Sri Lanka's troubled east

Published : Nov 07, 2003 00:00 IST

With the Tamil-Muslim tensions continuing and the ground situation sliding out of government control, particularly in Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts, the region lends itself to grim predictions of devastation, if the peace efforts fail.

recently in Trincomalee

EVERY once in a while eastern Sri Lanka, the island's most volatile and sensitive region with respect to the peace-making efforts, simmers with discontent. For the past two months the politically susceptible, militarily complex and ethnically mixed Eastern Province - comprising Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Amparai districts - has been in the limelight yet again and for all the wrong reasons.

If last year clashes between Tamils and Muslims put the region under the spotlight, this year the charge by the Opposition that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had opened "new military camps" in the southern rim of Trincomalee port sparked a political debate in the country. The Opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), citing Defence sources, said the Tigers could strike at the strategically important port, which is vital for the quick movement of troops between the east and the Jaffna peninsula in the north. The government saw in the charge the usual pattern of political opposition to stymie any move towards conflict resolution.

To make matters worse, the decades-old distrust between Tamils and Muslims in the east persists, particularly in Muttur, in Trincomalee district, despite ongoing moves by the LTTE and the local Muslim communities through peace committees.

In September, the east was in the news for yet another reason - a sudden spurt in complaints of recruitment of children by the LTTE, particularly in the Tamil-majority Batticaloa district. The latest spate of recruitment was met with rare defiance - schoolchildren stayed away from classes for a few days demanding the return of their friends.

The simmering tensions in the east may have eased, but there is no cause for comfort with the ground situation sliding out of the government's control, particularly in Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts. This situation, seen against the military's stated position that it is ready to take on the Tigers if war breaks out, provides a grim prognosis of devastation in the making if the peace efforts fail.

* * *

UNLIKE in the northern battle zone, where the lines demarcating government and rebel-held territories are clear, the lines in the east have always been hazy. If the war strategy in the north is one of consolidation and holding of territory, based on clearly delineated Forward Defence Lines (FDLs), in the east the focus is more, though not entirely, on clearing and flushing-out operations, with each side dominating the other over varying periods.

Major towns in the east, such as Trincomalee and Batticaloa, have always been under government control, while the LTTE dominates the areas around these towns. In Trincomalee district, areas dominated by the LTTE lie a few kilometres from the main town, but are interspersed with government-controlled regions. Added to this military complexity is the demographic fact that unlike in the Tamil-majority north, across the east, particularly in Trincomalee, Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims are near equal in number.

The politico-military controversy over the "new military camps" reportedly put up by the Tigers since last year's ceasefire agreement was sparked off by a report in The Sunday Times on August 3 and an accompanying map showing the Army and LTTE camps around Trincomalee port. The map was to become the centre of the SLFP's campaign that Trincomalee port, a deep-sea natural port, was under threat. The vintage oil tank farms in the vicinity of the port, which are now managed by Indian Oil, added an Indian dimension to the issue. The Opposition's contention was that these camps were in government-held areas and were put up after last year's ceasefire came into force. While the security forces in the east do not hide the fact that the port town has always been under threat, the "new threat" dimension is explained by two factors - the politicisation of the conflict resolution process and the interest evinced by the Navy, which guards the harbour, in procuring new weapons.

Defence officials dismiss the "new vulnerability" theory and assert that the risk to the port was no more than what existed during the war. The port base and the entrance to the sea have remained High Security Zones with frequent patrolling by Navy gunboats. Memories of Eelam War III - which started with a suicide attack on Trincomalee port after talks collapsed - add to the threat perception.

According to the Opposition, the "new threat" is also because of the "possibility" of the rebels moving heavy artillery to bring the port under the range of their guns. The rebel arsenal comprises mortars, howitzers and three 122 mm guns with a range of 17 km. According to the Opposition, the controversial camp at Kurangupaanchan, which the rebels have refused to vacate, brings the port within the range of LTTE guns.

The government counters the Opposition charge with three claims: that barring the one at Kurangupaanchan, all LTTE camps existed before the ceasefire and some of them are only outposts or political and administrative offices; that all these are within the range of Army guns; and that the security forces are in a state of preparedness to counter effectively any rebel attack.

Independent military observers feel that moving a heavy artillery piece like the 122 mm gun into the region would be a risky proposition for the rebels, particularly given the terrain. However, they do not rule out the possibility of an all-out attack by the Tigers.

The security forces maintain that all the LTTE positions are within the range of their guns and that "nothing would remain" if the Army was to turn its guns on them. Indeed, heavy casualties on both sides are expected in the initial phase if there is another outbreak of war.

Attempts to meet district-level LTTE officials in Trincomalee were in vain, but observers believe that the significance of the Kurangupaanchan camp, located 17 km southwest of Trincomalee in the Kinniya division, is more logistical and ethnic than military. The camp is mid-way between the LTTE positions in the east and the north and is seen as a rest and recuperation post for cadres on the move.

There is also a complex ethnic dimension to the controversy, which is less focussed on. According to informed sources in the east, the controversy over the rebel camp has been timed with the LTTE's offer to displaced Muslims to return home. Muslims reportedly own the farms around the camp and fear that the Tigers want to control them by putting up a camp there. According to local sources, the controversy started around the same time that Muslims were to return to their farms.

