Trincomalee has always struck me as a magical place, and I have often wondered whether we might not all have been much better off had President Jayewardene moved the capital there rather than ten miles down the road from Colombo to a place that had no merit, even in his eyes, except for its name. And, even if that idea might be fanciful, our failure over nearly half a decade to develop decent communications, to improve connections between the different areas of Sri Lanka, has struck me as a mark of monumental foolishness, which certainly contributed to the spread of resentment and then terror.
The government now seems to have realized that, and its programme of connectivity is perhaps the most important of the development projects it has undertaken. This is not to say that some previous governments did not take steps in the right direction, as most remarkably for instance with the development of the road to Dambulla, which contributed to the expansion of both that city and Kurunagala. But such projects have been bitty, and it is only during the last four years that there has been expansion and improvement of the road network nationally on a concerted basis.
Much work has been done in the East, as I noticed through the difference in the time it took me to travel last year, as opposed to in 2008. So too work has proceeded apace in the North, more quickly than I had anticipated, with new roads as well as repairs to old ones. I was also pleased to note that the railway has been targeted for swift reconstruction. But it was also satisfying that, finally, an effort is being made to improve the road from Kandy eastward to Mahiyangana, and then onward to Padiyatalawa, where it joins the A 5. This last, which goes from Peradeniya to Chenkaladi via Nuwara Eliya and Badulla and Bibile, had been hopelessly neglected for years, in spite of its place in the hierarchy, but it is now a joy to travel on for much of its length. With luck the whole will be brought up to standard very soon, so that we will be able to reach the East swiftly through a range of different routes.
So too with regard to power, where there has been a process of rapid electrification nationwide. I still remember one of the most intelligent diplomats we had here telling me in 2001, just before the election which brought the UNP in briefly, that he had never seen a country go down so rapidly as Sri Lanka had done in the three years he had been here. I could understand his despair, given that we had just suffered the attack on Katunayake, but I still thought his view exaggerated, and asked him what he meant. His answer was lengthy, but what sticks in my mind was his irritation that the government had proceeded with neither Norochcholai nor Kotmale. It was ridiculous, he said, to talk of moving forward in the modern world, if you had no idea how you were going to have enough power to function.
I assumed then that a UNP government would do better about taking the hard decisions necessary, and that was one reason why I voted for them in 2001. But they did nothing, and it was only recently that measures long overdue were implemented. Thankfully, we also managed to get rid of the Tigers, so that the benefits of these programmes can be extended to the country as a whole. Of course further hard decisions will have to be made if sustained development is to take place, but at least we have evidence that this is possible, and even in the midst of a long, hard struggle against terror.
The people are certainly ready to benefit from this. The entrepreneurial spirit I had noticed in Jaffna, and even amongst the recently resettled in the Wanni, is alive and active in the East. The shops are better stocked than even six months earlier, though my impressions may also have been enhanced by the carnival that was taking place in Trincomalee in celebration of Pongal. The noise was cacophonous, the colours vivid. My mind went back to a similar event in Jaffna at the end of 2008, but that, the ‘Future Minds Exhibition’, had been arranged by the army. It was a bold and successful step, but it had required external organization. Here, in Trincomalee, while everyone seemed to have helped, the effort seemed indigenous, a normal event at a festive moment rather than something special.
This was a far cry from Morawewa, where again resettlement has been proceeding, though more slowly in terms of numbers than in the North. This is because we are dealing here with what are termed old IDPs, in this case very old ones, who had been chased away in the eighties. One man had gone away in 1983, had sought refuge with friends, but was now back with his wife, and a daughter who had been a mere child then. Another woman left and came back, and then left again after her husband was killed. Two of her children had returned with her, the others were married and settled elsewhere. She was crying as she told me the story.
I remembered, as I listened, one of the most graphic lessons I had been taught about the suffering in those regions from which we were so insulated then in Colombo. While monitoring the British furniture project, I had rather officiously complained to a principal that his students were asleep in class. The response was that they had spent the night in the jungle for fear of terrorist attacks.
It was wonderful then that these people had come back, after so very long. The Divisional Secretary – who claimed to remember me from a visit to his GELT class in Galle fifteen years ago – said that many people could no longer be traced. Conversely, some who turned up had to be sent away, not because they had no papers – that was not uncommon – but because no one in the village could remember them. The need to guard against fraud was clearly as worrying as the imperative to support people who had remained deprived for so long, with little concern about their problems, and no sign for so long of an end to the terror that had driven them away.
Now the terror was over and, though the process of return was complex, it clearly seemed worth it. The people were proud of the fertility of their land, and water was now plentiful though we were told the tanks required much to be done if they were to survive the dry season. Other facilities were minimal, but the village seemed full of optimism. Hearteningly, they were engaged in shramadana at the Divisional Secretariat, the least they could do, they said, for the support they were getting from officials.
Walter Kalin, the UN Special Representative on the Rights of the Displaced, had reminded us, while visiting the recently displaced, that we should not forget the old IDPs in all the emotions that were circulating with regard to the new. It was good then to see that they had not been neglected and that, while almost all the new IDPs in the East had been resettled within two years, the much older backlog was also being systematically and sympathetically cleared.