A mixed picture

Published : Apr 25, 1998 00:00 IST

While the situation in Jaffna is improving steadily, the picture in other parts of Sri Lanka continues to be bleak.

SRI LANKA today presents three contrasting, but interesting, pictures. First, the Sri Lankan security forces have managed to gain the upper hand in Jaffna, the citadel of Tamil separatism. What is more, there is a growing rapport between the people and the Army in the peninsula. Secondly, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has shifted its major areas of operation to the jungles of Vanni, the Eastern province and the capital, Colombo, after having been driven out of Jaffna. Thirdly, the hopes that many Sri Lanka watchers entertained about a quick implementation of the devolution package are slowly vanishing.

During my earlier visits to Jaffna in June 1996 and March 1997, the Sri Lankan security forces were omnipresent. Their deployment level has now been scaled down; a number of women security personnel have been inducted; people do not have to wait for long at checkpoints; soldiers are being taught to converse in Tamil, and human rights cells have started functioning.

Since Major General Lionel Balagalle assumed overall command of the peninsula, the number of "disappearances" has come down and every complaint filed about alleged misconduct is being inquired into. Rev. Fr. Alphonsus Iruthanayagam Bernard, Principal of St. Patricks School, spoke highly of the attempts being made by Maj. Gen. Balagalle to promote cordial relations between the Army and the civilians, a view shared by a cross-section of people.

The LTTE's strategy of forcing people to leave their homes so that the advancing Sri Lankan Army would march into a ghost town, has backfired. The trauma the people have experienced has resulted in a perceptible change in their attitude towards the LTTE.

Maj. Gen. Balagalle and Brig. Larry Wijeratne (who is in charge of Vadamar-achi) have been making efforts to impro-ve the living conditions of the people. These efforts have begun to pay dividends. In July 1997, an LTTE guerilla was killed in an ambush in Valigamam. Among the documents seized from him was a letter addressed to the LTTE leadership, expla-ining the reason for his inability to succeed in his mission. If an LTTE cadre stayed in a house for more than 24 hours, information about this invariably reached the Army. The people no longer like the presence of the LTTE in their midst.

When the people of Valigamam were forced to leave their homes, many of them did not know what to do with their savings. A few of them placed their jewellery and currency notes in polythene bags and buried the bags in their compounds. However, when they returned, they found that the LTTE had placed landmines near their homes, or that their homes were occupied by the security forces. Maj. Gen. Balagalle narrated how he had received a letter from an elderly man seeking help to recover his savings. The security forces recovered 100 sovereigns in gold and currency notes worth Sri Lankan Rs. 500,000. Since the currency notes were soiled, Maj. Gen. Balagalle wrote to the central bank asking that they be replaced. Thirty-nine others were provided similar help.

More and more people are returning to Jaffna. According to the latest District Profile made available by the Gove-rnment Agent's Office, between May 1996 and February 1998, 65,000 people returned by ship from Trincomalee and Mannar. What is interesting is that the people who were stranded in LTTE-controlled areas are coming back.

Schools and colleges are functioning normally. Electricity is available for a few hours in certain parts of the town. The faculty members of Jaffna University view television programmes from Chennai every day. Agricultural operations have started; in fact, there is a glut in the market, with vegetables and plantains being sold cheaper in Jaffna than in Colombo. More buses are plying. Kerosene, petrol and medicines are available, although at higher prices. Maj. Gen. Balagalle said that the Government's top priority was to improve telecommunications; an additional 20,000 telephone lines are likely to be provided by the end of the year.

THE elections to local bodies held on January 29, 1998 (Frontline, March 6, 1998) provided an ideal opportunity to transfer administrative responsibilities from the Army to the elected representatives. Although the Tamil parties wanted the elections to be postponed until "normalcy" was restored, official Colombo was determined to go ahead with the process. It was not an ideal election: the voters' lists had not been updated, and many of the people whose names figured in the electoral rolls had left the peninsula or had been displaced. As a result, although the total number of voters who figured in the electoral register was 571,486, the number of votes polled was only 106,464. Out of this, only 91,596 were valid votes. The voter turnout was, however, higher than in the 1994 parliamentary elections.

