A truce on test

Print edition : August 03, 2002

The reopening of a crucial highway between Batticaloa and Badulla in Sri Lanka generates new optimism, but communal violence puts a question mark on the prospects.

TWO years ago, Sri Lanka was a nation on the brink. All eyes were on the island's north, where fiery battles raged between the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the security forces for territorial control over the Jaffna peninsula.

Major-General Sunil Tennakoon of the Sri Lanka Army, Karikalan, "special political officer" of the LTTE in the east (second left), and others cut the ribbon to mark the reopening of the A-5 highway on July 15.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

Today, as the island-nation nurses slender hopes of peace, the spotlight is on the east: the volatile region that can either ruin the current peace process or set the pace for effective conflict resolution.

"If the ceasefire breaks, it will be in the east," said a resident of the eastern town of Batticaloa. It is not merely a common person's prophesy of doom; in Colombo, a military veteran shared the same perception. "The east is the spot to watch," he told Frontline. The east has ample reasons to create such misgivings, for it was here that previous attempts to resolve the ethnic conflict broke down. The ethnic mix of the east makes it a hot spot that requires sensitive handling. Most important, reports of violations of the current Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement have not helped in creating the required confidence. The clashes that broke out in the east between Tamils and Muslims added to the complexity of the situation.

It was against this background that a key military decision was taken to link Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka to the south-central marketing town of Badulla. A day before the Sri Lanka Army prepared to reopen a 37-km stretch of a crucial highway, A-5, Black Bridge, located 16 km from Batticaloa, wore signs of optimism. Black Bridge had, for the past seven years, separated government and rebel-held territories in this sensitive region, serving as an Army checkpoint. Just across the bridge, in a one-km-long stretch of no-man's land, hectic work was on to complete the relaying of a damaged stretch of the road. "Only this section is ruined by shelling as no one controlled it for the past seven years," said Lingeshwaran, a young contractor.

At the end of the no-man's land, rebels of the LTTE let vehicles move on with a curt nod and no words after determining the purpose of the visit. Civilians had been looking forward to the opening of the A-5. "This reduces our travel time by two hours. Earlier we had to take a circuitous route," said Shanmuganathan, a resident, hoping for economic spinoffs from the development. "We now pay high prices for vegetables that come from Badulla. After the route is opened they will be cheaper. The price of potatoes, for instance, which now cost Rs.80 a kilogram, should fall to Rs.60." The fishing community in the east expects fish to fetch better prices with direct access to the marketing centre and with intermediaries playing no role.

It has been a hard grind for people who restore damaged roads. Gravel for the road was hauled from 149 km away. A total of 48 people, including four women, toiled for a week to keep the deadline set by the government and the Tigers.

The A-5 was opened for civilian traffic on July 15, and now the mode of travel from eastern to south-eastern Sri Lanka is expected to change. Earlier only private vans, with passengers and goods packed like sardines, were available. "If government bus services are restored, life will improve a lot," said Varadarajan, chief clerk at the office of the local governing body. "An estimated 5,000 students who go to the 12 schools located in this stretch will not have to walk long distances if public transport is restored."

Apart from these benefits, the local people look forward to the closing of the chasm that has developed between the two sides of the region. "The Tigers are cooperating with us," said a cheerful soldier at Black Bridge. Agreeing with the sentiments expressed by an LTTE cadre, he said, "We do not want this war." For the formal opening of the Black Bridge, Karikalan, special political leader of the LTTE in the east, drove in from rebel-controlled territory. He was joined by Major-General Sunil Tennakoon, the top military officer in the east. Religious leaders, representatives of the local government, and others gathered. Short speeches, marking the new camaraderie between the Army and the Tigers were made. Talking to Army officers and journalists in fluent Sinhalese, Karikalan appeared to be a picture of bonhomie. Partaking the traditional Sinhalese milk-rice, which is prepared to mark auspicious days, he reportedly told the soldiers: "I have never had such food in a long time." He was equally at ease with journalists, offering quotes in both Tamil and Sinhalese.

Then Gen. Tennakoon and Karikalan strode down the bridge to declare it open, ahead of a convoy of vehicles. Gen. Tennakoon and Karikalan, sitting next to each other in a state transport bus, conveyed the feeling that stopping the war was high on the agenda of both the Army and the Tigers.

"We are making all efforts to achieve peace. There is no doubt about that," Gen. Tennakoon said. Karikalan concurred: "This is a positive step to bring in peace. The road, which runs across areas controlled by us, is now open to all. We are creating a situation where anyone travelling through areas under our control does not have to fear anything."

Given the sensitive nature of the ethnically mixed eastern region, the two were also confident that problems could be sorted out through dialogue.

"We have a very close dialogue with the LTTE's political leaders of the east. I am not saying that problems will not come. But with understanding, I am confident that we can sort them out," Tennakoon said. Karikalan said, "We are in close touch with high-level officers. Whenever there are problems we talk and work out ways to solve them."

On reaching LTTE-held territory, the order of the convoy changed. Armed LTTE motorcycle outriders and guerillas in open jeeps led the convoy. The Tigers were making the statement loud and clear as to who controlled which territory. Karikalan pointed to areas that had not seen development for decades. There was only one hospital for the entire area and there was no power supply.

