Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sri Lanka: Propaganda wars

By Sreenivasan Jain | NDTV

In Sri Lanka, the civil war of the last 20 years finally came to a brutal end in 2009, when the Sri Lankan Army defeated the LTTE. Though the military war is over, the propaganda war refuses to die out. The government claims it is rebuilding lives and trust, but persistent charges of war crimes, and denial of rights to its Tamil population continue to plague the regime. In any conflict, or post-conflict environment, newsgathering is a complex process. But we attempted to address some of the burning questions faced by Sri Lanka in the aftermath of war.

First, the terms of reportage: We travelled unsupervised in all the civilian areas in the Tamil area of the North of Lanka - Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, and Vavuniya. We were escorted by the army to the high security zones.

To begin from where it all ended - in a tiny strip of land along the island's northern coast, near the town of Mullaitivu, where the LTTE and the Army staged their final battle. The Army declared it a No Fire Zone in February 2009 and soon it was flooded with civilians trying to escape the onslaught of war. But the LTTE moved in, and the civilians were caught in a deadly crossfire between the Army and the LTTE. Much has been written about this, including a report commissioned by the UN Secretary General which says "The Government shelled on a large scale in three consecutive No Fire Zones". It also indicts the LTTE saying "Despite grave danger in the conflict zone, the LTTE refused civilians permission to leave". And so it is what unfolded here which remains the main prism through which the world is judging the government's post war response.

This high security area has been sealed off to the media since the war but for the first time, the government, to demonstrate they had nothing to hide, allowed us access. We first glimpsed it by air, from the army helicopter, and then by land.

We entered through the tranquil Nandikadal lagoon, where Prabhakaran's body was found. And then into landscape of utter devastation: miles and miles of charred vehicles with which people rushed here, and beyond the shattered remains of the villages of Mulivaikal that fell in the zone.

A full scale investigation of war crimes is beyond the scope of this report but with the sheer scale of destruction it was evident that the blood of innocent has been spilled here, and that no side is blameless.

As if any further proof was needed, we would come across photographs taken by Mathi (name changed on request), someone who lived in the no fire zone, and who barely survived. The images are a powerful timeline of what occurred: people pouring in on vehicles, unabated shelling from both sides, and the nightmare that followed.

And we would also hear voices of survivors in our travels, like an old man in the Manik Farms refugee camp who said the firing was coming from all sides.

We were taken to another devastated town nearby - Puthukkudiyiruppu or PTK, another near deserted museum of war. The Army says the process of demining has to be completed before it can be rebuilt again. PTK is part of the same disturbing geography that finds mention in the report commissioned by the UN Secretary General.

The report says "PTK hospital was hit every day by rocket launchers and... artillery".

As with the No Fire Zone, here again, the Army says they had no option since the LTTE had moved in the hospital compound.

But while that may have been true, as we walked around the hospital, the extent of the shelling seemed unduly severe. Every single room of the building, including the Operating Theatre was in ruins.

Despite this overwhelming evidence both existing and what we witnessed, the Army continued to be ambivalent about civilian lives lost in the No Fire Zones.

The Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Major Gen. Mahinda Hathurusinghe described the reports of civilian deaths as 'some stories'. He said "People are saying various things. Of course we all to have understand war is war. When you fight a war either the enemy dies or you die. That's the game. The government policy had been throughout no casualties, zero casualties and I think that went on very well."

This ambivalence is what has led to the international community demanding answers from Sri Lanka.

But one of the country's most powerful men, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa says Sri Lanka's post war priorities are different. He said "these are allegations without any basis. You can't make these allegations. Imagine what are the more important things for the people of this country. The people of these areas have suffered, these are the more important things. I don't think anybody is interested in us digging up the past. Why should we? "

Forget the past, says the government and instead focus on the successes of refugee rehabilitation, like the winding up the last internal refugee camp at Manik Farms in Vavuniya district.

When we arrived at Manik Farms, we were first given a presentation by the Army, which runs the camp. They claim to have rehabilitated most of the 3,00,000 internally displaced refugees back to their home districts of Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Trincomalee, Jaffna, Batticoloa among others, a significant claim in the raging propaganda war.

But for the 7000-odd refugees left in Manik Farms, it is hard to forget the past. They are from the worst affected areas in and around Mullaitivu and PTK. It has been two years since the war ended and the physical wounds have healed but the painful memories are still raw.

One woman told us "In 2009 my four storied house was demolished by Army personnel. They pulled us out from there. I suffered a lot to reach this place with my family. I had to take my daughter to Mulivaikal as she was injured during shelling."

Another said," My two sons have been detained for the past 3 years. There is no one from my family to earn. I have no one to help. Please release my sons. They are detained in Senapuram. They are in no way related to the LTTE, but the Sri Lankan army still arrested them on suspicion."

But what we would hear again and again is a desire to return home.

One woman said, "We have been in this camp for the past 2 years and 5 months. They told us they will take us back but they didn't. Even if they shift us they will take us to Thimili and not to the place we belong. The Army says there are mines all over our place. We don't believe that."

