The message from Vavuniya

Print edition : October 24, 2003

The `Pongu Tamil' rally at Vavuniya offers a clear idea about the LTTE's positions on issues relating to the peace process, especially regarding the government's offer of an interim administration.

recently in Vavuniya

ON September 24, Vavuniya, the northern-most government-held Tamil-majority town in Sri Lanka, was witness to one more of the cultural extravaganzas that have become the main public event in the propaganda programmes of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Schoolchildren carry LTTE posters and placards at the `Pongu Tamil' rally in Vavuniya on September 24.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

Over the past couple of years, the Pongu Tamil (Tamil Resurgence) rally, organised by the International Students' Association of Tamil Eelam, has set the tone for LTTE policy on issues. The Vavuniya rally was no different. A "declaration" calling for an interim administration that would empower the LTTE to run the politico-administrative affairs in the northeast and give it powers over the police and the departments of land, finance and judicial services - these are not included in Colombo's latest offer of a Provisional Administrative Structure - was endorsed by the rallyists.

There was tension in the air as a nearly empty Vavuniya town geared for the event. For weeks, a sense of unease had engulfed the town owing to the Army-LTTE standoff over the hoisting of the LTTE flag with the leaping Tiger in government-held areas. Though on paper the LTTE distanced itself from the arrangements for Pongu Tamil, the students who organised the show maintained that it was "the people's desire" that the rebels' flag should be hoisted.

Meetings between the organisers and the local unit of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) before the rally helped mitigate mutual apprehensions. The confidence gained through the meeting was reflected on the streets, which were manned by unarmed policemen - a clear departure from the situation when nearly every man in khaki totes a sub-machine gun. The Army was not deployed, but it was agreed that the security forces would call out the Army, if need be.

The first and the most visible sign that a public meeting was in the offing came when schoolchildren were marched to the venue along five different routes. Walking to the accompaniment of brass bands, the processionists carried two posters - one with the picture of LTTE supremo V. Prabakaran, and the other, of the LTTE's flag. The schoolchildren, carrying placards and raising slogans, comprised the single largest group in the 5,000-strong crowd at the rally.

Given the fact that Sri Lankan Tamils number 1,09,252 in Vavuniya town's total population of 1,15,335 persons, the turnout was thin. In Vavuniya district, Sri Lankan Tamils (4,87,940) form the majority in a total population of 5,75,760. According to neutral observers, the possibility of the event taking an ugly turn prompted some people to leave Vavuniya for the day.

At 4-40 p.m., when an organiser announced that the LTTE flag would be hoisted, tension filled the rally ground. As the flag went up the flag post, the crowd stood still. The moment of tension had passed. Then came the propaganda songs. As the compere introduced each song, he explained its context. For an event from which the LTTE had seemingly distanced itself, it was a total endorsement of all that the Tigers had done during the past two decades.

The burden of the songs was the LTTE's demand for the removal of the High Security Zones (HSZ), an issue that has been troubling the peace process since last November. The lyrics in Tamil also included an appeal to the southern emotion. One song, preceding with an announcement that the aim was "not to humiliate" the security forces, asked the "Sinhalese brothers" in the Army to return home. The soldiers referred to as those "borne by our Sinhalese sisters", were asked to go back to their homes in the south "from the darkness that had engulfed them". Their "ageing fathers" needed their support, and "your wives are waiting for you", the song went.

The crowd was asked to join in, in the chorus for the songs. The tempo of the songs was subtly raised in the evening. It reached a frenzied crescendo when a youth emerged from the stage, holding the LTTE flag. Carried by others through the crowd, the youth climbed up a flag post at the centre of the ground and tied the Tiger insignia flag on the post. The crowd went into raptures and the youth was hailed as the one who hoisted the "victory flag of Tamils".

According to observers, though hoisting the LTTE's flag could not be seen as an illegal act as the organisation has been de-proscribed, the ceasefire agreement prohibits "provocative acts".

One phase of public passion over, it was then time to move over to more emotions. The rally was described as "a dance of victory"; the LTTE's flag was described as the "flag that protected Tamils" and the "flag of freedom".

Then came the Pongu Tamil declaration. Each one in the audience was asked to stand, with an arm outstretched as when taking an oath, and to repeat the declaration. Beyond the atmospherics of the declaration came the most important message of the rally.

In the clearest public pointer to the manner in which the LTTE would respond to the Sri Lankan government's offer of an interim administration, the rally "declared" that the Tigers should be given powers over land, finance, police and justice, to run the northeast and went on to "insist" that that the LTTE "should not settle for anything less".

With the case already built up for recognising the LTTE's flag as the "flag of Tamils", these two developments confirm the indications already available that the LTTE will seek greater powers in an interim administration and demand that its flag be given the status of the standard for the northeast.

While the organisers and the LTTE have been maintaining that the LTTE was not behind the Pongu Tamil festivities, the signature of the Tigers was there all through the function.

The rally and the cultural event also drove home the LTTE's main political position that any solution to the decades-old separatist conflict would have to be centred on the three Thimphu principles - Tamils as a separate nation, northeast as their traditional homeland and the right to self-determination. Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim religious leaders; Members of Parliament from the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance, and the LTTE's district political head, Ezhilan, were among those who participated in the rally.

With the public expression of the LTTE's aspirations having been made at the Vavuniya rally, what the Sri Lankan peace process now awaits is a formal word from the separatist organisation on what exactly it wants for an interim administration.

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