I Arrive

The overnight bus from Colombo arrived in Mannar at six in the morning. I unglued my eyes, wiped the drool off the side of my mouth, and realised that my bladder was pressing against my eyeballs. My comfy pair of baggy trousers had migrated to a point below my hips and was threatening to slip down to my ankles. I hastily adjusted my waistline, re-arranged my oversized tee shirt and grabbed hold of my daypack whilst raking my fingers through my hair. My mouth felt, tasted and smelt like the bottom of a budgie cage. Rather than elegantly descending from the bus, I tripped on the last step and ended up in Jeremy’s arms. The poor man got the full blast of my night breath.

I have no recollection of collecting my luggage or even getting into the tuk tuk that took me to my guesthouse, The Biobab, a well-run establishment at the hands of Jerome. I do however recall my relief when I saw that my accommodation had a western style toilet.
It suffices to say the joy associated with emptying one’s bladder after a long journey is a highly underrated activity.

I slept for seven hours straight.

Musings of a Hapless Volunteer to Mannar

Prelude

The overnight bus from Colombo arrived in Mannar at six in the morning. I picked up my Hermes “Kelly Bag”, adjusted my Channel sunglass and made my way to the front of the luxury bus whilst gently adjusting the pleats on my vintage Dior summer dress. I glanced down at my new strappy Jimmy Choo sandals, pleased that I had chosen this particular style over a more practical set of mules. A soft gentle breeze that followed the rising sun enveloped me as I descended from the bus and made my way to the awaiting car – a hybrid of course – that was to convey me to my ……..

OK. Let’s take a reality check…

Yes, I did take the overnight bus to Mannar, and yes, I did arrive at the ungodly hour of six in the morning, but, before I reveal all in this piece of fiction, I have to take you back to the beginning, and what idiotic, demented reasoning made me commit to spending a week of my precious holiday time in Mannar as a volunteer.

About two years ago, a flurry of emails crossed the ethers. There was to be a small literary festival at Monsalvat and Niromi de Soyza had been invited by the organizers to discuss her book. This book was at that time one of the more controversial books written about the conflict in Sri Lanka. My friends and I were agog. So clutching copies of “Tamil Tigress” close to our chest, two of my friends and I made our way to this artists’ colony in Eltham, located near the edges of suburban Melbourne.

Two other speakers shared the spotlight with Niromie in a program entitled “Missing Peace – Spotlight on Sri Lanka”. One was an activist and one was a photographer. After the presentation, everyone, and I mean everyone, crowded around Niromie to get books autographed. I took pity on the activist, and introduced myself to Jeremy Liyanage, the director of Diaspora Lanka (DL). His talk had included a description of the IT Platform Project that had been set up in the township of Mannar. After we had politely exchanged business cards, I asked him if IT Platform would be interested in a donation of second hand computers. To my horror, his eyes lit up in excitement. I had no way of delivering on this, my offer was framed to impress, not to be accepted.

Now, fast-forward 18 months…

Through some minor miracle, I was able to source 40 refurbished desk-tops and 20 lap-tops (thank you ANZ Bank). The logistics involved in getting these items to Mannar extended the ingenuity of the team at DL to the very limit of their patience and nearly gave Jeremy a heart attack.

The arrival of the computers in Mannar coincided with my holiday in Sri Lanka, and that is why, I found myself at Jampettah Lane in Colombo, awaiting the night bus to Mannar.

The Night Bus to Mannar

Nothing in Sri Lanka is easy. No plans can be made without friends getting involved, advice being offered and plans discussed, confirmed and cancelled, all without your knowledge.
In preparation for my journey, Jeremy had emailed me detailed instructions on the Jampettah Lane night bus to Mannar. These instructions were not clear enough for my self-proclaimed Tuk Tuk driver and bodyguard Mr Gune. In addition to location and time of bus departure, Mr Guna wanted the name of the bus driver. Events then got out of control when I realized Mr Guna had no idea where Jampettah Lane was. Frequent stops were made to inquire after directions from locals who gesticulated wildly in all directions. The GPS attached to my iPhone indicated we were circling our destination, but no amount of equally hysterical gesticulating on my part could divert Mr Gune.

