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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

CAUGHT IN LIMBO

In Jaffna's uneasy peace, no one dares to put any trust in the future

By Arjuna Ranawana / Jaffna


Go to a breakdown of President Kumaratunga's political solution

KRISHNA COVERS HIS EYES WITH HIS hand as the flood of memories hits him. For the past decade, he and his family have lived through horrific times in Sri Lanka's war-torn northern city of Jaffna. The 39-year-old librarian remembers the worst night of all. "It was October 30, 1995," he recalls. "We heard the [government] army was attacking. There were rumors that the Tiger rebels [who controlled Jaffna at the time] were asking people to leave. They said they planned to use poison gas against the army."

Earlier in the day, government aircraft had dropped leaflets asking civilians to seek shelter in temples and churches. Krishna (who, like other single-name Jaffna residents mentioned, requested anonymity) took his children -- three boys and twin girls -- to Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, Jaffna's holiest Hindu shrine. The temple was crowded with tens of thousands of frightened people. "Around ten at night, the Tigers came in a van and made an announcement over loudspeakers that we should leave the city," says Krishna. "They said anyone not past the city's arched entrance by dawn would face serious consequences."

At 2 a.m., Krishna, his children and his aging mother began the trek out of the city. They were part of the nearly half a million people who made up the exodus. "There were so many people on the road that we had to walk single-file," says Krishna. "Many fell by the wayside."

Accompanying Krishna was James, a retired teacher. "A few people had torches and that was the only light," he says. "Occasionally, the army would fire flares far to the north. The whole scene was lit by these flashes of light. It was surreal. There was disappointment, anger and despair. We thought we'd never see our homes again."

Asiaweek Map by Justin Dubber

In Sri Lanka, tensions between the majority Sinhalese, who are mostly Buddhist, and the minority Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, go back a long way. The heart of the matter is the perception by Tamils that they have been discriminated against by the Sinhalese. After British colonialists left the island in 1948, there were agitations for self-rule in Tamil-dominant areas in the north and east, including Jaffna. This idea was fiercely resisted by most Sinhalese, who felt that the Tamils were out to divide the country and to grab more than their due share. Simmering tensions escalated into all-out civil war in 1983, when mobs targeted Colombo's Tamil residents after 13 soldiers were killed in Jaffna by separatists.

M.S. Sriragulan, 53, who now runs a stationery store in Jaffna, remembers those days of horror. "I was working in a tile factory near Colombo when Sinhalese mobs began attacking Tamils," he says. "My friends helped me escape and I came to Jaffna. I had no job here." The killings forced many Tamils living in the south to flee to Jaffna. At the same time, Sinhalese living in the northern Tamil areas were also attacked, and they fled in the opposite direction.

The population of Jaffna Peninsula soared as refugees poured in. This meant plenty of recruits for the 30 or so guerrilla groups operating in the area. Often armed and trained by India, these militants were regarded by Tamils as protectors of the people. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) emerged as the most for-midable of the separatist groups. Capable of shooting up both government troops and rival factions, they acquired a reputation for single-minded ruthlessness that overshadowed all the rest.

Serious fighting erupted in Jaffna in 1987, when the army made a determined effort to wrest the peninsula from guerrilla hands. "We had a taste of the real war," says Krishna. "One day, a [government] plane bombed the public reading room near where I was working. There were bodies everywhere."

After weeks of intense fighting, the army took over the Vadamarachchi region, an area in the northern part of the peninsula. At that stage, the LTTE revealed how far they were willing to go. A young Tiger drove a truck full of explosives into an army camp, killing hundreds of soldiers. "That was the day the suicide cult began," remembers James. "It confirmed that the LTTE and their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran were truly committed to a separate Tamil state. This captured the imagination of the people, who felt here finally were the true patriots."

Before the army went any further, India intervened. New Delhi pressured Colombo into agreeing to devolve power to the provinces in exchange for disarming the guerrillas. "Our hopes rose," says James. "Here was a chance for real peace and stability." Those hopes were soon dashed. The Tigers opposed the deal and fought the Indian Peace-Keeping Force that was deployed in northern Sri Lanka to enforce the agreement. In October 1987, the IPKF took Jaffna. Hundreds of people died in the fighting. The LTTE retreated to the Vanni jungles, immediately south of the peninsula.

