Posts Tagged ‘Sri Lanka’

23 September, 2009

Update on Sri Lanka

Because of the book tour – and two periods of being pretty sick – I have been unable to keep up with the blog as diligently as I had tried to do before. Also because of these same things I have not been able to stay abreast of everything about which I am concerned – the health care issues here and the IDP issues in Sri Lanka. I’m going to try and redress the latter here with some updated information for those of you who are interested and ask me questions about these things when I am on tour. while the statistics and details below will give you an idea of the work being done through official channels, I want to mention that hundreds of small and large Sri Lankan organizations both in Sri Lanka and worldwide are participating in the reconstruction and reconciliation efforts throughout the island. I have been fortunate to be able to participate – albeit in a modest way – with the efforts of groups in Boston and Texas. As I discovered in the wake of the tsunami, those kinds of person to person initiatives have an extraordinary impact on both the giver and the recipient.

Last week, Lynn Pascoe, UN Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, highlighted the progress made so far to rebuild Northern Sri Lanka to enable accelerated resettlement of displaced persons. That work includes the following:

Infrastructure, Roads and Transportation Development

Repairs on major highways of the Northern Province are under way. Roads now under renovation include the A9, A32, A 14, A 17, A 34, A 35 AB 19, AB 20 (Jaffna – Point Pedro) and B 229 (Murungan- Silavaturai). Work on access roads to highways and rural villages is also underway.

Health and Water Supply

The renovation of 12 rural health centers and hospitals in Killinochi, Mannar and Vavuniya district is due to be completed by mid-October. The Ministry of Healthcare and Nutrition is also planning to renovate the Killinochi base hospital.

Livelihood Development

Approximately 60 lorries of commercial goods and agricultural products were transported to and from Jaffna peninsula on the A9 ( Jaffna – Kandy) highway in August. Repairs to large irrigation systems in the Jaffna district (Thondaman Aru) and the Giant tank (reservoir) and the Agathimuruppu tank in the Mannar district have been completed. Fish production in the Jaffna peninsula has also increased and the harvesting of 1,731 metric tons fish production was reported in July. The production in May was just 774 metric tons.

Education: Displaced Children Take Entrance Exams

Of the Northern Province’s 1,011 schools, 575 are now open and repairs are underway in damaged schools. The Ministry of Education reports that the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advance Level examinations (University entrance examinations) were held at 10 special examination centers in Vavuniya for 1,263 displaced candidates who are presently housed in IDP welfare villages. Among them were 166 ex-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) child soldiers. The Zonal Education Office in Vavuniya successfully held grade five scholarship examinations for 5,465 children living in welfare villages and in the transitional camps in Cheddikulam. The Zonal Office and non-government organizations operating in Vavuniya district provided stationery for the children who sat for the exams.

Electricity

The Ministry of Power and Energy has initiated a program to restore the power supply in the Killinochi, Vavuniya and Mullaithivu districts. Power in the Killinochi town area, Oddusudan, Mankulam, Nedunkerni, Pallimudoi and almost all areas in Mannar district has been restored.

Monetary and Material Assistance

The Government of Sri Lanka will provide returning displaced families with $220, galvanized roofing sheets, six months of free dry rations, kitchen utensils and equipment required for daily living needs to the equivalent to US $ 35-$40, as well as agricultural seed and equipment and fishing supplies for coastal communities.

Rehabilitation of former Child Soldiers

Sri Lanka has implemented a comprehensive rehabilitation program for rescued child soldiers. The government has established two Children’s Protective Accommodation and Rehabilitation Centers (PARC) in Ambepussa, Kegalle (Central Sri Lanka) and Poonthottam Cooperative training School in Vavuniya Facilities for education and catch-up education, vocational training, recreational activities and special educational programs are also available. The centers feature telephone and meeting facilities that allow former child-soldiers to meet with parents, immediate family members and close relatives. Food and lodging for visiting family members are provided by the centers in collaboration with the UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The government continues to work closely with UNICEF on pending cases of underage recruitment.

De-mining

Initial surveys of Northern Sri Lanka suggest that there are as many as 1.5 million LTTE landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) over an area of 402 square kilometers. Sri Lanka has now purchased 10 de-mining machines from Slovakia and Croatia for $5 million. The machines can clear 5,000 square meters of land in a day, compared to 10 square meters for each human de-mining technician. The machines should significantly increase the pace of de-mining, leading to more rapid IDP resettlement. Seven nations are aiding Sri Lanka with de-mining: the U.S., UK, Denmark, India, Norway, Japan and Australia. At the end of August, a total of 445,370,401square meters have been cleared of mines and UXOs. The government of Sri Lanka has so far spent $64 million on de-mining operations.

