A land left behind | Daily News

A land left behind

In war-torn Mullaitivu, people are looking for new leaders
Mariyasuresh Isswary, 42
Mariyasuresh Isswary, 42

Something is stirring in Mullaitivu.

For years, this corner of northern Sri Lanka was a stronghold for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The LTTE had its own police here, its own courts. Its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, had a house and a fortified bunker in Puthukkudiyiruppu, the area’s bustling little commercial centre.

A whole generation of young people in the Mullaitivu district today lived for longer under the LTTE administration than the Sri Lankan governments.

Mullaitivu was also the site of the LTTE’s last stand in its war against the armed forces in 2009. It was here that an estimated 100,000 civilians sought shelter from the fighting on a 3-square kilometre strip of sand in the middle of the crossfire. A UN report described the final months there as “reminiscent of hell.”

But nearly a decade since the end of the war, many scars have not healed.

Drive around Mullaitivu and you hear rumblings of discontent, not just with the government but with the Tamil National Alliance, the party that people here have traditionally supported overwhelmingly.

They’re angry that promises like the release of lands from the military and answers about disappeared people remain unfulfilled, and they blame the politicians who are supposed to represent them.

This frustration showed in the February local elections when a new political force staged something of a small coup in Puthukkudiyiruppu.

Formed just 45 days before the vote, and completely independent of any political party, a group calling itself Mattathukkana Ilajooir Amaipu, or the Youth Movement for Change, won 4 seats on the 22-seat Pradeshiya Sabha.

“The TNA has lost its way,” said T. Nithiyananthan, the chairperson of the Youth Movement for Change’s guiding committee. “In the last election, the top-level leaders, they did not even come to Mullaitivu.”

Mattathukkana Ilajooir Amaipu is now running its own candidate in the upcoming elections for the Northern Provincial Council.

And they think they’ll win, hitting the same sorts of issues they ran on for the Puthukkudiyiruppu local council.

It’s a small shift, in a small town in the country’s Northern Province, but it could be a sign of things to come.

“We are quietly doing something here,” Nithiyananthan said.

Brewing discontent

You can’t miss the legacy of the war in Mullaitivu. Shattered houses still stand between Palmyrah trees, and caravans of soldiers bump along the roads, shuttling between the many military camps around the district.

According to a data analysis by the Adayalaam Centre for Policy Research, about 60,000 Sri Lankan Army troops are currently stationed in the Mullaitivu District. That’s about 25 percent of the active military personnel in the whole country.

In front of the Pilakkudijiruppu Air Force Base outside of Mullaitivu town, a group of families has set up a makeshift tent.

On a recent morning, Arumogam Velayuda Pillai, 51, said he had been protesting outside the military base for 411 days.

“We’re not asking for anything other than our own land,” he said.

Pillai said he and his family fled their home on December 26, 2008, during the Army’s final offensive. When they returned in 2012 from an IDP camp, they found the road to their home closed off by a gate, and their access blocked by military officers.

They were resettled on a small piece of land across the road. But Pillai said it doesn’t compare to their ancestral home.

“We had the lagoon on one side, and paddy fields on the other. We had coconuts and all other resources,” he said, gesturing to the land beyond the gate. “But here, we don’t have anything … now we have to buy (coconuts) from the shop, while the Sri Lankan military is picking ours.”

Pillai is angry at the military for occupying land that he says is rightfully his. But he’s equally mad at the politicians who have promised to get it back for him, and haven’t delivered.

“Almost all the members of the TNA we’ve talked to have given their promise to get these lands back,” he said. “They are saying we are talking with the government. But so far they didn’t achieve anything, and they didn’t give us anything.”

He paused to let the point sink in.

“So these days we are untrustworthy about our own representatives also,” he said.

On the other side of town, in another protest tent, a group of women sits waiting for answers about their lost loved ones.

Mariyasuresh Isswary, 42, is the District Coordinator of the Association for the Enforced Disappeared Mullaitivu. She lost her husband in March 2009. She said the Red Cross told her that he was arrested by the Sri Lankan military, but she hasn’t received any information since.

“Ten years we don’t know if our husbands are alive or not,” she said. “Only once we know can we move on and plan for our lives, to choose to re-marry or to move on in some way.”

Like Pillai who is protesting for his land back, Isswary feels betrayed by her elected representatives.

She said that the recently established Office of Missing Persons, which is the government’s solution to their problem and largely supported by the TNA, was inadequate.

“Our own Tamil representatives may say that we can trust the OMP and work with that,” she said. But she said the fact that the body doesn’t have powers of prosecution, and that some of its members come from the Colombo elite and the military, makes her feel that it’s “a play” to the international community.

