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Monday, April 15, 2024

Rumblings in Jaffna: War was Won, Not Yet the Hearts and Minds of the People

  • Govt. needs to act more pro-actively to maintain normalcy.
  • TNA and other parties playing hardline politics while Wigneswaran avoids meetings and plays different card.
JAFFNA – The crowded restaurant of a luxury hotel in town tells the story of the ever changing social scene nearly six years after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas. The tables are full. Bottles of red and white wine are emptied by men in fancy T-shirts and jeans. Their female counterparts also in jeans and different tops are a contrast to their local friends or relatives. The locals are mostly in sarong and shirt whilst the women folk are in colourful salwar kameez. They drink fruit juice. Children play hide and seek. With school holidays in some European countries, for these Tamil expatriates, it is family reunion in the northern peninsula.

The wealthy among them are also having it good. They have chosen the luxury of the Sri Lanka Army’s picturesque Thal Sevana holiday resort, only a few steps away from the seas of the Palk Strait. For fine dining, there is even a Chinese-built railway compartment on rails, converted into an air conditioned restaurant. A specially-built appendage on one end is the kitchen. The time when the expatriates were accused of funding and helping separatism in Sri Lanka seems mostly gone. Now, they have found safe haven in the heart of the nerve centre of military activity in the north — the Security Forces Headquarters complex in Jaffna. It incorporates establishments of the Army, Navy and the Air Force in a swathe of land that borders the sea.

Even the less fortunate come there with cameras and models wearing heavy make-up with the traditional pottu on the forehead. With the idyllic backdrop of the resort or a non-functional lighthouse nearby, they take photographs that will adorn glossy Tamil magazines here and abroad. Others take a dip in the sea and have their meals at the resort. A far cry from the days when mortar and artillery from these locations pounded guerrilla hideouts. These developments are indications that the wounds of the war are slowly healing. If they have spurned economic activity there is also a harmony of sorts. Yet, it seems not fast enough and some of the danger signals are not difficult to read.

The lack of rains or the searing heat has not deterred the farmer. “I have had a good harvest of onions,” says cultivator Ramachandran Aiyathurai (63) of Mavattapuram in Kankesanthurai. “I am happy with the yield of grapes this season,” says Vaithiyalingam Thambirasa (72) of Keerimalai. Market places are packed and business is brisk. Crowds form outside liquor sales outlets daily. The peninsula records the highest consumption of alcohol. Drug abuse is on the rise. Minor thefts, too. Ironically, the peninsula has become a hell hole for those who enforce the law. It is here that errant officers of all ranks, found guilty of misdemeanours, are sent on punishment transfer. Troops remain confined largely to their barracks. Men of the Special Task Force, the commando arm of the Police, patrol the streets. They carry Chinese-built T-56 assault rifles instead of the original issue of US built M-16 A1. These men are outnumbered only by traffic policemen present at almost every intersection.

Amid all this, the peninsula is one part of Sri Lanka where activity for the August 17 parliamentary elections is not nascent. The exceptions are the offices of the candidates where supporters are busy or where motley crowds gather at meetings. Posters of candidates adorn a few walls. In others, they have been pulled down by the Police. Other than that, it is business as usual. Not surprisingly, because only 66 per cent cast their votes in this district at the presidential polls in January.


A novel feature perhaps is the entry of a group of battle-hardened Tiger guerrillas who have gone through rehabilitation. They include two bodyguards of their slain leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Then they went by their nom de guerre – Vendan (also doubled as an Air Wing cadre) and Kathir, who lost one leg in combat. Others are Gamini (leader of an attack group) who also lost a leg, Tulasi (Administrative Secretary), Charles (Artillery Section), Iyal (Computer Operator), Gangai (Pottu Amman’s Intelligence Wing), Alakan (their Police under Nadesan), Thani Arasu (Voice of Tigers) and Murugadas (Economic Development Wing). They are contesting as Crusaders for Democracy (CFD) and have been allotted the Spider symbol. This group has added a caveat in their leaflets describing the spider as Puli Muka Shilanthi or the Tiger-faced spider which is a poisonous species. Of course the new name is to remind voters of the two-legged “Panthera Tigris” of sorts or Tiger guerrillas who fought for separation and were militarily defeated in May 2009. A conscious effort to play on the sentiments of the remnants and their sympathisers is not lost.


