Groundviews

Jaffna and the Vanni today: The reality beneath the rhetoric

Photo credit: Indi Samarajiva, 2010

The drive along the A9 from Vavuniya to Killinochchi is brought to a temporary halt at the ‘exit-entry point’ at what used to be the forward defence line at Omanthai. On the side of the dusty dirt road, in a series of sheds, military personnel are stationed with the sole purpose of ensuring that both locals and international staff members of non-governmental and international non-governmental organisations and even UN agencies, possess the required clearances issued by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to cross into the North. All foreigners, that is those holding non-Sri Lankan passports, even tourists, have to obtain a MOD clearance to pass through Omanthai. One could be excused for thinking this was 2002, when entering the Vanni was much like entering a foreign territory. Yet it is 2011, more than a year and a half since the end of the war between the government and the LTTE. In 2011, more so than during the years of active armed conflict, increasing military control of civilian administration and control over the lives of civilians in the North have become an undeniable part of life in the North.

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After a lapse of nearly two decades, Kilinochchi district has been brought under the civil administration… After the resettlement of the IDPs in these areas, it is learnt that civil administration have begun in full swing’[1]

The New Year heralded nothing more than the continuation of the bad old days in Jaffna, with the population living in fear of abductions, extra-judicial killings and robberies. Countering reports of a state of insecurity in Jaffna, several state officials, like the Government Agent, Emelda Sukumar and the Army Commander for Jaffna Maj. Gen. Hathurusinghe, dismissed them as smear campaigns by persons who were trying to suggest that Jaffna was still unsafe.[2] This was reiterated by President Mahinda Rajapakse, who at a recent meeting with the media said that ‘such stories were being propagated by certain frustrated elements who were averse to the return of peace and strove to rekindle racism’[3]. He also blamed the Tamil language newspapers for blowing the issue out of proportion and casting the country in a bad light, and pointed out that the situation in the North was no different to that in the South. In trying to assuage the fears of the public, Maj. Gen. Hathurusinghe said that the security forces, adhering to their main duty, which according to him is ‘to ensure peace and harmony in the peninsula while assisting the Police to maintain law and order’, would undertake twenty four hour bike patrols along with increased checks. What is most interesting in these government responses and denials is how they provide unintended evidence of the extent of militarization in the North. For instance, while the Police, the institution responsible for the maintenance of law and order during peacetime, maintained silence on the issue, it was the army that was issuing statements and responding to public concerns.

Militarization in the North is taking place in complex ways, at multiple levels. The most visible representation of it is the army checkpoint/office at every junction in every village, almost always housed on private property. In addition, new camps are also being constructed, for instance the Jaffna SLA 51 Division HQ which has been relocated from Subash Hotel in Jaffna town to Kopay, off Point Pedro road less than 5 kms from Jaffna town,[4] and the proposed army camp close to the Mandatheevu hospital.[5]

These are the obvious, and therefore perhaps the more benign signs of militarization. There are less visible and more insidious ways in which civil administration and civilian life in the North have become subject to military diktat. The circular dated 7 January 2011 issued by the Presidential Task Force (PTF) to the Government Agents of Jaffna, Killinochchi, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Mannar, which states that all selection lists, i.e. list of beneficiaries of programmes by NGOs and other service providers, must be finalized by a committee comprising of various civilian officials and ‘a representative of the Brigade Commander’ is merely one example of the extension of the tentacles of the military into yet another sphere. This, coupled with the interference of politicians in the provision of assistance at the local level, has stymied civil administration and ensured its inability to function effectively. The situation is further complicated by the fact that civilians, confronted with corrupt civil authorities and interfering politicians, seek the intervention of the only other entity in a position of power in the area, the military, to find a resolution. This therefore is a self-perpetuating vicious cycle, exposing systemic ailments such as politicization and the weak independence of the civil service, which in turn create a vacuum that is then occupied by the military. The irony is that the military has replaced in peacetime, the role played by the LTTE during the conflict years.

