By Niranjala Ariyawansha
Governor of the Eastern Province Austin Fernando says: “We must understand that development alone will not appease people. The reason for the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa was the lack of good governance, transparency, freedom of expression and freedom for organizing. People give prominence to freedom which was not here.
What is the situation of reconciliation among the people of the Eastern Province, six years after the end of war
A: We have to consider several factors when we speak of reconciliation. What is our perception? Reconciliation is discussed widely by politicians in the media. They express divided thoughts and some think that reconciliation is bringing it to one dialogue. But it is not reconciliation.
People lose lives, they are displaced and their rights violated due to war. Many think reconciliation is rebuilding their lives and making them happy. Many think resettling them will end the problem. They think, end of political conflicts and legal reforms will complete reconciliation. But it is a wrong perception.
The government had to deal with a lot of things within the past four years. We did a lot of changes and the divisions between the political parties minimized. The Chief Minister of the Eastern Province is a Muslim. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which contested the election against the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) has accepted two ministerial portfolios. The Chairman of the Eastern Provincial Council is a UNP Councillor. They have joined to administer the Province. This is what is expected everywhere in the island, but still it has taken place only in the Eastern Province. I am proud as Governor of that Province, of the development. I had to mediate to create the situation. I discussed with the political authority to create the situation. But we failed to achieve certain objectives. We can’t do everything within four months.
The biggest service rendered towards reconciliation in the Eastern Province was taking over of 818 acres of land in Sampur by the government under a special Gazette. But the Gateway Company which had taken over the land from the Board of Investment (BOI) filed a case. Were the hopes of the people shattered with it
A: We were proud to announce the release of 100 acres of Northern Province and 818 acres of Sampur land to the people. A total number of 825 families were to be resettled in this land. But it does not mean that all 818 acres will be given to these 825 families. They will be given back the land they owned. Those who owned one acre will have that one acre and those who owned 20 perches will have those 20 perches.
However, the process has been delayed due to the lawsuit. The Court ordered to suspend action under the special Gazette. But the Court again has withdrawn the Stay Order and we are waiting for the Court verdict which is expected to be delivered before 15 June.
What did you propose for the reconciliation in the Eastern Province
A: We have focused on Sampur, because the biggest problem is there. We want the people to be resettled there. They must be given a respectable life there. The livelihoods must be rebuilt. Infrastructure like roads, irrigation and schools must be developed. I believe people’s democratic rights will improve when such problems are solved.
What is your view on the opinion promoted by the TNA and civil society organizations that the military camps must be withdrawn from Northern and Eastern Provinces
A: Matters like withdrawing the High Security Zones and military camps are not against my view. There is no tough military intervention here like in the North. In the Eastern Province, we have no conflict between the military and political authorities. National security belongs to List No. 2 under the Provincial Council Act. There is no gap as wide as the one in the Northern Province between the Governor and military.
Do you think this agreement between the Governor and military in the Eastern Province is healthier in terms of peace building
A: Yes. It is very healthy. Military is not an obstacle to my work. The senior military officials of the present time were the junior officers when I was the Secretary of the Ministry of Defence. Some problems are easily resolved through that relationship. They too are very cordial. But in the North, there are homogenous groups and heterogenous groups. When the Northern Provincial Council announces that there was genocide, they create a conflict with the military. But the situation in the Eastern Province is different. The ethnic groups are mixed here. The attitudes, dialogues and objections are different here. There are agreements too. We have a unity government here.
Have you taken steps to create normalcy by way of handing over of land back to people and resettling people
A: The most important factor is building mutual understanding. It is naive thinking that people will be appeased merely due to development projects. That’s why people of the North defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Presidential Election despite the development he carried out.
We must understand that development alone will not appease people. The reason for the defeat was the lack of good governance, transparency, freedom of expression and freedom for organizing. People give prominence to freedom which was not here.
The past regime took some decisions to show off to the UNHRC. Does the present government also act in the same way
A: The present government is completely different. We want people to be resettled in their original lands. We want them to be granted the respectable life they had earlier. We have already provided it in the Northern Province and we shall do it in the Eastern Province as well. The best example is the release of land. The issue was discussed in Geneva too, but we don’t do it merely in fear of the UNHRC.
