Sri Lanka is confident of resettling and providing a new lease of life to the 250,000 Tamils displaced by war in the north by the year-end, Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa said on Friday.
Rajapaksa, brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, said the government had the experience and ability to undertake the massive exercise because of what Colombo achieved after the killer tsunami.
While many Tamils would be able to return to their original abode dominantly in the districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu within 180 days, almost all others would get their homes back by Dec 31, 2009.
Asked if these deadlines were realistic, Rajapaksa said the government had already resettled a similar number in the eastern province, which the military captured from the Tamil Tigers in 2007.
"We resettled about 40,000 Muslims in Mutur in a record 44 days. And in Vakarai (in Batticaloa), we settled 60,000 people in three months," Rajapaksa said in a telephonic interview to IANS, a day after meeting India’s National Security Advisor M K Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon.
“When the people fled their homes in the east, they had no good bus (service), no good roads, no electricity, no school… When they returned, all this was there. They got the best school in the eastern province. We have the best record in the world in reconstruction and resettlement.”
Sri Lanka’s victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) followed months of heavy fighting during which hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled their homes.
Many retreated with the LTTE as it began pulling back in the wake of a punishing military offensive from December 2008. Eventually, only after all the civilians vacated the LTTE zone did the military crush the Tigers.
The displaced population is presently housed in large camps. Barring hardcore LTTE fighters, all others are expected to go home over the coming weeks and months.
The entire region has been devastated by years of Tamil separatist war, leaving houses, agriculture land, school and government buildings and even hospitals damaged.
Rajapaksa also promised that the authorities would undertake massive reconstruction work so that the people find new roads, hospitals and schools, as well as water and power supply when they resume their lives.
Two key reasons why the resettlement would take longer time in the north compared to the east are the large number of landmines strewn across the region and the sheer size of it.
“The challenges in the north are different. There is high level of mines. The main concern is de-mining. Apart from our military, we are grateful to the Indian government for helping us with de-mining. They have agreed to send more teams. The north is also very big in land area.”
He said while some NGOs were also engaged in de-mining, their quality was not as good as that of Sri Lanka’s military and the Indian teams.
Rajapaksa, who is overall in-charge of the rehabilitation, said the authorities had learnt valuable lessons from the eastern province.
“We will also take care of farm land and paddy fields; irrigation too. When people return to their homes, we will make sure they can start working from the very next day.”
How much will all this cost?
Rajapaksa declined to hazard a guess but remarked, in apparent reference to the West, that “countries who talk a lot about Sri Lanka abroad (criticising its rights record) don’t come to help, countries who don’t talk a lot do help”.