“Liberated”- A Personal Account Of Batticaloa And Ampara

Mihiri Weerasinghe is an independent researcher and a Masters candidate at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The lagoon lay shimmering in the afternoon heat, mesmerized by the sun. Three young boys jostled in the thicket nearby sharing a smoke, then tired, they plunged into the lagoon, rippling the waters, alarming a stork.

At that particular moment the enchantment of the Batticaloa lagoon and the serenity engulfed me. The last time I was in Batticaloa and Ampara was three years ago, just after the tsunami. Back then, I saw the town battling with itself to come to grips with the disaster that the water had wrecked. The neighboring towns of Kattankudy and Marthamunai had been decimated and the people at the time could only turn to God. Then, they were expecting his benevolence after he had so mercilessly shown them his wrath. Now the towns bustled with activity. They seemed to have regenerated themselves and there seemed at least a façade of normalcy.

The “Liberation”

With the fall of Thoppigala approximately six months ago the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) claimed to have “liberated” the East. It promised to rebuild the East in 180 days under the ambitious project “Nagenahira Navodaya” (Dawning of the East). The GoSL further said that it would hold local government elections by the end of the year.

According to a report titled “Sri Lanka’s East after liberation: Prospects and Challenges- SCOPP” [1] posted on the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense website, there are a number of Government proposals “to develop the roads and railways, the airports in Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara, water and sanitation systems and housing have begun …”. The report also mentions that a highway project connecting Trincomalee to Ampara, enhancing trade and relations has been implemented. It also mentions the GoSL’s intention to uplift the living conditions of the people so that economic activities could be revitalized at rural level and that this plan will accommodate 214,000 families by 2010. The report re-assures the reader that international assistance has been pledged for several development initiatives relating to infrastructure.

Infrastructure development at the end of 2007

There were plenty of posters welcoming the change and thanking the Government for the “liberation”. The electric posts were cluttered with loud banners with pictures of the President and local politicians vying for space to tell of their glories and their conquests in the region. I was keen to see some of the infrastructural, political and social benefits that Batticaloa and Ampara had gained by the end of 2007. I was looking for tangible benefits to a region that had suffered both natural and manmade disasters.

One of the visible development projects in the region was the peace bridge. It is the longest bridge so far built in Sri Lanka, across the ‘Mahaveli River’ at Manampitiya and was declared open on the 25 of October. It was built at a cost of Rs.1.3 billion (US$120 million) with the assistance of the Japanese Government. As I headed towards Batticaloa town, I spotted, two signboards assuring me that Spain and Korea were also pledging money for development and reconstruction. I assumed these projects would be realized in the near future.

I could see only a few development projects on the ground in Batticaloa and Ampara despite the assertions of the GoSL. Either projects were not being implemented or there were no foreign sponsors. Maybe my expectations were too high, maybe it was too early to look for new infrastructure projects, and maybe it might never reach the region.

Security

The drive to Batticaloa through Polonnaruwa, Welikanda and Punani showed another reality of the “liberation”. The scrub jungle paving the road was shaved and groups of home guards and army personnel were manning the roads a few hundred meters apart, each of them vigilantly watching the scrub jungles behind them and the road before them.

It’s well known that the Tigers are masters at guerilla warfare, and it’s very possible that many of their cadres are still camped out in the jungles. The “liberation” has meant that a larger number of soldiers and home guards have to be utilized to secure large tracts of land. I wonder if it’s possible or effective to actually ‘secure’ such vast areas. The GoSL is obviously under the impression it can. Or is it using the security to further control the region?

As I entered Batticaloa, I was expecting tight security to monitor the movement of vehicles and people traveling to the town. The checkpoints however, seemed to be relaxed with friendly and courteous personnel. There weren’t many personnel at the checkpoint and there was no request to check luggage or even to get out of the car for a body search. This could be because I belong to the majority Sinhalese.

Driving through small towns such as Eravur I saw small groups of two to three security personnel mingling relatively unobtrusively with the people in the town. I wondered why the security seemed so lax. Was it to underlie that the GoSL had the region firmly under its control? Was it to show the people of Batticaloa that the GoSL is ‘people friendly’ and that civilians will not be harassed so long as the region was under Government control?

