Ilankai Tamil Sangam

23rd Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Remembering Mutur, 2006

The continuing saga of war and peace in the East [excerpts]

by Coalition of Muslims and Tamils for Peace and Coexistence (CMTPC), August 2007

A Government that claimed to fight a war to liberate the Tamil people from the yoke of the LTTE  seems to have forgotten its own avowals; its motivation for liberation seemingly lies in consolidating its own repressive rule.  The cruel fate of the people of Sampur, who are still waiting to claim their right to return and re-build their lives makes clear that the Tamil people will not find the security and justice they seek under this current administration which has blatantly disregarded their rights, wishes and needs.

[3rd section]

The bitter fruits of liberation

So much has happened and yet so little has changed. The military liberation has brought about a certain kind of peace to the region: a peace where the large guns including the dreaded multi-barrel rocket launchers are silent at least in much of the eastern territory. The repeated waves of displacement that characterized all of 2006 and the beginning of this year seem to have ceased now. There is an abatement in the frequency and high levels of killings as well, especially in comparison with  August 2006;  Sinhala Communities are far more secure from attacks by the LTTE, its massacres and its artillery fire. The Muslim Community has a reason to be grateful as the LTTE’s taxation and brutal dominance has seemingly lifted. The Tamil community has been liberated from the LTTE’s vicious control of its resources. So the liberation has brought some relief and it is now the turn of the communities in the North to deal with the daily barrage of artillery and multi-barrel rocket launchers.

But beyond the rhetoric of liberation and the appearance of security, violence, violations and a growing sense of  fear pervades the East. ‘Normalcy’ has been restored at the point of the gun. But there are memories that haunt the dreams of the people making them fear for their future. Memories of how the Muslim and Tamil communities were forcibly resettled haunt the people; of how when those displaced from Mutur to Kinniya, were forced to sleep out on the road when the authorities, in their attempts to resettle the people, closed down the welfare centres and locked the people out during the holy month of Ramadan; of how the displaced from Vaharai, were caught unawares in their daily activities of camp life when the army came with buses to take them back home to make a case for ‘liberation’. The government is determined to rid itself of the international embarrassment of displacement; once displaced people are resettled they stop being a statistic, they stop being a problem.

But the people remember and have a story to tell. The resettled communities are highly vulnerable. They have lost so much, their tools, fertile land, cattle, a monsoon season; they face severe military restrictions on carrying out the tasks of their livelihood. For instance, the fishermen of Mutur have their access to the sea restricted to a mere 2 km from the shore from the previous 350 km, after the declaration of special zones by the security, following liberation. The loss of deep sea fishing takes a toll on the income of the community and leads to over fishing in the restricted coastal waters. From the communities of Vaharai and Vavunatheevu, there is only silence. They cannot speak of losses, of houses looted or cattle disappeared, land mines or other abuses. Resettlements of the people have taken place in blatant disregard of UN and other international standards.. The growing silence of humanitarian agencies and donors cannot be ignored as they have increasingly danced to the tune of the government and proved unwilling to take it on even when it is clear that the massive resettlement drives are in contravention of the principles that supposedly guide these agencies and their work. Humanitarian agencies have become blind to the forcible resettlement of entire displaced communities, who have to confront the security forces responsible for carrying out the resettlement and the threat of having their rations cut if they refuse to resettle. Certification of areas as safe from mines is highly questionable and not necessarily in line with the standards set by the National Steering Committee on Mine Action. The de-miners of the Sri Lankan Army are forced to work long hours and it is unclear whether the mandatory random checking to be carried out by the UNDP de-miners is as random as it is supposed to be. People in parts of Vellaveli, Vaharai and Pattipalai DS divisions were settled before clearance certifications had been obtained by the GA. The untold  story of the displaced  who have been shut out from their homes is another serious matter. Other communities that live in fear and displacement will soon be forced back to their homes as a result of the closing down of welfare camps or the cutting off of rations. 

