Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Sri Lanka 101.

The main actors:

GoSL: Government of Sri Lanka. The president and prime minister posts tend to circulate between four or five political families.

LTTE: Liberation Tamil Tiger Eelam. Allegedly the only voice of the Tamil resistance. Leader V. Prabhakaran. Offical LTTE site

Karuna Faction: Split off faction from the LTTE said to represent the eastern Tamils. Led by Colonel Karuna

SLMM : Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission. Nordic truce monitors who are now in trouble since many EU countries have banned the LTTE and the Tigers refuse to have members of those countries serve on the SLMM (Finland, Sweden, Denmark are out, only Norway and Iceland are in). Norway is the big player in this having brokered the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) to begin with in early 2002.
Eric Solheim is the Norwegian star of the peace process.

The country is definitely back to war. I was working there for a while (year and a half) and therefore have something to say about this but first and foremost, a short history lesson. I want everyone to know that this is just stuff I picked up and it is not, by any means, a definitive history (can history really ever be?) and I feel it is necessary to know this background information to really understand where the country is at now.

The Tamils want a separate homeland and have been fighting in this regard for a while now. Everyone knows that. The Tigers are now supposed to be the sole voice of the Tamil people and they claim that ALL Tamils belong to the Tigers, which is not true but they like to think it is and in this vein, coerce villagers, students, young women, old women, young men, old men, kids etc to learn how to defend themselves. For those Tamils that do join the resistance (ah, and I said I would be objective), it is like joining a gang. You don't get jumped in (unless you are a child soldier) but you do get jumped out.

No one should underestimate the power of the Tigers. You could be part of the huge Tamil diaspora, but you will not break the code of silence once you have left. You will be killed, regardless of where you are. An excellent documentary dealing with this can be found at the BBC website here, called No More Tears Sister about Tamil activist, Ranjani Thiranagama, who did belong to the LTTE and then left but continued working in Jaffna.

The Tigers have an interesting history in that there have been lots of internal struggles and to get an idea, read the book, Inside an Elusive Mind – Prabhakaran by M. R. Narayan Swamy. Swamy goes through the two decades of history detailing the rise of Prabhakaran, the leader of the resistance movement. The book stops short of mentioning Colonel Karuna, a recent thorn in the side of the Tigers at the moment. The Tigers want a separate homeland that is in the north and the east of the country. The northern Tamils are seen as the elite Tamils and the eastern Tamils are marginalized within their own movement and in this vein, we have the Karuna Faction split within the LTTE.

Karuna split from the LTTE since he felt that the eastern Tamils were not getting full pieces of the pie and I have no information on how valid his claim is. Karuna has, in a cyclical Sri Lankan pattern, joined forces with the government to take the Tigers out of power. This is very reminiscent of the Indian government in the late 80's, early 90's joining forces and supplying weapons to the LTTE to get the Indians out who had originally come in to help the government rid themselves of the LTTE. The Karuna faction is being armed and trained by the Sri Lankan Army (SLA). It has been one of the demands of the LTTE at recent peace talks (February was the last one, the ones for March were postponed and then dropped all together) that non-state actors be disarmed. In a blatant slap in the face, the Karuna faction opened up a "political office" in Batticaloa (the eastern district bordering north of Ampara) in April.

A hardliner government was voted in November 05. Mahinder Rajapakse ran a hardliner campaign and was backed by the JHU (militant monk party…don't ask but these monks in complete Buddhist monk ensembles are some of the most angry men I have ever seen…real rabble rousers who will go on hunger strikes, incite hatred and march in protest. There seem to not be enough meditation practices to keep them busy otherwise. Hunger strikes and protests are fine. It's the hatred incitement part I can't get over ).

Ranil Wickramesinghe, famous for being the PM when the CFA was signed in early 2002, and loosely speaking, a candidate for peace, was running but the Tigers in an interesting development, asked Tamils not to vote. They didn't and the hardliner won.

