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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Reconstruction – New Challenges, New Directions

Lines Magazine: Our two decades of experience with the suffering that accompanied war has not made the suffering caused by two hours of Tsunami waves any easier to bear. This mind numbing grief; our individual and collective experience of loss, will remain with us as we move forward.

We have started moving forward – we can never fully restore what the Tsunami has taken, but we can extend our solidarity to survivors, do whatever is possible to at least mitigate the trauma of the past, and begin to rebuild our communities for the path ahead. To date this has involved relief efforts addressing immediate needs, and, already, plans for reconstruction to sustain long-term resettlement.

These relief and resettlement efforts do not take place in a socio-historical vacuum. Struggles over inter-ethnic justice, neo-liberalism, economic distribution, the disempowerment of women, caste bigotry and such have shaped the Lankan political landscape in significant ways over the last decades and even the tsunami cannot wipe out the imprint of these fault lines on the country’s socio-political structure. These struggles from the past will reach forward to shape future possibilities. However, the tsunami also adds a new context that comes with its own challenges and opportunities.

In this context, taking account of the past, while also responding to the new challenges and opportunities that have arisen from the tsunami, we would like to advance our vision for post-tsunami rebuilding and reconciliation. It is a vision committed to democratic participation, economic justice, inclusion and peace building:

Democratic participation in planning and implementing reconstruction
Most of those affected by the tsunami were marginalized communities that have been fundamentally disenfranchised from decision-making processes that have shaped their life possibilities, including their vulnerability to natural disasters. In the past this vulnerability has been enabled and exacerbated because civil society more broadly, and marginalized communities in particular, have been excluded from democratic ownership of planning processes; rather, planning has been captive to the aggressive territorial ambitions of those holding political office and military command, or the acquisitive commercial agendas of those wielding economic power. The acute vulnerability exposed by the tsunami’s destruction calls for a fundamental challenge to this modus operandi. Efforts to make reconstruction initiatives transparent and accountable to those most affected by them will be hard fought by those who have the most control of such processes – the GOSL Task Force to Rebuild the Nation’ has been peopled with the business elite and made accountable solely to the President; the TRO receives millions of dollars with little accountability to the people in whose name the money was raised; INGOs shaping relief operations are accountable only to donor priorities in the global north. International agencies have crowded out local civil society initiatives rather than enabling community led processes; the GOSL and the LTTE, have both pressed centralization as the dominant ethos within each of their circuits of power. Yet, what we need is coordination not centralization. We need relief resources that enhance democracy, not relief resources that empower the Lanka’s elites and advance donor agendas. We call for local ownership of rebuilding processes; we call for rebuilding that is premised on local communities’ own needs and aspirations.

Economic justice in planning and reconstruction initiatives
Over the past decades, the coastal poor have confronted multiple adversities – the economic ravages of war, including the transformation of fishing waters into naval battle fields; structural adjustment policies that maximized the economic burden borne by the poorest; environmental destruction of the coastal eco-system through the largely unregulated exploitation and destruction of natural resources; a precarious dependence on the tourism industry’s informal labor sector and others. These are both symptoms of structural marginalization and its result. Tragically, post-tsunami reconstruction plans may deepen the economic exploitation of these communities; observers have warned that the government may fast track the world bank conceived, donor endorsed, anti-poor “Regaining Sri Lanka’ program under cynical cover of ‘post-tsunami reconstruction’; plans are already afoot for supporting the tourism industry at the expense of fishing communities; the alarm has also been raised about the possibilities of graft and corruption by the powerful; thousands of displaced stand vulnerable to being dispossessed of their land along the coast. Moreover, reconstruction looks like it will be handmaiden to a neo-liberal economic agenda that will once again marginalize and further impoverish the most vulnerable. We call for reconstruction initiatives to be made transparent and accountable to the coastal poor so that there can be ongoing monitoring and assessment of the distributive impact of reconstruction programs. At its best, post-tsunami reconstruction processes could provide an opportunity to\begin engaging with the structural causes of poverty; more immediately, economic planning should at least, aim at enabling dignified sustainable, livelihoods for the working poor with a secure safety net that can mitigate the impact of events such as the tsunami.

Inclusion and pluralism in planning and implementing reconstruction initiatives
Struggles over received hierarchies and structural marginalization have been a recurrent feature of Lankan politics at many levels. Notwithstanding changes in the legal status and accompanying protections, these deeper structural and ideological marginalizations persist. Already, in the post-tsunami phase we have seen that women have to struggle on issues that range from sexual violence in refugee camps to inclusion at all levels of policy making on relief and reconstruction. Caste prejudice has been an issue in housing the displaced and policy making regarding resettlement. Minorities have alleged discrimination in aid allocation. Thus at many levels the patterns and modalities of relief have compounded caste discrimination, women’s marginalization, children’s vulnerability and inter-ethnic grievances. Against this backdrop, we call for fair and equitable aid distribution; we call for vigilance about the impact of reconstruction and resettlement plans in reproducing marginalization and exacerbating underlying social tensions, including ethnic demographics. We urge that reconstruction-planning processes be structured to proactively solicit the input of marginalized groups within local communities. Participation and influence should become a reality for the most vulnerable, not just the most vocal and visible.

Peace building and demilitarization in planning and implementing reconstruction
Many of the areas most affected by the Tsunami were precisely those that had suffered the brunt of political violence over the last two decades - in some cases victimized by the fighting in the North and East, and in others by the political violence of the late eighties in the South. Even over the course of the three year cease fire that had preceded the Tsunami, the region had suffered scores of political assassinations and thousands of cases of child recruitment; the Norway facilitated peace process virtually sanctioned this ground level militarization as long as the formal ceasefire was still in force. While some semblance of normalcy had been restored to the rest of the country, in the North and East civil society had been crushed by hyper-militarization, dissent had been suppressed by the threat of violent sanction, and a culture of fear remained the norm. Tragically, predatory militarization seems to be the norm for the post-tsunami landscape as well - from US troops wading onto beaches in Galle to efforts by GOSL and the TRO/LTTE to assert military control over refugee camps, to the LTTE’s recruitment of tsunami orphans. Against this backdrop, we call for the demilitarization of relief and resettlement operations; we call for reconstruction initiatives to be placed under civilian administration with maximum accountability and citizen access; these efforts should integrate reconstruction initiatives with efforts to demilitarize public life and restore civic trust. Equally, we call for fundamentally reframing the peace process to encourage and include greater civil society input and grassroots peace building.

As we try to come out of the double tragedies of war and the tsunami, civil society’s dynamic and generous response to the needs of Tsunami relief provide an opening for the demilitarization of public life and the promise that something positive can be reclaimed even from this bleakest of tragedies. Over the last month, stories of loss have been accompanied by stories of hope and inter-ethnic solidarity. More significantly even, against the odds of war and communalism, over the last twenty years the multi-ethnic region along the eastern coastline continued to sustain a fragile but resilient strand of commitment to inter-ethnic justice and pluralism. In honor of the dead then, let us make this moment of collective mourning also an opportunity to make a commitment to an ethos of pluralism, human security and democratization.

Vasuki Nesiah S. Nanthikesan Ahilan Kadirgamar

Co-Editors, lines magazine (www.lines-magazine.org; Email contact@lines-magainze.org)


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