By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
Governor of the Northern Province H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, a prominent Sri Lankan diplomat and former Foreign Secretary who replaced Major General (Retd.) G.A. Chandrasiri, in an exclusive interview at his office in Jaffna, told Ceylon Today that the IDPs will be resettled within the next five years leaving no one in camps. He also said that the LLRC was a success but it was a failure in implementing it. A member of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) Board, the Governor said, “I think there must be a political consensual decision making culture in the country. You can differ in other matters like on the economy of the country, but on national issue, you must have consensus. As long as you don’t have consensual approaches, problems will continue.”
? With the new government coming to power how is the situation in the North at present?
A: Armed forces are not doing any law and order duty now. Land is only one aspect of the normalization in the North which is very important. The President and the government clearly said that the private lands taken over for security purposes, if it is not directly related to security, should be returned to the owners. This policy applies to entire Sri Lanka.
Land taken temporarily for security purposes need to be returned. It is true that a large area of land was taken for security purposes but we will gradually scale it down. During the recent tragedy of rape and murder of student Vithya, there were civil disturbances however, not a single soldier was called to the streets and the Police handled the situation.
?How about releasing the land to the owners, any new places earmarked?
A: The first step was to release 1,000 acres and that has been done. Land in Sampur has been released too. Now the parliamentary elections are over and the new government will have to look at what’s next.
Lands that are not directly serving the security of the country need to be, step by step, returned to the public and that is in the process.
?What about the internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are still languishing in welfare camps?
A: I agree that people who are displaced and returning their land back is a critical step. It’s not only their livelihood that is hindered but also to build their confidence. But I can say that there is normalcy prevailing and the process of resettling persons is in progress. However, I don’t know the time frame.
?The Tamils had no faith in the former governor who was an Army officer and called for his removal. Has your appointment changed the moods of the people? Have they welcomed you?
A: I am a public servant; I look at facts. I don’t like to look back but look forward. I am not burdened with any particular ideal or have a baggage.
?What are the issues you are focusing on?
A: There are lots of problems in the North such as water, sanitation, waste disposal issues. We are working closely with the Centre and the Northern Provincial Council (NPC). There are vulnerable groups like the war widows without resources and livelihood. Several projects in the area of development have been implemeted; however, that has not made any positive impact on the households. The household income needs a boost because it still remains below the national average. There’s no point looking at the past. You have to engage with the people and you have to develop the small and medium scale sectors to raise household income.
?How is the Centre working with the NPC?
A: On the political level we need to show that the NPC and the Central Government can and must work together. Some try to make it out that they cannot work together.
?That was the situation in the past. How is it now?
A: Now they can really work together.
? Is it working?
A: I work closely with the officials. For example, recently, the NPC and my office planned 16 projects which have impact on the lives of the people. So it is possible to work. If there is a will, it’s possible.
?How is it on the political level?
A: There are issues and controversies and so forth, and I don’t want to go into those. That is not my job. My job is to enable and empower within the existing constitutional provisions with the Provincial Council and it is possible to work within this framework to resolve people’s problem.
? Do people rely on you and trust your activities?
A: I am absolutely at home here. Wednesdays are public days and more than 100 people come here. They tell us about their problems. We listen to them. We point to a solution. We also give hearing to some issues even if we cannot solve the problems.
Secondly, it is the confidence building. The people must have confidence that the authorities, be it the Centre or NPC, whether they are responsive to their needs. So to that extent, I think we are responsive.
I look at it absolutely with a public servant’s point of view and not a political point of view. I must look at the problem clinically and objectively.
? How much, of funds, has been allocated to the North since the new President was elected?
A: The funding comes to the NPC because the Governor does not administer funds. The Governor is there to help and provides the Central Government facilitation to get local and external funding. Projects are done in that manner. I think we are getting sufficient funds even though whatever is given is always insufficient. The government says if you identify the projects, funding will be not a problem.