Displaced Persons by Welfare Center
The number of IDPs housed in welfare village region:
Vavuniya District Relief Villages 224,394
Others in Vavuniya (schools, education facilities and elder care) 15,812
Vengala Chettikulam DS Division Welfare Centers 21,665
Jaffna District Welfare Centers 10,853
Trincomalee District Welfare Centers 6,842

17 May, 2009

After War

Reflections at the dawn of the ‘Post-LTTE Moment’

by Malinda Seneviratne

sandballThis is a momentous occasion for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, regardless of ideological persuasion and preferred Utopia. Whether or not, as some have (in my opinion injudiciously) predicted, the LTTE will revert to its guerrilla avatar, it is clear that a point of no return has been crossed. We are now officially in the post-LTTE era in that the LTTE of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE capable of UDI posturing, the LTTE of strutting around with a ‘Sole-Rep’ tag, the LTTE claiming authority over a de-facto state, the LTTE with something close to a conventional army, has to be spoken of in the past tense. No future LTTE will be that LTTE, just like the post-89 JVP could never be the JVP of ’71 or the JVP of 88-89.

For a nation that has been held ransom by this bunch of thugs for close to three decades, this is certainly a moment that warrants celebration, not least of all because this is a moment that many if not all insisted will never materialize. We were told, ‘the LTTE cannot be defeated’. We were told that Colombo will be reduced to rubble if Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to take on the LTTE militarily (as it happened, he didn’t have an alternative; the LTTE was spoiling for a fight and insisted on a military confrontation). We were told that we had no option but to sue for peace (read ‘surrender to terrorism’). In short, this denouement was not scripted. Or, to put it another way, it was scripted out. Nowhere in the grand plans that many, both here and abroad, had for Sri Lanka was there mention of the possibility that the LTTE would be so comprehensively defeated.

In a world where engagement with terrorism has engendered more terrorism, where nations far more powerful than us have floundered in such missions despite superior weaponry, larger and better trained armies, far more sophisticated intelligence networks and systems, strong and willing allies, the efforts of Sri Lanka vis-à-vis the LTTE, arguably the world’s most ruthless and resourceful terrorist outfit, surely deserves the highest accolades.

beachThis nation that has had to face two bloody insurrections, a monumental natural disaster, contend with political intrigue, suffer the interference of powerful external forces, deal with poverty and unequal terms of engagement in the global political economy, can and should applaud itself for achieving this particular ‘unachievable’.

Celebration can take many forms. There can be the usual fire-cracker explosion of euphoria, the victory rallies across the country, the making of political capital, the rush to take credit whether it is deserving or not, and of course the waving of the national flag. I see no wrong, I do not object. On the other hand, I believe this is also a time for reflection and in particular self-reflection.

graveFirst of all let us all remember those who are no longer here to celebrate with us, those who made the supreme sacrifice so that this day could dawn, so that these celebrations can take place. Let us remember all those who had to die because killing innocent people was ‘fair game’ for the mass murderer called Velupillai Prabhakaran, a fact that his apologists chose to ignore. Let us remember the fact that this war necessitated a diversion of resources from other vital areas of national interest such as education, health, agriculture and industry. In short there was an opportunity cost here; a massive foregoing, a forfeiture whose affects will never be fully calculated.

I call for a greater degree of sobriety because the celebration of this moment in this ‘moment after’ simply means that there was an unhappy ‘moment before’. Over 70,000 of our citizens perished before we could come to this ‘here and now’ of flag-waving. Property worth billions of rupees was destroyed. Infrastructure that could have changed the lives of millions of people never got built.

And then there’s ‘the enemy’, perceived and real. boyShould we not reflect now on the validity of perception? Should we ask ourselves if there is such an entity called a permanent enemy? Should we not walk a few miles along the pathways their thoughts have passed, reside for a while in the residencies of their concern, and test the textures now and then of the dreams they must have invited, entertained and allowed to take possession of their days and nights? Should we not do these things if we want to find out with what gaze we should look at them today, tomorrow and the day after?

There is the ‘hardcore’. No one is born with some congenital ability to differentiate the hardcore from the innocent, the one who is ideologically committed to killing for a cause and the one who is coerced into killing. This is why it is prudent to screen the thousands who have streamed into welfare centres. Empathy does not necessarily bar circumspection.

