The governments military and administrative grip on the Batticaloa district has weakened considerably since the completion of Operation Riviresa in the North. The influence of the LTTE pervades the entire district in one form or the other although some local officials claim that almost 85 percent of the district is under the LTTE.
The visible aspect of the situation is that the Army has precarious control of the Polannaruwa - Batticaloa road which is now the only access route to district on its northern side and the Batticaloa - Kalmunai road to the south and that all the towns linked by these two roads are under stable government control. If one were to stay long enough in Batticaloa it would gradually become apparent that the LTTE exerts substantial influence over the population in areas which seem to be under the Armys unchallenged authority.
The LTTE regularly summons people from the Batticaloa town to the Paduvankarai region across the lagoon to the west to demand money or to consult on the various matters. Such summons used to be ignored in the past. Now, people either go themselves or in matters concerning the payment of money, try to negotiate the terms through persons in contact with the local Tiger leadership. This is so because there is a general feeling that the LTTE can gather information and strike anywhere in the town and other places which are supposed to under the control of the Army. Several incidents since last April have strongly impressed upon the people here that it would be dangerous to defy the Tiger even in the secured areas.
The government has, in the past, poured a lot of resources into securing the Batticaloa town and its environs thoroughly. There were large units of the National Intelligence Bureau, the Directorate of the Military Intelligence, the Counter Subversive Unit of the Police etc. which were operating in the town assisted by the TELO, EROS, PLOTE, the Mohan Group, some Tiger surrendees and a substantial number of dropouts from various Tamil militant outfits who work for a regular salary.
In the latter phase of Eelam War Two it became virtually impossible for the Tigers to influence people living in the town in any manner. Even sympathisers found it extremely difficult to help the Tigers except providing some information and money at great risk to themselves.
Things have changed very much in favour of the Tigers today in spite of the EPRLF and a group of assorted ex- Tamil militants operating with the Air Force joining the ranks of those whose job it has been to keep the town free of LTTEs influence.
The land prices in this once sleepy but picturesque town rose sharply as many wealthy land owners and businessmen began to move out of the hinterland settling down in Batticaloa fearing the war and sometimes to escape harassment by all parties to the conflict. A large number of jewelers from the villages of Annamalai, Koyittporathivu and Munaithivu in the hinterland who made their fortunes in the south have also moved into the town rather than in their respective villages where they had invested their wealth before the war. Now they find that things are no better in the town which was once considered quite secure from the LTTE and free from the bullying of paramilitary groups operating with the Army and the various intelligence organisations due to the authority granted the Police to manage law and order through proper procedures.
One businessman lamented that paying money to the LTTE in addition to five paramilitary groups regularly may ruin him soon. The EPRLF which hitherto remained aloof of the governments counter insurgency campaign in the northeast, crying foul at other ex-Tamil militant groups seems to have changed its mind after the arrival of Raazik who was a commander of the ill fated Tamil National Army which was propped up by the Indians in 1989. Raaziks group has been given weapons so that they may operate as a paramilitary group against the LTTE . Some members of the EPRLF in Batticaloa have strongly objected to this move. The other Tamil paramilitary groups operating in the town are quite irked by the activities of the Raazik and his boys.
It is obvious that the issue at stake is the collection of money in the town. Although the units of the Tamil National Army commanded by Raazik took to their heels even before they could see the Tigers in 1990, people in the east still retain a sense of fear of this man for his role in the infamous conscription drive for TNA at that time and for the ruthless killings of several suspected but harmless ex-Tiger sympathisers. Raazik, like everyone else involved with the TNA fled to India and stayed there until last year. This fear is still effective in that it helps the EPRLF immensely in collecting money from the local people without much hassle.
The other groups are worried about Raaziks activities apparently because this is the particular time of the year when collection is very high. A few members of these groups are at least sensible (!) enough to realise that the general ability of the local population to keep paying taxes will be affected drastically if the number of those demanding money from it increases beyond a certain point. They are also not unaware of the very bad harvest in the fertile Paduvankarai region this year and of the growing number of farmers who are abandoning paddy cultivation just to be spared the harassment and pain which go with the demand by all the groups for taxes in cash or kind.
The Paduvankarai region used to produce almost twelve percent of the islands paddy in more peaceful times. This is no more the case. There was a time during the latter phase of Eelam War II when people in the town were bold enough to complain to the Police about extortion attempts by groups operating with the Army and the intelligence units. But now many say that very little action is being taken. This has discouraged people from having recourse to the law and order machinary. They rather prefer to negotiate through third parties for obtaining a substantial reduction in the amount demanded.
Some groups operating in the town are usually content with sums as low as ten thousand rupees. The LTTE however is quite tough on the question of tax. Once the local Tiger intelligence and collector determine the wealth of a person, he is notified of the amount expected of him and the date before he has to send the cash. If not he would be held until negotiations are over. Many people in the Tamil villages on the trunk road between Kalmunai and Batticaloa who had not paid a cent to the organisation for years have recently been taken to LTTE areas - which are now not very far from the STF camps on the main route - and are being held until their relatives conclude negotiations on the final amount. Those who have paid say that the LTTEs local intelligence arm is quite efficient in getting precise details of peoples assets and incomes which, they say, makes obtaining a concession or a reduction extremely difficult .
In deed, Ramanan, the LTTEs intelligence chief in Batticaloa appears to have assumed a greater presence in the lives of ordinary Tamils here than the special commander for the region Karuna himself. But it should also be stated that there are many people who contribute voluntarily to the LTTE. They say that the LTTE is the only organisation which has not Let down the Tamil side by continuing to fight and hence deserve the tax they demand.
The government expended a lot of resources and adopted a wide range of counter insurgency measures between 1990 and 1994 to secure the Tamil villages on the trunk road between Batticaloa and Kalmunai. In the past these villages have supplied a relatively large number of recruits and provided sustenance to many militant Tamil organisations including the LTTE. There are ten villages- the largest being Aaraippattai, Kaluwanchikkudy and Periya Kallar. The elite Special Task Force has camps in Aaraippattai, Puthukdiirruppu, Cheddipalayam and Kaluwanchikudy.
The LTTE however operates unhindered - collecting taxes, gathering intelligence etc.,. - in all these villages. The Chairman of the Kaluwanchikudy Pradeshiya Sabha Selva (formerly of the PLOTE and now of the UNP) says that the LTTE runs most affairs which come under the purview of his Pradeshya Sabha. He has to now work from the Batticaloa town.
The STF which used to be the most effective instrument of the governments counter insurgency campaign, appears to be less sure of itself after taking unprecedented casualties in Eelam War III. So much so that STF personnel have to travel between camps on this road in crowded civilian buses and other vehicles assuming, most probably, that the LTTE would be reluctant to take the blame for killing a lot of innocent civilians in order to gun down a few of them. The people who have to regularly travel by public transport are, of course, absolutely terrified by this.
In short the situation in Baticaloa may be summed thus: the government does not have the resources to curb the LTTE in this region which has put a lot of pressure on the armed services operating here and also made them exposed and vulnerable to the LTTE which in turn has increased the silent or publicised friction between the civilians and the security forces. This, combined with the general feeling in this area today that the Chandrika government means no good to the Tamils, helps the Tigers thrive politically and otherwise despite serious problems and irritants like taxation in their relations with the local population.
What goes on in Batticaloa does not give one the slightest hope that the war can be brought to a solemn conclusion - as the General would have it.
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