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Source: Lanka Monthly Digest - March 1998
Dr. Jehan Perera describes his first impressions of a city which has withstood more than a decade of military conflict...
Jaffna is the heartland of Tamil culture in this island. Being able to travel there after four years, thanks to local-government elections, was an invaluable experience. Not least because I, like many other commentators on the ethnic conflict, have been starved of direct access to the people most concerned with the ongoing military conflict. So much has been said, and written, about Jaffna - from everywhere but Jaffna!
In February 1994, when I last visited Jaffna, the LTTE"s presence was both tangible and visible. It dramatised an otherwise drab and dull scene. Jaffna, suffering from the Sri Lankan government"s economic blockade, looked like a poor, rural town - certainly not what it really is: Sri Lanka"s third-largest city. Huge cut-outs of dead LTTE cadre and Tiger symbols adorned the junctions, and served to highlight Jaffna"s difference. Young men and women in LTTE uniform walked the street - many without weapons - and people went to LTTE offices to attend to civilian matters.
Today, however, there is nothing visible or tangible to remind the visitor of the LTTE - except, of course, the scenes of destruction that testify to an immense armed conflict. Certain parts of Jaffna are totally destroyed, such as the area in the vicinity of the Jaffna Fort, including the burnt-out hulk of the library. Another area of massive destruction is enclosed by the extended Palaly army camp and airforce base. Hundreds of brick houses stand in partial or total ruin.
The immensity of the tragedy, to the families who once toiled a lifetime to build these houses, can be overwhelming to the first-time visitor. But, the first signs of reconstruction are there to be seen, and the shops are adequately stocked with consumer goods.
At a more sentimental level, the smiling children of Jaffna - so much like their cousins at the opposite end of the island - could captivate even the hardened hearts of cynical election monitors, which at least some of us were! We found warmth, and a yearning for a restoration of normalcy - from the elders, as well as the children - wherever we went.
Indeed, Jaffna has changed a great deal since my last visit there, in 1994. At that time, the LTTE ruled Jaffna, almost as a mini-state, though not entirely. Even at the height of LTTE rule in Jaffna, the Sri Lankan government had its officials in place, in various state institutions. They received their salaries and orders from Colombo, but they also obeyed the LTTE. Overall, there was no question: the LTTE ruled the roost. Frontline troops manning the checkpoint at Puddakadu junction - near Pallai, on the road from Jaffna to Elephant Pass - gave high marks to the PA Government and army leaderships.
They say that the frequent visits by Generals Ratwatte and Daluwatte, to the front lines, encourage them.
Corporal Asoka Dharmakeerthi of the 2nd Gemunu Watch, a 15-year veteran of the war, says that the soldiers are happy with the leadership of government. He insists that he is not being politically partisan, but notes that President Premadasa had given orders from the safety of Colombo - and that some say that he had even supplied arms to the LTTE. Corporal Dharmakeerthi pulled out his wallet and unfolded a scrap of paper in it. "If I write a letter to President Kumaratunga, using the code number on this paper, she will answer within a week," he reveals. Corporal Nimal Chandrasiri, with 17 years" service behind him, adds proudly: "She has promised to look into any complaint or request of ours. If I want my son to get admission to Richmond or Mahinda College, I can write to her."
All the soldiers we met on the way appeared to be in good spirits, with high morale. When asked whether the recent loss of 150 members of the Special Forces, at Mankulam, had demoralised them, Corporal Dharmakeerthi says: "That is not the way a soldier thinks. Our men killed 300 of the LTTE, before they died. A guerilla force cannot afford such losses. But, it is a cost that an army can pay, because it has superior numbers."
The behaviour of the soldiers, towards the civilian population of Sri Lanka"s northern city, appeared to be good. At Kambakkam, about 15 kilometres away from Jaffna, a large group of men and women stood on the roadside. They say they have been summoned by the army, to re-elect their villages" citizens committee. In Jaffna city itself, the army has adopted a low profile. Jaffna does not appear to be a garrison city . But further away, the military presence becomes more visible, and the checking of people and vehicles becomes more careful.
