With dainty paper lamps hung over streets, the country’s south looked pretty last week. It was Vesak, known as Buddha Purnima in India and Nepal. Commemorating 2600 years of the Buddha’s enlightenment, the Sri Lankan government spent, among other programmes, $3 million on a Buddhist cultural centre in the heart of Colombo. Havelock Road where the structure stands has been renamed Sambuddha Jayanthi Mawatha. An exposition of excavated remains of Kapilavastu where the Buddha, according to historians, lived his early years would be organised by the Indian government here in coming months. New Delhi would also place a Sarnath-styled 16-feet status of the Buddha at the World Buddhist Museum in central hill town Kandy. Vesak this year coincided with two years of the civil war having ended. Since May 19, 2009 around the time LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed near a lagoon in north-east, the government has been celebrating victory day. Due to the 2600th anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment, this time however, the parade has been pushed to May 27.
Victory processions in last two years have showcased Sri Lanka’s defence capability to a small but significant audience at the capital’s Galle Face, a stretch on the Indian Ocean shore. The same audience — comprising President Mahinda Rajapaksa, other politicians, top defence officials and diplomats — is expected to be present at the same venue this weekend. Participating in the parade would be the three services in similar displays as earlier with an exception. The Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) would exclude Kfir aircraft from the fly past. The Israeli fighter-bombers were inducted in the SLAF in 1995 and liberally used in operations against the LTTE, most famously in 2007 when S P Thamilselvan, then LTTE’s political wing head was killed through bombings over Kilinochchi district. Colombia and Ecuador are among other main users of Kfirs. “One, two, three... there comes a Kfir,” was how the joke — referring to an imaginary nursery rhyme — went in the north, during the final months of the war. The SLAF had kept Kfirs stationed alongside other aircraft at China Bay, Trincomalee, in case they were needed as the ground battle peaked in 2009. Kfirs are now “restricted to training and demonstrations,” says SLAF spokesperson Group Captain Andrew Wijesuriya. In the post-war scenario, the SLAF is equally keen on controlling unnecessary expenses, he adds. This March, two Kfirs collided in mid-air during a practice sortie.
Majority of the north’s population live below the poverty line, sustaining themselves on less than $1 per day, says a UN agency in its latest report on Sri Lanka. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reduced food assistance especially in the Kilinochchi district have led to lower consumption. With low incomes and high food prices, the war displaced people of the north continue to live in dismay. Health care facilities in such places are also in varying stages of despair. In Kilinochchi for instance, 15 out of 21 health care units function in some way with residents of the area having to depend on mobile teams or visits to facilities nearby. The agency also says Jaffna district needs better sewage system to check the contamination of underground water sources. Also, seven casualties due to landmine and explosive remains of the war were reported from northern districts in last four months. The government is yet to award certain areas in Mullaitivu and Jaffna for mine action. Among the residents of Menik Farm in Vavuniya, as many as 5,300 children still await resettlement in Mullaitivu. They also wait to restart regular school, interrupted by the war and displacements thereafter. Menik Farm is a government-run camp for Tamils displaced by the war. The UN agency estimates that in future 110,000 houses will be needed for the north. While the first phase demand was for 70,000 houses, donors committed to build only 32,937. India’s pilot project of 1,000 houses across the districts of Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi and Mannar, is expected to commence soon.
Under attack from a UN panel on the conduct of the final stages of civil war, the government here has been looking at India for advice and support. Colombo lobbied Beijing and Moscow on the subject earlier and received what could be interpreted as encouraging response. Sri Lankan foreign minister G L Peiris’s Delhi visit last week was followed by a strongly-worded statement from the Indian side on May 17. While it was called a “joint statement,” the content seemed to suggest that the Indian government has stopped mincing words or at least suspended the practice temporarily:
“The External Affairs Ministry of India urged the expeditious implementation of measures by the Government of Sri Lanka, to ensure resettlement and genuine reconciliation, including early return of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to their respective homes, early withdrawal of emergency regulations, investigations into allegations of human rights violations, restoration of normalcy in affected areas and redress of humanitarian concerns of affected families.”
Diplomatic sources say that New Delhi may follow up on the discussions by sending National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar to the island next month. Meanwhile, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by President Rajapaksa in May 2010, to essentially delve into the failure of the cease-fire agreement with the LTTE in 2002 when opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe was Prime Minister, has been working on producing a report before its term expires on November 15. The commission — questioned for its credibility by the UN panel and independent observers — has been peddled by the government as an internal solution to post-war reconciliation. The last public sitting of the panel was held in January. It remains to be seen if the exercise was meaningful.
Sports Minister Mahinda Aluthgamage says that he would ask Sri Lanka Cricket to slap a legal notice on former skipper Hasan Tillakaratne for “not divulging” names or incidents of match-fixing related to Lankan cricketers. Tillakaratne had told a TV show recently that fixing has been rampant in Sri Lankan cricket since 1992. The Criminal Investigations Department had questioned the player a couple of times but apparently he did not give out information citing threats to his life. He had also asked for police protection to speak further. “The allegations are serious” says the minister and adds that Tillakaratne’s “silence” must now be subjected to scrutiny by the law. This story is far from its end