Grief is not Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim

Fenced off beaches tell no tales.
Fenced off beaches tell no tales.

Grief is a potent, deeply personal, emotion. It is more powerful than fear and, once experienced, lives in some form or the other throughout a person’s lifetime. A mother or a father who loses a child feels grief like no other.

Grief cannot be stamped out with the heel of an army boot. A sharp command, a flash of khaki green, the glint of a weapon, brute force or the threat of arrest might suppress its manifestation in public. But even in such a state, it exists. It endures. It festers.

There were many mothers and fathers who pawed at their chests in agony as this ache consumed them at the war’s end five years ago. They were helpless in the face of death.

We are programmed to believe we can protect our children from anything. We would die trying. But each time, death cheats us of this imagined privilege. So grief is laced with anger; with a sense of injustice; with a why-me or why-my-child; with a sense of a tale untold.

This narrative isn’t mono-ethnic. You can’t cover a story for twenty years and not see, or acknowledge, that. There is grief in everyone that suffered through the countless air raids, the shelling, the shooting, the bomb blasts, the ambushes, the massacres and the relentless, pointless, endless to-ing and fro-ing between the two sides.

In early May 2009, I visited a Sinhala village in the Anuradhapura district. Nearly every household there had given up a son to the military. Nearly every household was in mourning.

Yes, those TV adverts had been enticing. Joining the military was shown to be a glorious act, perhaps more sanctifying even than joining the clergy. But there was little glory in the bloody end.

And so, with the fighting drawing to a fevered pitch, grief hung over this impoverished village like a dense, grey cloud just before the rains. The cemetery had fresh graves, all of young men. There were white flags, white streamers and white banners with rough, black lettering, wishing the dead eternal peace.

A mother who had lost her son to the fighting the previous week held on to his framed photograph so tightly that her knuckles were white. Her weeping was raw, guttural and intense. The boy had only been sixteen, she said. He had lied to get into the army. Her body writhed as she cried, as she leant against the doorpost and slid to the ground.

I have witnessed the same grief in the eyes of other human beings. I have felt throbbing agony in the vacant stares of Tamil mothers and fathers as they speak of their dead or missing children, regardless of whether they had been LTTE fighters or unarmed civilians. For, what earthly difference could that possibly make to a parent? I have seen how desperately sad these Tamils are, how they have no support to handle their emotions and how they are forced to keep quiet for fear of “stepping out of line”.

I have seen how men and women are picking up the pieces of their lives and moving on but how the pain bubbles on, just beneath the surface—under control but only just.

When many of them left the war zone, they hadn’t had the strength or stamina to drag anything but their weary, battered bodies out. Yet, photographs were non-negotiable. Black-and-white photographs, taken for identity cards; coloured photographs, taken in studios with their artificial potted plants and standardised backdrops; photographs taken on birthdays with mothers, fathers and children beaming joyfully; random photographs taken in gardens or in some part of the house, almost always on special occasions.

Everyone that experienced this war at a range close enough to experience death feels the same grief. Grief has no race, creed or colour. There is no Tamil grief or Sinhala grief or Muslim grief. Tamil grief isn’t more unbearable than Sinhala grief or Muslim grief. Sinhala grief isn’t more unbearable than Tamil grief or Muslim grief. And Muslim grief isn’t more unbearable than Sinhala grief or Tamil grief.

How can it be? Grief is grief. Death is death.

Why, then, does this government insist upon packing loss into separate boxes and giving them ethnic labels? Why does it prescribe how Tamils, Sinhalese or Muslims should grieve when that isn’t their business? Why does it say where you can or cannot light a lamp, where you can or cannot conduct religious rites, where you can or cannot commemorate your dead when it isn’t their prerogative?

The military has encroached into everything else. Why won’t it leave grief alone?

If that woman in Anuradhapura wanted to honour her dead son, she could mobilise her entire village to do so and nobody would bat an eyelid. They could gather at the playground, at the cemetery, at the temple, at the school, anywhere they wished. They could light lamps, scatter flowers, hold religious ceremonies or invoke blessing upon any number of Sinhalese men or women who had died in the war.

Why can’t Tamils do the same?

Five years after the war, politicians have taken ownership of how survivors should remember their dead—how many numbers can congregate and where and when and how. In Jaffna, they have deployed the military to do their bidding.

