Batticaloa, Peace and Conflict

Batticaloa: Despair of the displaced and disappeared and the euphoria of elections and “liberation”

“Return my husband you abducted before you ask for my vote”
(Plea to the TMVP-UPFA, from a Batticaloa women)

The government had claimed it had “liberated” the East, completed a 180 days development program and had decided to hold elections as if to prove all is well there.

Reports from the ground seemed otherwise. The Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC), comprising UN and NGOs active in humanitarian work, reported on their 11th February update that “armed groups continue to operate in the area”. In their previous report of 5th Feb. 2008, the IASC had reported that the “The situation remains tense and that the looting of humanitarian assistance materials is leading to delays in programme implementation, with some agencies informing that they have suspended some work due to continued loss of material.”

In a recent visit to Batticaloa with a group of friends and colleagues going to Batticaloa, I was able to see for myself, although what can be seen and heard in few days is limited, it did give me some sense of what life is like in Batticaloa.

I do not wish to enter into a debate about the how safe Batticaloa is, how the government development plans are helping the residents and how much the government is helping the displaced. There is enough news on state controlled media about these. What I hope to share is what I saw and heard, and maybe, in some places, what I feel and think about these.

Traveling to, from and around Batti
The journey to the “liberated” Batti (as I fondly call it) was not much different from my previous trips. The security forces continued to have their camps right across the main road from Welkanda to Batticaloa and we were forced to take gravel and dusty roads full of pot holes going around them. As we passed the Manampitiya checkpoint, I counted exactly 50 lorries lined up waiting to be allowed into the checkpoint going in the direction of Polonnaruwa. We were stopped at least 6 checkpoints, but except once, our bags were not checked. As before, at several check points, I saw long lines of people who had to get down from buses, with their heavy baggage. I heard from my friends who had come back by the private van we went, that the checking had been much more intensive coming back.

Me and another colleague escaped much of that, as we took the night mail train to Colombo. Our bags were checked inside the train a few times, as well as when entering the station, but we were not inconvenienced greatly. At the Batti station, I casually asked a security officer about laptops – “you will be allowed depending on your occupation” was the response. I didn’t ask him what occupations will allow people to carry laptops and what occupations will prohibit or about a law that makes such a distinction. I asked the question because three days earlier, I was prevented from boarding the Colombo – Kandy intercity express train, as I had my laptop with me.

People I met in Batticaloa, particularly a group of youth, seem to be having much harder time going out of Batticaloa. “We are subjected to intensive checking and so we don’t like to go to Colombo” was the common sentiment. I saw this to myself.

Not just going out of Batti, but within Batti town as well. Around the town, I saw people on trishaws, cycles, motor cycles and those walking being stopped at various check points. Many people told that checkpoints had increased in the recent past. One boy who I met told that he had been stopped at 7 checkpoints in an 8km journey.

Waiting to go home, with no food, shelter, jobs
During our visit, I took some time to meet several displaced people. UNHCR had reported that 7,038 families and 26,484 people still remain displaced in Batticaloa district, at the end of January 2008. The IASC had reported 19 IDP camps within the district in their report of 5th February.

Lakshmi had been displaced in April 2006 from the Trincomalee district. She and her family had stayed in camps and with relatives in Vakarai and Batti. She is still in a camp. “We don’t get enough food, leave, and its so hot in these tents during day time” she told me. “It’s very difficult to find work around Baticaloa. We had land and cattle, so we want to go back, to live without being dependent on NGOs and foreigners. If we are allowed to go back to our own lands, we can look after our own children” was what Rajan, who is also from the Trincomalee district told me. “Various people tell us that we can go back at the end of the month, some say before the elections on 10th March, but we still don’t know when they (meaning the government) will allow us to go” was what another person told me.

Certainly, no one had asked these displaced people about their aspirations about going back, neither had any “go and see visits” been arranged, despite concerns about the property such as houses, household items, cattle etc, that people had been compelled to leave behind as they fled.

The IASC had reported on 5th February that “No official dates have been established for further returns within Batticaloa District or to Trincomalee District and that returns to Mylavadduvan in Chenkalady Division (approximately 140 families) are expected to occur within the next two weeks”

Some had heard that they will never be able to go back to their farms and houses as the government has taken over their land for a high security zone. “We heard that we will be forcible resettled in another place even if we don’t want” one farmer told me. “We have no idea where we will be sent. If the government is taking over our land, will they at least allow us to go and get our cattle back?” asked another. I inquired whether they had been consulted about when and where they would like to be resettled and what kind of compensation they would get – no one I met had been consulted at all.

All these are clear violations of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

I visited a camp in Sathorokondan, where 146 families and 495 people were living in tents, on the sand. A camp officer told me that there was no government assistance. WFP still provides basic rations like rice, dhal, oil and sugar, but I was told it is insufficient. “We don’t know when we can give fish or fresh vegetables to our children” lamented one mother. An NGO, that had been providing items like bread, canned fish etc. had stopped these some time back, saying that they had no more funding.