? We met a few Tamil politicians and their opinion is that though the military is confined to the barracks they are not reduced in numbers in the North. What is the total military strength in the North?
A: I don’t want to get into number games but the fact remains there has been a drastic reduction in the numbers from the end of the conflict up to now. I think nearly 59 military installations have been closed down from May 2009 and the scale of military activities has been reduced. There are no military checkpoints on the road now. You would not see soldiers on the roads in the Jaffna city, and the Police have taken charge of law and order. During the election campaign, not a single soldier was seen on the streets. I think the idea of 1 soldier for 4 civilian ratio doest not make any sense and it does not help but if they are talking about restoring civil administration and getting soldiers back into the barracks that process has been going on for the last six years.
? Last six years there weren’t any soldiers on the street cannot be accepted Governor. We think it’s very recently that they were confined to the barracks. What have you to say?
A: What I say is that it is in progress.
? Is the government interested in reducing the number of soldiers in the future?
A: The reduction of the military means demilitarization and this term is used very loosely. There is no government or country in the world that is demilitarized except, may be, Costa Rica.
? What we meant was reducing the number of military personnel?
A: That is taking place. When you remove 59 military camps that means it is a big amount of soldiers. Any action in terms of reducing the number will be related to the national security policy.
? One of the burning issues is that there are 38 odd welfare camps in the Jaffna District alone. Do you see a major role to be played by you as a Governor to solve their issues of being resettled?
A: The welfare camps are there and the total number of displaced remaining in the camps is around 44, 000. In the beginning there were 300, 000 IDPs. But even one IDP is too many for me. So the current policy is to remove the word IDP IDP from the lexicon within the next five years.
? Why will it take five years?
A: It’s an obligation and the duty of the government. For every citizen it’s the duty to be given a decent house and livelihood but of course there are complex problems. Some of the IDPs don’t want to go back to their original places.
Muslim IDPs should return to Jaffna. But they also have permanent residences in Puttalam and elsewhere and want to get land here as well. The government is very keen getting all of them back to their own original places or if it’s not possible, to get alternative lands for them. Recently I held consultations with the Resettlement Ministry on resettling all the IDPs; the strategic target is within the next five years.
? Have you started a constructive dialogue between the government and the NPC?
A: Despite the dialogues we have started, making it constructive is a ‘tough’ task. I think in the midst of elections, and in the debate going on about the accountability and reconciliation, making the dialogue to be constructive, is a challenge. But it is something we should keep working on. You cannot produce it like a nest café within five minutes. If there is a political will within the Northern and the Southern politicians we can make it happen. There is no magic formula for that. Everybody must work hard and the parliamentary elections results shows that people want it and they voted out the extreme factions and voted for the moderates both in the North and the South.
? What do you think of the federal system the TNA is urging for?
A: I don’t look at the labels but at the product. If you have a product, then you can label it later.
? A national reconciliation process has been worked out and governments consider the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) model but customized for Sri Lanka is also a good model. What do you think?
A: We have to resolve our problems. You cannot transplant problems or solutions from elsewhere but we need to discuss between us.
?But that was a failure?
A: That is because the leaderships failed to reach a consensus.
? The local peace building needs outside help, the governments thought and that is the stance of the Tamil politicos too?
A: That is because they are unwilling or unable to work on it.
?But when you come to a point that it’s impossible then what should be done?
A: People have said during the elections it is time to come to consensual arrangements.
? People voted but it has been a complete failure so far on the reconciliation process, isn’t it?
A: We have to generate it here. We can get help but to transplant from one model to another, it does not work. Best is to sit and talk on this issue.
? As a Governor who was on the LLRC Board, can’t you continue to render your support?
A: I think the LLRC was educative. The LLRC was a success but persons involved in that failed to implement it. We are working on it. I think there must be a political consensual decision making culture in the country. You can differ in other matters like on the economic front but on national issue you must have consensus. As long as you don’t have the consensual approaches the problem will continue.