It is the same military against which there is so much hostility, even five years after the war ended. Now, there will be even more hatred, even more bitterness, even more resentment. No amount of tweeting by Namal Rajapaksa from the hinterlands of the north—no amount of bicycle donations, no amount of road-building—will change that. The gulf is widening. The cycle is beginning again.

Others are waiting in the wings to take advantage of this. Tamil politicians have also taken ownership of grief, for their own reasons, to meet their own agendas and those of others who don’t even live here. They too are prescribing how people should grieve. When politics infiltrates into people’s lives, things lose their original purpose. They become twisted, disfigured and unpleasant. And human beings become pawns. Just look north.

This is the politics of grief in Sri Lanka. But amidst the rhetoric and the lobbying for advantage, real sorrow continues to exist. It goes unaddressed. People are suffering.

You can’t stop that by marching out the army. You can’t achieve something great or beneficial by stamping out a flame lit to the dead. You can’t prescribe how a population should grieve as a means of ensuring that only your own sanitised versions of the war survives. You can’t deny a people the right to their memories, their pain or their loss.

Victory parades won’t make the other story disappear. But you need magnanimity and empathy to see that. This government knows much about road construction but it has no idea how to build bridges.

“Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.”
(The Dhammapada)

I saw the monks going into casino boss’s restaurant

Photo credit:The Sunday Times. Pic by Mangala Weerasekera
Photo Credit: The Sunday Times. Pic by Mangala Weerasekera

I was late.

Two colleagues were waiting at the Orient Club for me to return from a press conference.

We had another appointment in an hour. I was late because I had spent my morning taking down notes while leading religious dignitaries censured government plans to expand the casino industry in Sri Lanka.

So as I approached the Orient Club in Colombo 7, I was running. After dashing in through the open gate, however, I wasn’t certain whether to turn right or left.  

There were two buildings in the compound—one had a fresh coat of paint and coloured windows; the other looked older and more in need of maintenance. I had been to the Orient only once before and I couldn’t remember which way to go.

I’ll go right, I decided, making my way quickly towards the swankier edifice. But I stopped short.

At the entrance to the building—which I later discovered was a new Indian food restaurant called Maharaja—was Ravi Wijeratne, the local partner of Australian casino king James D. Packer and the chairman of Rank Holdings (Pvt) Ltd. He owns the Casino Marina on Marine Drive in Kollupitiya.

And alighting from vehicles in their saffron robes, to be cordially greeted at the entrance by this same casino boss, were some Buddhist monks. In an instant, I recognized Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera who, only 30 minutes ago, had been blistering about the government’s casino legislation!

I also made out Ven. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera and Ven. Ittapana Dhammalankara Anunayake Thera among the collection of robes. I was later told that, from among the leading monks who had been at the press conference, Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Thera and Ven. Banagala Upatissa Thera also attended the meal at Maharaja.

To say I was stupefied would be an understatement. In that split second, I also had time to feel intensely and acutely dismayed and disappointed.  I had, in all good faith, gone to their briefing and written copious notes. I had recorded their voices so that I would not miss a word of what they said. And the leaders had made some convincing arguments against a spread of casinos.

But here they were—half of the number of senior, most eminent Buddhist prelates who had been at that briefing. They were having their feet washed by Wijeratne and his minions before tripping up the red carpet into the restaurant.

Now what?

I didn’t approach the gathering because both the prelates and Wijeratne knew me. I had asked four questions at a press conference attended by all of five journalists. As for Wijeratne, two international colleagues and I had met him for an interview at Casino Marina just the previous night. I wasn’t sure how they would react if I went forward and showed my face.

The place was swarming with Wijeratne’s men. There might or might not have been a safety issue and I didn’t want to risk finding out which of these two was fact. Besides, I wanted them to complete what they had come there to do and to not modify their actions merely because a journalist had sighted them.

So I did what any self-respecting reporter in those circumstances would do—I dived behind a tree and watched. They all went in. When they emerged some time later, Wijeratne’s men were carrying gifts for the prelates which they loaded into their cars.

The Sunday Times has photographs. The newspaper’s report, with one photograph, can be seen here:

Here is a transcript of the conversation the Sunday Times had with Ven. Muruththetuwe Ananda Thera, who was among those present at the lunch.

