The situation in Jaffna - and beyond

The situation in Jaffna and its environs warrants some comment as events unfolding in the newly liberated areas are spilling over to neighbouring southern India as well muddying the waters separating the two countries.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), successor to the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), the proponents of the infamous 1976 Vaddukodai Resolution which called for a separate state, last week introduced a different kind of resolution in Parliament. These politicians who first suckled the Tiger cubs only to be mauled and sidelined by them later, made the blatantly exaggerated claim that "there is a complete law and order breakdown in the North".

MPs of the TNA, most living in Colombo preaching the gospel of hate and communalism from their local pulpits seem assailed by convenient amnesia, not just of an era of terror but of misery and deprivation for an entire generation of their people. That the resolution was a mere election gundu or ploy for the forthcoming local council polls was clear as clear can be.

And yet, the past is the past. A new era of freedom has dawned, or is supposed to have, in the Northern and Eastern provinces with the military liquidation of the separatists. Unfortunately, the anticipated freedom for the long-suffering people of the North and East has not come automatically. The people's expectations have only been partially met.

A rump element of the LTTE cadres who escaped the net in the final assault on the LTTE are still at large. According to those in the know, the wave of murders is attributed to revenge killings and such 'mopping up operations' being carried out by pro-government groups given the licence to carry weapons with licence to kill.

The rise in ordinary crimes, especially house break-ins and thefts, is attributed to these very forces; those who have the tacit blessings of the authorities to do their bidding in these 'mopping up operations'. The overall aim maybe to ensure that the spectre of separatist terrorism does not raise its ugly head ever again; but to expect these same gun-toting personnel from over-stepping into the arena of petty crime is easier said than done. In the 1980s, the Security Forces used similar armed groups to eliminate the scourge of terrorism in the South, and the rise of crime became a consequential factor.

The Jaffna town and its environs is a dichotomy of sorts. By day, it is bustling. Electricity has been partially restored, markets have opened, there are traders from the south, there is petrol, diesel and kerosene to pump, there is soap, toothpaste, consumer goods and mod-cons; in a sense, it is reminiscent of Sri Lanka (including Jaffna) in 1977 with the introduction of the liberalized economy. But at night, it is akin to a ghost town with a self-imposed curfew on the part of the local inhabitants who dare not venture out as soldiers take up positions at street corners. It's even creepier in the countryside with people locking themselves in, anxiously awaiting daybreak.

The normal policing is lax; much worse than in most other parts of the country, but unlike elsewhere, the civilians are asked to fend for themselves at night. This is a terrible indictment on the Government's quest to return these areas to any kind of normalcy. Measures seem to be underway to strengthen the Police with the enlistment of Tamil-speaking men and women as the case should be; and it is far too early to dismantle the large scale and widely spread military garrisons in these areas. Giving the Government and the Security Forces a bad name unfortunately are their own political allies. No doubt, these political elements did yeoman service in helping the Security Forces neutralize the LTTE during the latter years of the 'war', but their determination to enforce an iron grip on the populace and run their writ on the politics of the area has all the hallmarks of backfiring on the Government.

If any hearts-and-minds strategies are in store, they are being checkmated by these very parties. The entire scenario took another virulent turn this week with the rejection of the entire lists of the Government's candidates for the Local council elections scheduled for March 17. The TNA is, meanwhile, covertly empathising with the defeated forces of terrorism, playing up on the unpopularity of the Government's allies, and whipping up the bogey that "there is a complete law and order breakdown in the North".

Even more significantly, are the actions of the Government's allies that is having their repercussions across the Palk Straits. The recent killings of Tamil Nadu fishermen are a case in point. It is true that the northern Sri Lankan fishermen have suffered enough due to the insurgency. It is also true that Indian fishermen have taken the recent consensus reached between India and Sri Lanka on the unintentional crossings of the International Maritime Border Line (IMBL) to mean that there is free access to Sri Lankan territorial waters, where the catch is greater by all accounts. Their Sri Lankan counterparts complain of their nets being cut -- these are not accidents but deliberate sabotage. It is this that has triggered (literally) a counter-attack on the intruders. The Sri Lanka Navy is sensitive to the political fallout of such killings. Yet for the fishermen, who have had weapons handling training over the insurgency years, it is their livelihood that is at stake.

The tit-for-tat attack on the Maha Bodhi Centre in Chennai, though not the first of its kind, has been the gut reaction to these killings. It is, however, inconceivable that the Tamil Nadu fishermen living in the coastline marched to Chennai for this. More likely, the Tamil Nadu's blatantly communal politics is to blame, and it is most regrettable that the ground-breaking visit by a Tamil Nadu all-party parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka soon after the crushing of the LTTE was not followed up by a reciprocal visit by an all-party Sri Lanka (or even a Government) delegation. For far too long has Sri Lanka not taken the diplomatic initiative to improve political relations with Tamil Nadu.

The Government's thrust to develop the North has fallen flat on its face with the A-9 highway from Omanthai to Jaffna in ruins, again. The President opened a new bridge to link the peninsula with the mainland via Pooneryn on the A-32, but the road thereafter is un-motorable. The much publicised work on the rail link seems to have also ground to a halt.

The Government had better beware. Into the vacuum of inaction comes increased Indian presence. The opening of a consulate was the first step. The Sri Lankan Government must treat the North as part and parcel of this country before someone else considers it as an extension of Tamil Nadu. That is why the pro-Government allies need to be reined in without delay. There is much work to be done in Jaffna, the Wanni and even the East; resettlement, education, and the restoration of the people's livelihoods being paramount. If the Government in Colombo is wary of devolving political power to the North, and quite rightly so, then there is a bigger onus on its part not to choose to ignore the happenings where its writ is now back in force.

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