TEN YEARS AFTER THE CONFLICT: COULD HAVE BEEN BETTER

LONG-TERM RECOVERY IS AN IMPORTANT PHASE IN RESOLVING CONFLICTS. CAN WE BE SATISFIED ABOUT OUR POST-CONFLICT RECOVERY? WHAT’S STILL MISSING?

Even for somebody who had lived throughout the period, it is difficult now to imagine how gloomy things were during the conflict. Sometimes simple things.

I was then attending my MBA classes at the University of Colombo. After classes, at around 8.30pm, I walk in the dark to my car parked outside (the university did not allow cars to be parked inside, fearing bombs). Since there were no street lights, it was almost pitch dark. There was hardly any traffic.I drive home fast along dark, empty roads. I see a rare pedestrian or two. All shops are closed by sunset. Theaters have their last shows at 6.30pm. There are few other entertainment opportunities. No mega teledramas on TV. We go to sleep early. By 10pm, almost the entire country is silent.

That was Colombo, an area not directly affected by the conflict. Can we fairly compare the North and East to Colombo? I guess not. For several decades, there had been no organised economic activity in the North and East. A large section of the population remained economically isolated. Perhaps the only significant South-to-North cash flows were salaries and pensions for public servants. Trade was limited. No infrastructure was built. An incomplete study on rebel economics during the ceasefire period listed only three income sources (in order of magnitude): black money (earned from transporting drugs, mercenary/terrorist activities), direct transfers from the west,and ransom from private businesses.

IT WAS ONE OF THE FASTEST CONFLICT RECOVERIES THE WORLD HAD SEEN. THE SPEED WAS IMPRESSIVE

In 2001, Sri Lanka witnessed its worst economic crisis in recent history. This was a double whammy of 9/11 attacks in September and the Bandaranaike International Airport attack in July. The tourism industry dropped. Most tourist hotels were at least partially shut and others offered below-cost rates for local travelers, at least to partially cover costs. Aircraft flew with more empty seats than passengers. Some companies, with no new businesses, reduced staff by asking employees to take leave on alternative days. Software companies, even those catering to the international market, cut perks for professional staff. Professionals dreaded losing their jobs. Getting a new one was just not possible. Employment opportunity advertisements on Sunday newspapers were so few that the section shrunk to a few pages. Almost every company ceased recruitments. No bonuses or increments were granted at year-end. GDP shrank 1.5% that year, the first and only time since independence. A government collapsed, for the first time after 1977, purely for economic reasons.

In such a backdrop, it was a great relief when the conflict ended 10 years ago in May 2009. It wasn’t Prabhakaran’s death that we celebrated, but an end to hard times. (Similarly, the US was jubilant following the death of Osama bin Laden and it was not because they sought vengeance.) For those of my generation, we were hopeful about the future after a long time.

The recovery came faster than anybody expected. The speed was impressive. It was one of the fastest conflict recoveries the world had seen.

I visited Timor Leste in 2012. That was 10 years after the conflict and gaining independence. Dili, the capital of Timor was, even in 2012, was a dead city. Traces of conflict – badly damaged and deserted buildings, checkpoints and the presence of UN security, ruined infrastructure – were everywhere. The economy was almost as bad as it was in 2002. Timor was the poorest nation in Asia even in 2012. It looked like the country had just stood still for 10 long years.

Sri Lanka’s experience was entirely different. I visited Jaffna in 2013, just four years after the conflict, and observed as follows: Point Pedro is not a typical destination for a tourist. Nagadeepa, Jaffna Fort and even Keerimalai now draw more crowds from the South. I recommend a visit. This journey will surely offer you a taste of development in the North. That is, if you are still unconvinced. You move across the peninsula passing Kopai, Puttur and Achchuveli towns, but nothing is as impressive as Nelliadi. The supermarket is understandably not comparable with one in Nugegoda. Still, the nearby electronic consumer goods shop sells every item the one at Homagama does. I counted at least two bank and three finance company branches. Suddenly, you feel Adam Smith’s invisible hand amazingly visible. Reach Point Pedro for another surprise. An ample city center is being built. It is larger than ‘Royal Plaza’ at Battaramulla.

I wasn’t talking about Jaffna city. This was rural North. Within five years, all physical traces of war were mostly erased. Now 10 years after the conflict, we see former ‘conflict areas’ are even more ahead. At least economically, if not socially.

This is thanks to all successive governments. The N&E recovery was one area they worked efficiently and effectively. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government, at record speed, laid railway lines up to Kankesanthurai and built the Sangupiddy Bridge, among other things. Yahapalanaya extended railway lines from Medawachchiya to Mannar. Both governments took quick measures to build other infrastructure facilities including roads, electricity, voice and data communication. The Departments of Education and Health diligently attended to soft infrastructure issues. Education facilities were restored so fast and to efficiently that we see names of students from the Jaffna district among O/L and A/L toppers.

MORE IMPORTANTLY, THE PROCESS SHOULD NOT BE DISTURBED BY DAMAGING POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS

The private sector has played a key role in re-establishing markets and services. Almost all local commercial banks now serve previously conflict-hit areas. So do finance companies. Supermarket chains have gradually entered N&E towns. Fashion shops in some areas of the Eastern province, like Batticaloa, offer almost the same options available in Colombo. Data communication is excellent. The only lingering drawback could be in the hospitality sector. This has more to do with low tourist arrivals than facilities.

If at all, we still see issues with recovery, when we get into numbers in detail. Poverty is pronounced in N&E than in other parts of the country. Four districts of the North have 8.5% of poor people in the island, while three districts of the East had 14%. In other words, these two districts that have only 8% of the population have over 22% of the poor. Poverty does exist in areas least affected by the conflict (the Central Province, for example, has 18% of poor people), but the situation is not this bad.

What’s still lacking in the bigger picture of recovery is the establishment of income means. This might happen, but it will take time. More importantly, the process should not be disturbed by damaging political developments. Wherever the political solutions, they should support the economic recovery and uplifting the lives of the N&E population. Only then will we be able to truly boast about the recovery.