Q: Swaminwahansa, did you attend a special lunch after the news conference on Thursday?

A: It was an almsgiving.

Q: Who was giving this almsgiving?

A: I don’t know.

Q: Who invited you?

A: It was Ven. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera.

Q: Was anything discussed there about casinos?

A: Not a word.

Q: What was this lunch in aid of?

A: It was a sangha danayak.

Q: Was everyone who attended the news conference present at the lunch?

A: There were a few of them.

Q: Do you know (the businessman)?

A: I have no connection with him.

Q: You don’t know him?

A: I have no recollection of him.

The Sunday Times contacted Ven. Dr. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera to verify that he had, indeed, extended the invitation to Ven. Muruththetuwe Ananda Thera.

Q: Swaminwahansa, did you go to a restaurant for lunch on the invitation of (businessman) after the news conference on Thursday?

A: I was invited to an almsgiving at the restaurant. I didn’t know anything about a casino connection. We went to the almsgiving and came away.

Q: Did (businessman) invite you?

A: The invitation came from (associate of businessman).

Q: Do you know the (businessman)?

A: We didn’t know him. We went into the restaurant, we had our offerings and left.

Q: Ven. Muruththetuwe Ananda swaminwahansa said you had invited him to the almsgiving. Is this true?

A: I didn’t invite him. He was also invited by (associate of businessman).

Q: When was the invitation extended?

A: About two weeks ago.

Q: Did you discuss anything about casinos at this restaurant?

A: Nothing. We did not think so much… that he’s connected to casinos.

Q: When you were invited to an almsgiving, you did not ask who the person is?

A: When we are invited, we don’t try to find the origins (agak mulak) of the person who is inviting us. We go and consume the offerings and come back. Some websites are trying to sling mud at us.

Representatives of other religions in the Congress did not attend the almsgiving.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

Nobody begrudges a monk an almsgiving, be it at a temple, in a house or, for that matter, in a restaurant.

But when you summon a press conference explicitly to protest against gambling—and, in particular, a new casino to be set up by Ravi Wijeratne and James D Packer—it smacks of extreme hypocrisy to partake of a luncheon supplied to you by that same Wijeratne 30 minutes later.

It does not look right to afterwards to drive away from the venue with car boots brimming with gifts.

It does not sound right to later tell the reporter who attended your press conference that you did not speak a word about casinos at the said lunch; because that gullible hack might have been hoping, to save your face and hers, that you went to this spread with the intention of telling Wijeratne where exactly he could stuff his casinos (given you had spent the morning doing just that).

It does not do justice to the leaders and representatives of other religions—Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, Javed Yusuf and Brahmasri S. Kuhanantha Sarma—for you to be hosted by Wijeratne in their ignorance.

One of these representatives was so appalled at the occurrence that he called me the next day to check whether I’m absolutely certain of what I had seen. I told him that, even if I weren’t, the camera doesn’t lie.

It is not believable that none of the eminent, learned, distinguished prelates knew who was offering them alms. 

It is not proper to decide—after the news is published—that you will hold a press conference to reaffirm your opposition to casinos, and then promptly cancel it saying, “We have achieved our objectives as the government has withdrawn the bills”. 

A representative of the Congress of Religions telephoned on the morning of 22 October and said Ven. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera wants to summon another briefing; by afternoon the plan was off.

As for Wijeratne, he lost nothing. He committed an act of merit by offering alms to these prelates. Sure, his plans suffered a temporary blow but that isn’t necessarily because of the events of that day.

And will the government call off the Packer deal because of it? Not on anyone’s life. One way or the other, those casinos will be built. It’s only the packaging that will change.

What a country. What a reality. What abject hopelessness.

As a journalist, I am increasingly aware that nothing is ever what it seems. We write stories which we think are truth. But the truth lies several layers below.

Those in control of the truth feed us elements of the story and inveigle us into believing that we know all of it. They even let us write this semi-story and lead us on to believe that, by god, we’re ruddy smart.

But we’re not, really. We are suckers. If I hadn’t stumbled upon the party the other day, I’d have spent yet another day being a sucker.

PS: That afternoon, I mentioned to UNP MP Mangala Samaraweera (with whom my colleagues and I had an interview) what I had seen. He said he wouldn’t tell anyone. By nightfall, it was all over town. 