The dictates of the army seem to run far deeper in the Vanni with excessive scrutiny and surveillance, not only of community and non-governmental organisations, but also of any gathering of more than a handful of people. For instance, every inhabitant of the Vanni knows that the local SLA office/post has to be informed even if a handful of persons wish to gather to discuss a neighbourhood issue. In some cases the military personnel attend these events and observe the proceedings. Without denying the need to ensure beneficiaries are chosen from amongst the most vulnerable and needy, or that corruption is prevented, one fails to understand how the involvement of the military in this process can be justified in a ‘democratic’ country that is no longer at war.

The paradoxically named Civil Affairs Office (CAO), which is ‘manned’ by the military, is the best example of the entrenched presence and participation of the military in civil affairs in the North. Created during the period when residents of the peninsula had to obtain passes to travel to the South, this office has now morphed into a one-stop monitoring and surveillance unit of the army. For instance, all those who were held at the ‘rehabilitation’ centres are now being asked to register with the CAO and then report back to sign in every week, fortnightly or monthly, depending on the edict of the local commander, which is not based on any law or regulation.

In the interests of sharing their vision for the continued engagement of the military in the North, the government has also created a website titled ‘Civil-military co-ordination for Jaffna’ (http://www.cimicjaffna.lk/main.php). The ‘About Us’ page of this site states that ‘In a return to reconciliation, civilian life and in expediting the restoration of the traditional economic activities of the war affected populace, the military is now engaged in this transformational stage’ (emphasis mine). According to the site, the services the Army provides are varied, ranging from ‘fostering programmes for the (sic) displaced children and orphaned children’, livelihood support, fisheries and tourism. Of course there is no mention of the specific activities undertaken by the SLA in this regard or the methodology used. Since apparently the situation in the North, as pointed out by the President, is no different to that in the South, one waits with bated breath for the launch of similar sites such as ‘Civil-military Co-ordination in Colombo’.

Despite reports of the recruitment and training of Tamil police personnel who are meant to be posted to the North and East, on the streets of Jaffna one is more likely to encounter the army rather than the police, and that too soldiers who do not speak a word of Tamil. One also notes that the signposts and notices in many parts of the peninsula, such as at the army points at Kaithady bridge, Vallai junction, are in Sinhala only while the Military Police street sign boards in Mankulam are in Sinhala and English.

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‘People need to be grieved; loss needs to be acknowledged publicly, because it helps to confer a sense of reality on the loss but also because it makes it known that this was a real life…The life doesn’t simply get erased. It gets imprinted and remembered. This strikes me as a dignified thing to do…Until we learn that other lives are equally grievable and have an equal demand on us to be grieved- especially the ones that we’ve helped to eliminate-I’m not sure we’ll really be on the way to overcoming the problem of dehumanization’[6]

In the current context, minorities are sceptical about government rhetoric on reconciliation. While the government demolishes LTTE cemeteries such as the one in Kopay and uses the land to build yet another army camp, the people will find it difficult to accept that the government is sincere about treating them as equal citizens. Recent actions by the army such as preventing Jaffna University students from attending the funeral of Pirapaharan’s mother Parvathi ammal, a civilian who played no role in the war, not only violated their civic rights but also illustrated insensitivity to the feelings of a community that is grappling to come to terms with its violent and complex past in order to move forward. Even more disturbing was the desecration of Parvathi ammal’s ashes by unknown persons who disturbed the pyre and placed on it carcasses of three dogs that had been shot to death. This incident, which was not reported in the English media, except in the Sunday Leader, took place despite the fact that on the day of the funeral there was a heightened presence of the army, police and military intelligence in the area. Contrast this with the large and well-tended memorial to fallen soldiers in the centre of Killinochchi town and the statute of the soldier in the army camp currently under construction at the Murukandy junction.

The relationship of the people of the North with the LTTE was, and remains, a highly complex and sensitive matter. We should remember that this relationship encompassed a nuanced spectrum of opinion within the Tamil community: from those who unequivocally supported both the LTTE’s ideological stance and methods, to those who, faced with a state unresponsive to their political aspirations, tolerated the LTTE in instrumental terms, to yet others, given the attitude of the LTTE in regard to dissent and political pluralism, simply had no choice whether or not to conform. Post-war, and post-LTTE, this is a matter that is best resolved, reconciled and come to terms with, within the Tamil community. The high profile insertion of the military into not only the civil administration, but also the civic, social and political space of the North, in a manner designed to impose a history, to control the collective memory, and intrude into post-war catharsis, is not only callous, but also myopic and ultimately self-defeating for the state. In other words, there is no better way to ensure the sustenance within the Tamil polity of the LTTE’s brand of hard-line nationalism, even without the LTTE.