The CFD is contesting only the Jaffna District. It is led by journalist Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, one time Editor of Uthayan, the largest selling Tamil newspaper here and now Editor of the Tamil website malarum.com. “We wanted to be a part of the TNA. However, its leader Sampanthan rejected our request. He feared we were from Military Intelligence,” Vithyatharan told the Sunday Times. He said the TNA leader had also told them that it would be difficult to convince the international community if they were on board. The journalist turned politician boasted confidently that “we would win at least two seats in the peninsula.” However, other civil society groups I spoke with were sceptical. Their only mode of campaign was going from house to house distributing leaflets. “We do not have enough resources,” complains Vithyatharan.

The main contender is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – a composition of four different political parties. They are the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOT), the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) or the Ceylon Federal Party. Though named TNA, they still go under the official banner of the ITAK since the alliance is yet to be formally registered with the Department of Elections.

A cross section of the people I spoke with were somewhat bitter with the TNA, more particularly with some of its members. Whether this will translate into votes against them is another matter. One of them said the alliance had not been able to find employment for youth in the north even after they supported the UNP Government. He said they had not fulfilled the assurances they gave the people at the presidential election. Another was critical about some members who only helped themselves. One case in point was how one of them obtained an overseas scholarship for his daughter and jobs for others in the family with the help of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Another member had bought a large house though he was financially not sound when he entered politics. Yet another complaint was about Ananthi Shasheetharan, described as a ‘vote puller,’ not being given TNA candidature. Ananthi is known to adopt a hardline stance and in her speeches often referred to sacrifices made by her husband, Tiger guerrilla Trincomalee Political Wing leader Sinnathurai Sasheetharan alias Elilan. That such hardline ideology still appeals to sections of the populace was evident at a TNA public rally in Maradanmadam, some ten kilometres from here on Thursday July 23. Crowds clapped incessantly when speakers referred to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and its leadership.

Paradoxical enough, the absence of any assertive action by the Government, I learnt, was a major contributory factor. This was after the rape and brutal murder of schoolgirl Vithya in May. President Maithripala Sirisena flew in here to console family members of the victim and make a cash donation. It ended there. There was no visible or assertive action by the Police. It created a fear psychosis. A well informed source here said, “People lamented that such dastardly things never happened when the Tiger guerrillas were holding ground” but hurriedly added “they are not saying they (the guerrillas) should return.” He said, “They were making the point that people felt they were relatively safe from such acts.” As further proof, the source said, was the proliferation of drugs, non-existent when guerrillas held ground. This message seems to have not seeped into the Police hierarchy in Colombo. If it did, they seem to have thought it not fit enough to act forcefully and thus prevejnt the blame from falling on the Government. On the other hand, the Government’s own ministries — like Defence and Law and Order — do not appear to have a grasp, leave alone adopting tough measures.

Ananthi had paid her deposit to contest as an independent from the Jaffna District. ITAK leader Mavai Senathirajah had persuaded her to back out on the grounds that she would divide the votes TNA would receive. “You have a future. So wait patiently,” Senathirajah told her. Ananthi has also been livid that the TNA does not have a Women’s Wing where she could play a more pivotal role.

The TNA’s woes have been enhanced by another factor. Their Chief Minister for Northern Province, C.V. Wigneswaran, has neither taken part in the launch of the TNA manifesto nor its election rallies. He has been taking a harder line. During a visit to the United States last month, he told an event held in Los Angeles by the Federation of Tamil Sangams in North America (FeTNA), “….What occurred to us did not pertain to the type of social issues that prevailed in South India; what we were being subjected to was genocide. Recently the Northern Provincial Council passed a unanimous resolution on genocide – it serves as a historical archive of the acts of genocide committed against the Tamil people until now…….”

On Thursday, Wigneswaran issued three different statements. The former Supreme Court Judge took what seemed a judicial stance in a “message” he issued on the upcoming elections. “I felt it would be wrong for me to be seen at any political meeting of TNA candidates though it was they who elected me. I am one who would be able to work with whomsoever our people are pleased to elect.” Is he referring to divisions within the TNA? Or is he trying to mend fences with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe after the lecture he received in Washington DC from US Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal? Is the former Judge giving a ‘fair trial’ to Mahinda Rajapaksa? Alliance leaders have distanced Wigneswaran further after his choice of hosts in London en route to Colombo from the US. Among them were writers and broadcasters who then strongly backed Tiger guerrillas. At least one leading Tamil website (tamilnet.com) ignored the Chief Minister’s entire trip. A TNA activist said the “Chief Minister changed his mind and rejected the notion of working with the Government and the UN on a domestic inquiry after the sudden fame he gained among the hard line Tamil diaspora following the Genocide Resolution adopted by the Northern Provincial Council.” It is widely known here that he had severed relationships with UN officials in Colombo and their visiting dignitaries.

