Monday, October 03, 2011

Misplaced Loyalties: 'Pink Left' Countries and Sri Lanka

By Karthik Ram | Sanhati

“How long yet will the madness of despots be called justice, and the justice of the people barbarity or rebellion? How tenderly oppressors and how severely the oppressed are treated!” -Maximillien Robespierre

The informal discussion held in Geneva on the 21st of September regarding Canada’s proposal to debate the outcome of Sri Lanka’s ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ (LLRC) was revealing on the position of various countries that participated.

First and foremost, to even give legitimacy to the LLRC, a sham commission set up by a racist state in order to show that it cares for the people it has butchered and enslaved, is a fundamentally flawed proposition. This is but part of the agenda of certain western powers to initiate a discussion on Sri Lanka that focuses solely on human rights violations in Sri Lanka without taking into account the political demands of the Eelam Tamil people, have token prosecutions and token devolutions of powers, and maybe, a regime change without disturbing status-quo of the majoritarian political structure of the Sri Lankan state.

The hidden logic is that such a process will whitewash the crimes of elements within their own polity who encouraged Sri Lanka’s campaign of state terror. Countries like India, Pakistan, China and Russia - who have openly supported the genocide of the Eelam Tamils - were hostile to even these token gestures, probably apprehensive of a possible exposure of their direct involvement and/or a questioning of their own treatment of national liberation struggles and people’s movements in their territories. And there were countries like Cuba who whole heartedly backed Sri Lanka under the argument of ‘anti-imperialism’.

Cuba and Venezuela (not to mention countries like Iran and Gaddafi’s Libya), who indeed are anti-American, have also stood by the Colombo regime in their war on the Tamil people. But the question radicals need to ask is whether they are genuinely anti-imperialist, that is, whether they promote a dialogue among movements of the oppressed peoples of the world, as a progressive left movement is meant to. If anti-west/anti-Americanism should be the only criteria for gauging standards of a revolutionary movement, then the Taliban should be the most progressive outfit in the world. But if progressiveness should be gauged by, in Che Guevara’s own words, “indignation at injustice anywhere in the world” and a political solidarity with emancipatory liberation struggles, then the ‘pink left’ countries like Cuba and Venezuela fail pathetically. James Petras points out how, despite claims to ‘anti-imperialism’ Chavez betrayed solidarity with radical movements in order to consolidate his own regime’s economic interests, giving the example of Venezuala’s arrest and deportation of activists affiliated to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in order to placate an ally in a murderous Colombia.

It is the creed of Robert Blake, the US Assistant Secretary of State who gave Colombo full support to execute its genocide of Tamils by means of war against the LTTE, who are also responsible for providing extensive funding to reactionary regimes like that of Colombia to brutally crush movements of indigenous people, popular classes and peasantry like those led by FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) by similar means. It was no coincidence then that after the military defeat of the LTTE, military think-tanks and pro-state intellectuals in Colombia started considering the Sri Lanka model as an effective way of crushing radical movements in their territory in a similar fashion. Now, by endorsing a genocidal Colombo, these pink left countries are directly endorsing the war on indigenous peoples, nationalities and progressive movements in countries like Colombia, Peru, Turkey, India etc - this is the only logical conclusion that their sad arguments can lead to.

Petras has also pointed out in the article earlier referred how Stalin’s deals with Hitler were a strategic disaster for the people of Soviet Union. But how much ever the then Soviet regime could be criticized for such arrangements of convenience, at no point did the Soviets endorse Nazism as a philosophy or hail Hitler in his military successes against other nations. No communist justified the atrocities of Nazism by pointing out atrocities of, say, French colonialism. For example, Aime Cesaire, a trenchant critic of colonialism, constantly criticized the hypocrisies of the colonial powers that denounced fascism but committed atrocities in their colonies - but that did not lead him to endorse Nazi brutalities. The argument of Hitler, which was as cruel as it was ridiculous, that critics of Nazi violence were unjustified because even the colonial powers have been brutal, was treated as a farce by all progressive leftists and rightly so. A progressive does not have the option of choosing between and justifying farces that dehumanize people. But the Cuban leadership seems to have exercised that option…

