An indirect attack

Print edition : December 20, 2002

The LTTE is engineering `popular protests' in the Jaffna peninsula in an attempt to finish off its only political competitor in the region, the Eelam People's Democratic Party.

EPDP leader Douglas Devananda.-

THE Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), a Tamil political party opposed to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), is in the eye of a political storm in Sri Lanka. It is the prime target of a systematic campaign, suspected to orchestrated by the LTTE in the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula in the north. There have been demonstrations demanding its withdrawal from the region before December 31. Simultaneously, EPDP offices and area leaders have been attacked by unidentified persons. The EPDP has alleged that the LTTE is masterminding this activity with the objective of driving it out of Jaffna.

The EPDP controls 10 local authorities , or Pradeshiya Sabhas, in the Jaffna region. It also has members in another seven bodies. The party also has two Members of Parliament elected from Jaffna district, one of whom being former Cabinet Minister Douglas Devananda, its secretary-general. The party refused to be evicted, and the Police, and in certain areas, the navy have extended protection to its cadre.

Alarmed by the attacks, Nirupam Sen, the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, requested enhanced security for Douglas Devananda. Newspapers in Colombo gave wide publicity to the Indian envoy's missive to Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe in this regard. Devananda, a prominent political opponent and an outspoken critic of the LTTE, has been the target of several assassination attempts by the Tigers. Both President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Wickremasinghe have instructed that extra security be provided to Devananda and to other EPDP cadre in the North.

The EPDP, which cooperated with the Sri Lankan security forces in the past, was given arms to protect its cadre against attacks from the LTTE. The Norway-brokered ceasefire agreement that came into force from February 23 stipulated that all Tamil "para-militaries" in the Tamil areas be disarmed. The EPDP protested at being categorised as a para-military forced but complied with the stipulation. It rejected the option of joining the security forces in the South, and continued to function in Jaffna and other Tamil areas.

The ceasefire agreement also permitted unarmed LTTE cadre to engage in political activity in areas controlled by the Sri Lankan armed forces. Thus a very large contingent of LTTE cadre is now stationed in Jaffna. The ceasefire has "defanged" the Tigers to some extent, requiring them to adopt a non-confrontational posture overtly. Nevertheless, the EPDP has been at the receiving end of covert violence lately.

The EPDP's divisional leader of the Southern Thenmaratchchi zone was hacked by a sword-carrying gang at Chavakachcheri. The Northern Vadamaratchchi divisional head and his wife were injured when an armed group attacked their home in Puloly. Another EPDP activist was murdered in Analaitheevu. The party's office in Thenmaratchchi was bombed. The newly constructed office of the EPDP-controlled Vadamaratchchi Pradeshiya Sabha was vandalised on the eve of its scheduled opening.

The Tigers, instead of involving themselves directly, are suspected to be aiding and abetting anti-social elements in these acts. The LTTE has denied any role in this campaign and sought to explain the violence as an expression of the people's antipathy towards the EPDP.

THE latest phase of the campaign against the EPDP began in Neduntheevu (Long Island) or Delft, as it is known after Dutch occupation. With a population of less that 6,000, Neduntheevu is the largest island in the Northern Province, with an area of about 70 square kilometres. It can be reached only by ferry from the Kurikadduwan jetty in Punkudutheevu Island.

Sections of the Delft's population have demanded that the EPDP close its office on the island and leave it. Demonstrations raising this demand are held not only in Delft but also in Jaffna city, and there are signs of the protest spreading to all parts of the peninsula. In Delft, the protests are led by undergraduate students of Jaffna University. In Jaffna, they are spearheaded by the Jaffna District Peoples Association and the Tamil Eelam International Students Federation. It is common knowledge that the LTTE is the driving force behind the protests.

Enough evidence is available of the LTTE's complicity in the campaign. The organisations fomenting the protest are its front organisations. It is also an open secret that no public demonstration can take place in the Tamil areas without LTTE support . Moreover, journalists in Jaffna have witnessed direct and indirect logistical support being extended by the LTTE to the campaign.

