25-year-old Selva joined the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) seven years ago after her parents were shot dead in front of her eyes in Jaffna. She is taking me to an LTTE ‘girls hostel’ through darkness punctuated by only the feeble rays of a kerosene lamp. The hostel is located in the LTTE economic centre at Vatakatchy in the Killinochchi region in Wanni. This is territory where the LTTE has run a de facto army for 19 years.
The walk through the centre to the girls hostel is a winding journey through demolished buildings standing deathly white in the dark. On reaching the hostel, a worn building with peeling walls and a thatched roof, Selva arranges some meagre bedding on a hard wooden bed. There are three rooms in the hostel in which they sleep on mats on the floor. The beds have apparently been brought in specifically to accommodate the four female journalists, myself included, who are visiting the premises.
The war in Sri Lanka, which began in 1983, was brought to a truce at the close of 2001. Since that time, both the government and the LTTE have been preparing themselves, and ‘their’ people, for life on a peace island. When asked if she has any plans for the future if ongoing peace talks succeed, Selva laughs. “I’ll be with the movement, it is good this way”, she says with steel in her voice.
The LTTE’s armed struggle – along with political developments on the island and the forced changes in life – have fundamentally altered many aspects of Tamil society, not the least of which being a radical transformation of many Tamil women. While upper-class Sinhala women in southern Sri Lanka were largely emancipated along Western lines during the colonial era, traditional social expectations and obligations bound female Tamils. Fighting the war, which claimed an estimated 65,000 civilian lives, female LTTE cadres were instructed to embrace androgyny and develop a stoic disposition. Undoubtedly, the inscription of women into the LTTE’s fighting force has had an impact on traditional gender roles in Tamil society. There have also developed two defining ideals of womanhood – the militant mother and the armed virgin. The question now is how these transformed women, and the millions of other lives shaped by the island’s strife in myriad ways, will react to and participate in a revived body politic. With the holding of the ceasefire for more than one year now, a return to ‘normalcy’ in the island’s northern and eastern Tamil-majority areas seems to be on the horizon.
The politics around Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s second largest city, and the hub of its northern peninsula of the same name, have changed impressively over the past 14 months. The cessation of hostilities from 24 December 2001, the lifting of the embargo in January 2002, the formalising of the ceasefire in February, the prime minister’s visit in March and the establishment of LTTE political offices in the north and east have been the bases for the present sustained rapprochement after two decades of war.
Still, much remains to be seen. Economically, the peninsula received a sorely missed lifeline when the government reopened the A9 highway to the south. And, negotiations between the LTTE and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government have progressed beyond initial meetings. There is hope in the air that the ceasefire may evolve into a lasting peace, and Jaffna’s people will have to reconcile their personal histories of suffering with their hopes for a better future. For the moment, however, the area is waking from its years of violence-inflicted isolation and slowly engaging with the rest of the island and the outside world.
Of all the changes of the last year, perhaps the most widely appreciated on the peninsula was the opening of the Jaffna-Kandy A9 highway to civilian traffic last March. It brought new opportunities for farmers in the north, hitherto burdened with tonnes of produce, too much for the limited home market. The lack of a land link and sparse opportunity for sea transport had prevented the sale of Jaffna’s produce to the south.
To Srinan, who earns his living off grapes, a lucrative crop, the peace talks have meant that he may one day earn enough money to live as comfortably as his brother in Wellawatte, a Colombo suburb where many Tamils live. “In Jaffna, I sell a kilo for 50 rupees; that is the market price here. In Colombo, I know that I could get a higher rate”, he says.
Ganeshan Lingam, a 40-year-old father of three sons and resident of Manipai, Jaffna, shares Srinan’s enthusiasm. Working at a grocery store, Ganeshan barely manages on his monthly wages of 1500 rupees (USD 15.5). “In the past, I always thought that my dream of sending my children to a Colombo school, to make them doctors or lawyers, would be a dream. Today, I know that there is a chance that I could do this. Peace talks mean big shots from Colombo will want to set up business here and recruit us for better salaries”.
That sentiment appears to be shared by many. Commercial links are now being established at the institutional level between Colombo and Jaffna with a focus on employment-generation. Projects in agro-based industries, hotels, fisheries, information technology, education, tyre-retreading and automobile maintenance, among others, are on the drawing board. Indeed, for the first time in 20 years, there is hope that ‘normalcy’ and ‘Jaffna’ will soon cease to be mutually exclusive.
