The eyes of the two young teenagers lit up when they spoke of their ambitions. One wants to be a doctor. His friend was not far behind; his dream was to become an engineer. These are perfectly ordinary dreams, of course, but the lives of 14-year-old Mana Mandaraja and 13-year-old Prabhakaran Sivakrishnan have been far from ordinary. They have lived most of their lives under the control of the LTTE in eastern Sri Lanka, part of a mass exodus of civilians, numbering well over 100,000, who fled their villages when Sri Lankan government troops advanced into LTTE territory in Batticaloa District in March 2007. Three months later, the two, along with their families and thousands of others, returned to their villages, after the Colombo government began a massive resettlement programme following troops wresting control of the areas under Tiger rule.
The teenagers hail from Ichchanthivu, a remote village about 15 km from Batticaloa town, which, until March 2007, had been under LTTE control for a decade. But while they may have returned to their homes, their lives are far from back to normal. “Look at these roads, look at the ditches,” Mandaraja said, pointing at the crater-like mud ponds in the middle of the road, created by the recent rains. “Most of the houses are damaged; our school buildings are the same. Someone needs to rebuild these.” Mandaraja wants to be an engineer, to fix the roads and buildings of his village. There certainly is much in need of massive repairs, due to the years of conflict and neglect.
Sivakrishnan’s motivations to become a doctor are similar. “We don’t have a proper hospital or a dispensary,” he said. “If someone falls sick, we have to take that person to town, in Batticaloa.” Sivakrishnan says that, at the moment, the only proper medical care to be had is from the mobile clinics that intermittently come through the area. Despite this hardship and past tenuousness, sitting at a wayside boutique set up by an enterprising returnee in Ichchanthivu, the two boys chatted enthusiastically about what they planned to do with their lives.
Elections of change?
It may be a tall order, achieving the kinds of dreams they have. But at least Mandaraja and Sivakrishnan have not been overly conditioned by the years of war that have ravaged the east. For a majority of the adult population in these villages, the experience of those years has muted almost all hope. “We just want to live without the fear of having to run,” said 62-year-old Kanavathipillai Thangarasa. Since 1990, he has been displaced on numerous occasions, sometimes for short periods, sometimes for much longer. First, Thangarasa’s family moved from Ervaur, a town on the side of the main road, to Ichchanthivu, deep in the district’s interior. The family lost its only son in 1991, when the 16-year-old disappeared while travelling to Colombo with a friend. “He was looking for work,” said his mother, Irasamani. “We never heard from him again.”
Now, the aging parents have to take care of their two daughters and a grandson. But the economic burden is light compared to the insecurity they have lived through for much of their lives. “We just want to live with the certainty that we will not have to run in our nightclothes when the next fighting comes,” Irasamani said. Beyond such immediate concerns, however, Irasamani is certainly aware that in order for the younger generation to enjoy better chances in life than those experienced by she and her husband, drastic changes are needed in their villages. “We lived in fear and nothing else,” she said cautiously. “Now they say that there is nothing to fear, but who knows?”
The past year has certainly seen seismic changes in the political and security climate of Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province in general, and the important Batticaloa District in particular. The LTTE has been ousted from all of its holdouts in the east. While the rebels are still present, and can create havoc from time to time, they have been reduced to an underground organisation in this area – a far cry from the forces present a year and a half ago, when the LTTE ran its own administration in those areas falling under its control, such as Ichchanthivu.
After taking full control of the east in July 2007, the Colombo government held two important elections in the spring of 2008. On 10 April, polls were held for the nine local government bodies in Batticaloa District; two months later, on 10 May, a vote was called for the Eastern Provincial Council, made up of the three districts of Batticaloa, Amapara (Degamadulla) and Trincomalee. Batticaloa, which for the past decade and a half had only voted in national-level elections, suddenly found itself faced with two contentious polls, local and regional, within an extremely short time span (see Himal June 2008, “The Eastern Province gets going?”).
