Where the truce promise rings hollow
[TamilNet, Wednesday, 20 April 2005, 14:26 GMT]
The cease fire agreement between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers was greeted eagerly by the people of Batticaloa because it held out the hope that their daily lives would be spared of the tensions, fears, anxieties, stress and trauma which they suffered for two long decades of war. They were glad that they could lead normal lives again. Today the cease fire’s promise rings increasingly hollow to them as the Sri Lankan armed forces reintroduce war era measures, which are tinged indelibly with bitter memories of a past the people of Batticaloa wanted to put behind so that they could start their lives anew.
Sri Lankan armed forces say that they have stepped up security in the district to prevent the escalation of violence. But many local residents and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) politicians charge that Colombo is saying this as a pretext to create an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in areas controlled by the Sri Lankan armed forces in Batticaloa.
Sri Lanka’s Inspector General of Police told media this week that security has been beefed up in the Polannaruwa and Batticaloa districts in the wake of the attack on the Karuna Group/ENDLF camp.
Two months ago, Sri Lanka army (SLA) set up a new check point in Welikanda, about 60 kilometres northwest of Batticaloa, on the main highway from the eastern district to Colombo.
SLA soldier in Batticaloa (Library photo)
People traveling by bus have to disembark and queue up to have their national identity cards checked and their luggage searched here.
SLA checks all civilian vehicles near the Oddamavadi Bridge, 34 kilometres north of Batticaloa. Travelers have to alight from buses here too.
The main mode of transport for ordinary people in Batticaloa who travel outside the district is the bus. Trains are slow with unpredictable time tables. More than ninety percent of the buses to distant destinations in other parts of the island take the Batticaloa Polannaruwa road.
This is also the Main Supply Route (MSR) for the Sri Lanka army. Liberation Tigers control most of the territory through which the MSR runs. There are sixteen SLA camps between Batticaloa and Welikanda – a distance of about 60 kilometres.
SLA makes spot checks on long distance buses at several places on this road at night. Passengers fear that paramilitaries and robbers could don military fatigues and rob the buses after dark.
SLA used to close the Batticaloa-Polannaruwa road between Oddamavadi and Mannampitiya from six p.m. to seven p.m. before Colombo signed a cease fire agreement with the Liberation Tigers. SLA still closes the road between Batticaloa and Valaichenai where it passed through its garrisons in Mylambaaveli, Kommathurai and Morakkottaanchenai – a distance of 32 kilometres - from six p.m. to seven a.m.
“People traveling from Batticaloa to other parts of the island are now subjected to severe checking at Oddamavadi and Welikanda. They are made to get off buses and wait in queues at these checkpoints. This is a return to the war days when the people of Batticaloa were inordinately and inhumanly harassed in the name of security. ”, said Mr. Senathirajah Jeyanandamoorthy, Tamil National Alliance MP for Batticaloa.
STF soldiers in Thirukkovil (Library photo)
He scoffs at the suggestion that the Sri Lankan armed forces have stepped up checking and searching to war time levels as a consequence of recent violence between the Liberation Tigers and paramilitaries since last year.
“If they want to control violence Sri Lankan armed forces should stop arming paramilitary groups that operate from safe havens in the Polannaruwa district which are close to the Batticaloa border. These groups are responsible for the violence that has disrupted peace and created a climate of fear in this region. Why are they harassing innocent civilians instead of disarming the paramilitaries? The new military roadblock at Santhiveli gives the impression that the SLA is preparing for war. We need to build peace here. Not new military posts,” he asks.
Two weeks ago the Sri Lanka army built a new road block and a check post bunker at Santhiveli, 26 kilometres north of Batticaloa. Traffic has to now pass through this road SLA road block.
Further south in Akkaraipattu, 64 kilometres from Batticaloa, Special Task Force (STF), the elite counter insurgency arm of the Sri Lankan armed forces, has a check post by its camps in the old hospital on the road to Thirukkovil. All vehicles entering the Thirukkovil region are checked and registered here. However, this did not prevent a suspected paramilitary cadre from shooting and wounding the LTTE’s women’s wing leader for the Batticaloa – Amparai district and her two colleagues not far from this STF check post.
The STF allowed only local residents and a few NGO personnel to pass beyond the Old Akkaraipattu Hospital camp to enter the Thirukkovil region during the war. (A severe economic embargo was clamped on this area until the cease fire)
Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka army has ordered fishermen in the Tsunami hit village of Kaluwankerni, 21 kilometres north of Batticaloa, to register themselves at the local camp.
“This was a war time practice. We were allowed to fish freely after the cease fire. Is the army preparing for war in Batticaloa? Families here in Kaluwankerni are worried”, said a fisheries society official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The situation is further exacerbated by criminal elements which are exploiting this atmosphere of fear and uncertainty to murder and extort money.
Police recently arrested a gang of youth pretending to be Liberation Tigers that had threatened the owner of long distance buses in Batticaloa town and demanded money from him. The bus owner reported the matter to the Police as the LTTE had issued several warnings to the public in Batticaloa to be on the alert for extortionists demanding money in their name.
Police investigators found that the gang had weapons and was allegedly involved in the murder of a man for his motorbike. Until the activities of this youth gang came to light the murder was considered a paramilitary killing.
“Fear rules only in areas controlled by the Sri Lankan armed forces. Nadesan was killed in the heart of Batticaloa town. His colleagues were threatened with death here. It is therefore the Sri Lankan government’s responsibility to show that it is genuinely committed to peace by stopping military measures that invoke very bitter memories of the war era in people’s minds here”, a journalist in the eastern town told TamilNet. He stopped using his byline after gunmen suspected to be members of a paramilitary working with the Sri Lankan armed forces shot dead senior correspondent and columnist Ayiathurai Nadesan in May last year.