by Rick Westhead
Toronto Star, South Asia Bureau
TRINCOMALEE, SRI LANKA—The weathered wooden bench that serves as an open-air confessional booth at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church doesn’t enjoy much down time nowadays.
It’s not that more people are seeking forgiveness in this seaside chapel. Rather, parishioners have been flocking here just for the chance to sit with Father Cryton Outschoorn, to listen to his soothing assurance that their lives, clouded for so many years by fear and violence, are getting better.
Father Cryton Outschoorn, a priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. He says some residents are still frightened a year after the end of the country's civil war.
“It seems like forever people here have been asking, ‘what can happen to us next?’ so it’s not easy to give condolences,” the 35-year-old priest said one recent morning. “Life still isn’t easy in Sri Lanka but it is better than it was. I remind them that for years they have been praying for peace and now they finally have that. It’s an answer to prayer.”
Outschoorn’s reminder notwithstanding, some Sri Lankans are struggling to be optimistic in the wake of the country’s civil war, a venomous stretch of history that lasted from 1975 until May of last year, splintering society and leaving an estimated 70,000 dead.
On one hand, news coming out of this island nation off India’s southern coast seems to be remarkably positive.
The government says foreign money is pouring into Sri Lanka now that suicide bombers and landmines are history. Economic growth is pegged at 8 per cent, unemployment is decreasing, inflation is in check, and a new International Monetary Fund-approved tax regime will bolster tax revenues.
“They have a once-in-a-generation-type story,” says Koshy Mathai, an American who is the IMF’s representative in Colombo.
Yet in many pockets of this palm-fringed nation, weary residents interviewed by the dozen tell a different tale. The prices of food, cooking oil and gas are at all-time highs, they say, and the government is failing to follow through on a promise to give provincial councils more power over local administration. Sri Lankan Pesident Mahinda Rajapaksa promises to repair roads and bridges and broken spirits, yet some say development remains largely limited to the western and southern regions of Sri Lanka, benefiting the country’s Sinhalese majority.
But conditions in Sri Lanka’s northern province, the Tamil heartland, remain bleak and still mostly undocumented because local journalists self-censor their news coverage and access for the foreign press is still tightly restricted.
That is where the bulk of the 492 refugee claimants who landed in Vancouver aboard the Sun Sea call home.
Jehan Perera, the executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka in Colombo, recently visited Jaffna province and saw how the government has resettled some Tamil families after their release from IDP camps. Close to 300,000 people were forced out of their homes in the final days of fighting between rebels and soldiers and the government now says just 20,000 remain in its so-called “welfare centres.”
Perera said he travelled up Sri Lanka’s A-9 Highway, cut off a side road and drove for many kilometres before he reached a settlement.
“They were basically living in huts with no electricity, no toilets, no hopes for jobs,” Perera said. “At night when it was pitch black, they talked about how poisonous snakes would come into their huts. For someone to say all these refugees in Canada should be returned here to be resettled like that, I just think, ‘can’t you give these people a break?’”
But a visitor to Sri Lanka doesn’t need to journey to the remote north to get a sense for how social issues still simmer.
A Colombo newspaper called Virakesari reported this month that police officials were demanding local Tamil residents register with their office, said Mano Ganesan, a Tamil politician. “It shows that mindset of mistrust by is still there more than a year after the war,” he said.
The report in Virakesari came only a few days after masked intruders burst into the offices of Siyatha, a TV and radio news broadcaster also based in the Sri Lankan capital. The media company upset government officials last year when it supported the failed presidential bid of former Sri Lankan general Sarath Fonseka. The intruders rampaged in the company’s offices for 15 minutes, assaulted staff and set fires. Yet in a high-security section of the city that still has a string of police checkpoints, the intruders inexplicably vanished afterwards.
“Either Colombo is not safe, despite the near hysterical hype on security and the ubiquitous presence of gun-toting servicemen; or the attack on Siyatha was carried out with the knowledge (if not at the behest) of powers-that-be,” the Asian Tribune newspaper wrote in an editorial about the break-in.