‘Liberation’ has not brought an end to security threats to the civilian populations, especially for Tamils. The goni billa (hooded ghost) has returned. In cordon and search operations in Trincomalee there is often a figure, wearing a hood, who accompanies the security force units and whose job it is to identify suspected LTTE members and supporters. With just one nod an individual becomes a suspect. The returnees to Eachalampattu transported via Vaharai  had to undergo this goni billa treatment. At the Verugal crossing, a hooded man sat in a building identifying mostly young men who were then taken into the building where they were interrogated, photographed and then released. While the security forces need to conduct their security and surveillance work to prevent LTTE infiltration, for the affected civilian population the sense of fear and insecurity is intense. There are reports of human rights violations from Western Batticaloa including killings of civilians. In one incident a woman was killed and her chest had multiple stab wounds. The fighting is over we are told, but the spectre of counter-terrorism and insurgency continues to haunt the people of the Eastern Province.

Land of milk and honey: militarization of the state and territory

The promised freedom of liberation rings false as new configurations of political alliances are being formed, replacing the dominance of the old, that of the LTTE in particular. The new alliance of the government and the Karuna faction is militaristic in character. Civil administration in the region is characterized by the high percent of military personnel holding important positions within it. To begin with, the Governor of the Eastern Province is Rear Admiral Mohan Wijewickrema. The current GA too is from the Armed Forces, Major General (Retired) T.T.R. De Silva. There is a proposal for a  mandatory military  or police presence in village development committees. One might argue that, in fairness to the government, the current security situation demands a military scrutiny of civil administration; but militarization of civil administration will have grave short and long term repercussions.   If the State fails to recognize the sense of fear and discrimination it is creating among the people it will drive the Tamil population straight into the arms of the LTTE.  The people in the region are discovering for themselves the implications of these moves.   As the D.S. of Mutur discovered recently,  there is a price to be paid for increased ‘security’. The D.S. was in a meeting with a military officer, which kept being interrupted by repeated phone calls. Annoyed no end by this, the officer disconnected the phone and humiliated the D.S. in front of his staff. Subsequently on the 18th of July, the state run television, which has become, at the moment, purely a voice of propaganda for the government, in its programme, ‘Medayamatapera,’ ran a story claiming that this particular D.S. was the only one among the District Secretaries not following the President’s orders. There is wide spread rumour that this D.S would be replaced by a Sinhala person, lending credence to the belief that these events are being orchestrated by the government to turn the region into a Sinhala dominant area, serving the hegemonic interests of the state. Such steps to ‘Sinhalize’ the administration coupled with the moves to militarize civil administration are greeted by minoritiy communities with a great deal of trepidation. These crude attempts at colonizing administration, with military personnel and others serving the interests of a partial and biased state are going to prove counter-productive for the state as it will pit minority communities against its control and persuasion  .

In the east, the minority communities, particularly the Tamil and Muslim communities are under siege from the military apparatus of the TMVP. The TMVP has not only taken over the LTTE’s political offices in the East but has also been given the license to carry guns, which they tout openly, terrorizing the civilian population in their own efforts at ‘governance,’  through force and through taxation. The snarling tiger symbol might have been replaced by a singing fish, but the Tiger has not changed its stripes. Karuna, like the LTTE, continues to engage, with the government’s endorsement this time round, in the heinous practice of child recruitment and other human rights abuses. It is widely alleged to be involved in murders in the region and elsewhere. Rumours abound of the splintering and re-uniting of factions of the Karuna Group, in fact re-tracing the steps of the divisive and brutal Tamil militant groups that preceded it, increasing fears of further blood shed and internecine warfare. Civilians are forced to pay ‘tax’ to TMVP representatives who demand that no one should speak about it, especially to other TMVP members. The local TMVP representatives act like war lords, without any mechanism to ensure accountability. It is  reported  that members of the TMVP  will also take on the task of policing the East both officially and unofficially. This contradicts the government’s avowed commitment to restoring democracy and re-enfranchising its people. The government may need the assistance of Karuna to keep the LTTE out. It may have used the Karuna Group to flush the enemy out; in the meantime, Karuna may be dependent on government forces for his survival. Such a deadly struggle for survival and security, waged over the heads of ordinary people, does not bode well for democracy in the region at all.  In this climate of repression and military dominance, one has little hope that the Karuna group will shed its ‘stripes’, and contest the election with a commitment to transform itself into a legitimate democratic body. The elections to come will be the ultimate test for the government to prove its commitment to the restoration of normalcy, democracy and peace. But we fear. We fear a repetition of the 2004 general elections where candidates and supporters were intimidated into submission or were killed. For the Muslim community, the elections may mean facing the ‘wrath’ of yet another Tamil politico-militant group, determined to assert its hegemony in the east. Currently, the TMVP is trying to demonstrate its strength by assisting Tamils to resettle and relocate, including in areas where ownership is contested between the Tamil and Muslim Communities such as  the Aryampathy D.S. division. There has been little response from Muslim politicians who fiercely defend the government in public and whisper their fears in private. Post-liberation housing and resettlement could well become the arena for conflict between the three ethnic communities as the State, Armed Groups and Ministers, all, try to assert the different communities’ claims to land.