Arul was a farmer who had fled as security forces on advanced on areas then controlled by the LTTE. He is from Pattipalai, in the Batticaloa district. He told us that they are still not allowed to go back to their own places, despite the “liberation”. “some of us are allowed to go between 9am – 5pm, with a special pass issued by the security forces, but sometimes, they don’t allow youth” he told us. “But even then, we are not allowed to farm, we can just collect milk from my cows and then have to carry them back”

I asked some of these displaced people how they had benefited from the “Nagenahira Navodaya” (Eastern reawakening). “What is that?” was the standard response. No one had heard about it. I didn’t have the heart to tell them about the massive tamashas in Colombo held in their name, celebrating their “liberation”, promising them prosperity, development, security.

Someone asked me, “Can you help us to go home soon?” “Do you have friends who can help us” was another question. I said I don’t know. I truly don’t know. I know that few of my friends do care. But I also know that many more don’t care at all. And that several friends consider me a fanatic, a Sinhalese tiger, a terrorist sympathizer for talking about such stories on and on. “Why doesn’t the government send us home?” was another question. Again, I said I don’t know.

I wondered whether I should ever talk with displaced people again. How can I answer their questions?

As usual, I got away promising to tell the rest of Sri Lanka and the world their stories. But I wondered then and I wonder now as I write ….who will hear and who will care?

Waiting for their loves ones-the families of the disappeared and abducted
Amongst women I met in Batti this time was a mother whose 20 year old son has been abducted, on 20th Feb. 2007. With tears streaming down her eyes, she described how she had been in a bus, which was stopped, and three young men, including her son was abducted. She had identified some of the abductors and was sure they were from the TMVP. Since then, her routine had consisted of going to various TMVP offices in Chenkalady, Batticaloa, Valachenai etc. Each office was telling her to go to another office. They had not denied the abduction of the son.

“I’m not even asking them to release my son. All I want is to know where he is, and be able to see that he is well” she told me.

She is of course only one mother. I know many others are waiting to see their loved ones, or hear some news about them. Others are hoping that they would eventually come back. Few weeks before, I had been asked by a friend in Batti to help find a safe place for a 21 year old boy who had run away from the TMVP after being abducted. In January, 5 cases of underage recruitment by the TMVP (3 cases of recruitment and 2 re-recruitment) have been reported by the UNICEF for January 2008.

“Can you help me to find my son? Or do you know anyone who can?” she asked me as I tried to take my leave. I don’t have an answer. She had already complained to the Human Rights Commission and the ICRC. Also to several NGOs. What could I do? I couldn’t even think of something to tell that would give hope to this crying mother.

Sexual harassment
One woman we met told our group that she had heard of 6 rape cases in January – February 2008. She said security forces were responsible for 5 of them. Due to the stigma attached by society to girls and women who become victims of rape, as well as the fear of reprisals, the victims had opted not to complain and speak out. Several others we met also spoke of cases of rape. I’m not sure whether they were referring to the same cases or there were more.

I also heard of sexual harassment, including at check points. The Buddhist Monk I met in Batticaloa shared with me how he had seen a young women been body checked and “massaged” all over by a Policemen at a check point close to the city. He had been outraged, he still sounded outraged as he described it. He had complained to the Police on this, and was asked by a senior police officer, “Why are you worried about these? These are Tamils”

Restricting freedom of movement
Many years ago, I had been to some places in the West Batticaloa during the times these areas were controlled by the LTTE. But last year, in the wake of the “liberation” of these areas by security forces, and as thousands of people were being resettled (some of them forcibly), I had tried to go with some aid workers and media. We had been refused permission for “security reasons”. So I was keen to go and visit these areas, including a Catholic shrine I had been to before.

But everyone I asked told me that I would not be allowed to go. That ordinary people are not allowed to go, and that I needed to have a “reason” to go there. The fact that it is an area in my country that I liked to visit would not suffice. (Well, at least I felt I was not alone in this, as I know many Tamil friends who are only expected to visit Colombo if they have a “reason”, and in case of Jaffna, only given permission if that reason is seen as justified by the military)

“Staff of all agencies who provide much needed assistance to newly resettled people also have to get permission from security forces to visit these areas” a friend working in a NGO told me. When I asked whether they could take me along, the answer was no. I also heard that no independent media personnel were allowed to visit these areas.

And now, elections…armed groups turning into political parties
Most people I met around Batti don’t seem to be interested in the elections. They don’t seem to have much choice in selecting candidates, which an election is all about. The main parties contesting are the TMVP (together with ruling government UPFA for the Batticaloa municipality) and EPDP-EPRLF-PLOTE. The SLMC is also contesting some local bodies.

The main opposition party, the UNP, and the party that has the largest representation in parliament from the area, the TNA, have decided not to contest the elections, citing security fears of candidates and supporters. I certainly don’t want to justify their reasons and advocate election boycotts by political parties. But the result is the people in the area are deprived of options of who to vote.