The prices of most items in Jaffna, especially of fuel – once the rarest of commodities – have come down from wartime highs, and the flow of goods to the north is now much smoother. But movement remains difficult. There are reports of travellers facing impediments to crossing any substantial distance in the north and east since the LTTE does not allow state-run buses into the territories it controls. There are also reports of the LTTE continuing to ‘tax’ goods coming into Jaffna, whether for commercial or personal use. This appears also to be the case with commercial fishing, which has nonetheless made a partial comeback in the last year, even with government naval patrol boats ploughing the coastal waters.
But there is little doubt that Jaffna is healing. The government, which controls most of the peninsula, has provided access to most of it, barring ‘high security zones’, to LTTE cadre, provided that they enter without arms. The LTTE has approved an NGO proposal to bring southern university students north to teach the Sinhala language to Tamil youngsters, even guaranteeing the safety of the visitors, who are to be based in Jaffna for a periods of six months. The Jaffna Teaching Hospital for the first time in 10 years has incubators, a windfall born of the peace talks when, in March 2002, the US government donated three incubators, neonatal resuscitators, electronic patient monitors, a diathermy machine and an operating theatre lamp.
The LTTE is also keen on using the cessation of hostilities to develop the Wanni region. Computers and other technological items are at the top of the shopping list, which includes typewriters, generators and sewing machines. “We will begin with the purchase of around five computers, which we hope to buy with funds from the Tamil rehabilitation organisation”, says Ramu Sinnappa, an ex-schoolmaster known as ‘Sinnappa master’ in the LTTE fraternity. According to him, the computers are for a youth institute in Killinochchi, which will have a vocational training programme.
The mood in Jaffna is that there is only one way ahead. “The failing of talks is something that we do not even dare to think. It is we who have had to live with the bomber jets over us”, says S Sabarathnam, the secretary of the Thenmarachchi Welfare Association, a community development organisation financially sustained by expatriate Tamils through the Tamil Rehabilitation and Resettlement Organisation.
Fleeing the gunfire in Jaffna in 1995, the only possession 50-year-old Murugesu took with him was his old coal iron. Today, having restarted his laundry business in a small cadjan room in Yogapuram in the Malawi area of Wanni, he earns over 150 rupees on a good day. Wielding his 10-kilo iron over the clothes of those fortunate enough to have attire worth ironing in war-plagued Wanni, Murugesu narrates the story of how he and his family struggled to survive after gunfire rained down on them on 30 December 1995 when they fled Vattakotte, their hometown, and took refuge in the nearest shelter – the camp for displaced people in Chavakachcheri, Thenmarachchi division.
“For one year I did not get to make any money. We survived on the charity of our friends and relations, also displaced and living with us at the Chavakachcheri school, but who had salvaged enough material possessions and finances to provide us with sporadic assistance. One year later we came to the Wanni region with the thousands of displaced people who left their own camps to make new lives for themselves in LTTE-controlled areas”.
Murugesu’s story is that of a man who had learned to survive hunger while retaining enough will and desire to live. “I managed to find 800 rupees to buy cadjan leaves to construct a makeshift laundry with extreme difficulty. Even after I constructed the place, I did not get any business for a long period, as the area was flooded with displaced people who kept arriving from refugee camps in Jaffna with barely anything other than the clothes on their bodies. Any ironing I was lucky enough to get, I had to price very low”. Murugesu says that the most notable numbers of IDPs in the Wanni region are from Mulativu, Killinochchi and Madhu. Adds Murugesu, “The entire Wanni area is a refugee camp. There is a population of just above 400,000 and all of them are categorised as internally displaced and forced to move from area to area, blowing with the winds of war”.
“Today I am just one of the few here that has been lucky enough to get back on his feet. I keep my laundry open from 7 am to 6 pm and, sometimes if there is work, I extend my hours. Thanks to the fact that most of the displaced people, who have made the area their surrogate home, are now stable, I earn a sufficient amount of money. My children go to the Yogapuram Maha Vidyalaya nearby. We who have suffered the brunt of the war, have great hopes of the peace process”, says Murugesu as his puts the last piece of charcoal and coconut shell into the iron, readying himself to labour over another lot of crumpled cottons.
