Under a full moon, I was on the night train from Colombo to Batticaloa. As we raced past towns, Buddhist temples and houses, festive lanterns indicated celebrations of the long poya weekend. Amidst this tranquillity, a year after the end of the war in the country, some friends in Batticaloa had wanted me to see the changes in the area. Seven years after my last visit, I was anxious about what I might find: the resettlement of those affected by the war; the much-talked-about development initiatives; and what these meant for the east, with its murky politics.
With very little news coming in, at times Colombo had seemed very distant from the east. The war had come to an end in the east three years ago, with the government announcing that it had driven out the LTTE and that the war front had moved to the north. For a few years thereafter there was much attention paid to the east, particularly with successive elections and the government’s economic reconstruction initiative, called the Eastern Awakening. However, the severe escalation of the war in early 2009 in the Vanni and the subsequent humanitarian crisis, including the internment of hundreds of thousands of displaced people, created a major shift in attention, with both international and national attention turning to the north.
As my train sped into Batticaloa district in the wee hours of the morning, past towns that had seen great violence in the past, the beauty of the region came alive. Both the district and town of Batticaloa are dominated by water; the landscape is marked by the sea, lagoons, rivers and canals, and dotted with bridges and fishing boats. The district’s economic geography – agriculture, livestock, fishing – is likewise intrinsically intertwined with water.
The following day, I travelled to Veppavattuvan, a village many kilometres north of Batticaloa town and off the old Badulla road from Chenkalady. I sought to understand what resettlement had meant for people living in the interior of the district. Until 2006, this village of about 150 families was LTTE-controlled territory. With the escalation of the war in 2006, the people in the area were displaced, their livelihoods disrupted and most of their houses damaged.
Having returned, the villagers are today eking out a meagre living. As with the war-displaced in other areas, they were given dry rations by the government for the first six months. Most do daily wage labour in this area of rain-fed single-season paddy cultivation. Only half the families own land, with the others working on state lands or on large fields belonging to landowners living in Batticaloa. Brick-making is the other major occupation. But increasingly, cheap bricks imported from Ampara, in the southeast, have caused the price to drop, making the occupation uneconomic. Elsewhere, despite its evident abundance, water is a major problem, as many of the wells dry up between June and September. Along the river, the villagers cultivate vegetables such as brinjal, ladyfinger and beans.
Exclusion amidst connectivity
At the centre of Veppavattuvan is a primary school for children, restarted in October 2008. The school now has about 60 students, but attendance is low, and many children come mainly for the midday meal. Over half the children come from single-parent families, and about a tenth are orphans now taken care of by grandparents or relatives. The disruption of family life, evident in the schoolchildren, is in part a consequence of the war and in part a result of the economic marginalisation of this village.
Reflecting much of rural Lanka, Veppavattuvan lacks infrastructure. The closest bus stop is four km away, in Illupadichenai. A private van runs twice a day towards Illupadichenai, but most schoolchildren walk to and from school. The nearest hospital, bank and post office are about 10 km away, though once a week a mobile clinic comes to the village. On one side of the school is a slightly damaged Rural Development Society (RDS) building. The RDS and a women’s group are the two representative social forums in the village. Next to the RDS building a small Hindu temple is currently under construction, a place for villagers to gather. On the other side of the school a new Methodist church has been built, with a nursery for close to 30 preschoolers. At night, some of the villagers sleep in the church to escape both the heat in their shacks and the dangerous poisonous snakes in the area.
More than two years after returning to their village, houses have not been rebuilt and most villagers continue to live in temporary tin shacks. Various government officials and NGOs had promised to build new homes, but the villagers had recently been told that the housing initiatives were all directed toward the Vanni in the north. It is difficult for the villagers to take matters into their own hands. With the increased security, many are scared to cut trees, as this is illegal; hence, firewood and wood for building are scarce.
On the road through Veppavattuvan many trucks are on the move, as a Chinese company is involved in stone-breaking nearby. But the labour being used is not from the village. The villagers complained about the dust from the stone-breaking and the noise of the trucks. On the way to Veppavattuvan, as in other places in Batticaloa, road and highway construction is very visible. In Veppavattuvan, however, as in other villages, there seems to be an exclusion of the local populace, even as the roads are supposed to bring connectivity. In fact, it is the road construction that has brought greater competition for the local brick-making trade, and there is environmental damage caused by the dust from the stone-breaking work.