The demonstrations have paralysed civilian transport by ferry between Delft and Kurikadduwan. Some people have also started a hunger strike outside the EPDP premises on the island, reiterating the demand for its expulsion from there. In Jaffna, the newly formed International Students Federation demanded that the EPDP vacate Delft immediately and also leave the entire peninsula by December 31. A peninsula-wide hartal was also organised. Hundreds of people demonstrated outside the EPDP district headquarters in Jaffna.

The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) headed by Norway visited Delft and surveyed the situation. The SLMM said that it had no mandate to interfere in the affair as technically it was not a ceasefire violation. The SLMM, however, suggested that the EPDP vacate the island temporarily in order to reduce tensions, while the matter could be resolved through discussion.

The EPDP responded by saying that it was prepared to leave Delft if the LTTE too reciprocated. It pointed out that the Delft Pradeshiya Sabha was controlled by the party and therefore it had a legitimate right to be on the Island. The SLMM informed the students demanding the EPDP's expulsion from Jaffna that it could not compel the party to leave the Delft or the peninsula. The SLMM's deputy chief, Haugruph Haukland, has gone on record as saying that political work in the North was "free for everyone irrespective of political differences". He also pointed out that "democracy is for everybody, it is not merely for the LTTE". Haukland, while saying that "somebody is behind the protests", declined to name them. " "It is up to the EPDP to decide whether it continues political work in the North," Haukland said.

The EPDP continued to remain in Delft. Douglas Devananda, who was planning to leave Sri Lanka in order to attend a regional conference of political parties in Thailand, cancelled his trip in view of the tense situation. He made desperate appeals to the President, the Prime Minister, the Internal Security Minister and the other leaders of various political parties and the heads of diplomatic missions in Colombo.

In an interview to a Colombo-based daily, Devananda explained the Delft "problem" succinctly: "Geographically it is located in a strategic point and the LTTE can carry on with its illegal activity. The LTTE can have its own armoury there and be involved in arms smuggling and also keep an eye on the developments in India. It wants us out of the island so that it can have a free reign. The LTTE attacked our office in Delft earlier to show that it was the sole representative of the Tamil people. It never expected us to regroup and return in a month's time. That is why it has started attacking us once again. This is the history of the LTTE, a group that has never tolerated divergent views."

In the fluctuating situation that came to characterise the politico-military conflict in Sri Lanka, the EPDP was given virtual control of the islands from 1990 after the LTTE abandoned the region. Politically, the EPDP used this to its advantage. While political opponents accused it of vote rigging, the EPDP got the bulk of its votes from the Kayts electoral division in 1994, 2000 and 2001. It captured all three local authorities of the islands, including Delft. The Island areas have been its stronghold.

The signing of the ceasefire agreement altered the power balance. The LTTE could enter the islands after 12 years and maintain a presence on the grounds that it was engaged in political activity. The EPDP saw the writing on the wall and began reducing its cadre component there. Yet, it retained its presence in the islands and the Peninsula.

In spite of the precarious situation, the EPDP is determined to stay put in Neduntheevu as long as it receives protection and help from the police and the Navy. The stakes are quite high for the party. It feels that the Neduntheevu campaign is only an opening gambit by the LTTE. Delft would be the first domino to fall if the EPDP is compelled to vacate it. Thereafter, it will be pressured to let go of the islands and then other parts of Jaffna too.

Thus it is important for the EPDP to hold on to Delft and deprive the Tigers of an indirect victory. If the EPDP is forced to leave Delft, then the Tigers will have shown that their `people's power' strategy works. The floodgates will be opened, and the EPDP will be swept away from the North in a torrent of demonstrations by the people.

Whatever the EPDP's faults, it is the only Tamil party that has been capable of successfully pursuing a political line independent of the LTTE. It was the first Tamil militant party to align with Colombo. It has boldly rejected the LTTE and the Tamil Eelam demand and sought to provide an alternative. Despite its small size and impact vis-a-vis the LTTE, the EPDP did prove to be a "limited alternative"" to the LTTE. The Wickremasinghe regime was criticised for disarming groups like the EPDP after the ceasefire. Critics pointed out that "punishing" allies would send a wrong signal. The government is now duty-bound to protect the EPDP and allow it freedom to function politically. If the LTTE is permitted to oust the EPDP from the peninsula, it will reflect badly on the government.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor