Experiences of a military-guided tour of the sensitive peninsula in Sri Lanka. B
JAFFNA town and peninsula, now home to 6.08 lakh people as per official figures, was re-captured by the Sri Lankan military from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1995. For an outsider on a military-guided tour there is no other way to get there it looks as if the Tigers, barring an estimated 1,500 of them clinging on to the thinning forward defence lines (FDLs) along the neck-shaped link to Kilinochchi, were driven out just a few weeks ago. The 1,025-square kilometre marshy land pulsates with the frenzied activity of military tanks, trucks and soldiers day and night. The 40,000-odd security personnel deployed in the peninsula have to counter potential threats from the Tigers and also cater to every imaginable need of the large population.
Jaffna peninsula is virtually a cage for both the local population and the military personnel. After the August 2006 closure of the only highway (A-9) linking the peninsula to the rest of the island, air and sea routes have been the only way in and out of the region.
The journey to Jaffna is an ordeal few can endure. A group of 40 Colombo-based journalists, including this correspondent and the Press Trust of India staffer, who went on a three-day trip to the region from April 5 to 7 on a special invitation from the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry had a first-hand experience of the myriad rules and mandatory dos and donts. Travel of foreign journalists to the peninsula requires prior approval from the Defence Ministry. Advance clearance to all media equipment (including laptops) is a must. We assembled at the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) in the heart of Colombo at 3:45 a.m. to board a special AN-32 Air Force plane from the Ratmalana airport, on the outskirts of the national capital, at 7 a.m. We were transported by bus to the airport.
We passed through five layers of security and thorough frisking before boarding the plane. Securing a seat on the flight from Ratmalana or the ship that ferries passengers from Trincomalee in the east to Jaffna is no easy task. On record, Expo Airlines operates three flights a day with a capacity of 120 passengers and the fare one way is Sri Lankan Rs.10,000 (one U.S. dollar is Sri Lankan Rs.107). In addition, Aero Air flies twice a day to Jaffna. Green Ocean, a passenger ship with 400 seats, operates from Kankesanturai (KKS) to Trincomalee every second day and charges Rs.3,000 per head. While the flying time is about an hour, the ship takes over 12 hours. It takes about 72 hours for a ship to travel from Colombo to KKS since it has to take a circuitous route in view of the perceived threats from the Sea Tigers, the LTTEs naval unit. Needless to say, the operation of the flights and the ships is subject to the prevailing security environment on any given day.
Our plane touched down at the Palaly airport at 8 a.m. The military had made arrangements for our stay at two different places at the senior officers quarters at the Air Force base and at the KKS Guest House, in the High Security Zone (HSZ). We had barely checked into our modest twin-sharing room when our mobile phones went dead. Enquiries revealed that the military had switched off all communication networks in the interest of our safety. The precaution is the result of an incident about one and a half years ago when a group of local and foreign journalists on a visit to the peninsula narrowly escaped a shell fired from across the FDL by the Tigers. The military reasoned that the Tigers had tracked down the media party on the basis of the signals emanating from their hand phones. Putting to rest our fears of being stranded in the peninsula for the next 56 hours, the conducting officer Maj. Prajat Wijesinghe, informed us that there was an Internet browsing centre inside the military complex which we could use to file our reports at the end of the day.
Our first visit was to the Special Forces (Jaffna) Commander Major General G.A. Chandrasiri. The soft-spoken, 54-year-old general is known as a stickler for discipline. As a matter of policy, he has enforced prohibition on his men and women. None of my personnel is allowed to touch liquor. I am proud to tell you all that there has not been a single instance of molestation or harassment of civilians in the last two and half years, he proclaimed.
He gave a 75-minute power point presentation to show that the armed forces were doing their best not only in safeguarding the territorial integrity of the island-nation but also in attending to the needs of the civilian population. Interaction with the brigade commanders and others confirmed the assertion. There is no sphere of conceivable activity in which the military is not associated.
The demographic changes in the peninsula are impossible to miss. There has been no census in Sri Lanka since 1981. At the time of the last head count, the peninsula had a population of 8.3 lakh. The projected figures for 2007 then was 1.2 million but as per provisional estimates, it is just about six lakhs now. The ethnic cleansing resorted to by the Tigers is largely responsible for the dramatic demographic shift, mostly through migration.
In 1990, the LTTE expelled nearly 90,000 Muslims from the north, including the peninsula, and none of them has returned till date despite a written pact between the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the LTTE. In 1981, there were 6,659 Sinhalese in the peninsula, and today their number is a mere 26. These 26 men are married to locals. They do not identify themselves as Sinhalese. Some have even adopted local names, quipped the Jaffna Commander.
According to the commander, the key security challenges include the LTTEs infiltration into the peninsula via Pooneryn on boats and the fear psychosis created through claymore mine explosions, suicide attacks and small-arms attacks. He claims the situation has been brought under control by the military.
Maj. Gen. Chandrasiri and all his officers are bitter about the Norwegian-facilitated 2002 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA). They believe the pact nullified all the gains made by the military from 1995 to February 2002. During the period of the CFA from February 2002 to August 2005, there were about 2,032 LTTE cadre moving freely in the Jaffna peninsula. This led to disruption in the civil administration, he bemoaned. He and his officers are certain that the Tigers took full advantage of the CFA and built up a network throughout the peninsula. Almost eight months before undeclared hostilities commenced in July 2006, the Tigers moved out of the government-controlled areas.
Maj. Gen. Chandrasiri believes that the Mahinda Rajapaksa governments strategy of taking the Tigers head-on has aided the military a great deal. He claimed that abductions in Jaffna had plummeted from 43 cases recorded in 2007 to seven in the first three months of 2008. No cases of extortion were reported in the last two months.
In contrast, 45 political activists from Tamil parties other than the LTTE were reportedly killed between January 1, 2006, and March 31, 2008. Members of the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP), led by Social Welfare Minister Douglas Devananda, were the main targets. We see a declining trend in the killing of civilians and the targeting of political party members, Chandrasiri said.
Like Maj. Gen. Chandrasiri, most of the officers have a grouse against the media. They feel the media never highlighted the positive developments. For instance, the effective de-mining and mine-risk education programmes, a high-risk and expensive exercise, have helped bring down the number of mine and unexploded ordnance (UXO) casualties to zero in 2007 and 2008, from an all-time high of 69 in 2002.
Of course, they cannot be expected to answer political questions such as how and why successive governments in Colombo failed to establish a civilian set-up in the peninsula, which was wrested from the Tigers way back in 1995. The General and his officers vehemently defend the governments decision to seal off the A-9 highway, termed by them as a sluice gate of terrorism and a cash cow for the Tigers. At the same time there is no satisfactory answer as to how the Tigers could infiltrate through the highway since one end of it was under the control of the military.
The general and his officers believe that it would not be prudent to open A-9 until the Tigers were dealt with in a decisive way. They concede that the closure of the highway has resulted in great inconvenience and it was certainly not the way for `winning the hearts and minds of the people but argue that it was a necessary evil in the overall interests of security. On the travails of citizens in obtaining clearances to travel out of the peninsula, Maj. Gen. Chandrisiri said the military was in the process of issuing special identity cards to citizens of the peninsula.
The first phase of the project has been completed at an estimated cost of Rs.21 million. We are waiting for funds to complete the next stage. We hope to have it fully functional within three to four months, he said.
Our next hop was to the Brigade Headquarters in Jaffna town. A convoy of armoured vehicles escorted by a military truck acting as the pilot transported us. The Chinese-made vehicles, which can travel up to 80 km an hour on relatively good roads, were introduced into the islands war theatre in early 2007 to transport troops. We travelled in these vehicles throughout the length and breadth of the peninsula for the next 48 hours.
The distance from Palaly to Jaffna town is about 15 km. Most of the structures in the HSZ bear testimony to high-intensity conflict. It is rare to come across a structure that is intact. Intruders would be dealt with with minimum force is a signboard seen in every compound from where the military operates.
From the headquarters of the Jaffna Brigade Commander, we were taken to Gurunagar, one of the fishing ports in Jaffna. There are about 200 fishing families that use the port. However, they are allowed to venture only 2.5 km towards Pooneryn, that too guided by military boats from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m., as the port is only 4.5 km away from LTTE-held Pooneryn. The fishing activity, it appears, is mostly in the early hours of the day and the fisherfolk prefer to stay indoors thereafter. Fishing activity has been adversely affected since the ethnic conflict began three decades ago.
At the office of the Government Agent (District Collector) of Jaffna, we learn that in 1983 the peninsula accounted for 48,677 tonnes of fish production. It went down to an average of 1,514 tonnes a year when the Tigers were in control of Jaffna in the early 1990s; in 2007, it stood at 2,963 tonnes. As of 2007, an estimated 15,840 fishing families are actively pursuing their livelihood.
We were then taken to the heart of the Jaffna town, the main shopping centre. We were told we could step out of the vehicles but not to stray too far. Soldiers kept a close watch on each of us. At least one shopkeeper told this correspondent that there was little he could talk about in the presence of military personnel.
It is true that the government and the military have attempted to ensure adequate supply of essential goods in the peninsula after March 2007. However, the sheer logistics of pumping goods into the region means an escalation in costs. A cap costs Rs.250 as against Rs.100 in Colombo. The shipping charges also mean additional costs. Out of the seven ships transporting goods to Jaffna, only two are government-operated.
Our next halt was at the office of the Government Agent, Ganesh. The top bureaucrat made it known at the very outset of his briefing that he would not be dragged into political questions. On availability of goods and services in the peninsula, he said, We have sufficient food for the next three months. However, the shipping charges are very high. There are seven government-owned ships and five private-owned ships. They use the KKS and Myleddy ports, both of which are controlled by the Navy. According to him, the health sector appears to have been the worst hit. Out of the total sanctioned posts of 2,264 health personnel, 1,362 are lying vacant. These include 22 specialists, 17 consultants and 219 medical officers.
Although Maj. Gen. Chandrasiri claimed that there were no Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Jaffna, the statistics presented by Ganesh showed that there were 1,03,000 IDPs. Owing to the confrontation at Muhamali in August 2007, as many as 2,732 families were vacated. There are 85 camps managed by the government at the moment, he said. Also, there are 26,791 families displaced owing to the setting up of HSZs. These IDPs refuse to be resettled in alternative locations as they do not want to give up their original places of residence.
The next day we were off to the FDL in the Muhamalai. The commanding officers of Division 55 and the First Light Infantry Regiment in Eluthumadduval claimed that although the 400-metre no-mans land had been captured by the security forces, the area was heavily mined.
We dont want to approach the area with a large battalion, because our aim is not to capture land. We want to use small specialised groups to destroy as many Tiger cadre as possible. My personal estimate is that there are close to 1,500 cadre behind the Tiger frontline, Brigadier Kamal Gunerathne, Commander of Division 51, said. The brigadier believes that the Tigers are running short of ammunition. He talked about the difficulties in battling the Tigers.
The terrain that we fight in is varied. From Nagar Kovil to Muhamalai to Kilali, there are coastal areas, semi-deserts, mangrove forests, plain land, marshy land, scrubs and lagoons, he said. The area where the confrontation is taking place is the neck of Jaffna peninsula with a width of only 8 km; Nagar Kovil is 3 km in width. One other problem the military faces is booby-traps connecting several anti-personnel mines, to inflict large-scale damage. Hence we have to conduct a thorough de-mining operation before venturing towards the captured no-mans land, he said. While we were there, the Tigers fired twice and the security forces retaliated. The soldiers on duty along the Muhamalai FDL appear to be in good spirits in spite of their harsh job.
A soldiers duty time is 12 hours. But, according to a major, they sometimes have to spend four or five days at the FDL, depending on the need of the hour.
On the last day of our sojourn, we were taken to a camp where 54 surrendered Tigers were kept. They are believed to have given themselves up to the military through the Human Rights Commission. Forty-seven of them surrendered on February 28, while on March 8 and 9 the numbers of those who surrendered were three and four respectively.
Among them were two minors, one aged 16 and the other 17. Seventeen-year-old Suwaaji Sandur is from Valvettithurai. He studied at Silembara School, but only up to Grade 10. We had problems at home. My father used to be a fisherman. But since there were restrictions on going out to sea, we were finding it difficult to afford food. I have a younger sister and a brother, Sandur said.
It was during that time, in 2005, the LTTE approached Sandur, giving his family food and other assistance. The LTTE used Sandur mostly for intelligence work, especially to spy on the Army. They taught me how to use the grenade and to attack the Army in small ways, he said. One of the many tasks entrusted to him was helping out the LTTE in its propaganda work and initiating small-scale agitation tactics against the military, especially provoking Army personnel.
However by 2006, when the war started, the LTTE cadre who recruited Sandur had started fleeing to the Wanni. When the Army started its combing operations for LTTE cadre and supporters, Sandur surrendered to the Human Rights Commission fearing for his life. Now that he has surrendered, Sandur fears that the LTTE might take revenge. I want to go abroad. If I stay here, I will not be alive for long, he said.
The last item on our itinerary was a visit to the Northern Naval Command Headquarters led by Commander Rear Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe. The commander is seriously concerned about what he describes as indiscriminate poaching into Sri Lankan waters by Indian trawlers and fisherfolk. On any given day, there are 300 to 400 trawlers in our waters and the Tigers are taking advantage of the situation. We have taken up the matter with our counterparts in India and I must say the cooperation from the other side is good, he said. Both India and Sri Lanka are committed to the task but still the problem remains, he complained.
Sri Lankan military is battling on too many fronts in the peninsula. It is in dire need of a buffer in the form of a robust civilian administration and, if possible, a semblance of a political set-up to act as an intermediary between it and the local population.
The All Parties Representative Committee (APRC), set up by the President to help him in resolving the ethnic question, in its interim report of January 23, has recommended a temporary northern provisional council consisting of political representatives, pending restoration of conditions conducive to elections to a regular council, to redress the grievances of ordinary people. Such a set-up brooks no further delay if the government wants to strengthen the hands of the military and begin the process of consolidating the gains of the project to win the hearts and minds of the people.