Maravanpalau Peace Village in Jaffna
Author: Ravi R Prasad
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 12/08/2004
Category: Special Report
Sri Lanka is once again in a grip of fear that the cease-fire will collapse. The separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have threatened to return to hostilities if the government does not begin unconditional talks on handing over the administration of the Tamil-dominated north and east to them. The government on its part has refused.
While the interlocutors in the peace process, the Norwegian government and its envoys, are trying to break the deadlock, violence has escalated in the north and east. The breakaway group of the LTTE is striking the guerrillas hard where it hurts. The offices of LTTE are being bombed in the east and its cadres targeted by the Karuna faction. The LTTE, on its part, is allegedly eliminating its rivals and also those who oppose it.
Disregarding the threat to their lives and oblivious of the political games being played by the politicians and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the residents of Maravanpalau village go about their daily work. They are busy reconstructing their houses, which were destroyed in shelling and aerial bombardment a few years ago. When government troops and the LTTE fought pitched battles to gain control over the northern Jaffna peninsula, hundreds of thousands of residents fled to safer places and were repeatedly displaced as the frontline shifted every day. The exodus from Marvanpalau began in 1995 when the armed forces launched Operation Riviresa to capture the peninsula from the clutches of the Tamil Tigers. The government was successful in driving the rebels into the dense forests of the Wanni mainland. It was a major set back to the LTTE and its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, who considers Jaffna the heartland of its struggle for a separate homeland. As for the residents, they are now living in what has been dubbed the “Peace Village”, and rather than viewing the soldiers there as “occupiers”, they view them as friends, much to the dismay of the Tigers.
Since then, the LTTE has tried hard to re-establish its control over the peninsula, but has been unsuccessful. In 1999, it launched an attack and overran several military garrisons, but did not manage to enter the peninsula. The residents of Marvanapalau were once against displaced during the confrontation, moving to other parts of the peninsula to wait out the war. It was a long wait for them, as the village fell inside one of the High Security Zones (HSZ) set up by the Sri Lankan Army to keep the LTTE away. “Maravanpalau is the first village close to the frontline on the southwest of the peninsula,”
said Major Kithsiri Liyanage, an infantry officer in the town of Chavakchceri in Jaffna. “If the LTTE attacks the peninsula it has to come through the sea and land close to the village. Therefore, the army needs to keep this High Security Zone, with enough troops deployed to repulse any attack.” After signing the cease-fire agreement with the government in 2002, the LTTE demanded that government forces remove all the high security zones from the peninsula and allow the civilians to return to their homes. The army has refused to accept that demand. It has told the LTTE and the Norwegian interlocutors that until the conflict is resolved and a political solution is in place, the HSZs cannot be removed. “If the LTTE lays down arms, we can remove the High Security Zones,” Lt. Gen.
Lionel Balgalle, former commander of the Sri Lanka Army, told reporters soon after the cease-fire agreement was signed. “What is the guarantee that the LTTE will not break the cease-fire and try to capture Jaffna?”
Several cease-fire agreements have already collapsed. The LTTE calls the armed campaign that ended in 2002 “Eelam War III”, which began in
1995 after a 100 day ceasefire. The Tamil Tiger guerrillas are still insisting on the dismantling of the HSZs, but the army and the government have refused. Owing to several HSZ’s in the peninsula, hundreds of thousands of people are still living away from their homes, some in refugee camps and others with relatives and friends.
However, while the Tigers claim that the local residents fear the military and side with the rebels, the armed forces seem to be proving them wrong. The Peace Village reaffirms the army’s claim that the Tamil residents do not fear them and that the civilians and the soldiers can live in harmony. The residents of the village do not see the soldiers as occupiers of their homeland. “Marvanapalau is a pilot project undertaken by the army to help displaced families return to their homes,” said Major Mervyn Perera, commanding officer of the eight-man engineering unit tasked with reconstructing the village. “We have resettled 87 families that were displaced in 1999.” The army has provided them with all the necessary resources to reconstruct their houses. There is no restriction on the movement of the residents. But they do not need to go out of the HSZ as most of their needs are provided for. Some 100 acres of land has been cleared of landmines and unexploded ordnances, while for those engaged in fishing, an alternate income generation program has been launched. A host of multi-lateral and nongovernmental organizations have also jumped on the Peace Village bandwagon. The World Bank is providing every family with Rs 150’000 (about US$1’450) for the reconstruction of their houses. A French aid agency Action la Faim (Action against Hunger) is constructing toilet facilities. The UN High Commission for Refugees
(UNHCR) is involved in an income generation program, while the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is helping with the nursery and Montessori school in the village. A fair price shop has been set up in the village, where essential commodities are available for prices lower than in the capital Colombo. The LTTE reportedly ordered the residents not to buy anything from the army-run shop, but the residents have disobeyed.
