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Sri Lanka in a transition between light and shadow – Dayan Jayatilleka

Mar 14, 2011 1:10:53 PM- transcurrents.com

By Rosslyn Hyams

Reconstruction after Sri Lanka’s civil war is slower than could be wished, the country’s new ambassador to Paris has told RFI. But Dayan Jayathillaka insists that there has been progress since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

"It's been 30 years of war, massive devastation, be it materially or economically, psychologically, socially: there is a tremendous amount of healing to be done."

And "the main problem" in the “healing process” is that results so far, are patchy, he says.

“Even in areas where people have been able to return, there is little to no proper infrastructure, no economic activity."

Although he insists that things are picking up, “it’s not a situation of malign or benign neglect, it’s slower than we would expect, but there’s significant economic and social activity of all sorts taking place”.

An estimated 20,000 Tamils are still in government-run camps in the north of the country two years after the end of the conflict.

That’s “20,000 too many as far as Sri Lanka is concerned,” Jayathillaka remarked, speaking on the eve of Sri Lanka’s second independence holiday since government forces defeated the late Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s guerrillas.

Apart from physical injury, or hunger and loss of property, wars leave less visible traces. Both the government and the LTTE rebels have been accused of serious violations of human rights, during the final offensive in Jaffna in 2008-2009, and before.

Sri Lanka has refused an outside inquiry and has set up its own panel, the LLRC, which a three-member human rights panel set up by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is allowed to address.

The ambassador’s take is that “doors are open, but there will be no parallel inquiry which is externally driven.”

Former US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Robert Blake recently told the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, that if the LLCR does not align with international standards of investigation, Sri Lanka could be forced to accept an international one.

President Mahinda Rajapakse has appointed a panel to find out why a 2002 ceasefire between the government and the Tamil rebels broke down.

Blake also wondered why, like those others he calls Sri Lanka’s “friends around the world”, Colombo is not doing more to ensure human rights are respected now, referring in particular to attacks on media organisations and journalists.

“Sri Lanka is in period where it’s not as dark as it was, but not as bright as it should be - in a transition between light and shadow, ” Jayathillaka comments when tackled on continuing violations of human rights and of freedom of expression.

“Every violation diminishes us,” he admits but says he’s hopeful that as the context is changing, “the byproducts of the earlier context will disintegrate".

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines notes that progress is being made with the removal of landmines.

That’s one stark reminder of the drawn-out civil war between the Sinhalese-majority government and the Tamil Tiger rebels. Efforts to clear mines have been further hampered by last year’s floods.

“The mines are being prised out and we have done relatively well ... There's lots more to be done,” Jayathilleka says, “I'm quite sure it can be done faster, but what's been happening is not an insignficant revival."

For the ambassador hope has taken root. Sri Lanka is moving towards a peaceful future for the whole island and particularly for young people who he says, even if they'd been fighting with the LTTE, are now going back to school.

Political progress is a source of pride that Jayathillaka says "we deserve a pat on the back, as I think few administrations would have taken the risk of holding elections so soon after the conclusion of the war”.

As a result of last April’s election, the Tamil National Alliance now occupies 14 of 225 seats in parliament. Local elections are due to take place this month, except in urban areas where they have been postponed. These are expected to be a test of the government’s performance, especially in the war-worn north.

All in all, Ambassador Jayathillaka, "political scientist by training and profession" who very recently returned from an academic stint at the National University of Singapore, is convinced that for his country and all its people, things can only improve now.

"My optimism resides in Sri Lanka ... having never gone through a period of military dictatorship.”

According to the authorities, the reason that General Sarath Fonseka is in jail, is to prevent that occurring now.

Arrested in February 2010, the war hero was then found guilty by a court martial of irregularities when he was army chief. Fonseka’s arrest came just weeks after he’d challenged President Mahinda Rajapakse in an election in January 2010. And lost.
But the opposition still sees Fonseka as a hero and a leader.

Around independence day, a demonstration for his release organised by the United National Party saw clashes with some government lawmakers resulting in several people being injured.

“The Supreme Court has ruled on the mechanism of the court martial, whether it was constitutional, and the Supreme Court has said ‘yes’." explains Jayathillaka. “Some appeals are going on ... He has his lawyers, he has his day in court, and in that sense it’s still pretty much open. ”

Jayathillaka cites an interview Fonseka gave to Indian weekly Outlook, in which he was critical of corruption in his country, as evidence of dictatorial intentions.

"His attempt was to shift the traditional balance of power between the civilian and military dimensions of Sri Lankan politics. That’s no reason to lock him up. But there was a trial, a test at the hustings … and Mahinda Rajapakse won a fairly resounding victory.

“However threatened, [Sri Lanka] has always managed to retain and revive quintessential, representative democracy, though flawed, distorted, perhaps embattled, it has always survived ... and that democratic space is bound to keep expanding."

Are Sri Lankans who set up shop in France - Sinhalese or Tamil - who fled the war situation at home in the last three decades, as doubtful about that as the political opposition, or more optimistic, like Ambassador Jayathillaka?

He notes that at the present time his new charges, "have been going back, in large numbers, not resettling, but to visit their old home towns, their villages, to check out the post-war situation. There is a pretty significant spike in inflows from the diaspora as tourists."