Politics

The political situation in the East remains deeply volatile despite the GoSL assurances. In the above mentioned report the GoSL clarifies the future political role of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), the break away faction of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which has a strong presence in the East, especially in Batticaloa. According to the report the GoSL claimed that the TMVP was seeking to enter the mainstream political arena in the East [2],

The significance of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) is that it is working towards a political agenda as a result of the lessons learnt from their violent past and involvement with the LTTE and wish to be an agency of social transformation. It is hoped that this provides enough inspirations for the younger generation to turn to means of non-violent conflict resolution.

The former child soldiers have become political leaders, and therefore need training in good governance, civil administration, financial management, interpersonal skills and other related areas. This matter requires urgent attention on the part of the government.

The TMVP offices are based close to the army and Special Task Forces (STF) camps and display the LTTE insignia, yellow and red sign of a roaring tiger, minus the crossed guns. Their cadres stayed in groups close to the army and STF camp barricades. As I drove by, the young cadres tried to hide the awkward weapons behind their backs but the action was futile as the weapons protruded from over their skinny shoulders. They stared into the vehicle and in some instances moved close to the vehicle forcing it to slow down but there was no command to stop.

The TMVP underwent many upheavals during the latter half of the year. Its leader ‘Colonel’ Karuna had to go into hiding due to LTTE counter attacks in the East. Internal power struggles between Karuna and his second in command -Pillayan threw the TMVP into further disarray. However, the GoSL, which wanted to project an illusion of political stability, deflated the tensions by forcing the two leaders to agree that Ampara and Batticaloa would come under Karuna while Pillayan would control the more northern coastal town of Trincomalee.

Karuna fled Sri Lanka due to intensified attempts on his life, foiling the GoSL’s plan. In early November, Karuna was arrested in the United Kingdom following a joint operation between Britain’s new Border and Immigration Agency and London police [3]. Currently several international human rights organizations are calling for Karuna to be tried for war crimes in the UK.

The local government elections in the East have not been held to date. The gazette notification calling for nominations for the polls in Batticaloa will only be issued at the start of January 2008.

According to the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) leader, Minister Douglas Devananda as quoted in the ‘Daily Mirror’ [4], an alliance of Tamil political parties has been formed to contest the upcoming local council elections in Batticaloa. The alliance was formed between the EPDP, TMVP (Pillayan faction), People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) (Varathar faction) following an invitation extended by the EPDP.

The EPDP, PLOTE and EPRLF are contemporaries of the LTTE in the struggle for Tamil liberation. By the late 80’s however, the LTTE had decimated most of its rival Tamil militant groups and gained militant supremacy in the North and East. The leadership of many of these groups had to flee to India or join the GoSL as a coalition partner.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), widely believed to be allied with the LTTE have rejected the call for upcoming elections and threatened to go to court on the issue, stating that the present environment is too hostile for free and fair elections.

The region also deals with the specter of militant Muslims, which surfaced with the tsunami and aid flowing in from Middle East countries to Eastern Sri Lanka. In fact the idea seemed to have generated even more confusion with some stories even bordering on the ridiculous. Apparently an ‘Osama Bin Laden’ look-a-like is facing severe hardships because of his appearance and the obvious connotations. In another twist there are unconfirmed reports of young Muslim men buying weapons from LTTE cadres who want to finance their overseas escapes, and of small motorbike groups that haunt the town after dark scavenging the streets for any action.

The young TMVP cadres with their casually held weapons are a political reality of the “liberation”. I wondered if they knew that one of their leaders, Karuna, was held in the UK awaiting war crimes charges. How was the TMVP, which had gone through violent internal turmoil going to embrace a path of non-violence and enter mainstream democratic politics? The LTTE experience during the cease-fire (2002-2003) showed that many militant organizations don’t survive the birth pangs to emerge a non-violent political organization. In a tempestuous political climate I wonder if it will be practically possible for the Tamil political groups to unite for the betterment of the people in Batticaloa and set their own aspirations aside. How would they respond to and deal with any violent reactions from the LTTE? What are the Tamil political parties’ connections to the Muslim political parties in Batticaloa?

Friends I met in Batticaloa said that life in the town has become less tense and that there was a feeling of normalcy. They also claimed a drop in abductions and missing people in the town. They stressed that the civilians were tired of the power struggles, and the infighting within factions and among groups. Just a few days after I left, the TMVP organized a large protest march against the LTTE in Batticaloa. However, it remains to be seen if the people were willing participants in the march.