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Those who shed crocodile tears for people held at camps had conveniently forgotten that among terrorists masquerading as civilians were many women cadres’[7]

The plight of ex-combatants, about which this author has written previously on this site and will explore further in a forthcoming piece, deserves mention at this juncture, particularly in light of various comments that are being made about their status within society. In a recent piece titled ‘Fewer I dos [sic] for former female rebels’[8] human rights activist Sunila Abeysekera is quoted as saying that ‘Women cadres are seen as women who [value] marriage [less because they] took up arms’. She goes on to say that female ex-combatants are “‘struggling to find normalcy” due to such judgment and suspicion’. Moreover, according to Ms. Abeysekera, ‘Now (the) LTTE is not there, society is free to express themselves against people who have been linked with the LTTE. This problem is common for both men and women [ex-fighters].’ There are several problematic and erroneous assumptions in these comments which only serve to contribute to the dominant narrative the government is constructing about alleged former combatants (emphasis mine). As this author has written in a previous piece on Groundviews, many ‘surrendees’, as they’re called, were not combatants but those who worked in the LTTE administration while others were forcibly recruited even hours before the end of the war. Moreover, during the period they were held at the purported rehabilitation centres they inhabited a legal black hole unable to exercise their right to due process.

Contrary to the above report not all alleged former combatants are being treated with fear, judgment or suspicion by members of the community. In cases where they are, it appears to be mostly due to the fact that they are being asked to register, and then report regularly to sign in with the Civil Affairs Office. (In another example of the depth of militarization, the military gives instruction to the Grama Sevaka (GS) to require the alleged former combatants to register with the CAO, instructions which the GS implements diligently!). This identifies the alleged former combatants to the community as people who pose a potential threat, not due to their previous perceived or actual involvement with the LTTE, but because they are constantly monitored and their movements restricted by the security forces. People in the North are afraid that ‘if something happens’ the security forces will first seek the person who was released from the ‘rehabilitation’ centre and hence the community at times chooses to stay away from these persons for fear they too will draw the unwelcome attention of the security forces in some way.

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Acts of commission and omission by the government convey to the people of the North that there is little possibility they will be treated as equal citizens and included as full members of a multi-ethnic polity. Instead they feel they live in an occupied territory. As the victor of the war, the government is attempting to impose its will on the Tamil people and force them to adopt a Sri Lankan identity that is overwhelmingly Sinhala Buddhist, and in the process quashing what the people view as their distinct language, culture, heritage, and history. This distinct and proudly held identity is not a threat to a pluralistic Sri Lankan state, but its insensitive and dismissive treatment penetrates the heart of the sense of dignity of Sri Lankan Tamils. The government’s strategy is generating anger, resentment and a sense of disenfranchisement amongst the Tamil people, which in the short-term will make reconciliation impossible, and in the long-term form the catalyst for another conflict. Instead of effecting social reconciliation and re-integration, it will, in the words of Judith Butler, only produce ‘outraged and humiliated and furious people’.


[1] ‘Sri Lanka: Civil Administration in Kilinochchi launched’, Asian Tribune 27 December 2009 at http://www.asiantribune.com/news/2009/12/27/sri-lanka-civil-administration-kilinochchi-launched .

[2]‘ Some groups are trying to distort the prevailing situation in Jaffna- Jaffna Commander’, 26 January 2011 at www.defence.lk/PrintPage.asp?fname=20110123_01

[3] Troublemakers in North identified: ‘Situation blown out of proportion’, Island, 13 January 2011.

[4] http://www.army.lk/detailed.php?NewsId=3129

[5] Thinakural, 25 December 2010.

[6] ‘Interview with Judith Butler’, The Believer Magazine, May 2003 at www.believermag.com/issues/200305/?read=interview_butler

[7] Shamindra Ferdinando, ‘Fresh LTTE threat emerges from IDP camps’, The Island, 31 August 2009.

[8] www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID-92017