A darling intellectual in these countries is Sri Lankan diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka who campaigned amongst these so-called anti-west countries that the war on the Tamil people was an ‘anti-imperialist struggle’ - his counterparts in the west did a campaign that the war on the Tamil people was a ‘war on terror’. Jayatilleka, a self-proclaimed leftist, is one who believes that the Sinhalese are an ancient civilization like the Mayans, who may be threatened to extinction by a global Tamil conspiracy and thus, they need to be militarily strong and colonize the lands of the Eelam Tamils - failing to do so will lead to “the North converted into another Kashmir“, he argues. A Tamil intellectual remarked that when one reads Jayatilleka one gets the feeling a Jew would get should she flip through Mein Kampf, only that Jayatilleka (mis)quotes Marxists to justify a racist polity. Those on the Indian left are all too familiar with how writings of Marx and Lenin were twisted by the revisionist clique of CPM to justify implementation of neo-liberal policies in Bengal and Kerala, to quell popular protests in Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh, and to vilify national liberation struggles both at India and abroad. But one is yet to hear (the author seeks to be corrected if mistaken) a CPM intellectual stooping to such levels of calculated absurdity that is generally associated with unapologetic communalists like the Subramaniam Swamys of India. An apologist of fascist violence parading under a leftist façade, with abstract slogans of anti-Americanism, showering praises on the likes of Deng Xiaoping and Vladimir Putin, Jayatilleka won allies among the pink left in Latin America.

On the other hand, Viraj Mendis, an activist of the Sinhala radical left who is in exile for resolutely standing by the struggle of Eelam Tamils, points out the confluence of world powers in backing a despotic Sri Lanka and its genocidal campaign. “The process of Genocide is continuing here too. It is happening inside these buildings here in Geneva.” he said, addressing a Pongu Tamil rally. In Geneva, the representative of Cuba supported Sri Lanka with the argument that “If you want to engage in this kind of ID why don’t you prepare a decision for a dialogue on detention centre in Guantanamo or bombing of NATO in Iraq, Afghanistan?” By supporting a Sri Lankan state, whose nationalism is based on a native variant of Nazi concepts of blut (Sinhala racial-cultural supremacy), lebensraum (the living space required for the superior race) and which completed its anschluss (forcible annexation) of the areas of Tamil Eelam in May 2009 accompanied by what can only called as a campaign of wanton pillage, rape and murder, countries like Cuba turn out to be ethically and politically no better than the imperialists they claim to oppose. By justifying and endorsing a successful genocide like what happened in Mullivaikaal under the name of opposing atrocities in Iraq or Afghanistan, these countries are not aiding the people whom they claim to support by any stretch of imagination.

If a banana republic like Sri Lanka that executed one of the worst mass murders in South Asia with the aid of several world powers is allowed to walk free, what will act as a deterrent for much stronger countries that hold similar intentions towards similar struggles? The Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan had recently warned Kurdish civilians that unless they differentiate themselves from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), “they are also doomed to pay the price”. He was one of the leaders of state to congratulate Sri Lanka on its ‘successful war on terror’ and the Turkish government has also upheld the Lankan model for dealing with the PKK (partisans to the PKK goal, who have also extended solidarity to the Eelam struggle in a true spirit of internationalism, were also apprehensive of this possibility). Now, what does the ‘socialist’ Cuba convey to the PKK and the Kurds by its endorsement of the Sri Lankan solution?

The regimes in Cuba and Venezuela not only appear as what a Tamil leftist described as “clowns in the arena of left politics”, they end up as political opportunists by supporting mass murderers and despots like Rajapaksa who virulently implement neo-liberal policies in deed, but put up a sham ‘anti-Americanism’ in words. Maybe the radical left or whatever is left of it in Cuba should reread Lenin who said that “Victorious socialism must necessarily establish a full democracy and, consequently, not only introduce full equality of nations but also realise the right of the oppressed nations to self-determination i.e. the right to free political separation.” Maybe that would restore the red color to the pink left governments of Latin America and enable them to look at a fascist Sri Lanka and the Tamil Eelam struggle that is fighting against it differently.

