I was back in the Eastern Province last week after an absence of over three years. Before that, since I was told 30 years ago by the British Council to manage a furniture project for schools initiated by the British government after the Indo-Lankan Accord, I had been a constant visitor there.

Though the scope of the project had to be changed when the Tigers renewed hostilities, we kept working in Amparai, for large areas of that District were comparatively safe. I then set up English language improvement projects in schools, for which the English Association received support from Canadians and Australians. Much of this however was in the Sinhala dominated west of the District, since the other parts were not thought safe. Indeed even to access Amparai itself we had to go through several checkpoints, while the roads were appalling and travel very slow.

Those problems persisted for twenty years, even when it became possible to get to the coastal areas. This was for the pre-University GELT project, when I managed to visit all the centres in the East, including the one in Tirukkovil which was an area dominated by the Tigers in the mid-nineties. I still recall the soldier at the checkpoint telling me cheerfully that I could go to Tirukkovil, but he could not say if I could get back. The car firm I used in those days refused to go to Batticaloa, and I had to hire vans in Buttala for the purpose.

In the early nineties I had also to look after English at all the Affiliated University Colleges, which included the South Eastern one that had two locations, in Akkaraipattu and in Samanthurai. That was turned into the South Eastern University, with its main campus further south at Oluvil. I was asked to look after the English programme there, and we developed a suitable course, taught initially by one of my brightest students from Sabaragamuwa, which I would check on constantly.

The checkpoints continued throughout those days, even though the writ of the LTTE was being confined to ever smaller areas. And one always worried on the long stretches between checkpoints on the Amparai-Mahaoya road even after it had been opened to traffic. Memories of the Aranthalawa massacre, when 30 novice monks were dragged off a bus and killed, along with some older monks and laymen, always recurred as one passed the area, even though this had taken place before the Indo-Lankan Accord.

All those dangers are now forgotten. When I read declarations that we should be thankful that the era of white vans is over, I wonder whether the writers remember the threat of terrorism that hung over us for a quarter of a century before the Rajapaksa government eliminated it. That does not mean that they should have rested complacent thereafter, and what happened to Lasantha Wickramatunga and Prageeth Ekneligoda remain blots that required inquiry and remedial action – let alone the appalling shootings at Rathupaswela. But while it made sense to work towards change at the end of 2014, we should not ignore the enormous positive achievements of the Rajapaksa government, which made Sri Lanka a safer place for the people as a whole.

And there is more that I was reminded of in my return to the East, driving swiftly and smoothly along excellent roads. Progress had been agonizingly slow in the old days as one negotiated pot-holes even on the main thoroughfares. The development of that long neglected province had been remarkable, not just in terms of roads and electrification, but also in efforts at human resources development, as I saw in the new Vocational Training Centres I visited.

More could have been done, as I kept pointing out in my reports following the Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings that were my main reason for visiting the Province after the end of the war. Water I wrote about constantly, the absence of a policy to control excess as well as shortages. But though little was done about that then, the same is true now. And such lapses should not take away from the notable improvements in people’s lives in the preceding period.

Ceylon Today 7 Feb 2018