True to their nature, the non-LTTE political parties could not arrive at a common programme and contested against one another in elections to all the 17 local bodies. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) was undecided about whether to contest or not. The leadership was finally persuaded to field candidates for the Jaffna Municipality and the Valigamam North Pradeshiya Sabha. Sarojini Yogeshwaran, a TULF candidate, was elected Mayor of Jaffna. The party also won the majority of seats in Valigamam North. Sribhaskaran, a popular TULF leader, told this writer that he had neither campaigned for the party nor addressed any public meeting. He said that the TULF would have won more seats had the central leadership decided to enter democratic politics. The TULF's victory is a testimony to the fact that it has an important role to play in the emerging political scenario. Will the central leadership of the party respond to the challenge of the times or will it allow the void to be filled by gun-toting militants?

ON the second day of my stay in Jaffna, I visited Point Pedro and Velvettiturai. Lt. Col. R.B. Senanayake, who escorted me, suggested that we take a short-cut to Point Pedro via the seashore. Since the road was in poor shape, we abandoned our plan to take that road. We then motored along the usual road from Palaly. On both sides of the road I could see the ravages of war: hundreds of buildings, including churches and temples, had been destroyed. The market at Velvettiturai was completely destroyed as a result of indiscriminate bombing.

The civilian administration must, when it assumes charge, devote its attention to rebuilding the houses and roads, provide employment, promote agriculture and fishing, extend medical services and resettle displaced people. Unless the basic problems confronting the people are resolved expeditiously, the military victory may well turn out to be a mirage.

The desire expressed by Muslims to return to Jaffna is another sign of the improvement in the situation. Muslims, numbering about 75,000, lived in the region amicably with Hindus and Christians for centuries. They made valuable contributions to the economic, social, political and cultural life of Jaffna. However, in October 1990, the LTTE ordered them to leave their homes within 24 hours. The LTTE then looted property left behind by the fleeing Muslims. The Muslims took refuge in Puttalam, Anuradhapura and Kurunegala districts. I met a group of 25 Muslims at the mosque in Grand Bazaar. They were on a probing mission to find out whether they could return to Jaffna and start their lives afresh. Will Hindus and Christians extend their hand of friendship to their Muslim brethren? Will the new Mayor make Muslims feel that they are an integral part of the social fabric?

WHILE Jaffna provides hope, the situation in other parts of the island nation is bleak. Operation Jayasikuru, intended to link Kilinochchi with Vavuniya via Puliyankulam and Mankulam and thus open up the land route to Jaffna, is yet to be successfully accomplished. Even if the Army attains its objective, it will be a Herculean task to maintain the supply route, given the resilience of the LTTE.

The situation in the East is alarming. According to Air Vice-Marshal Harry Goonetileke, 75 per cent of the land area is dominated by the LTTE and only the major towns of Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Amparai are under the control of the military. The LTTE's suicide squads regularly attacked the nerve centres of the economy. What is more, the attack on Dalada Maligawa, the sacred place of worship for Sinhala Buddhists, on January 25 (Frontline, March 6, 1998) sent shock waves across the country. In retaliation, a Sinhalese mob desecrated the Selva Vinayagar temple. The LTTE's objective is to foment riots in order to widen further the ethnic divide.

A tragic fallout of the attack on Dalada Maligawa is the relegation of the devolution proposals to the background. In order to exploit the simmering Sinhalese discontent, the United National Party has come out openly against the devolution proposals. The concepts of "need-based" and "asymmetrical" devolution have their merits, but in the present context, the articulation of these demands spell the death knell for President Chandrika Kumaratunga's devolution proposals. With provincial council elections imminent, Sri Lanka is being pushed into the vortex of competitive Sinhala politics. And the Tamil groups are being relegated to the background.

Every student of contemporary Sri Lankan politics is sensitive to the fact that without a Sinhalese consensus, there cannot be any meaningful solution to the ethnic problem. By playing the Sinhalese card, political leaders are unwittingly strengthening the LTTE's argument that the Tamils can never get justice from Sinhalese-dominated governments.

Prof. V. Suryanarayan is Director, Centre for South and South-east Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai.

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