17th March 2002

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Prime Minister on historic mission of hope to the north

Not guns but goodwill

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti, reporting from Jaffna
After more than 25 years of death, devastation and destruction, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe undertook a historic two day peace mission to launch the process of healing and rebuilding what some Tamil leaders see as a mini Hiroshima.

For Mr. Wickremesinghe the landmark two day mission was the highest point of his political career and there was goodwill all round from Tamil people but there was also some scepticism or concern over the peace initiative.

One of the main requests voiced by the politicians and residents of Jaffna was the re-opening of the Kandy-Jaffna road or A-9 main supply road.

The Prime Minister assured that under the terms of the MoU the main supply route would be opened at the earliest after major repairs were attended to.

" It is important that the people of Jaffna also enjoy the quality of life enjoyed by the rest of the country. While overnight changes cannot be introduced, the long neglected area would enjoy better supplies with the immediate repairing and the subsequent reopening of the road. Our intention is to keep the entire country well supplied and it is sad that Jaffna has been denied so much," he said.

The Premier who arrived in Jaffna on Thursday morning, accompanied by ministers Tilak Marapana, Jayalath Jayawardena, Suranimala Rajapakse and T. Maheswaran along with Joint Operations chief Rohan Daluwatta and the three service commanders were received at Palaly by TULF Vice President V. Anandasangari and A. Vinayagamoorthy of the ACTC.

Speaking to troops at Palaly the Prime Minister expressed the nation's gratitude for their long years of dedicated service in defending the territorial integrity. Stressing the need to ensure proper implementation of the ceasefire he said it was important that service personnel understood the new role they were expected to play. "With the guns falling silent in the north, we the politicians will attempt to have a political ceasefire in the South so that we all may soon enjoy the benefits of a lasting peace," he told the troops.

" Even a single violation by the armed forces, committed knowingly or unknowingly would be to the detriment of the government. If there are violations on the part of the government troops, it could result in more violations by the LTTE," he said.

Moving on to the Forward Defence Line (FDL) in Muhamalai, beyond which point is the area under LTTE control, the Prime Minister said he wished for a day when there was no more a 'no man's land' but for a country that was united and the war a thing of the past.

Having shared lunch with troops in Koddadai, Mr. Wickremesinghe arrived in Jaffna town to hold discussions with local politicians, community workers and government officials. Recollecting his last visit to Jaffna in 1987, soon after the signing of the Indo-Lanka peace accord, he said, "the memories of the devastation are still vivid, and now we should begin a process of healing and rebuilding."

Calling on Jaffna's Bishop Thomas Soundranayagam at the Bishop House, Mr. Wickremesinghe said the Church had an important role to play in the peace process.

The Prime Minister participated in a series of religious ceremonies held at the Sri Murugan temple in Nallur, Sri Naga Vihara at Nagadeepa. 

Nagadeepa, a sacred place to Buddhists is believed to have been visited by Lord Buddha to settle a dispute between two Naga clan brothers over a gem encrusted throne. 

People thronged the area when the Prime Minister visited it and wished him a safe journey.

Mr. Wickremesinghe also visited Hartley College, and urged the students to evolve into 'open minded young men' so that they may have a future that was devoid of the ravages of war. "The biggest investment of any government is in its people. Like in the South, people should have the right to live under the rule of law with human dignity and with their political rights also upheld. They should have the right to support or not support political parties, hold meetings, express political views sans fear of suppression or reprisal, plough fields, educate children, hold properties and lead a normal life in every sense of the word," he said.

Although the government has promised to open the A9 highway as soon as possible, senior military officials feel it might take some time as it would require the swift relocation of camps that are on either side of the A9 route. 

Many of the officers who spoke to us believed there should be an end to the senseless fighting and felt there was a greater chance for peace this time. 

A senior army officer from the Point Pedro army unit told us that it was futile to fight one's own countrymen. "These are not foreign invaders, but Sri Lankans. We should come to some understanding with the LTTE, specially when the political climate is conducive to the government, as there is tremendous international pressure on the LTTE with the global commitment to prevent terrorism ," he said.

Many of the soldiers also expressed optimism and said they were enjoying the temporary truce and wished it would last. 

"We are looking forward to an end to this conflict and going back to our villages," one of them said.

The residents of Jaffna held different views about peace but appeared to be afraid to voice them in fear of possible reprisals.

A sense of scepticism expressed by a Jaffna Central College teacher reflected the general feeling among the people.

With the government expected to shortly undertake a massive programme to rebuild Jaffna, the destroyed buildings silently bore testimony to the destruction wreaked by 20 years of militancy. 

Summing up the scene of destruction, ACTC's A. Vinayagamoorthy pointing towards some bombed buildings in Chavakachcheri town told us there was no need to go to Japan to see Hiroshima. It was there to see in Jaffna.
A little music in their lives

The war ravaged people of Jaffna have little by way of entertainment to brighten up their lives. Many told us that due to lack of television towers, they could not watch television and even the radio transmission was weak.

"We feel like aliens, cut off from the rest of the country," they lamented.

In response the Prime Minister has instructed to transmit Shakthi TV in the northern peninsula before April this year.
Unearthing buried dangers

One of the biggest problems plaguing the people of the North and delaying the process of resettlement is the heavily mined roads.

According to service personnel, one of the biggest drawbacks in the demining process was the LTTE's method of laying mines. 

A senior Army officer attached to the Point Pedro Army Base said that the Army maintained clear records of where it had laid mines, hence it posed no problem when demining began. In contrast, the LTTE's mine laying had no identifiable patterns or methods, which caused difficulties in demining and increased the rate of casualties. 

He said that since signing the treaty banning anti personnel landmines, the Army had refrained from laying mines in the area of conflict and had returned the mines to the central armoury in Colombo. 

The Sri Lankan Army also launched a demining prgramme in Chavakachcheri in September 2000 and it is still continuing he said.

Another drawback was the lack of explosive detectors which are expensive and the heavy dependence on man power which resulted in casualties.

On his two day tour of Jaffna, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe along with Us Assistant secretary for South Asian Affairs Christina Rocca visited the demining demonstration site at Mawadipurama.
Better facilities for media 

The government has called for the immediate establishment of two fully equipped media centres in Jaffna and Vavuniya, following last week's visit to Jaffna by media personnel. 

A meeting has been called with the relevant authorities tomorrow with a view to planning the centres that would ensure better facilities for media personnel touring the North. In addition to this, the communication network of the armed services is also to be strengthened as it is learned that the northern information centre is ill equipped and functioning under serious constraints.

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