We must remember, however, that even if there wasn’t the bloodbath that the David Milibands and Bernard Kouchners predicted (and salivated for?), blood certainly was shed. That blood belonged to citizens of this country. tamilmenThat blood cannot be allowed to be orphaned. It flowed out of bodies; bodies that contained minds, hearts, aspirations, bodies that contained lips that would have broken into smiles or half-smiles, wry or coy, lips that kissed or dreamed of kiss, bodies that were made of skin, of limbs, cheeks and eyelids, all of which would have once been tenderly touched by mothers and fathers. Yes, they killed. They wronged the most innocent. They were wrong. In the exchange of fire that is war there is no space for any tenderness. In this post-war moment, it will be hard to feel pity, but it will not be impossible to understand why a 12 year old came to hold a gun in his hand or how a 13 year old blew herself up or how a 15 year old had to be shot dead since this was the only way to stop him from killing 100 people by exploding himself.

I just watched 3 young girls belonging to the LTTE’s suicide unit, recently captured, being interviewed on national television. Could we consider them hardcore LTTE cadres, replete with a sound understanding of the conflict, its historical antecedents, motives, logic, legitimacy etc? No. Kids. That’s what they are.

twogirlskuruConsider the IDPs. Consider the acronym. IDP. Internally displaced person. Well, one cannot for reasons of space refer to all the 200,000 persons displaced by name, but ‘IDP’ certainly makes them nameless, turns them into numbers. Today we know that some women decided to conceive so that they could escape (for a few years) forced conscription. Today we know that the LTTE deliberately burnt the temporary shelters of people living in the No-fire Zone so that they would be forced to spent sweltering days out in the sun, suffering dehydration and be rendered less able to make a break for freedom. Will we stop to remind ourselves again and again that these 200,000 plus people have at least 200,000 stories and that most of them cannot be happy ones? Would we see in the elderly man carrying a suitcase on his head and ‘sprinting’ to freedom our fathers? Would we each recognize our grandmothers in the breaking voice of the old woman lamenting the death of a child or heart-broken because someone near and dear didn’t make it and might have died? tamilgirlWould we see in the bewildered eyes of a child the incomprehensibility we never want to see in our own children? When we see a picture of a family clutching a bundle of belongings will we wonder what we would choose to take with us if we had to flee our homes at a moment’s notice?

Will we understand that almost every family from the Wanni would include at least one person who is ashamed of the fact that crimes against humanity were perpetrated by the LTTE in their name, that the LTTE brought disgrace to their community? Will we understand that in every family there was someone who died and that a child or a father does not cease to be a child or a father just because she/he died in battle, in uniform, or as a suicide bomber seeking to kill innocents? priestsWould we acknowledge that many innocents had to die, many whose only crime was being in the wrong place and the wrong time? Would we have anything to say to the loved ones of the unnecessarily dead? Will we commiserate with them in the same tone, heartbeat murmur and tear-temperature as we did with the near and dear of those who died in the Pettah bomb blast, the Dehiwala attack, the Borella attack, the attack in Kebithigollewa? Would the place names familiar to the Tamil dead roll off our tongues as easily as Aranthalawa, Kanthalai, Kebithigollewa, Dutuwewa etc., even as we recognize difference in purpose and method?

incenseThere was an ‘LTTE-time’. That was a forbidding time. The LTTE did not give any of us the space to think ‘human being’. Those who chose to think ‘human’ and to ignore the reality of ‘terrorist’ altogether, took us up the garden path and while we were sniffing the flowers the LTTE went around killing people. It was a time that required ending and it was abundantly clear that this time could not end unless the LTTE was taken out of the equation. It is not that the forces were inhuman or that we were and there’s ample evidence to support this thesis, but tenderness must necessarily be made secondary when fighting a brutal terrorist.

Today we are not in an ‘LTTE-time’. We are in a post-LTTE time.srilanka08-1337 I believe that this is a moment when we can, if we so want, look beyond identity and see human being, look beyond label and political familiarity and recognize ourselves in these ‘other people’. Seeing pictures of people who had fled LTTE-controlled areas, it occurred to me that my arms were not long enough to embrace all those who deserve embrace (and I was convinced that the vast majority are not unworthy of embrace). It occurred to me also that this country must cultivate a willingness to embrace; a readiness to engage, to tolerate, to affirm chosen identity but respect difference, to celebrate the defeat of a brute and at the same time resolve to recognize the vulgarity of celebration in certain contexts.

kovilIn this post-LTTE moment, in this ‘non-LTTE time’ let us also remember that the more arduous task of rebuilding our nation, resolving the problems of poverty, drugs, crime and political violence and creating a more democratic, tolerant and hard-working society has begun. Let us remember to recall the common humanity of all communities, the essential goodness of all religious faiths and the splendor of all cultural traditions and create a space for all these things to thrive in harmony.

