Peace and Conflict

Rebuilding the East and Other Stories . . .


Source of cartoon: Daily Mirror July 14 2007

So, Thoppigala the seemingly last bastion of the LTTE in the East has been liberated and now the East is ‘open’ for ‘development’. In the usual brash manner this victory was celebrated with little sensitivity to those civilians in the East who have been in the direct line of fire during the last few months. The military victory however comes with a heavy price tag.

Firstly the LTTE have made public threats of attacks against economic hubs on the island in the coming days. This causes further social instability, fear and hysteria among the local civilians, feelings of unrest and pressure on the security forces protecting Colombo. An already reeling economy would plummet further with these threats. Added to this is the cost of maintaining the East and keeping it liberated. According to the former Air Force commander, Air Marshall Harry Goonetilleke, “You needed around 1000 or 2000 soldiers to win the battle. But holding these areas would be very costly, as you would need to some 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers to hold the area, . . .. ” Commenting on the government’s plan to recruit some 50,000 personnel for the three forces, he added “The government would have to pay some 7.2 billion rupees per year in salaries alone, if they recruit this many soldiers (Daily Mirror).” This roughly translates that the Sri Lankan taxpayer might be asked to dish out more money to hold on to contested land in the near future.

This might however be the lesser of the evils that are evolving in the East. With the liberation the passions of paramilitary units and politicians of the East seem to have been rekindled and in the typically power hungry mentality garbed in ‘looking after the interests of the grieved civilians’ these militants and politicians are playing the field in the East. There were many skirmishes and there may be many more. The EPDP and the Karuna factor seem to have reconciled their differences for the time being. Their joint statement underpins their seemingly mature sentiments “If such enmities grow among the groups which are committed to a political settlement, it will certainly deal a severe blow to the welfare of the people whom they are fighting for. Hence, both organizations have reached an agreement where they can act with mutual understanding while wiping out all the enmities,”. This however is the tip of the proverbial-iceberg. When elections are called in the East there could be a free for all with the civilians caught in a very unenviable position amidst a host of political hopefuls. The tragedy of the situation is that these groups are allowed to intimidate and harass the civilians on whose behalf they are fighting a righteous war. The liberators become the aggressors and the cycle is reborn.

The reconstruction of the East is yet another contested subject and poses some interesting questions. Where is the money coming from for this grand reconstruction? With many of the donors pulling out or even threatening action against the government for its dismal record of human rights the government has to think of credible options to deliver the promises that it has made to the people in the East. Further how would the LTTE react to development and reconstruction in the East, a province that it claims to be rightfully linked to the North? What would be its response to international donors, professionals in the field and service providers in the East? Which ethnic groups are going to be resettled in the East? Are lands being re-distributed, what of people who had some land, will they get the same plots back? What are the ‘new’ land allocations and where is the land coming from i.e. is it land that belonged to the state or will it be acquired? Is resettlement a voluntary process? Is it being monitored? Will it affect the ethnic composition that was in place in 2002 when the peace agreement was signed? Is there an overall strategy for the reconstruction and development of the East? Who is making the policies for ‘developing’ the areas- are the civilians involved in this? What are the political parties that will be involved in this? Who is going to implement these plans and policies? Who is going to maintain the security of the East?

With the ending of the liberation parties and the forces in hot pursuit of Northern targets, the volatile East could be a potential field for ‘war lords’ and ‘gang warfare’. There is indeed a heavy weight on the shoulders of ‘liberators’. Hopefully Sri Lankan politicians have learned some hard lessons from its haunted past, that ‘victory’ has to be moderate and that the ‘victor’ has to be humble and work in earnest with the social structures and lifestyles of a war weary population in the East and that alienation and majoritarian insecurities can only lead to a new cycle of violence.