Situation Report

25th February 1996

Wails of Valikamam

By Iqbal Athas

How to get the population of Valikamam, who continues to be in refuge in LTTE-controlled territory, continues to pre-occupy the government. Elaborate plans to induce the return of refugees have not been successful. It was only last week that ambitious arrangements made by the government to airlift at least 150 families displaced from Valikamam back to the Jaffna peninsula was not realised as the majority were reluctant to do so.

What is significant here is that these displaced persons were in the government-controlled areas in Vavuniya and were being offered to be moved into the government-controlled area of Valikamam now under reconstruction and rehabilitation. Finally, only a handful - ten persons to be more precise - accepted the offer to return. They boarded an SLAF Y 12 flight from Vavuniya to Palaly. This small group was mostly made up of those living in the outlying islands of the Jaffna peninsula and not Valikamam.

Senior military officials have visited transit camps in Vavuniya and lectured to the displaced persons in the past several weeks in a strong bid to persuade them to return to Valikamam. In marked contrast to their pleas, representatives of some democratic Tamil parties whose help was also solicited by the government to persuade the displaced persons to return, did just the opposite last week. One of them said the displaced persons should not return to Valikamam in view of unsettled conditions there and suggested that they appeal to the authorities to come to Colombo.

There is an obvious contradiction here. These displaced persons were not under the direct influence or coercion of the LTTE and yet they declined to return home. Therefore, either the refugees lack confidence to return to a re-constructed Valikamam or it could bear out official claims that they were allowed refuge out of LTTE-controlled areas only if they kept one member of the family in hostage.

Whatever be the reason, it does not augur well for the government's efforts to re-attract the estimated 300,000 displaced persons in the LTTE areas. This poses a serious dilemma to the government whose assertions for the political victory of the military success of "0peration Riviresa" was mainly based on the claim of liberating the oppressed population.

Whilst the government has so far been denied the fruits of political victory, the military on the other hand are stultified by the necessity to commit a large strength of personnel resources to secure Valikamam at the expense of maintaining sufficient strength in other theatres of war to engage in mobile operations against the fall-back strategy of the LTTE to wage a guerrilla-terrorist war.

In the past four months, the government has poured in millions of rupees towards rehabilitation and re-construction of the Valikamam area.

A bus service has begun operating. A 500 KVA power generator has been installed to provide electricity. More than 200 beds have been airlifted to re-establish the Jaffna Hospital. Branches of State Organisations including the People's Bank, the Co-operative Wholesale Establishment (CWE) and other institutions have been set up. A retired Major promoted to the rank of Major General has been placed in charge of reconstruction. A retired Major General together with another promoted after retirement has been placed in charge of rehabilitation in the peninsula.

All this expenditure and infrastructure, unfortunately, now benefits only the 2,000 persons in refugee camps. The vast majority of them, elderly and invalid, were those who chose to remain in Valikamam during the 42-day long "Operation Riviresa" because of their physical disabilities. Added to that small number are 96 families which have been re-located so far. With a collapsed economy in the peninsula, as to how those remaining behind find money to survive, is any body's guess.

Whilst the efforts and expenditure of re-construction certainly is a credit to the political intentions of the government, it is a pity that the strategy formulated for "0peration Riviresa" appears not to have taken this civilian factor into consideration. For after all, the entire political programme of reconstruction/rehabilitation was for the benefit of the public. As it now stands, these efforts are a testimony to the government's intentions and of little other benefit.

In the meantime 300,000 displaced persons either by coercion or on their own volition continue to live in the LTTE-controlled areas of Kilinochchi-Wanni-Mannar. At the best of times these were under-developed areas with little infrastructure other than to support a sparse population mainly engaged in agriculture.

Hence the influx of the Valikamam population must certainly strain the social and economic fabric and day to day sustenance of a populace with no local roots, investment or employment interest.

Reports from Wanni indicate that survival is frustrating and not purposeful. Understandably, these irritations have generated some hostility to the LTTE. Yet for all, the pressures do not seem unbearable enough to overwhelm LTTE dominance.

In the conflicting set of political circumstances prevailing, it is somewhat awkward for international agencies to get involved in the alleviation of humanitarian needs of displaced persons. Their involvement whilst comforting to the displaced persons, and even more of enormous propaganda value to LTTE, would be discomforting and embarrassing to the government.

A classic example of this situation is the role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), currently involved in a ding-dong controversy with the Ministry of Defence, over the installation in Kilinochchi of a high frequency two-way radio link. Similar links between UNHCR's main office in Colombo and its branches in Jaffna, Vavuniya, Madhu and Trincomalee, among others, now exist. The Ministry officials there say, fears that the high frequency radio equipment to be installed in Kilinochchi may fall into the hands of the Tigers.

