Disappearances, resettlement and detentions under the country’s draconian anti-terror legislation – all lingering issues from a 26 year civil war – took centre stage yesterday as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited the formerly embattled Northern Province for the first time since 2009.
During his four hour tour of the North, Ban met with Northern Province Governor Reginald Cooray, a delegation of Tamil National Alliance Legislators and, separately, Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran. He also visited people who had recently been resettled in their own lands after 25 years of displacement due to land seizures by the military in war time.
Familiar scenes greeted the UN Chief’s convoy at the Jaffna Library where he was scheduled to meet with Tamil elected representatives, as large crowds comprising families of the missing and the war displaced demonstrated against inaction by the UN and continuing discrimination at the hands of the Sri Lankan Government.
“The UN and the US claim the situation is better in Sri Lanka. Nobody hears our cries and sees our sorrow. The posters at this demonstration reflect the people’s anger about inaction by the UN,” said Northern Provincial Councillor Ananthi Sasitharan who was leading the women’s protest.
Other demonstrators, like 70-year old Sarojadevi Maheswaran had been trying to return to their homes for 26 years. Displaced from Karainagar Island, Maheswaran says buildings belonging to the SLNS Elara naval base now stand on 330 perches she owns in the area. “Since 1990, I have moved from place to place. Because of the shelling I kept moving. Now I live in Vavuniya,” she says.
TNA representatives raised these issues with the UN Chief during their meeting at the Jaffna Public Library.
Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan apprised the UN Chief of the delay in releasing lands and the continued presence of the army in the Northern Province. He also told Ban that the Prevention of Terrorism Act had yet to be repealed, and people arrested under the Act were still in prison.
In a speech in Colombo before his tour of the North, Ban addressed similar issues, urging the Government to “speed up the return of land” to allow communities of displaced people to return home. The UN Chief also said that in parallel the size of the military force in the North and East could be reduced, helping to build trust and reduce tensions in the former conflict zones.
Sampanthan, 83, and leader of the country’s largest Tamil party had adopted assertive positions during his meeting with the UN Chief last afternoon, sources involved with the discussions said.
The TNA Leader told Ban that if the Government failed the Tamil people in drafting the constitution or if their aspirations were not met, the Tamil people would not take up arms again, but they would make it “ungovernable” for them, TNA Spokesman and Jaffna District Parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran told reporters outside the Library soon after the talks.
Sumanthiran said that during his brief meeting with President Sirisena, the UN Chief had urged the President to take bold steps to implement the resolution passed at the UN Human Rights Council in 2015.
“The Secretary General said the UN would continue to be with the Tamil people and that he was aware of their expectations for justice and, specifically, of appeals made for international judges. When the mechanisms for all that are in place, he said the UN would do its part,” the TNA Spokesman told reporters in Jaffna.
The UN Chief also paid a brief visit to a site in Telipallai near Palaly, where families displaced for over 20 years were recently resettled after the Government returned a first tranche of military held land in 2015.
Before the land in this area was acquired by the military in 1990, it had been the site of a housing scheme developed by Ranasinghe Premadasa when he was Prime Minister. Built on state-owned land, the houses and property were handed over to people from the area. With the land being held in military custody for 25 years, the first generation of owners have passed on and many of the properties now belong to their children.
Today, the area is full of construction activity with the UN funding ‘transitional shelters’ – a two roomed cement structure and an aluminium sheet roof – for returning families. Visiting resettled families in the Veemamkamam Colony, Ban shared a lighter moment during his Northern tour when he gifted autographed UN caps to two young boys in the village. 13-year-old Prakas Premadas, who wants to be an engineer when he grows up, was one of the recipients. Prakas lives with his mother and three siblings in the tiny room, where a tiny television and cable TV box are given pride of place. The family returned there seven months ago, after being displaced in 1990.
On the opposite side of the road, Rasakurendran Vanitha, 49, had worn a white and gold sari in honour of the UN Secretary General’s visit. The Government land once granted to her father that she was displaced from as a young girl has since passed down to her. While she is thrilled to have finally come back home, Vanitha stresses that livelihood remains a major issue. She goes out to work in a small onion farm several times a week for wages of about Rs. 500 per day to support her family of five children and little grandson. Her son Jeyalaxman is able to get mason work in the area at the moment, but she says the family will find it difficult to manage once the resettlement drive is complete.
“But even if we don’t have food, the fact that we have our house and our land back is giving us a sense of security,” Vanitha acknowledges.
Vanitha says Ban had asked her if the family was happy and if their new house was good. “Yes, we said, it is all right.” (Daily FT)