It’s not only the crowds partying on Sri Lanka’s beaches who are in an upbeat mood.
The International Monetary Fund’s $2.6 billion loan, agreed after the 25-year civil war, is beginning to trickle through, imports are slowly recovering, tourists are heading back to the Indian Ocean coastline and the cricket tours are on again.
Earlier this month Sri Lanka held the first elections in 11 years in two northern towns at the edge of a former stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The poll was one of many anticipated in the run-up to early presidential elections, that may be held in 2010. Despite the poor showing at the ballot box, people (mainly the government) were still were buoyed by the fact that the vote took place.
However this positive energy is tempered by the scale of the challenges facing this country.
The residents of the Manik Farm displacement camp in Vavuniya are now entering the third month after the defeat of the LTTE. Although the chaos of the initial months has ebbed away, there are still problems with sanitation, food is sometimes inadequate and medical needs are tremendous.
Coordination is problematic with some agencies working with each other in “cluster groups” while others choose to work on their own or directly with the government. Access to the camps for aid workers is still an issue, particularly for foreigners.
However, locals and individuals are having better luck and it has been heartening to hear of a few stories of individuals helping out the best way they can.
But as the news has slipped from the front pages of the newspapers or the headlines on the TV, so has the awareness of the plight of the displaced.
The worry now is that flooding will occur with the approaching monsoon season. Already, over the weekend, floods caused the “temporary” resettling of 400 of the camp residents in one of the zones in Manik Farm. It’s not yet known whether they can be returned to their original place in the camp or if they will be relocated somewhere else. In the event of flooding, sanitation and drainage will become of paramount importance. Since the government has shifted the responsibility of dealing with this on to the United Nations and international NGOs, one can predict a classic to and fro between the agencies and the government about who is ultimately responsible for the sewage.
Another challenge is the final resettlement of the people who have been displaced. Some resettlement is already taking place and there was a token opening of the A9 road to Jaffna. But the schedule is still uncertain with different timeframes given by various members of the government.
Sri Lanka’s leaders must remember this process can’t just be for political gain but will require a genuine attempt at reconciliation. It seems as if no one is bothered by the significance of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement: “There are no more minorities” and what it might mean for not just the Tamils but the Muslim communities in Sri Lanka as well. People are still talking about the issues facing “their” community be it Tamil or Muslim or any other. There is still no sense of a collective identity. What is sad is that people don’t feel responsible for doing something about it. They are content to leave the ‘doing’ to the politicians.
Security is continues to be a concern. Take for example clashes between rival mosques in southern Sri Lanka a couple of weeks ago which turned bloody leaving scores dead and injured or allegations by rights groups that the police were attacking people on the pretext of searching for terrorists or members of the underworld. These incidents serve to underline simmering tensions under the surface.
These tensions are to do with economics, poverty and ignorance. While they exist, then Sri Lanka’s most pressing task will be not only dealing with the grievances felt by minority groups (although this is also important) but addressing equitable distribution of resources so everyone benefits. This is the only path to solving the country’s issues.