When we finally reached our destination it was hard not to locate the Mannar bus. It was the only bus on Jampettah Lane. Notwithstanding, Mr Gune insisted on confirming the destination of the bus, and no doubt extricated the name of the poor driver in the process. I was busily fending off calls from Jeremy, who told me that “My Urine” has booked a ticket in my name. My cheeks burned red with embarrassment. Mr Gune refused to leave my side until the bus departed. By this time, my blood sugar levels had risen to critical levels and I was about to blow a gasket. I was hot and sweaty and like Marlene Dietrich, I wanted to be alone.

10pm clicked over, the bus engine clicked over, Mr Gune departed, the air conditioner came on and in unison, everyone absolutely everyone on the bus reclined their seats, covered themselves with heavy blanks, and prepared for sleep. The conductor slipped a Tamil movie into the DVD (“Villu”) and cranked up the volume. Various women pulled out rosary beads and proceeded to pray. Spare rosary beads decorated the bus.
The night bus to Mannar was on its way.

Reconciliation and donkeys on the agenda before Mannar

Day 4 Friday 27 April, 2012

Another one of my usual stop overs is at Professor Rajiva Wijesinghe’s stately walawa.  My usual entrance is by the back door and it feels familiar and homely to enter so.  Rajiva MP is the Minister for Reconciliation and his sprawling, cluttered dining table is testament to the piles of reading that his post demands of him.

His first comment was about his frustration with the diaspora.  “They are doing stuff everywhere.  I wish they would concentrate on one area like you guys.”  He encouraged external groups to contribute seed funds for projects just as we were doing and also to coordinate efforts on the ground.  “We have so many line ministries that coordination and integration suffers.  The result is official slow down.”

 

Professor Rajiva now convenes the Human Rights Action Plan which was approved by Cabinet last August.  He has also convened a policy workshop and has developed a draft National Reconciliation Policy with the President’s ‘in principle’ agreement.  Regarding the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report, Professor Rajiva told me that in December the President had called for an Action Plan but it was not forthcoming in time for Geneva, which hurt Sri Lanka’s case.  He thought that three elements had contributed towards a fresh airing of anti-government sentiments – the resolution proposed by the US against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, the adversarial fixedness of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and criticism by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).

Professor Rajiva went on to talk about the four reasons why the US was anti- Sri Lanka – the campaigning by the human rights ‘bleeding hearts’ in the US, annoyance over the warm China-Sri Lanka ties, the US view of Sri Lanka as an effective vehicle for exacerbating conflict between India and China and hence wooing India closer, and the natural predilection of the West to support the United National Party (UNP).  He spoke about Sarath Fonseka and how the US and the UK had supported his campaign.  In 2009 Sarath wanted to expand the army by 100,000, wanted to establish cantonments for security and keep IDPs in camps for much longer.  The President had purportedly replied, “Don’t be mad. We are not a country like Burma.”

Professor Rajiva invited me to attend two reconciliation meetings he was chairing in Mannar, in Nannattan Division and Mannar Town.  His goal was to give people a chance to air their views and issues and to encourage The Grama Niladharis (GN – village coordinator) to hold three weekly meetings with his/her constituency.  The first would target vulnerable groups like widows, women and other marginalised people, the second would focus on livelihood and the third would have a future focus.  The issues expressed would be fed up the line to the Divisional Secretary (DS) who in turn would prioritise and forward it to the Government Agent (GA), thus mobilising the chain of command to be aware of and act upon arising issues.  While I could appreciate the benefit of such a proposal, I questioned whether this too would lead to another type of bottleneck of too much information going up the system which had little capacity to handle the demand.  What would be other ways to reinvigorate the GN, DS and GA chain so that each level could take on a more serious advocacy role without simply being a conduit for an upward information flow?

To the vexed question of Muslim/Tamil relations, Professor Rajiva had this to say, “Run combined social and cultural activities and also language classes to which Muslims and Tamils are invited and English conversation classes too.  Encourage the government to get out of segregated schooling – girls/boys, Hindu/Muslim/Christian.  Tiny schools could be combined.  Get a petition together asking the President to implement his plan of school-based teacher recruitment and tri-lingual teaching.  Encourage the Australian diaspora to come and help run teacher training institutes.”