* * *

THE tensions between Tamils and Muslims in the region persist, particularly in Muttur, a Muslim-majority hamlet south of Trincomalee port. In fact, Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim villages lie sandwiched in the region, and Muttur turned a sensitive spot last year with recurring tensions between the two communities. It is now a fast-depleting town and the alleged presence of armed Muslim groups has complicated the situation further. Located across the bay, Muttur is about 15 km south of Trincomalee. The ferry service to the town takes a circuitous route, skipping the High Security Zones. On board the ferry, Frontline got differing responses from residents of Muttur. Tamils and Muslims blame each other but feel that the only way to solve the problem is for the Tigers and Muslims to talk at the political level.

Muttur is a microcosm of what can go wrong with the fragile peace process. During the 17 months of ceasefire, this dusty hamlet had its share of Tamil-Muslim violence, reflecting decades of mutual mistrust. Barely a few kilometres away lie areas held by the LTTE; control over land is seen as the main factor behind the frequent bouts of violence in the town. In late September, Muttur presented a picture of uneasy calm; it bore the signs of a town sitting on a powder keg.

Police sources say three "armed Muslim groups" the Osama group, the Muttur Jetty Group and the Knox group have sprouted in the town. They say the Osama Group is headed by 30-year-old Abdul Samidu Hareem and comprises about 20 youth armed with four T56 rifles, one 9 mm pistol and 30 handgrenades. The Muttur Jetty Group is led by 25-year-old Abdul Khudoos Mohammed Jiffrey and has 10 members with one T56 rifle, one 9 mm pistol and one handgrenade. The 10-member Knox Group is led by 28-year-old Najeeb and has two T56 rifles and 15 hand-grenades.

Muslims in the area deny the presence of the groups, but Tamils and the police are emphatic that they exist. "These are just rumours floated by those who want to create discord," said an Arabic language teacher in the local school. "If we had arms, then the Tamils cannot attack us," chipped in a Muslim youth. A Catholic priest, Joseph Dunstan, however, is certain that the groups exist, but concedes that he has "only heard of them, but not seen them". A police officer, requesting anonymity, confirmed the presence of the groups, but did not see in them a parallel with the early days of Tamil militancy.

Tamils and Muslims also differ on the reasons for the tensions between the communities. Muslims are reportedly denied access to their farmlands that lie in LTTE-held areas. Tamils feel there is political backing for the Muslim extremists and allege that the sporadic violence is linked to the internal crisis in the island's Muslim politics. Muslims' fear is that the LTTE wants to drive them away from Muttur or at least suppress them by force and dominate the region.

The direct consequence of the creeping extremism has been the flight of civilians. "Two decades ago there were 400 Catholic families here, now there are only 150. Boys are frightened to stay here," said Fr. Dunstan. "Even Muslims are leaving," said Mohsin, an autorickshaw driver, adding that several families had fled, fearing for their lives. With the 2001 Census not enumerating Muttur, there are no official figures.

For the moment, there is peace in the town. Jawahir, a hardware merchant, is confident that things will improve. He feels that these issues can be sorted out before they escalate. His shop is on Church Street - the only one of a Muslim in a Tamil locality. "I am sure of peace. I have no problems with anybody," he says.

About the future, Harris, who teaches Islamic Law in Muttur's Arabic College, says: "Only if the politicians and the LTTE sit together and sort things out, there will be lasting peace." Till then the town will continue to be a symbol of all that can go dangerously wrong in Sri Lanka's latest peace efforts.

* * *

IN addition to the military and ethnic complexities, there has been a sharp rise in the number of abductions and conscriptions by the LTTE in the east. According to police sources, a total of 128 such cases were reported in the three eastern districts between last February's ceasefire agreement and August. Tamil-majority Batticaloa had the highest number of such cases (67), followed by Trincomalee (40) and Amparai (21).

Seventeen months after the ceasefire agreement, there are reports of a sudden increase in child recruitment in the north and the east. According to informed sources in Trincomalee, there has been a spurt in child recruitment during the last two months. In the east, at least 15 cases were reported in August and 30 in September. In the north, five new cases are reported every week.

The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) confirmed an increase in complaints of child recruitment but declined to release figures. Religious leaders in the region expressed dismay over the trend. Neutral observers see this as a part of the LTTE's way of sending out the message that though it is talking peace it will continue to prepare for war.

In a poor fishing village in Trincomalee, Kamala described how earlier this year her 16-year-old son was taken away from a school that was in an LTTE-dominated part of the district. "They came and gave consent forms to the children to fill up. My son evaded them and went to the toilet, but he was taken away in a van, which was parked outside the school," she said. Her son then reportedly escaped from the LTTE, and was helped by a Muslim family to reach his home. "He is scared to rejoin school. His late father was keen that he should study, but after that episode he does not want to go to school as he fears that he would be taken away again," she said.

* * *

A FEW years ago, during the height of the armed conflict, Trincomalee was a town under siege. Military checkpoints dotted the route to the eastern town, and soldiers and policemen toting machine guns were a common sight. Now, after the ceasefire, there is a visible change.

There is freer movement of people and there are no restrictions. In the heart of the town, at the LTTE's political office, the Tiger flag flies on the mast. When Frontline visited the town, a function was under way to mark the memory of Thileepan, who committed suicide during the days of the Indian Peace Keeping Force and whose death resulted in the Tigers training their guns on the IPKF.

Business has flourished. So has the LTTE, which has made inroads into the district through its political offices. "We pay our taxes to the Tigers," a Tamil businessman conceded.

Beneath the uneasy calm, there is also the recognition that until a lasting negotiated political settlement is reached, Trincomalee will remain a town under siege, vulnerable to a sudden attack by the LTTE.

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