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Sunday, 8 February 2009

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North: The next steps

Now that Northern liberation has been almost completed, in line with the original mission of emancipating Tamil civilians in uncleared areas in the Vanni, it is time to take stock of the challenges ahead.

The first priority will be eliminating all pockets of Tiger resistance. Once this is completed, the resettlement of people who left the area should begin. This will not be as easy as it sounds. The Forces will have to clear anti-personnel mines planted by fleeing Tigers and dismantle LTTE facilities.

Repairing damaged infrastructure is another essential requirement. Homes, hospitals, schools, bus shelters, bridges, shops and many other buildings have been damaged in the long years of the conflict. Some have been razed to the ground. Repairing these will take time, yet life would not be complete for those resettling in the Vanni if infrastructure facilities were not available. Education and health must be given priority.

Some forms of infrastructure simply do not exist in certain areas of the North. Power, for instance. Even the most basic rights ad facilities had been denied to those living in uncleared areas by the Tigers. The North remains one of the poorest regions in the country thanks to the protracted conflict. The authorities face a huge challenge in re-developing the North.

The proposed re-opening of the A-9 Road after repairs will be a lifeline for the North, as it will re-link the North and the South after quite some time. Northern agriculture produce and other products can freely be transported to the South with the opening of the A-9. Northerners too will get easy access to many products that Southerners now take for granted. With the reduction in transport costs, the prices of goods in the North will go down.

The rail link to the North was destroyed by the LTTE, along with the hopes of Northerners. The authorities must restore the rail link to KKS via Jaffna. This will be a huge investment, but one that will be worth every cent in the long run.

The Eastern Resurgence program is a good model for the North, though one has to account for demographic, geographic and other differences. The East was already more developed than the North, as nearly all the main towns were under Government control anyway. Development has to start virtually from scratch in most areas of the North.

Foreign aid and expertise will have to be obtained for the major infrastructure projects and there already are expressions of interest.

The East has set another precedent - the swift restoration of democracy. Local elections were held there first, followed by the Provincial Council Election in the newly de-merged province. A special feature was that nearly all of the elected representatives were from the East itself - as opposed to being 'planted' from somewhere else. Again, Easterners in the cleared areas have had exposure to elections from time to time. In contrast, most Northerners who lived in uncleared areas have never seen a polling station or a polling card. Democracy will be a new experience and a new challenge. But the restoration of democracy and pluralism - which were anathema to the LTTE - will be an inevitable process.

The restoration of civil administration goes hand in hand with the inception of democracy. Everything from new police stations, post offices to Grama Sevaka offices will have to be opened especially in the newly cleared areas. Of course, Government machinery did function even in the long-running LTTE bastions such as Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi. The Government had the Government Agents, who played a pivotal role in the distribution of food and relief materials sent by the Government and international agencies. Hospitals and schools in uncleared areas were maintained by the Government and staff salaries were paid. The Government should continue these endeavours with even more vigour.

The LTTE being primarily a guerilla outfit will try to blend in with the local population and stage small-scale attacks. We have seen sporadic hit and run attacks by isolated LTTE cadres in the East. The Forces must be primed to face this threat as well. It also goes without saying that tight security will have to be maintained not only in the North and the East but also in Colombo and elsewhere until the LTTE is fully disarmed.

The biggest challenge, however, remains the restoration of peace in the island. The LTTE always left the peace talks unilaterally citing flimsy excuses. If a de-armed LTTE indicates a desire for talks, the Government has said it would consider.

Right now, there is no other option for the LTTE than surrendering to the Forces, giving up their Eelam campaign and entering the democratic process. The annihilation of the LTTE has given the Government an opportunity to work with forces other than the LTTE to evolve a solution. The APRC process is also nearing completion, even though some major parties were not represented.

These parties should enter the process of finding peace. The liberation of the Northern and Eastern provinces would be in vain if it does not lead to permanent peace.

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