Kath Noble

The Jaffna air

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on October 2, 2013

Why so many people are still living in IDP camps in the North

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAHaving emphasised in last week’s column the importance of land in the Northern Province, I headed for the area in which it is most under dispute – Jaffna.

Unlike Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, Jaffna is densely populated. Jaffna has 553 inhabitants per square kilometre, compared to 81 and 25 for Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu respectively.

Another difference is that most land is privately owned in Jaffna, while there is still a lot of land that is vested in the state in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.

That land disputes are most serious in Jaffna was made clear earlier this year when hundreds of people protested against the acquisition of their land to regularise the High Security Zone around the Kankesanturai port and Palaly airport. The Security Forces have occupied the area for decades, but it was never gazetted and their continued presence became a legal problem for the Government when the Emergency Regulations were allowed to lapse in 2011.

Cases have been filed in the Supreme Court by high profile individuals such as the Bishop of Jaffna and the son of the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, as well as by many of the remaining 30,000 IDPs.

The rationale for taking over people’s land in Jaffna was to facilitate the activities of the Security Forces in fighting the LTTE. They wanted a buffer around their key bases, forward defence lines and main supply routes at least as big as the reach of Prabhakaran’s most powerful weapons.

The Government claims to agree that the requirements must be different now that there are no longer any MBRLs trained on the Security Forces.

It quite correctly points out that the extent of the Kankesanturai and Palaly High Security Zone has been reduced already.

The state and other media regularly report on ceremonies to hand back land, usually accompanied by statistics that seem to demonstrate that things are moving in the right direction. For example, on September 7th, the Daily News quoted Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe of the Jaffna Security Forces Headquarters as saying that they had returned 136 houses and 175 acres of land to their owners the previous month, making a total of more than 4,200 plots since 2009.

They say that they are doing their best to reduce their presence to the minimum possible.

However, as the TNA points out, the 6,300 acres of land that is now being acquired as the final area of the Kankesanturai and Palaly High Security Zone is equivalent to more than two thirds of Colombo city. It says that the maximum that it can agree to is zero.

It is not clear how progress is going to be made if the two sides continue in the same pattern.

Debates that centre around the needs of the Security Forces are generally very difficult in Sri Lanka, as a result of the generation long conflict and the losses incurred in it.

I would not attempt to contribute here.

Anyway, I believe that it is not only or even really primarily a matter of the extent of land being occupied by the Security Forces.

It is at least equally important to see what is being done in the occupied land and what has been done for the people who have been displaced from it. After all, if they were perfectly happily settled elsewhere, there would be no dispute or at least whatever dispute there was could not be very emotive.

And since the country is supposed to be working towards reconciliation, this would seem to be the most crucial issue.

To that end, I visited both the High Security Zone and a camp of IDPs last week.

Of course it is not possible to roam freely around the High Security Zone. But the Army has built and is operating a hotel in the middle of it, and anybody who is willing and able to spend between Rs. 2,000 and Rs. 8,000 for a night can get a sense of what is going on in the brief journey from the gate at Maviddapuram to the beach.

Dinouk Colombage has said in an article published in Groundviews that only Sinhalese can stay in the resorts run by the Security Forces – there are now at least 15, of which about half are in the North and East. However, I found more Tamils than Sinhalese at Kankesanturai.

Among them was a young couple from Jaffna and a family of expatriates who had come to inspect their property near Tellipallai, which has been released from the High Security Zone.

(Incidentally, since he has also stated that there were multiple checks on the A9 in the run-up to the election, given what I said last week about not having been asked what I was doing or where I was going at any stage of my journey to Kilinochchi, I should point out that there were none at all for people who travelled as I did by train. Whether this was an oversight on the part of the Security Forces, since the train had only just started to run beyond Omanthai, I cannot yet say. I hope not.)

The hotel at Kankesanturai is of course very nice. As I was told within a few minutes of my arrival, Mahinda Rajapaksa has stayed there five times already.

Ridiculously, it even has a jogging track!

