The Australian parliamentary delegation led by the Australian Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop that visited Sri Lanka during the end of January has commended the work done in the North since the end of war.
Considering the progress made in the post-conflict period, Australia should attend and encourage Commonwealth countries to attend the Commonwealth heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka later this year, she said.
“We visited Jaffna and Kilinochchi in the Northern province which was held by the Tamil Tigers for so many years and we were struck by the amount of reconstruction work that is going on. Billions of rupees have been invested in major infrastructure projects, roads, and this is all quite self-evident when you travel up to Jaffna. New highways, roadworks everywhere, water sanitation projects, electricity transmission. You have to remember much of the North has never had electricity and now a majority of the North has electricity. There's still some way to go,” she said.
The mobile phone coverage was superb. Indeed I got better mobile phone coverage throughout the North of Sri Lanka than I do driving through Kings Park in Western Australia, she further said.
The parliamentary delegation was accompanied by the shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and border protection spokesman Michael Keenan. The group visited the North and East and also met with Sri Lankan government officials and opposition parliamentarians to hold discussions on a range of issues including illegal people smuggling.
Addressing the media at the conclusion of the visit to Sri Lanka she said ‘We have to remember that Sri Lanka is emerging from a conflict, a thirty year civil war. The Tamil Tigers, the LTTE was in fact a proscribed terrorist organization in a number of places around the world. The Sri Lankan forces defeated the LTTE, forces and we must remember that the LTTE had a navy, an air force and had essentially occupied northern Sri Lanka. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced as a result of the conflict which ended three years ago.
Speaking with regard to the resettlement of the displaced civilians she said the majority of them have been returned to their homes. A number, who were displaced because of military camps being established in the north in the last few years of the war, have not yet been returned to their homes but they are being provided with land and temporary accommodation and in some instances more permanent accommodation pending decisions about the military withdrawal from the north.
“We in fact saw a number of housing projects under way, the Indian Government is providing housing, the Australian Government through AusAid is providing permanent housing and we also saw housing that was being built by the Sri Lankan military”, she said.
Commenting on rehabilitation of the former LTTE combatants, Julie Bishop said there is a rehabilitation process under way. After the war clearly a number of people were detained but we have seen evidence of the steps being taken to rehabilitate people. For example, we visited a landmine site, the Australian Government through AusAID is supporting a private sector organisation to de-mine agricultural areas so that it can be productive and used for agricultural purposes once more.
A number of women, in particular, are being employed by this private sector organization to carry out the de-mining work. It's painstaking, detailed work. We had an opportunity to speak to these women. A number of them were former Tamil Tiger combatants. Indeed one was in the Sea Tigers and her job was to be part of an effort to send explosives in small boats to blow up to Sri Lankan navy. She's now employed to get rid of landmines. They are paid well and they want to finish this work and with the money that they have saved start up small businesses. The Tamils are very enterprising, hard-working people and we were heartened by their aspirations to set up small businesses throughout the north, she added.
What was also heartening was the reconstruction work being carried on in schools and we visited a school that AusAID has funded the rebuilding of it and one of the young students told us that at the end of the war, after the schools had been closed, at the end of the war only 36 students returned to that school. Today there are 2000 young students at that school. There are some impressive statistics about teacher/student ratios, the number of students attending schools. Likewise in the health area, new hospitals are being built and hospitals closed during the war have been reestablished, she further said.
Expressing her views regarding the presence of the military in the North she said in a number of instances the military have been deployed for civilian purposes and they were involved in building houses. We in fact visited what's called a model village where the military were building permanent housing of the same standard that AusAID were building elsewhere in the northern and eastern provinces.
“We saw that the navy has been deployed to build a golf course in the hoped to be tourist area around Trincomalee. And the military who has been sent back down south are involved in the beautification process of Colombo and that is quite evident. The city of Colombo has improved dramatically in terms of the beautification, the heritage building restoration and the like”, she said.
Australia’s Deputy Opposition leader Julie Bishop also said that Australia should attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November and also encourage member countries to do so.
“As far as the Commonwealth heads of Government meeting later this year is concerned, I'm satisfied that Australia should attend and should encourage other Commonwealth countries to attend. The Sri Lankan Government is not perfect but it is making inroads into the challenges facing the country and should be encouraged to continue to do so, “ she said.