According to a well-informed Colombo-based western diplomat, there were indications that the UNHCR may shut down its operations in Kilinochchi - a move which may cause considerable embarrassment to the government. "The move is under active consideration and is a matter of time", the diplomat said referring to high level deliberations in Geneva. In fairness to the government of Sri Lanka, even with the breakdown of communications between LTTE-controlled areas, food, essential supplies, medical assistance, cash flow and other utilities required for the sustenance of the population continues to be given from the centre.

This is so even with the knowledge that the supplies are being routed eventualy through LTTE's front organisations. The same applies to the medical sector where the government is aware that the LTTE were beneficiaries of the government's obligations to the public. Perhaps Sri Lanka is the only country in the world where this situation exists.

There are privations to the displaced population in the LTTE-controlled areas. It is an undeniable fact that in the given circumstances there is bound to be a great deal of hardship, illness, bad sanitary conditions, malnutrition etc., which threaten the well-being of those caught up with the war.

These circumstances have become unavoidable and it is in the larger interests of a united Sri Lanka to have international bodies, particularly those coming under the umbrella of the United Nations, as go-betweens rather than installed organisations which could institutionalise matters at the expense of a political solution.

The claimed liberation of Valikamam was an event not only watched anxiously by the people of Sri Lanka but the world over. The increased international media interest in an unprecedented government offensive and its repercussions on the military situation, human rights, refugee exodus and rehabilitation plans made exciting news. Heightening the media interest was the fact that the Valikamam offensive came at a time when there was a military lull in the theatres of conflict in Africa and Bosnia.

This event which attracted the attention of the world 's media giants, both print and electronic, to Colombo was a tailor-made situation for the government to exploit. Instead, for inexplicable reasons, to the amazement of the media and the discerning public, the government did just the reverse by clamping a local censorship and controlling information of military and human value.

Whilst it is now known that much of the reasoning for the censorship was at the behest of one high ranking military official, involved in the offensive, matters were made worse when the official spokesmen for matters military, did not have any concept of media relations or of dissemination of information. Instead of accommodation between the media and the government, the media was forced to suffer the arrogance of bureaucracy and rhetoric.

The foreign media, in these awkward circumstances, had to "mark time" in Colombo, denied access to the theatre of war or for that matter to anyone in any position of authority actually involved in the conduct of operations. Not unnaturally, in this situation some reportage lacked accuracy often to the detriment of the government. Worst still, in this frustrated state, the media were receptive to any source of information - a situation which was cleverly and subtley exploited by the LTTE and other separatist lobby groups.

Perhaps, some of the government's worry was because of their concern of the safety of journalists visiting the theatre of operations. Of course, the bureaucrats who fretted over this concern would have been unaware of the many hundreds of foreign journalists who laid down their lives in the line of duty to report facts and incidents, independently and accurately.

Be that as it may, what is now puzzling is that even after four months since "Operation Riviresa" and repeated government announcements that Valikamam is now secure for the return of civilians, the media are still denied access to Valikamam.

This overwhelming concern for the security of media personnel is heartening but professionally perplexing. How more secure could Valikamam be when even some high ranking VVIP politicians have braved and boasted of visits to the frontier, denied to the more mortal journalists.?

The sum total of activities related to the political and military aspects of the ongoing conflict reflect that there prevails a great deal of confusion and lack of co-ordination in the total approach to the problem by the government. The military aspect is only one facet. That being the violent manifestation of the nature of the conflict, naturally is highlighted together with the political aspects of the problem.

However, there are many more aspects which need to be addressed in the total battle against terrorism and separatist subversion of the sovereignty of this country.

Even the ongoing canvassing for the devolution package comes into question if one considers the 300,000 displaced people of Valikamam who have no means of expressing their views directly or through truly representative political agents.

In fact it is questionable as to who represents the Tamil people in this situation. If it is to be argued that it is the LTTE that represents the Tamil people because they spearhead the militancy, then how do the other Tamil parties now in the democratic stream sustain their position vis-a-vis the LTTE, particularly on the question of representing the majority electoral Tamil polity.

Thus, any solution to the problem in itself has inherent contradictions arising from the leadership which adds to the imbroglio. There also appears to be a dichotomy of opinion in the government approach.

The recent statements of the President and her Deputy Minister of Defence reflect this contradiction.

General Anuruddha Ratwatte, Minister of State for Defence, during the debate on the extension of the state of emergency in Parliament, said "We will not stop the war. Whatever the set-backs, we will go ahead with our military strategy to end terrorism and bring all communities under one banner."

Against this declaration (probably linked to his bold pronouncement to end the separatist war before the upcoming Sinhala/Hindu New Year) was the statement made by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga on the very same day that, "I must emphasise that although terrorism could be quelled by military means, the ethnic problem cannot be so."

All these factors seem to add to the lack of clarity in formulating a proper military-political strategy.

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