Genuine anti-imperialism does not lie in mere abstract anti-American/anti-west sloganeering. In the wake of a ‘post-national world’ discourse framed by apologists of multi-national capitalism and equally regressive capitalist-bureaucratic models as upheld by states like Turkey, China and Russia - both aiding the logic of genocidal states like Sri Lanka, anti-imperialism in concrete requires solidarity with national liberation struggles and their progressive representatives. Anything else is mere social-opportunism that can only promote a world-wide strengthening of forces of reaction. And then history will not absolve the pink left states, but condemn them to its dustbins.

Karthick Ram is a freelance writer based in Chennai

© Sanhati

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Monday, October 03, 2011

Sri Lanka: The JVP crisis unravels in many directions

By Dr.Kuamr David | South Asian Analysis Group

The front page headline item in Sri Lanka’s Island newspaper of 29 September, reported that Lal Kantha, a leading member of the Somawansa Amerasinghe (official) faction of the JVP, had alleged that the rival dissident faction has been put up “by the Indian intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)”. He also added, for good measure, that “some other forces” such as the Sri Lanka “government, the UNP or even the CIA could be backing the party rebels”. He did not, just to be catholic in taste and outlook, add the now defunct KGB, Pakistan’s ISI, and MI5!

The JVP’s schism is turning nasty, it seems irreconcilable and headed for an open split, it will not have immediate significant repercussions outside the party, but in the long-term it is an important turning point in the island nation’s politics, especially the left movement. The more militant dissidents, purportedly lead by the elusive Premakura Gunaratnam, allege that the official leadership faction has turned soft, compromising and been co-opted by the “system”. It sights coalitions with Chandrika Bandaranaike and current president Mhinda Rajapakse and alignment with Sarath Fonseka in the 2010 presidential elections.

There is a tussle for control of the party paper Lanka and for possession of the newspaper’s premises. The pro dissident editorial staff is sleeping-in refusing access to the official directors. There have been fisticuffs and arrests, about ten people are in custody. Both factions held meetings at venues less than a mile apart in Colombo on 27 September; to judge from participation, the dissidents seem to have won a substantial majority of the cadre. This is confirmed by reports of support for the dissidents by JVP youth, university students’ and women’s bureaus and federations.

The JVP is in the throes of the most profound disarray in its 46 year history. The events of 1971 and 1988-90 did enormous physical damage when the state, responding to the JVP’s folly, retaliated with greater ferocity, brutality and barbarity. But neither of these blows, from the outside, could destroy the ideological spirit and cohesion of the movement. What is happening now is far more serious; it could sap inner energy and demolish the faith of the movement in itself. This is why inner raptures of a deeply ideological nature are tsunamis; vide Martin Luther, the philosophical schisms in the church, and the birth of Protestantism. Are the present troubles in the movement as profound and fundamental, and, in the eyes of the contending protagonists, do they call in question the raison d’etre of party? It seems to be so.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)

The JVP is now the largest left party in Lanka; it pushed the LSSP out of pole position in the 1980s and has since also won enough allegiances to emerge as the biggest trade union combine in the state sector. However one must bear in mind that only 15% of Lanka’s workforce is unionised and that too only if one includes the huge Tamil upcountry plantation unions. The near erasure of the traditional left (LSSP and CP) in the working class is a matter to discuss another time. The point here is the significance that the JVP has now gained in the working class.

The JVP (founded in 1965 by Rohana Wijeweera) was born of the social crisis of tens of thousands of educated, but exclusively Sinhala educated and hence lacking exposure to the outside world, unemployed rural and semi-urban youth. It was born of the socially (including caste) and economically under-privileged subaltern village and small town classes. It was a product of the 1960s and 1970s ferment – the age of Vietnam, anti-imperialism and the heroic guerrilla, the much loved Che. Hence it was a movement of the oppressed, but it was also intellectually half-baked. It was cadre-based, radical, and militant petty-bourgeois. From its origin the JVP was immersedin the secretive mentality of the Narodniks; unlike Leninism which was strict on discipline but plural and free in matters of theory.

