The Eastern Sri Lankan Tamil-speaking town of Batticaloa had undergone a sea change in the last three months. In late March, it was swarming with government troops and Tamil para militaries in full battle gear and fingers at the trigger. Only artillery and mortar barrages broke the silence of the dead town. People talked in whispers about extortions and child abductions by the pro-government Tamil militant group led by Karuna.
But in mid June, no troops were to be seen. The gun toting Karuna men had disappeared. Locals said that they had moved out with the Army, now deployed outside the Thoppigala jungles, the last stronghold of the LTTE in Batticaloa district. Visitors from Colombo could not but remark that the capital city, far away from any fighting, but bristling with troops, seemed to be far more embattled than Batticaloa.
But war was by no means far away from Batticaloa. Near Kiran, one saw troops firing 122 mm artillery at Thoppigala. Actually, not a day passes without sounds of gunfire, albeit distant. And just outside Batticaloa town, there were pathetic vestiges of war. Thousands of war refugees living in camps, were facing a new and a very disturbing situation. Whether they wanted to go or not, the refugees were being taken away from the camps and resettled in their original villages now "cleared" of the LTTE. Government plans to finish the job by June 30.
TWO PRONGED PLAN
With the deadline approaching, the pace is increasing, and tension is rising. The executing agencies are under constant pressure from the Presidential Secretariat and the Defence Ministry (headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brothers Basil Rajapaksa (Presidential Advisor) and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (Defence Secretary) to get on with the ambitious task of resettlement cum development.
The government has a plan to develop some of the areas "cleared" of the LTTE as economic and tourist centres for national use. Through its development plan for the East, the Rajapaksa government is actively challenging the LTTE's concept of the North and East being only for the Tamil-speaking people, or the Tamils specifically. Economic development and the opening up of these areas for outside investment are expected to scuttle a putative Tamil ethnic enclave.
Heading the development effort in Vaharai, 65 kms north of Batticaloa, is the veteran Army-Civil Coordinator, Maj Berty Perera, who had won the "Deshabhimani" award from the Indian development NGO, Sulabh International in 2006.
Maj Perera is in charge of 15,000 returnees. Under his guidance various agencies are doing need-assessment studies. He is in the midst of repairing or constructing 546 houses. "After a gap of 15 years, electricity is being brought to Vaharai. As of now, streets have been provided lighting. The houses are being built by the owners themselves with government grants and technical help," he said.
60% of the people of Vaharai are fishermen, most of whom have lost their boats and nets. Outboard motors and fishing nets are being provided in phases.
"Vaharai was a tourist and recreational area before the conflict three decades ago. Many from outside, including Sinhalas, had built villas and had cashew plantations here. The prawns and crabs from here were much in demand outside. We have plans to transform Vaharai into an urban centre with shopping malls. The coastal road between Batticaloa and Trincomalee, now battered, will be repaired," Perera said.
A battle hardened officer with 22 years in the field, Perera is a firm believer in using economic development to wean away people from terrorists. "Vaharai has been liberated four times. But still it kept going into the hands of the terrorists. This is because the people's needs were not attended to," he said.
On why the Army should be involved in development, Perera said that the bureaucracy was too slow for the task.
NGOs and International NGOs (INGOs) were scarce in Vaharai. The NGOs felt unwanted because the government had openly accused them of being hand in glove with the LTTE. But Perera denied that there was any ban on the NGOs. "Anybody is welcome to work here. But they have to work with us for the sake of coordination," he said.