By Shanika Sriyananda.
Q: There is a serious allegation from the people who are languishing in IDP camps that the military is still occupying their land even after the war ended eight years ago. How do you respond to this claim?
A: During the last few years, we have expedited resettling IDPs as the Government has taken several measures to handover the Army-held land back to the rightful owners. Since 2009, over 75% of the land area in the Palaly Army cantonment has been released to the owners.
We have been able to resettle a significant number of displaced people of Jaffna by now and with the recently-released land, we have been able to reduce the total number of IDPs by 50%. The main issue with the remaining IDPs is that the majority of them in IDP centres are landless people, who belong to the second generation of the IDP families, who became displaced two decades ago. There are families whose children and grandchildren still live in these centres and they are landless people. The Government will soon launch a program to grant each of those families Rs. 400,000 to buy a land and Rs. 800,000 to build a house.
We know the plight of the displaced people who have never slept on a bed or sat on a chair in their life. They live in very small rooms and over 60-70 people share a single toilet. They undergo many hardships and have been living in these centres for close to three decades. The war was ended nine years ago and the military doesn’t want to hold their land forcefully and unnecessarily. If we are still holding their land, how can we claim that there is peace in this country? We are looking at this issue in a very positive manner. We are releasing the military-held land gradually.
Q: But some claim that the present system of releasing land would be a threat to national security and the peninsula in the future. Your views?
A: I refute that allegation. We have given a serious consideration to the security in Jaffna. Maintaining security is our topmost priority while engaging in the five Rs – resettlement, reconstruction, rehabilitation, reintegration and reconciliation. Yes, some people in the south who want to provoke the people allege that we release land without a proper plan to maintain security in Jaffna. We do not release land in an ad hoc manner as we are fully aware what we went through during the last 30 years.
If there is a requirement to get control of Jaffna in any situation which threatens its security, we can ensure security within 48 hours as we have deployed our soldiers in such a manner. To those who think that the LTTE would re-emerge and try to provoke people to destabilise peace in the peninsula, I would say that the military in Jaffna will not leave any chance for that as we are not ready to compromise security.
Q: How do you view civil-military coordination in Jaffna?
A: During the 30-year-long war, all Sri Lankans suffered a lot. While the people in the south were also affected due to war, people in the north and the east suffered immensely as the war physically took place on their doorstep. They faced a lot of problems and were sandwiched between both sides – the military and the LTTE. Those Jaffna people who could afford to spend fled the country while the poor people remained and suffered in the deadly war. Those who remained in Jaffna were mainly from low income families. Their lives were shattered with no education for their children, no income generation means and no security and they suffered a lot under the LTTE. Even in a no war situation, they still cannot have a good living standard due to poverty. They saw only destruction.
Having understood the ground reality, the military is always trying to help them even by using our private contacts to get some donations to assist these people to make a living. They always show us gratitude for what we do for them and the military in Jaffna has a good rapport with Jaffna people.
Although some politicians are making some damaging remarks about the military and also clamour against the Army for their political survival, the ordinary people of Jaffna are with us. When we vacate our camps, some villagers personally request us to stay back to maintain security in those areas. The feelings of the ordinary Jaffna people towards the military are always different to that of the politicians and some pro-LTTE elements in Jaffna. They have confidence in us.
Q: You have spelt out several projects and initiatives to win the hearts of the people of Jaffna. But how confident are you that it will change the image of the uniformed men?
A: What we have realised is that it is extremely difficult to change the mindsets of some of the adults, who still have different views and ideas. Therefore, we switched our target group from adults to young students. We think it is an investment and most of our activities under the five Rs target the youth, students and children. We want to invest in the next generation in Jaffna.
People see the soldiers from a new perspective now. It is much better than earlier. We couldn’t do it overnight but allowed them to understand the role of the soldier gradually. It is not an easy task in the aftermath of three decades of war. They had fears about the soldiers but now they want us to be with them in their day-to-day lives. Like in other parts of the country, crimes, including minor crimes, are taking place in Jaffna. Tamils in Jaffna collect gold and money and keep them at home without depositing them in banks. This practice has given rise to robberies in some parts of the peninsula. Although the Police is handling those cases and maintaining law and order, most of the villagers want soldiers to remain in camps as they say that they feel safe when soldiers are around them. This is how they see soldiers, to whom they reach first when they need some help.
Q: Reconciliation is one of the top priorities on the Government agenda, how does it happen in Jaffna?
A: We have several programs to promote reconciliation. It is one of our priority areas. As I said before, we target young children and students to promote reconciliation. We want them to learn to live with all communities and understand the cultures, traditions and religions of each other so they will have a better understanding of each other. This is why we have launched the scholarship program that creates a bridge between the students in Jaffna and the families in the south. We have selected students from poor families and they will be connected to a family in the south, which will sponsor the education of those students. Our intention is to create a lifelong bond between them. These students are mainly selected from the children of ex-LTTE cadres, women-headed families and very poor families.
The military in Jaffna has come forward to help the needy families when there is a requirement despite their ethnicity, caste or creed. The soldiers in Jaffna help them, from getting school books to artificial limbs and housing to starting their income generation.
Q: Religious harmony is vital in reconciliation. How do you view religious harmony in Jaffna, where Buddhist pilgrims come to worship some temples and kovils?
A: Hundreds of people from the south visit Nagadeepa Temple and other Hindu temples in Jaffna. I am happy to say that not even a single incident has taken place so far that fuels religious disharmony. Jaffna people are very sensitive to their religion and also respect all other religions. They are also very helpful people. The military has started a project to renovate 100 small kovils which were damaged during the war. Tamils in Jaffna have a strong affiliation to kovils. We supply material and soldiers do the renovation work.
