Feature Article

Veeramunai's perpetual fear

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 04 February 1998, 23:59 GMT]
On the night of 3rd January, continuous firing by Muslim home guards could heard by the residents of Veeramunai village in the Ampara District.

It began about 9:15 p.m. and lasted till 3:00 a.m. the next morning.

"Both Navathinam and Niththiyanandan lived with us. We were terrified and stayed indoors. About 4 a.m. in the morning, there was knocking on the front door. When I opened it, there were two armed home guards standing outside. They entered the house, shook the boys awake and took them out. Then, the boys were shot in cold blood before our eyes," said Mr. Rasiah, father of Navathinam one of the Tamil youths who were killed early this month by Muslim home guards in retaliation to the death of one of their colleagues in an LTTE attack.

The TamilNet correspondent visited the area this week and spoke to several residents.

After the incident, the Sammanthurai police arrested seven home guards suspected of involvement in the killing of the two boys. There was an identification parade. Niththiyandan's father K. Moothathamby was asked to identify the killers.

"If the fellows who shot our children are not among these seven persons, what do we do?" asked Mr. Moothathamby.

Three days later a group of persons came home and told Mr. Moothathamby that if something happened to the arrested home guards, he would pay for it dearly.

Sammanthurai Pattu
In pre-British times Sammanthurai was the centre of the fiefdom which was known as Sammanthurai Pattu. This was ruled by a matrilineal clan of Vanni chieftains who endowed the temple in adjacent Veeramunai. It was also a thriving sea - lagoon port. Sammanthurai Pattu was one of the eight fiefdoms which constituted Batticaloa. The Portuguese entered into various agreements with the Batticaloa Vanni chiefs from time to time from 1542 to 1639 to buy influence, trade and build a fort in the island of Puliyanthivu. The Dutch were unable to completely subdue the region. The British had to face a rebellion in 1796, soon after they captured Batticaloa fort from the Dutch. Seven years later they were driven out of the region and were besieged in the fort when the Vanni chiefs of Batticaloa arose in rebellion against them in 1803. (British reinforcements fought for two months to recapture Batticaloa)

The former Vanni fiefdoms of Akkaraipattu, Karawagupattu and Sammanthuraipattu which became administrative divisions under the British formed the Batticaloa south electorate under the Donoughmore constitution. This was first represented by Mudaliyar S.O Canagaratnam and then by S. Dharmaratnam in the Ceylon State Council.

The Sri Lankan government merged Akkaraipattu, Karawagupattu and Sammanthuraipattu with Sinhala colonies which were sponsored by the state under the Gal Oya irrigation scheme and declared the region as a separate administrative district in 1961 and named it Ampara.

Muslims were settled in the Sammanthurai Pattu in the 17th century. The descendants of the Vanni chieftains who are known as Podiyar owned most of the lands in these parts until the fifties and a large extent of the old valuable paddy fields in the Sammanthurai Pattu remained in their hands until the early eighties.

The fortunes of the Tamil Podiyar families who dominated the Sammanthurai town traditionally, declined since the fifties mainly due to litigation and family feuds which were compounded by their matriclan system. The anti Tamil violence which erupted in these parts from time to time during the war and systematic state discrimination against them since the eighties have taken a heavy toll on them.

In recent times, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress has begun to assert that the Sammanthurai electorate is part of its proposed Muslim regional council.

The Tamils in Sammanthurai and elsewhere in the Amparai district allege that the SLMC is working on a systematic program, using its clout with the PA regime, to weaken them politically and economically in the region. Their community leaders have complained time and again that the Muslim home guards are encouraged and promoted by the SLMC.

But the murder of Navathinam and his first cousin Niththiyanandan on the night of Jan.3 is nothing new to the residents of that village.

During the past 15 years, the Muslim home guards and the military have become notorious for killing and abducting the hapless people of Veeramunai and the surrounding Tamil villages.

The harassment however began intensifying in 1990. T Sabanayagam, a local school teacher remembers 1990 incidents very well. The first victims were Tamils displaced from nearby villages who had come to Veeramunai seeking refuge when the SLA, moving into the east soon after Eelam War II broke out in June 1990, went on a rampage in Tamil areas near the Sinhala border in the Ampara district.

"There were 17,500 refugees from Valaththaapuddy, Malvatthai, Veerachcholai, Mallihaiththeevu, Puthunagaram and Kandapuram who had fled to the Sinthayaathirai Pilliyar Kovil in Veeramunai. Because of a lack of space, the Ramakrishna Vithiyalayam, nearby, had to be taken over to house the refugees."

For a month following July 12 1990, the military clearing party surrounded the camp on five occasions and arrested 280 youngsters.

"No one still knows whether these boys and girls are alive or dead. No one knows what happened to them," said Mr. Sabanayagam.

The succession of these terrifying incidents reached a climax on 12 August 1990. Around 9:15 a.m. that day five militiamen of the Sammanthurai home guard unit, entered the camp and began shooting indiscriminately.

"They continued firing for about 40 minutes. When the shooting stopped, 21 men, women and children lay dead and 140 were wounded," said Mr. Sabanayagam.

Among those injured was the village's Pillaiyar temple manager (vannakkar) Sindhathurai, who was also the community leader of Veeramunai village.

They were all admitted to Amparai hospital for medical attention. But as if adding insult to injury, ten more persons, including Mr. Sindhathurai, were abducted from the hospital next day.

Temple manager Mr. Sindhathurai was a fearless man who defied the Muslim home guards who were causing problems to the Tamils at Veeramunai.

Mr. Sabaratnam believes that he was abducted and murdered by the homeguards.

Living in Veeramunai under these circumstances became impossible.

The refugees were ordered to pack their belongings by local government officials and were taken to Thambiluvil, a large Tamil village on the Southeastern coast of the Ampara district.

On April 15, 1992, after two years in refugee camps, the villagers were resettled in Veeramunai. But hardly a year lapsed before a youth called Mehanathan disappeared when he went to buy provisions in a nearby shop.

"The following week Mehanathan's shirt and sarong were found in a pit in the Alavaakarai banana plantation which is in the Muslim quarter of the village. No one knows what happened to him. We assume that he has been murdered" said Mr. Sabaratnam.

Despite intimating influential persons about these incidents there was no relief forthcoming for the villagers. Today , with a series of bad experiences that has made them wise, the people of Veeramunai are as vulnerable as before.

"If we are to live in peace, the home guard camp stationed on the Veeramunai - Sammanthurai border has to be removed," said Mr. Moothathamby.

Related Articles:
06.01.98   Residents fearful of further reprisals
04.01.98   Veeramunai tense after killings
24.09.97   Massacre in eastern Tamil village: 8 killed


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