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 (www.bizpact.org),
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 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.
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
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
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.
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