“We trusted (the TNA), and that’s why we voted for them, but nowadays they are not seriously addressing our aspirations in the Parliament, or in the international arena,” she said.

Peter Illancheliyan, the Youth Head 
of TNA Mullaitivu.

“We are suffering a lot sitting here in this tent all the time,” she added. “There’s always dust. Even when we cook, there is dust in the food. But TNA members are our representatives, and they are travelling in AC vehicles and have a luxurious life.”

“They are not genuinely and truly addressing our issues,” she said.

This growing wave of discontent is not lost on local TNA politicians.

“Look, I don’t say that the TNA is doing wonders,” said Peter Illancheliyan, the Youth Head of TNA Mullaitivu. “I accept that the TNA is not working properly in some areas.”

But he largely defended the TNA’s political manoeuvring, especially on issues related to the land release.

The army recently returned 133 acres of land in the Keppapulavu area, which Illancheliyan said the TNA was instrumental in securing.

“We protested in Keppapulavu, and as a result, we got a victory,” he said.

But he acknowledged the complaints like those of the families of the missing, who said they felt their voices weren’t heard.

“We can’t tell everything to the people,” he said. “We need to do some things technically. There may be some secrets. It doesn’t mean that our leaders are not working properly for our people.”

He said the nuances of deal-making, especially in Colombo, made it hard to be fully transparent.

“It’s not a good idea to oppose the government all the time, but rather we need to handle these matters in a soft manner,” he said. He pointed out that the Joint Opposition criticizes the current government for being too close with the TNA, which energizes their base in the south.

“We can’t do everything in a straightforward way,” he said.

Despite the independent group’s recent electoral victory, Illancheliyan said he doesn’t feel threatened by other Tamil political groups.

“They are policy-less parties,” he said. “They can be a challenge in elections, but when it comes to a solution to the ethnic problem, there won’t be a big challenge.”

Organising a new opposition

They disagree.

The leaders of the Youth Movement for Change say they think the TNA is vastly underestimating how angry their base is.

“We got around 4,500 votes without spending anything,” said Nithiyananthan, the group’s chairperson.

Before they formed the Youth Movement for Change, the individual members of the group’s steering committee were part of a social media network that organised charity works around Mullaitivu. In the past, they’ve raised money to donate sewing machines to war widows, and bicycles for children.

He said it was clear to them on the ground that the TNA was losing support.

“Nowadays, they’re career politicians. They only think about their own future,” he said. “If anyone wants to come up from the ground, they try to undercut them.”

So Nithiyananthan, a former TNA voter himself, said he decided it was time to take a new path.

The thought was that if a new party wasn’t going to emerge for them, they might as well make one themselves, he said.

They campaigned on basic issues, like education, development, and clean drinking water, and offered party membership to anyone who was interested regardless of age or caste. They also spoke bluntly about drug abuse, military occupation, and past atrocities.

When they won four seats, “for the community and the public, it was a surprise,” he said. “But it wasn’t for us.”

Nithiyananthan said they were now talking to Northern Provincial Council Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran about forming a coalition to contest the provincial council elections. The TNA said recently that it would not nominate Wigneswaran, who they see as a renegade, for the post again.

“For so many years, we have relied on one particular party, or one particular symbol, for our vote,” said K A Aputharajah, 68, a former lawyer and the Youth Movement for Change’s candidate for the upcoming provincial elections.

“It’s not easy to come away from that particular identity,” he added. “We hope that in the future, we will get even better results than this election.”

To stay or to go?

Yet even as the politicians strategize, the lives of the people in Mullaitivu go on. About three weeks ago some fishermen were arrested for protesting a Navy base that they say cut off their access to the Nanthi Kadal lagoon, their traditional fishing ground.

“We are not against the ordinary business of the government,” said R.B.S. Sanmugalingam, 51, one of the fishermen. “But this lagoon is a great resource. If the military is going to disturb this fishing, then it will affect the whole economy.”

“If we can’t access it, we’ll just protest again and again,” said S N Senthuirselvan, 42. “Fishing is all we know.”

A fisherman in Nanthi Kadal lagoon


There is 1 Comment

War is over 9 years ago. Peace is there is people happy. Happiness is a matter for each individuals to reach. However regions under a government must be upgraded cleaned built transformed with the help of fellow countrymen govetnmentS local citizens. Transformation is vital. Elected govetnment must think these are the regions neglected for over 40 years urgent revival restoration rehabilitation is vital


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