Soldiers clearing up a kovil for the Thai Pongal festival

In the long hard haul that the process of resettlement has entailed, perhaps the most remarkable factor is the role played by the military. After the enormous effort involved in defeating the LTTE, there was no respite for the soldiers. Instead they have continued to work at a level of intensity that is sadly not recognized.

Indeed the opposite has been true, not only in terms of the relentless international pressure with regard to what are termed war crimes, but also through insidious opposition to any role at all for the military in the situation following the military conflict. This is astonishing, for in most countries the military has a significant role to play in disaster management, and indeed many training programmes are conducted around the world to develop their capacities in this regard and to ensure productive liaison with civil authorities.

In Sri Lanka, despite numerous complaints, the military has performed a magnificient role in promoting peace and reconciliation, as well as in conflict. Both serving generals who functioned as Competent Authorities with regard to the Vavuniya Welfare Centres worked more intensively than I suspect any civilian would have done. General Chandrasiri was instrumental in ensuring that land was cleared and structures set up to accommodate the more than hundred thousand who sought refuge in April, and then an almost similar amount in May. I have been present when, after an arduous day, he set off at sunset to supervise more clearing, when the international agencies who had previously thought they had to run things wilted, and claimed they were obliged not to stay out after dark.

His successor has been equally efficient in ensuring swift returns once the security clearances were accomplished. His counterparts in the other districts of the North, and their staff, have worked tirelessly to provide necessities and more to the people in their charge. It was they, when security concerns were raised despite the clearing that had taken place in Vavuniya, who took responsibility for expediting returns, and their faith has been justified in the smooth progress thus far.

Above all they have understood that, having done the difficult part, of fighting an implacable enemy in tough terrain, they should not fail in the relatively easy part, which is winning the peace. In this regard the efforts they are making to win hearts and minds are extraordinary. All over the Wanni, soldiers are helping the newly returned to build their houses, in some cases doing all the work themselves while women and children provide only very basic assistance. They have helped to get the schools ready, provide transport in some places, and even gift exercise books themselves to the children. They are also sensitive to other needs, and I saw them for instance helping to tidy up in a kovil, to have it ready for Thai Pongal in the middle of January.

They are doing all this while still continuing to maintain vigil, sometimes in thick jungle. In theory there is not much danger now, but the number of arms caches they find in their mopping up operations makes clear the need for continuing vigilance. And of course they are also involved in demining operations, where they set the pace for previously slow international agencies.

Meanwhile they are also in charge of the rehabilitation centres, where one could see deep commitment and concern. I still recall the Canadian citizen I met in one of them in July, he who used to go clubbing in Cuba before he came to visit relations and, as he claimed to foreign reporters, was conscripted by force. He said that he was at last able to discuss serious issues with the lieutenant in charge of his camp, an intellectual exercise he had missed in the previous year. Conversely the young ladies in charge of the camp for girls had to act as surrogate mothers too, given that a number of their charges had been pregnant, and gave birth after they had surrendered themselves.

The Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights has been working with the military over the last couple of years through the Civil Military Liaison Teams, which were set up as part of the Confidence Building and Stabilization Measures Project which is assisted by UNHCR. Regular meetings are held at district and divisional level, to raise and try to iron out problems, and also to provide assistance that might help in the buiding up of the confidence that is essential for peace. The Project has very limited funding, but this has been deployed in different ways in different districts to help bring people together.

In some places the Project assists with schemes to provide water that will enable people of different communities to work together. One district has concentrated on school visits, bringing children of different communities on visits to Colombo, a capital they had not previously seen, and then encouraging interactions amongst them. Two districts, one in the North and one in the East, have worked on language training programmes. In another area the Project provides training for women for income generation through palmyra products.

None of these programmes is large in scope, but they are significant because they encourage the building up of partnerships, and have been formulated after consultation. In many areas the military personnel have taken the lead, and their understanding of the ground situation has proved invaluable. But the work we do with them is merely the tip of a largely hidden iceberg, and the vast amounts they do in all the areas in which they are stationed goes largely unrecognized. Fortunately, in reviewing the progress of the returns, I was able last week to note the extraordinary levels of attention being paid to promote the welfare and the dignity of those who had been displaced. I can only hope that, when full civilian administrators return to these areas, they will be able to provide the same level of commitment as senior officers as well as small platoons have shown to the villagers in their care.

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