Monday, 5 May 2003  
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Accelerating development in the North-East

All wars claim lives. That is the very nature of war. But not all of the victims are combatants. Civilians are equally at risk, for bullets do not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. Civilians lose their lives and property whenever a conflict arises in any part of the world.

Sri Lanka is no exception to this rule. For 20 long years, Sri Lankans in the North and to a lesser extent, in the South have suffered as a consequence of the war. Apart from casualties to civilians who have nothing whatsoever to do with the war, we must not forget the families of combatants, who are in most cases the breadwinners. The war has made thousands homeless and virtually stopped the development clock in the worst-affected areas. Progress in other areas has been impeded.

This is why the government is keen to fast-track development in the North-East in tandem with the peace process. The international community and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have also agreed that this should indeed be the case. Now the government has reaffirmed its commitment to rehabilitate and develop the North-East by accelerating several projects in the North-East that would ultimately benefit the residents there.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has instructed officials to expedite 15 projects approved by the Sub Committee on Immediate Humanitarian Needs (SIHRN) in Vavuniya, Pottuvil, Batticaloa, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi. Tenders are to be called immediately for all approved projects to accelerate construction.

This is a very welcome move, as normalisation of ordinary lives distorted and scarred by war is essential to make peace a reality. As Prime Minister Wickremesinghe pointed out to LTTE Chief Negotiator Anton Balasingham in his recent letter, "the final objective [of the peace process] is the normalisation of the ground situation".

Infrastructure facilities apart, some areas in the North-East are still out of bounds to civilians owing to the deadly presence of landmines. Landmines are being removed in the North by expert teams as we write, but it will be sometime before these areas will be totally safe for civilians to move in. This is a dilemma that the authorities face vis-a-vis Internally Displaced Persons, in balancing the expectations of war-weary civilians yearning to return to their native villages and ensuring their total safety.

It is vital that these efforts go ahead, despite the temporary setbacks in the peace process. It would not be prudent to slow down the pace of rehabilitation and development projects in the North-East at this juncture when all concerned parties are striving to resume peace talks. On the other hand, speedy development of war-torn areas will augment the case for further negotiations on resolving the ethnic conflict.

One other factor that must be taken into account in the present context is the role of the international community. Donor countries and agencies are ready to pledge billions of dollars for the reconstruction and development of especially the North-East, but other parts of the country will benefit as well in line with the government's 'Regaining Sri Lanka' initiative.

The forthcoming donor conference in Japan will therefore be crucial for the success of the Sri Lankan peace process. The donor community would obviously like to see a renewed commitment from both parties to reach a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict and the relentless pursuit of development goals in the North-East.


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