Overall commander, General Lionel Balagalle, and Jaffna commander, Brigadier Susantha Mendis, came in for appreciative words by Jaffna"s residents. They say that human rights are not being abused like in the past. They were referring to human-rights violation, and hundreds of disappearances, which took place after a former Jaffna commander, Brigadier Ananda Hamangoda, was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber.
The people of Jaffna have not forgotten that period of terror. They also recall how the victorious army bulldozed LTTE cemeteries, where their sons and daughters lay buried. "When they bulldozed those beautiful cemeteries, they also bulldozed our hearts," a resident recalls.
A Lionair propeller-driven plane, piloted by Ukrainians, provided our transport to Jaffna. Jaffna is currently accessible to civilian traffic only by air. The land route is the domain of the warring factions, as "Operation Jayasikuru" progresses. Regular civilian passage by sea ceased when the LTTE began sinking ships, on the grounds that they carried supplies to the army.
Three to four daily flights presently carry civilian traffic to and from Jaffna - they accommodate no more than 48 passengers each. Thus, only a handful of those wanting to travel to Jaffna are able to fulfil their needs. In the past, more than 5,000 people are said to have made the journey every day. Prospective passengers have to get clearance from the Ministry of Defence. This takes anywhere upto two months. Then, it is a matter of queuing at the Lionair office, to get a ticket. Some passengers pay others to stand in the line. Others queue from the night before.
At Ratmalana Airport, the facilities for passengers are pathetic, to say the least. Just as in international flights, passengers are requested to be present at the airport two hours before flights depart. But there, the similarity ends. Passengers are expected to wait in the open air, unprotected from the elements. A passenger remarks bitterly: "This is the third-rate way in which Tamils are treated today."
"You are concerned about monitoring the elections. We are worried about the fate of our relatives in the Wanni," says one of the civic leaders we met. What he - and just about everyone else we spoke to - says, is that a political settlement that would enable the displaced population to return prior to any election, is the priority. "We have heard that our people in the Wanni are dying of Septicaemia," says another.
A meeting with the Council of NGOs of Jaffna, including the Red Cross and Sarvodaya, provided several important statistics. Prior to "Operation Riviresa", which restored Jaffna to government control in November 1995, the population of the Jaffna District was over 850,000. Today, it is down to an estimated 465,000, of which nearly 75,000 are still displaced within the district itself. A further 250,000 are estimated to be displaced in the Wanni.
Among the other grievances that came to light, was the problem of landmines. Indeed, wherever we travelled, we were acutely conscious of this terrible hazard - and careful not to stray off the beaten track. Since November 1995, it is reported that 324 persons have suffered injury due to landmines, and that 45 have lost their limbs. A tragic tale of two children who were plucking flowers to take to the temple typifies the risks: when they stepped on a mine, one child lost a leg; the other lost an eye.
Another sore point is the inadequate supply of electricity. In many - but not all - parts of Jaffna, there is only a weak flow of electricity, for a few hours, on a rotational basis, every other day, depending on the area. A household is permitted to light only three bulbs. The area in which we were did not receive electricity during our stay, spanning three days.
One question was repeatedly asked of us: why is the government not making good its promises to the people of Jaffna? They did not agree that this may apply to the rest of the country, as well. In the eyes of the people, these grievances indicate nothing less than the third-class treatment meted out to them, as Tamils.
Isolated as they are, in Jaffna, they are convinced that Tamils are special victims of the government"s apparent callousness.
Indeed, scarcely anyone was prepared to give credit to the PA Government, for holding local-government elections. There was a deep suspicion about the PA"s motive for holding such elections. "It is a camouflage, to show the world there is normalcy in Jaffna," says the head of an NGO. Almost everyone else we spoke to voiced a similar suspicion, and complained that the government was imposing an election on them that they do not want at this time. "This is an imposed election. The people did not ask for it. We have other priorities that we want satisfied first," says Jaffna"s Bishop, Thomas Savundranayagam.
