Thursday, May 23, 2013
- Even as thousands of Tamil civilians return to Jaffna city, the Sri Lankan government has begun canvassing abroad for funds to rebuild the northern peninsula that it says has been recaptured by its troops.
Pushing their belongings on carts and bicycles past checkpoints of the Sri Lankan army, the civilians stream back to their homes which they fled five months ago when the military wrested Jaffna from Tamil separatist rebels.
Allowed to visit Jaffna for the first time in more than a year, reporters last week saw thousands of soldiers on guard or fortifying their defenses in Jaffna, a city which looks like it is under occupation.
When the soldiers captured Jaffna last December, it seemed a somewhat hollow victory — the city of 120,000 was virtually a ghost town. Jaffna is traditionally regarded as the historic centre of Tamil culture and has been the headquarters of the Tamil rebels for the past five years. The rebels ran a de facto government from Jaffna, with its own police and judiciary.
Three weeks ago, the army began another offensive to drive the rebels out of the Jaffna Peninsula. This time, civilians did not run from the advancing military force.
Now the government claims the return of 250,000 civilians to Jaffna and other evacuated areas as evidence that the Tamils are losing faith in the rebels and their fear of the military, which is dominated by the majority Sinhalese.
In order to make this a turning point in the war that has claimed 50,000 lives and end the Tamil’s armed quest for a Tamil homeland, the government hopes to quickly rebuild the city.
An estimated 80 percent of buildings in Jaffna town have been damaged, many destroyed, and the water and transport systems have collapsed. Roads haven’t been repaired since the war began in 1983 and telephones have not functioned for many years.
Last week, President Chandrika Kumaratunga met diplomats in Colombo and gave them an outline of what is needed to rebuild the city’s infrastructure, which has borne the brunt of nearly 13 years of ethnic war.
Officials were working on a rehabilitation and reconstruction plan, but the government had earlier estimated it would need 40 billion rupees (735 million dollars) to rebuild homes, schools, roads, and power lines, in areas recaptured by the military.
The diplomatic community in Colombo have indicated they would want concrete proposals before choosing to commit funds. “Donor countries would like to see specific proposals, and probably make their own independent assessments,” said a western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
The government is also trying to use the capture of Jaffna city and the return of the Tamils to gather political support for its peace package that has received little backing so far.
“For 12 years, a so-called war was waged without any solution in sight … Now a solution is in sight,” Kumaratunga told a convention in Sri Lanka’s capital city recently.
Kumaratunga last month criticised Tamil politicians for not supporting her plan to make the island nation a federation of eight regions, including a Tamil-dominated region, each with wide powers to rule itself.
“The Tamil people have clearly spoken out by going back to their homes … It is now the responsibility and burden of the government to rehabilitate and resettle them,” said Keethiswaran Loganathan, a Tamil political researcher.
Hard-line Sinhalese, led by influential Buddhist monks, have urged the government to defeat the guerrillas militarily before pushing the peace package through Parliament and a nationwide referendum.
The rebels have been fighting for a homeland in the north and east for minority Tamils to redress discrimination by the majority Sinhalese, who control the government and the military. Sri Lanka’s Tamil population is traditionally concentrated in the north and east of this Indian Ocean island.
With the rebels virtually driven out of their traditional strongholds in the peninsula, and robbed of the support of the civilians, the government is probably hoping to placate the hardliners and persuade the main opposition party to throw in their support, most Colombo-based political observers think.
The moderate Tamil political parties too would have to fall in line with the government, if the Tamil civilians support the package, they say.
The rebels offered little resistance to the onslaught, choosing instead to move men and material back to their newly established stronghold in jungles in the mainland.
“The Tigers still have the clout to strike in the east, or even in Colombo … Militarily, it is not the defeat of the Tigers,” said Loganathan, the Tamil researcher.
“It is a real plus in the military’s campaign. They (military) are executing and delivering … But can the government turn this into political gains?” questioned a western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.