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Mass support evaporates at Pongu Thamil

Camera shy: Schoolchildren covering their faces with posters of Prabhakaran

Heavy presence of female LTTE cadres. Pix by Lakshman Gunathillake

Some of the TNA Parliamentarians appeared to be uncomfortable when the organisers asked the participants to pledge support for the resolution which called for the withdrawal of the security forces from high security zones. Some of the MPs were seen stretching their hands half-heartedly and another pretending to scratch his ear. Here one of the LTTE photographers in civvies awaits an MP to stretch his hand before she clicks.

By Chris Kamalendran in Vavuniya
Since the government entered into the cease-fire agreement with the Tamil guerrillas nearly 20 months back, the guerrillas have kept their communication lines open with the civilian population living in government controlled areas in the north and east.

'Pongu Thamil' , presented as a 'cultural reawakening' programme to promote Tamil culture has been one of the strategies used by the guerrillas to reach out to the public who otherwise have close access to government information and live in areas where the military is present.

The fifth 'Pongu Thamil' celebration was held this week at the Vavuniya Urban Council grounds. But as we witnessed the celebration, what struck us was whether the LTTE has been successful in maintaining the same momentum of previous 'Pongu Thamil' celebrations as this time the crowds comprised mainly students. The public interest in the Pongu Thamil may have dropped because of the LTTE's apparent lack of interest in resuming the peace talks.

Ignoring a ruling by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) and a request by the military in the area, for students not to take part in political activities in the area, schoolchildren headed the processions from four directions with school bands playing a prominent role.

The students were followed by the teachers -all of them carrying placards with Velupillai Prabhakaran's picture on them. The slogans that were paraded, either called for the withdrawal of the security forces from the High Security Zones or for an Interim Administration for the north and east. Most of the banners and placards were politically motivated and had little to do with the protection of Tamil culture.
Openly the participants comprising students, teachers, government servants or civilians would say they were there at their 'own will', but privately they would admit there had been lots of persuasion for them to attend the event.

The organising activities got underway last month with the appointment of a committee comprising government servants, teachers and businessmen. Although the LTTE distances itself from organisational activities, in the forefront of the event are those who follow instructions given to them by the LTTE. Among these are University students who play an active role in organising the event.

Lots of money is spent on the event and many businessmen step into organise the event. They undertake various activities including the construction of the stage, and the supply of sound systems costumes and decorations.

Although the LTTE played a backstage role when organising the event, its presence as it was in other Pongu Thamil celebrations, was felt in a big way when the event got underway at the UC grounds in Vavuniya. Women cadres wearing their black waist belts were present in large numbers, while LTTE video units recorded not only the event but all those who attended the ceremony, including local and foreign media personnel.

In one incident four people from a government intelligence wing video unit were apprehended and their cameras were taken over before they were released.
But it was obvious to us that there was a deliberate attempt to downplay LTTE involvement. Only one LTTE speech was allowed and that by the area's political wing leader Ezhilin. But all the remaining speeches, resolutions and cultural activities carried with them the the views expressed by the LTTE in the past few weeks.

Among the key issues brought up during the celebrations were the call for the withdrawal of the security forces from the High Security Zones (HSZ) and the implementation of the proposed Interim Administration. The resolution called on the LTTE not to accept an Interim Administration that did not offer sufficient powers to the LTTE. It also called on the international community to recognise that the LTTE should have the powers to handle the interim administration.

In another significant move the resolution also called on the international community to lift the ban on the LTTE. Although most shops in Vavuniya town closed on Wedensday noon to facilitate the 'Pongu Thamil' celebrations, not all of them closed shop voluntarily.

"Twenty months have passed since the signing of the ceasefire agreement but neither the government nor the LTTE have been able to bring about a significant change in the lives of the people in Vavuniya. Therefore we are not clear whether we should cooperate. But on the otherhand we cannot wait without closing our shops," said a businessman who did not want to be named.

It’s a politically motivated struggle
More than Rs. one million was spent on the celebrations in Vavuniya this week, with businessmen in the area called to foot the bill. Some of the funding was done voluntarily while others had no option.

Elaborate arrangements had been made including the construction of pandals and colourful street decorations. Timber had been used to construct the main platform.
Defeated TULF candidate and popular businessman S.Kulathevaraja, one of the main sponsors of 'Pongu Thamil said he had lost faith in moderate politics and decided to show his support by helping to organise Pongu Thamil.

Mr. Kulathevaraja, who owns agricultural land and other businesses including a liquor shop said all previous governments had failed not only to solve the problems of the Tamils but also that of the Sinhalese.

"The struggle is not between the LTTE and the Sinhalese. It i a purely politically motivated struggle. Today, even after 20 months of the ceasefire agreement, the farmers in Vavuniya cannot return to their lands to carry out their farming as some areas come under the High Security zone and some are heavily mined.

"The only way we can find a solution to the problem is through dialogue with the LTTE. The Pongu Thamil celebrations are a part of the Tamil people's struggle for rights. In the south the JVP carried out similar programmes in the late 1990's where they held anti-government street dramas and other cultural activities," Mr. Kulathevaraja said.

The cultural events had been organised by the Fine Arts faculty Dean, S. Sithamparanathan.

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