The Aftermath

I can only hope that 2008 brings economic, political and social stability to the region, the outlook however seems bleak. Political unrest and violence among the various groups are bound to undermine any serious developmental initiatives. Allegations of human rights violations leveled at the GoSL have stymied new international pledges for projects and new investments. Ongoing developmental projects and GoSL initiatives smack of sinister efforts to shift the demographics of the East, diluting the presence of the Tamil and Muslim populations. There is an urgent need to investigate the impact of the Government’s development strategies for the East.

The pristine white sands of the Dutch Bar bring back violent memories of strewn lives and buildings. Now a part of a Mosque rests embedded in the sand in Kallady like a white top thrown by a giant child. This is the only evidence that reminds me of the catastrophe of three years ago. The beautiful beach is empty except for a young couple with their child, who is taking her first steps. Her feet sink in the soft sand and her parents have to lift her from either side. She squeals with laughter.

The new realities of the East, the liberators, the saviors, the fighters, and the scavengers are oblivious to her. She will grow in a land highly contested – one of the most volatile in the island.

The future, her future depends on a whole host of factors over which she and her peoples may have very little, if any, control.

[1] http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=20070922_04
[2] ibid.
[3] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/7076248.stm
[4] http://www.dailymirror.lk/DM_BLOG/Sections/frmNewsDetailView.aspx?ARTID=2606

  • Bandu

    Thanks for an independent and impartial description of the EAst in general and Batticalo specifically. This type of reporting is hard to come by these days. It is also heartening to see at least there is a slight improvement in the life style in the area. Wish that government will get funds to improve the region and use the funds 110% for this purpose, so that suffering people will get a break. Please continue to report in this vein at least for the purpose of people who cannot get reliable information.

  • Sham

    “Friends I met in Batticaloa said that life in the town has become less tense and that there was a feeling of normalcy. ”

    this line alone is worth the wait

  • http://- Joshua David

    Life may be smooth now but will it last without the political aspirations of the Tamils, for their own country- Tamil Eelam being met?

    Peace is not temporary quietness. Peace could be achieved only by meeting the political and economic needs of the people. Not the economic needs alone. The Tamil problem is still not understood by the Sinhalese. They will never be able to understand because there is no genuine political leadership in the South to explain that we are and should be two countries in one island..

    There were cruel murders of civilians in the East. Can we expect the relatives of those who lost their loved ones to remain without justice ?.

    There is an attempt to bring Karuna to a War Crimes court in the UK. He may be forced to spill the beans and come out with the truth that the government and the soldiers were responsible for war crimes in the East.

    People may be quiet because they face intimidation and terror. Time may show as to whether what prevails now in the East is peace or quietness.

  • Dinil

    A good report. At least fighting has stopped for a while. We need to wait and see how long the current lull lasts. While the Tamil aspirations will have to be met and the Sinhalese needs to accept and accomodate the need to effectively devolve the power, the Tamils also need to understand tha no GOSL will agree to a 2 state solution. That is the reality. They need to understand that if they want peace they need to agree to something lesser and more accomodating and also that they have to share their new decentralised power with Muslims in the east. If not whatever liberation militarily we may have is a mirage. All will depend on the genuiness of the GOSL to devolve power and some genuine Leadership from the Tamils to demonstrate give and take. Without that we will not have permananet peace.
    No to a Two state solution (Tamils to agree and declare) + No to a Centralised administration (Singhalese to agree and declare) = Federalsim (Peace)

  • Veedhur

    “Karuna fled Sri Lanka due to intensified attempts on his life, foiling the GoSL’s plan”

    Wasn’t Karuna sent to UK by the Government on a diplomatic passport, third party note and an escort at departure and arrival?

    “The former child soldiers have become political leaders”

    If this is recognition of conscription, should’t those responsible be held to account, and more importantly children remaining released?

  • Dush Kurera

    I agree that this one of the best independent articles about the situation in the East. We Sri LANKANS in South Africa collected money, even though small to help the Eastern area development fund.
    We all hope and pray the East will be developed and there will be peace without the LTTE, whose aim was on ethnic cleansing of the Sinhalease and the Muslims from the East.
    The international community should help to develop the East and make it a Model Province. The Gun culture will then disappear once the people are economically developed…… but without one man Prabakaren, who’s aim is not giving Tamils economic independence for his survival.