An Eelam outpost

Published : Jan 10, 1998 00:00 IST

An exclusive account of a visit to Kokkadicholai village, near Batticaloa, where the Sri Lankan state and the separatist LTTE have learnt to coexist even as the war between them rages elsewhere.

DRIVING down from Batticaloa, a coastal town in eastern Sri Lanka, along the largely unseen side of the island republic, one arrives at Kokkadicholai. It is a small village, in many ways indistinguishable from other Tamil villages in Sri Lanka. What sets it apart is that it has claims to being an unpretentious seat of power of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an outpost of sorts of an imaginary homeland called Tamil Eelam.

Kokkadicholai may be tucked away geographically, but its political symbolism lends it a certain visibility. As this correspondent discovered on a visit on December 28, 1997, the village reflects an aspiration of debatable, disputable, proportions. In this rudimentary, almost medieval, "state" in the Batticaloa segment, both the Government and the LTTE have learnt to coexist.

THE reigning political force in Kokkadicholai is LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran, whose main headquarters lie somewhere in the Vanni jungles of northeastern Sri Lanka. With the Vanni area, the current theatre of war, out of bounds for the media, Kokkadicholai has emerged as something of a window to the outside world for Tamils, and vice versa.

At the heart of the "state structures" in Kokkadicholai is the LTTE's political office, which is kept ticking by its intelligence wing. Here, a political representative of the LTTE briefs this correspondent on the intricacies of "Eelam ethos" and gives matter-of-fact replies to some questions and parries others. Keeping vigil all the while is Tulasi, evidently an intelligence official. Tulasi saw action in the battle for Jaffna, just before the Sri Lankan military forces overran the LTTE stronghold in the northern peninsula in January 1995. He is particular that no photographs be taken of LTTE fighters, as distinct from guards or sentinels, in Kokkadicholai.

On the streets of Kokkadicholai one sees LTTE fighters, including women. A "court of justice" and a "police station" run by the LTTE constitute the centrepiece of the power structure. There is, however, no chamber of representatives of the people. This is in line with the LTTE's theory of state; the organisation favours a system of centralised power in the hands of a "supreme leader". The absence of a chamber of people's representatives also points to the fact that although for all practical purposes this terrain is in the administrative control of the LTTE, it has not broken free of the sovereign Sri Lankan state. The relative free movement of people and goods across the dividing line between Kokkadicholai and the Batticaloa segment is a sure sign of a continuing, perhaps sustainable, interaction between the two sides.

At the moment, the Sri Lankan authorities, whose military assets and resources are stretched to the limits on the main battlefield across the treacherous Vanni terrain, are in no hurry to try and retrieve Kokkadicholai. As for the LTTE, it still has many more miles to go on the road to "total liberation."

Years ago, Prabakaran told this correspondent that he could consider a unilateral declaration of independence in a Tamil Eelam only if he could capture Trincomalee on Sri Lanka's northeastern coastline. Trincomalee, a place of sentimental value to Sri Lankan Tamils and strategic relevance to Colombo, is firmly in the Sri Lankan military's hands.

The political realities of the ongoing war and the logistical and practical calculations of both sides have ensured that Tamil Eelam remains a virtual mini-state without sovereignty and is, therefore, no real state at all. Although Kokkadicholai has Eelam written all over it, the LTTE regards this territory as a unique state within the Sri Lankan state; however, it makes no efforts to purvey the imprimatur of separate statehood.

There was a time when the LTTE controlled people's entry to and exit from Jaffna, but Jaffna has slipped out of its hands. Those controls bore the hallmark of assertiveness of the LTTE's claims to having secured near-sovereignty status for Jaffna. No such restriction on the movement of people in and out of Kokkadicholai exists now and this is a telling comment on the present limits of the LTTE's political power even in its own precincts.

For Kokkadicholai's residents, all of whom are Sri Lankan citizens, the 'police station' and the 'court', in particular, serve as a means of redressing their grievances relating to security and civic matters. People throng the 'police station' with their complaints, which they narrate to Krithika, the officer-in-charge. Overlooking the room is a portrait of Prabakaran. It is his writ, as discerned by his operatives, that runs here: the hub of the police station is the kattalai paniyagam (commanding office).

A relative late-entrant to the LTTE fold, Krithika exudes faith in the organisation's style of jurisprudence, which is complete with a penal code and a criminal procedure code. The 'court' has a 'civil judge' (Kalki, a 24-year-old woman) and a 'judge' who tries criminal cases (a 28-year-old man named Sendooran). Even residents of Batticaloa are known to have availed themselves of the quick-fix jurisprudence of the LTTE, preferring it to the long-winded judicial process under Sri Lankan laws.

The judges in the LTTE-run courts have devised extra-judicial methods to ensure that their sentences on those who fall outside their court's jurisdiction are implemented. Such persons who are unwilling to accept the verdicts find that their relatives or friends in Kokkadicholai are taken hostage until such time as they comply with the sentence.

Given the disinclination or failure of the Sri Lankan state to crack the whip against such practices in LTTE-run enclaves, or uncleared areas as they are called, the "Eelam experiment" is seen to thrives, at least for now. Kokkadicholai wears the look of a place in undefinable ferment. The people follow the rules and regulations laid down by the LTTE; but they seem to be grateful, too, that their links with the rest of Sri Lanka remain largely intact.

There are more symbols of LTTE authority in Kokkadicholai. Posters commemorate "Eelam fighters"; a wayside notice-board bears the legend Urumal (Roar) and is used to make public announcements; a letter-box helps people communicate with the LTTE's "commander Thalapathi Karuna". For the spiritually-minded, medieval temple with a swayambhu lingam (a self-sprung Siva lingam) serves as a focal point. The temple is being renovated and it is said to attract people from afar as well.

These varied aspects and symbols of ordinary existence cannot easily be woven into a social tapestry. To complete the picture, the LTTE is organising schools where the history of "Eelam", Sri Lanka and India is said to be taught. Training in the use of arms is given to hard-core LTTE entrants. However, Tulasi asserts that children are not deployed in the war effort.

Of all the symbols, the most poignant one is the portrait of "Annai Bhupathi", an old woman who, it is said, fasted unto death calling for a ceasefire between the LTTE and the Indian Peace-Keeping Force. If this has any message at all, it can be seen as a signal that the LTTE might still consider truce as an option in its war with the Sri Lankan state. Sri Lankan officials belonging to state institutions that offer public utility services - power supply, road repairs and so on - are not persona non grata in Kokkadicholai. A Sri Lankan Member of Parliament, to whose electoral constituency Kokkadicholai belongs, is credited with having arranged electricity supply to the village's residents. It is difficult, though, to discern whether the LTTE will soon transform this soft option of links with the Sri Lankan state into a hard choice of talks with Colombo.

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