At one level, Veppavattuvan’s situation is no different from the rural poverty found elsewhere in Sri Lanka – characteristic of the uneven development and income inequalities that have long been pervasive, all the more so since liberalisation and the ‘open economy’ policies after 1977. However, the villagers here also carry with them the wounds and trauma of war – it was such poverty that enabled the LTTE to prey on them for recruitment of cadres. In the aftermath, the war-time destruction and displacement has only reinforced their destitution and social exclusion. The inequalities are such that whole villages and communities are being excluded from the larger changes taking place in Sri Lankan society, from education and health care to employment.
Closer to the coast, one is reminded of the destruction by water. Just two years prior to the escalation of the war in the east, the tsunami of December 2004 had destroyed much of the coastal area of Batticaloa. Significant donor funds and projects came to the district, and local observers claim it is these reconstruction efforts that the government is now branding as post-war development. There are related lessons, too, including the massive waste and dependency that came with NGO-led post-tsunami development efforts in Batticaloa. As I travelled in Batticaloa, I saw road after road being re-tarred and widened. So much talk in Colombo over the past two years about Batticaloa and the Eastern Province had been about the Eastern Awakening, but many local activists describe it as an empty shell.
For instance, close to 20 new bank branches were opened over the last year in Batticaloa district, which are expected to provide small loans to farmers and fishermen trying to revive their livelihoods. But the reality is that, given the lack of public transportation, few of the marginalised families can make the long trips to Batticaloa town. Even fewer will be able to furnish the documents necessary for bank loans. Banks, buildings and roads have come to mean development without any real change in the economic relations and social life of the people.
One morning we started early towards Kokkadicholai, driving again into territory that used to be controlled by the LTTE. Moving further into the interior towards Ampara, the roads ran along canals flowing with water – in these lush lands, two paddy crops are possible every year. We drove into slightly hilly terrain, into Kachchakodi Swamimalai, a village established in 1977 that since has had its own sad history. The people here have been displaced six times over the last two decades, and only 55 of its 135 families have returned since the last dispersal in 2006. The minimal SLR 25,000 (USD 220) given as part of a rehabilitation package to each returning displaced family has not been received by these villagers, despite having returned two years ago. Even the mobile clinic that used to arrive once every three weeks has stopped offering services.
Most of the resettled villagers do not own land, and many of them travel for three weeks at a time to faraway villages to engage in farming as day labour. Closer to the village, many do raise livestock, and fishing is possible in nearby ponds; if the village tanks were renovated, irrigated farming would also be possible. Yet one older villager said that if there is one thing villagers in Kachchakodi Swamimalai want and could keep them going amidst this destitution, it is a decent dwelling. Multiple displacement and homelessness, it seems, elevates the desire for a house above all else.
More broadly, the LTTE’s rule in the east also severely polarised ethnic communities, placing barriers on movement. Lands were abandoned, and agriculture and fishing were disrupted. In 1990, the LTTE simultaneously attacked two mosques in the Kattankudy area massacring close to 150 people at prayer. That incident led to months of killings and counter-killings by the LTTE and Muslim home guards backed by the security forces. Three years after the war ended in the east, local Muslim and Tamil communities have started talking to each other, and relations are now slowly improving. When I stepped into the crowded public library in Ottamavadi for a pre-arranged interaction with the local Muslims, the discussion was intense. Though not from Batticaloa, I could not escape my Tamil identity, and the discussion began with a set of charges against the Tamil community.
Decades of violence and polarisation meant that sections of the Muslim community wanted separate enclaves. Some of them accused Tamil government servants of systematic discrimination. The problems between the communities are complex, ranging from land disputes to access to water, to sharing political power. The younger generation in both communities have thus grown up in isolation. Some cynical political actors are still trying to utilise the politics of polarisation and violence; even if that has few takers, local resources will inevitably be fought over. Unless there are better arrangements to share political and administrative power, as well as a broad social and political effort to rebuild Muslim-Tamil relations, some of these tensions will continue to undermine Batticaloa’s multi-ethnic future.
