By: Dr.Rajasingham Narendran
It was indeed heartening to see life in all its facets asserting itself along the A9 road in the Vanni and in the Jaffna peninsula, during my very recent visit. The tragedy, utter misery, gloom, hopelessness and signs of devastation along the A9 in the Vanni, I saw in December,2009, has begun to give way to recovery, rebuilding, smiles and hope. The Vanni , I saw during my present visit was a hive of activity and was proof that life is indomitable and will assert itself, given even the most rudimentary chance.
The shacks along A9 made of twelve galvanized roof sheets and a blue plastic sheet, were giving way to foundations for proper houses. Walls of stick reinforced clay or concrete blocks were appearing everywhere. Children were attending school and the smaller ones were at play. Home gardens were planted and had become productive. The military presence was less pervasive and less intrusive. Aimless, listless and expressionless people were not to be seen. Rudimentary shops that had initially been set up in front of shacks had been enlarged and were beginning to take permanent shapes. These shops were stocked better. Shrines and temples had been re-built and were functioning. It was heartening to note that the war-affected Tamils had given priority to this aspect of their lives.
Puliyankulam and Mankulam towns are being rapidly re-built and were once again bustling with people and vehicles. Army run cafeterias, at regular intervals along the A9 were providing a valuable service to travelers in terms of food, beverages and toilet facilities. The armed forces, police and the civilians were apparently co-existing without any visible tensions. The Murihandy temple area has become a militarized zone, with the headquarters of a military brigade under construction in its immediate vicinity. This is an unnecessary and unwelcome development. The brigade headquarters could have easily been construction away from the temple area. This ancient temple seems to be losing its importance as a stopping point for the Hindu travelers on A9. The road that skirts the temple, constructed earlier on the directions of the LTTE, had also contributed to this tragedy.
The change was most dramatic in Kilinochchi. The town had come back to life, in a miraculous way. The ominous silence of a cemetery and the utter devastation that I saw in December' 2009, was being reversed at a rapid pace. The army presence was very visible and the military police were everywhere . Prefabricated material for the construction of an army camp was lined up on either side of the A9 on the approach to Kilinochchi. Construction work had already begun on one side of the road in this area. Other than the Buddhist temple at Kilinochchi and at Chavakachcheri, no new Buddhist temples had been constructed along the A9. Some roads in Kilinotchchi have been named in only Sinhala and this does not seem to be deliberate act. Some brigade headquarters along the A9, have also been sign posted only in Sinhala. The defense ministry and the government should ensure that all sign postings are in Tamil, Sinhala and English and new names for places and streets/roads that are alien to the local people in the north and east are not coined.
I had the opportunity to visit the 'Kurukulam' orphanages in Kilinotchchi run by the disciples of 'Yoga Swamy' . There were one each for boys and girls of school going age. The orphanage structures were damaged severely during the war and the management was struggling to find the resources to rebuild and provide the necessary facilities for the approximately 400 children in their care. 'Kurukulam' is a registered charity and has the potential to develop into an organization providing rehabilitation, reconstruction and development-related services in the Vanni at low administrative cost, compared to most NGOs. The Tamil community at large should rally to support this organization. Children are admitted to these orphanages, on the orders of the courts, in accordance with regulations currently in force.
While at the girl's orphanage at Kilinochchi, I was witness to how alert the armed forces were in the area. Within minutes of our arriving at the site, two military policemen appeared at the gates inquiring as to whom we were and the purpose of our visit. They were courteous and did not attempt to talk to us. They left once reassured of our identity and objectives.
The Jaffna peninsula was developing by leaps and bounds. Shops and houses were being rebuilt everywhere. Temples were being given priority in the recovery process, with many newly painted and others in the process of rebuilding or expansion. Road construction and repair work was going on everywhere. Jaffna town had regained its former spirit. The vendors and shopkeepers I spoke to were happy that business was good. I did not see any shops with name boards in Sinhala, in the vicinity of the Nallur temple or elsewhere. Considering the large number of Sinhalese who throng Jaffna town, it would be nothing but common sense to include Sinhala in the name boards and employ Sinhala-speakers to serve them. There were many Sinhalese working in Jaffna, for the NGOs and upscale restaurants. There were also Sinhalese and Muslims peddling cheap furniture items on a house- to- house visit basis, all over the peninsula. They had no complaints about their life in Jaffna and were enjoying and profiting from their stay. The concern the Sinhalese working for the NGOs in Jaffna had for the war-affected was sincere, heartfelt and hence touching.
The only area that was yet to see the return of those had left during the war was that between elephant pass and Kodikamam. The military presence and camps in this area were yet extensive. However, it is unfortunate that the opportunity to re-plan Jaffna town and guide reconstruction accordingly has been missed.
Sinhala travelers from the south are yet visiting the peninsula in large numbers, principally bound for the Nagadeepa temple. They are also curious to see the Northern Province after several decades. They visit the Hindu temples, including the Nallur temple in large numbers. At the Nallur temple, crowd control barriers have been erected and several kiosks have appeared to cater to the needs of these visitors.
In Jaffna town there is brisk trade in dry fish, fruits and 'Poor Quality' Palmyra products, involving the visiting Sinhalese. The Jaffna fort, Casuarina beach and the remnants of LTTE war cemeteries are the places of interest o these visitors. On the A9, all visitors to stop to view the war memorials in Kilinochchi and Elephant pass. The bulldozer turned battle tank of the LTTE, is also attracting many visitors at elephant pass.