I must say that I didn’t feel much like going for a jog or even a bath in the undeniably beautiful ocean with an audience of dozens of soldiers.

The hotel is in fact staffed entirely by soldiers, from the ladies at reception to the waiters and the cleaning staff. Soldiers are also in the process of building an extension to the existing building, to add a billiard room, gym, spa and a number of luxury suites.

They live in the homes of the IDPs.

It is difficult to decide which must be most disturbing for them – living in the midst of abandoned buildings, which must serve as a constant reminder of the war and what people have lost, or renovating the ones that they have taken over for themselves. Travelling through the High Security Zone, there seem to be as many houses newly plastered and painted with new roofs, windows, doors and other fittings including regimental placards as there are houses in ruins with trees growing where their owners used to live.

For the IDPs, that soldiers are getting so comfortable there is clearly worse.

It doesn’t cost anything to stay in an IDP camp.

I had wondered with all the talk of surveillance whether the IDPs would be ready to accommodate a foreigner, but they did not hesitate except to worry about my comfort. Indeed, my sharing their experience was a source of considerable entertainment, as they made jokes about their ‘attached bathrooms’ – the piece of bare earth outside their huts to which they carried a bucket of water for me to wash my face before going to ‘bed’.

Of course I was given one of the very few actual beds in the camp, in the smartest of its huts.

It was better made than the temporary shelter I stayed in last week near Kilinochchi, since many of the men although originally also farmers as IDPs have been working as masons, carpenters and labourers in the construction industry, but it was about two thirds of the size, while it had to accommodate three times the number of people.

The camp is seriously overcrowded.

For nearly 100 families, there are ten toilets and one somewhat private bathing area.

There is virtually no open space at all, and I don’t believe that anybody could visit and not become utterly depressed at their plight.

As the women told me, in such circumstances, they cannot do the kind of work that would be possible in their own places to bring in extra income, such as stitching, growing a few vegetables or raising chicken. Women-headed households, which are quite common in Jaffna, face major problems in making a living.

Men can earn about Rs. 1,000 per day for 20 days per month, they said.

They have lived here since 1990.

Ironically, they are now under pressure from the owners of the land on which they established the camp to leave, so that it can be sold for development. They too desperately want to go.

The Government has offered them plots near Keerimalai, but they say that it is no good.

As I played ‘football’ with a boy of about six in the narrow alley between his family’s hut and the next – what we were kicking actually looked more like a very old, deformed plastic box – I wondered what these people would make of the Army’s hotel at Kankesanturai. In a way, I hope that they never see it. That so much effort has been put into it while they have been left to languish in such a miserable camp would surely be too devastating for them.

I was completely disgusted.

I believe that the Security Forces should not get involved in economic activities, because amongst other things they have a major unfair advantage – their salaries do not have to be recovered from the income earned.

In the North, it is even more reprehensible, when people are struggling so hard to rebuild their lives.

Despite various statements in the media to the contrary, the Security Forces are still running even tea shops outside key tourist attractions in Jaffna.

They must give it up. Such opportunities should be left for IDPs.

If the Government insists on maintaining the current numbers in the Security Forces, which is what makes it important to find new ways to occupy them with no LTTE to fight, it should understand that when the Security Forces do business on land that belongs to other people, they are going to create even more resentment than ever.

The only way to avoid the very reasonable anger of the IDPs is to resettle them in much better conditions than they could expect in their original villages.

Unfortunately, the Government is both heartless and mindless.

This article was not published by The Island.

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Drunk and disorderly

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on October 10, 2012

What the university teachers’ strike tells us about Mahinda Rajapaksa’s thinking

Something has gone to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s head, and I’m guessing it’s power. Because that seems to be the only thing that interests him these days – how to bolster his own position and how to undermine everybody else’s.