There is in Jaffna a lovely little guesthouse called Manattrii. In the garden of this enchanting, refurbished 19th Century abode are two large jam fruit trees, their branches spreading out over its neat little garden.
Their velvety leaves rustle whenever a breeze rises and bees take turns at visiting their white flowers throughout the day. The first thing you notice about Manattrii (after the signboard) is one of those trees. It stands near the gate. Taller people have to negotiate past its low branches and foliage to reach the entrance to the guesthouse.
I love jam fruit trees. They take me to my childhood. For me, jam fruit trees are associated with happy memories; of straining my neck staring at its branches while my taller friend, Upekha, hunts for ripe fruit; of begging adults to interrupt some other, bland, errand to pick a few; of hanging on its branches which are ideal for climbing; of listening to the birds that gorge on its delights; and of whiling away the hours seated in its soothing, fragrant shade.
Jam fruit trees demand limitless patience. Their fruit are small and scattered everywhere. They are not easy to find but it is a delight to search for them… and an even greater thrill to stumble upon the ripe ones. They have a distinctive taste and are just the right size to keep you wanting more. A short burst of sweetness and it’s gone.
It isn’t only the red fruit that is tasty. The ripening ones are just as good. Whenever you think you’ve plucked the last one, the leaves shift and you discover, to your delight, yet another red hued jewel. That’s the magic of the jam fruit tree; a magic I rediscovered in Jaffna this weekend.
For in Colombo, I don’t have time to squander under jam fruit trees. In Colombo, there is always somewhere to rush to, always something else to do.
Jam Fruit






Tigers kill democracy in Batticaloa. Written in 2005.

Blatant, relentless child recruitment

by Namini Wijedasa

Under the shade of a leafy tree, four alert young men are keeping watch – LTTE cadres, by their clothing. A sharp knife glints in the hand of one man. Another holds a heavy pole. Two motorbikes stand ready.

The dry, dusty ground is blistering hot. Glaring sunshine blinds the eye. A morose breeze occasionally disturbs the sullen atmosphere but Vakarai gets little respite.

An old, sarong-clad man on a rickety bicycle slowly pedals towards the four men. He must bypass them to access the main road. One of them casts a menacing remark at him. Incensed, the man shouts: “You’re here to take our children. Go on, take them. Why harass me?”

A cadre darts forward and tries to wrench the bicycle from the sun-burnt villager. He resists. The man holding the pole strikes him hard – and repeatedly – on the legs. The villager struggles onto his bicycle and pedals a short distance, before toppling off. He limps towards a hut, dragging the bicycle alongside.

Two of his assailants leap onto a motorbike, stop near the hovel and follow him inside. Two others join them, swinging more heavy poles. They exit a little later, laughing and bragging that they had “hammered the old man good”.

Abduction intersection

The four men take up their original positions, waiting… watching. On their right is the village school. Nearby, the Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) has a field office. Foreign NGO-workers in fancy SUVs coast past, occasionally peering at the flag-decked Tiger memorial that’s opposite. A monument to martyrs.

Not far away, the sun beats down angrily on rows of white tombstones. More Tiger heroes. An illustration, done in black paint, catches the eye. It depicts an armed LTTE cadre leading two young children by each hand.

Symbolic, chilling, accurate.

“They take children all the time,” says an impoverished, desolate woman living in a tsunami-camp at Kandalady, Vakarai (under LTTE control). “Even yesterday…. they took away a fifteen-year-old boy.”

From where? “From there,” she says, pointing in the general direction. “Near the school.”

For many villagers, this particular junction in Vakarai – near the school, the TRO office and the Tiger memorial – is the abduction intersection. But children are also vulnerable in every other corner of the Batticaloa district. Any unaccompanied child risks being kidnapped. And many, many have been done so during the past few months. Blatantly, fearlessly, repeatedly.

Relentless increase in conscription

“Basically, the situation is really, really bad,” says an NGO coordinator in Batticaloa, opting to remain anonymous. (No names can be cited because those interviewed risk being assassinated). “Just this morning I spoke to a friend of mine who’s missing a relative, a fifteen-year-old boy. Nobody knows where he is.”

The issue of child abductions comes up regularly at NGO meetings, he revealed. But they don’t even minute these discussions for fear of reprisal.

