Elated that the party of their choice had won, a youth group in a Jaffna church asked their pastor for a treat. He gave them money to buy “kottu roti”. At Paranthan, a couple who had been complaining about structural shortcomings in their donated house breaks into smiles when asked if they were happy that [...]


TNA victory ride on Tiger trail

Ever-present spies follow journalists and visit those who speak to them

Elated that the party of their choice had won, a youth group in a Jaffna church asked their pastor for a treat. He gave them money to buy “kottu roti”.

After the polls: It was back to their normal day-to-day hard life for these fishermen in the north

At Paranthan, a couple who had been complaining about structural shortcomings in their donated house breaks into smiles when asked if they were happy that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had won. “Why not?” states the head of the household.
Along the Mullaitivu coast, two fishermen take a breather while others draw in a net. One of them says he lost his wife and two sons-in-law during the war. He was recently resettled and doesn’t have a home, running water or electricity. He hopes the TNA victory will bring him basic amenities.

Supporters in Jaffna lit firecrackers several times a day to celebrate news that the Tamil party had swept the polls to secure 30 out of 36 elected seats in the Northern Provincial Council. “It is what we asked for,” said M. A. Sumanthiran, TNA parliamentarian. “And it is what we got.”

We are seated at the party headquarters in Martin Road, Jaffna. It is an old, poorly-maintained building. Inside, paint peels off its pale blue walls. This was the day after the election and triumphant TNA members, led by leader R. Sampanthan, are meeting in a separate room.

Hanging prominently in the hall are garlanded images of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchchi’s (ITAK) past leaders—E.M.V Naganathan, T. Rajavarothiam, S.M. Rasamanickam, C.M. Vanniasingham, A. Amirthalingam and S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. 
All of them were moderates. Yet, the TNA frequently whipped up memories of the extremist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam while campaigning. TNA candidates, including chief ministerial nominee, C.V. Wigneswaran, said mention of the Tigers had prompted loud applause, particularly in villages.

“During a rally held at Manipay in Jaffna, some of the older TNA leaders spoke of Chelvanayakam,” said a journalist who attended six rallies. “When they said they wanted to achieve what he had stood for, people clapped.” “But when rallies were held in villages, other candidates also gave speeches,” he remarked. “And when they mentioned the LTTE, the clapping was much louder.”

Ananthi Sasitharan is the wife of Elilan, the LTTE’s Trincomalee political head. We met her at the TNA headquarters three days after the election. Her husband, who surrendered at the end of the war, is unaccounted for. She believes he is alive in a secret camp.

“When I introduced myself as Ananthi and said I was a public official, nobody knew or recognised me,” she said. “When I entered politics and used the name Ananthi Elilan, people voted for the name ‘Elilan’.”

Ms. Sasitharan analysed this as “acceptance of the LTTE in the minds of the people”. An international observer remarked to me that this harkening back to LTTE times is unlikely to strike a chord with foreign governments which have recognised the Tigers for the terrorists that they were. 

It is also too simplistic to paint the success of Ms. Sasitharan as a victory for the LTTE. Two Jaffna Tamil academics that we interviewed estimated that she got “at least 20,000 votes more” after the attack on her residence, allegedly by the army, two days before the poll.

“In my view, the TNA got the anti-Government vote,” analysed Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, an economist and researcher from Point Pedro. “The Sinhalese people are strongly aligned with the President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whatever wrong he does. So they want to show the solidarity of the Tamil people.”

“To me, it’s not even pro-TNA,” he concluded. “It’s a negative vote and the TNA was lucky to get it.” Some post-war realities have made the Northern Tamils deeply resentful of the Government. Leading among this is the presence of the military and surveillance by army intelligence. While uniformed personnel kept off the streets during the election, one or two soldiers in civilian clothes were seen outside many polling stations in Jaffna.

This tainted an otherwise well-conducted poll and contributed to allegations of widespread intimidation. But spying also seems to be a part of daily life in areas such as the Mullaitivu district. 