My next meeting was with Professor Siri Hettige from the Sociology Department of the University of Colombo.  He was interested in an update of the Mannarin Marumalarchi 2022 program which he and others from Colombo had attended in late 2011.  We talked at length of the Community Action Plan (CAP) methodology which was developed in the 1990s through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and trialled in Sri Lanka.  It entailed the establishment of local action groups comprising a cross section of the population which dealt with local issues.  In its day, the Heath Education Department sustained them.  Six hundred such groups still exist in Colombo today.  The CAP approach sounded similar to Professor Rajiva’s GN committees.

A tuk tuk ride away and I was speaking with Johann Rebert, International Alert’s Country Director in Sri Lanka.  Johann told me about their ongoing Young Members of Parliament program and asked me to address them about the diaspora in Australia and the work of Diaspora Lanka.  He also provided the names of Muslim contacts whom I could speak to – Hunais Farook, MP for the Vanni, Dr Farzana Haniffa at the University of Colombo and Dr at Peradeniya University.

Finally, before leaving for Mannar I caught up with Visakha Tillekeratne about our Donkey Welfare Project.  In late December we had undertaken a donkey count in preparation for this program.  Kartick Satyanarayan from Animal SOS in India was keen to come to Mannar and meet us to plan the project.  In usual fashion, Visakha had a shopping list of tasks for me!

“Now Jeremy, this is what you have to do…”  So firstly I was tasked with setting up an animal welfare organisation.  Secondly I had to arrange a meeting with Mannar’s fresh food traders so that the donkeys could benefit from fresh market refuse instead of their usual diet of plastic bags and scavenged items.  I should work through the Urban Council and develop a proposal to the World Health Organisation (WHO) to clean up the markets as well. Thirdly, Visakha’s organisation, Animal Welfare Trust, would contribute some funds and also develop a proposal to Animal SOS to microchip the donkeys’ ears for easy tracking, restore the sick animals to health, sterilise a percentage of the donkey population and develop a management plan for their survival and integration into the life of the town, possibly as part of a tourism strategy.  Fourthly I should undertake a study of how donkeys are made useful in other jurisdictions.  Lastly I was to meet with Animal SOS before I left Sri Lanka.  My orders made sense but finding the time to undertake these tasks would present a challenge.

I briefly discussed with Visakha our need to document the unique architectural features of Mannar as part of the town plan development.  Immediately the Queen of Networks dialled a number and in seconds was speaking to Aruni Malalasekara, a development architect, who agreed to come to Mannar for this purpose.  Our Visakha is a mover, a shaker and a rolling stone.  We are glad she is part of our team.

Late in the piece Majuran from Mannar informed me that the bus which I was booked on that night would not be running.  “What??  How can that be?”  We had built a fond regard for the night bus to and from Mannar and were frequent passengers on its service.  I had to be at a meeting at the Urban Council the next morning, so what was I going to do?  Like most things here, things fall into place if you don’t panic.  Richard de Zoysa came to the rescue, found out the train times to Vavuniya and organised to take me to Fort Station.  Kamal Raj in Mannar was busy negotiating a good van hire deal so that he could meet the train in Vavuniya and transport me to Mannar.  But when Richard saw the 45 kilos of luggage I was carrying, he shook his head in disbelief and tried to find porters who would help me onto the train.  There was no chance of getting a first class ticket as they had to be booked a couple of weeks in advance.

So the plan was for one porter to make a mad rush as the train pulled in and grab a seat for me while the other porter assisted with the baggage.  And it all went smoothly.  The guy ran alongside the train, threw himself through the door and grabbed a window seat in an ageing compartment.  When we started to bring in the luggage I saw how unworkable it all would be.  Even if we could fit it all into a very narrow and crowded space, I would need to stay awake all night to ensure none of it went missing – big dilemma because I was dog tired.  One of the porters who had momentarily vanished returned with a first class ticket, and a sleeping berth to boot!  There had been a last minute cancellation and for Rs300 more, I could relax.  Richard sure can make things work and he pulled it off again.  I shared a compartment with a young army soldier returning to duty in the north.  He was great company and looked after me for the entire journey.  Later he showed me his thigh wound where a bullet had passed through and also his back which had been damaged by a claymore explosion.  I had a good night’s sleep in spite of the lurching and gyrating train which spent more time bouncing off the tracks than on!  In the early morning I was met by three of my wonderful Mannar youngsters who had left home at 3:00am to meet the train on time.  Finally I was on my way to Mannar.

