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Situation Report

16th March 1997

Has EPDP office in Jaffna become the Kachcheri?

By Iqbal Athas

Left:EPDP Cadres getting a foothold in the Northern islands
Right: Douglas Devananda

It was forenoon and business was brisk as usual at the Tinnelvely market on the outskirts of Jaffna. More than 300 residents of this farming town were busy with their chores when a young man emerged from nowhere, pulled out the safety pin of a grenade and hurled it at a group of soldiers.

It fell on the floor and bounced. Men, women and children began to scream. Soldiers ducked for cover. Seconds later there was pin drop silence.Then they raised their heads more in suspense than in shock. It seemed as if their motions posed a question - why has it not happened. Well, the grenade did not explode. There was a sigh of relief all-round.

The attacker faded into the crowd and made good his escape A young platoon commander immediately ordered his men to round up all the residents. He stood atop a box and addressed them.

He told the crowd, "that action by a terrorist" was not only aimed at killing the soldiers but was also to provoke their colleagues to retaliate against the civilians. He urged them to inform the security forces of "terrorist movements and activity" whenever they became aware.

That was Tinnelvely last Thursday, March 13 - an year and three months after Operations Riviresa ousted the LTTE and "liberated" the Jaffna peninsula. It was at Tinnelvely, 14 years ago, the LTTE triggered off a landmine that killed 13 soldiers - an event that was to trigger off the country's worst ethnic clashes and thereafter escalate LTTE violence over the years.

Now, after 14 months of securing control of the Jaffna peninsula, security forces have been putting on a relentless battle against LTTE infiltration and attacks. Hardly a week passes without an incident.

An hour after Thursday's incident in Tinnelvely, two soldiers who were observing the suspicious movements of a youth at Sandilipay in Valikaman West were shot at. One died on the spot. The attackers faded into the civilian crowd. Also Thursday, at Ariyalai, a privately owned tractor was caught in a landmine explosion wounding two civilians.

The same day troops had a measure of success when they ambushed a group of guerrillas. They fled leaving behind three T 56 weapons, magazines, hand grenades and ammunition.

Whether it was a case of security forces successes or losses, it has come to be established over the months that infiltration and attacks have been on the rise. They escalated whilst the setting up of a civil administration was being delayed.

Soon after the much publicised, much celebrated event on December 5, 1995, in Jaffna (and thereafter the enactment of the same event in Colombo) to mark the "liberation" of the peninsula, PA leaders declared it was their intention to see the emergence of a new leadership in the peninsula. Non-militant Tamil groups wanted to move in but the Government was hesitant to allow them.

PA leaders embarked on an ambitious rehabilitation programme of their own. Though the media was not allowed (as is the case even today), visits by Ministers and government dignitaries were many. On July 4, 1996, Minister of Housing and Construction, Nimal Siripala de Silva, escaped miraculously when a suicide bomber exploded a bomb at Stanley Road,. That put paid to ministerial visits.

For the past nine months there has been none, with the only exception being the Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte, who has travelled to personally oversee military matters.

If the Government was at first reluctant to allow non-militant Tamil political parties to operate from Jaffna, it later shifted its stance and said they could go, but without their weapons. They were told that the security forces would afford them protection.

But late last year there was a further shift in the Government's position. The Tamil political parties were allowed to proceed to Jaffna and set up their political offices. They were allowed to take not only their bodyguards but also their weapons.

Now, whilst the security forces are fighting Tiger infiltration and attacks, the Tamil political parties, protected by their own guns and bodyguards are busy trying to establish their political base. They want to isolate the LTTE and win the hearts and minds of the Jaffna public.

If the security forces are training their guns on the LTTE to militarily weaken them, the Tamil groups say they are using them to protect themselves whilst they weaken the LTTE politically. That is by winning over the hearts and minds of the people of the peninsula and thus isolating the LTTE.

In this process which has evolved during the past 15 months, the Government has claimed many a success and many an achievement. But an independent assessment of the ground situation in the peninsula has not been possible during this entire period since the media is denied access to the area.

And last week, without the glare of media attention, unknown to the vast majority of Sri Lankans, more significant developments were taking place in the north.