The mix of more than a little education, frustration in life and romanticism made a decoction that went straight to the head. It was not a world’s first, the Narodniks who cultivated secrecy and individual terrorism, were the forerunners of the early JVP. The 1971 Insurgency against Mrs Bandaranaike’s government was Narodnik style ultra-left adventurism. The state’s response was ruthless; about 10,000 young people were killed in cold blood by the state. Not the most ardent JVPer will now dispute that 1971 was a blunder rooted in the aforesaid heady mix which it mistook for Marxism with which it had but slim familiarity.

In the ensuing prison years (1971-1983), it was said, that these errors were debated and rectified, but the facts belie this. In 1988-90 the JVP went ahead with an armed insurrection that was the closest that the state in Sri Lanka ever came to being overthrown. It eviscerated Jayewardene as a traitor for inviting Indian troops (IPKF) into the country and sought to overthrow the state. The IPKF kept the LTTE tied down in the Tamil areas giving Colombo a free hand to focus troops in the South and slaughter the JVP – the estimate is that 60,000 were slain in retaliation for some 1000-plus politicians, policemen, academics and military men and families that the JVP had gunned down. Thereafter Colombo and the LTTE joined hands to humiliate Delhi (the citadel of those who never learn) and kick out the IPKF.

The founding blunders

The JVP has obviously not learnt from past blunders and possibly the new feud may lead one or the other faction to repeat a horrific bungle. The JVP is fond of quoting Lenin, so why not I?

“A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfils in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification -- that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses”.

Foundational errors, embedded in its own class background, lay uncorrected through the 1971 defeat into the 1988-1990 debacle. They are again at the root of the present split. Now may be the JVP’s last chance to “thrash out the means of its rectification. There are two blunders; one, an addiction to armed struggle and arising from this a predilection to secrecy and conspiracy. The second is chauvinism, incomparably milder than the SLFP or the UNP (Sri Lanka’s main parties), but when one flaunts socialist colours the concomitant degeneration is weightier.

From its birth the JVP conceived of revolution as a practice that was devoid of political flexibility. It was Lenin, the movement’s purported guru, who dinned into goofy heads that seriousness of purpose and flexibility of method are not contradictory; they are inseparable. Use parliament and every forum; form principled alliances; never be sectarian in action; build a strong party - not conspiratorial cells - to raise the consciousness of cadres and masses; such was his core message. The IVP cannot with any seriousness say that it functioned flexibly, sure retaining its identity, but with practical and theoretical involvements that were open and wide.

Look at the way the current schism is developing; it’s like a clash between two splinters of a secret society. The consequence is that party cadres remain backward, unable to fathom the full meaning of issues or to understand them against the backdrop of modern day local and global reality. Had the JVP been more open in the past the stupidity of 1971 and its repetition as gigantic folly in 1988-90, would not have happened? The absence of openness now is rooted in the secret-society mentality of the past and could end in tragedy again.

Is the JVP a racist party?

If you mean does the JVP go around killing, raping and burning down Tamil homes, the answer is an unequivocal NO. This is the realm of the SLFP and the UNP; both have mastered the art of the pogrom over decades. But if you ask, is the programme of the JVP in respect of the national question a version of petty-bourgeois Sinhala-Buddhist ideology, I will not hesitate to answer ‘yes’. Taking into account the exclusively Sinhala background of the oppressed young people who came together to form the movement, this is unsurprising at the beginning. But leadership and vision could have lifted the JVP beyond these limitations, but such a leadership, Wijeweera included, never materialised.

Its intellectual chauvinism has dogged and haunted the JVP all the days of its life. Its role as cheerleader for a racist war, its anti-Indian stance (concealed antagonism to plantation workers), its refusal to allow tsunami aid into Tamil areas, its anti-Tamil deal with Mahinda in 2005; all of this has corroded the party.

It has been rumoured that the Gunaratnam faction wants to reopen the debate on the national question, albeit four decades belatedly. Well it’s to be welcomed but Pubudu Jagoda, spokesman for the faction (interviews in the Island and Daily Mirror of Sri Lanka on 27 September, and at the public meeting in New Town Hall, Colombo, on the same day) offers no more than the old rubbishy line; “too much devolution will be the first step in dividing the country”. Until the JVP both renounces and abandons its enduring errors on the national question, it will remain an archaic article in the world of modern Marxism. Let’s hope that a theoretically modern, open minded on the national question, militant but non conspiratorial movement comes out of the deep crisis now on show.