Not surprisingly, in the circumstances, no one volunteered to join the election-monitoring team, in the run-up to the elections. A Catholic priest reacted angrily, when pressed on the issue, saying: "We are on different wavelengths. The Sinhalese are hurting us by holding these elections. We do not want to monitor these elections."
A moving moment of our stay in Jaffna came after a fairly lengthy discussion with one of its leading citizens. We get talking about family life, and ask him about his family. He responds that they are in the Wanni. What is it like to live there, we ask. "It is a very hard life. They have put up a hut, and they live in it," he reveals. We are puzzled. Why should the family of a leading citizen of Jaffna wish to languish in the Wanni? "My relations are with the LTTE," he says, adding softly: "They are not terrorists. They are freedom-fighters."
It is an oft-repeated truism that one man"s terrorist is another man"s freedom-fighter. This is a phenomenon that is found universally, and not a perverse feature of Sri Lanka. In order to comprehend how this dramatic rift in perceptions has taken place, it is necessary to spend more time in Jaffna, in dialogue with its people. Only then, can an understanding emerge, as to how Tamil society in the north-east of the island - a relatively small community of two million people - has been able to sustain, for almost 15 years, an armed insurrection that has defied the armies of two countries.
"This is the home of the Tigers. They know every inch of the land. They have their friends, teachers, and relatives, here in Jaffna," says a school principal.
He points out that it is impossible for the army to prevent the LTTE from infiltrating Jaffna city itself. "All they need to do, is to wear civilian clothes and carry a national identity card. Army personnel at the checkpoint, who do not know who they are, will let them through," he explains.
In Jaffna city itself, the army has adopted a low profile. Often, at checkpoints, there is no checking at all. As a result, Jaffna does not appear to be a garrison city under army occupation. There are army patrols, in addition to the checkpoints: but, they exist in Colombo, as well.
Although unseen - and perhaps, not even physically present in large numbers - the psychological impact of the LTTE looms large in the consciousness of the people. Only the government officials working in the Kachcheri spoke of direct LTTE intimidation. They report that they have received death threats, if they help to conduct elections. A senior official reveals: "I am in fear of my life. Other government servants in Jaffna have paid with their lives. But, I will do my duty. Besides, I believe in elections."
Others we spoke to were not so forthright. But, a Catholic priest hints at this grim reality, when he observes: "The silence of the LTTE, with regard to elections, is ominous. People are aware that the LTTE is nearby. They also feel that, one day, the LTTE may return to Jaffna."
To the people living in the village of Thalaidy, the LTTE is "right next door". Located some 50 kilometres from Jaffna - on the sea coast, in an area known as Vedamarachchi East - we are informed that only eight of the 18 divisions in the area are under army control. The rest are under the LTTE. The army is very careful about civilian movements. "Living here, is like living in a prison. We cannot even go to the next village for a funeral," complains a villager. We were stalled at one checkpoint for over two hours, he adds.
The attitude of the people towards the LTTE, is ambivalent. "I hate the LTTE," says a Catholic priest. "But I also respect them," he adds. Expanding on his seemingly contradictory assertions, he explains that the people of Jaffna have suffered for many years under the LTTE.
They have had to pay heavy taxes, or give up one of their children to the LTTE. The LTTE-enforced exodus from Jaffna, on the eve of the Sri Lankan army"s entry into the city, was also traumatic.
"They did not give us even two days to leave our homes," the priest continues. "LTTE cadre told us we had to abandon Jaffna within 24 hours." After people left their homes, they heard that the LTTE had ransacked their precious belongings.
The army that followed, and the few Jaffna people who stayed behind, ransacked the balance. The enforced exodus of half-a-million people from Jaffna - an event unprecedented in modern history - would stand as the LTTE"s biggest blunder, in relation to the people of Jaffna. A realisation of what life can be under LTTE rule, may explain the lack of open support for an independent state of Tamil Eelam, among the leaders of civil society that we met. Registering his protest against the local-government elections, the President of the Council of NGOs of Jaffna puts the matter pithily, when he remarks: "We want peace, not a piece. We want integration, not separation. We want democracy, not a mockery that will be used to tell the world there is normalcy in Jaffna."