According to people who had lived there for a while and were neither Muslim, Tamil or Singhala, the Tigers did this since they wanted to go back to war. The CFA was already falling apart right before the tsunami, tsunami happens (Dec 04) and luckily, the whole country turns to relief and recovery efforts. The relief and recovery is also fraught with political problems (aid sharing with the north and east of the country where the damage was severe, and even more so since basic infrastructure was already war ravaged), and accusations of the Tigers using the opening of the borders as an excuse for bringing in more weaponry. The government did hold back funding and the Tigers probably did bring in weaponry and money for the war chest. We were constantly compared to Banda Aceh in Indonesia, for many reasons (their construction efforts seemed to be MUCH faster than ours in SL), the one reason most talked about was how Indonesia took this opportunity and worked with and found a peaceful solution to their separatist/rebel issue.

To get an idea of how there are indeed two states within a state right now, to get to the Vanni (Tiger controlled areas north central in the country) there is a demarcation line where in order to get anything to the other side, you first have to get checked by the SLA and then 100 meters down the line, by the Tigers. So bringing in cement or sand for reconstruction means having to unload your entire truck (and this is Sri Lanka so it's not like this is in bags) first on the government side and then on the LTTE side. There is an ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) monitor who sits on the lines and just watches what is going on. There is lots more to say about the work of ICRC, but not in this post. Nothing happens in the Vanni without Tiger permission. There is no SLA there…there is no GoSL there. For a while, the tiny country of Sri Lanka had two time zones. This changed in April of this year where the rest of Sri Lanka went to Tiger time (also Indian time). This was not political. It had to do with electricity consumption and also the monks looking for karmic calm. You can read more about that here.

The second part of the BBC newspost on the time change is funny since resident bigwig literati man science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke decides it is inconvenient for him to now make international phone calls.

In his annual Hero's Day speech last year on November 27, 2005, 10 days after the National Election, Prabakharan talked about waiting to see how the struggle for Tamil independence would progress under the CFA and also that if things were not to the satisfaction to the LTTE, the new year would bring changes and they would intensify their struggle (the Tamil and Singhala New Years were on April 13th and 14th). It was not to his satisfaction. (surprise surprise…this megalomaniac has said time and time again, he will NOT stop till there is a Tamil Eelam). There had been a shadow war for a while there and over the past weeks we have come to a full on war. Neither side is well equipped but neither side will back down. Over a water dispute in Trincomalee (a once gorgeous harbour), we have moved to the holy grail of Sri Lanka, Jaffna. Everyone loves the Northern peninsula of Jaffna and everyone will keep bombing it till they get a piece of it. It has been under both SLA and LTTE control, one of the most cultured places in the world in its heyday and now a bombed out military spoil for whichever side is occupying it at that time. Right now, it happens to be the SLA.

The GoSL is training and equipping the Karuna faction. The GoSL is made up of hardliners who have required all Tamils in Colombo and other areas to register with the police. They do marginalize the Tamil people and are being bitches about meeting basic demands of the Tamil people. The LTTE forcefully recruits people and is ruthless in fighting for its Tamil homeland. They do recruit child soldiers. They have one of the highest rate of suicide bombers of all guerilla outfits in the world (last I checked) and have no qualms at all in using them. They are bitches for ruining the lives of ordinary Tamils.

When I first went to SL, I was sympathetic to the Tamil cause. Of course I was. A majority power oppressing a minority. I worked with Tamils in Ampara and my field officer, a young man of 20 wanted to just study. Get his college degree, a Masters and then a PhD. One of the most able young men I have worked with who was actively being recruited by the LTTE and actively harassed by the STF (Special Task Force who roam the streets of conflict areas to keep the peace, i.e. tote guns and attitude and harass all ordinary Tamils). He wanted nothing to do with either and just wanted a life. He has lived his entire life under war.

In my opinion, both sides suck ass and I wish I had a solution, but of course, I don't. I loved working in Sri Lanka and I met lovely (mostly racist to the other side) people but never have I seen a country so stubbornly sticking to war. Well, Palestine and Israel, I suppose.

Me and the team in Ampara at my going away party. A mix of Tamil, Singhala and Muslim. I want to say that we can get along. I don't know about that.


temporal said...

you should have put this pic there also:)

Billy said...

Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, not Liberation Tamil Tigers Eelam.