Tigers and Lions: the prognosis for peace

The violence in the East is not over yet. The LTTE has withdrawn, into their pockets of jungle and into the civilian population, after creating all the damage they can. All the communities of the East fear the havoc they could wreak in their attempts to demonstrate their strength and destabilize the East. The killing of the Eastern Provincial Secretary Herath Abeyweera was a show of their continued presence and a clear signal to all those purported ‘collaborators’ with the state. Thwarted and cornered, its only weapon is that of striking out at the civilian populations in the east in order to create both instability and to exacerbate ethnic hostility.  And on the ground, people continue to experience various violations. We continue to fear.  For a movement that is weak, its power lies solely in its capacity to create instability and cause further suffering to the people

But the dominant feeling of insecurity has multiple origins and arises partly from the collapse of responsible and accountable governance as well. When the government unabashedly indulges in defensive and misleading accounts, the trust one would normally place on responsible state agencies is severely undermined. On June 28th, four Muslims were killed in Polonnaruwa (Palliyagodelle) reportedly by the army. The Media Centre for National Security initially claimed that they were LTTE cadres and displayed their bodies, alongside suicide capsules and weapons. Later it released a story claiming that these four Muslim persons had been killed by terrorists. Nothing more was heard of the (four or eleven) dead LTTE cadres. Similarly, on May 13th, the Buddhist priest of  Sri Pabbattharamaya temple, Ven. Handungamage Nadadarathane Thero Moraweva was shot dead which was condemned by the President and the National Bhikku Front. Later a fellow monk revealed to the media it was a soldier who had shot him. Again, nothing more from the President or from other state agencies.

Majoritarianism and Hegemony:  the quest for land

We narrate not only to re-member; but to make sense of what is happening in the east today and in the entire country. The ethnic conflict is taking on a new form on the ground in the East as ethnic polities contest ownership of the land. The State has revealed its Sinhala nationalist agenda through its approach to the land issue under cover of development, national security and protecting the environment and cultural heritage. 

Sampur has been declared a High Security Zone, out of bounds for civilians. There is no resettlement in the area.  The residents are awaiting  news of their fate, as it is still unclear as to whether they will all be denied the right to resettle in their homes and reclaim their property  or be forced into new locations such as Raalkulli. A Government that claimed to fight a war to liberate the Tamil people from the yoke of the LTTE  seems to have forgotten its own avowals; its motivation for liberation seemingly lies in consolidating its own repressive rule.  The cruel fate of the people of Sampur, who are still waiting to claim their right to return and re-build their lives makes clear that the Tamil people will not find the security and justice they seek under this current administration which has blatantly disregarded their rights, wishes and needs.

