We have pumped $ 6 bl. To North and East says GL
An exclusive interview with GL Peiris:September 22, 2012, 5:56 pm
BY S VENKAT NARAYAN
Our Special Correspondent
NEW DELHI, September 22: Sri Lanka has pumped $6 billion or LKR 788 billion into its civil war-ravaged Northern and Eastern Provinces since the bloody ethnic war ended in May 2009, and they are experiencing an "economic renaissance."
This was stated by External Affairs Minister Prof Gamini Lakshman Peiris in an hour-long exclusive interview to this correspondent in New Delhi’s Taj Palace Hotel on Thursday, followed by a telephone conversation on Saturday morning before he flew back home. (He was in India with President Mahinda Rajapaksa for talks with President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, and to attend the laying of foundation for the Sanchi Buddhist and India Studies University in Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh in central India).
"Since the bloody war with the LTTE ended in May 2009, a staggering sum of six billion dollars has been into pumped into the two provinces that were battered for three decades due to the war to breathe a fresh lease of life into them. And they are now experiencing what I wish to call an Economic Renaissance," Prof Peiris declared.
The impact of such a large investment has been impressive: The Northern Province is witnessing an annual growth of a record 22 per cent and the Eastern Province 16 per cent as against Sri Lanka’s national average of eight per cent, the minister said.
During 2009-11, the Sri Lankan government invested $2,930 million or LKR 385 billion in the North and $3 billion or LKR 394 billion in the East. These amounts include the assistance provided by India for rehabilitation and reconstruction activities in the two provinces. In addition, 38 of the 60 non-governmental agencies (NGOs) active in the North have spent an addition LKR 11.5 billion.
The money is being spent on rebuilding the infrastructure that was destroyed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the three-decade-long ethnic war, such as highways, railway lines, ports, schools, hospitals etc.
Question: All this is fine, but shouldn’t reconciliation with the Tamils and devolution of powers be a parallel exercise? Peiris explained that it is important to take urgent steps to revive the badly shattered economy in the two provinces so that the people are able to sustain themselves. That has been achieved to quite an extent. All but 2,000 of the 296,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been rehabilitated. Of the ex-combatants, 596 youth have been provided training and reintegrated into the mainstream. Fishermen in the North are now able to go fishing. Life is returning to near-normalcy.
As regards devolution of powers, the minister said the Rajapaksa government has been making efforts to evolve a consensus on how to settle the ethnic issue for good. Previous governments tried to solve the problem by adopting "top-down measures" but failed miserably, primarily because of the disconnect between the people and the decision-makers at the top.
"Our government wants to evolve a consensus on this issue through the active participation of all the parties in the confabulations of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). Ideas must come from all the parties. There is a need for free and frank discussions to formulate the terms of reference," Peiris said.
The government is ready with the names of its representatives. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) must come in and participate in the PSC discussions. Once the TNA is in, the opposition United National Party (UNP) too will join the process. There should be a general consensus. "The President is ready to do what is required once the PSC comes up with a set of proposals."
The minister pointed out that the ruling alliance’s impressive performance in recent elections in the three provincial councils, including the Eastern Province, clearly indicates that the people have re-stated their confidence in the President. And President Rajapaksa is keen on solving the ethnic tangle.
"We have called upon the TNA to engage itself in the PSC process. There are some elements in the TNA that are extremist, who appear to believe that putting international pressure on the government will work. But that won’t work. In fairness to them, even the Indians never said to us: ‘Do this or do that.’ There is no alternative to the domestic process. Only the domestic process has the potential to deliver," Peiris said.
But the TNA has no confidence in the PSC but in a bilateral process. The TNA wants the government to present to Parliament proposals based on its discussions with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and get them passed because the government enjoys a two-thirds majority in Parliament.
"But we don’t want to do this because this is just a bilateral process. It has not worked in the past. That’s why the President is keen on a multilateral process. We hope that will work because everybody will be on board," the minister opined.
He stoutly disputed the claim made in The Hindu on September 20 that at least 16 out of the island’s 19 divisions continue to be deployed in the North and East, that more than 85,000 soldiers are present in the area, and that such overwhelming presence is suggestive "more of an Army in ‘operational readiness’ than in a post-conflict repose.
"This is simply not true," Peiris declared. "The two provinces are recovering from three decades of war. A great deal of work needs to be done, like fixing highways, railway lines, schools and so on. The army has the capability, drive and discipline. It is a trained, organised and motivated force to efficiently execute tasks assigned to it. The army is doing community work. It is certainly not functioning like a military force sent across to boss over the civilian administration."
He said only one High Security Zone (HSZ) remains in Palaly in Jaffna. But, here too, the army strength has been reduced by half.
As regards the implementation of the recommendations made by the government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), Peris explained that it made 280 recommendations. No single ministry or department can implement them all. So, the Presidence has set up a panel with his Secretary Lalith Weeratunga in charge to oversee implementation of the recommendations. Those doable quickly are being implemented, but some of them need at least two years to be executed.
Asked what is being done to encourage the Tamil diaspora to engage itself in the reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation efforts, the minister said the diaspora is not a monolith. Some overseas Tamils are beginning to invest in the North. A group came over a while ago and met Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to explore what Sri Lankan Tamils living abroad can do for their homeland.
However, Peiris said, a section of the Tamil diaspora thinks the LTTE can somehow be revived. "The war is over. And another war is never going to start again in Sri Lanka!" he proclaimed. The minister claimed that a section of the Tamil diaspora is trying hard to dissuade foreigners from investing in Sri Lanka, discouraging tourists from visiting the beautiful Indian Ocean island. These elements have access to resources which the LTTE would have used to buy arms.
"And they are using these funds in a very organised fashion to mount an economic and propaganda onslaught on Sri Lanka. And the human rights issue has become a political tool. Indeed, the extremist elements in the Tamil diaspora are using human rights as a powerful instrument to damage Sri Lanka’s reputation in the global arena," he charged.
Talking about relations with India, he said the bilateral ties between the two close neighbours are vital for both countries for economic, cultural and maritime security reasons, among others. Because they are such closely inter-linked neighbours, there are bound to be some hiccups once in a while. But thanks to the frequent high-level visits and large numbers of ordinary Sri Lankans visiting India and vice versa every year, matters of occasional friction are being managed quite nicely, he felt.
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