There was much hype and celebration on October 13, as the Yal Devi (Queen of Jaffna) Express chugged into Jaffna railway station after 24 years. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa boarded the train at Palai and declared its station open, as well as those of Kodikamam, Chavakachcheri and Navatkuli, which fall between Palai and Jaffna. This was a momentous event for the people of Jaffna, who had not been connected by rail to the south for a whole generation because of the war. But while the government hailed it as an example of reconstruction efforts in the north, the boycott of the opening by the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), the only ethnic minority and opposition-controlled provincial council in the country, was an indictment of the lack of reconciliation efforts.
The northern line, built in the early 20th century by the British, ceased to function in 1990 due to increasing LTTE attacks. More than two decades later, the trains that whiz past Kilinochchi, the former de facto economic and administrative capital of the LTTE, paint a deceptive picture of peace in the war-ravaged region. The government hopes that the train will connect the majority Tamil north with the Sinhala south, unthinkable during the war. But five years after the fighting ended, the north still remains entirely alien and separate from the south because of continued surveillance, militarisation, detention without trial, as well as the failure to address issues such as land grabs by the military, the ever-growing number of missing people and the large, unaccounted number of woman-headed households that are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The list goes on. In addition, the government action plan for the implementation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report remains fundamentally flawed due to its refusal to accept the need to redress the genuine political grievances of Tamils. Combined with the continued refusal to extend the 13th Amendment provisions to the NPC — it doesn’t enjoy the basic privileges that other provincial councils do — it becomes easy to see why people in the north are disillusioned.
Ircon, a subsidiary of the Indian Railways, has invested more than $800 million in the project. In Sri Lanka, the need for infrastructure, essential for development, is most apparent in the north and east. But the government seems to be missing the larger picture in the reconstruction efforts — this was clear when the overwhelmingly Tamil electorate (more than 80 per cent) in the NPC elections voted the Tamil National Alliance to power in 2013.
The voters’ voices were clear: you cannot rebuild on the surface but let gross injustices continue in the north. Despite largescale reconstruction projects, poverty and unemployment remain rampant in the north. A case in point is Mullaitivu district, where the poverty headcount is at a national high of 28.8 per cent, six times more than the country average of 6.7 per cent. The interference of the military in the civilian economy (it runs barber shops, retail stores, vegetable markets and hotels) has meant that the crippled domestic private sector in the north could not really be strengthened after the war. Slow job creation and lack of local income generation schemes has meant that things haven’t actually improved for people.
The president’s campaign for a controversial third term may have begun. This regime, with the allegations of corruption and nepotism against it, has more to lose than any other before it. It will fight tooth and nail to stay in power. In this fight, the military is key: it has become partisan and the power of its elites is closely tied to the dynastic rule of the Rajapaksas, as well as related economic interests.
Over the years, the military has become extremely important to the regime’s survival. And so, asking for demilitarisation, transparency and accountability from the military and civilian government is tantamount to anti-regime activity in Sri Lanka. When this happens, the first to suffer are those who are most vulnerable and are at the margins of power and privilege — in this instance, the minorities of the north and east. What the regime does not realise is that when people are presented with hard choices, they will make them. Therein lies the danger. A desperate population will always choose to survive. It brings to mind the first tenet that underlies the Karen revolution, which has sought independence from the central government in Myanmar: “For us to surrender is out of the question.”
One can only hope that this regime and the people of Sri Lanka will not find this out the hard way.
The writer is programme officer, Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, Colombo.
Views are personal