All is not normal in eastern Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka)

Column: Pursuit of Peace Colombo, Sri Lanka - More than a year and a half after the Sri Lankan government retook all inhabited territory in the east and dismantled the administrative apparatus of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam there, periodic reports of violence and killings continue in that former war zone.


There is an informal travel advisory against foreigners travelling to the east on account of the absence of security guarantees, and government members do not travel there without special security.

When the National Peace Council held its Human Rights Day event in Ampara in the east on Dec. 10, I found myself duty bound to participate, despite family concerns about safety. As we anticipated an especially prolonged journey due to tight security measures on the way that would slow down travel, we allocated ten hours for the journey from Colombo to Ampara, just to make sure to be there on time. We completed the journey in a little over seven hours, having left Colombo at 3:30 a.m. that morning.

The absence of a large number of soldiers guarding the road, especially within the boundaries of the Eastern Province, and the limited number of security checkpoints at which we had to stop, was not what we had expected. Although our driver had to get down at checkpoints on a few occasions to write the vehicle registration number and other details, the rest of us could remain in our vehicle even at the security checkpoints. This was not due to any special treatment.

As we reached Ampara much earlier than anticipated, and without much hassle, we decided to drive further into the district and see the coastal areas. We drove up to Kalmunai. The visible picture was the same, of a limited security presence, few restrictions on travel and a relatively normal life, as far as we could make out by looking upon the passing scene. On the other hand, we did see those in public buses having to get down and walk through the checkpoints with their belongings.

At the level of physical visibility the situation in Ampara would appear to be one of normalcy, and this is how the government seeks to project it. Government spokespersons often say that the east is indeed a model that they wish the north to follow.

The key components of the eastern model would be the military defeat of the LTTE, the dismantling of its administrative structures, the conduct of provincial elections and the setting up of an elected provincial administration. The sequence is demilitarization to be followed by democracy and the good things that accompany it.

On the other hand, informal discussions with government authorities and civil society representatives in Ampara disclosed another reality that is not immediately visible to the short-term visitor from outside the area. We were told that 50 meters away from the roads we had travelled on, and on either side of them, there were soldiers stationed. They were there to deter the LTTE from coming in and to safeguard the civilian population from hit-and-run attacks. The limited military presence on the side of the main road is part of the security strategy not to create an atmosphere of tension in the minds of the people.

It was said that about 100 LTTE cadre are believed to be in the nearby jungles, including the famous Yala Wildlife Sanctuary. As seen in the Mumbai attacks, small groups of trained militants can cause havoc to civil life by attacking the crowded buses that ply by day and night and even military personnel who patrol the roads.

There were such attacks several months ago on passenger buses. Indeed, about five months ago, one of the members of our group had seen two policemen in the vehicle in front being shot by gunmen with silencers and dropping to the ground.

We were told that the security forces are ceaselessly engaged in searching for landmines, claymore mines and LTTE cadre who seek to disturb the fragile peace and bring death to people. The appearance of normalcy at first impression is therefore not real. There is a constant sense of being at the razor's edge for knowledgeable inhabitants of the province.

The killing of between 30 to 50 civilians by gunmen in the past few weeks in the east has added to the people's sense of insecurity. Not all of these killings are blamed on the LTTE. The chief minister of the Eastern Province, Pillayan, has even resorted to a hunger strike to protest his powerlessness to remedy this terrible situation.

There is an interesting contrast between the situation today, where the government claims normalcy, and what existed in 2002-2003 during the height of the Ceasefire Agreement. A few weeks after that agreement was signed, thousands of people from outside the east journeyed there for reasons of tourism and business without fear. The commitment given by the LTTE and the then government to stop fighting with guns gave people confidence that their security was guaranteed.

On the other hand, the situation today suggests that the present government's formula of militarily defeating the LTTE and setting up a new administration in the face of combat with the LTTE is not a formula to give people confidence that their security is guaranteed. It may be a formula for a visible normalcy to outside observers. But for the people who live in that area, the insecurity that comes from continuing killings by the warring parties will continue to haunt them.

Those who know of this insecurity include the security forces. More than anyone else they are aware of the volatile nature of the region in which they have to function. As a result they are the first ones to offer special security to those who visit the east and who might pose targets to those whose interest it is to show that the government's restoration of normalcy in the east is not normalcy at all.

On our journey we were beneficiaries of this sense of responsibility. But special security measures are not the answer that people are looking for. They want true peace and security. Unless a peace process resumes there is no hope of peace at all.

(Dr. Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, an independent advocacy organization. He studied economics at Harvard College and holds a doctorate in law from Harvard Law School. ©Copyright Jehan Perera.)

Von: 17.12.2008, By Jehan Perera,

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