Solid Gold

Day 3 Thursday 26 April

I caught up with my Aunty Pooranam (not my real aunt) in Kaduwela and had a slanging match to see who could outdo each other in the insult-hurling stakes. For an older person she is young at heart and fun to be around.  Our outward contestation belies the strength of our affection for one another.  To prevent her fussing over food and her attempts to drown me in in vats of delectable curries, I arranged a lunch meeting with Prashan and Christy from Sri Lanka Unites (SLU).

I always look forward to my meetings with the Sri Lanka Unites crew as they are a tremendously positive bunch.  These guys and gals are the real thing.  They combine brawn, brains and benevolence in a unique and heart-connecting way, with amazing success.  I have met Prashan de Visser on several occasions now and we are close to commencing a collaborative venture or two in Mannar.  I had remembered to bring his jacket which he had left in the back of my car in Melbourne during our last meeting.  Prashan told me about one of their up and coming stars, Elijah Hoole, from Mannar.  He at the ripe old age of 19 years will be joining our team of youngsters to explore ways to respond to the deteriorating relationship between Muslims and Tamils in Mannar.  Just to give a sense of the calibre of these guys and their reconciliation initiatives, Elijah (a prophet in his own right) and his local SLU supporters helped a group of ex-LTTE cadres over several months to prepare and successfully sit for their A Level exams.  How inspiring and practical was that!  These guys have hundreds of such stories.

Prashan’s goal is for Sri Lanka to be recognised as the best model of a youth-led movement for post-conflict reconciliation anywhere in the world – and they are well on track to achieving it.  To cement their reconciliation gains, they plan to set up Reconciliation Centres in all districts of Sri Lanka.  Out of a refurbished ‘freight container’ they hope to run IT and English training programs, business development and counselling services.  The growing SLU network around the world would fund the costs of these centres.

We were soon joined by Christy Rajah, the other half of the founding team.  While Prashan is of Burgher and Sinhala heritage, Christy is a Tamil from Mannar.  The pair met in 1998 at school.  Christy’s father packed his son off to school in Colombo because he was concerned that this angry boy would join the LTTE.  At first Christy and Prashan rubbed each other up the wrong way.  The war had ensured that there was minimal interaction between Tamils in the North and Sinhalese in the South.  And so when Christy referred to the LTTE as freedom fighters and Prashan labelled them as terrorists, it was on for young and old!

In 1983, Christy and his family were displaced to India until 1989 and then from 1990 to 1994.  Christy saw and learnt many things in the IDP camps.  From 8 to 18 years of age the war affected him badly as he witnessed psychologically affected children, witnessed the demise of his education and experienced violence, hatred and extremist attitudes.  I asked Christy whether he could put into words the process he had been through, from LTTE supporter to a champion of reconciliation and he easily identified three phases – the development of a friendship with the ‘enemy’, understanding the nature of conflict and getting involved in practical activities.

He soon began to reminisce about the budding friendship with Prashan and the growing trust between the two.  That close and special relationship became the grounds on which difficult and conflicted views were aired.  Their friendship had become most precious to both of them and there was no way they wanted to sacrifice this for the sake of point scoring or maintaining stubborn positions.  Both began to realise the power of the friendship to transcend conflicted worldviews and they gradually saw the positive impact when they worked together.  “I was invited to Prashan’s family’s place and my family invited Prashan.  We saw the kindness of each of our families and this started to heal us.”  What helped was that both families were involved in charitable works, with Christy’s father undertaking it through the Tamil organisation, PLOTE (People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam) and Prashan’s father, a minister of religion, doing it through the church.  As friends, together they were involved in youth programs and this gave Christy an opportunity for a greater understanding of Sinhalese people.

“My friendship with Prashan changed me.  Before Prashan I saw all Sinhalese people as bad but though our friendship I began to realise that Sinhalese were also human and not bad, and wanted to help Tamil people.”

