21st September 1997


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Something has to be done

Amidst increasing attacks on Yala bungalows, charges and counter charges seem to be the order of the day. The question is will Yala also go the way Wilpattu did?
By Tharuka Dissanaike

H.A. Guneratna, Inspector of Police, clad casually in sarong and shirt was returning after a leisurely stroll on the Yala beach. He was totally unprepared for what met his eyes at the bungalow where his family were to spend the night. Two heavily armed men in camouflage were in the hallway and the elderly relatives who, when Guneratna left were preparing dinner, were seated on the beds watched over by more armed youth. The others were raiding the bungalow. It was around 8.00 O’clock last Saturday night, in the Mahasilawa bungalow by the rough southern coastline of Yala National Park.

“They asked for our identity cards,” he said recounting the incident from the Bulathsinhala Police Office where Guneratna is Officer-in-Charge. “Fortunately I did not have my official identity. When they asked me what my job was, I claimed to be a cloth merchant at Horana.”

While one youth had spoken in Sinhala, the others had mostly been silent or conversed very sparsely in Tamil. Guneratne said that they carried automatic weapons and hand grenades. Assuring that they did not come to harm the occupants in any way, the men had claimed that they wanted to destroy government property. “We are angry with the government and the armed forces, not you people,” the youth speaking in Sinhala had told them. The men, numbering eight in all, had taken Guneratne’s camera, money and jewellery they possessed, food provisions in the bungalow and even the fruit off the pooja baskets carried by the group. OIC Guneratna and his family were on their way to Kataragama and their stay at Yala for the night was incidental. And what a night it was.

The gang then, having identified the bungalow keeper, Jayatilleke, spread a map on the ground. One person in Guneratne’s party noticed the LTTE insignia on the map. They had questioned Jayatilleke on routes through the park.

“After piling the furniture in the hall they set fire using petrol bombs and other explosive materials,” he said. Since the van in which they were travelling had been taken by the armed gang along with the Mahasilawa bungalow keeper, the group including OIC Guneratne’s eight year old daughter walked through the jungles to the park office at Palutupana. Fortunately for them, a tracker was also in the bungalow.

The next morning an army patrol found the van, abandoned by the roadside and had fired at it, causing extensive damage to the vehicle. Unknown to Guneratne’s party the gang had proceeded to Buttuwa in the van after setting fire to Mahasilawa and continued their vandalism there. The old and new Buttuwa bungalows now stand in ruins. The bungalow keeper who was taken by the gang had later been released.

Gunerathne has no doubt of the gang’s identity. “They certainly look like LTTE. Their weapons were too sophisticated to be a mere gang of thieves,” he said.

But the authorities continue to declare that the continued attacks on Yala set off in June last year could have been instigated by anybody. To the government the gang looks very much unlike the Tigers, although witnesses of previous incidents were also adamant that they were LTTE. But LTTE or not it is obvious that this gang is causing great damage to physical property as well as the image of the Park. Yala being the largest wildlife reserve in the country (now that Wilpattu is closed to the public) rakes in large amounts of money for the government’s coffers. The impact of the destruction that has torn through the Park’s peaceful facade since June last year when the first two bungalows were set ablaze, is now telling on the Department of Wildlife as well as the government in terms of revenue lost. But yet no official was prepared to give a clear estimate of the loss of revenue due to lack of visitors.

If Yala is in a mess, the Department overlooking the park is in a bigger mess. Just two days before the incident in Yala, the Director of the WildLife Department was abruptly sacked. His replacement, Mrs. Sita Rajapakse was not equipped to comment on the situation at Yala and directed us to the Ministry overlooking the Department.

“I will take a decision on the situation at Yala when the Army and Police Reports are made available to me,” Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, Minister of Public Administration, Parliamentary Affairs and Plantation Industries said. But there appeared to be a serious lack of communication between the Department and the Ministry. In reply to the question whether the previously damaged bungalows were repaired by the Department, the Minister replied “yes, of course.” But The Sunday Times learns through reliable sources in the Department that the bungalows have not been reconstructed.

The official view of the attacks is that it could have been staged by anybody, probably not the LTTE. The Tigers are inclined to be more violent, is the justification offered by the authorities for their reluctance to blame the Tigers. But is no account taken of the soldier who lost a leg inside Yala due to landmines? What about the four wild life trackers who were abducted last October and were never heard of afterwards? Or the fishermen in Pattanangala whose boats were set abalze in July ? A witness interviewed by The Sunday Times last October said that the group consisting of Tamil speaking armed youth had taken a photo of Prabhakaran out and showed it to each one saying, “this is our leader.”

The first serious incident occured June, last year when a group of heavily armed men in civil clothes set fire to two Yala bungalows- Thalgasmankada and Yala. These were on the border of Block one on the banks of the Menik Ganga. In October another bungalow was set upon, this time at Patanangala on the coast. Heavy lobbying was carried out to keep the park from closing down. The Head Priest at the ancient Situlpahuwa Temple declared that he is unsafe from imminent attacks from terrorists, who he declared were LTTE. The government in a desperate bid to ward off future attacks positioned the army at what they felt were strategic points in the Park. Despite the presence of two army camps and multitude of police posts inside the Yala National Park, the attacks continued.

Sources say that the terrorists were in Block 1 between 8pm and 2 am on September 13. but the security personnel were unable to do anything about it. According to Wildlife officials there is a definite route that any LTTE cadre could use to infiltrate Yala through the jungle stretch that leads through Kumana ( now closed) to Ampara. Police sources admitted that the attacks were staged in a very professional way that could not be attributed to a normal gang of thieves or poachers. “ Only Tigers would have braved creeping around three army camps for the attack,” they said. The government banging its head against the wall, declaring that it does not look like LTTE is little consolation to them

The morale of the Department staff is certainly at a low ebb. Added to the attacks and the very real threat under which they continue to live and work is the turmoil in the higher ranks and the lack of direction. In the aftermath of the incident controversy sprung over OIC Guneratna’s stay at the bungalow. The park was closed for maintenance work in September through to October 15. Therefore no bungalows were given to visitors. The Police Officer’s party were given the bungalow by a Wildlife Department Official known to him. The controversy over this issue was blown out of proportion, Department sources feel, and far overshadowed the real issues of security in the park.

Many wild life enthusiasts shake their heads in utter frustration at the plight of Sri Lanka’s most important park. “The government continuing to deny LTTE presence in the park is unhelpful to solving the problem,” Ravi Algama, Director Environmental Foundation Limited said. Lal Anthonis, photographer and wildlife researcher said that he too was very distressed by what has happened and said he would be travelling down to the park to see the situation for himself.

What will become of Yala ? The Minister and top officials were awaiting the security reports when this story went to press. But there will be no move to keep the park closed, officials say. Is heightened security the answer ? One department source put it, “The government refuses to admit that this is LTTE work. Alright. Then call this group ‘X’. The fact remains that they are a terror gang and something must be done. Or will Yala go the way Wilpattu went?

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