Also in LTTE-controlled territory is an area called Yogapuram. In a cadjan-built eight-by-eight hut, a replica of thousand of others clustered throughout the region hidden in the Wanni wilderness, 35-year-old Sivaneswari, who arrived with her family seven years ago from Jaffna, is cooking a meagre meal for her two sons and her husband, a bicycle repairman. Although the attention of an outsider is immediately caught by the extremely large gaps in the cadjan and palmyra roof of her house, to her it is obviously a way of life to have the rain pour in and the sun blaze through, having lived under such a roof for a large part of the seven years that she has been living as a refugee. Sivaneswari says she hopes for peace mainly so that her children get a chance to study beyond class seven, which is the upper limit of their present school.
For the 90 percent of Jaffna’s population displaced from homes and eking out survival in hundreds of camps around the peninsula, the developments of the last year mean one thing – that they will be able to go back to their towns and make homes again. Some will be building anew amidst rubble. But for others, such as those whose houses in Mirusuvil the Sri Lankan military will be restituting to the owners, it will be easier for at least the shell of the structure will be intact.
Resettlement is among the most urgent concerns of the peace process. According to the United States Committee for Refugees, at the end of 2001, there were 800,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Sri Lanka, and 144,000 Sri Lankan refugees in neighbouring India. Efforts to diffuse this crisis that only deepened as the war progressed have now gathered momentum. The emphasis given to rehabilitation in the recent talks between the government and the LTTE have encouraged the hopes of thousands of war destitute. The two parties have presented a united front at international fund-raising efforts, and Japan, Sri Lanka’s biggest aid donor, has committed 35 million rupees (USD 360,000) for the joint government-LTTE secretariat at Killinochchi, formally called the Secretariat of the Sub-Committee on Immediate Humanitarian and Rehabilitation Needs in the North and East.
“Now we can sleep in peace. We do not hear the war rockets anymore. All these years no one knew the suffering that we underwent. Since the war began no government minister has come into this territory until now. Within the past two months so many ministers have visited the peninsula”, says the elated Bishop of Jaffna, Rev Thomas Saundranayagam. The reverend, highly influential in Jaffna and a well-known sympathiser of the LTTE cause, is a trusted confidante of the minister of rehabilitation and refugees, Dr Jayalath Jayawardena, the foremost peace advocate in the Ranil Wickremesinghe government. Once hounded by the People’s Alliance (PA) regime, now in opposition, for being an alleged supporter of the Tigers, Jayawardena visited LTTE areas regularly over the past 10 years. Today he enjoys the gratitude of the Tamil masses, both in the LTTE-controlled Wanni and the government-controlled Jaffna, who see him as the key instrument of peace in the United National Front (UNF) government. “I am the happiest man today. Peace was my dream and today it is a reality. I was once accused, harassed and humiliated”, says Jayawardena, who returned to the country on 26 January 2003 after a tour of Europe studying federal systems, the proposed political structure on which current negotiations rest.
While Jaffna blushes with attention from the mass media and politicians, its populace sees the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, which has now held together longer than any previous accord, as a document of hope for a future without war. The overall opinion in Jaffna seems to be, at least on the surface, that the LTTE is its representative. However, it is now slowly becoming discernible that almost a year after the LTTE set up its political offices in Jaffna and other areas of the north and east, many are becoming weary of its manner of controlling the Tamil populace. At present though, the five major Tamil parties in parliament, including the Tamil United Liberation Front (one of the oldest Tamil parties), back the UNF coalition and largely disinclined to oppose the LTTE.
The Norwegian-facilitated peace talks have received wide praise from the international community. Even in Sri Lanka, while people realise that there is a long way to go yet, the talks have been welcomed with enthusiasm in most quarters. The steps taken over the year have enforced the impression that both sides are now willing to go further on the road to peace than ever before. The LTTE gave up its demand for independence, settling instead for autonomy, and the UNF government has visibly committed itself to help the LTTE become a ‘mainstream’ civilian entity. The Norwegians, meanwhile, have gone out of their way to assist the LTTE – the task being to turn an organisation geared for war into one peacefully engaged in democracy.
Still, many outstanding issues persist, including the LTTE’s reported continuing recruitment of children, suppression of Tamil Muslims, lack of respect for civil rights and the democratic deficit in the north and east. The Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), in electoral alliance with the PA in the 2001 elections, has consistently asserted that it is facing LTTE-backed intimidation in the north and east. Meanwhile, the Muslim community has made some headway in moving beyond the violence unleashed against it in Jaffna in 1990. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader, Rauf Hakeem, who met Vellupillai Prabakaran last year and who has been a regular participant at the four rounds of peace talks, has appealed to Tamil Muslims to consider resettling in the north and east. The Muslim community is concerned though that one of its foremost spokespersons, Dr SHM Hasbullah, who was to have taken part in a recent meeting at Killinochchi on the resettlement issue, was prevented from doing so by the LTTE, which has allegedly also rejected a Japanese proposal that Dr Hasbullah be allowed to formulate a plan for the resettlement of Muslims.