Father Harry Miller is an outspoken Jesuit missionary and former rector of St Michael’s College, Batticaloa. When he was apprised that the Tigers had abducted a boy in Vakarai the day before, he replied: “I would be surprised if they only took one. They had a recent temple festival in Batticaloa and they took a dozen. All these festivals are under the control of the LTTE now.”

“The Tigers are recruiting large numbers of children,” he maintained.

Father Miller said he had even confronted LTTE political wing leader, S P Tamilselvan, with reports of child recruitment. “He told me they’re not doing it anymore,” he related. “I told him not to tell me that because I knew they were continuing conscription. He replied that they were only taking children at the age of 17. I told him that he must have the consent of parents.”

What was Tamilselvan’s response? “He changed the subject,” Father Miller said.

There are also “believable reports” that the Karuna faction has recommenced child recruitment but these were not being documented.

UNICEF has statistics of conscription but warns that these are only reported cases. There are countless others. The last two months have seen an unrelenting increase. June recorded fifty-nine cases of underage recruitment; in July, 111 (one hundred and eleven) children were taken. Fifty-six were from Batticaloa.

“Any time, it can happen,” said a man at a transitional tsunami camp, also at Kandalady. “They pull children off bicycles, on the way to school or anywhere. We are scared to send our children outside, even to the roadside to buy something from the boutique.”

“Mothers don’t like to leave their children at home,” said another woman, whose 25-year-old son-in-law had also been forcibly taken by the LTTE. “Parents don’t like to go out to work.”

Why don’t they try to get their children back? The woman snorted, incredulous at the question. “We can’t approach the LTTE,” she said. “We don’t know where the abducted children are. They won’t tell us. We can’t get them back.”

These parents don’t have two coins to rub together. Most cannot afford the journey to government-controlled areas, where they can at least lodge a complaint with reporting agencies like UNICEF or the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM). Still others donknow that these avenues are available to them.


Despite obvious peril to their lives, these men and women were willing to have their names published. Trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea – grimy, appallingly poor and thin – they were desperate enough to throw caution to the wind. Upon reflection, however, this writer opted not to identify them.

A peek into their stifling temporary shelters proves that the villagers have little or no possessions. If they were poverty-stricken before the tsunami, they’re worse off now. But none of them wanted their children recruited as fighters. It was evident both from their words – and from the helpless, anxious look in their eyes – that they would rather keep their kids than lose them to the LTTE.

Army protection

Back in Batticaloa town, at the Sinhala Maha Vidyalaya, a group of government soldiers stand guard over displaced persons. Most are Burgher families from Dutch Bar, Kallady, but members of the Tamil community also live at the school. They expect to be resettled shortly at Thiraimadu.

“We were deployed here because the LTTE are abducting children from camps,” explained the senior-most soldier, after initially refusing to speak. “People wanted protection. The LTTE have taken children from several places. Everyone knows. But we are usually informed too late so we can’t do anything.”

“We can catch them if we are told in time,” he continued. “On the other hand, we are in a difficult position. If we try to stop the LTTE and a dispute starts, we will be punished for threatening the cease-fire.”

A stone’s throw away, a naked toddler sat in a water-filled basin, cheerfully bathing herself. Two others returned from school, holding hands and grinning cheekily. Another munched on a bun. An older child read a book, legs folded Buddha-style. Some others played catch, threw around a ball and harassed their mothers. Though displaced, these kids were unquestionably luckier than their counterparts in Vakarai.

Inadequate reporting

Meanwhile, concerned parties in Batticaloa complain about inadequate reporting of child conscription. “We are worried that the pathways to getting information are no longer working very well,” said an NGO worker, who predictably opted to remain unidentified. “The problem is quite acute but only isolated incidents are recorded.”

“You will find a drop in the number of reports,” he continued. “That’s a major issue right now. The perpetrators are aware that child recruitment is a public relations faux pas and are intimidating the public to prevent reporting.

“The official numbers absolutely do not reflect reality. The reporting agencies must be proactive.”

Vilja Kutvonen is SLMM spokesperson. “Of course, it’s always so that many of the underage recruitments are never reported to us or no complaints are made,” she averred, emphasising that it was important to inform civilians about SLMM’s role in recording incidents. “The public must be educated,” she reiterated.