Subhash, a 53-year-old government engineer, remembers this as the lowest point in his life. A Tamil, he was working in the government-controlled town of Vavuniya, while his wife and three daughters lived in Jaffna. "I came to see my family after the IPKF took over, and my wife begged me not to go back," he says. "There were daily reports of rapes and looting by soldiers in Jaffna, so I stayed. I could not report for work, so I lost my job." Nonetheless, a period of relative peace ensued; some reconstruction began and people started picking up their lives. A reverse migration took place, with several hundred thousand leaving the peninsula for the south. Now more than half the country's three million Tamils live among Sinhalese in the south.

The lull ended in 1990, when Sri Lanka demanded that the IPKF withdraw. This allowed the Tigers to retake Jaffna in a matter of days. They decimated the Tamil National Army, a militia armed and trained by the Indians. Colombo continued to send food, supplies and civil servant salaries to Jaffna through civilian-run cooperative societies though it had no control over the area. The army was confined to a base at Palaly in the north of the peninsula. After fruitless peace talks, the government resorted to an economic embargo.

Subhash went south again and to his relief was re-employed. He visited his family once every four months, no simple matter given that transport links were cut. He would go part of the way by bus and then rent a bicycle for the rest of the journey. "It was a 60-km ride and took me six hours to pedal that distance," he says. "I would stop and sleep on the way."

In Jaffna, the economic embargo began to bite. Fuel was strictly rationed. Says Krishna: "We used to get a few drops of petrol to start the engine of my motorbike, and then we ran it on kerosene." Ordinary batteries were banned because the Tigers were using them to make bombs. A dynamo attached to a bicycle became the power source for radios. "One of us would pedal the stationary bike when we wanted to listen to the BBC and [Manila-based] Radio Veritas," says Krishna. Then the government stopped the supply of urea fertilizers, saying the Tigers were using it to enhance the power of land mines. Agriculture, the backbone of the peninsula's economy, ground to a halt.

Meanwhile, the LTTE's grip on the city tightened. They enforced their own penal code through their police force. People critical of the Tigers were declared traitors and killed. The guerrillas took a cut from traders bringing in commodities and seized the properties of those who had fled. Rich businessmen who refused to pay off the Tigers were reportedly kidnapped for ransom. Government employees were forced to work on farms, while ordinary people were marshaled to dig trenches and build fortifications for the guerrillas. Almost every household had to supply food parcels to LTTE cadres. A huge cemetery was built for Tiger "martyrs."

In 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga came to power on a platform of peace with the rebels. Her efforts at peace talks broke down, and the LTTE launched what they called Eelam War Three. After sporadic fighting, the government decided to go for the jugular: Jaffna City. Says Deputy Defense Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte: "It was an untenable situation. Here was the government sending food and supplies, and paying the salaries of government servants, who were obeying the orders of the LTTE."

The successful operation to take Jaffna was called Riviresa ("Sunshine"). Tens of thousands of troops, backed by artillery and helicopter gunships, started attacking Tiger camps in October 1995. Nearly a thousand soldiers and several thousand rebels perished in the fighting.

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For six hours, Krishna and his family walked with the crowd. "We realized why the Tigers had ordered the exodus," says Krishna. The LTTE not only wanted the civilians to remain under their control but were using the refugees as a human shield. "They could not be targeted from the air because of us."

That night, half a million people poured into Chavakachcheri and Point Pedro to the east of Jaffna City. Each town could support a population of less than 50,000. The LTTE urged the people to cross Jaffna Lagoon, which separates the peninsula from the mainland, and enter rebel-controlled Vanni. The Tigers operated a boat service, charging 1,500 rupees (about $25) per head for the trip.

In the crowded refugee towns, it was not long before tempers began to fray. One day in April 1996, harried LTTE cadres supervising the shipping across the lagoon started arguing with people wanting to cross. At the end of the spat, one Tiger yelled: "If you want to, then go back to Jaffna!"

Krishna remembers that day: "Just one lorry headed off toward Jaffna. It was followed by another -- and then another." Soon the news came down the line. Contrary to LTTE propaganda, the army was not slaughtering the residents, but instead giving out free food and candy. En masse, the refugees started back for home. By the end of April, nearly 400,000 Tamils had re-entered government-controlled areas.

Calm has now returned to Jaffna, but there is tension beneath the quiet. In most parts of the peninsula, the army and the LTTE still play a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. Since January, 68 rebels, 41 security forces personnel and 32 non-combatants have died in the city, where around 30,000 government troops are deployed. Four days before Krishna spoke to Asiaweek, two armed Tiger rebels were shot dead just outside his house.

In and around the city, there are frequent checkpoints. A young Tamil describes Jaffna today as an open prison camp. "We have no freedom to go where we want," he complains. "The army is everywhere and checking everything." James is equally critical of the stifling climate. "We are a people who have two guns pointed at our heads. We have to be careful about both sides."

