By Rajan Hoole –
The Sri Lankan Army completed its control of the Jaffna Peninsula in April 1996. The biggest priority was demining. All the forces had used mines in Jaffna. Of particular concern were the LTTE’s Jony mines buried in various places frequented by civilians. In North Valikamam for example, the Army left behind mines in arable areas when shifting camp, forcing civilians to do their own clearing with rakes (our Bulletin No.14). Initial casualties were high in 1996 and then settled down to about 10 injuries per month. The victims were mostly farmers, cowhands and housewives. Early expectations had been raised that the UNDP would start demining. Came March 1999 and the matter was still in dispute.
The UNDP wanted clearance to take essential communications equipment to Jaffna. This reportedly took 6 months. Then in Jaffna the Army withdrew the detailed maps issued to the UNDP by the Government. Subsequently the Defence Ministry objected to the UNDP recruiting 40 civilians locally for survey teams. It wanted the UNDP to use retired military personnel to which the UNDP objected (Sunday Times 7&14 Mar.99). This was not resolved more than 70 later (Ranga Kalansooriya in CDN 24.5.99). Could not the Government that was in control of Jaffna for over 3 years have thought about these in time as a priority? It was after all to do with people and cattle being constantly maimed. One aspect of it was the callousness of the LTTE in laying mines. But the Government did not fare better. Would this delay and prevarication have been acceptable if the problem were in the South?
The demining programme did then get started. But what is the message going to the Tamil people when they see foreigners eager to help them in an urgent problem and their own government obstructing all the way? Military men deal in narrow concerns, but the Government should have been more alert. Equally damaging was the insensitivity displayed in the Defence Ministry wanting to acquire about 5% of Jaffna’s land, which included arable villages and vistas treasured by the people, to expand or secure military installations. This was however not carried out following public protest.
The successful conclusion in January 1998 of local council elections in Jaffna gave much hope. Instead of using this opportunity for confidence- building, the Government quibbled and delayed over allocating resources. Southern activist groups who went to Jaffna as election monitors too shared in the initial hope. The LTTE killed over 20 elected councillors, including two mayors. But on considerations of realpolitik, the activists were largely silent.
A Lionair passenger flight from Jaffna was downed on 29th September 1998 (see Sect.21.5). Based on local information from the Mannar coast and a number of circumstantial factors, we said in our Bulletin No.19 issued two weeks later that the flight was shot down by the LTTE. We also blamed Lionair for regularly taking the shorter, vulnerable route for several of its passenger flights (as distinct from military flights) despite several warnings from the LTTE to stop flying. We also faulted the Defence Ministry which supervised these flights and was in charge of air-traffic control, for permitting passenger flights over the vulnerable route.
Our contention was obliquely confirmed in the editorial of the LTTE journal Hot Spring of October 1998 signed by the editor S. Sivanayagam. It said, “Lionair ferries government troops as well, sometimes sending an Antonov [aircraft] with civilians ahead of two other similar planes carrying troops, so as to make sure that only Tamil civilians got targetted by possible LTTE fire. The plane that went down that day carried civilians, practically all of them Tamils.”
The Government has remained deafeningly silent. The world is very sensitive to a crime of this nature. However, the Government was prepared to let the LTTE off the hook to cover up the failings of some of its favourites. To this day (July 2000) the families of victims have been allowed to go from pillar to post attempting to find out what actually happened and obtain their compensation of USD 5000 per passenger, braving the evasiveness of Lionair and the unhelpfulness of officialdom in the issue of death certificates. Only the private media have kept the issue alive. This signifies remarkable apathy in the face of a singular national disaster.
To rehabilitate the economy, the very basic requirements of Jaffna folk are simple – fairly priced transport, goods at reasonable prices and markets for their produce. Today, small traders and small enterprises have gone to the wall because of the cost of shipping, which is controlled by a few big-timers. A large number of construction workers are out of work because of high cement prices. Cement from Indonesia is reloaded in Colombo and shipped to Jaffna. Then supposedly because of additional transport, the price in Jaffna at Rs.600 a bag, is double that in Colombo. Could not a ship from Indonesia have been directed to Jaffna at no extra cost? But then Jaffna is good business for a few who enjoy influence with the Defence Ministry. Economic life is further stifled by a harassing system of permits that has made routine items in Colombo, like electronic spares, luxuries in Jaffna.
All letters to Jaffna are opened and resealed. It is a novel practice not resorted to when the LTTE ran Jaffna, but only since Jaffna was declared a cleared area. Anything that appears controversial is confiscated. Among the embargoed items is The Tamil Times, which several people in Jaffna are sent. It is a very moderate, responsible journal from London which many in Sri Lanka receive without hindrance and is treated with respect by the media in Colombo. It is pointless to ask who authorised this measure. Though some officers, among whom was the late Maj. General Larry Wijeratne, had a vision for making the management of Jaffna a model of success, the Government failed. Jaffna has instead been something of a prison, the good intentions getting lost in short-sightedness and corruption.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here