by FRANCES BULATHSINGHALA
Students clung from their school parapet walls and from every conceivable class room gap, while civilians clad in their ‘Jaffna best’ created a kaleidoscopic array on the streets, awaiting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on his two day visit to the Jaffna peninsula, three weeks after signing the historic memorandum of understanding with the LTTE leader, V. Prabhakaran.
From lack of educational facilities, to the problems faced by fishermen in Jaffna, he lent an ear to them all, meeting with academics, Jaffna political representatives, and administrative and civilian bodies in the peninsula.
Meanwhile the Kovil, the temple, the church – each religion comfortably integrated as monks accompanying the Premier kept offertories at the Kovil and the Hindu priests clad in their religious regalia took part in the offertries at the temple while the monks, the pusaries, the Catholic priests and Bishops sat side by side at the Bishops’ House – united in a common goal of searching for that treasure which had eluded Sri Lanka for nineteen years – peace.
The Palaly airport meanwhile was buzzing with military personnel who were queued up in their hundreds to greet the Prime Minister, the first Premier to visit Jaffna in 20 years who was ccompanied by Minister of Rehabilitation and Refugees Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena, Minister of Defence, Tilak Marapana , three members of the Buddhist clergy headed by Ven. Banagala Upatissa, Chairman of the Sri Lanka Maha Bodhi Society and other Government officials.
“I have come here as Minister of Education and as Minister of Youth Affairs. Today, I come as Prime Minister to prove that we are not hostile”, Mr. Wickremesinghe told journalists awaiting him at the Palaly airport.
Addressing a camoflauge of young faces who at present do not have to live with the war plauge, the Prime Minister reminded military personnel their responsibility in making the peace process a success.
“The importance of the cease-fire is that if we do not violate it, it would be difficult for the LTTE to do so”, the PM said pointing out the significance of the presence of the international monitors, who were not included in the peace efforts of 1994.
He however also conceded that the army should be alert.
“The army should be alert. The LTTE will have to go along with the law of the country. Let us do our part in making the cease-fire a success. Let us not knowingly or unknowingly violatethe cease-fire”.
The Prime Minister taking a realistic stance also said that he was aware of the doubt in the minds of some sections of the general public about the sustainability of the cease-fire.
“You have a great responsibility until we go for talks”, the Premier told troops before departing for Muhamalai by helicopter, to the last army barrack and Forward Defence Line – the point which is to be the checkpoint for civilian traffic after the A 9 Jaffna – Kandy highway is opened.
Asked about the opening of the A 9 route and the work carried out so far to facilitate the functioning of the road, the response of the Premier was that repair work of the A 9 route is being carried out at present by the Road Development authority.
“Once we complete the road re-construction we will open. The work should be completed in a month”; the Minister said pointing out that there would be no further reason to prolong the re-opening.
Jaffna kacheri meeting
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who on his closely woven schedule on Thursday lunched with troops and attended a pirith ceremony in Koddadai made his next stop landing at the Jaffna Central College to the cheers of students and proceeding to the Jaffna Kacheri auditorium where he spent close upon three hours meeting with the academics, representatives of student bodies Jaffna civilian organisations and and members of NGOs.
A prefect of the Jaffna Central College, and an Advanced Level student studying in the stream of Mathematics, K. Karthipan, whom the Sunday Observer spoke to, while he was standing to attention with the other school prefects and teachers outside his school waiting for the Prime Minister to pass through to his scheduled meeting at the Kachcheri epitomized the feeling of the Jaffna student population.
“For us, students, a lasting peace means undisrupted education. What we are used to for the past years is an eternal hampering of the educational structure by gunfire, which we had come to perceive as the norm for us. Things have now changed. Today, the visit of the Prime Minister to Jaffna at this crucial point after the signing of the MOU, is an indication that we could look forward to a lasting peace”.
The All Ceylon Tamil Congress member of Parliament, Apathurai Vinayagamoorthy, speaking at the Kacheri venue, echoed the sentiments expressed by this student when he said that it was the hope of the people that the ‘war days’ are now over. His chief appeal to the Prime Minister was to open the Jaffna land route which he pointed out would foster economic development, broaden the market for agricultural produce grown in Jaffna and alleviate to a great extent the many difficulties faced by the people of Jaffna.
He emphasized the delays and the high rates a Jaffna resident has to pay to travel through the present available modes of transport.
The lack of adequate hostel facilities for the University students, the need of additional funds by the RDA to complete the road repairng to enable a speedy opening of the A9 route and the need to expand the electricity to the region were among the shortcomings in the peninsula highlighted by the Jaffna Provincial Council representatives, the Road Development Authority representatives and other government representatives in the region.
A main aspect pointed out by the Provincial Council representatives were the importance of expanding the electricity supply in Jaffna and connecting it to the main supply grid.
The health sector
In the health sector, the Deputy Provencial Council Director, Mrs. Uma Sivapathisundaram brought the attention of the Prime minister to a dearth of 360 para medical officers.
The problems faced by the internally displaced people in the peninsular was yet another issue that was highlighted with a suggestion that the Rs. 1,300 provided by the Government per month for an IDP family of an average of five members, be increased. The academics present were headed by the Vice Chancellor of the Jaffna University, Prof. Balasundarampillai.
