Some years back, a Colombo-based journalist was seated outside a tea boutique near the Naga Vihara in Jaffna waiting to board a bus to the Jaffna airport and take a return flight to Colombo. All the roads were closed as the President was visiting that morning on an election tour which included a visit to the premier Buddhist temple in the region.
Motorists and bystanders were being stopped at a checkpoint that led to the temple. Stressed soldiers were ‘shooing’ away anyone who neared the checkpoint saying the road is closed and to use another route. The attitude of the soldiers was negative and they were virtually shouting at Tamil residents on push bicycles or motor cycles.
At the same time, a trishaw drove almost close to the barrier, surprising the two sentries. A couple with a child, the man dressed in jeans and wearing a gold chain and the woman dressed in tight jeans (not often seen in Jaffna) got off and walked towards the two guards with the man shouting “Ah Mallee, kohomada”? The couple was from the south, and like many others, visiting Jaffna as tourists. The demeanour of the soldiers instantly changed and in a friendly tone told the couple “Sir, this road is closed, could you please use another route?” “No problem, Mallee,” the man said and got into the trishaw and went away.
The journalist watching this incident, commented, “How could you win the hearts and minds of northerners if you treat people differently?” The situation may have changed since then but Sri Lanka is still a long way from coming to grips with its biggest problem: erasing the vestiges of discrimination and racial bias towards minorities.
Ideally when the third anniversary of the end of the Eelam war was marked last month, there should have been joint religious ceremonies by all communities – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims among others – in a bond of friendship.
The scars of the conflict still continue. For example, when the World Bank (WB) held a series of consultations with various groups from the community to seek their views on the country’s future development, young people from Jaffna were very specific in their needs. According to WB Country Director Diarietou Gaye:
“Young people there want to move forward, leave the past behind and be treated equally with the rest of the country. People (in the north) are tired of us talking about what happened in the past. They are (also) sick and tired of being treated as separate entities – North and East. They say they want to be part of an integrated country.”
Thus three years after the end of a bitter confrontation between government troops and a group of militants, has Sri Lanka learnt any lessons on taking equal, good care of all its citizens, not just a part of the population?
Has the healing begun? Is there a hearts and minds campaign on to win the trust and confidence of the Tamils and other minorities?
While the physical infrastructure and hardware appears to be in place for development in the north and the east (not as badly affected as the north because it has almost equal proportions of the three main communities), the ‘software’ is nowhere in sight.
Owing to the government’s reluctance to permit non-government organisations (NGOs) in the north to undertake work on women’s empowerment, rights and peace building, these areas have been left untouched. Many of the women and children have been traumatised by the conflict and are unable to talk about the tragedies and get it out of their system (a release mechanism that could help them to move forward rather than keep these horror stories bottled inside).
Furthermore some of the small entrepreneurship loans offered by various groups including multilateral agencies to war widows and those whose husbands are missing, don’t reach the recipients. Increasing incidents of child rape committed by a neighbour or a friend while the mother is away at work has forced many women to stay at home and raise poultry or cattle. Often, they are unable to attend meetings where loan schemes are discussed, for the above reasons.
Another social dilemma emerging is that some women are compelled to resort to sex work to feed the family. On the other hand the number of soldiers going ‘crazy’ in and outside camps and shooting their fellow colleagues and turning the gun on themselves is increasing, suggesting the need for a comprehensive programme of rehabilitation and re-integration into a war-free environment for the soldiers themselves, not only for former rebel cadres.
“To be sitting in a foxhole for weeks on end, seeing your colleagues die, tensed all the time, not knowing where the next bullet would come, is a traumatic experience. Then suddenly moving into a peaceful environment with nothing to do, nothing to focus on is also a problem and can lead to psychological problems,” said one psychologist.
Productivity suffers when such things happen – soldiers unable to work, war widows struggling to feed their families, etc – and thus on the long-term Sri Lanka’s economy would have a group of people who are not performing in line with expectations.
Apart from the productivity issue, the most important part of the crisis is that while the war is over, the conflict still remains as the rights and equality for the Tamils are yet to be resolved. The longer these issues linger on, the economy will plod along – of course with growth from sectors like tourism and financial services – but the real growth would be missing. Healing is important and the government needs to pay more attention in this area.