The second stage in Christy’s ‘about turn’ came with a greater understanding of the nature of conflict.  He attended workshops on conflict management and peace development conducted by Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) and Sarvodaya.

“The war affected me.  During the time when I saw Sinhalese as the enemy I used to write poems about them.  Then five years later I re-read those poems and saw that what I had written were lies.”

The third stage was a realisation that Christy’s negative experiences were being transformed positively through practical actions.  In 2002 Christy made a difficult decision to leave Colombo and his new found friends to go to the North to help his people.  In Vavuniya he was plunged into activity.  He helped out in children’s orphanages and elders’ homes and through offering counselling started to comprehend and re-connect with the suffering of his people.  In September 2007 while working for Sarvodaya he once more experienced at close quarters the sick and injured who were being displaced from Arrippu and Silathurai to Mannar.  Christy provided food for the IDPs and various items for the children.  He helped bury bodies.

In 2008 the Northern war started in Manthai West.  Motivated by love for these people, Christy and 200 volunteers started to clear the jungles and build make-shift shelters.  At Menik Farm his day commenced at 5:00am and ended at 11:00pm.

“I worked closely with the Sri Lankan Army.  The Sri Lankan Army were really committed and helped the people greatly.  The diaspora don’t understand that.  They were very disciplined.  Brigadier Vikum Liyanage adopted a village.  They hated Velupillai Prabhakaran but loved the people and would share army food and facilities with us.  Our relationship with the army helped us to help the people.”

“For 18 years I lived a bad life.  I was often angry and violent.  After meeting Prashan I then went through a change where my wounds started to heal.  I decided I didn’t want to live in the past anymore.  I wanted to serve people, become a good person and a model for others.  People started to say, ‘This is a new Christy!’  I taught myself to see the positive in bad situations.”

I asked Christy about the Muslim/Tamil situation and what he felt could be done about it.  He responded,

“Starting with young people is better.  While I worked with Sarvodaya, we were involved in a four year project running three to four workshops every week focused on Muslim/Tamil peace dialogues.  In the end we saw no real change.”

Christy concluded by saying that the Catholic Church wanted to retain and usurp its power as a counterbalance to the growing influence of the Muslims.  He also felt that if people were connected to politicians then it was difficult to bring change.  He reiterated that young people were the way forward and advised us to consider a joint Hindu, Muslim and Christian school project.

The last meeting of the day was with Shamini Fonseka, a Rotarian, who was a contact of Diarne Kreltszheim, a tireless worker for Diaspora Lanka in Melbourne and a delightfully mad individual. It was night time and the usual hyperactive Galle Road traffic was lulled to a murmur.  Rocky the monster Alsatian bounded up to me once Shamini opened the front door.  Far from tearing me apart limb from limb, he responded sheepishly to my stroking and no longer posed a mortal danger.

Rarely do I freely speak about Diaspora Lanka and its work because a listener’s level of initial interest is usually limited.  However in this instance Shamini appeared genuinely enthralled.  It felt good to share more expansively about our work to such a receptive host.  The original reason for my visit had been to see if a Rotary Club in Colombo through their contacts could obtain a letter from a custom’s official who would confirm in writing the waiving of customs fees for a shipment of 80 second hand computers for war affected young people in Mannar District and 12 hospital beds bound for other needy locations in Sri Lanka.  This was always going to be a tricky and difficult ask and Shamini undertook to explore the possibility further.  It so happened that Shamini also worked in IT business, a potentially perfect fit as a mentor for one of our projects, IT Platform, in its transition from a training program of 25 young people into a profit-making youth enterprise which would ‘computerize Mannar’.  To my great delight Shamini showed real interest in coming to Mannar and contributing her skills and experiences wherever needed.

A chance encounter was turning into solid gold! Back in my room at sweet Mrs Nimal Gunasekere’s cosy abode, and as the fan whirred overhead on a sultry Colombo night, I felt privileged to be a part of this unfolding adventure in the country of my birth.

A day of breaking through

Day 2 Wednesday 25 April, 2012

So the quest to find traction with the Urban Development Authority (UDA) was on!  Without their cooperation and blessing we had no chance of influencing the new Mannar Town Plan, over which they had carriage.