It was also time to reciprocate the Army's hospitality. At an abandoned church, the rebels organised a reception. Soft drinks and snacks were served as the men in uniform and LTTE cadres sat across each other.

With the ice broken, the fighters from the two sides broke into bits of conversation. The general theme was to reiterate each other's efforts towards peace. Outside the church, armed rebels stood guard. For some soldiers, it was their first interaction with the rebels. Language proved to be a source of division. Capt. Diyamenthie, a volunteer doctor, keen to know a woman fighter's view, posed a question in Sinhalese, which did not elicit an answer.

Along the route, posters protesting against the positions taken by some parties in the south, one of them aimed at the left-radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, which opposes the peace process, were on display. Songs criticising the war efforts were also played.

At the end of the 36-km journey, near a Sri Lankan police checkpoint, Karikalan, when asked what was required to transform the present truce to lasting peace, said, "There should be unity within and among the Sinhalese during the current ceasefire and the emphasis should be on the need for peace. Then there will be permanent peace."

Given the country's highly divisive politics, this appears more difficult than the firm hand shakes exchanged by Gen. Tennakoon and Karikalan. Subtle undercurrents were in evidence."I do not know what is happening. Our leaders told us to open this road, we are opening it. Ask them for details," an LTTE cadre in plainclothes said.

At the police checkpoint that leads to government-held territory, rebels expressed their desire to travel further. Initially the police were reluctant as the agreement prevented uniformed rebels from entering government areas, but on Gen.Tennakoon's request the Tigers were let through. The Sinhalese villagers, who saw the 'kotiyas' racing down the road for the first time, were naturally shocked.

"It has been years since I came down this road", Karikalan said. "In the 1990s, I went on a one-day trip all around this area."

Further down, at a junction that leads to Badulla, it was time for us to say goodbye to Gen. Tennakoon and Karikalan, who went to their vehicles parked under a tree.

THE optimism generated by the access to the A-5 was jolted at Valaichchenai. A row of burnt-out shells stood where once there was bustling business. Valaichchenai became the victim of communal violence, the first since the ceasefire agreement. The violence was quelled only after curfew was clamped that night. While there are conflicting versions about what happened, it is agreed that the Tigers' writ runs in the eastern region. A political leader put it thus: "We cannot firmly say that the Tigers were behind this, but one thing is clear, if they wanted they could have stopped it."

The fragility of the peace in the eastern province is evident from the cascading effect of the disturbances, which began at Mutur in Trincomalee district, 80 km north of Valaichchenai. Irked by what Muslims saw as the LTTE's reluctance to protect them and the "extortion of traders", a call was made for a general closure of all business on June 27.

A police officer saw the violence as a round backed by the Tigers who "wanted the hartal to fail". Disagreeing with this, a Tamil resident said that unlike the past, the "Tamil youth were out on the streets because they did not have to fear arrests because the ceasefire was on". Muslim traders were guarded in their remarks. Some blamed the "forces backing the Tamils" for the violence and "the police and the army for not controlling the situation".

The violence claimed 11 lives, and a considerable extent of property was destroyed. The question now on the minds of the residents is whether there will be a permanent divide between the two communities.

However, Hyder Ali, a primary school teacher, asserted: "We cannot be inimical to each other". A merchant concurred: "Yes. The Tamils will need us for trading their produce and we will need their clientele."

"The town has not been the same after the incident," pointed out Arulnathan, a Methodist priest. "The Muslims and Tamils are unable to live together because there is fear and tension."

Hanifa, a trader, is reluctant to pin the blame entirely on one community. "Everyone is responsible," he said. Another trader is concerned about his debtors who "do not even come this side" and the dues that run to more than Rs.2 lakhs".

Although an agreement with the eastern security forces and the LTTE's political leadership has brought the situation under control, uncertainty prevails.

"The Tigers should implement what they have promised," a policeman said, adding that unless the assurances are carried out on the ground, the sense of distrust will continue to prevail.

Yet, there is a visible difference brought about by the ceasefire. The checkpoints, especially those on the routes to the north and the east, are now fewer and far between. Even where they exist, armed soldiers and policemen are confined to their bunkers.

Hopes of peace are high. Yet, the realisation that all it takes is a gust of violence to shatter the peace process is palpable.

In a way, the manner in which Sri Lanka alternates between peace and war is predictable. After intense battles of attrition, truces are signed. Statements are made that there can be no military answers to a situation that essentially needs a political solution. Talks are guided by an eye on attrition, with each side hoping to wear down the other. Simultaneously, military build-up takes place on both sides. Then comes the build-up to a return to war. Charges and counter-charges fly before the final assault is launched for resumption of violence.

Central to peace will be the response from the Tigers. Across both government and rebel-controlled areas of the east there is a mixture of emotions. Happiness that the war has stopped, grim reminders of the past, and a feeling that the Tigers are giving in too easily.

"When the Tigers feel either strong or insecure, the battles will start again," a military analyst said. The next time around, the war may well see a new high.

Given the speed with which Gen. Tennakoon and Karikalan worked to make peace, one could not but wonder if the clasp of goodwill will remain firm. Peace in Sri Lanka is evidently going to be harder than war.

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