Hence his first priority after the end of the war was to get himself another term as president. The presidential election was called early, and it was followed within a couple of months by a parliamentary election, enabling him to strengthen his grip on the legislature too. The Opposition was in disarray. But that wasn’t enough. He wanted a two thirds majority, so a few more crossovers had to be engineered. Neatly bringing us to priority number two – legislation to reduce checks and balances on the executive, and to enable him to run again, as many times as he finds convenient, by abolishing term limits. The Constitution was changed. And it was ‘urgent’. Naturally, for what could be more important than Mahinda Rajapaksa’s future? Not peace-building, certainly. That’s for wimps. The third and final priority was to keep the Opposition cowed. Which is why he has called one election after another, to keep them in campaign mode so that they never get around to replacing their has-been leader.

The actual running of the country has suffered. But that needn’t matter if people learn to be satisfied with the mere appearance of achievement rather than the real thing. What matters is announcing that resettlement is complete and Manik Farm closed down, right? Not whether the IDPs are actually back home with roofs over their heads. Get with the programme, folks.

The Government isn’t bothered about ‘details’ like that. After all, it won the war – nothing else matters.

It certainly doesn’t matter that university teachers have been on strike for three months. Never mind that such a massive and sustained trade union action by a normally rather conservative group of people is unprecedented in Sri Lanka.

What matters is not giving in to terrorism.

Sorry, did I say terrorism? I must be getting confused – the modern world is so difficult for those of us with only limited intelligence. It’s academics Mahinda Rajapaksa shouldn’t negotiate with, right?

The FUTA struggle presents us with a crystal clear picture of the Government’s post-war failings.

The debate has exposed just how little substance there is to the grandiose vision that was set out in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s much-hyped Chintana. He wanted Sri Lanka to become a knowledge hub, for people to flock to its universities from around the world and for them to turn out graduates prepared to transform the country into the ‘Miracle of Asia’.

So far, so inspiring.

But Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a man with half a brain to make it happen.

SB Dissanayake had only one idea for the development of universities – put a stop to ragging. Because this is how he managed to spend four years at the University of Sri Jayawardenapura following a degree in ‘public administration’ without learning even the basics of how to minister to a government department? I guess not. It was training in how to be a politician he was after those days, for which purpose I imagine ragging was very helpful. Who knows. Wiping out ragging is a pretty simple task. And as a ‘bonus’, it can be linked up with the further militarisation of society by making young people eager to discover the origins and meaning of life in the universe march around in circles and learn how to salute. A no-brainer, in other words. Anything else would no doubt turn out to be a bit tricky, the Minister may have thought, so it had better be left to the private sector. At least that would bring in some money.

I have already discussed the follies of the Private Universities Bill in these columns, so I will not bore readers by repeating myself, except to say the following – companies may provide the kind of education that students think will get them jobs, but they have absolutely no incentive to do anything more.

That leaves stopping ragging.

Now, ragging is a waste of time (and worse) that certainly ought to be stopped. But stopping it falls rather short of being a comprehensive plan for the creation of a knowledge-based society in Sri Lanka!

When confronted with other people’s ideas, the Minister hasn’t demonstrated a lot of patience. Indeed, his response to the FUTA struggle has mirrored the Government’s reaction to any and all criticism, displaying a totally absurd war mentality.

SB Dissanayake alternates between claiming that the demands of the university teachers are unreasonable, if not downright sinister, and saying that they have already been met.

Take the call for the Government to spend 6% of GDP on education. According to SB Dissanayake, this is a random figure dreamt up by Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri over his morning tea, with short eats provided by the Opposition, NGOs or most imaginatively Prabhakaran’s ghost, all to make trouble for Mahinda Rajapaksa. However, it is actually a globally accepted norm. What’s more, it is a target that the Government along with its counterparts in many other countries, including the whole of South Asia, has committed to reaching. The only person who thinks it is not important is the responsible minister in Sri Lanka.