“Why should we be scared of the LTTE?” said Kandiah, a resident of the village, who lost his son in the war. “Here, the army will protect us and we do not have to take orders from the LTTE. The army officers do not give us orders, they make requests through the citizens’
committee.” The Marvanapalau peace village is an experiment to win hearts and minds, and so far it is moving along in the desired direction. Most residents say that they would not leave the village even if the LTTE ordered them to do so. In spite of the presence of armed forces in the northern Jaffna peninsula and most of the Tamil-dominated towns in the east of the country, the Tamil Tigers have established a de-facto administration. They collect taxes, issue orders to government officials, and also decide on development projects. Last month, fishermen in Jaffna held a demonstration against the LTTE, after the rebel naval unit shot and sunk a few fishing boats. Some fishermen were injured in the incident. The political leaders of the LTTE tried to pacify the irate fishermen, but to no avail. The fishermen also attacked the office of a Tamil language daily, the Uthayan, accusing the newspaper of being a mouthpiece of the LTTE. This situation is something the Tigers find difficult to accept, and traditionally, any form of rebellion has been severely punished. The residents of Maravanpalau and Jaffna peninsula have not forgotten the lamp post killings of those who refused to accept the LTTE’s supremacy – but for now, they are putting on a brave face and hoping the government will protect them.
The realities on the ground have changed with the cease-fire agreement and peace process, as the benefits have slowly begun trickling down to the people. The Tigers are now facing an uprising. In the east, the LTTE commander, Karuna, rebelled against Prabhakaran and his northern faction. It was expression of how much the eastern Tamils have become disillusioned with the LTTE, which is dominated by Tamil leaders and cadres from the north. Karuna accused Prabhakaran of treating the eastern Tamils like stepchildren. Now, the Muslims are also up in arms. On Thursday, they staged a massive demonstration in the eastern town of Ampara, protesting against extortion by the LTTE. They attacked shops owned by Tamils in the town. In the northwestern town of Mannar, Muslims attacked LTTE offices last Thursday night, forcing the police to impose a curfew to prevent ethnic clashes. However, the LTTE is continuing with its campaign to silence the opposition. In 1990, after the Indian Peacekeeping Force left Sri Lanka, the LTTE unleashed a reign of terror. Leaders of all other militant groups and Tamil political parties that had joined the political mainstream were assassinated. The Tamil Tigers are on the same path again, killing their opponents after the signing of a cease-fire agreement. The Eelam People’s Democratic Party has lost some 180 leaders and cadres since the ceasefire. Last week, the party held three demonstrations outside the Norwegian Embassy in the capital city, displaying the dead bodies of their leaders assassinated by the Tamil Tiger rebels.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga has issued a stern statement warning the LTTE that her government would not tolerate any more political assassinations. Until very recently, the government had refrained from pointing a finger at the LTTE, fearing that it could jeopardize the stalled peace process, but now the president is not so cautious. She has even gone as far as to blame the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, an outfit of Scandinavian nationals deployed to monitor the implementation of the cease-fire agreement, for failing to prevent the murders. The LTTE is visibly upset with the success of the army’s project and the assisting donor organizations. The political head of the LTTE, S. P. Tamilchelvam, who is on a tour in some European countries, said that he would appeal to donor nations not to provide any assistance until there is some forward movement in the peace process, but the peace process is not likely to move forward in the near future. President Kumaratunga’s initiative to involve the main opposition United National Party (UNP), which had signed the cease-fire with the LTTE, has not been successful. The UNP has informed Kumaratunga that it would come on board only after the government begins peace talks with the LTTE.
Even the Tamil National Alliance, a group of lawmakers who owe their political survival to the LTTE, has declined to be a part of the National Council for Peace and Reconciliation proposed by Kumaratunga.
If the LTTE indeed is keen on moving the peace process forward, it should have directed the TNA members to join the National Council, which was scheduled to formally come into existence on Monday. For the government and the president, it is difficult to return to the negotiating table with the LTTE refusing to discuss a political solution for the conflict. The LTTE has said that it would only discuss the setting of the Interim Self Government Authority (ISAG), which will be loaded with LTTE cadres as its members, to govern the Tamil dominated north and east of the country. The majority Sinhala community perceives this as LTTE’s recipe to secede from the country and establish a homeland, the Tami Eelam. What Kumaratunga wants is to bring the two parties that represent the majority community together and then negotiate with the LTTE from a position of strength. She says that a consensus between all political parties would help implement the political solution when it is found. But it appears that the political parties are not likely to reach a consensus. Interestingly, the UNP is insisting that the government restart the talks that were derailed in April 2003 while it was in power. The Tamil Tigers had submitted their contentious proposal for the ISAG in October 2003, when the UNP was in the government. But the then-prime minister and now opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe chose to sit tight, knowing that the discussion on the ISGA would open a Pandora’s box. He gave the impression that international pressure would force the rebels to reconsider their proposals. That did not happen, and the UNP lost power. Now it is urging Kumaratunga to do what it would not
Bio: Ravi Prasad is an Analyst based in Sri Lanka. He writes on conflcts, terrorism and international relations on South Asia, South East Asia and the Balkans. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org