Heartening scenes of reconciliation were seen over the weekend, this time in the east. Thousands of acres of land taken over for High Security Zones have long been a thorn between the Tamil community and the Government. But it is merely a starting point in a long road that is ridden with portholes.
The friction intensified over the last few years after it became gradually clear that there was little onus on security as some of the land was utilised to operate holiday resorts by the Army. After much back and forth between the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the previous Government under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the situation seemed well and truly deadlocked.
People displaced from their homes and living in camps became a blemish even on the international reputation of Sri Lanka. Never was this more highlighted than during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) when British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the area and met with some of these families. Their pathetic plight made headlines around the world and cast a shadow over an event the previous Government was desperate to showcase as a triumphant moment of Rajapaksa presiding over the Commonwealth as its chair.
Then came the unexpected presidential election with its equally stunning aftermath. The TNA made it clear that they had pinned their hopes on the coalition and with it a new political culture. Voters from all communities too were keen to end the decades of division and pushed for a result that held reconciliation at its heart.
Ahead of President Sirisena’s visit to India in February, the Cabinet approved the release of 1000 acres of land that had been controversially absorbed into High Security Zones (HSZ) in the north. Basic infrastructure including schools, hospital and religious places would also be provided by the Government. This was a promise the President reiterated while handing back the land.
In doing so the President has set a new precedent. He has made it clear that megaphone politics of divide and rule might win a short day but never a long peace. Several times over the past few weeks Sirisena brought this message home, telling his party members that they were all “crabs dancing in the water before it begins to boil”, insisting time was running out for reconciliation. It was clearly in this spirit that politicians of different hues and ethnicities took to the same stage to hand back land to dozens of families that had possibly wondered if their time to go home would ever come.
Handing back land is in some ways the easy part. Now an economically-strained Government has to find ways to rejuvenate these regions and assist families to rebuild their ruined homes. Returning will not be viable unless livelihoods are also allowed to adjust to new circumstances and infrastructure facilities are established in these regions.
Establishing a domestic mechanism, which will take into account the findings of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that will satisfy the international community with its credibility will be the next task ahead for the Government and the war for reconciliation could well be won or lost on this turn of cards.