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Eastern Sri Lanka Struggles to Recover From Tsunami, Civil War

Sri Lanka's government and the international community have been pouring tens of millions of dollars into the country's Eastern Province. The area was liberated by the army from rebel Tamil separatists a year ago during the country's on-going civil war. Much of the coast was devastated by the December 2005 tsunami. VOA correspondent Steve Herman traveled to the province to take a look at the reconstruction efforts and gauge the mood of the area with a tense ethnic mix of Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese.

Over the village of Irrakkakandy in eastern Sri Lanka the sound of an incoming military helicopter drowns out the call to prayer from the mosque.

The noise interrupts the mid-day nap of 78-year-old Seyed Mohammed, who has been resting in the makeshift thatched-roof structure where he has lived since rioting destroyed his house a decade ago. He says while the government is doing its best since the area was liberated last year, vital goods, such as medicines, are still not reaching the people.

Mohammed predicts that as long as there are soldiers in his community there cannot be peace.

Mohammed says that the military's only targets are the Tamil Tiger terrorists and that will cause the terrorists to come around to attack the military. So, he says, the people caught in between will continue to suffer.

The village's fishermen complain that the navy restricts the days and time they can go to sea, severely limiting their catch. But the village shopkeepers say the military presence prevents rebels hiding out in the jungle from extorting food and money.

The government regained control of the province one year ago. The fighting between the military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam continues in the north. The Tamil Tigers want to create an independent homeland for the ethnic minority.

Sri Lanka's military took the East in a campaign in which it gave covert backing to thousands of fighters of a breakaway Tamil faction. The Karuna faction has re-branded itself as the TMVP party. It allied with the party of the Sri Lankan president and the national Muslim Congress this year to form a political coalition which won the provincial elections.

One of the TMVP leaders, a former Tamil Tiger, is now the province's chief minister.

Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, better known by his fighting name, Pillayan, says taking up arms against the government is no longer viable.

He says his followers now firmly believe nothing can be achieved through armed struggle so that is why they came into the democratic process.

Tamil Tiger commanders disagree. They consider the chief minister a traitor to the liberation struggle and have tried to assassinate him numerous times.

The chief minister's performance will be closely watched to see if he can keep his still-armed followers in check. Chandrakanthan says the former rebels need to protect themselves from the Tamil Tigers, who are bent on revenge and still lurking in the region.

The executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, foresees a sensitive situation with regard to the province's majority Muslims, who view both the Sinhalese-dominated military and the TMVP with suspicion.

"If the government does give police powers to the province and the TMVP dominates the police force you have a knock-on effect on Tamil-Muslim relationships," said Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu. "If the government doesn't, you still have TMVP roaming around carrying arms. Then you have a parallel law and order situation."

United Nations officials have accused the TMVP of aiding the Sri Lankan military in recruiting under-aged combatants.

Chief minister Chandrakanthan, himself a former child soldier of the Tamil Tigers, vows to end the practice in his province.

The rebel-turned-politician promises to personally take all measures to stop the recruitment of child soldiers for armed struggle. He says his faction has released all of its under-aged fighters.

His fellow Tamils have long complained of being arrested and jailed by Sri Lankan authorities without any evidence for allegedly aiding the rebels.

The U.S. assistant secretary of state for the region, Richard Boucher, says these and other issues need to be addressed.

"We've been concerned about the continuing reports of abductions, disappearances, some of the detentions of individuals, reports of intimidation against the media. All these things need to be stopped," said Boucher.

Analyst Saravanamuttu says how the east fares will not be determined until armed conflict ends in the north and a civil administration is put in place there, as well.

"There is a sense in which their fate is linked. So the long-term prognosis must await developments in the north as well in terms of an overall settlement and solution to the ethnic conflict," said Saravanamuttu.

In the mean time, the director general of the Defense Ministry's Media Center for National Security, Lakshman Hulugalle, argues that much has already been achieved since the Eastern Province was liberated.

"Today people have water. They have got the civil rights. They have elected their own members. So people are happy now. Electricity is given for more than half of Eastern Province," said Hulugalle.

There is still much to be done. The war created many refugees. Former child soldiers who did not complete their education and have few skills besides fighting lack employment. Most of the homes destroyed by decades of war and the 2005 tsunami have yet to be rebuilt.

People in the province say what they want most is peace of mind, a guarantee that civil war will not return here.

The Tamil Tigers are fighting a desperate last stand against soldiers in the north. But the remaining rebels continue to demonstrate their capability to carry out bombings and assassinations as far as away as the capital, Colombo.