The much publicized boat service to the peninsula, inaugurated by Namal Rajapakse, I was told is yet not running. Apparently, the inauguration was a publicity stunt. The people, aware of the goings on in the peninsula were also very unhappy at the role the EPDP and some individuals from the TNA were playing. There is a massive scandal to steal abandoned and unclaimed land in the peninsula involving a leading Tamil political personality in the TNA. Everyone knows his identity and is convinced of his misdeeds. False documents (deeds) are prepared with the connivance of individuals in the Katchcheri (Secretariat) and the land is either sold or given to favoured individuals. If not curbed, this problem is bound to be a disaster for the government, in terms of winning the confidence of the Tamils. It appears these politicians have learnt the wrong lessons from the LTTE and consider the Tamils incorrigible idiots.
There were also serious concerns expressed about the corruption- ridden system involving sand removal and transport. The EPDP was specifically accused of making money off the sand business in Jaffna, to the detriment of the rebuilding and development activities. The public services, manned mainly by Tamils, also stand accused of corruption, insensitivity, lethargy and high handedness. Many individuals have singled out the former GA for serious criticism. He has been specifically accused of turning a blind eye to the corruption and inefficiency in the public services functioning under his direction, in order to pander to the whims of local politicians, who had the power to favour him. The bureaucracy in Jaffna, is not geared to spearhead the recovery, rebuilding and development process in the peninsula, despite the intentions of the government to invest heavily in the north. The government should take action to remedy this serious flaw. The appointment of the new GA, with a proven track record, may be a step in the right direction.
Thieves and crooks-Tamils- have found the Vanni and the peninsula happy hunting grounds. They have developed links to existing political formations, some politicians and some low ranking individuals in the police and armed forces, to carry out their anti-social activities. Political, bureaucratic and criminal vultures have descended to feed on the circumstances prevailing after the war ended. The government should without delay set-up mechanisms to curb the activities of these social parasites.
The army and police on the whole, are playing their role honestly, responsibly and in a sensitive manner. I was particularly impressed with the honest and professional manner in which two traffic Policemen in Mankulam dealt with us, when our vehicle was stopped for speeding. There were no complaints at all about the armed forces and police from individuals I spoke to or dealt with, while in Jaffna. Isolated incidents of an unacceptable nature involving the armed forces and police may be taking place. These however are an exception than the rule.
The religious, cultural and development related organizations that had a track record in the pre-insurgency years in Jaffna, yet exist, although debilitated to a great extent.
These institutions have to be supported and developed to serve the community, the way they should. These are also legally registered entities, operating with low overhead expenses. Dedicated men with high ideals have kept these institutions alive during the years of unprecedented adversity. By visiting these institutions and talking to the individuals concerned, I am reassured that the spirit of Jaffna that in the colonial era seeded a religious revival and created a successful co-operative movement and a vibrant education system is yet alive, though considerably weakened.
The emergence of Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP) as a possible political personality to be contended with in post- war Tamil politics has been viewed with apprehension by the existing Tamil political establishment. These elements are scurrying like scared rats to form new political alliances to contend with this possibility on the horizon. The government has done a service to the Tamils by permitting KP to participate in political activities involving the war-affected and thus creating the possibility for a political alternative.
The curse of the Tamils seems to be the existing political leadership and bureaucracy in the north and possibly in the east. The government unfortunately is turning a blind eye to not only the misdemeanors of both these vital elements, but also appears to be encouraging these elements to continue on the path they are treading. This is rather disconcerting in the face of the good intentions the government had projected in discussions with the author and those associated with him.
The manner, in which Jaffna University functions, is of serious concern to those in Jaffna, who understand what a university should be. The faculty is mediocre, self-perpetuating, self-aggrandizing and self-seeking. The university is not playing a meaningful role in society and providing the required leadership in a time of need. While political activism of the LTTE-kind is unfortunately prevalent and probably dominant, social and development activism is non-existent. The faculty, by-and- large, is definitely incapable of making the University a temple of learning and an ornament on the northern landscape. Quality faculty, both from local and expatriate sources, should be immediately recruited and provided the facilities and environment to begin the changes required. Expatriate Tamil academics should be encouraged to visit for periods of at least six months, to 'Water' the 'Arid desert of dead habit' this university has become. The Jaffna University should not continue to be a mediocre degree factory. The north requires a better university to cater to its needs.
To conclude, it is gratifying that the spirit of the Tamils in the north has not been extinguished by the long years of war and its brutal end. All indications point that the Tamils will rise again to play a meaningful role in Sri Lanka and prosper. The spirit that is manifesting itself in numerous ways all over the north, despite the all too obvious adversities and disadvantages, is definitely a harbinger of a bright future for the Tamils and Sri Lanka. If they are helped and guided, they will advance faster. If not, they will yet become a great people, though at a slower pace. The Tamils will emerge from their prolonged tragedy and the associated misery, despite their politicians, bureaucrats and malcontents- both within and the Diaspora, to become what they deserve to be in the land of their birth and life. I may not live to see this happen, but will die convinced, it will happen. Tamils are not a species, destined for extinction in Sri Lanka, as many, including me had feared six months back. They are proving that they have what it takes to rebound from adversity and hurdles, to survive and prosper. May 'God' help them, even if their fellow men fail! They deserve this divine help, because they have not given up. I salute these ordinary and simple folk, who have withstood the worst of war and are proving to the world that they are second to none in their resilience, hard work, patience and faith.