In a second message, he declared that “under no circumstances should our Representatives accept portfolios until a political solution is found. Otherwise the demands of our people would be dissipated and we would be engulfed by the majority community. The Ministers would be stifled by Cabinet responsibility. It would be the surest way to compromise our rights and aspirations.” In a third statement, Wigneswaran appealed, “I call upon our brothers and sisters to choose the best candidates to represent us in Parliament,” making clear he was not seeking votes for the TNA. He wanted them to “keep us accountable and at your service. We should cease to be seasonal tourists during election times.”

The TNA manifesto, released on July 25 from Maradanamadam, made no reference to any “genocide” charges made by Wigneswaran. It only claims that over a 150,000 have been killed during the 30 years of the conflict. It says “credible estimates point to over 70,000 having been killed in the last stages of the military onslaught”- an assertion hotly contested by the military. Here are some significant highlights.

The Tamil people are entitled to the right to self-determination in keeping with UN International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which Sri Lanka has acceded to.

  • Power sharing arrangements must continue to be established as it existed earlier in a unit of a merged Northern and Eastern Provinces based on a Federal structure. The Tamil speaking Muslim historical inhabitants shall be entitled to be beneficiaries of all power-sharing arrangements in the North-East.
  • Devolution of power on the basis of shared sovereignty shall be over land, law and order, enforcement of the law so as to ensure the safety and security of the Tamil people, socio economic development including inter alia health, education, higher and vocational education, agriculture, fisheries, industries, livestock development, cultural affairs, mustering of resources, both domestic and foreign and fiscal powers.
  • Direct foreign investment in the North-East should be facilitated resulting in new industries and employment opportunities being created for youth.

That there would be a direct conflict between an elected Government after August 17 parliamentary elections and the TNA, should they agree to work together, becomes inevitable. This is in the light of the TNA’s stated policies in the manifesto. If such a Government is from the United National Party (UNP), its position has already been articulated at a news conference in Colombo this week by Deputy Foreign Minister Ajith Perera. He said the United National Party (UNP) rejected the TNA call for a federal structure within a merged Northern and Eastern Province.

“No political party in Sri Lanka would be willing to agree to the TNA demands,” SLFP General Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa told the Sunday Times. The SLFP is the main partner in the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). He spoke on the telephone from Kurunegala, from which district he is contesting. He said the “TNA demands amount to a call for a separate state. They (TNA) have to change their attitude.” Dinesh Gunawardena, leader of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), a UPFA partner, said from Colombo that “the TNA is trying to woo the extremist elements to an extremist programme. For many years its demands have been rejected. We reject these claims. We are for constitutional changes where power can be shared.”

TNA parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran defended the manifesto. He insisted that the TNA commanded the support of the Tamil public both in and outside North and East. He told the Sunday Times, “We are also calling for de-militarisation to the pre-war situation in 1983.” He added: “Our manifesto is based on three important issues related to the North and East. We are asking a mandate from the people to resolve them. The top priority would be reaching a lasting solution to the national question. The merger of the North and East is not our invention. It is part of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. It was invalidated by courts because there was a ‘technical flaw’ in the merger.” He says the TNA would not accept a domestic mechanism to probe alleged war crimes.

The TNA has partnered with the London-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF) towards a dialogue with a new Government. A GTF statement said it worked “closely with the TNA as the elected representatives”. The GTF said it had “been critical of some of the diplomatic initiatives and achievements made in our adopted countries as well as at international institutions such as the UNHRC.” That the Government has had a dialogue with the two of them over reconciliation and related issues including matters before the UN Human Rights Council is known. Yet, how well the TNA will perform this time at the polls will no doubt be a key factor. A fuller endorsement by the voter will strengthen its hand. On the other hand, a poor performance would amount to its rejection.

A drop in population strength in the Jaffna District has led to a reduction of the number of seats from nine to seven. Besides the TNA and the newly emerged Crusaders for Democracy, others in the fray are for 529,239 registered votes in the Jaffna District are the UNP, the UPFA, the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), the JVP, smaller political parties and six independent groups. A total of 210 candidates are contesting. Neighbouring Wanni, the other district in the North, is being contested by 252 candidates vying for six seats. That is from 18 political parties and ten independent groups.

Former UPFA Minister and Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) leader Douglas Devananda is contesting under the banner of his own party than under the UPFA. Devananda told the Sunday Times, “Our policy is for self-rule in alliance with the Central government. This is only possible through a better understanding and reconciliation among all the communities. This time we are contesting under the symbol of ‘Veena’ (a musical instrument) after almost a decade. What we have been saying all these years that there is the need to implement the 13th Amendment and build on it phase by phase. The Northern and Eastern provinces can be merged if the people of the two regions favour that. If a referendum is needed Sinhala and Muslim people living in east will not support that. Whoever committed the alleged war crimes should be punished. In the post-war scenario the reconciliation efforts should be given top priority, he adds.