Even then, the SLMM can only document information. They do make inquiries but are prevented from going any further as they do not have police powers. And if threat or intimidation is preventing the public from reporting abduction, there’s nothing the SLMM can do.

As for UNICEF, its spokesman Geoff Keele said the agency was “in discussions at district level with the LTTE”. “We have name lists of children and are trying to get them released,” he explained. “This is happening in all districts.”

Asked whether UNICEF has had any success, Geoff said they had reports of eleven children being released to their parents. “But we have no confirmation of that yet,” he added.

Everybody knows

Batticaloa is a mess. It is a tangled web of fear, suppressed speech, assassinations, lawlessness and, of course, child conscription. Everyone, except those parents, is scared to speak the truth. The silence is complete. One of the NGO workers earlier quoted said there had been 200 assassinations during the first two months after the tsunami. “Every other day, there is a killing,” said a Muslim trader from Eravur. “They take a man, ask a few questions and finished.” Pointing two fingers to his head, he said: “They kill him.”

The fact that nobody – except those desperate parents in Kandalady – wished to be named is a story in itself. Even members of foreign NGOs opted to keep their identities secret.

As Father Miller put it: “Everybody knows it but nobody will tell you.”

How much impact are these anonymous voices having on the LTTE? Evidently none. Child conscription is glaring, obvious and undeniable.

International collusion

The international community has had no effect either. Whatever statements the four co-chairs of the Tokyo donor conference – the European Union, Japan, Norway and the United States – have issued are watered down, half-hearted pronouncements that reveal a lack of genuine interest in child or human rights. There have been few or no statements isolating and condemning exclusively child recruitment. The issue has always been smuggled in with a host of other subjects.

It’s unclear why the international community will not slam the LTTE on such a clear-cut case of abuse. They must know that silence amounts to collusion. A single threat to withhold aid dollars from the LTTE could result in compliance but the co-chairs and other donors have balked at stating fact, demanding answers and issuing sanctions. As a result, the LTTE is confidently continuing to breach global child and human rights laws — committing the type of offence that makes them eligible for prosecution before the International Criminal Court.

And what of international NGOs? Batticaloa is teeming with expensive vehicles and do-gooders of all hues. They, like everyone else, know the truth. But even outside the confines of the terrified town that is Batticaloa, they remain silent. Why? Has the Tiger killed democracy?

Where is freedom if speech is stifled? What is the peace process? Just a couple of ‘p’ words that have given the LTTE a licence to deny children their parents, their childhood and their innocence.

For those who ask what I wrote about the Tigers. Just one example.


Penned in The Sunday Island of August 2005, after the killing of Lakshman Kadirgamar. Used a pen name because of security threat, since I was travelling frequently to LTTE-controlled areas. Also used a pen name to protect my sources. 

The way of the Tigers
By Chetana Dirithi


In September 2002, when our self-styled truce was still in the first rosy months of its questionable life, a scared Tamil man from Jaffna sought me out at my private residence in Colombo.

I’m restrained from naming him, from describing him or even revealing his profession because the LTTE would kill him. What I can say is that he was a respectable citizen without affiliation to any political party or group. A man who loved his country and his people but quaked with fear at what the future held for both.

Nervously, he settled into a chair and started speaking. He had nasty purple bruises and congealing cuts on his body and face. Just weeks before, he had been snatched from his home by the LTTE and beaten mercilessly for no other offence than publicly expressing an opinion dissimilar to that of the Tigers.

“I didn’t know whom to confide in,” he confessed, quietly. “I can’t trust the Tamils. I used to be able to trust the Sinhalese. But I can’t anymore. They may sneak to the LTTE.

“I hope you won’t betray me.”

Choking Jaffna

The LTTE was choking Jaffna, he lamented. They had entered the city for “political” reasons but were slowly controlling every aspect of civilian life. They were dictators, he claimed. Views contradicting their own were not tolerated. A word out of place would result in severe punishment. The Tigers had a death grip on government officials. Everyone had to toe their line. In the meantime, each family in Jaffna had been surveyed, with details of their income and property meticulously recorded. No business venture — not even a roaming salesman — was free from LTTE extortion. Or “taxes”, as they preferred to call it.