I believe we fought the necessary fight, we fought it well and we have come through scarred, crippled but unbowed and with our ability to slay our ghosts intact. We have come through the long tunnel called a 3-decade war. planting It is time to welcome the dawn, the post-LTTE dawn — with pride, a sense of self-worth, with pomp and pageantry if necessary, but most certainly with reflection, humility and compassion.

Malinda Seneviratne is an award-winning journalist and reporter based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His political commentary appears internationally and he was a part of an international team of election monitors during the U. S. Presidential elections. This article first appeared in The Nation, Sri Lanka. He edits the monthly magazine, Spectrum, and he can be contacted at malinsene-AT-gmail.com

26 April, 2009

Obama’s DC

I should have written this while I was still sneezing among the dogwood, tulips and cherry blossoms, but DC has a way of taking up all available space, time and mind and I have a way of dancing to the music…

I was in the area for a multitude of reasons: community building, political advocacy, book promotion, policy wonkishness (I am, quite possibly one of the few individuals who actually listened to the Clinton impeachment hearings in real time), much of which coincided with the amazing South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) 2009 Summit.

During the course of the last three days I met with a variety of senior staffers from the new administration including those from the Department of Homeland Security, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, the white House offices of Public Engagement, Intergovernmental Affairs, and Management & Budget. Having lived in DC in the past, and worked in the American national and international non-profit sector as well as the Federal government, what was most illuminating to me was the transformation of the way in which the business of governance is being conducted. To a person, the officials with whom I met, described a process where listening was giving precedence over talking, where partnership with community leaders was valued above the dictating of regulations, and where the underlying precept is that policy ought to be informed by the expertise of the people who are working in the field rather than implemented in an environment devoid of consultation. Even more staggering was the revelation that the new administration was committed to “preemptive strikes” whereby the problems that crop up in the field can be brought to lawmakers and solutions negotiated before they became poisonous enough to require lawsuits.

And all this transmitted to us by a sea of faces that in color and gender and sexual orientation reflects the awesome diversity of the nation itself. It is true, I suppose, that a country gets the leadership it deserves, and that such leadership is deserved only by a populace willing to do the work of bringing it to being.

Describing the best part of their jobs, the various White House personnel gave us a snapshot of a president as accessible as he is inspiring, but the words of Christina Tchen, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, were particularly evocative:

“Everything you saw in him on the campaign trail is true. His is the amazing marriage of a brilliant mind and the power of the office. He is always the most intelligent and the most thoughtful person in the room. He listens, and when he disagrees, it is with the utmost respect of the person with whom he is disagreeing.”

I will have to write more about the conference itself in another post, but for now I will have to simply say that my delight – in discovering, in person, that the change I worked to make possible in my corner of the country, is coming to fruition – was tempered by the fact that the State Department lead by Hillary Clinton, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Senator Kerry and the Sub-Committee which deals with Sri Lanka, as chaired by Senator Casey, is yet to make a statement that is cognizant of the reality on the ground in Sri Lanka. It seems particularly jarring to me that a president who is known for his desire to know all the facts before he speaks is letting these bodies do the exact opposite. To have people who have never visited the conflict zone in Sri Lanka, or spent any reasonable length of time traveling within the country, put out press releases that run counter to the facts, unpleasant though they may be to take, is a deplorable repetition of the arrogance of the administration they replaced. I would have thought that in light of a new push into Afghanistan, the Obama administration would be more circumspect than that, and that the NYT or the the Washington Post would have had the guts to say what the Washington Times did, just this morning.

Lord knows that I did my best to get the offices of both Casey and Nancy Pelosi to agree to facilitate a multi-ethnic discussion within the Sri Lankan diaspora here. So far, campaign finance contributions appear to have ruled harder than civic engagement, commitment to America’s progress and place in the world and ideological support. Then again, the night is still young. There is such a thing as a learning curve. Perhaps this, too, will pass. I’ll keep y’all posted.