From several quarters then, the pressure is mounting on the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, at the head of a United National Party (UNP) led UNF government, to bring to book alleged ceasefire violations by the LTTE. Wickremesinghe, who entered office on 9 December 2001, is seen as the man who brought peace, but he is in an unenviable position given that the government, battling economic crisis, cannot afford to rub the rather sensitive coat of the Tigers the wrong way. The Norwegians, for their part, have invoked the wrath of Sinhala parties such as the Jana Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) for alleged overindulgence of the LTTE. The furore over the shipment of radio equipment to Wanni by the Norwegian embassy in December 2002 led to calls for the expulsion of the ambassador. There are also some Sinhala who see a de jure federal structure as attempts towards a de facto division of the state.
For its part, the UNF government views reconciliation with the LTTE as possible, and has stated that “the LTTE will have to go along with the law of the country”. Wickremesinghe has attempted to buoy the peace efforts by making sure that the Sri Lankan military is fully aware of its obligations under the ceasefire, and that is does not provoke discord by passing along adverse reports of LTTE behaviour to the media. In specific, the prime minister is reported to have cautioned members of the armed forces against drawing attention to the LTTE’s recruitment of child soldiers. Apparently concerned about divided loyalties, the prime minister has also called on servicemen to resign if they cannot reconcile their commitments to the government with personal support for the JVP or PA.
Just as the government in Colombo faces challenges in adjusting to the new situation, so too must Tamil leaders re-evaluate strategies and the way of life. The LTTE, for instance, will at some point have to reconcile its hybrid system of justice – a legal code blending Sri Lankan and Thesawalame Tamil law – with that of the Sri Lankan government. The LTTE legal system is interesting in its own right, given that it jettisons those parts of Thesawalame law that it sees as oppressive of women or promoting the caste system, and blended in are modifications of Sri Lankan law. Of note, the LTTE has made sex outside marriage illegal.
The ‘court of Thamileelam’, as the hall of justice at Killinochchi is called, is announced by the fang-bared Tiger, the omnipresent emblem on all prominent buildings in LTTE-controlled areas. The Wanni-based legal arm of the LTTE is founded on a firm belief in discipline and order. “It is through capital punishment that we maintain such discipline”, the LTTE administrative head of the Wanni region, V Puvanhan, once declared in a press interview. In the Wanni, it is well known that the law does not spare the guilty, even those in high positions, especially in the crime of rape. The LTTE says its laws, taught at the LTTE ‘law college’ in Malawi, are in accordance with international humanitarian standards. Interestingly, none of its 150 lawyers charge clients – they draw a monthly salary of 3000 rupees from the LTTE.
Reconciling the judicial systems of the LTTE and that of the rest of Sri Lanka will be tricky. “The aspect of the judiciary is the most intricate and the most important with relation to the working out of modalities for political responsibility to be thrust upon the LTTE through the interim administration. This responsibility will clearly have to begin with the LTTE accepting the constitution of the government”, says Mr Wicknarajah, the former chief justice of Jaffna. He adds that integration of the legal systems will have to follow the initial rounds of peace talks and eventually conform to a model protecting Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity.
The complexities regarding the legal system, to be worked out for the new dispensation, are only an example of the many challenges that will have to be negotiated on a one on one basis. These challenges faced by the government in Colombo and the LTTE’s leadership are not insurmountable. But neither is sustained peace a guarantee. Rather, leaders on both sides – as well as their respective constituencies – will have to adapt to the evolving situation as necessary and steer it in a mutually beneficial direction.
“The MoU is not peace. One year has passed and the cessation of hostilities has lasted. Yet there are so many things to be discussed. The hope that we have, that both parties will not resort to war, rests on the fact that the international community has become strongly involved in the peace process”, says Saroja Sivachandran, a human rights activist providing legal aid to women through her organisation – the Centre for Women and Development in Jaffna. While the debate with regard to the process rages on, Jaffna hopes that this reconciliation will be final.