Batticaloa, Development, Environment, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

A Reply to Tissa Devendra on Rebuilding Sri Lanka

[Editor’s note: Devanesan Nesiah provides a rejoinder to Tissa Devendra’s vehement response to his article ‘Rebuilding Sri Lanka‘ that was published first on Groundviews and then later in the Island.]

The venomous response of Devendra in the Island of 16th March does not merit a reply but I need to set the record straight. As I said in my original entry, “The primary fault is with neither the visitors nor the locals” which is very different to what Devendra seeks to imply. He takes offence over my citing the critical observations of a very distinguished Sinhalese. Rebuilding Sri Lanka requires self-critical acknowledgement of the damage done to the Sri Lankan nation over the decades by the racist policies of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim leaders and by insensitive conduct and practices. It also requires a willingness to engage in corrective action. The corrective action includes not only political reforms but also sensitizing the population and lowering the barriers to inter ethnic communication. The barriers erected by the LTTE to prevent other citizens from traveling to areas controlled by them have disappeared together with the LTTE; several of the barriers erected by the state remain, and new barriers have been erected. Citizens cannot now freely travel to certain areas. New High Security Zones have been created. Tens of thousands of citizens, mostly Tamils and Muslims, cannot even visit their own homes or their own lands in the old or new no go areas.

A week ago I had an opportunity to visit, along with some others, Jaffna and Chavakachcheri. We took the opportunity to call on Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian religious and community leaders, as well as the Government Agent. We found time to visit the markets in those two cities. This visit gave me an opportunity to make first hand observations.

As expected, I found that the reaction of the local population to the surge of Southern visitors was mixed. The scale of the flow of visitors to Jaffna was in excess of the local capacity to accommodate it. That capacity is gradually increasing through new construction work and through expansion of the markets and production. In the long run this development will bring socio-economic gains to Jaffna, but in the meantime there are ill effects such as those referred to by the person I cited. Moreover the prices of many essential items in the market have escalated. Accommodation is in short supply and often prohibitively expensive. These impact negatively on the local consumers, and on IDPs   visiting Jaffna to look at their property or returning to resettle. Some of the reactions are not very different to those of the locals in tourist locations elsewhere in response to any surge of tourists not sensitive to the local culture. They may feel marginalized by the tourists and priced out of the local markets. On the other hand those running guest houses and the traders are delighted. These reactions too are similar to those running guest houses and shops in centres of tourism.

Devendra’s reference to the local Tamil population as “subjects” is indicative of the problem, as also his cynical dismissal of earlier peace making efforts. We need to promote more in – tourism but in such a way that it promotes inter – ethnic harmony. If this is done in sensitive manner Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims in the private sectors will extend their operations to every part of the Island, and every district in the island will become ethnically and culturally more plural. As Devendra should have learnt from the reaction of his Tamil and Muslim “subjects” in Trincomalee, state imposed colonization could be counter productive but if population movements occur without state imposition they would be welcome by the locals. In particular, those evicted earlier from a locality or who left on account of insecurity would be most warmly accepted back. The flow of Sinhalese visitors to Jaffna needs to be sustained but in such a manner that their interaction with the locals is harmonious. This was one of the messages underlined by all the religious and other civil society leaders we met in Jaffna a week ago.