Other human-rights advocates point out The Economist magazine is routinely confiscated by customs agents when it dedicates coverage to current events here. And it has resolutely refused to cooperate with a UN commission studying atrocities committed in the final days of the war.
Perera said the absence of media freedom is only one of several reasons he’s anxious about Sri Lanka’s future.
Sri Lanka’s parliament last month passed an amendment to its constitution to remove presidential term limits, opening the door for Rajapaksa to run for a third term. The amendment also gives the president unfettered ability to both appoint and sack Supreme Court judges, members of the human rights and electoral commissions, and the country’s police chief.
“The separation of powers and checks and balances are all breaking down,” Perera said.
At the same time, there are growing concerns over the lack of progress toward a political resolution with the country’s Tamil minority. Instead of salving wounds, some critics say the government is exacerbating them.
In Jaffna, a city of bullet-scarred and dilapidated buildings in Sri Lanka’s north that was the de facto capital of The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the cold-blooded separatist group that paralyzed the country’s progress for so many years, Sri Lanka’s military has bulldozed L.T.T.E. cemeteries and erected a monument to the country’s fallen soldiers.
Neil Buhne, a Canadian and the Chief of the United Nations mission here, said the 1 million residents of Sri Lanka’s northern province Jaffna remain emotionally fragile and wondered why the government didn’t instead erect something to commemorate the country’s collective losses.
“They’ve gone through hell,” Buhne said. “The bulldozing of cemeteries and building a war memorial to soldiers is not a confidence-building measure. They don’t need to do it.”
In the eastern cities of Trincomalee and Batticaloa, cities that were hard hit by the tsunami in December 2004, Sri Lanka’s war continues to claim victims. The main hospital in Batticaloa, for instance, is admitting a record number of battered women.
“We have at least 10 new cases a day and many have husbands who are turning to alcohol or drugs because they can’t cope with feelings of isolation and loneliness after the war,” said Jayatheepa Pathasri, a mental-health care worker.
Pathasri herself is a casualty of Sri Lanka’s conflict.
Fourteen months ago—more than a month after the war’s official conclusion—the 26-year-old’s husband, a taxi cab driver, walked out of their home and looked back over his shoulder, hollering he’d see his wife and son later that night after work. He never came home.
“His brother was L.T.T.E. but not him,” said Pathasri, wearing a mustard-coloured sari with her hair pulled back neatly and held by a brown pin. “I think the government soldiers took him, but there are lots of stories like this.”
Even though Pathasri said some residents are struggling to cope following the end of the civil war, other locals insist they’re anxious to move on and rebuild, something they literally couldn’t afford to do for years. In L.T.T.E.-controlled swaths of the country, even renovating a modest home would bring a visit from L.T.T.E. brass demanding a contribution to the cause.
“If you had money to fix the bullet holes in your house, they figured you had money to help the cause,” a restaurant owner in Batticaloa said with a sigh.
But now, there are tangible signs of optimism in Sri Lanka’s beleaguered east, which until 2006 was controlled by the rebel group.
Travellers who brave the jarring nine-hour train ride from Colombo see roads lined with cement bags and sheets of steel. Repairs to the road linking Batticaloa and Trincomalee should be completed in months, cutting the driving time to two hours from the current eight.
Businesses, meantime, like the Indian cellphone company Airtel are gradually moving into the east and helping spur the local economy.
In a riverfront hotel in Batticaloa on a recent evening, executives with Unilever held a celebratory party for 20 local distributors.
The consumer-goods giant sells about $500,000 worth of products in the city each month, said Basil Fernando, a Unilever territory manager. When he arrived here two years ago, monthly sales were about $280,000.
As his customers munched on chicken wings and sipped arak, a local spirit made from fermented coconuts, a young woman wearing a green dress and ankle bangles danced to traditional Tamil music. Signboards taped on the walls promoted Unilever’s 10 rupee Astra margarine — you don’t need to put it in a cooler” — and its new Lux soap brand, which Fernando was sure would be a fast seller. “It’s an expensive party but it’s worth it,” he said, smiling. “The market is booming.”
There is similarly positive news further north up the coast in Trincomalee, a city of 350,000 where cement and flour factories and a flurry of fishing trawlers are the largest local employers.
