Rajpal's Column

22nd April 2001

Crouching Tiger, hidden dragon plays in Vavuniya

By Rajpal Abeynayake
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Soldiers in the forward defence lines apparently said they will shoot at anything attempting to cross from LTTE controlled areas, including wild boar. 

On Monday night they saw what looked like crouching Tigers. Crouching Tigers, hidden dragons, whatever they may be, soldiers aimed and fired, then lobbed grenades for good measure. 

What they didn't bargain was for a hidden lady.

This is an Injun country. In some places, the army controls territory in the daytime. Come nightfall, they return to barracks. The LTTE takes over from there.

Sri Lanka's North East terrain is particularly geared for the adrenaline burst. Last year, this writer had the chance to meet Brigadier Zacky, who held fort for the Sri Lankan army in Batticaloa.

Zacky said he organized football games, and exuded a gung-ho kind of confusing charm. Journalists, being insouciant, asked him why Tigers roam three kilometres from his imperious headquarter, and not in crouching position either.

Zacky was not impressed. He could take them, but at cost to civilian life general quietude and civilian movement that he was determined to preserve, he said. Journalists will move to uncleared areas, he said, at their own risk. But this is injun country. Away from Batticaloa town precincts, it is difficult to say where army control ends and Tiger control begins, and one could say the borders are in motion. 

This flux accentuates at dusk. Motorbikes move out of town, whirring past army checkpoints, at which soldiers on duty seem to give the nod and not give the nod to passers-by. 

It's bushy terrain too, and crouching Tigers and crouching vegetation are hardly distinguishable apart. Flat landscapes, long journeys, fast motorbikes, and the right amount of tension would get anyone into this kind of mess, leave alone Marie Colvin. Good prawn curry and arrack helps.

But, very few journalists have wanted the adrenaline burst. Brigadier Zacky's warning that crossing into uncleared terrain would expose journalists to the risk of army fire, was accompanied by the rider that anybody who wants to get across should have to get "Ministry of Defense clearance.''

His powers in Batticaloa were not worth a pitcher of warm piss, or so he seemed to say, if the MOD decides a man could cross the border into Tiger country. You can get clearance, and yet enter at your own risk.

The adrenaline burst is lesser, in Srinagar in Kashmir for example. Foreigners need to register at all entry points in the city, where passport numbers and purpose of visit etc., are recorded. From there, it's between you and your god. But Srinagar is not flat arid and Injun country. Sumo jeeps do the honours there in place of motorcycles, and would just about get you anywhere from Gulmarg to Pahalgam.

But, the Indian government doesn't warn you about getting to Srinagar. Lonely Planet the guide-book does, in very severe terms. 

But Srinagar is pastoral once you get there, and the Dal Lake ambiance cuts the tension in a minute.

Though several guidelines have been given, or at least discussed by all sorts of purveyors of journalism at seminars in Colombo, it can be argued that all this is not relevant in the case of Marie Colvin, who crossed the Parayanlankulam control lines. 

She wasn't doing war reporting, she seems to say at least by innuendo. What she was doing was peace reporting, getting the story across on the developing thaw between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government?

But then, couldn't peace reporting be done from the Tiger offices in wherever? She could still answer NO to that one, because the Tiger headquarters were said to have been moved from London to deep in the Wanni thicket.

What's more important than all the drama that surrounded Marie Colvin, is whether what she had to report was of any consequence. 

( As for other matters, she went at her own risk, and she knows it, which is why the shooting is of no embarrassment to the Sri Lankan government, even though the government acted sometimes as if it was.) What she did report, as headlined in most papers the day before she was injured in the gunfire, was what Thamilchelvam had said. Which is that "Tigers are willing to agree to a federation, confederation, northeast council, autonomous region we can accept any of these solutions, as long as we are guaranteed our equal rights, our dignity and justice.''

Did Marie report this as "part of her agenda with the Tigers?'' It's upto anyone to read between the lines in any way they wish, or take the statement at face value. But what matters as hard news is that Thamilchelvam said it. It is peace reporting that broke the peace.

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