A 26 year-old youth from Jaffna passed through the security forces checkpoint at Thandikulam and made his way unsuspectingly into the Vavuniya town early last week.
Some five kilometres from the town, Thandikulam is the furthest point in mainland Sri Lanka under the control of the security forces. A barrier manned by troops is the divide between the "controlled" (or security forces held) areas and the "uncontrolled" (LTTE dominated terrain).
On October 28, security forces received a tip off about the suspicious movements of the young man. He was frequenting a video parlour and appeared to be indulging in suspicious activity. His arrest that night led to some startling discoveries. In the video parlour was a friend, an active LTTE guerrilla who had worked there for two years after obtaining a permit from the security forces.
The two of them led a team of security forces personnel to a housing scheme in the Vavuniya suburb of Weerapuram. There the team discovered two Claymore mines, each weighing 20 kilograms. They were meant for two Army buses that transported women soldiers from Vavuniya to Thandikulam. They were to be placed in the buses on October 29. At least thirty soldiers travel in each bus. If the plot succeeded, it would have meant sure death to all because 20 kilograms of explosives can wreck a bus.
But the discovery was made on time. Also last week Tiger guerrillas hurled grenades at the office of the People's Liberation Organisation (PLOTE) of Thamil Eelam whose ranks are helping the security forces in their hunt for Tiger cadres in the area.
The once tranquil northern town of Vavuniya, a showpiece example of a "controlled" area where there wa snormalcy and quiet is fast changing. Intelligence reports have spoken of LTTE having smuggled explosives into the area. And now there are reports of widespread infiltration by LTTE cadres and plans to destabilise the area.
When the Mullaitivu military base was overrun on July 18, it was the LTTE that banned civilians in the Wanni from crossing the Thandikulam barrier into Vavuniya. It was intended to prevent information reaching the security forces.
Then came the security forces counter offensives in the form of three phases of "Operation Sathjaya". The first was the move from Elephant Pass to Paranthan. The second phase to advance into Kilinochchi was stalled by heavy Tiger guerrilla resistance. The third led to the capture of Kilinochchi. Whilst all three phases were under way, movements across Thandikulam barrier were banned by the security forces. They did not want information to reach out to the enemy.
On both occasions when the ban was imposed, it was the civilians who were getting kicked around like a football. The untold human misery they were subjected to force hundreds to flee for safety in India. Government officials lost no time to accuse the LTTE of masterminding the entire exodus.
But the view was not shared by recognised Non-Governmental Organisations. They had strong reasons to believe the vast majority were leaving because of the genuine problems they faced. There of course the odd instances where the refugees received LTTE backing. Tiger cadres turned a blind eye when they saw refugee boats crossing the Gulf of Mannar or helped some refugees to reach the boat departure points along the coast.
Quite understandably the influx of refugees into the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu caused serious concern for the Government of India. In the past two years New Delhi had been involved in a programme to send back to Sri Lanka refugees who had been living in Tamil Nadu ever since the July 1993 ethnic violence. And now there was an exodus adding to their problem. Needless to say New Delhi made its displeasure and concern known to Colombo. They appealed for measures to curb the exodus.
Adding to that was the capture of Kilinochchi after the execution of "Operation Sathjaya Three". The town and its environs were empty. There was no civilian population there. The thousands who could not cross over to India had fled to other LTTE dominated areas in the Mannar and Mullaitivu districts. Yet others had crowded an area in the no manÕs land between Thandikulam (the security forces barrier) and Omanthai (the gateway to LTTE held Wanni).
The twin problems - the exodus of refugees to South India and the absence of civilians in Kilinochchi to run a civil administration were beginning to tell on the government. Deputy Minister of Defence, General Anuruddha Ratwatte, flew to Vavuniya on October 21 to personally direct security forces officials to take immediate measures. The very next day restrictions at checkpoint Thandikulam were relaxed and large groups of civilians began flowing into Vavuniya.