The past regime also resettled people. Housing was developed with the intervention of the military. Basil Rajapaksa highlighted the developments in Parliament and said they gave the people freedom to worship in temples
They are good. But they hadn’t done it fairly. If they had done so, they would have won the Presidential Election. This means that the way the past regime treated people had problems and they had done it merely for political advantage.
You keep your kitchen clean. But here the people cover the kitchen with a couple of cadjans. Cows, dogs, cats live and children study in one packed space which has a tin roof. Your house may also have some roofing problems, but water flows across their houses. People here sleep comfortably in the rain, but they lack sleep in rainy nights. Is it wrong to give them the facilities we have? Are they not people with equal rights?
We cannot let it happen anymore.We have to provide them with what we have. Basil says they gave the people freedom to worship in temples. But, does the military make way for you to go to the temple in your area? No. Why weren’t they allowed to pray to their Gods freely? The military cannot decide the times and the ways the people observe their religion. This lack of freedom was the problem and we try to resolve that issue. Government is keen in doing it.
Eastern Province is a region where people of all communities live. You will have to be extremely careful when making decisions
A: When I went to the Eastern Province, the Muslim politicians were plotting to chase away the Muslim Chief Minister. I changed the situation and now there are no clashes among the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim politicians. I have created political reconciliation. All are happy. I don’t mean that there may not be any clash in future. But today the people of diverse ethnic identities do not clash in the Eastern Province. The situation was not like this a few months back. People clashed for diverse issues like placement of religious symbols.
How could you create that situation
A: I think the question must be asked from others. I believe people must be rendered justice. If you come to meet me you will see on my table only the National Flag and the statue of the Lady of Justice. If somebody sets forth an unfair demand, I say I ask them to let me live like that statue. Conflicts erupt when one avenges unfair acts.
What is the situation of law and order in the Eastern Province after the end of the war
A: There were some drawbacks. War was the result. We need time to rid ourselves of that mentality. People move away from normalcy when there is war. In the past, we read newspapers to know the number of deaths. That mentality is the result of war. Journalists and editors know it very well. They too were fed from war like the politicians and military officers. They published photos of people suffering. Then they branded those who launched bomb attacks as terrorists and those who saved people as war heroes. Don’t be angry with me, but that situation no more prevails.
In some parts of the Eastern Province, land allocated to one community had been squatted on by the people of the other communities. I told the Chief Minister that we cannot allow it to happen so. The defence authorities have found that there are problems in some districts. For example, the crime rate has gone up in the Batticaloa District. They are the side effects of war.
Likewise, we cannot avoid the problems related to ethnic, religious, social, economic and personal problems among people. They are in the South too. People do not try to live in peace. The engagement of the religious leaders and elders is also not sufficient. Perhaps, people may resent each other due to the high heat here.
How do the people respond to a civil Governor like you in a Province where the previous Governor was a military officer
A: No one has told me that I am good and the former Governor was bad. Former Governor Rear Admiral Mohan Wejewickrema is a friend of mine. Anyone who served in military for 25-30 years tend to get used to military ways and means. It is normal. I too might get used to a military style of life if I was there. Likewise, some bosses are blamed by their wives early in the morning and then they relieve their pressure on the subordinates of their offices.
Military officers do not associate with people, politicians or administrators. They are saluted by the juniors from morning and they live in such a context. My mindset is different and my behaviour too reflects it. But you must ask others whether my behaviour is good or bad.
Mostly the politicians in North and the East are anti-government. They stand on the opposite side of the government as well as the military. They normally don’t like the senior public officials appointed by the government. When a military officer is appointed for a civil position, the situation worsens.
Are you satisfied about the service you have rendered in the Eastern Province
A: I didn’t have much time either to be satisfied or not. I assumed duty as the Governor on 27 January, i.e. four months ago. I run fast, but I am still not tired. It is said that new brooms sweep well.