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Business for peace

The man from Jaffna just wants open roads. The man from Vavuniya wants his customers back in their homes. These are all stories from the ongoing Business For Peace symposium (, held in Colombo and touring the regions. There are presentations from the government declaring the north and east open for business and conversations about the real barriers in the way. At least, however, this is happening. At least we are discussing how to get out rather than how we got in.

The A9

The first thing is to get business in and out of the north. The region once provided a great deal of Sri Lankaís agricultural products (over 50% of red onions for example) but that and all numbers are drastically down. I spoke to businessmen from Matale, Kegalle, Jaffna and Vavuniya. The issues in the south were about investment and marketing, but in the north they simply wanted freedom of movement. Basically, opening the A9.

The A9 is officially open for traffic, but not completely. As a representative from SCOPP (Secretariat for Coordinating The Peace Process) said, there is a Ďpolitical economyí in place. Going even to Vavuniya requires often complicated clearance from Colombo and thorough inspection in Medawachchiya.

Traffic beyond Vavuniya to Jaffna is strictly limited. However, traffic happening and expanding is a very big thing. Kudos to the government on that, and for reopening the northern coastline to fishing again.

The Wanni people

You can give a man to fish, but you need to let him out of the camp first. Right now much of the productive population of the Wanni is idling as IDPs. As much as towns like Vavuniya get relief business, they are not getting actual business. Their customers are living on the government and international tab rather than supplying themselves in town and living in their homes.

I heard the first coherent explanation of why this is happening from a government official. Mines are a huge problem, but itís not just that. The people that ended the war with the LTTE are being divided into those who were coerced and then those who were committed. A medium category is being rehabilitated.

These areas will be continually secured by troops. Until then, however, business in frontier towns like Vavuniya wonít return to normal. The customers are simply not there, and the relief effort is a tax rather than a boon. Vavuniya schools and hospitals, for example, are unusable for the locals.

Good faith

The local government elections in Vavuniya and Jaffna have been criticised as too soon, but they have brought benefits. Most notably, the partial reopening of the A9 and the coastline. This is a big thing, and an opportunity. I canít say that the northerners Iíve met have too much faith in the politicians, but they do have faith in themselves. Given connectivity the north can join and even lead Sri Lanka. As traders via roads, but also as human beings via justice and rights.

Personally, I think that in the absence of all the freedoms Sri Lankans donít have under Emergency law, the freedom to travel will bring Northern Spring and Eastern Dawn. These regions have produced historically, the people can produce and, I believe, will. They just need the chance to do business with the south, most visibly through the A9 road and resettlement of their productive population.

In practice

Beyond the talk, however, business can do. Beyond politicians and promises, business can deliver. Thatís partly marketing, but in the absence of separatism commerce will inexorably occur. More to the point, it is something we can discuss without decades of history and hurt feelings and the accompanying feeling of hopelessness. I eat onions, you eat onions, we need a truck to bring them from here to there. That is a simple thing, but itís also hopeful. And possible. Itís not truth and rights, but an onion or a phone call is business. And business is good.









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