Another dedicated and talented young Town Planner, Jude Prasanna, guided me to Mrs Indu Weerasoori, the Deputy Director General of the Urban Development Authority.  This was going to be the tough meeting.  On my previous visit to Sri Lanka in November and December last year we had tried to make contact with the UDA to find out where they were at with the Mannar Town Plan.  No doors would budge and the UDA seemed to be an impenetrable fortress. So I was surprised when I was given an appointment first thing in the morning!  Again another committed and delightful lady, Mrs Indu perused our Mannarin Marumalarchi 2022 report and seemed impressed by the level of community consultation we had done.  She immediately rang the UDA Director in the Northern Province (Jaffna), Mr Rajanayagam, and asked him to meet with me to discuss how Diaspora Lanka could work with the UDA on the Mannar Town Plan.

Then Mrs Indu reached for her phone and summoned the officer working on the Mannar plan to join us.  Aruna Prasanna, the Deputy Director of Land Management discussed the status of the plan after which he was asked to work with Diaspora Lanka and to share all their information with me.  I couldn’t believe that this was all happening!  Aruna was an inspiring guy as well.  He had done his Town and Country Planning degree at the University of Moratuwa and his Masters in the Netherlands.  We spent the next hour sharing information and nutting out how we could make this the best town plan ever!  A great relationship was starting to be established!

Designated author of the new Mannar Town plan, Anura Prasanna

Then onto the National Physical Planning Department to meet Mr Veranjan Kurukulasuriya, Director of Research, two floors down from the UDA in the new premises at Satsiripaya, Battaramulla. Veranjan had a wealth of knowledge in many fields and shared rare historic titbits.  Did I know that there was an ancient city where the Thiruketeeswaram Kovil is presently situated and it was because of this city and its waterways that Anuradhapura flourished?  Well… no I had no idea.  He advised that when thinking of the Mannar Town Plan we had to take these historical aspects into consideration too, and to think in terms of the whole district, both rural and urban, before getting into the detail of planning the town.

He encouraged me to think about how to bring the benefits of the city to the village, and also to read Lewis Mumford’s The City in History. Mumford explained that cities rise and fall but when they collapse, what enables the phoenix to rise from the ashes was the village; the village beings the resilient component.  Veranjan went on to say that the reason why there was still such low urbanisation in Sri Lanka was because successive governments had focused on and strengthened the social component of the village.  On a more sobering topic, on looking toward the future and the possibility of finding oil off the coast of Mannar, he was more circumspect about its benefits and opined that “oil is followed by war.”  Nevertheless, Veranjan and Prabakaran promised to help the cause and would wait until formally invited by the UDA to join the ‘Mannar Development Plan’ Clan.

Next on the list of people to touch base with was Mr MA Thajudeen, the Additional Secretary for the Minister of Industry & Commerce, Risad Bathiudeen.  We meet regularly and I enjoy the candour of the relationship.  He encouraged me to involve the Minister in our planning processes and to seek out his vision for Mannar.  According to Mr Thajudeen, the Minister’s key priorities were the equal treatment of all IDPs and specifically the resettlement of IDPs from Puttalam which the NGO sector had largely forgotten, infrastructure development and livelihoods for the IDPs (industrial estates, a fishing harbour and house construction)and the development of Mannar Town.

Mr Thajudeen stressed the need for reconciliation programs targeting Muslims and Tamils and in his opinion needed to start with the Muslim leadership, particularly maulovis and teachers, before young people.  To him, a victim mentality among the Muslims was evolving as they fast become an unwanted community.  The host community of Puttalam which housed large numbers of displaced Muslims since 1990 recently requested that His Excellency ask all Muslims to vacate their district.  The Tamils of Mannar, at this end, are seeing large numbers of Muslims return and are reluctant to share scarce resources with them, even though they are officially registered in Mannar.

Mr Thajudeen went on to say that many Muslims expressed how they had been discriminated against by Tamil officers.  The converse was expressed by Tamils who felt that they were being discriminated against by the Minister who seemed to favour Muslims over Tamils especially over the distribution of land and jobs.  Mr Thajudeen explained that the Minister appointed large numbers of volunteer teachers and refugee camp coordinators to look after the dispossessed Muslims in Puttalam.  The awarding of government jobs and land could be seen as a measure to balance the historical scales of injustice and to reward people’s volunteer efforts over years.