“The LTTE is about money and money is about the LTTE,” he said. “They only want money. Please expose them. We have no hope.” This was 2002. Long before direct negotiations broke down and well in advance of Karuna’s defection.

The tragedy of this story is that I’m not making it up. I almost wish I were.

I’m no Sinhala nationalist. I’m not even remotely racist. I endorse that Tamil people have serious concerns that must be addressed. I don’t want the poor man’s son to die fighting my battle. When the cease-fire agreement was signed and face-to-face talks commenced, I joined many others in rejoicing that our beleaguered, sad nation had been given a second chance. I had faith in the LTTE and the involvement of a third party facilitator.

I was wrong. The cease-fire indisputably cut off direct combat but by no means was the war over. A more complex conflict had begun — one that the government is now handsomely losing at the hands of a terrorist organisation that is unashamedly pampered by an international community and a rich, well-fed, opulent, Colombo-based NGO mafia who evidently don’t care about Tamil people.

Humouring the LTTE — and not protecting the lives of ordinary civilians — has been the main thrust of this peace process. Any advantages the Tamil people receive are crumbs off the LTTE table. The Tamil community is suffering the worst casualties in this battle. First, they were victimised by the state and the military; now the Tiger is feeding on its own young.

More than 98 per cent of civilians killed by the LTTE during the past three years have been Tamil.

 Sanctioning extortion

Returning from Jaffna on a civilian flight, one day, I started chatting to the passenger seated next to me. The middle-aged Tamil man was pleasant and friendly, speaking English with a slight foreign accent. He lived in Canada, he said, and was a businessman. “I came to Jaffna after years to see my home town,” he said. “There’s a lot of destruction. I’m sad.”

He had visited Jaffna also to explore whether there were investment opportunities there. He wasn’t happy with what he saw and was returning home. One factor that had strongly discouraged him was LTTE taxation. “I don’t want to pay double taxes,” he said. “And the LTTE taxes are quite high.”

Although prohibited under the cease-fire agreement, the LTTE started extorting money quite early in the truce. In fact, they even published a list of official taxes. Jaffna boutiques started factoring these charges into their receipts and it is now accepted that every businessman must contribute a portion of their profits to the organisation.

The opening of the A9 road was a boon to the LTTE. Fees were slapped on practically everything. Tamil expatriates were liable to especially heavy payments. The cash kept rolling in, unhindered by the state or the international community. This component of the cease-fire was — and is — completely ignored.

I remember speaking to a Norwegian diplomat about the issue of extortion. I recall being particularly surprised at the nonchalance with which he treated it. “Surely you understand that the LTTE needs money?” he asked me. “They have their administrative systems to fund, their cadres to feed.” If that were so, why insert a dud clause into the cease-fire agreement?

One of the most attractive features of the truce deal was that it temporarily broke down tensions between the Sinhala and Tamil community. The two sides started reaching out to each other across ethnic divides. Ordinary Sinhala people flocked to Jaffna on sightseeing tours and pilgrimages. Tamil people started visiting relatives and doing their own tours of the south. They started speaking each other’s languages. After years of war, Jaffna assumed almost a festive air. Roving merchants started selling their wares in the north. Trinkets and little luxuries from the south were snapped up fast. It wasn’t unusual to find traders from Galle, Kandy or Colombo standing on a Jaffna street corner and canvassing business.

Manipulating civilians

Unfortunately, this didn’t last long. The visitors dried up and so did the merchants, not necessarily simultaneously. The latter had long been complaining that there were too many taxes to pay. It wasn’t worth the trouble. Meanwhile, the LTTE started controlling profitable businesses, becoming middlemen for all sorts of transactions. In addition to choking people, they started choking the economy.

Muslim returnees to Jaffna once told me that the Tigers were preventing them from resuming their lucrative scrap iron business. “They have realised that it was good money so they are preventing us from going out and collecting scrap iron,” a businessman said. “They’re doing it themselves. It’s the same with everything else. They are middlemen for fish, vegetables…. Even big companies have to either make a heavy down payment or share their profits.” The LTTE also started controlling market prices, instructing businessmen to sell their goods at certain rates.

Civilians had no escape from the LTTE. From the very instant Tigers started “political activity” in Jaffna, ordinary people have been under tight control. They have also been manipulated handsomely to suit the LTTE’s needs. The Tigers have even used school children in their protests, using them to provoke the military and placing them in grave danger. Over and over, the organisation has confirmed that civilian life is expendable.