To us, at least, it appeared that most key academic, church, and NGO leaders, took it for granted that a solution should be found within the framework of a united and undivided Sri Lanka. The city"s elite would like to maintain their contacts with Colombo, instead of being confined to Jaffna. They are aware that it is easier to protect human rights in larger political entities, than in smaller ones, where despotism is more likely to prevail.
However, there still appears to be considerable support for the LTTE. In particular, at the village level, we encountered people who wanted to know why separation is not feasible. They are people who would not normally move out of the Jaffna district, or even their village localities. As a result, they see little or no advantage in being linked to a larger society.
Further, allowance must be made for the phenomenon of a "hijacker"s syndrome". Studies done by psychologists, on the mental condition of victims of airplane hijackings, have revealed that hostages begin to identify themselves with the perpetrators - as they depend entirely on the hijackers for their survival. Subconsciously, the victims realise that their lives depend on the goodwill of the hijackers. So, they begin to befriend them, in order to maximise their chances of survival.
A similar psychological phenomenon could be operative in Jaffna; but, with a difference. "They have made mistakes, but they are our children, our relatives, and our students," a schoolteacher notes. "They are also fighting for a cause. They fight selflessly: they get nothing, they suffer, and they give up their lives for a larger cause; and for this, we respect them," he adds.
It also appeared that the much-debated devolution package is barely discussed in Jaffna. "I have heard of the package, but I do not know what it really contains. All I know, is that even the Tamil political parties which are co-operating with the government, say that it is not sufficient and does not meet Tamil aspirations," says the schoolteacher, one of Jaffna"s intellectual elite.
PLOTE leader, D. Siddarthan, agrees with this negative assessment of the PA Government"s devolution proposals. He denies that his party supported the package in Colombo, while opposing it in Jaffna. He says: "We have only requested the government to put it before parliament, so that it can be subjected to open and public debate. But, we are not satisfied with it."
It is in this context - one of unfulfilled aspirations - that the LTTE continues to retain its position as the champion of Tamil aspirations. Unlike the other Tamil parties, which are compromised by their collaboration with the government, only the LTTE remains an independent force - one that is capable of moving the government - in the eyes of most Jaffna people.
It is, therefore, not surprising that even those people who say that they hate the LTTE, are prepared to give them their grudging respect.
Without exception, each and every person we spoke to, expressed a desire that the government should reach a political settlement with the LTTE. This, despite the fact that the behaviour of the army came in for praise from most residents. Some even acknowledge that they prefer an army administration, to a civilian administration run by the Tamil parties. But, the people are anxious, because they know the situation can change suddenly. It has changed before for the worse: and, it can change again.
A few months after re-taking Jaffna, a suicide bomber took the life of the then Jaffna city commander, Brigadier Ananda Hamangoda. This brought to an end the honeymoon that the army had enjoyed with the civilian population, in the immediate aftermath of the capture of Jaffna. A period of terror followed, during which an estimated 600 persons, taken in by the army for questioning, apparently disappeared without a trace.
The bulldozing of LTTE cemeteries by the army, is also recalled. By giving their dead the highest honours, and cultivating the cult of martyrs, the LTTE used their cemeteries as recruitment grounds to attract new cadres. But, the bulldozing of these cemeteries - in which their children lay buried - by the victorious army, sent a message to the people of Jaffna that this army was not their army.
In such a context, if the leaders of Sri Lanka believe that they can win the hearts and minds of the people of Jaffna, while an army of Sinhalese soldiers occupy the peninsula, they are making a tragic mistake. What an army can do in a situation of guerilla warfare, is to restore the rule of law, and minimise insurgent activity. But, winning the hearts and minds of the people can never be the army"s job. It is the job of politicians, and of a political solution. The search for a political solution must go on.
The Sri Lankan coin is unique, thanks to its politicians. It has THREE sides!
