To return to the fears of resurgent terrorism in the North, this would seem preposterous given the patent relief of the majority of the Tamil people that the terrorism to which they were subject is over, a fact the military obviously recognizes. But at the same time it is clear that the people in the North have aspirations that are not being addressed, and this contributes to resentments that could be taken advantage of. Instead then of actions that could contribute to further resentments, the Secretary of Defence should rather work on those who have not only failed to overcome resentments, but have contributed to exacerbating them. Many of the better informed military personnel in the North understand this, and are at a loss to understand the myopia of government in this regard. But sadly, excellent politician though he is, the President will not put his mind seriously to the problem that has arisen in the last few years, and the Secretary of Defence has not produced comprehensive intelligence reports that assess the real reasons for resentment.
The resentment of the people was apparent in the massive vote against government at the recent election to the Northern Provincial Council. The President knew that he would not win the election, and I suspect this was true of everyone in government, even though the Minister of Economic Development, who had been entrusted with the government’s Northern policy, kept claiming that the government would do well. Indeed his belief seems to have been sincere, since the resentment he displayed after the results came in suggested that he was deeply upset at the total failure of his strategy. It was he, the President had told Dayan, who had insisted that the poll be postponed, on the grounds that the work he was doing would win popular favour, whereas the Secretary of Defence had been willing to have the election much earlier. It should be noted then that the Secretary’s opposition to holding the election last year was based on practicalities, the certainty of loss, rather than intrinsic opposition to a Northern Provincial Council, which he had sensibly enough thought should have been constituted earlier. But sadly his reaction to awareness of increasing unpopularity was not to ensure measures to reduce that unpopularity, but to try to sweep it under the carpet by even going to the extent of challenging the President when he made it clear that he intended to abide by his commitment to have the election.
That the Secretary was right to have wanted to have the election earlier is apparent from the results of preceding elections in the North. In the first set of local elections government actually won some local authorities. In the Wanni, government actually came close to winning in two of the three areas that polled, and in one the combined poll for government parties exceeded that of the Tamil National Alliance.
What went wrong? It is absolutely shocking that government has not studied this phenomenon. In any country which took election results seriously, the Minister of Economic Development would have resigned, or at least given up his monopolistic control of development activities in the North. In Sri Lanka all that happened was that his effort to block development aid to the area, in what seemed a fit of pique, was stopped by the President’s personal intervention, and he continues in charge of implementation activities. No efforts have been made to correct course after the fiasco of the election results, and also the disappointment of the recent Southern election. Instead the President seems to have been convinced that yet more elections are the answer, even though it is clear that he is the only asset the government possesses, and that alone will not be enough if the performance of others in authority multiplies resentments. Certainly, given the absence of a credible alternative, the President will doubtless win an advanced Presidential election easily but, even with the prestige factor of such a victory, he will find it increasingly difficult to govern productively in the future.
It is a pity then that he has not established a think tank to explore the reasons for the decline in government popularity in the North. It would not take rocket science to understand that resentments have developed because of what are perceived as top down policies, that also fail to take into account the day to day concerns of people. It is astonishing, for instance, that Human Resources Development has been largely neglected in the North, even though it was apparent to anyone who bothered to think that there was a crying need for education and training, given the need to ensure not just economic development but also economic activity on the part of the populace.
I have written about this at length, following frequent visits to the North and East, but unfortunately the President has no mechanisms whereby the suggestions of his Advisers are studied and digested and implemented as appropriate. At the same time the Line Ministries are starved of funds – as indeed Ministers have complained, one even going so far as to say that the Ministry of Economic Development was eroding the responsibilities of every Ministry. So the recognition that Value Addition was vital for Agriculture only went as far as the declaration that 2013 was to be the year of Value Addition but, as the Minister confessed, nothing was done about this.
Vocational Training is hardly off the ground yet, even though that Minister assured me in 2010 that he would take this forward – but all his officials could tell me, when we discussed the matter at a consultation that the International Organization for Migration had arranged, though I fear a couple of years after I had first suggested such meetings, was that there were plans to set up a German Technical Institute in Kilinochchi. This is an admirable idea but, while such a large scale project was pending, arrangements could have been made to set up small centres in every Division. The figures the authorities gave us at COPE indicate how little has been done in an area which would have helped considerably in developing skills to take the area forward while also winning hearts and minds.
I have done a small amount myself, in setting up five centres in the Wanni through my decentralized budget. One Divisional Secretary told me that I had allocated much more for his Division than any other Parliamentarian, from government or opposition, and I found how true this was when I was sent the schedule of work in Mullaitivu for 2013. In the area west of the A 9, which is comparatively neglected in a comparatively neglected District, mine were the only projects to promote sustainable development, with a million rupees each for two training centres. Meanwhile my colleagues in government have, in one Division, given a total of I think 95,000 rupees, in small bits that buy uniforms for school bands or repair a school fence. In mitigation though, one of them, who was invited to open the centre, has agreed to do more in this field this year.
Sadly, no one had bothered to educate him in the sort of work he should be doing instead of just responding to trivial requests. Of course I realize that he has to win elections but, because government is so weak about planning and coordination, an opportunity for winning votes whilst also providing for a better future for the people of the area has been lost. And, while I have no objection to him getting credit for work done with my funds, given that I am not in competition with him, I can only hope that he will learn from what he saw. But I fear that politics has turned into sound bites and fury, with no planning through consultation of people’s needs.