The  eviction of 251 resettled farmers from Arafa Nagar on 10th, August, without prior notice by the military, demonstrates that it is not purely security concerns that keep the Tamils out of their lands. Such actions lead us to believe that at least in some instances obstacles placed in the way of resettlement are prompted more by ethnic considerations and than by security safeguards. These Muslim families with permission from the then military commander began cultivation in March 2007. On the 10th, of this month, the military commanded the families to move out, placed a board at the entrance of the village stating that the area was a HSZ and that anyone who entered would be shot. Though negotiations are under way over this controversy, we learn that the area has been fenced off and the people are allowed only to cultivate and not re-settle on the land. The Muslim community continues to live in a state of anxiety and vulnerability, reliant on the whims and fancies of the military. According to a recent newspaper report (Daily Mirror), the President’s brother Basil Rajapakse had informed a  Muslim delegation that met with him to raise concerns about Arafa Nagar and other instances of dispossession, that he would look into the matter and that the government had initiated a dialogue with the World Bank to procure  compensation for those affected by the conflict. This raises the question about the role of donors and international agencies in developing the East – will they help in the re-drawing of ‘ethnic’ boundaries and the shifting of populations too? 

Under the guise of national security – of protecting Trincomalee Harbour, the government has made plans for the development of Trincomalee. One of its development plans is to build a coal power station in Sampur, even though the Indian engineers, who were to be engaged in the project, have rejected the suitability of the site. The development of Trincomalee is important but it is increasingly clear that this is a development programme that pays little attention to local communities, and instead  is formulated toward enticing big business. Local communities have been re-grafted onto the plan and shifted whenever they are ‘in the way.’ A massive highway has been constructed by the army, cutting across many paddy fields in Kinanthimunai, Perumpathu and Vellalanwetai. There is little evidence that any proper procedure was followed in acquiring this agricultural land. The farmers had no intimation of what was going on for they had been barred from entering their villages by the military as the area has been declared a HSZ

Furthermore, it seems that as a part of these  developments a new and trustworthy work force and new communities (read Sinhala) will be moved into Trincomalee, dramatically impacting on the demography and the ethnic balance in the Trincomalee District. Already local communities are expressing fears that their areas are being marginalized and their needs and rights are being ignored in the proposed development plans. In the political climate that has evolved out of the  ethnic conflict, where development has been deployed as a tool for advantaging one community over another, be it land colonization schemes or the Mahaweli Project, and thereby impacting, sometimes intentionally, on population ratios and patterns of distribution of ethno-political communities, this current development plan for Trincomalee or the soon to be unveiled Eastern Development Plan is viewed with deep mistrust. This concern of minority communities needs to be addressed and their fears allayed as speedily as possible.

Like in Pottuvil, where the Muslim community is facing a four pronged strategy to reclaim land through violence, national security, the protection of religious and cultural heritage and environmental conservation,  the Tamil and Muslim Community seem to face similar threats in the region of Trincomalee. As a part of the BOI, Trincomalee Development Plan, a nature park is to be established in the district. In Seenanveli, north of Illankaiturai Muhattuvaram, a HSZ and a special fishing zone are being  imposed on  the inhabitants of the area. The residents,  most of them  Tamils of Veddha descent, from about 8 villages, have been transported and virtually dumped in the open. They are prevented from going home on the pretext of landmines while their meagre possessions have been reportedly looted by ‘Sinhalese’ from the Mahindapura colony, acting in cooperation with the Army. The army is also engaged in constructing a Buddhist Temple, Samudragiri Vihara, in Seenanveli.

There have been recent efforts to claim a stone quarry site, the hill area of 3rd mile post in Jabal Nagar, by the archaeological department, despite the fact that this very archaeological department had, twice in the past, carried out investigations and found nothing to prove by way of any existence of ancient Buddhist ruins. While the state is seemingly concerned about preserving ‘ancient’ history, the livelihood of people currently living in the region, of around 400 Tamil and Muslim families in Mutur, is being destroyed. There are also plans underway to settle some Sinhala families on a land that was allocated for about 60 tsunami-affected families of Mutur. ‘Emergency  Architects’ were  given the contract to build houses in this area, but we hear that  2 ½ acres of this land called ‘theatre land’ has been fenced off and claimed by a group of Sinhalese, who had not been affected by the tsunami, with help of military, police and a Viharathipathy.

[Continued]