While soldiers still patrol city streets, locals say they are relieved to be rid of the military checkpoints that until recently dotted the roads like 10-yard lines on a football field. Local fishermen are now allowed to take their boats out at night, something that was impossible to do during the war.
The military also seems to be trying to repair its image with locals. In coming weeks, a new reality TV show will debut in Sri Lanka that will be styled after America’s Got Talent. Members of the military will compete against one another in competitions of dancing, singing and juggling. The show’s underlying message: soldiers are people, too.
As a young woman in a pink sari and a yellow reflective vest swept garbage from a stretch of beach in Trincomalee, Thussi Ponnampala, the 28-year-old manager of a small 10-room seaside guest house here that charges 1,500 rupees ($13.50 Canadian) a night showed a visitor his vision of an expanded hotel with an all-day barbecue pit and surf shop.
“How long are we going to have fighting? There’s no future in that,” he said.
In 1990, Ponnampala said his father was stopped by Sri Lankan soldiers at a checkpoint.
“He wasn’t doing anything wrong but because he didn’t have money to pay off the soldier he was shot in the head,” Ponnampala said matter-of-factly. “But it’s all politics and we can either keep worrying about that and living in the past or move on. I choose to move on.”
Others seem to be willing to following suit.
While Sri Lanka’s northern province will contribute a mere 3.3 per cent to the country’s GDP this year, according to government estimates, money is beginning to flow into the region. The U.S. government is investing in a plant near Jaffna to make high-end blue jeans for customers such as Levi’s and J.C. Penney. New restaurants and hotels opening along the A9 are mostly owned by local Tamils, according to an August report in Time magazine.
India is promising $800 million in low-interest loans to help redevelop the north and east and is building 50,000 new homes in the once war-hobbled zone — nearly one-third of the 160,000 new homes the U.N. says are required.
China, similarly, is also vying for the affection of Sri Lanka’s government and has promised $500 million to build new seaports, a power grid, and a new highway in the east.
Despite the increased foreign investment and the steady flow of “good news” stories that salt the front-pages of Sri Lanka’s several English newspapers, some Sri Lankans say they worry that Rajapaksa’s government show no signs of being willing to loosen its grip on power.
In the east, for instance, a civilian government elected by locals is now in place, headed by a 34-year-old former child soldier named Pillayan, who was an L.T.T.E. before bolting to join the government. Yet the government has also established a governor in the east, a former military general, who can veto any legislation passed by Pillayan’s elected officials.
In 2008, the governor nixed a new law that would have introduced motor vehicle licensing fees, a venture that could have raised as much as 1 billion rupees ($100 million) a year for the province, said Dr. K. Vigneswaran, a former member of Sri Lanka’s parliament who is now an adviser to Pillayan. More recently, the governor killed an effort to pass a bill that would have allowed the provincial government to formally collect contributions from the Sri Lankan diaspora.
“They want us tied down,” Vigneswaran said in an interview. “They don’t want the north or the east princes to be financially sound.”
In Trincomalee, like other areas of the north and east, there are concerns now that the government is colonizing the region with Singhalese migrants from the south by offering them inducements to accept good jobs and cheap land. Recently, the federal government offered 50 prime beachfront plots in Trincomalee to be developed into new hotels. The plots were virtually free, Vigneswaran said, yet no Tamils bid for them, even after he attended a December meeting in Vienna with a group of Tamil expats and pleaded with them to invest.
“They asked what promises we could offer that the government wouldn’t take their money,” Vigneswaran said. “I said, ‘well what promises did the L.T.T.E. give you when you were giving them money?’ They didn’t answer. And they didn’t invest.”
As dusk settled on Trincomalee, a group of teenagers jumped on a small blue and white boat used by divers to catch clown fish from a nearby reef. Ponnampala, with a head of thick curly black hair and a wide smile, navigated his way past a herd of cows lazing on the beach and grinned and waved at a Russian air force pilot who was staying at his small guest house.
“I think our country has had enough of the fighting,” Ponnampala said. “We know that the government doesn’t believe in us. The sad thing is some people here don’t believe in themselves either. But with no war now anything is possible. We have to hold that close.” - courtesy: Toronto Star -