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Monday, October 03, 2011

Cairn Energy makes strike in Sri Lanka

BBC News

Edinburgh explorer Cairn Energy has made its first gas strike in Sri Lanka through its Indian subsidiary.

The offshore well was the first to be drilled in the country for 30 years.

Cairn India made the discovery after drilling almost a mile down offshore in the Mannar Basin, Sri Lanka.

Simon Thomson, chief executive, Cairn Energy said: "Cairn is delighted with this frontier exploration discovery, the first well in Cairn India's three well drilling programme in Sri Lanka."

Cairn Energy is in the process of selling off 30% of its 52% stake in Cairn India to the Vedanta Resources and recently won shareholder and Indian government approval for the deal.

The company's focus has moved to Greenland since it announced it was reducing its stake in its Indian unit.

However, it has had a number of disappointments after turning up several dry wells.

© BBC News

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Monday, October 03, 2011

Military operation to nab thousands of army deserters in Lanka

PTI | Deccan Herald

The Sri Lankan military has stepped up its operation to arrest thousands of army deserters, many of them responsible for the surge in crime in the country.

An operation is underway to arrest 60,000 deserters who have not surrendered to the authorities, Sri Lanka Army spokesperson Brigadier Nihal Happurachchi was quoted as saying by ColomboPage online newspaper earlier this week.

The number of desertion from the army swelled during the three-decade ethnic conflict between the military and the LTTE. Earlier, the army had announced grace periods to these deserters so that they could surrender to the authorities.

The Army said no more grace periods will be provided to the deserters.
According to Brigadier Hapuarachchi, 11,000 deserters have been arrested so far this year.
He said legal action will be initiated against the arrested deserters who will be discharged from the army.

Police records show that a number of military deserters have been linked to the surge in crime, the report said.

The LTTE waged a civil war for a separate state for the Tamils of Sri Lanka, alleging discrimination against the minority community at the hands of the majority Sinhalas.

The Lankan military crushed the rebels in May 2009 and ended the ethnic conflict that killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people.


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Monday, October 03, 2011

The road north

By Charles Haviland | Himal

The national flag of Sri Lanka fluttered in the breeze. Soldiers milled around. Omanthai looked like an international border. But in fact it was – and is – simply the key point for crossing into the north, the final theatre of the Sri Lankan war. It might just as well be known as the Forbidden Territory, so tightly has access to the north been controlled by the authorities since they vanquished the Tigers nearly two and a half years ago.

Before my arrival in Omanthai a few weeks ago, I had been living in Sri Lanka for well over two years, working as a foreign correspondent and trying to cover what was taking place in the country. But this was only my second chance to travel, independently, north of this crossing point. The first had been a flying visit to Jaffna, at a time of relative ferment just before the presidential election of January 2010. On that trip, the military politely escorted me and a few others from the Palali airstrip into town and then left us to our own devices.

In Sri Lanka, though, that is a relative term. We did have two military-intelligence staff tail us for our 48 hours there. They were quite open about being military intelligence and followed us wherever we went – even, comically, when we kept reversing and turning on one occasion when we got lost. They were friendly, helpful at times, suggesting interesting places to visit or film. Undoubtedly their presence in the background somewhat inhibited people, like the fishermen selling their catch in the Sunday-morning market, from sharing their views about the forthcoming election day. But we went all over the city and did manage on the whole to meet the people we wanted to talk to.

In fact, being tailed by the security forces was useful in a way. With such an escort, that same January we paid a rare visit to one of Jaffna’s many high-security zones, areas under army control whose residents have been evicted. It was eerie. The houses were now cloaked, almost engulfed, by vegetation, some of the walls barely peeping out. Idols of Hindu deities could be seen in shrines, as all over Jaffna, but these were no longer being visited, no longer receiving the prayers of believers. Our driver, from the town, had never visited such a zone and was shocked. By now some of this land is being restored to its owners, but it is a long haul.