Another in the fray this time is Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, a lawyer, who is leader of the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF). He is the grandson of the late G.G. Ponnambalam, a reputed lawyer and then leader of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC). He told the Sunday Times, “Our main demand is the need for Sri Lanka to be recognised as a multi-ethnic nation belonging to all people living here.” He accused the TNA of “lying to the people about a federal solution. The TNA gave up that demand in 2009. That is why I left the TNA to form a new alliance. It has not spoken about a federal system for the past five years. It says that now only to win votes.” He said his political party would not accept any kind of domestic inquiry, but “we are for an international probe into alleged war crimes.” The TNPF manifesto is being launched here today.

There was a distraction on Friday morning. Vijayakala Maheswaran, UNP candidate and a former Deputy Minister, refused to hoist the Sri Lanka national flag saying she had “never done so.” This was when she turned up at the Hindu College playground where the Jaffna Premier League cricket tournament is now under way. Kathiravel Sebwal, who once contested on the SLFP ticket for the Northern Provincial Council, is the organiser of the tournament. He told the Sunday Times, ” I gave the first opportunity for Vijayakala Maheswaran to hoist the Sri Lanka national flag. She refused saying she had not done so before.” I later asked Hindu College Principal Iyampillai Thayanandarajah and he hoisted it. Vijayakala could not be contacted. Several calls to her mobile phone were answered by a female aide who said she was at different meetings and could not respond to telephone calls. This is notwithstanding her party’s unwavering commitment to a unitary Sri Lanka. Her refusal raises many questions including her allegiance to the unitary status of the country and how she would swear an oath if she is elected. It is clear she is also playing to the sentiments of the hard line elements to win votes.

Whilst a seemingly muted polls campaign is under way here, there is also concern in the security establishment over last week’s find in the Southern Indian coastal town of Rameshwaram. As reported in these columns, Tamil Nadu Police intercepted a vehicle carrying GPS equipment, 300 grams of cyanide, 75 empty capsules and seven different mobile phones. Krishna Kumar, described as a Sri Lankan and two Indian nationals were arrested and were being interrogated there. As reported in these columns, for Sri Lanka’s state intelligence community, the news came as a distraction from monitoring polls countrywide.

The discovery has had its reverberations in the peninsula. One high ranking security source said, “It is becoming increasingly clear Krishna Kumar has assumed the name of a person who is no longer living.” He said investigations into his background, after findings by Tamil Nadu Police, are making them draw that conclusion. During interrogation, Kumar had said the items detected in his possession were to be delivered to a party in Jaffna. He had also described his past life. That has raised issue over whether guerrilla remnants are being revived by groups from outside Sri Lanka whose plans are still unclear. Authorities here are still to unravel the would-be recipients of the military items.

Naval intelligence here had also received tip offs about the presence of military items in two different places last week. In one instance, the find was two hand grenades, two cyanide capsules and two rounds of 9 mm ammunition. In the other, there were ten Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) which were outdated and cannot be activated. In addition there were ten hand grenades and 750 rounds of 7.62 ammunition. A senior Navy official here declined comment on the discoveries and suggested that the help of Navy Headquarters in Colombo be sought. That these finds came on tip offs from informants have raised questions whether such things are an organised distraction or part of a pattern of events to unfold. “Yet, we are not taking any chances.

The developments are being closely monitored,” the security source said. The task of ensuring stability in the peninsula is now in the hands of the Commander of the Security Forces in Jaffna, Major General Nandana Udawatte. Even if his men are not deployed heavily in the streets like in the past years, they have been geared to meet aany eventuality. This is besides helping the Police in their law and order roles during elections, should a necessity arise.

The pledges made to voters by different political parties here for the August 17 parliamentary elections underscore one key element — the need for self-rule — with different interpretations from the contestants. Therein lies a message to the power brokers in Colombo. Six years after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas that ended a near three decade long war, there has no doubt been dramatic changes. This northern capital, like other adjoining areas, has shown rapid signs of development and a changed face. There is electricity with 220 volts as against voltage drops one experiences in the suburbs of Colombo. Paved roads have facilitated easy movement. Train services have linked the south. So have air conditioned bus services. Yet, there are rumblings in this peninsula as little attention has been paid to hearts and minds. Whilst they await a permanent peace, it would be imperative for those at the helm to retain the normalcy won at great cost to life and limb through the sacrifices made by troops.

Sunday Times


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