Q: Jaffna was known for producing professionals decades ago. Can you spell out the programs launched to help the students in Jaffna?
A: The SFHJ always encourages students to do better in their education. Yes, 30 years back most of the professionals were produced by Jaffna as they are naturally very studious and hardworking. Now Jaffna students have again started shining in education. Three Advanced Level students from Jaffna have been able to secure island ranks last year. We gave scholarships and laptops for them to continue their higher studies. Each student receives Rs. 5,000 per month for five years. We have also offered a number of scholarships for students, including 204 students who got nine As at the Ordinary Level Examination in 2017.
Q: What is the progress of demining activities in the peninsula?
A: We have been able to clear 85% of mine-contaminated lands in Jaffna. Many international agencies including the UNDP, MAG, Sarvatra and a few others were involved in demining earlier but now with the Army demining units, two local and one foreign demining teams are engaged in clearing mines. Being the major agency in humanitarian demining, the Army is also carrying out mine risk education programs among villagers. The international community who visited Jaffna commended the progress made in humanitarian demining since 2009.
Here, I want to say that it is unfortunate that teams of foreign investors visit Jaffna to explore investment opportunities but there is no productive outcome of those visits. There are investment opportunities in Jaffna and new industries need to come up to create job opportunities for the youth as there is a high unemployment rate in Jaffna. I would like to invite foreign investors to Jaffna as there is a huge potential for new industries.
Q: The Government has invited the Tamil diaspora to engage in rebuilding efforts. What is your comment about their contribution?
A: They can play a big role in the post-conflict scenario to uplift the living standards of Jaffna people by helping in them in education, livelihood and social development programs. But it is very unfortunate to comment that their contribution is very minimal. Most of the Tamil diaspora motivated Tamil youth in Jaffna to take up arms and funded the LTTE. But there are very few who help the poor people. The majority while still raising funds for the LTTE try to create problems in Jaffna. They want some conflicts or issues in Jaffna for their survival abroad.
Q: Do you think that they can now fool Jaffna youth to refuel the LTTE’s cause as most of them are against violence?
A: The ex-LTTEers and the ordinary Jaffna people are very well aware that they got misled by the LTTE and the Tamil diaspora. We have empowered people by assisting them to stand on their own feet. They are leading normal and peaceful lives in Jaffna and I believe the Tamil diaspora, which still uses money to destabilise the peaceful environment in the northern parts of the country, will not be able to mislead Jaffna youth again.
Q: As the former Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, how do you support the ex-combatants in Jaffna?
A: We have several programs to help the ex-LTTEers. When they need help they contact me or meet me to get help. We have a good rapport with them and in our programs we give them priority. We have launched several programs, including distribution of 45 cows and giving scholarships to the children of ex-LTTE cadres to help them financially.
However, they face problems due to unemployment, caste and low acceptance from their own society. Over 50% of them are not employed. In Jaffna, there are rehabilitated and non-rehabilitated ex-LTTE cadres. The non-rehabilitated cadres have got married, are having children and lead peaceful lives now. It is not possible now to get them into the rehabilitation process as they have been rehabilitated within the society.
Most of the employers are scared to give them jobs due to their past. With no proper education, the majority of the ex-LTTE cadres lack skills as they had joined the LTTE as child soldiers. The unemployment rate is high among them.
The caste system still strongly exists in Jaffna and most of the employers do not give jobs to ex-LTTE cadres who belong to lower castes. They are not accepted by society even though they are leading peaceful lives. The ex-LTTEers had harassed, kidnapped and taken ransom from people when they were with the LTTE and now people reject them in society.
These reasons have made them helpless and isolated in society. Therefore, they come to us to get assistance to find jobs or financial assistance. For the last few years we have launched several programs for them. We have recruited 100 ex-LTTE cadres for non-military duties. Today they are working in our farm. We will recruit another batch of 50 for some construction sites. The military has enough manpower to do this work but as we want to give them employment to earn a living we are recruiting them. If they are further isolated and left behind, the forces with ulterior motives will use them to engage in activities against the Government.
Q: Why is the business community in Jaffa reluctant to employ them?
A: They hardly employ them as they are still look at them with suspicion and also the other workers in those places don’t want to work with them. Their past has become a curse for them although they have become peaceful citizens of this country. I have requested some of the businessmen in Jaffna to give them employment but the reply was, ‘Sir, please, we don’t want them.’ That is their attitude and it is very difficult to change it now.
Q: Can you tell us about the coconut plantation project that was started recently?
A: We have started planting coconut saplings with the help of the Coconut Cultivation Board and the Coconut Research Institute six months ago. Our target is to plant 100,000 coconut saplings by the end of this year.
The SFHJ has a large extend of unutilised land in the Army cantonment. They are just overgrown shrubs and some vegetation. Jaffna soil is known as the golden soil and anything can be planted in this soil. We have found that any vegetables that are planted in Nuwara Eliya can be planted in Jaffna. I think we should have started planting coconuts in 2010; if we had done so by now we could have reaped the harvest.
At the moment, we are clearing 500 acres of land for coconut cultivation. Under the first phase, we will first target the lands in the Palaly Army cantonment. This project is not just a tree planting project like what we do on each Tree Planting Day, where no one is responsible thereafter. There will be a database with numbers of all the trees, a soldier will be assigned to look after a group of trees and the soldier concerned will be responsible for the trees that he looks after.
If we had started this program in 2010 by now we would have got the harvest and country would have self-sufficient in coconuts. It will also help to reduce the coconut prices. We are going to start another project with the help of Brother Charles Thomas, who will distribute 10,000 coconut saplings among low income families. In his home garden project, each family will be given five coconut saplings, which will give a yield sufficient for the family consumption.