Uneasy calm shrouds simmering east

On-the-spot report by Anthony David and Chris Kamalendran from Kattankudy

Shops and houses sit cheek by jowl in Kattankudy, which has recorded the highest density of population in Sri Lanka. In just 3.89 square kilometres some 44,800 people have packed themselves. Crowded enough, one would say. In recent weeks, contingents of Police and Special Task Force (STF) commandos have added to that bustling population. Armoured patrol vehicles of the Army snake through the crowded streets. A 48-hour curfew has just ended. Uneasy calm descends as the sun rises. People scurry to buy food.

In an area, that was a showcase for amity between Muslims and Tamils, the recently concluded Eastern Provincial Council election has brought about a sad ethnic divide. While one faction charged that a ‘third force’ was responsible for this, some felt otherwise. Kattankudy is predominantly Muslim whilst the neighbouring village of Ariyampathi is Tamil. The conduct of elections there, Government leaders acclaimed, heralded the return of democracy. Elected leaders were now in control instead of the military, they argued.

Kattankudy town limps back to normality after a week of tension and violence

At least two leaders who swept the polls to reach the top, though quite unwittingly, have left behind a sad legacy that has taken lives, caused injuries and spread hatred. Those who campaigned for the candidature of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan wanted Tamils to vote for him. They said they would be electing a Tamil Chief Minister; Similarly, Muslims who voted for M.L.A.M. Hisbullah were made to believe they were electing a Muslim Chief Minister.

Several Tamil and Muslim civilians whom we spoke to said the respective campaigns sowed the seeds of tension between the two communities. Mr. Hisbullah, the Chief Ministerial aspirant who ended up as a Minister in the Eastern Provincial Council, charged that a ‘third force’ was at play to create tensions between the two communities. He said he raised this issue with the Chief Minister.

“It started with the killing of two TMVP cadres in the Muslim town. They believe this was done by Muslims but I deny this allegation”. However, the Immediate past President of the Federation of Kattankudy Mosques and Muslim Institutions, M.I.M Khalid, who is now the Treasurer of the organisation holds a different view.

"Promises should never have been made before the elections that there would a Muslim Chief Minister or Tamil Chief Minister. This is one of the main reasons for the tension between the two communities,” he said.

The Federation acts as an umbrella organization for 48 mosques and 85 Muslim institutions and was called in to defuse the tension in the area. Several members of the Muslim community we spoke to said they believed the only answer to the crisis would be to disarm the TMVP. But the appeal drew an angry retort from TMVP spokesman

“We are carrying weapons for the protection of our own cadres and they are deployed only to protect our offices. The weapons are not being used against civilians. Our cadres are under threat and we need protection,” he said.

Businessman, Kantharuban Lakshman, 37, believes that one of the main reasons for the violence and the tension has been the assurances given to the Muslim community that they would have a Muslim chief minister in the east.

“It is difficult to defuse the tension after creating a division between the two communities,” he pointed out. The violence broke out after a key member of the TMVP (Tamil Makkal Vidudalai Puligal) Shanthan was shot dead on May 22 in the heart of the Kattankudy town on the main road which runs between Batticaloa and Ampara. According to eyewitnesses, Shanthan who was riding a motorcycle was shot dead by two others who were following him on a motorcycle. Automatically the suspicion fell on members of the Muslim community as the town is predominantly Muslims.

On the same day, three Muslims were shot dead opposite the TMVP office in Ariyampathi, a town adjoining Kattankudy, while two more Muslims from Eravur, on their way to pay an electricity bill were also abducted.

More incidents were to follow with a Muslim woman being killed during a protest in Eravur.
In a separate incident, a Muslim vegetable vendor was hacked to death in Kalladi on June 1.
In some instances rumours sparked off violence. Among them was an incident where two Muslims who sustained injuries after falling onto a barbed wire fence in Eravur had claimed they were caused when they were attacked by a group of Tamils.

"Fortunately soldiers on duty had seen the incident and told the police what actually happened. We have arrested them and produced them in courts for spreading false rumours and trying to incite communal violence,” Deputy Inspector General of the Police Nihal Samarakoon said.