Before the displacement of 1990, there were conflicts between Tamil Catholics and Hindus and respectful relations between Tamils and Muslims.  Many Muslim youth even joined the LTTE and some as Area Leaders.  Imagine their shock and sense of betrayal when they were forced out of Mannar by the LTTE.  Now the major conflict in these parts is between Tamils and Muslims, and much of it based on land entitlement.  The loss of their land which was in 55 acre lots, with some redistributed to the Catholic Church, has left a festering sore between the communities.  While in exile in Puttalam, the number of Muslim families has now tripled in size and they seek restoration of house and land back in Mannar to cater for this increase.   There is also a twenty year gap in political representation to make up for as well, so the challenges are great.

The fifth meeting of the day was with Mr ABM Ashraff, Director, Private Sector Development, Ministry of Economic Development, another wise and committed public servant I regularly catch up with.  His role is to stimulate private sector development and make it easier for businesses to flourish.  He mentioned that the World Bank/International Finance Cooperation releases a global report, Doing Business Index which ranks countries in order of ease of getting business done.  Sri Lanka is currently ranked 89/183 (India is ranked 132nd and Australia 15th).  One of Ashraff’s tasks is to address the bottlenecks in the system highlighted in these reports to enable more efficient and effective business development, and he does this through reforming administrative and legal systems.

Mr ABM Ashraff, Ministry of Economic Development -
always informative and insightful

Another area of interest to Ashraff is tourism.  While the government’s main strategy is to attract high end tourism, Ashraff liked our idea of targeting alternative tourism markets centred on sustainable and culturally sensitive approaches – what they call community tourism.  When I explained that we had started to trial diaspora sojourns in local Homestay options and were exploring the feasibility of a Villagestay program, he was genuinely excited and asked me to pen a concept note regarding these initiatives which could be then presented to the directors within the Ministry.

The day wound up with drinks and dinner with Richard de Zoysa, one of our committed Diaspora Lanka team in Colombo.  A time of deep conversation progressively morphed into a lighter atmosphere of live music and energetic dance at the local Rhythm & Blues club.

Back to Sri Lanka

Day 1 Tuesday 24 April, 2012

I arrived at the usual ungodly hour of 2:00am with 45 kilos of luggage (mostly gifts).  I was met by Visakha Tillekeratne (the one who never sleeps) and whisked away to Colombo.  After a few hours of refreshing rest I woke to the pleasant sound of rain.  I could hear the prayers of the Muslim faithful buoyed by breezes over Kollupitiya as the horns of the buses on Duplication Road vied for prominence.  Food memories were stirred at breakfast time with a plate of string hoppers, kiri hodhi and fish curry followed by a cup of Ceylon tea.

After getting re-hooked up with a Mobitel internet dongle and a mobile reload courtesy of Dialog, I was ready for action, and the meetings started…

First up my mission was to find out how a bunch of outsiders like us could influence the new Mannar Town Plan which was currently being developed by the Urban Development Authority (UDA) in Colombo.  Mannar residents who had participated in last year’s Mannarin Marumalarchi 2022 visioning program had signalled that significant town planning issues should be addressed as a priority. To achieve this I knew we had to build a strong and fruitful relationship with the UDA and the National Physical Planning Department (NPPD), crucial players in this space.   So a meeting with P Prabakaran, Town Planner & Urban Designer from the NPPD was most helpful to get my bearings in a discipline not my own.  Although earlier, all planning authority was with Town & Country Planning, more recently the Urban Development Authority had taken over the development of urban centres, declaring 40 urban areas.  In developing these centres, the UDA was required to follow regional and national guidelines set down by the National Physical Planning Department.  As in any jurisdiction, more cooperation between the planners and implementers would ensure better outcomes, and this is what we hoped would be the basis of our new town plan for Mannar.   Prabakaran also informed me that the railway from Madawachchiya had commenced although priority would first be given to the construction of the Jaffna line.  The Indians and Chinese were pumping $300 million into the project.