Seven schools were shut down to be converted into refugee camps. By October 30, they were accommodating 10,000 displaced persons from the Jaffna peninsula and the Wanni. If the move is the first step to stem the exodus of refugees to South India, it certainly did not come as an opportunity for the government to identify groups of civilians and have them re-located in Kilinochchi. As I said last week, the vast majority of the displaced persons wanted to return to Colombo whilst a few were eager to remain in Vavuniya and educate their children.
General Rawatte was in New Delhi last week explaining to Indian leaders and officials the measures the Government had taken to stem the flow of refugees and the ongoing security situation. He was to leave for UK later on official business. This was while Government officials and the security forces prepared themselves to screen civilians as a prelude to re-location in Kilinochchi.
Quite clearly the move appears to be an uphill task and raises a bigger question - the future of government's pacification programmes not just in Vavuniya but in the north itself. This is particularly after the series of Operation Riviresa led to the Jaffna peninsula being brought under government control.
In a letter sent to President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga last Thursday, the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), has set put the situation prevailing in Vavuniya. Signed by K. Premachandran, the EPRLF Secretary General, the letter states:
The situation of Tamil refugees in Vavuniya
I am sure that you are aware that entire population of Kilinochchi have fled from the area following the Operation Sathjaya 1 and 2. This includes the residents of Kilinochchi and the refugees from the Jaffna district who fled Jaffna after the Operations Riviresa I, II and III.
After the capture of Kilinochchi Town by the Sri Lankan armed forces thousands of civilians who were fleeing from the operational areas were barred from entering the Vavuniya town by the Army. As the basic facilities like food, shelter, drinking water and medicine for the prolongation of life was not available in these areas, many have opted to flee to India by paying Rs. 8000 to the boats. More than 20 people died in the sea when a boat capsized. Hundreds were arrested by the Navy and brought back to Mannar.
After all these hardships the Army has now allowed the refugees to come into Vavuniya. While we welcome this decision, we would like to point out that the conditions under which the people are kept in various camps are deplorable.
As on 30th October 1996 more than 10,000 people have entered Vavuniya during the last week. Daily there is an influx of 500 into the town. All are being taken to the camps without exception. The schools at Vepankulam, Nelukulam and Vellikulam, the University College of Poonthotam and the CCTM School and other schools are closed and converted into refugee camps. The hygienic conditions in these camps are beyond description. There are only 2 or 3 toilets for more than 1000 inmates in these camps. The adults are given Rs. 50 and children Rs. 35 for their food. They are not allowed to go out of the camp.
Regarding the plight of these people I would like to bring to your notice the following points. These Tamil refugees are still citizens of Sri Lanka. They have the right to live in any part of the Island. They also have the right to choose the place where they want to live. I believe that keeping people in camps, and compelling them to live in places where they do not want to go are also gloss violation of basic human rights.
People are coming into Vavuniya for various reasons. The majority of them want to live and educate their children in Vavuniya till peaceful conditions are created in the North and East. Some have come to proceed to Colombo and later to go abroad to join their children. Some have come to seek medical attention. All these people branded as refugees and kept in camps secured with barbed wire. Any visitor to the camps has to speak to the inmates through the barbed wire fence. This reminds us of those black and white films on Nazi concentration camps in Germany.
ÒThe security concerns may compel the authorities to scrutinize every Tamil, but keeping infants and pregnant women in detention, is not the proper approach. The war you are waging against the LTTE, is affecting almost the entire Tamil people in this country. In view of the above situation I would like to suggest to you the following steps, which if implemented will bring some relief to the long suffering Tamil people.
1. The process of screening and interrogation of the incoming refugees must be expedited. Pregnant women, elderly people and children must be considered separately and released without being kept in the camps.
2. Government servants, those who want to go abroad or those who are going for Exams and Interviews should not be unnecessarily delayed.
3. Those who don't have any accommodation and willing to stay in the camps can be kept in a separate refugee camp.
4. Only those who are willing to go to Jaffna should be sent to Jaffna. No one should be compelled in any manner by the authorities to return to operational areas.
5. The screening procedure must be completed within a specific short period of time and more officials could be utilised if necessary.
All the schools in Vavuniya are closed and 7000 students are at present out of school. Many have to sit for their GCE O/L in December. If the above suggested steps are taken the schools could be reopened and the children can continue their education.
