by:Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
“The conditions prevailing in the Eastern Province are much better now than one year ago seemed to be the consensus of representative sections of the community in Batticaloa” said Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, Secretary General, Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) at a press briefing held on Monday 7th July at (SCOPP). Mr. C.S. Poolokasingham, Deputy Secretary General of SCOPP, also participated in the briefing and addressed the media in Tamil and provided clarifications as needed.
Officials from SCOPP had traveled in the Eastern Province during a full week, meeting public officials and security personnel, including Civil Affairs Officers, religious leaders and members of Civil Society. Meetings with the latter were arranged through the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies and facilitated by District Secretaries (and the Divisional Secretary in Muttur) who had also as requested made arrangements for meetings with educationists, including Vice-Chancellors and principals. The delegation also visited a camp for Internally Displaced Persons in Batticaloa, a Vocational Training Centre run by Sarvodaya with assistance from USAID, a Computer Training Centre in Muttur in a church which had served as a centre for refugees during the LTTE attack on Muttur in 2006, and a proposed Rehabilitation Centre for former combatants.
The meetings had included discussions about current problems as well as initiatives that might be taken in the future to develop confidence in the peace process as well as job opportunities and appropriate training to fast forward the full participation of the province in the development process.
The press briefing also witnessed the launch of the SCOPP Quarterly Newsletter (April – June 2008) the second in the new series, and the publication ‘Pursuing Peace, Fighting Falsehood’ which carried releases over the last year issued by the Secretariat. Whilst these dealt to a great extent with the countering of misinformation that would adversely affect the restoration of peace and democratic pluralism, the Quarterly Newsletter highlighted positive developments in this connection.
A range of articles provided various perspectives on the unfolding of democracy and the empowerment of people in the East through initiatives such as local government elections, the restoration of normalcy to passenger transport services, and private sector input into Eastern Development. The newsletter also included the statement of the Secretary General at the general debate on the Annual Report of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, as well as a profile of Ms. Sivageetha Prabhakaran, Mayoress of Batticaloa. A tragic note however was sounded by the statement on the murder by the LTTE of Maheshwari Velayutham, Human Rights Activist and member of the APRC which is facilitated by SCOPP.
Prof. Wijesinha stated that discussions held in the East focused on areas of concern voiced by the people, and mentioned suggestions regarding possible solutions to problems. Significant points made included
Deficiencies in education, including shortages of teachers, in particular in English, Maths and Science – Innovative solutions included the proposal of principals of three different small schools in Muttur, catering respectively to Muslim, Tamil and Sinhala students. They came up with a joint proposal that the schools should be brought together as an English medium school, which would help with the problem of teacher shortages in each, while providing a more productive education to the children. It was agreed that training programmes to develop English medium proficiency in Tamil and Sinhala medium teachers could be useful, whilst programmes to provide three languages and mathematics for school leavers could be started. In all three districts all religious leaders agreed that this was a positive approach which they would be happy to organize if assistance were available.
A lack of opportunity for interaction that could contribute to ethnic harmony – a Sinhala medium school in Trincomalee noted an arrangement made with a Tamil medium school to share a cricket coach. This type of initiative could be promoted on a large scale, whereby schools were twinned to bring together students of different communities to engage in extra-curricular activities on weekends. These could also include study programmes, for subjects such as English or even Mathematics, which were less rooted in a particular language. Again, religious leaders were positive about such an idea, and it was agreed that community based initiatives that stressed joint approaches would be able to secure appropriate funding
Deficiencies in communication networks – This needed to be remedied promptly, to promote trade as well as integration. It was however noted and appreciated that this was a priority for government, and the assistance of donors such as Japan, France and the United States was recognized
IDPs – The need for better information dissemination was noted with regard to the few IDPs who remained, after the comparatively successful resettlement programme with regard to the recently displaced. Some concerns about resettlement were laid at rest, with the concurrence of the UNHCR representatives who were present. It was noted however that more needed to be done about earlier IDPs, who were also to be seen in the Polonnaruwa District, with little consideration having been extended to them in earlier times. It was noted that a workshop to find durable solutions was planned for later in the year.