This was even more apparent in the islands of the Jaffna District where government had won control of some local authorities. I had initially concentrated on the Wanni, so it was only in 2013 that I made sure I covered all Divisions in Jaffna. What I found was deeply upsetting. Clearly those who had won election had done nothing for the people. It was only an enterprising Divisional Secretary who had begun vocational training in Kayts, whilst in Delft the only sensible initiative with regard to employment had been taken by the navy, which had trained several girls and then set up a factory to make uniforms.
Nothing had been done for the boys. When I asked, in what was predominantly a fishing area, what happened when their boats had mechanical problems, they told me that they had to be taken to Jaffna for repair. No one had thought, as had been done by the Agency to which I had entrusted the Vocational Training Centres I had set up the previous year in the eastern part of Mullaitivu, to train youngsters in engine repair. This would have provided lucrative employment whilst also saving the people of Delft much time and money. But in a context in which no one thought of anything, I need not have been surprised – and I was not entirely surprised when, a few months later, the Chairman of the Authority was killed in what was evidently a crime of passion involving the man, from his own party, who had just been made leader of the opposition in the Provincial Council.
Why government had relied on such people I cannot understand. When I was discussing this matter with the military, they told me that they had advised government to select people of standing in the community, but it seems that their advice like mine was ignored. And, contrary to popular belief, the decisions were made not by the military, but by the Minister of Economic Development, who had decided to go along with the recommendations of the politicians whose support he thought invaluable. Despite this, government had done well in some elections earlier. But nothing was done after that to ensure that the people benefited from having a local authority able to work with government, nothing was done to ensure that those who were elected actually worked actively for the people they had been chosen to represent.
Symptomatic of the whole mess I suppose is my old friend Rishard Bathiudeen, who had been Minister of Resettlement when I headed the Peace Secretariat, and whom I had found it easy to work with then. Obviously he felt obliged to advance the interests of the Muslims who had been driven from the North by the LTTE, but this was understandable in a context in which the old displaced population was comparatively neglected. He looks after them still, which is also understandable. But he does this now as Minister of Industries, while he seems to have contributed nothing to developing Industries, in the North or anywhere else. But I don’t suppose anyone would be surprised at this, given that no one could imagine there was any reason to appoint him Minister of Industries, a position held by senior politicians such as Maithripala Senanayake and Philip Gunawardena and T B Subasinghe and C V Gooneratne, except that the Minister of Economic Development saw him as a subservient ally.
But, while what he contributes in this position is debatable, he has not been able to contribute formally to the welfare of his people. He has therefore had to work in subtle ways, which have contributed to increasing unpopularity for the government, whilst he himself feels badly let down, as he now makes clear. For, in the absence of clear policies with regard to Resettlement, what was given to people was seen as ad hoc, and obviously this leads to bitter complaints when some people get much while others are deprived.
I understood something of what was going on when there were complaints in Mullaitivu about Muslims being given large amounts of land there. It was explained by a member of Rishard’s party, when I brought the matter up, that extra was being given because there had been natural increase in the numbers of the Muslims driven away by the LTTE. But my point was that government should not be thinking about double compensation as it were, until all the displaced had received single compensation. And sadly I later found that some of the strongest complaints against Rishard were made by Muslims who did not have his patronage, and thought that those who did were getting excessive benefits, having already received housing in Puttalam – where he and President Rajapaksa’s first government had done wonders in finally delivering some decent benefits to those who had been grossly neglected since the LTTE expelled them way back in 1990.
Interestingly enough, Rishard recently made the point himself about the need to settle the needs of the displaced first, before moving on to other settlement projects. This was with regard to the settlement of Sinhalese from the South which is now taking place in some areas in the North, a phenomenon to which my attention was first drawn by the Sinhalese of Vavuniya South, who were deeply resentful. Their point was that their needs should have been addressed first, and those of their offspring, before new people were brought it. They added that priority should also be given to Tamils and Muslims from the area who had suffered during the war, and that bringing in new settlers was a great mistake.
Rishard mentioned that government felt the best way of promoting reconciliation was to have Sinhalese and Tamil and Muslim villages contiguous to each other. This is a plausible supposition, but obviously it is absurd to start implementing this before there is careful discussion and the formulation of clear government policy in this regard, with attention paid to ensuring that such programmes do not foster animosity rather than fellow feeling. And surely more important is to ensure that races can mix together freely, which would mean getting rid of our segregationist education policies and also promoting active communication by entrenching bilingualism if not trilingualism. But little seems to be being done about such matters, and the relevant Line Ministries are starved of funds for such initiatives. Instead the priority seems to be to implement ad hoc measures for which funding goes through either the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of Economic Development, or the Presidential Task Force for the North.
With such activities going on, without transparency, it is no wonder that resentments are increasing. If then those elements that wish to revive the LTTE feel optimistic, government will have only itself to blame. The Secretary of Defence has studied the literature on the subject, and knows that fish will swim only if the pool nurtures them. It is sad then that he does not argue for more inclusive policies that will build on the basic dislike for the LTTE and its terrorism evinced by the vast majority of the Northern population. He at least should have commissioned a study of what changed between previous elections, when government did relatively well, and last year’s poll. To blame it on the diaspora alone is myopic, and can only lead to further disasters.