The desire to live with dignity is human. The Tamil people are not in any way exceptional. Therefore I appeal to you to do the needful, so that the people who have lost all their belongings undergone severe hardships and come to Vavuniya to safeguard their lives will not be sent back to areas where they have to face the hardships of the civil war.
Needlees to say that the developments not only in Vavuniya but also in the Jaffna peninsula have become strong propaganda weapons for the LTTE.
In the peninsula the number of civilians registered to come down to Colombo has exceeded the 30,000 mark. This is in the backdrop of increased LTTE activity by cadres that have infiltrated thus prompting civilian fears that they too may get caught up. Another reason is said to be the propaganda the LTTE is carrying out using the Kaithady rape incident.
In this incident a group of soldiers are alleged to have raped young student and later killed her. Thereafter they are alleged to have killed the mother, father and a friend who went in search of the student.
Schools in the Jaffna peninsula closed from Monday through Friday last week as students kept away in protest over the incident. Earlier students at Chundikuli Girls' School where the rape victim was a pupil also staged a similar protest.
The Kaithady rape incident has climaxed a deteriorating public relationship with the security forces. The main political strategy of the government was based on its abiltiy to develop a relationship with the public of Jaffna in the expectation that it would grow into a situation where they would, if not reject the LTTE, would at least marginalise them politically. This would then have meant that the LTTE would be reduced to an armed force without popular support, the corrollary of which is to maintain a militancy without a cause. This would obviously be destined to be a failure.
It was with that strategy in mind that the government made desperate offorts to get the population back to the peninsula after the Riviresa operations. In the first flush of being freed from LTTE control there was a short liverd public relations honeymoon.
This was acceptable as an immediate measure of governance as the security situation permitted only the presence of security forces who naturally had to excercise all functions of civil affairs. Even though some civilian administrators followed in the immediate wake of re-occupation they nevertheless functioned under military control.
This was the state of affairs that prevailed for over a year after operations Riviresa. In other words, in this situation the populace had no option but a choice between what was an LTTE administration now changed hands to a military administration. A Hobson's choice indeed. What in effect is the option, is either the government or Prabhakaran. Who represents these options, whether a star rank commissioned officer or an LTTEer in Tiger striped camouflage makes no difference.
The lacuna in this situation was that the population of Jaffna were not offered a viable, democratic political option. Placed in this situation, the excercise in Government was not grass rooted to the choice of the people but compelling acceptance of govermental authority.
To be inhibited politically is to develop frustrations without a forum to give vent to feelings or to develop a constructive political attitude. Hence it is not unnatural that there should have developed an estrangement in government-public relations however much some sections of the media made it out to be otherwise.
The deteriorating government-public relations in Jaffna, without doubt, must be sweet music to LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran's ears. It is still not too late for the government to retrieve its position. The only way out is to permit the growth of indigenous, free political activities which will be a democratic alternative to the government and the military which for almost one and half decades had been made out to be by the LTTE to be the oppressors of the Tamil people.
In fact the EPRLF's letter to President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga underscores the frustrations of the Tamil people with no political choices.
Any free political activity in the peninsula will be resisted by Prabhakaran and there are inherent dangers to Tamil politicians operating in the peninsula. But ways and means to overcome this and to enable those politicians to work with freedom must be found if meaningful attitudes are to be developed amongst the Tamil population. They have been deprived of this choice for too long and they certainly deserve better.
The war has groud itself to a battle of attrition. For either contestant to wrest a winning initiative would mean the mustering of many resources - material, finacnial and human. the national appeal to deserters to return by Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Rohan Daluwatte, last Thursday, underscores the reality of the resources dilemma.
Though the military situaton is stagnant the political options are very much alive. The very nature of countering militancies is to harmonise political and military aims to a common strategy. Right now the government has control of the population in the north which Prabhakaran has not. This advantage has to be capitalised upon for it is the very essence of guerrilla operations.
To lose advantage by defaulting on developing a free political base in the peninsula would do irreparable damage to the overall government strategy. There is no time to lose.
A nation sick of 13 years of war and ever increasing economic hardship demands and expects practical solutions to the national issues.
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