On more than one occasion in 2010, I applied to go north with a small team. Each time we were turned down by the authorities, even though we wanted to report on the supposedly open proceedings of the government’s home-grown commission looking at the last years of the war – a body much criticised internationally but vigorously defended by Colombo. But then – fast forward to Omanthai and our recent visit – in July of this year the government announced that it would no longer restrict foreigners from travelling in most of the north. That is not quite true. Journalists still need special permission, but now via the Ministry of Mass Media and Information, not Defence.


This time we had our letter of permission, and duly waved it at any soldier we saw. At the entry point, security personnel sat in huts of corrugated iron, the rooms filled with thick ledgers, details of visitors past. They checked the document carefully and, eventually, waved us through. As we were about to get back into our vehicle, the wind kicked up a big cloud of dust, engulfing us all. The female soldiers were almost helpless with laughter. The whole exchange, the whole crossing, turned out to be a moment of goodwill.

Just a few years back, there was one government checkpoint here and another one manned by the LTTE not far up the road northwards. The security regimen at the time was very different. ‘All the tyres would be removed from vehicles coming in from the north,’ our driver – a northerner – told us, ‘just to make sure there were no explosives.’ No longer.

As you head north on the A9, often known as the Kandy-Jaffna Road, the war’s legacy is never far from view. Unescorted by the soldiers, we passed a former LTTE tax administration building – now a petrol pump. Other, flattened, buildings remind you that, in 2007-08, everyone had fled this region. However, the blackened fields also show that today people are back, slashing, burning and clearing, trying to make the soil fertile. Clusters of soldiers went by on tractors and, with extraordinary regularity, there were neat, manicured army camps and signs showing how northern Sri Lanka is divided up: Welcome to 66 Division, Welcome to 561 Brigade. For how much longer will the north remain essentially one huge garrison? For a lot longer, it seems.

There are a few large, white Buddhist dagobas – stupas – some of them newly put up. A politically conscious Tamil might tell you there are too many. A Sinhalese will tell you absolutely not: Why shouldn’t the security forces have their Buddhist places of worship? In Sri Lanka, nothing can be seen in isolation from politics, from the war, from the often conflicting worldviews of the different ethnic identities. There is controversy over place names, with burgeoning accounts of how Tamil names are being changed to Sinhala ones. A national newspaper printed a photograph of the sign on the newly reopened Omanthai railway station rendering the name, in the Latin alphabet, as Omantha – the Sinhala version. A letter-writer to a newspaper has claimed that street names in the north are being named after Sri Lankan soldiers who died in the war. She quotes a Tamil resident as saying, ‘Granted that they fought and won the war, but Tamil people don’t feel it right to name roads here after Sinhala soldiers.’

At any rate, there are of course Tamil Hindu shrines as well. Behind one, a temple was being lovingly built, with intricate carvings of gods, sacred beasts and flowers. The temple has been 22 years in the making, but the Tamil caretakers told me it has always been a sacred place, where travellers stop for a blessing. These men, like almost everyone else in these parts, were caught in the horrors of the final war zone, forced by the Tigers to move with them as they retreated from government forces and prevented from leaving, then bombarded by – mainly – the government. They had been driven from their homes earlier.

One of the caretakers, Rajendran, told us his brother had been killed. Another, Murugesan, lost his 24-year-old son. ‘I must have seen 10,000 bodies in the war zone,’ he said. ‘If you weren’t in the bunker, you would die.’ The men gripped our hands firmly; they seemed thirsting to speak to visitors, to have contact with us.

Continuing north, the road is lined with large hoardings for things such as Airtel mobile-phone services. Welcome to the modern world. At Mankulam we stopped for breakfast. There was just one obvious place to eat, and it was of a genre now widespread in the north: a military-run cafe. The Cafe@224-A9, a reference to its milestone position, served up a mean fried rice and good Sri Lankan ‘short eats’, the ever-popular pastries, as well as Lipton tea, Sri Lankan-style – milky and sugary.

Next to the food-and-drink kiosks, one soldier trimmed the hair of another at a military-run barber shop. The soldiers had tried to make the place homely, having brought in a small merry-go-round – though there were no children when we visited, only some goats. The soldiers told us that, on most days, they play Tamil films on their wall-mounted television to get the local kids visiting.

