Intrusive watch

Print edition : July 05, 2019

A house that was destroyed in the last stages of the battle in 2009 in Vellamullivaikal along the Parnthan-Mullaitivu highway. Photo: R.K. Radhakrishnan

THE road from Nedunkeni, a small town in Vavuniya in the Northern Province, to Mullaitivu, by the Bay of Bengal, is barely 30 km. Google Maps says the distance can be covered in just over half an hour. But it takes more than one hour because of the security screenings along the way.

The first checkpoint where the overbearing security personnel check IDs, vehicles, bags and almost anything is where the road forks to Oddusuddan and Thanniyuttu. A uniformed officer examined this correspondent’s passport, the national ID of the driver, conducted a short interview, searched bags, and then allowed the car to proceed. At Thanduvan, the headquarters of the Gajaba regiment, it was the turn of a highway patrol to stop and ask questions; later came a checkpoint near the 592 Brigade headquarters; then another near the Sri Lanka light infantry First Battalion headquarters. As the vehicle moves around Mullaitivu, which was the site of the last stand of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, more mandatory checking follows: near the Security Forces headquarters, the 591 Brigade campus just outside town, the SLNS Gotabaya naval base, and the 681 Brigade headquarters.

At Nandikadal lagoon, the entire area where the last of the Tamil Tigers were killed in 2009, is a military area, with SLNS Gotabaya occupying a vast part of it; the 681 Brigade headquarters is in Vella Mullivaikkal. Large swathes of land in Mullaitivu remain fenced off by one arm of the security forces or another.

As one travels south towards Trincomallee, there are a clutch of defence establishments too: SLNS Ranweli; Base hospital, Pulmoddai; headquarters of the 12th Battalion light infantry; headquarters of the 59 Division; 593 Brigade; 1st Battalion of the Gemunu Watch; and a Special Forces training school. The checking is sometimes elaborate. On the Mullaitivu-Trincomallee road, ahead of crossing the Pulmoddai bridge, the vehicle is searched in great detail. This is the AOR (Area of Responsibility) of the 593 Brigade. Further down the road is the 6th Battalion Vijayabahu Regiment and the SLNS Walagamba.

Trincomallee is home to a services golf links (Eagles Gold), SLNS Mahaweli, the Air Force Academy, the 4 Armoured Regiment, the Army School of Logistics, the 15th Battalion SL Light infantry on the Trincomallee-Batti road and the SLNS Gokanna. The list of institutions of the armed forces provided here is not an exhaustive one.

In short, more than a decade after the war, north-eastern Sri Lanka and much of the Northern Province is under the intrusive watch of the Armed Forces. There have been no serious uprisings or instances of violence, but the government feels that the forces need to remain in a state of perpetual alert in the north. A variety of establishments, including Buddhist temples, army-run shops and gardens, have come up all over the north. There are many similarities in the army’s presence in the north with that of the Indian Army’s presence in Kashmir.

After the bombings, the Eastern Province, particularly the Muslim-majority towns, are facing the same kind of intrusive scrutiny and searches. Kattankudy, a Muslim-majority town just south of Batticaloa, has come into sharp focus since the April 21 blasts. The mastermind of the blasts, Zahran Hashim, is from this town and many Muslims across Sri Lanka have roots in and around this small town. Almost all security agencies in Sri Lanka and the region have been in the town trying to figure out how extremist thoughts and preaching went beyond merely picking up a gun.

Kattankudy, in fact, is the new Kilinochchi. Kilinochchi, a nothing-town in the Northern Province along the Colombo-Jaffna A-9 highway, was the administrative capital of the Tamil Tigers and was the one town the Sri Lankan forces were desperate to overrun in the Eelam war.

New checkpoints are coming up all along the Eastern Province as the Sri Lankan state seeks to replicate the fail-safe Northern Province formula in the east. The Tamil problem had a solution based on intrusive security. The hope of the Sinhala establishment is that the new terror problem, which originated in the east, will also yield to a similar solution.

 

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