The two communities are also dealing with internal fissures. Rival Muslim sects have clashed in the past in Batticaloa, and Tamil politics has not fully shed the armed political culture. President Mahinda Rajapakse’s strategy in Batticaloa was to promote two former LTTE henchmen, Karuna and Pillaiyan; the former is now a minister in the central government, and the latter is chief minister of the Eastern Provincial Council. The manner in which local government and Provincial Council elections were pushed through soon after the war ended in the east, and the continuing tense relationship between Karuna and Pillaiyan as they now compete in two different political parties engineered to the benefit of the Rajapakse regime, have undermined the emergence of democratic politics in the east. Nevertheless, the end of the war and the slow process of normalisation are beginning to neutralise the legacy of militarised politics.
Historically, there have always been subtle tensions between the Jaffna Tamils, who historically dominated the administrative and professional class in Batticaloa, and the Batticaloa Tamils. That tension came to the fore during the split by the eastern faction of the LTTE in 2004. The humanitarian crisis during the last phase of the war in the Vanni shifted attention away from Batticaloa to Jaffna and the Vanni, but now the continued neglect of the east has raised the question whether this shift in attention – not just to the Vanni, but also to Jaffna over Batticaloa – has to do with a larger dominance of Jaffna over Batticaloa. Certainly in the Tamil discourse in and out of the country, Batticaloa seems to lack a voice, other than as an extension of the Tamil ‘homeland’. The government has also billed development in the east as a success, and shifted attention to the north. But the east remains important, not just for the lessons we can learn for what is to come in the north, but because the east is the most diverse region in the country: devolution of power, political progress and inter-ethnic coexistence in the east can set the tone for the rest of the country.
Devolution of power to the Eastern Provincial Council, which has a number of representatives from Batticaloa, could have become an important check on Colombo-centrism and contributed to the rebuilding of Muslim, Tamil and Sinhalese relations. The Provincial Council system emerged after the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, promoting legislatures responsible for the devolution of political power; its central focus was to check the majoritarian centralised state, which was at the root of the ethnic conflict. The hasty manner in which Provincial Council elections were forced upon the people in the east after the war meant the emergence of a shallow representation, and many of the elected representatives have an armed or problematic past. The very appointment of the governor for the east, Rear Admiral Mohan Wijewickrama, a military man whom Provincial Councillors claim is opposed to devolution, has also undermined the functioning of the Provincial Council.
There is much that eastern society and the Tamil community in Batticaloa, particularly its intellectuals, could do in the post-war context to engage and rectify the course of devolution. For instance, there has been no visible contribution towards shaping economic development by the Eastern University, in Vandaramoolai, whose academics are noticeably silent on the issues of the day. Perhaps one cannot blame them, as it has only been a couple years since the university’s vice-chancellor, S Raveendranath, was disappeared. There is a lethargy not unrelated to the war and violence, which seems to have crippled the intellectual community in Batticaloa.
Soldiers are visible everywhere, but the villagers I spoke to said they do not cause problems – though many also noted that they preferred not to speak about such issues. The legacy of a dirty war in the east has meant that the mechanisms of fear and control lurk under the seeming normality. It only takes an incident of violence to bring back the fear and to silence many. The people only seemed to want to resume their lives while hoping that the politics of violence will disappear.
If the economic and political problems facing Batticaloa are to be addressed, there needs to be some introspection locally rather than seeking only external causes. There has to be some accounting for the failure of local leadership; issues such as caste also have to be addressed by social movements, and one must pay attention to women’s struggles. Indeed, in Batticaloa women have had to bear much of the cost and burden of the war and violence, and their emergent politics will be critical in organising and mobilising for progressive and democratic change. The larger issue in villages such as Veppavattuvan and Kachchakodi Swamimalai is the continuing social, economic and political exclusion of rural communities amidst the largely centralised projects of development. Sri Lanka as a whole, and the east for that matter, gained much historically from social welfare policies, but the current approach to reconstruction and broader economic policies are undermining such social progress. The war was thrust on them by militarised forces that gave them nothing and destroyed nearly everything; now, they seem to be marginalised and undermined by reconstruction and development.
It remains to be seen whether uneven development, not just in the east but in the entire country, can lead to a different kind of politics – one that can give expression to a uniting of communities that have been marginalised and exploited along ethnic, religious and class lines. But at this point, the question remains: What kind of social and political forces can organise these separated communities and regions of economic exclusion?