At almost the northern extremity of the mainland, before the Jaffna peninsula, lies Kilinochchi, the former LTTE headquarters. Here, at first glance, life seems normal. A year ago no building here had a roof, but it is different now. Shops line the main road. When I dropped into some of them, however I was reminded of the abnormality lurking just below the surface.

The first shop we visited was a jeweller’s. The man on duty, who greeted us warmly, said he had lost everything in the war. Like most others in Kilinochchi, he had been caught in the final battleground. We asked how things are now. In answer, he merely turned, lifted his shirt and showed us shrapnel wounds.

In the next shop, a strikingly beautiful young woman was dispensing medicines. She smiled shyly, and we asked a bland question: How is life now? ‘I was hit in a shell attack,’ she said. ‘I lost a leg.’

From palmyrah to coconut

Not everyone was wounded, but most, like the temple guardians, remain severely traumatised. That includes those who fought – on both sides. The most northerly part of our road journey, from Elephant Pass at the base of the Jaffna peninsula to the city itself, had all appearances of being the most unsafe. Nowhere else is the road so heavily flanked by signs warning of uncleared mines. Along this road, the frontline between the government and the Tigers shifted as the conflict ebbed back and forth.

In Jaffna town we met a young army corporal on patrol. He told us of the time the Tamil Tigers broke the ceasefire, not far along the road. ‘Many of my comrades were sleeping. Others were playing cricket,’ he said. ‘The LTTE caught us unprepared. They stole our uniforms and started shooting. There were so many dead bodies on both sides. I feel so sad because of the friends I lost. Even the LTTE looked like innocent young people. One looked like my sister’s son. They could have been nice people – maybe they could have been my friends.’

In the same city we met a young man who had been part of the LTTE, right up to the very final days of the war. ‘We felt fear,’ he admitted, ‘especially when we saw others die.’ There are moments like that in Sri Lanka today: when the common humanity of people on both sides of the country’s divide is manifest. But a traveller in the north of Sri Lanka will also see things that serve to divide emotions and do not seem calculated to bridge the country’s sore divide.

In Kilinochchi, right by the road, half a dozen soldiers, supervised by an officer, scrupulously tended to a huge monument (see photo) to the government’s war victory. One soldier snipped at the grass with scissors. Its centrepiece is a massive concrete cube representing the Tamil Tigers’ violent insurrection, pierced and cracked by a large bullet said to symbolise the ‘sturdiness of the invincible Sri Lankan army’, and topped with a ‘flower of peace’. The adjacent tablet says President Mahinda Rajapakse was ‘born for the grace of the nation’.

While we were there, a busload of Sinhalese tourists from the highlands, including a Buddhist monk, arrived to gaze admiringly at the monument before continuing on their way. By contrast, few local Tamil people seem to visit. One told us he finds the monument insulting, bombastic. The same sharply contrasted emotions apply in places where the military and the government have simply razed LTTE cemeteries and constructed new buildings – including at least one military base – on top of them. Thousands among the former Tiger fighters were forcibly conscripted, many of them children, and some lie buried there.

As some people – including me – go north, others go (or are forced to go) south. During the second week of September the government brought about 500 alleged former LTTE cadres to the deep south of the island on a tour conducted as part of their ‘rehabilitation’ process. (This group was among the 11,700 being put through this controversial procedure in government-run camps.) One newspaper said the tour was aimed at exposing them to Sinhalese culture. It is all deeply paternalistic, but it is the pattern of the new Sri Lanka. Like every other big government-organised programme, it has been given a Sinhala name, in this case the picturesque Thalruppawen polruppawata (From palmyrah grove to coconut grove). Pictures of the large crowd of Tamil ‘visitors’ show them streaming through the streets of Matara, the town at the southern tip of the island, wearing yellow T-shirts, which the government says are ‘symbolic of their desire to get back to normal life’.

A curious journey indeed, and one capped by the ex-rebels playing a cricket match against a team including the former Sri Lanka captain and now government MP, Sanath Jayasuriya. The former Tigers won. It must have been a sweet victory indeed.

Charles Haviland is BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka.

© Himal

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