Still, ordinary Tamils have been giving "unprecedented" cooperation to the authorities, says Maj.-Gen. Lionel Balagalle, one of the commanding officers in the region. Krishna concurs. "The people are giving information about the Tigers' activities," he says. "It's not that they're completely on the army's side, but they just don't want trouble. They've had enough of war." This was demonstrated earlier in the year when two Tiger leaders and their bodyguards, who had slipped into Jaffna, were killed in an army ambush. Clearly, their presence had been reported to the military.

But the Tigers' cloak of terror remains. Last year, the army says, small strikes such as grenade attacks took place almost daily, especially on food queues. In isolated areas, posters have been put up threatening "traitors" with death. At least five people with supposedly close links to the army have been killed, including a 22-year-old woman engaged to a government soldier. With a trace of sarcasm, Krishna comments: "Now you know why we are the most obedient people in the world. Anybody comes around with a gun, we obey."

The army has not been without fault either. Of major concern to the people are the "disappearances" -- a euphemism for extrajudicial executions -- of suspected guerrillas. By law, any arrest by security forces must be recorded and the next of kin notified. Yet Jaffna residents say up to 750 people have gone missing since the army took over. (The authorities counter the number is 379.)

Under President Kumaratunga's orders, the cases are now being investigated; human rights monitoring units have been posted at battalion level and soldiers are being instructed on what constitutes a violation. Maj.-Gen. Balagalle admits his troops need an image upgrade. "For many young Tamils living in Jaffna, the only Sinhalese they've seen is a soldier in combat gear, apparently out to get them. Part of our task is to erase that image."

Meanwhile, Jaffna struggles to recover from the devastation of war. Six out of ten buildings have been completely or partially destroyed in the countless battles. The main market area is now functioning, but only the shops in the bottom story of the market are open; the upper floor has been wiped out by an explosion. Electricity has been restored, but for just four hours a day. Only 10 telephone lines operate out of the city. The wait to make a call to the south or overseas can be as long as a day. At the most conservative estimate, it will take nearly $1 billion to rebuild Jaffna.

Dusk gathers over the peninsula. Silhouetted against the flame-colored sky are the tall, dark palmyra palms. As the shadows lengthen, it is time for the week-long homage to the god Murugan at Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil to reach its climax. It is the first time in seven years that the Hindu temple has been able to celebrate in style, and devotees are out in force. The women are decked in their best saris, looking like bright jewels scattered among barechested men. The atmosphere is relaxed and festive.

Subhash sits and watches as the giant sacred chariot of the temple is drawn around the compound, followed by priests singing ancient songs. "This is the high point for the Hindus in Jaffna," he says. A military helicopter clatters overhead and showers the devotees with flowers. "This is the same air force that once dropped bombs," muses Subhash.

Elsewhere, diligent farmers are watering freshly cultivated fields of vegetables. The fertilizer embargo has been lifted, and neat rows of carrots, beets, chilies and onions have sprung up everywhere -- at least, where there are no mines. The biggest buyer of vegetables is the army -- 18 tons a day -- but the farmers hope they will soon be able to send their produce to the south, their traditional market.

Thomas Saundranayagam, the Roman Catholic bishop of Jaffna, compares the resilience of his people to that of the palmyra. "Nobody waters it, but it grows strong and sturdy. The Jaffna man is like that." There is still some way to go, he adds: "The Tamils have fought for the right to be equal citizens in this country. The LTTE have been at the forefront of that, and the government must talk to them." James expresses similar sentiments. "The people are happy there is no war," he says. "But we want peace with dignity. We do not want people with guns here anymore." His wish is that of all Jaffna residents. Will it ever come true?


THE POLITICAL SOLUTION?

WHILE Sri Lanka's northern region remains the main cockpit of fighting, sometimes the war moves south. On October 15, guerrillas detonated a truck bomb in Colombo's business and tour-ist district. Some 18 people died. President Chandrika Kuma-ratunga is fighting back. She is maintaining the military pressure on the Tigers, but is also pursuing a political solution. On October 24, her government tabled in Parliament a plan to devolve autonomy to minority areas. Key points:

Sri Lanka will be changed from a "unitary state" to an "indissoluble Union of Regions."

The regions will have power over local land, taxes, police, even media. But there will be a National Police Commission.

All political parties must be represented in the regions.

At the central level, the current executive presidential system will be abolished. Instead, the prime minister will become head of government and chief executive.


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