Long road to normality

Saturday, 21 May 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

IRIN: Traffic on Sri Lanka’s A9 highway reflects the increased mobility brought by peace, as hundreds of buses, cars and three-wheelers, packed to the brim, race each other along a road that cuts through the centre of the former conflict zone.

Two years after the Government’s declared victory over the separatist Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) on 18 May 2009, the bustle paints a dramatically different picture from the nation paralysed and divided by a 26-year civil war.

On a given day, tens of thousands of Sri Lankans – mostly those from the Sinhalese majority from the south – come and go in this region largely cut off for a quarter-century.

Northerners, mostly from the minority Tamil community, take the same road, which stretches for 110km through the area popularly known as the Wanni.

The A9

Seven months after the war ended in December 2009, the A9 was opened for private civilian traffic. Before that, it was closed or travel was restricted due to the conflict, which left tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands more fleeing in fear.

Two years on, most of the more than 300,000 who fled the last bout of fighting between mid-2007 and 2009 have resettled; however, 17,000 remain in camps, largely outside the northern town of Vavuniya.

The lifting of travel restrictions has allowed southerners to visit Jaffna, Kilinochchi and other parts, though some areas in the east of the Wanni, where the fighting was intense, remain inaccessible to civilians from the south, even Sinhalese, without special permission.

“I feel the opening of the highway is the best meeting point for these two communities kept apart for so long,” Denagama Dammika, an ethnic Sinhalese from the southern district of Matara, told IRIN.

Ramanan, a young man from the minority Tamil community in Kilinochchi, the former political and de-facto LTTE capital, agreed. “We never had any close interaction with people from the south during the war. It was as if a wall had been built,” he said. “The opening of the A9 has changed that.”

But both say the two communities remain wary of the other. “It will take time for the mistrust of over 30 years to go away,” Dammika said.

In the Northern Province, where the conflict was worst, many say life has improved, despite crippling unemployment and a devastated infrastructure: 160,000 houses were destroyed, no electricity lines were intact and the A9 was reduced to rubble.

According to the UN’s latest Joint Humanitarian and Early Recovery Update, thousands of returnees will have ongoing shelter needs until permanent housing recovery projects reach them.

“There is no tension in Kilinochchi. It is the total opposite to what it was two years ago and many years before that,” Ramanan said. He returned home in April 2010 after fleeing two years earlier.

Lopsided development

Rights activists, however, feel that remaining travel restrictions and heavy military surveillance have slowed a return to normality.

Ruki Fernando, the Head of the Human Rights in Conflict Programme at the Law and Society Trust, based in Colombo, told IRIN: “The Government doesn’t seem to realise that restrictions on travel, religious events, freedom of association and assembly that apply only to the north are abnormal in relation to rest of the country, and hinder a restoration of normality.”

Dammika, who has travelled on the A9 on several occasions, also feels that post-war economic development, accelerated in other parts of the country, has been slow to take off in the north.

There have been large development projects in the Wanni since the end of the war. The A9 was repaved and electricity supply restored to at least the main towns, but private investment and jobs have been hard to come by.

Sithamparampillai Jeyanthi, 27, from Chavakachcheri, a town south of Jaffna, has been searching for a job since she returned home in late 2009 after a decade. She said there were hardly any permanent jobs despite Jaffna’s tourism boom.

“My family, we are farmers, but our fields have not been cultivated for over 10 years. Our houses are destroyed. There should be some special programme to benefit those like me,” she said.

Ramanan said despite the hardships, no one in Kilinochchi would want to return to what it was two years back. “Peace is good. But for life to become normal and for us to regain trust, it will take time.”

Graduates in north demand Government jobs

IRIN: Peace dividends have yet to reach thousands of unemployed graduates returning to Sri Lanka’s northernmost, conflict-affected Jaffna District.

In Jaffna, the impact of graduate unemployment is significant and more pronounced compared with other areas of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, with limited State employment opportunities and few alternatives, local graduates and professors say.

According to Muthukrishna Sarvananda, principal researcher at the Jaffna-based Point Pedro Institute of Development, a private social science research institution, the dearth of opportunities in an area once ravaged by war is taking its toll.

“It is an important aspect of developmental planning and the [unemployment] numbers are presumed to be large,” Sarvananda said.

Addressing this problem is important to prevent the disenfranchisement of youth, a contributing factor to the country’s 26-year civil war in the north that ended in May 2009, experts say, and will prove key to the country’s future peace and stability.

Some say the Sinhalese majority, mostly in central and south Sri Lanka, had long enjoyed better access to education and jobs than the Tamil minority, in the north.

Despite the war coming to an end and a consequent increase in the country’s economy and decrease in overall unemployment, graduates claim the divide continues, with rising unemployment and poverty in the Northern Province.

In Jaffna alone, 6,000 graduates are finding that State jobs are not available.

Post-war economic boom

According to the Department of Census and Statistics, the national unemployment rate was 4.5 per cent in 2010. The Government attributed this decrease, from 5.8 per cent in 2009, to the post-war economic drive attracting foreign direct investment.

Yet, there is little reflection of this emerging prosperity in Jaffna, said the President of the Unemployed Graduates Committee, Thyagaraja Dhanam. “Nobody pays attention to our plight,” he said.

Unemployment statistics do not include Northern and Eastern Provinces and a district breakdown is not available for the entire Northern Province. “The rate [in Jaffna] is expected to be more than double the national rate of unemployment,” Sarvananda said.

Sunil Navaratna, the Higher Education Ministry Secretary, told IRIN more than 400,000 students sit for university entrance each year, with only about 20,000 succeeding.

He said every year at least 6,000 graduate and more than half join the unemployed, with 42,500 jobless graduates nationwide.

“This is despite schemes to absorb them. Of course the north east is worst affected as job creation is still low despite many initiatives,” he said.

Private sector doors closed

Jaffna’s graduates say they see a number of industries – private companies and banks – moving to their province, creating jobs that elude them.

“There aren’t many opportunities in the private sector. The practice is to bring employees from the south, excluding locals,” Muhunthan Sivayohanathan, an unemployed graduate, said.

However, according to one private business operator in Jaffna interviewed by IRIN, such graduates are “unemployable,” because they have no information technology skills and lack English proficiency.

Sarvananda agreed, saying universities needed to increase the calibre of both their staff and graduates. But he said perhaps a boom in private sector opportunities was imagined.

“There are small private companies coming in, but there are no strong corporate sector investments. The centralised system does not encourage it. The ongoing projects generating employment are all Government-driven,” he said.

Government jobs, please

The young graduates feel it is the Government’s role to absorb the unemployed into the public sector, but high expectations of Government jobs will likely not be the answer.

Jaffna Government Agent Imelda Sukumar said young graduates fixated on public sector employment had to seek alternatives. “They demand Government jobs. They should be open-minded about the private and non-governmental sectors that generate significant employment,” she said.

Be it public or private sector, graduate or not, there is a need to consider the whole picture, insists Saroja Sivachandran of the Jaffna-based Centre for Women’s Development.

“The Jaffna youth did not have opportunities to develop skills and pursued higher education despite serious difficulties. The State has a responsibility to devise special programmes post-war, to ensure they have opportunities for growth and suitable employment,” she said. Adding a new, inclusive recruitment policy should require a percentage of jobs go to local youth.

According to the Deputy Minister of Youth Affairs, Duminda Dissanayake, the Government was mindful of the unique situation in the north. “Through different divisions, skills development, vocational training and youth development we try to cater to this need,” he said.