18 April, 2009

Cuba, Berlin, Sri Lanka

The photographs coming out of the Summit of the Americas, to which Cuba may soon return, are heart-warming in more ways than one. The absence of a shifty eyed, inarticulate representative from the United States and the presence of a new president on whom all of the member states, as well as the one absent one, has pinned very high hopes, is perhaps the most glaring of them. The three day summit, has a future-focused theme, that of ‘Securing our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security & Environmental Sustainability,’ all of which are high on the list of the Obama administration, and all of which appear to begin with a new American world view that speaks to listening over dictating, research over ideology and partnership over the flinging down of various and sundry gauntlets and revving up of missiles.

I was also heartened that books are once again on the world stage and chosen as timely gifts. Hugo Chavez is seen rising from the table to hand President Obama a copy of the Eduardo Galeano chronicle on the political interference of Europe and the West in Latin American nations, The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. The American president joked that he had thought it was a book penned by Chavez and that he hoped to give him one of his own, but chances are all those assembled have already read the Obama books – which probably explains at least some of the goodwill cards being placed face up on the table.

President Obama’s commitment to engage with Cuba by making the first overtures of good faith, the removal of restrictions on travel and the transmission of personal funds, elicited an in-kind response from the Cuban leadership to discuss issues which have been closed to negotiation before including human rights. Here is President Obama:

“I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled in overcoming decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day,” Mr. Obama said, adding that he was “prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues — from human rights, free speech, and democratic reform to drugs, migration, and economic issues.”

Here is Raúl Castro, Cuba’s president:

“We are willing to discuss everything, human rights, freedom of press, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about, but as equals, without the smallest shadow cast on our sovereignty, and without the slightest violation of the Cuban people’s right to self-determination.”

Praise for these efforts came from Presidents Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina and President Ortega of Nicaragua. The latter going so far as to express his shame at participating in a summit that did not include Cuba, and said that “I am convinced that wall will collapse, will come down.”

Perhaps there is something in the air, for, even as these events were taking place in Trinidad & Tobago, there was progress afoot in my own home country, Sri Lanka. In an article titled ‘U.S. has a choice: Are you with Tamil Diaspora for united Sri Lanka or with Pro-LTTE voices advocating a divided nation?’ in the Asian Tribune, the writer outlines the efforts of a group of Tamil Sri Lankans from the diaspora who went on a fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka and issued the following statement along with a more comprehensive call for change:

“…One of the members of “Tamil Diaspora for Dialogue” who along with another twenty Tamil expatriates visited Sri Lanka end of March, Mrs. Rajeswari Balasubramaniam, a writer by profession and Human Rights campaigner who lives in the UK said “This is the time for us, Tamils, to rethink anew whether war and destruction is the final solution for Tamils who have lost thousands of them when one looks back after almost 20 years and we Tamils who have borne the brunt of suppression, oppression, battered and bruised over the years must forget the past and think anew. We know that it is not easy to forget the past after what we went through was hell for many years it is not easy but you have to forget the past”.

She asserted “This message is especially for all those members of the Tamil Diaspora who are especially beating the war drums from the cool comfort and safety of their homes in foreign capitals around the world. They must think anew and learn to live in a united Sri Lanka where all could enjoy equal rights”.

Asked what made them to engage in a dialogue of this nature he said “In the overseas Tamil Diaspora the campaign by the LTTE is so negative and exaggerated. The LTTE is trying desperately to convince the foreign leaders and politicians abroad. But we really wanted to come and see what is going on and to speak to the Government leaders of Sri Lanka. Therefore we took part in the dialogue with the representatives of the Government and got the real picture of what is happening with regard to the North and East crisis”.

Dr. Rajasingham Narendran, one of the other participants, spoke at length about the care being given to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in the welfare centers being managed by the government, including the statemetn that, contrary to the propaganda in the U.S., “…almost every one of them is happy with the IDP centers created in Vavuniya. The Government is doing its best to see that the IDPs are safe and looked after well. The people in the IDP centers are happy. There are shops, banks, medical centers, libraries and places of worship within the centers look into their needs.”

There is a lot of work to be done by the Obama administration, and beginning the task of getting accurate information, soothing ruffled feathers and facilitating respectful dialogue between neighbors in its own backyard is understandable and practical. But I hope that the impulse extends to a willingness to support similar efforts by other like-minded people with regard to countries such as Sri Lanka, particularly given that it is now front and center in Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on South Asia and at the United Nations.

I am hopeful. In Europe, the last panels of the Berlin wall are being painted. A beautiful image.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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