"We want peace, not a piece," says the President of the Council of NGOs of Jaffna. And by all accounts, this statement echoes what many more Sri Lankans are saying, today. The cry for peace is reaching a crescendo.
There is, of course, another side to this coin. Many other Sri Lankans - arguably, led by LTTE supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran - vehemently believe that the route to peace on this island is to be found along ethnic lines, so that Sri Lanka"s "minorities" rule the roost in "their areas"; or, if Prabhakaran has his way, "their nations". In other words, the claim to a piece still exists.
But, there is a third side to this coin. Sri Lankans also have to contend with power-hungry politicians, whose vision extends only as far as the next election - or, at times, as far as extending their term of governance, by postponing the next election. So, our politicians divert more of their energy to pomps and vanities, and to investigating and attacking each other, than they do to developing a vision for the nation. It is THEIR future that counts, and without re-election, THEY have no future...
Yes indeed, ours is a broken record; but, we do not necessarily want the pieces; we want peace. The question is, whether the sum of these pieces adds up to peace? The answer to this must lie in consultation and unity. We should consult with the nation, with those who have grievances - including those who are, rightly or wrongly, fighting because of them - and with those who have had experience in resolving conflicts around the world, in recent times.
As for unity, isn"t it time our politicians came to terms with the fact that a lasting resolution of the ethnic conflict can only be achieved by adopting a bipartisan approach? The irony is that they did exactly this, with the signing of a historic bipartisan agreement between the Government and the Opposition, in April last year. Sadly, its execution has been farcical, to say the least. The bipartisan agreement was, indeed, a step in the right direction; but in retrospect, it was a step which was saddled with political undertones; and, it has brought little respite (let alone results) to war-weary Sri Lanka.
Our golden-jubilee, especially the lead-up to it, clearly exposed our politicians" colours. The PA Government set the pace, by embarking on a fancy ceremony - which, of course, put its top brass in the spotlight... well, well...
The Opposition swung into action almost immediately - it had been in a deep slumber until then, mind you. It objected to the Government"s invitation to HRH Prince Charles, to be our chief guest, long after he had accepted the honour. The Government then picked the historic, cultural city of Kandy, as its venue for celebrations - as if it were hell-bent on highlighting not only the pomp and pageantry, but also the nation"s ethnic and religious bias, at a time when neutrality and unity were key. In the meantime, the Tiger Inc. think-tank was working overtime. It unleashed its armoury on the nation"s (apparently guarded) showpiece, even before the PA show got underway. The Opposition was, by now, in a state of alert, and it took the chance to gain some political brownie points, by condemning the Government"s security measures - or, a lack of them - whilst, at the same time, appealing for calm! It also formally rejected the PA"s devolution proposals, two days ahead of a deadline which it had refused to meet, not long ago!
And, to cap it all, a senior minister tendered his resignation, at a time when security was the nation"s top priority (thanks to his government"s "elaborate" plans) and he was, for all intents and purposes, in charge of security!
And, believe it or not, the Government scheduled Jaffna"s first local-government elections in over a decade, less than a week prior to independence day - fireworks, was perhaps, what it had in mind. At this rate, the day may come, when we mourn independence.
So, finally, to the cornerstone of the ruling government"s strategy for peace - its devolution package. According to Dr. Jehan Perera and Sumadhu Weerawarne, "it appeared that the much-debated devolution package is barely discussed in Jaffna", which is the heartland of Tamil culture in Sri Lanka. And, a schoolteacher in Jaffna told them: "I have heard of the package, but I do not know what it really contains. All I know, is that even the Tamil political parties which are co-operating with the Government, say that it is not sufficient and does not meet Tamil aspirations."
Back in August 1996, Asiaweek featured President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga on its cover. It had this to say: "Even her ambitious plan to grant greater autonomy to the Tamils may fail to yield much goodwill. Last month, a private bargaining-session revealed that Kumaratunga has not even secured the backing of moderate Tamil leaders..." Some 18 months later, nothing has changed, it seems. So, what is in store for Sri Lanka"s future generations, in the new millennium? Peace, a piece, or the status quo
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