On Monday, we drew up at a roadside shop to interview the vendor. A motorcyclist drove up, parked outside and issued an innocuous greeting to the man, who stiffened. The most we could get out of him were monosyllables. Unwilling to cause him further discomfort, we drove off.

A politician in Mullaitivu predicted that army intelligence will be at his door within hours of us leaving. “They will want to know who you are, why you came and what you asked,” he said. “That’s part of life here.”

There was surveillance even at the gleaming new railway station in Kilinochchi, where we stopped to do some interviews about how resumption of train services could promote reconciliation. A young female officer of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service told us how she had taken the train to attend election duty in Jaffna. 

“I have Tamil friends in Jaffna because we were trained together,” she said. “So my sister and I stayed a few extra days with them. It is much easier to take the train.” Behind us, a “military type” in an orange t-shirt listened. He followed us to two other spots on the platform, paying close attention as we tried to interview reticent commuters. One old man refused outright to speak.

Eventually, two uniformed army personnel approached us. The more senior in rank asked me politely whether I was Sinhalese, where I was from, why we were speaking to people and whether it would cause any problems. With me was a foreign journalist who had hoped to portray the visit to the railway station as a positive experience. He was perturbed.
Many times, voters in Jaffna spoke to us of a desire for “freedom” and for “self-determination”. They were angry about the takeover of civilian land for public purposes. The Jaffna-based media also promote nationalistic, anti-government sentiments. The idea of “them against us” clearly went down well during this election campaign.

All around, however, signs of Government-led development abound. The main roads are perfectly tarred. If you take the A9, Kilinochchi by night is like any other modern Asian city. Infrastructure is fast coming up. Jaffna is a hub of activity. Granted, if you turn off the main roads, there is still much to be done. But this is true of many other parts of Sri Lanka. 

Kumaran Pathmanathan, or KP, is the LTTE’s former arms procurer. Once on the Interpol wanted list, he today lives at his children’s home in Kilinochchi. It is surreal to be sitting on the porch of his office, sipping sweet tea as a breeze rustles the leaves of the mango and margosa trees in its garden.

Explaining the TNA victory, he says that the Tamil people of the North are conditioned to vote for the “house” symbol under which ITAK contests. “For 50 years, election means they will vote for the ‘house’ in the Tamil areas,” he said. “It’s mixed in their blood.” Mr. Pathmanathan says the next step is “reconciliation”—but that neither the people nor the winner, the TNA, knows how to proceed.

“At election campaign meetings, whatever they said is for the vote,” he said, speaking haltingly in English. “But now we have to forget about that. It’s a new era. Now both parties have to work for the people.”

It remains to be seen, however, who will take the first step — and in what direction.

We cannot build trust overnight: KP

Kumaran Pathmanathan today moves around freely, albeit with several plain-clothes policemen in his car. He runs a sprawling children’s home in Kilinochchi named ‘Sencholai’ which was inaugurated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Within minutes of arriving there and being offered a seat on ubiquitous plastic chairs, we are given tea and a pile of photo albums to flip through while awaiting his arrival.

Mr. Pathmanathan smiles all the time. He heaps lavish praise on the Government and says that, contrary to popular belief, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is “a soft man”. “In my experience, the Government is willing to cooperate and work but the other side (TNA) does not see it,” he said. “They are still only talking about rights, only political solution.”

“But there are also a lot of social and economic issues for the people after the long war,” he noted. “They are facing difficulties and they have to make a plan how they are going to work for that. Through this Provincial Council, there are many chances. They can start the work with cooperation of the Government.”

He also said, however, that that people are happier now. “Life is improving,” he remarked. Children are going to school, there is no fear, people are enjoying their freedom and the economy was improving.  “Slowly, slowly,” he said. “It will take some time. It’s not easy to sort out all issues immediately. Four years is not a long time.”

Talking about trust, Mr. Pathmanathan said, “They have to sit and talk. There are 55 years of misunderstanding. We cannot build trust overnight.” He denied seeing military personnel in plain clothes in Kilinochchi. “Even if there are military personnel, they are Sri Lankan citizens,” he said. “If that happens, the government can correct it.”

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