Her daughter added," We don't feel secure in this camp, we want the Army to escort us to the place where we belong. We own small pieces of land and if the Army allows us we would like to go back and stay there."

Camp life is not easy. The tin roofed huts can turn into ovens in summer. And to find a normal rhythm for children has been hard. But yet there has also been a sense of normal rhythms of life. One man says, "We work as masons, carpenters, and drive cars. That kind of work."
Contrary to the propaganda that these camps are being run as detention centers , there was a freedom to come and go, as long as they carried a permission slip from the camp officials.

But that propaganda has contributed to the premature emptying of these camps, sending people back to homes not fully rebuilt.

We found this again and again, as we travelled outwards from Manik Farms to judge the government's claims on the ground.

On the outskirts of Mullaitivu, in a cluster of homes built after the tsunami, we found a family that had been sent back from Manik Farms, living in a temporary shack, next to their home until the roof was rebuilt.

But there was also resilience - their neighbors, a family of fisher folk, seemed unconcerned - at least they were back after almost a year in a refugee camp, rebuilding their home.

In the village of Vattakachchi, in rural Kilinochchi we found bag loads of gravel being unloaded inside the home of a man who runs a bicycle shop.

The owner says his house fell into ruin while he was in Manik Farms, but he has taken a bank loan to rebuild it himself - perhaps even turn it into a hotel.

Nearby in another home, the man of the house was unwell, the women said they have taken over the rebuilding.

But for the poor in the same village, the hardship is always greater, like a woman we met who says she comes from a less affluent village in a forested area of Ramnathapuram, which is still in ruins. And so since she was sent back from Manik Farms, she now lives with her children in the broken home of an acquaintance.

Speaking to us from the framed window of a room without a roof, she said, "It's tough to manage. I don't have a job. Earlier I had a man. Now I don't. I was working in a shop. Things have been hard since my husband left me and married someone else."

From the poor, we would hear again and again about an Indian veetu or Indian house, a reference to India's offer to build 50,000 low cost homes in the North and East. The construction was contracted to private developers, who would hand over the homes to the government.

But despite that announcement made in June last year, only a few hundred are ready.

We came across one such cluster of 50 houses outside the town of Pallai, an hour's drive from Jaffna. They were simple, airy well lit homes, with a toilet and bath outside. The quality of construction seemed reasonably good. The only problem is the pace of the work.
India says that they will expedite this by getting the Cabinet to clear the entire project which will come at a cost of roughly of Rs. 1,000 crores. They are planning to alter the model, where the construction cost will be remitted directly to the beneficiary who will construct the home themselves.

In the end, it was impossible for us to come away with simple conclusions on the government's claims on resettlement.

But activists assisting the government's refugee re-housing plans say that a combination of people's resilience, the efforts of a host of international and local donor agencies, and the government have ensured that this is one aspect of post -war efforts which have met with some successes.

Much more, of course, needs to be done.

SC Chandrahasan of the Colombo and Chennai based, Organization for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OFERR) told us that, 'There has been a lot of progress made. People have gone back to their areas. People left over in Manik Farm are free to go back, but they have a difficulty in getting back to their own land. They are where the government needs to do more, apart from the material things, is that land should be made available to the poorest of the poor."

As part of the governments focus on the economic hardware of rehabilitation, we saw everywhere mammoth construction activity - roads, buildings, bridges.
And if there is one city that is a model of the government's vision for the Tamil areas it is Kilinochchi.

Once capital of the LTTE's so called Eelam, or separate Tamil homeland, today Kilinochchi is booming - the government says it's all set to receive the benefits of the Southern Lanka.
We saw just on one road, three new banks and a food mall. I remembered visiting this, nine years ago when it was under LTTE control, and coming across the rundown Bank of Tamil Eelam.

When we asked people to compare life today, to life under the LTTE, a man who is a Justice of Peace, and a chicken farmer told us that, "It is better now. There is no LTTE and no guns. If not I would be dead by now. We don't have a problem now. You are talking to us, we don't know who you are, you are interviewing me and I am responding."

In the same market, we ran into an unlikely sight - a businessman from southern Sri Lanka, a car parts salesman.

He shares, "Last four years, we couldn't come here. Only since the last two years we're coming here. Now the area is getting business, people are coming back and resettling. So now we're getting business. Even now the people aren't getting much income. In the future it will be smoother."

But as we would discover, he wasn't the only visitor from the South.

We ran into a group of Sinhala schoolboys in the shattered town of PTK out on a school tour of the North, part of a bizarre phenomenon of war tourism.

They were heading towards Prabhakaran's bunker deep in the jungles near Mullaitivu.
Here we would find other tourists, all Sinhala, wandering through the LTTE chief's secret tunnels, taking in the armored doors and escape routes.

While no tears are shed for Prabhakaran, these are uneasy encounters between the two cultures, Tamil and Sinhala.