The Government named Douglas Devananda, an MP of the Jaffna district and leader of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) to be co-Chairman of the Co-ordinating Committee for the districts of Jaffna and Kilinochchi. The other co-Chairman is Gamini Fonseka, Governor of the North-East Province.

The DCCs are statutory bodies originally headed by Government Agents. Both in the districts of Trincomalee (A. Thangathurai) and Batticaloa (Joseph Pararajasingham) of the TULF function as Chairmen. In the Digamadulla (or Amparai) district, M.H.M. Ashraff, Minister of Ports and Shipping is the Chairman.

Early this week, Mr. Devananda chaired the inaugural meeting of the newly established DCC in Jaffna. Governor Gamini Fonseka was absent. Representing him was his Secretary, S. Ganeshanathan.

Barely two weeks after being set up, the EPDP-run northern DCC has come in for criticism by other Tamil groups. They were angered by news reports in the "UTHAYAN", the only Jaffna-based newspaper, that interviews to recruit labourers to the Jaffna hospital were held under the aegis of the EPDP and 75 of them were selected. They allege that the EPDP office has become the virtual Kachcheri and that Government officials were favouring lists provided by EPDP in filling job vacancies.

One of the key issues that has drawn the Jaffna public close to the Tamil political parties now operating in Jaffna is the reported disappearance of youth. Parents or next of kin of children/youth who have disappeared, go to Army Camps or Police Stations looking for them. When their search proves negative, they turn up at the offices of the political parties. The EPDP offices have had the highest turn out. According to one estimate, some 650 persons have allegedly gone missing since December, 1995.

Two Indian Professors flew into Jaffna late this week to obtain a first hand account of what was going on in the Jaffna peninsula. They were Professor A.N. Suryanarayana of the University of Madras and Professor S.D. Muni of New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, both experts on Sri Lanka. The two professors had a series of meetings with military, civilian and political leaders including a lengthy private session with Mr. Devananda.

In their comments to friends in Colombo, they were both unanimous in their view that the media should be allowed access to the north. They have made many more significant observations.

It is relevant to mention that the two Indian Professors, both in a manner connected with the strategic fora in India, have been permitted to visit the Jaffna peninsula as indeed foreign diplomats and Defence Attaches accredited to Sri Lanka. The irony here is that whilst the Government is not averse to the visits by foreigners that the local media has been and continues to be shut out from visiting Jaffna. In other words denying the media access is tantamount to denying the public access to developments in their own country - a strange situation, to say the least.

This is especially so when the Government is adopting measures to bring about a political transition in Jaffna by permitting Tamil political parties to function. Any advantage to Government by that exercise is of great public concern as it is a positive measure towards the war effort.

Why then is the transparency of this effort blanketed by denying the media, access?

Also significant is the fact that all the Tamil political parties now functioning in the peninsula are all ex-militant groups - The Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), The People's Liberation Organisation of Thamileelam (PLOT) and Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). The latter, however, has not set up office there.

It is significant and perhaps a controversial situation that whereas it is only the once militant groups that are active politically in the north but none of the traditionally democratic Tamil parties have ventured out as yet. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) are conspicuous by their absence.

This is an interesting development, considering the fact that all these militant groups turned in support of the Government as a result of LTTE attempts to annihilate these militant groups when they were in competition with the LTTE. In saying this, the intention is not to question the declared political integrity of these non-militant groups, but rather to highlight their genesis in the context of their current role in the north.

It is also an unfortunate fact to note that whereas the country is striving to attain national unity, that all the political parties that are active in Jaffna are sectarian and centric groups. The mainstream political parties, in this context, are equally conspicuous by their absence.

Does this mean the perpetuation of communal politics? If the answer to the question is yes, then perhaps one can question the sense of a long drawn out war with many fatalities on both sides ending up in the square one of communal politics restored.

This is a question to be answered by politicians. But to a student of security and military matters this is a confusing state of affairs.

The event in Jaffna between the military and the LTTE on the one hand, the competing interests of the ex-militant groups and the LTTE on the other, under the overall political interaction between the Government and Tamil polity, bares the nascent stages of a developing entirely new scenario.

This is of critical public interest. They should not be kept in the dark. It all contributes to the viability of a nation.

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