Adding insult to injury, he then manages to claim both that public expenditure on education is already nearly at 6% and, in his very next utterance, that it need never be anywhere near 6% since Sri Lankans are already very well-educated. What a propaganda machine! The figure of 1.9% was calculated by the Government. The last time the UK allocated such a tiny proportion of GDP for education was during the First World War – it currently spends 6.1%. Think of all the extra ministers we could have if only we realised that 1.9% was enough for countries with near universal literacy! Maybe SB Dissanayake would agree to look after our universities once he has finished ‘revitalising’ the ones in Sri Lanka. We could do with some help with our trade union movement. But coming back to the point, it is official statistics that UNESCO includes in its global database (www.uis.unesco.org). FUTA has nothing to do with it. Rummaging around in the national income accounts to find some other vaguely associated spending to add to the 1.9%, as SB Dissanayake sometimes advocates, is simply not credible.

When the Minister is in a mood to accept that Sri Lanka does indeed spend only 1.9% of GDP on education, he is keen to point out that increasing the allocation would take up an impractically large share of government revenue. How thoughtful! Like any good housewife, he is keen to keep expenditure within income. Will he also offer to give up his perks in the national interest? Don’t hold your breath. But of course the economy doesn’t function like a household – increasing government expenditure can generate more income. The share of government expenditure, which is the only relevant figure, wouldn’t have to be unduly large either, since government expenditure could be increased to meet the 6% target.

But enough with the ‘details’, right?

SB Dissanayake would rather waste our time (or worse) calling the leaders of the FUTA struggle names, trying to make us suspect their motives.

Smear tactics are the bread and butter of the Government.

Its objective is not to find a solution to the problems in universities, but to hang on until academics have to give up their strike – three months is a long time to go without salaries.

It simply hates to lose. And winning has come to mean sticking to a position, whatever happens.

Mahinda Rajapaksa should be ashamed of himself for losing track of what is truly important. He did Sri Lanka a tremendous service by putting an end to the generation long war, for which the vast majority of people are extremely grateful, even if they do not approve of each and every action taken in the process. He amassed massive political capital. And he was, and indeed still is, in a position to do even more good for the country. Sri Lankans waited a long time for peace, not only to escape the relentless death and destruction but also because so many things were excused or put on hold because of the war. They have a long list of priorities, none of which it seems Mahinda Rajapaksa can be bothered to tackle now that he has ensured his own place in the history books.

A change of attitude at the top is required.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 10th October 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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Unsettling news on resettlement

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on September 5, 2012

Questioning the official narrative that people displaced by the war are now home and dry

The Government has been trumpeting its success in resettling IDPs to all and sundry of late. Hardly a week goes by without some reference to the official statistics, which indicate that at the end of July there were only 5,443 people remaining at Manik Farm, while another 7,329 were staying in welfare centres elsewhere in the Northern Province. That’s nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands the Government was accommodating at the end of the war. What’s more, according to a recent statement by the Minister of Resettlement, the whole process will be finished by the end of September, with the resettled having been provided with ‘all their requirements’.

In a sense, this is only fair, since its critics were just as vocal in their absolute certainty that the displaced would be kept in camps indefinitely, or possibly exterminated – I recall much talk of Hitler and his final solution.

Still, it may not be accurate.

Last week, the Diocese of Jaffna issued a report that raised serious doubts about the Government’s claims, suggesting that it was deliberately misleading the public about the ground reality in the North – in particular, the authors said that resettlement was a long way from satisfactory.

It is an appalling failure of the media that most of us will not be sure who to believe. The recovery of the war-affected regions of the country is one of the most important stories of the day, yet instead of sending reporters to find out what is happening – where people are living, how they are surviving and indeed what they think about their future in a newly-reunited Sri Lanka – we are reduced to reading about what GL Peiris tells various dignitaries. A few days ago, for example, it was reported that he had informed the Archbishop of Colombo that many foreign visitors had been deeply impressed by its progress. What conclusions we are supposed to draw from such ‘news’ is not clear.

Meanwhile, the ‘commentariat’ is divided into people who blindly accept what they are told by the Government and people who always believe the exact opposite as a matter of principle.

I suspect that there are two elements to the truth.

First, the Government continues to believe that the only displaced people who count are those who left their homes in the final year of the war.