The two men Ahamed Lebbe Rizvi and Vellathamby Musammil were produced in courts on Monday and remanded until June 16. After a week of street violence and protests in Kattankudy town, shop keepers for the first time were opening up for business on Monday morning. Unicorn buffels were placed in strategic positions. Armed police guards and STF were seen every 10 metres .

Security was tightened at schools, while buses leaving the area were provided armed police guards as life in the city started limping back to normality. On the surface all appeared to be normal with shops, banks and schools opened, but significantly the number of Tamil employees who had to travel into Kattankudy were less. Similarly some Muslims were reluctant to travel to Tamil populated areas.

Some Tamil employees attached to the Kattankudy bus depot had reported at Kalmunai and called the Kattankudy Depot Manager to find out whether it was safe to travel. Even on Tuesday some shop keepers found that some of the employees had not reported back to work.

Students make their way to school. Pix by Sanka Vidanagama

Tamil employees of the bus depot had reasons for being wary. Just the previous week, angry mobs outside the depot had been calling for the Tamil employees to be sent out. But the depot staff had protected their Tamil colleagues till Police got them out to safety.

“We took all measures to protect our Tamil brethren. But I am still ashamed to look at their faces,” says M.Y.Adam, 54, Assistant Manager (Engineering) of the depot. He is also the President of the Siharam Jumma Mosque

“The situation has created a rift between the two communities,” Mr. Adam pointed out.

Even by Thursday some of the Tamil employees including public servants were yet to report to work, while some of the Muslims were still reluctant to enter Tamil populated areas in Batticaloa town.

“If people do not report to work this week too, we have no option but to mark them as absentees,” Batticaloa’s Additional Government Agent R. Ketheeswaran said. Some public servants believe that this is too extreme a measure to bring back normality, but Ms. Ketheeswaran believes such measures are necessary if they are to keep the state machinery running.

Last week’s protests took a dangerous turn with even an ambulance that was passing through Kattankudy town coming under attack. The driver was a Muslim who was taking six patients, two Muslims and four Tamils from Akkaraipattu .

“The hospital staff refused to work after the ambulance came under attack and the Police had to intervene and the DIG (Mr. Samarakoon) summoned an urgent meeting to discuss the situation. In future, in the event of any violence, a bus with police guards will be deployed to escort ambulances,” Teaching Hospital Director Dr. K.Muruganandan said.

At least 37 passersby were injured in Kattankudy during that same incident when they were hit by stones in the melee. One of those injured is still recovering in hospital. Dharmalingam Vijayakumar, 49 from Mamankerny who makes a living by selling toys was heading to Kalumunai when he was hit by a stone flying past, causing head injuries.

“There were 15 of us travelling in a van when we were hit by stones while passing Kattankudy town. Two passengers were injured and the van was damaged too,” Vijayakumar, a father of three said.

In Kattankudy, shopkeepers are eager to get on with business as usual, just as much as the Tamil businessmen in Batticaloa town are eager to resume trading with Muslim businessmen.Community leaders in the area say confidence-building measures are necessary to heal the rift between the two communities.

The Secretary of the Federation of Kattankudy Mosques and Muslim Institutions, A.L.M.Sabeel, believes that one of the ways the government could improve the trust between the two communities is by disarming the TMVP cadres.

"We will be soon meeting with ambassadors in Colombo to call upon the government to disarm the TMVP. This step will give confidence to the Muslim community to move freely without fear,” he said.
Since TMVP members carry weapons there is also suspicion that Muslim groups too are armed. Although no direct evidence has emerged, people believe that some of the former LTTE cadres while deserting the movement had sold their weapons, which may have fallen into the hands of some Muslims.

The return of a democratic process in the east after the Eastern provincial elections, no doubt, is a welcome change. However, this is just the first step in the difficult process of developing the east. Such a development is only possible if there is ethnic harmony. Hence confidence-building measures between the communities are a sine qua non.

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