Friday, September 25, 2009

Sri Lanka: A village overcomes the ravages of war and disaster

By IPS Correspondents

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS ) copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

Coastal Village Rises Up from Ravages of War, Disaster

VAKARAI, Sri Lanka, Sep 25 (IPS) - Vakarai is a dust bowl of a village, right at the edge of the coast in Sri Lanka’s east. The last three decades have not been too good for this fishing village — located about 300 kilometres east of the capital Colombo — and its inhabitants, mostly from the minority Tamil community.

From war and disaster to a state of normalcy, this village of about two thousand inhabitants has come full circle. But that is getting ahead of the story.

Since the late 1990s the village had been caught in fighting between the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government forces. The latter was in control of the village from the late 1990s till January 2007, when they were finally dislodged by government forces.

It was slowly recovering from the devastation of the war, thanks to the 2002 peace accord between the government and the Tamil secessionist group when the tsunami hit in December 2004. Massive waves struck Vakarai while houses along the beach, some constructed after 2002, were pulverised. Villagers burnt dead bodies right in the beach, because transporting them over waterlogged sandy areas proved impossible.

The Vakarai hospital stood witness to the village’s interminable sufferings. It was reconstructed after the peace accord and was to be commissioned in February 2005 when the waves swept in. Vakarai did receive a fair amount of immediate and long-term assistance – a group of doctors and other medical specialists from Italy was deployed to the half-destroyed hospital for about five months after the tsunami. And Italian help was also forthcoming to rebuild the destroyed main school at Vakarai.

But the village’s woes were just beginning. It was located right on the main fault line that had broken the LTTE in half in the east. Fissures soon erupted between the main faction and the breakaway Karuna bloc, led by the former Tiger eastern military head, Vinayagamurthi Muralitharan, better known by his Tiger-given nom de guerre, Karuna.

In late 2006 Sri Lankan government forces commenced a multi-pronged operation to gain control of Vakarai. As the fighting grew, reconstruction efforts slowed down, and then ground to a halt, like the Italian-funded school development project. By late January 2007, Tigers were driven out of Vakarai.

The battle for Vakarai was a watershed in Sri Lankan military history, as it was the first occasion that government troops moved on the Tigers on multiple fronts simultaneously. The same strategy would continue, albeit with far greater number of troops in the north, and played vital role in the defeat of the Tigers completely by May 2009.

Today Vakarai boasts another first — this time far removed from the guns and shells, and closer to what lies ahead.

A sense of relief was palpable among the village folk as Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa opened the new Vakarai main school on Sep. 22. The facility was reconstructed from the 300-million Sri Lankan rupee (2.6 million U.S. dollars) assistance package from the European Union, with the International Organization for Migration as the implementing partner.

Government ministers, who attended the opening ceremony, hailed the school reconstruction project as an example of the untapped potential of Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged northeast and how international assistance could help speed up reconstruction.

Minister of Investment Promotion G.L. Peiris said the school was just one example of the opportunities for development and investments now that conflict had ended. "Sri Lanka today is a land of opportunity," he said at the opening of the school.

"This reconstruction work on one of the largest schools in the Eastern Province is a commendable example of international cooperation, together with the participation of government, non-government and community organisations irrespective of ethnic or religious differences," said Rajapaksa.

Bernard Savage, Ambassador of the Delegation of the European Commission to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, said that the school was an example of the long-standing friendship between the European Union and Sri Lanka.

That friendship between Sri Lanka and the EU will in all likelihood be severely tested in the next three months. The South Asian island state has applied for an extension of the concessionary trade facility known as Generalised System of Preference Plus (GSP +) and there is quite bit of anxiety over it. Things remain uncertain if the EU will grant the concession.

GSP + allows goods from 176 developing countries into the EU under reduced traffic rates for a limited period of three years. Sri Lanka has applied for an extension of the concessions that it already enjoys. "The primary objective of the GSP is to contribute to the reduction of poverty and the promotion of sustainable development and good governance," said the EU in a press statement.

The 300-billion Sri Lankan rupee (3.4 billion U.S. dollars) local apparel industry is anxious about unconfirmed reports that the concession would be withheld due to human rights concerns by the EU. The EU has already submitted a report on the extension process to the Sri Lankan government. Neither the report nor its contents have been made public by either party.

Earlier this month Export Development Ministry secretary S. Ranugge was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying that the report was not favourable. "The report is very adverse and GSP +is very unlikely. If the report is favourable, you can keep hope. The reaction of the EU is not that favourable," he said. The comment immediately created a firestorm within an already jittery industry.

Over at Vakarai, there are hardly any jitters. The people are still savouring the peace and quiet that has finally descended on their village. The future has never looked brighter, and this perhaps bodes well for the rest of the nation.

Published by Mike Hitchen i On Global Trends, world news, analysis, opinion
Putting principles before profits