And yet in this unlikely setting we came across a Sinhala family who spoke from the heart. A woman, a government employee told us, "When Prabhakaran was alive people were living with fear. They didn't know at what moment they might get killed. I wonder if people, not only in Sri Lanka but those living in other countries, feel the same way about what happened here."

Sincere emotions, except just minutes away there are Tamils of these war torn areas, the sight of tourists wandering through their ruined towns is like rubbing salt in their wounds.
Another landmark on the somewhat surreal war tourism trail is a Sri Lankan Army memorial built in the middle of Kilinochchi.

We met a group of young boys from Negombo, near Colombo.

They said, somewhat in jest that they are on their way to Jaffna, and that if they find a good Tamil girl, they will marry her.

Again, the sentiment may be genuine, but it was too much of a sense of victor and vanquished.

Many say that the path to genuine reconciliation will only be achieved through a political solution.

But the government seems uninterested.

They had ten rounds of talks with Sri Lanka's Tamil parties, but it ended in a deadlock.

The Tamil parties want the government to honor its commitment to devolve power to the provincial councils, similar to state governments, specifically give them powers of land, police and revenues - promises that this government seems in no mood to keep.
The government says that the Tamil parties are divided.

The main party, the Tamil National Alliance is labeled as a proxy for the LTTE, a charge rubbished by Suresh Premachandran, a TNA MP. He said it is "bloody rubbish because you know the LTTE is finished since 2009. Now almost 2 years passed and we have faced several elections. All the elections we have had a landslide victory".

In turn the TNA calls men like Douglas Devananda, of the Eelam People's Democratic Party, who have joined the government and is a minister - a sellout.

Devananda in turn called the TNA - the Tiger National Agents! He said that he is no stooge and that 'the people voted for me. I am the only Tamil leader who got more preference than other Tamil leaders.'

For these parties, India has always been a fallback.

India on its part says it has pushed hard - a recent Parliament statement by the Foreign Minister asking the Sri Lankan government to expedite the devolution of powers, the same message conveyed privately to the Sri Lankan leadership at a number of different levels. But India also has to balance its support of rights for Tamils with the complex balance of power in the subcontinent.

This week, officials from the power ministry flew to Colombo to sign a 500 MW power project in Trincomalee on Sri Lanka's east coast, a joint venture between India's NTPC and the Ceylon Electricity Board.

India is also repairing the strategic Kankesanthurai (KKS) port in northern tip of Lanka, just a stone's throw from the Tamil Nadu coastline, an investment as much strategic as financial.
It is loudly whispered that the Indian projects in the North and East are a counterbalance to China's construction of a port and airport in Hambantota in the South, and a power plant in the Puttalam in the West.

But the greater worry is that for all the pressure India can bring to bear, the Rajapakse's, who were elected from Sri Lanka's Sinhala and deeply Buddhist south, are not at all keen on autonomy.

The President is more nuanced, his brother, Gotabaya, more direct. He has said more than once that devolution is not a priority.

He told us that "there are a lot of other issues that the people at the grassroots level are more interested in. Not so much autonomy and things like that. Because you see they were suffering for so many years. Now it's the time to give that opportunity to bring up their lifestyle."

We were witness to what could well be the defence ministries view of how to change lifestyles in post war Lanka. The general in charge of Kilinochchi, Major General Nandana Udawatta, gave us a detailed power point presentation of the army's activities from promoting fisheries, to distributing tractors, to building homes to screening the World Cup finals.

Sherine Xavier, a Jaffna and Colombo based legal activist says, "Why do you have to have such a large military presence? And also, on top of that, their involvement in civil administration is a question. I'm not saying that the military should be totally absent. We understand that but we won't accept it."

The summer holidays are over in a government school in Jaffna. It was shut for 15 years because of the war, and its proximity to the Palali Air Force Base. But more than 1400 children who attended it betrayed little sign of what it entailed to study in makeshift schools or not study at all. They were - like most young people - excited about their plans for future, telling us that they wanted to be doctors, accountants, teachers, lawyers.

They will grow up in a Lanka without a LTTE, no small thing, but as new freedoms are gained old ones must be preserved.

In the end it comes back to where we began, to the last no fire zone.

As the road through the wreckage winds towards the beach, we would discover the no fire zone's only remaining secret.

Like Prabhakaran's bunker, or the Kilinochchi war memorial, Sri Lanka's last no fire zone is a tourist spot.

You can grab a beer, get some food, and walk down to the beach to see the ship Farah, a Jordanian tanker hijacked by the LTTE in 2006.

The army says it is only open to Army families, but we saw enough people who looked like civilians - Sinhala civilians.

Just a few hundred yards away, the burnt stumps of trees, where 1000's of their fellow Sri Lankans died. Surely as a starting point it could be closed to tourists.

It will demonstrate that the government understands that while the economic hardware of progress connecting the North and South are important, no less important is justice and dignity.

(With inputs from Niha Masih)


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