Human Rights, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

The fear of Jaffna

By Shanthi Sachithanandam

“Last night was full moon
Oh you Sinhala Buddhist
For whom breaking even an egg on a full moon day is Adharma
How come lives of Tamil people became
More trivial than mere eggs?

Oh Venerable Monks
Walking with shaven heads
within yellow robes
splashed with blood and sprinkled with ash
Don’t open your scriptures but your hearts
Tell me, is this your Dharma?
Is it just,
To deem the lives of Tamil people
more trivial than mere eggs?”

– V.I.S Jeyapalan

It was 1997 and the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) had captured most parts of Jaffna peninsula as a result of the ‘Riviresa’ operations. The aid organisation I was working for decided to start its work in Jaffna.

As were and are the regulations, we had to seek military permission to travel to, and work, in Jaffna. I was asked to contact the Secretary of the Defence Ministry. “What is the work that you do?” he asked. We focused on supporting and strengthening local organisations. He could not comprehend this, so I had to elaborate. “We build their capacities to identify problems and plan and implement development projects on their own… We strengthen their leadership abilities and….”

He quickly interjected, “Jaffna has too much of leadership and organising abilities. That’s the whole problem. We cannot allow you to do this. We can give you permission only if you are coming with money to reconstruct damaged and destroyed buildings.” Our project was effectively stonewalled.

It can be asserted that the fear of Jaffna has largely coloured the attitude of the south towards the issue of power sharing. There is almost a larger than life impression of the people of Jaffna being industrious and resourceful. Add to this the fact that all the important political and military leaders for the Eelam struggle have come from that small peninsula, and the picture is complete.

Give them even something small and they will overtake us in no time, is, if you might care to say, an example of some of the jealous musings heard over coffee and dinner. I would opine that this feeling is more intense amongst the government officers of the south. They have been the single most benefited group from this conflict, a result of the discriminatory practices against Tamils in public sector employment. This is from where policies are influenced and implemented, in relation to Jaffna. Their objective? Destroy Jaffna’s social capital.

Ever since the placing of this country on a war footing in early 2005, this policy is continuing to manifest itself in all its gory details. Jaffna’s villages are slowly being turned into killing fields. The fact that carrying out this politico-military strategy was made easy, by no one other than the ‘sole representatives’ of the Tamils, the LTTE, cannot be overlooked.

During the period of cessation of hostilities between 2002-2004, it systematically targeted anyone who was suspected to be working for the opposing militant groups. The method employed was simple. The victims were picked out anywhere convenient, be it the open streets or the confines of their homes. And no one needs to proffer explanations or show proof of justification to anybody. The LTTE laid the settings and gave the cue for the current drama of horror being enacted in Jaffna.

At the beginning it was the contact points of LTTE’s network that were targetted. Quickly, this progressed to all the supporters who raised flags and rolled in the tires on the streets for burning, for the LTTE organised demonstrations and civil disobedience actions.
The military intelligence, with the help of the opposition Tamil groups, honed in on to almost every participant in public demonstrations with the help of extensive video footages. Sometimes, these names were collected and stored to be used at appropriate times; whenever a claymore mine was set off, this incident was followed with an accelerated spate of killings during the next few days. Obviously some of the persons in the list were being bumped off.
This seemed like a coded communication from the army to the LTTE, intimating the possible repercussions of their actions. Many who feared for their lives surrendered to the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and were given asylum in the prisons by the courts. But how long can you spend in the prisons? There are several incidents of victims being shot and killed after coming out of their prison sanctuary, and on their way to signing the police register.

All this while Jaffna had not become fear ridden as yet, although on an average, two to three people were being killed every day. It is that the family and neighbours always seemed to be able to surmise the reasons for the victim’s demise as some connection somewhere with the LTTE. There was some order; all those who had not taken part in any way did not need to panic.

Then there were occasional incidents of gangs roaming the streets in the nights, armed with axes, sickle and knives. They broke down the doors of houses, especially those in the vicinity of army camps, and stripped them of all valuables. Sometimes they also indulged in rape and murder. But Jaffna bore it all.

But then, during the middle of 2007, the situation deteriorated even further. The rate of killings increased to an average of six per day, and most of them without any comprehensible reason.
A 55-year-old man running a communication agency in Kaithady was shot and killed. It is speculated that some customers using his telephone services to make calls to Wanni numbers may have been the reason behind his death. Two staff members of the Danish de-mining group were shot and killed in broad daylight after a Hollywood-like motorbike chase down one of the busiest streets in Jaffna town. Still, nobody has come up with any explanations.

During the month of September we saw whole families, husbands, wives and children seeking asylum at the HRC. Most of the affected were from the villages of Varani, Kudathanai, Kaithady, and Kachchai in Thenmaratchy, a remote region of the Peninsula totally controlled by the army.

An LTTE cadre just dropping in at their premises was a good enough reason for them to seek protection. The HRC on its part is looking for larger premises for its operations, in order to be able to accommodate all these asylum seekers. They were right, September 23 hit an all time record of nine killings in a day, leading to more surrenders at their door!

As if the killings were not enough, extortions also have become rampant. Anonymous callers demand ransom money over the phone, threatening death if the requests are ignored. Three days after the army visiting the home of a retired bank officer’s family, they received calls asking them to deposit Rs. 100,000 in to a particular account of the Bank of Ceylon.
This was dutifully carried out by the family. They do not even want to discuss it with other extortion victims. Many professionals including lawyers are leaving the place to escape the incessant demands for money. You cannot leave in a hurry either; a minimum of 15 days is required to process a permit to leave Jaffna either by air or sea because the application has to be whetted by several relevant area military camps.

There are many cases of those who were killed after applying to leave Jaffna. So, families who have no means to live outside or even make their way out, simply pay up.

Today, Jaffna is gripped with total fear. For, state terrorism has reared its sinister and all pervading head over it. The irony is that the people, in order to escape from one arm of the state, are seen to be seeking refuge in another arm. But that is how it will be, will it not?
The state is the repository of ultimate power and if it does not ameliorate its own actions, the only choice left for the people is to submit to total annihilation. This is very frightening indeed.
Jaffna’s experience shows that the current discourses on human security and peace have to necessarily reflect on the nature of the modern state and its reformation. The executive, legislative and judiciary, institutions that were traditionally considered as providing the required checks and balances, do not seem to be functioning in the manner they were originally envisaged.

The world needs a creative solution in the organisation of its societies, a solution that negates absolute power at all levels. Until such a solution is achieved in our midst, Jaffna will have to continue to fear, the fear of Jaffna.

This article written for October 2007 issue of Montage, published by Counterpoint. To get in touch with or to subscribe to Montage, please email montagesrilanka [at] or visit their blog