Sun, Oct 13, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Sri Lanka booming, but pain of war lives on

Despite the economic boom, Colombo’s hopes of buying off the Tamil ‘separatist struggle’ through development efforts may prove to be short-sighted

By Jason Burke  /  The Guardian, KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka

Instead, he is banking on economic growth and development to convince Tamils to stop “playing the ethnic card” — to quote an UPFA politician in Jaffna.

Few doubt there has been an economic boom. More than twice as many new vehicles were registered in the north in 2011, the last year for which statistics have been released, than were on the roads in 2009. There are also at least twice as many cattle and thousands of hectares of agricultural land, which fell into disuse during the conflict, have been cleared. Many, including the two brothers building their home in Kilinochchi, work as laborers on construction sites.

Conditions for the hundreds of thousands displaced by the fighting have improved, albeit from a very low base. A survey earlier this year by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees revealed 63 percent of recently resettled families had access to a toilet and only one in 25 had to walk more than 500m to find water. More than 160 schools closed during the war are now open.

However, progress is patchy — up to half of respondents in some areas said they had insufficient food — and by some measures, things are worse than before. If rates of infant or maternal mortality in parts of the north have improved, in others, they have risen.

And much of the growth has been spurred by loans, or foreign aid.

“Debt has soared and there are many who can’t pay back,” said Ahilan Kadirgamar, an economic analyst in Jaffna.

One debtor is Sanmugam Sivalingam, who borrowed 465,000 rupees (US$3,510) to buy a rickshaw 18 months ago. Waiting at the train station in Kilinochchi, he said he made only 700 rupees on a good day and, with monthly repayments of US$160, he often goes hungry.

The government is also banking on war weariness among the northern Tamils to buy time for its strategy to buy off separatist sentiment with development to work. Though few in the north admit it, there was deep disaffection with Tigers at the end of the conflict. Forced conscription of one man — or often woman — per household disillusioned even the most loyal. Witnesses describe how thousands of Tiger cadres threw away their weapons and joined civilians.

However, there is now a growing nostalgia for the Tigers, a veteran Tamil rights activist in Jaffna said.

“The war should have ended six months before it did, with thousands of lives saved. There was nothing heroic about the final days, but that is the legend now being spread. It is an insult to all those who died,” he said, on condition of anonymity.

Rhetoric during the campaign for last month’s poll recalled an earlier era, observers say, with talk of the “martyrs” and praise for Velupillai Prabhakaran, the dead leader of the LTTE, who was responsible for the many murders of Tamils as well as Sinhalese, as “a resistance leader.”

For people like Ananthi Sasitharan, the war may have been lost, but the struggle, as the newly elected provincial councilor calls it, is far from over.

Her husband was a Tamil Tiger leader and among the hundreds, possibly thousands, who went missing after surrendering at the end of the war in May 2009 and who, campaigners say, were summarily executed by soldiers.

She entered politics to find out what happened to him.

“I am not alone. We are many who are searching for our husbands. We do not want another armed struggle, but during the LTTE time [in power] we had a very happy life. So the political struggle must go on,” Sasitharan said.

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