Encouragement of local initiatives – It was pointed out that facilities for non-formal education were lacking, the Trincomalee District Secretary noting for instance that youngsters from the area had to travel miles to obtain Computer Training. It was agreed that private investors should be encouraged to develop such training centres, to mutual benefit, since travel time and expense would be saved.
Health services – At a discussion held with the Municipal Council of Batticaloa, where members of all political parties were able to express their views, it was noted that Batticaloa had only a single National Hospital. It was however recognized that immediate action by the state was not possible, in a context of commitments islandwide and the reluctance of personnel to serve. However, it was noted that the Council could also take initiatives to establish Health Centres, on the model being followed elsewhere in the world where alternatives to state supplies were considered. Such Centres could reduce the burden on the National network, to ensure even better delivery of services to the needy. It was agreed that one of the purposes of devolution was to develop local initiatives, and communities should generate such ideas in all fields.
Restrictions on fishing – Several questions were raised about this in both Trincomalee and Muttur, and clarifications were provided by the Civil Affairs Officer. It was agreed that the security forces had made several attempts to reduce restrictions, but in view of increased terrorist threats, precautions were necessary. It was recognized however that, unlike for instance during the time of the IPKF, when restrictions were imposed for 24 hours of the day, 7 days a week, understandably so in view of the tremendous threat to a foreign force acting in support of the national government, today the national security forces did their best to ensure that the livelihood of citizens was not interrupted unduly. It was however agreed that regulations should be reviewed regularly and notified clearly, with efforts to avoid delays due to bureaucratic constraints. Some concerns raised by NGO representatives were laid at rest by representatives of the fishing community, who said that, whilst there had been some delays earlier, these no longer obtained.
Human Rights violations – concerns were raised about abductions as well as difficulties in the course of regular security checks. It was noted however that by and large these latter were conducted with sensitivity, but nevertheless there were exceptions which caused hurt and worry. These were registered and, in addition to officers noting the need to ensure conformity to best practice, it was agreed that more training should be provided as possible. With regard to abductions, it was noted that there was uncertainty with regard both to perpetrators and motives. This made even more clear the need for police to investigate thoroughly, and issue reports that made clear the status of individual cases. It was noted for instance that, with regard to a sensational allegation of rape in Akkaraipattu, not only had the matter not been reported to the police, but it had not come to the attention of any hospital. Whilst the former could be explained as due to diffidence, that was not a credible explanation for the latter failure, especially as the alleged diffidence had not prevented a detailed complaint being allegedly made to a Colombo newspaper. The failure of that newspaper to substantiate the claim, in spite of appeals by the police, suggested that at least some complaints were entirely fictional. In this context it was necessary to note that, during the entire operation by the Army to liberate the East, there had not been a single allegation of rape, and this was a mark of the effectiveness of training and discipline in recent years.
In response to questions raised by the press and electronic media representatives on the current state of the Peace Process, Prof. Wijesinha made the following observations:Ceasefire Agreement
The question of a renewal of the Ceasefire Agreement kept recurring, it seemed because of what were reported as statements to the media by the LTTE. It was noted that there was, as far as he knew, no formal request from the LTTE made direct to the government or through the Norwegian facilitator for talks.
The government could not respond to such reports, in a context in which the last formal communications from the LTTE had been to break off talks in October 2006, whilst messages sent then through the Norwegians had indicated that talks were not possible. In the event of any proposal being made by the LTTE the government, which had always been ready for discussions, was not prepared to abandon its current movements towards political solutions and durable peace through interaction with other stakeholders such as democratic pluralist Tamil parties. The idea that the LTTE was the sole representatives of the Tamils was not acceptable.
It had also to be noted that the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, as with previous such Agreements, had not been observed by the LTTE, and indeed the claim had been made that its main purpose was to increase confidence. Ceasefire however meant Ceasefire as far as the government was concerned, and therefore it needed guarantees, such as through the laying down of arms which other such movements had agreed to in serious peace processes, before such an Agreement could be entered into. It was also noted that, contrary to the provisions of the 2002 Agreement, negotiations had not been taken seriously, and therefore it was desirable that there should be a clear roadmap as to the commitment of the LTTE to talks and a democratic political solutions.
(Courtesy : SCOPP )