     Prabakaran – gentle genius

I would like to sincerely thank Steve Dunn, President of the Planning Institute of Australia (Victoria) for connecting me with Prabakaran!  Praba is a smart, helpful and delightful guy who knows his stuff.  He had previously undertaken training and work experience in Melbourne through the invitation of the Planning Institute of Australia.  Needless to say a scheduled one hour meeting after work at MC (Majestic City) turned into five hours of stimulating discussion. We downed a tantalising papaya and mango juice and later a mound of hoppers, seeni sambol and prawn curry at Green Cafe.

Landed!

Time for a little tea and sympathy before I get back into writing my blogs again… Returning to Australia from Sri Lanka has had its complications.  I had prearranged with my mobile phone company to reinstate my plan after a two months absence; they decided to cancel it instead and charge me an arm and leg to reinstate it.  My computer hard drive died and took with it a significant numbers of photos and documents.  I had to find a flexible internet provider and a prepaid product to get me connected again. I had to start looking again for affordable accommodation in Melbourne (affordable??).  They also cancelled my university enrolment because I hadn’t enrolled by the due date.  Not having access to their site from overseas perhaps contributed to that outcome.  So I have been somewhat preoccupied with just finding my feet again.

Here is a short tale about another laudable bureaucrat, this time in Mannar.  Mrs Stanley de Mel is the Divisional Secretary (DS) of Mannar and in charge of 49 Grama Niladari (GN) Divisions and 166 villages – a total population of 72,872, including approximately 30,000 Muslims and 14,071 students.  This Division holds 51% of Mannar District’s population even though there are five divisions in all.  There are increasing pressures on land and amenities as many groups return – refugees from India after two decades, internally displaced persons from the Vanni and Muslims from Puttalam and also Sinhala families who used to live in South Bar and Madhu many years ago and have deeds to prove it.  There is little state land to give away and the 3,500 badly needed houses are now grossly insufficient now that the Muslims are returning, particularly to Mannar Town and Musali.

Mrs de Mel is warm, obliging, makes time for strangers (me) and their strange requests.  Yet one can sense that she is made of tougher stuff.  Often she has to come between warring factions and help find solutions that would test even the wisdom of Solomon.  She has been loved, admired, criticized, screamed at and punched up badly but her commitment to Mannar seems unwavering.

The DS mentioned a couple of her mediation experiences in passing.  In one area of the Division, there is a housing scheme with 80 dwellings which needed an access road.  The purported owner of the land on which that access road would be situated refused to give the land for that purpose.  A heated and protracted fight broke out between the people of the housing scheme and the land owner.  Eventually they all descended on the DS to ‘sort it’.  The owner refused to budge even when offers to buy that portion of land were made.  Finally she packed them all off needing some time to devise a strategy to coax this impasse.  Eventually she decided to send one of her officers to the Survey Department in Vavuniya to get an actual survey plan of the area.  What she discovered was that the ‘owner’ had encroached on government land and had built his house on it.  She now had the upper hand and gave an ultimatum to the owner – provide the access road or forfeit his land and house.  In the end it was an easy matter.

There was another instance of a family who had built a house in Talaimannar ten years before.  A family returning from the refugee camps in India claimed it was their land and had the deeds to prove it.  Again Mrs de Mel again was asked to intervene in the quarrel because neither party was willing to budge.  Eventually the DS negotiated an acceptable settlement.  The family with the original deed was monitarily compensated for the land by the current owner and built elsewhere.  Many such conflicts don’t always end in such an amicable way.

According to Mrs de Mel, over the years numerous residents have encroached on government land and taken it as their own. When government agents try to reclaim it, they are often accused of land grabs.  Keeping track of land has become problematic as now there is a severe shortage of technical officers in Mannar. Most of the officers from all five divisions who had looked after land registers, roads, buildings and the rest were poached by other districts following the local government elections of last year.  So problems like sea water encroachment in three villages – Pallimunai, Santipuram and South Bar have to take a back seat for now.

I am surprised at how well Mrs de Mel’s positive demeanour cloaks her uncompromising resolve to be an effective ‘go-between’ in many politically and socially sensitive situations.  She is the veritable ‘meat in sandwich’ between higher levels of government and the people and among warring factions over a legion of issues, and wears the flak if any party is aggrieved.  Upon reflection, I suppose my calamitous issues on my landing in Australia fade into insignificance when compared to her’s.