The official figures that are publicised so eagerly don’t include at least tens if not hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans who are still very much displaced. The war produced IDPs over several decades, not just a few months in 2008 and 2009. Many of them are living in pathetic conditions. They are spread across Sri Lanka in makeshift ‘temporary’ accommodation, sometimes with relatives and friends. They are also abroad, as the Government finally acknowledged last week by announcing that in 2013 it will start negotiations with India on the return of refugees from camps in Tamil Nadu.

Resettlement of these people is a much harder task, which is why the Government generally prefers to pretend that they don’t exist – there are bound to be numerous land and other resource conflicts, such as the one Rishad Bathiudeen inadvertently brought to our attention with his intervention in the dispute between Muslim and Tamil fishermen in Mannar.

If the Government were really serious, it would admit that there is still a lot of work to do, and it would get going with it straight away.

Secondly, there was never any plan to provide the resettled with ‘all their requirements’, so the suggestion that they are perfectly fine is bound to be a lie.

The Government only ever intended to give them basic materials. The rest is up to the IDPs themselves, plus India and its project to construct 50,000 houses and whatever contributions NGOs want to make. According to the Government, whoever fails to make the beneficiary lists of these agencies will just have to get back to work and save up if they want to rebuild their lives.

It apparently doesn’t matter that the destruction was at least partly the fault of the State.

Some people may be inclined to argue that funds are limited and so priorities have to be set, and it is obviously right to prioritise among the IDPs according to the urgency of their situations. Indeed, considered in isolation, they would have a point.

However, let us think for a moment of the areas in which the Government has not been concerned with prioritising.

Take the expansion of facilities for the Security Forces. Camps have been set up at great cost all over the Northern Province. They are within their rights and indeed wise to do so, since they must have a presence throughout the island – although they should obviously act in a much less careless manner, minimising the disruption caused – but this is not the point. What is important is that it has been done extremely rapidly. This shows what can be done when the Government is truly determined.

Money is not an issue – it was announced last week during the visit of the Chinese Defence Secretary that the Government would be taking another $100 million loan to build accommodation for military personnel in the North.

Never mind that this could buy another 20,000 Indian houses, although they are certainly needed. Borrowing from China means that there won’t even be jobs.

Next come Buddha statues. While the Government has been humming and hawing about which of the people who dodged bullets and bombs for a generation should receive help in rebuilding their homes – resulting in India making even slower progress than usual – and worrying about how to monitor the work of NGOs who come forward to contribute in case they mention inconvenient topics like human rights, elections or horror of horrors a political solution, people keen to erect Buddha statues have faced no such bureaucratic hurdles. There is apparently ‘better than single window clearance’ for such investments. Buddha statues have sprouted at a tremendous rate in places where there are virtually no Buddhists to appreciate them, most disturbingly actually on top of Hindu temples.

Such priorities don’t sound like Buddhism to me.

Given that neither the spread of Buddhism nor the entrenchment of the Security Forces is welcomed by the population of the Northern Province, it is only natural for them to make a comparison with the efforts the Government is making towards resettlement.

We may not hear about their unhappiness due to another key point the Diocese of Jaffna made in its report – intimidation and violence are still rife in the North.

Reconciliation by force must be one of those ‘home-grown’ ideas we’ve heard so much about.

It is safe to suggest that no elected body representing the people of the Northern Province would have dared to take decisions in this way, which is why provincial council elections are needed. Under the current system of governance, the population has near zero ability to influence policy on matters of the utmost importance to them. Members of Parliament from the North have absolutely no power, and their moral authority as elected representatives doesn’t get them very far, since the Government doesn’t care what people who aren’t going to vote for it think.

This is presumably precisely why it is so determined to maintain the status quo, undemocratic as it most certainly is.

Sadly, the lunatic fringe has brought us to a situation in which it is necessary to add that this doesn’t mean that Sri Lanka is a dictatorship.

The Government may soon start to demand praise for that too. Mahinda Rajapaksa hasn’t yet appointed a Minister of Elections, but no doubt somebody could be persuaded to cross over and take up the position, after which it’s just a matter of counting up the number of times the country has been to the polls since he became President.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 5th September 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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