Dateline Colombo

Connecting Sri Lanka: Train to Jaffna

04 Nov, 2014    ·   4726

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera looks at why physical connectivity may not necessarily ensure national integration

On 09 November, the world will remember the fall of the Iron Curtain. Twenty five years from this date the Berlin Wall was dismantled; this iconic moment triggered the end of the Cold War. One may wonder what journey a contemporary super power such as the US has navigated for the last twenty five years and if this same process will occur in the case of China emerging as the next super power. The Economist indicators support that Asia’s export share has doubled from 18 per cent in 1980 to 36 per cent in 2013. The month of November will also commence with an important discussion on the re-emergence of the ancient Chinese Maritime Silk Road. This seminar on the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR)” with Sri Lankan and Chinese scholars will be held in Sri Lanka. The Chinese President’s proposal on the revival of the ancient Maritime Silk Road was fully supported by the Sri Lankan President several months ago. MSR is of importance to the island of Sri Lanka, due to its geo-strategic position at the centre of the Silk Road. It is important to ponder on the balancing role Sri Lanka plays between China and India, as within the scope of development in this country, China is heavily present in the South and India present in the North.
On the note of development within the country, the Yal Devi (Queen of Jaffna) Train resumed operations from Colombo to Jaffna after 24 years. Re-starting on 13 October, it marked a landmark in railway links between South and North of Sri Lanka. This rail link was constructed in 1905 under British colonial rule. On the present day the India Railway Construction International (IRCON), an Indian railway subsidiary, completed the restoration of the railway lines with a cost of Rupees 58 billion, on the basis of financial assistance from India. President Mahinda Rajapaksa inaugurated the new railway line. When speaking to the media at the event, the President said, “This effort will connect hearts of the people in south and north and this was the main aim of the new railway to the north after liberating north from the LTTE control.” The LTTE bombed the Yal Devi train at Kokavil on 19 January 1985 killing 34 people and destroying train tracks, which disrupted connectivity. Providing transport to the North is a good deed; however one may question how far physical infrastructure helps in connecting the hearts and minds of the people. Infrastructure development to create access to different parts of the island could provide economic benefits to those localities that were deprived of development due to the three-decade war. However, there are many other factors apart from physical infrastructure that could help to connect on a mental and humane level as citizens of a single nation. Strengthening the reconciliation process, implementing the LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) recommendations and working towards fully implementing the13th amendment devolution of powers to other parts are important areas to focus on. While you may need one set of values to succeed in war, it takes another set of values for the post war scenario. The values the government possesses in the post war context from 2009 to the present day are debatable.

In matters of governance, incidents such as the Aluthgama riot with the Muslim community and the recent diplomatic chaos in New York will definitely create a negative impact, and does not create a positive image outside the country. Outside the boundaries of the nation yet directly affecting it, the ban against the LTTE was lifted in European Union. The late Lakshman Kadirgamar, was an astute foreign minister who worked tirelessly to ban the LTTE in many nations. One of the greatest achievements during President Chandrika Bandaranayke’s administration was this ban on the LTTE. In lifting the ban on this ruthless terrorist group that assassinated many innocent people indiscriminately, the future consequences of this act towards the country and the entire world should be evaluated.
Closer to the day-to-day lives of Sri Lankans; the government budget proposal was presented to parliament a week ago. The considerable increase in expenditure and inadequate evidence to increase revenue is evident. The projected fiscal deficit of 4.2 per cent of GDP is unlikely to be realised with the rise of expenditure. One of the key areas that budget does not focus on is research and development of the country, a primary area towards the five-hub strategy. The Rupees 500 million budget for research and development is insufficient in the serious development of an important sector. Staying focused on maintaining power seems in this case more important than policy matters, as judging by the latest budget proposals. The election budget and accelerated development in the North such as the new train line could be due to plans for early presidential elections in January 2015.

Connecting to win the hearts and minds of all communities of the Island will be challenging after three decades of war but this is achievable with the right strategies and processes by the government.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the government of Sri Lanka or the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS), Sri Lanka.