I heard of leaflets by the LTTE, warning candidates not to contest. The LTTE is notorious for annihilating Tamil groups and leaders (amongst others) who have dissenting and even different views from them, and the government track record in protecting such people has been woeful. So what would any candidates do?

The period before nominations had seen violence. For the first time in my memory, people killed, threatened for refusing to stand as nominee. (In past elections, it had been the other way around!). The main accusations in this regard were being leveled at the TMVP, who it seems didn’t have in its ranks people who would command respect and confidence of the population and get votes of the electorate. But they still wanted to be in power, so resorted to coercing people they thought would command some respect and confidence to stand for elections under their banner. The more prominent people in society had withstood these intimidations and refused to stand. One had been killed. Some not so prominent people had consented. They are now being provided two Police guards. We heard the story of one candidate, a fishermen, who now sells fish in the market with two Police guards. I heard that many of the candidates are people who actually don’t have any experience or education in managing local councils if they are elected.

And more than these, there was skepticism that a militant group, namely TMVP, who still have arms, and whose former leader is on the verge of facing charges of war crimes in England, has overnight had a change of heart and entered into the democratic mainstream, in alliance with the present government. “The government may have forced them to put their arms in the cupboards in the few weeks leading upto the election, but the cupboards will open after elections” one religious leader told me. “The government says that it wont even talk to the LTTE without disarming, but has no qualms about entering into an electoral alliance with a group that still admits to having arms” he added.

Another activist asked how a group who has forcibly recruited many youth, including under age recruits can stand for elections. “If they are genuine about entering democratic politics, why can’t they release all their forced recruits, especially children? Why wait for after elections” he questioned. I heard that TMVP had told some people whose children and relatives had been forcibly recruited that they would be released if they voted for them. We heard the story of at least one brave women who responded to that saying “Return my husband you abducted before you ask for my vote”

The majority of the parties seem to be government allies. “In house election” was how one friend described the election.

As I was in Batti, media reported that there have been an increasing number of violent incidents against SLMC candidates by the Sri Lanka government parties, especially in Valachcheanai area. SLMC leaders had complained that its supporters were attacked and three shops were set on fire. Three houses were damaged, five candidates were attacked, and a house of a candidate was bombed and though complaints have been made to the law enforcement authorities, no action has been taken.

Since coming back to Colombo, I read a media report that a meeting convened at a temple in Batti had been taken over by a government minister and the TMVP to be used as a platform for the TMVP’s election campaign.

Before this, the Centre for Monitoring of Election Monitoring (CMEV) had pointed out that “paramilitary activity, reports of abduction, extra-judicial execution, intimidation and extortion attributed to ‘unidentified armed men’ and the inability of the law enforcement agencies to pursue investigations in these cases have all created an environment of fear and insecurity in the District”, citing specific cases directed against several parties, including the UPFA. PAFFREL, another election monitoring body who has already undertaken monitoring in this election, noted in its preliminary report that “It is possible that violence and election malpractices will surface as the election campaign gathers momentum, as the armed groups have not been disarmed” and that “The presence of armed TMVP cadres in particular has been as a serious threat to the prospects of free and fair elections.”

However, PAFFREL election monitors I met, as well as their reports through the media, also claim that the level of violence in Batti has gone down in the last few weeks. They even claimed that the level of violence in this election was less than other elections in Sri Lanka. They also argue that militant groups like TMVP, may rely less on weapons if they have legitimate political power.

I sincerely hope so. But from what I heard, not many Batti residents are hopeful as the monitors. Who might know better?

In my view, from what has happened so far, the election can never be free and fair. Even if there is zero violence from today onwards, on the day of the elections and after the elections.

Hoping for better times in the land of the singing fish
As an outsider who is not from Batti, but deeply fascinated by the people of Batti and its natural beauty, I yearn to hear the sounds of the singing fish again, instead of the desperate cries of its people.

In my last trip, for a change, I was glad not to hear sounds of shelling and gun fire. I hope and hope this is not“calm before the storm”.

I was also glad to hear from many friends that the security forces, the police and even the armed TMVP seemed to be behaving better in the last few days. And that the TMVP doesn’t flaunt arms in the open these days. This certainly was the first time since 2007 that I didn’t see any boys as tall as the guns they carry, out in the open, including next to security forces camps.

But it is clear that that this election is something Batti people don’t want right now. This is not because they don’t believe in democracy and elections. Indeed, they have been clamoring for true democracy for years, often at great risks. Even during times the oppression by armed groups such as the IPKF, Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE was at its peak. So, I believe they badly want democracy and know better than many others what a free and fair election entails, with particular reference to the situation in Batticaloa.

From what I saw and heard, what people in Batti yearn for right now, is not an election, but for:

• An end to the culture of arms and weapons – particularly the immediate disarming of armed groups, including government’s election ally TMVP
• Immediate addressing of humanitarian issues – adequate assistance to people displaced, both from within the Batti district and outside like Trinco district, and voluntary and dignified resettlement, in consultation with displaced people, including “go and see visits”

Ruki Fernando
20th Feb. 2008

Note: Names have been changed at the request of people concerned, to ensure their safety