Wary peace as war-torn island recovers from 26-year conflict


Refugees return home, ex-guerillas forge new allegiances and Sri Lanka’s army is never far from view, writes TOM FARRELLin Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

ON THE surface, Sri Lanka’s eastern town of Batticaloa seems to be leaving a harrowing past behind it. Home to 480,000 people and hugging the Indian Ocean, the town was badly affected by the island’s 26-year conflict and its outskirts were lashed by the December 2004 tsunami.

Troops still appear on the streets and there are still police checkpoints where bags are prodded and ID cards scrutinised. But there are fewer soldiers and the South African-made armoured cars that once growled along the sweltering streets are now a rare sight.

Most of the 250,000 internally displaced persons who were forced into camps around Batticaloa during the fighting in 2007 have returned to their villages. In that year, President Mahinda Rajapakse sent the military into the territories west of the lagoon that demarcates the town, at the time held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) aka Tamil Tigers. They captured the last Tigers base on July 13th 2007, although even now, a small number of guerrillas are at large in the district.

Last May provincial council elections resulted in a former child soldier named Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, more commonly known as Pillayan, being elected chief minister. Pillayan ran as the candidate of Sri Lanka’s ruling coalition, the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance.

He also leads the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), the Tamil Peoples’ Liberation Tigers, a pro-government Tamil faction, many of whose members are former Tiger militants, having defected after a split in the organisation in April 2004.

As chief minister, Pillayan lives in a heavily fortified residence near the lagoon, bordered by an army camp. The TMVP’s political office is tucked into a leafy laneway off Batticaloa’s main streets. Although there is a police checkpoint nearby, the TMVP building does not have armed sentries, once mandatory for any Tamil organisation that opposed the Tamil Tigers.

In March, the group handed in its considerable arsenal of weapons to the police at the town’s Weber Stadium.

“Every political party in Sri Lanka must work in a united Sri Lanka,” says TMVP general secretary A Kailesvararajah.

“They have to trust the government for a political solution for the minority peoples.”

Rajapakse probably hopes that Batticaloa will provide a blueprint for the island’s north where his forces declared victory in May, killing the Tiger leadership and effectively destroying the organisation within Sri Lanka.

The Tigers’ campaign for an independent state for the island’s Tamil minority to be called “Eelam” triggered a 26-year civil war that left 80,000 people dead.

But although the TMVP won 70 per cent of the vote in the local and provincial council elections last year, human rights monitors accused them of engaging in widespread voter intimidation. Sri Lanka’s main opposition party boycotted the local elections.

In recent months its reputation suffered badly after the body of a six-year-old schoolgirl named Varsha Jude Reggie was found dumped in a drain in the eastern town of Trincomalee on March 13th. She had been kidnapped two days earlier, held to ransom and then strangled.

The chief suspect in the murder was a Trincomalee TMVP organiser who was later shot dead in custody. Another suspect committed suicide by swallowing cyanide, an old Tigers tactic for avoiding interrogation.

For its part, the TMVP is blaming its main rival in the east: the so-called ‘Karuna faction’, led by the organisation’s former leader. Born Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, the 43-year colonel Karuna Amman ran the Tigers’ eastern operations until March 2004. With the conflict stalled by a Norwegian-mediated ceasefire, Karuna accused the Tigers’ northern leadership of neglecting its eastern territories.

Following a brief internal war, Karuna broke away from the Tigers with about 6,000 fighters, many of whom have now regrouped as the TMVP. But violent clashes between supporters of Karuna and his deputy Pillayan rent the district throughout 2007.

Last year, Karuna and 2,000 of his supporters joined the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the largest party in the ruling coalition.

“I made a decision to join the SLFP because our people need development, a peaceful life and independence,” Karuna told The Irish Times.

“If we stay on the opposition side with a small party, we can’t realise those things.”

There are members of the Batticaloa community who regard these ex-Tiger groups as little more than supplicants of the security forces.

“The TMVP, Karuna and others are seen as opportunists,” says a Tamil Catholic priest who requested not to be identified. “Batticaloa’s mayor was with the TMVP, now she has joined the government. Maybe there will soon be just a rump TMVP left. Karuna has joined because he knows otherwise, someone will just shoot him.”

Having expelled the Tigers from the north, Rajapakse has announced plans to hold municipal polls in the two main northern cities of Jaffna and Vavuniya. Although Karuna and the TMVP have limited influence there, other pro-government Tamil politicians are expected to deliver the vote to the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance.

However, in the last weeks of the war, the Tigers used almost 300,000 civilians as a human shield as they retreated to their final patch of territory on the northeast coast. Most of them now languish in what the government calls “welfare villages”, vast tented camps encircled by barbed wire and saturated with military personnel.

There is a 180-day plan to resettle most residents in their home villages but also a “screening” process to filter out an estimated 9,000 Tiger members who have blended in with the civilians.

Meanwhile, the military is planning to boost its numerical strength to almost 300,000.

“We had no control over the north for years so we will recruit an extra 150,000 troops,” said ministry of defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella at a recent press conference in the capital, Colombo.

There are those who fear that expanding the armed forces will perhaps give them a similar level of influence to the military in Pakistan.

“The reason they’re building up the military is to prevent a recurrence of what happened in the past, that they’re not going to allow the Tamil people in the north to be able to mobilise and resist as they did in the past,” says Jehan Perera, director of a Sri Lankan think tank, the National Peace Council.

“But if anything grows in strength and is given the power of impunity, then you will find the military playing a bigger role.”

In Kokkadichcholai, a Tamil village 20km southwest of Batticaloa, the former Tamil Tigers’ office is a sun-bleached ruin. An old Tiger logo is visible on one wall but few locals dare approach it. Some TMVP graffiti is scrawled across one wall. At the junction of the village, an army camp now surveys the inhabitants at all times.