dignity. The hundreds of thousands left desolate in camps for the Internally Displaced People, the thousands of houses ravaged by the war and the multitude of livelihoods lost are testament to some agenda going very wrong here.

No one government or non governmental agency seems to have the exact number of the destruction. Everyone relies on each others’ numbers. No one seems sure enough. The damage is far beyond one entity’s ability to assess. In this situation solutions, be they short or long term are a difficult thing in itself. It is not surprising that no one really knows where to begin. This sadly includes the government.

The reality that meets one here is that of a situation that is far removed from the grasp of the government. Numerous ambitious projects of the government for the development of the East are mere dreams here.

What is sadder still is that there isn’t even anything on an interim basis. There is nothing on ground to even suggest that the government has even begun a proper re-settlement programme. Aside from merely dumping the people whereever it suits them politically, there is little to prove the government’s ambitious programme on paper.

In its present form, the East is the perfect breeding ground for terrorism. No one could blame anyone suffering the trauma of the war turning towards either of the militant groups for refuge. The people feel neglected and ignored by the State to feel desolate enough to turn towards a terrorist group for survival.

At the end of the day, the tragedy of the East is exactly that; one of survival. The people in the IDP camps don’t know whom to turn to. They don’t know when or where the next meal is coming from. Lost of all their livelihoods they have become virtual beggars, waiting for any handout that comes their way.

The youth are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of a direction to turn to. There are no employment creation centres here. There are frankly no jobs to have. A province with so much potential for economic development, it is today groping in the dark. Investors are no longer interested in the potential of the East.

There are no incentives for investment here. Even for the few who are ready to take the chance, there is no assurance by either of the two warring parties that their investments will be honoured.

The people feel angered by the recent celebrations of the capture and liberation of the East. The freedoms so obtained escape them. They charge that the benefits of such liberation have not come to them. They question the validity of the celebrations when they have long lost the battle for survival.

The people have begun to question the role of the Karuna faction. The questions seem very valid, when you assess the presence of the groups in the province today. Batticaloa is clearly under the control of the group. Despite assurances of moving towards a democratic process, the group has the entire district under its gun.

Allegations of child recruitment, extortion are aplenty. The people are living in fear. They claim that the government has left their fate in the hands of another militant group. They refuse to accept that the Group has joined the political process. Theyrefuse to understand the apparent ‘understanding’ that exists between the State.

Certainly the role of Karuna leaves much to be desired of the government. It’s difficult to justify the room left for the Group to handle the district. There is too many human rights abuses for the government to turn a blind eye to. It is clear that the situation has gone out of control.

The people question under whose authority their fate has been handed over to the Group in this manner. They charge that they have simply fallen from the frying pan to a very hot fire. They demand that their silence not be used for political gain.

The situation raises the question of the moral right of the government in fighting the LTTE under the banner of a terrorist group, when it is entertaining the fancies of another group. The absolute must for the government as a democratically elected one to meet the legitimate concerns of the people in the East becomes imperative in this scenario.

When the Karuna cadres carry out the same violations that the international community labels the LTTE guilty of, there can’t be room for the government to turn a blind eye. Certainly, the degree of violations may be different, but even one child recruited is still a violation, and one that cannot be condoned by any democratic government.

These will become serious questions for the government when it next attempts to justify the ban of the LTTE before an international forum. International fora are already raising these questions today. The government can’t expect to legitimize these actions of the Karuna group when it directs the finger of accusation against the LTTE next time.

It becomes the necessary duty of the government to meet the violations that are carried out on a daily basis by the Karuna Group. The people speak of fears in going to the law enforcement authorities against the Group. This is not the situation of a people ready to join a program of peace.

Denied the dignity of the basic human rights, the people would be far from ready to face any political process. The elections are the last thing on the minds of the people in this scenario. They strongly believe that the presence of Karuna cadres in their present form will be a threat to any free and fair election. In this situation they refuse to trust the outcome of any election.

These seem very legitimate concerns on the part of the people. It is unfair to believe that the people don’t understand the neglect. They know that they are far removed from the political plans of the government. They suspect they never will be.

Elusive concept of good governance
Good governance is a concept that is widely accepted in this country. Hardly a day passes without a seminar, workshop or lecture on good governance taking place in this country. It is held in such awe and respect by political parties in this country that a clause on good governance has become an indispensable feature in any MoU signed between parties. Almost all MoUs signed recently contained an item on good governance.

It is this country’s misfortune, however, that the manifestation of this cherished concept being translated into action is hardly visible in the country’s administration. In fact, it is observed that most problems in this country have stemmed from the failure on the part of the administration to adhere to basic requirements of this concept.

The aggravation of the problems ranging from the main national issue to the school admission imbroglio is the cumulative effect of bad governance. Rejection of incompetence, favouritism and corruption and enthronement of merit and efficiency are considered essential to make this concept meaningful.

Is it possible to practise these ideals in the existing political environment? It appears that the present political atmosphere is the least conducive to the promotion of good governance. What Nepalese parliamentarian Sujatha Koirala said at the recent seminar held in Colombo on good governance is very important. She has underscored the responsibility of governments to ensure justice and peace through good governance. An administration free of corruption and malpractices could be established through practice of good governance, she has stressed. More importantly, she has said, the politicians should move away from the power struggle. The power should be utilized instead to promote public welfare, she has pointed out.

What we see today in this country is a degrading struggle for power. Those in possession of power seem to adopt all possible methods to stay in power while those aspiring for power seek to achieve their objective by resorting to anything they could lay their hands on. Both sides, of course, avow that their honest endeavour is to save the country and serve the people. Both sides claim to be true patriots. While the government gloats over its claimed achievements, particularly about its success in curbing Tiger terrorism, the opposition parties condemn it for utilizing this campaign for political purposes. They make the more serious charge that the campaign is exploited to garner the resources of families, friends and relatives. In the course of this struggle various issues are constantly brought to the fore. One such issue was the complicated controversy over the duty-free luxury Mercedes Benz car that the JHU had disposed of.

While they are thus embroiled in extraneous issues the main national issue and other acute problems keep assuming unmanageable proportions paving way for the exploitation of the situation by forces inimical to the country’s well-being from outside as well as from within. It is not, therefore, surprising that efforts are now reportedly being made by hawkish elements to influence politicians and manipulate political events in this country.

Yet, the realization of the danger that the country is heading towards as a result of the domestic political squabbles has not apparently dawned on our political leaders.

While raising dreadful fears about foreign forces doing various things to destabilize the country, ironically these politicians by their unwise words and deeds provide ammunition for enemies to carry out harmful acts. Minister Karu Jayasuriya warns of a dangerous conspiracy to topple the government by buying over ministers paying millions of rupees to them. JVP parliamentary group leader Wimal Weerawansa, meanwhile, raises fears about a combined effort by local and foreign treacherous forces to stymie the campaign begun to vanquish Tiger terrorists. Although they sound these warnings, they have no practical proposal to overcome these dangers.

They know well that what is essential to overcome these dangers is unity among political parties that genuinely are concerned about the well-being of this country. They also make frequent appeals for this unity and cooperation. But these appeals ring hollow when they in the same breath mouth vitriolic criticism of parties whose support and cooperation is sought. They refuse to submerge their long standing prejudices against one another in this hour of national need for unity to overcome the present crisis. Good governance in this context becomes elusive.