The Prime Minister as a response to the requests made by the sections of the Jaffna community pointing out that the brunt of the suffering owing to the war was in Jaffna, pledged to restore normalcy in the region and to look into both the immediate and long term solutions that could be achieved in each respective area.
“The war has taken a toll not only in Jaffna but in the overall national economy. We have prioritized the opening of the A9 land route. We are also in the process of arranging more civilian flights to Jaffna”, the Prime Minister said adding that he was confident of stepped up assistance by donor countries for rehabilitation projects in the North and East, with the continuing success of the peace process.
Emphasizing the need for the cease-fire to mature into a permanent negotiated settlement, Mr. Wickremesinghe pointed out the adjustment that would be required by the military and the LTTE to achieve this goal.
“Monitoring missions are good at the initial stage. But you cannot depend everyday on monitoring missions. I would say very confidently that we have narrowed the differences. The next few months are the most crucial in our history and we will work towards our goal”, the Prime Minister said.
After journeying from the Jaffna Kachcheri to the Nalur temple, dedicated to God Murugan, and participating in the temple rites with his Ministers in the required manner ‘barebodied’, the next stop of the Premier was at the Bishops’ House, where he was accompanied, as in the visit to the Nalur temple, by members of the Buddhist clergy as well as Hindu priests.
Given the red carpet welcome the Prime Minister was assured by Bishop Saundranayagam in his welcome address, of continuous and maximum support by the Catholic clergy of the North towards the success of the peace process.
Role of the Catholic clergy
The role of the Catholic clergy in the North could play to stabilise the peace vibes further were accentuated by the Premier who urged Jaffna Bishop Thomas Saundranayagam to join hands with the other Catholic Bishops of the North and East in order to ‘narrow the gap’ further between the Government and the LTTE. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who informed the Bishop that he had requested and encouraged his Ministers to travel to the Jaffna peninsula often as possible, agreed to look into the matters cited by Bishop Saundranayagam.
The request given the foremost importance by the Jaffna Bishop was the granting of assistance to the refugee families to rebuild their houses mainly families in the areas of Kankasanthurai and Punerin regions cited by him as some of the worst affected regions.
“This is a war ravaged city. Wherever you go you see dilapidated houses. Those who live in Jaffna as refugees today are those who became paupers overnight”, Bishop Saundranayagam said.
The Prime Minister who wound his day 1 in Jaffna offering flowers at the Nagaviharaya temple in the peninsular and meeting the Chief priest of the temple, Ven. Meegahajadura Gnanarathana, faced a similarly hectic schedule the following day, Friday, where he visited the Point Pedro 524 Brigade and the Hartly College, the oldest school in the Jaffna peninsula.
Having faced an exhaustively hectic schedule the day before and arriving face to face with the grave task of rehabilitating a war ravaged city, had not in anyway dampened his wit, which was exhibited when he addressed the students of Hartley college.
Distributing four computers to the school, and pointing out that Hartly College was always famous for its Mathematics Prime Minister Wickremesinghe wished the students luck in making Hartly College not only the best school in Jaffna but also the best school in the country”, a comment which naturally was followed by a thunderous applause accompanied by the sound of a few chairs toppling while eager students both junior and senior scrambled on top of chairs to get a final glance at the Prime Minister before he left the venue.
A fact, which was however not revealed about Hartley College, was that part of it functioned as an army camp with the students having enter the school through the camp entrance, while the teachers, (before the cease-fire), having had to surrender their identity cards at the entrance.
The most significant event, Thursday evening was the arrival of the US Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca, along with a delegation of members of the US Marines and and their participation in a mine removal demonstration conducted by the Sri Lankan military at a mine demonstration site in Mawadipuram.
TULF MP – Anandasangari
‘The Tamil people fully accept Ranil Wickremesinghe as their leader. The Tamil people has a complete trust in a leader who can bring about a negotiated settlement to the war and make right the wrongs which created the war and bring about equality to Tamils. Today, we have confidence that the Present Government can do so.
The next step that would bolster the peace process further would be the opening of the A9 route. We believe that the linking of Jaffna to Colombo through a land route and the roadway, which was opened from Omanthai to the uncleared Vanni, should benefit all civilians irrespective of their ethnicity. I believe that the LTTE should take this into account and act accordingly. This would complement the trust building efforts that are being undertaken by both the Government and the LTTE.’
Ven. Meegahajadura Gnanarathana, Chief Priest of the Naga Vihara, Jaffna
‘The visit of the members of the Buddhist clergy who accompanied the Prime Minister to the Jaffna peninsula is a significant indication of the unity we could achieve in this area. No member of the Buddhist clergy is against peace. Any conception, which propagates this thinking, should be dispelled.’
S. Sabarathnam, Secretary of the Thenmarachchi Welfare Association
‘Thenmarachchi was a lucrative town. Today it is resorted to that of a ghost town, the houses and buildings in these areas having been reduced to rubble.
Estimated to be rigged with thousands of mines, the Thenmarachchi region is yet to be de-mined. We hope that the families who at present live their lives as refugees in camps around the peninsula would soon be able to relocate to their respective areas and manage to re-create a home out of what is left of their houses.’