Both electoral exercises reinforced the power of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pullikal (TMVP), the breakaway LTTE faction formed by its former eastern military head, Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan (aka ‘Karuna’), after he split from the Tigers in April 2004. The TMVP, which remained armed throughout the elections, is now led by Sivasuntharai Chanthrakanthan, more commonly known as Pillayan. Following the recent polls, the TMVP now holds power in each of the nine local bodies in Batticaloa, and Chanthrakanthan has become chief minister of the Eastern Provincial Council. Having joined the Tigers in 1990, as a 15-year-old, his transformation from child soldier to chief minister has been hailed by many as a sign of better prospects for the east, particularly for its younger generation. “We will give up arms when we enter the democratic stream,” Chanthrakanthan promised as he voted in the April elections, the first time in his life he had exercised his franchise.
For the moment, however, the situation remains charged. The legitimacy of the elections has been contested by observers and opposition parties, which allege extensive rigging, especially in the provincial vote. Meanwhile, the government has remained firm that the polls were an important step towards an eastern revival. “The results of the elections to the first Eastern Provincial Council show the people’s endorsement of the government’s policy of restoring democracy and normalcy,” President Mahinda Rajapakse said at the swearing-in ceremony of the new members of the council in May. “This election emphasises the policy of the government to create an environment in which all our people can enjoy democratic rights and live in freedom and harmony.”
For its part, since coming to power the TMVP has promised to develop the province and Batticaloa District in particular. Its officials, such as spokesperson Azad Moulana, say that the group has remained armed only for protection against possible attacks by the LTTE, and that Chanthrakanthan has firmly set his focus on rebuilding the war-ravaged province. But at times there has been a disconnect between the rhetoric and events on the ground. Soon after the provincial vote, TMVP members were blamed for the deaths of three Muslims at Kathankuddi, a Muslim-majority town just south of Batticaloa. The murders were said to be in retaliation for the gunning-down of one of the TMVP’s prominent area leaders. The subsequent violence left seven dead, and paralysed humanitarian work in the province for a week. The tension and violence between the TMVP and the Muslim community was only quelled following Chief Minister Chanthrakanthan’s personal intervention. He agreed to demands to remove a TMVP armed outpost, in a bid to pacify Muslim community leaders at Eravur, north of Batticaloa.
The other children
Over the past decade, the volatile security situation in the east has had dramatic effects on the area’s children, though some more than others. Hundreds were recruited as child soldiers. According to some activists in the east, when Karuna broke away he sent home some 3000 cadres, including hundreds of child combatants. As fighting between the Tigers and the TMVP picked up, so too did recruitment of underage soldiers. But with its elevation as a political party and a partner of President Rajapakse’s administration, the TMVP has gone to great lengths to rehabilitate itself.
Just before the May election, the TMVP released 39 underage recruits within a span of three weeks, at which point Moulana announced that the group did not have additional underage members. However, the UN children’s organisation UNICEF maintains that, as of the end of April, there were still 76 recruits under the age of 18 years within the ranks of the TMVP. An additional 68 were recruited under the age of 18, but had since become adults.
During his election campaign, Chanthrakanthan pledged that there would be no more underage recruitment. But rights advocates say that it is too early to be optimistic, and further warn against simply sending other child soldiers back to their villages. “These kids have gone through so much, we cannot just send them home,” said Kadiragamapillai Ariyarathnam, coordinator at the Professional Psychological Counseling Center (PPCC) in Batticaloa. The PPCC oversees the upkeep and rehabilitation of more than 200 war-effected children, including former combatants, in seven halfway homes. “There is still a large armed presence in some of the areas where the resettlements took place,” Ariyarathnam continued. “And there are hardly any jobs or educational opportunities to speak of. We will have to wait and see how things work out.”
For the moment things are looking, tentatively at least, a bit brighter for much of the children of the east. Mana Mandaraja and Prabhakaran Sivakrishnan, for instance, are able to feel safe enough to sit along a thoroughfare, dreaming of repairing roads and helping the sick of their fractured homeland.
~ Amantha Perera is a journalist and photographer based in Colombo.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
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