Unfortunately, civilians were not happy under army control either. Past experiences had left them extremely bitter and rightly so. Any attempts by the military to change its image were challenged by the LTTE, which was leading efforts to distance the civilian populace from state forces.

Home truths

This wouldn’t be so bad had the Tiger alternative been any better. But it isn’t.

I once visited the Jaffna political office of the LTTE for an interview with area chief, Ilamparathy. Outside, seated on rows of chairs, were rows of civilians. Sari-clad women and men in sarongs. What were they waiting for?

“They are unhappy with the military and the Sri Lanka police,” claimed Ilamparathy, speaking through a translator. “They are waiting to lodge complaints with the LTTE. Some people have land disputes. Some people want to report about the army and police. They want the military to leave High Security Zones.”

Outside, I asked a civilian why he had visited the office. “I was called here to provide details of my family and income,” he said.

The LTTE were registering people, taking down information ranging from the extent of property they owned to the number of family members abroad. The data was to be used for extortion purposes.

Little, if any, of the LTTE’s own vast treasury is used to fund social welfare. The Tigers keep hoarding and hoarding, while expecting the donor community and government to dole out more and more. I remember meeting a feeble, aged man on the road to Kilinochchi. He was so poor that he cried when he spoke of his hunger. His wife, equally gnarled and emaciated, wept too. His children and grandchildren were nearby, in a shack that an NGO dog wouldn’t live in. Some were drying fish in the sun.

“The government doesn’t care for us,” the old man said, tears running down his cheek. “Neither does the LTTE.” Frankly, that’s the truth.

Repression of free speech

But why repeat all this? These are home truths. Stuff that the international community –and the NGOs that feed off them — prefer to blank out.

Most dangerous is the repression of free speech in all parts of the north and east. The basic tenet of democracy is free speech. Before anything else, one must be able to think and declare one’s opinion. One must be at liberty to support whatever party that most echoes one’s ideology. The LTTE has never — and will never — allow this. How does the international community respond? They collude, at the cost of those Tamil civilians they claim to support.

I once spoke to a government official in Jaffna about the LTTE. He claimed stiltedly that they were “very nice”. Even when they ordered him around, they did so “nicely”. He started parroting propaganda, as everyone does in Jaffna. I couldn’t get one spontaneous comment out of him.

Until I tried reverse psychology. “Fine, if you don’t care about the LTTE’s behaviour, why should we?” I said, dismissively. He stopped short, a look of concern on his face. “It’s not that we don’t care…,” he said, and bit his tongue.

Nobody can talk. Those who don’t agree with the LTTE are, plain and simple, killed. Civilians who aren’t brainwashed into believing that Prabhakaran is God are terrorised into accepting it. I have seen adults and children pledging allegiance to him, hands in air, Hitler style. One such ceremony was witnessed at a Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) orphanage in Kilinochchi, where I learnt it was a daily routine. Doesn’t this scare the international community? Doesn’t it hark of grimmer times?

Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar is just one corpse in a pile of growing bodies. The killings started before Karuna defected, although Tiger propaganda machines claim it was after. In fact, the first military intelligence officer to be assassinated in 2002 was killed even before the cease-fire was signed. Lance Corporal Clarice alias Gadaffi was murdered on 9 February 2002.

One of the first known army informants to be felled was V. Vithiyaratne (alias Vithiya alias Nithi), killed on 20 January 2002. As for members of alternate political parties, the first to be killed in 2002 was Selliah Kandiah of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front. He was murdered on 19 July 2002.

The list only grows longer. Now, we’ve lost count.

Making a mockery of democracy

The LTTE are not democratising. They are not showing the slightest inclination to do so. To openly say this is not to talk war — but to speak sense. To support a peace process, a man need not be blind, deaf and mute.

The UN this week learnt a lesson. A group of 60 people forced their way into the UN compounds in Kilinochchi and hauled down UN flags that were flying at half-mast as a sign of respect for Kadirgamar. The Tigers are now confident enough to tread on UN soil and violate their property. They do so without fear of sanctions. Just as they mass-recruit children and violate the human rights of their own people.

Be warned. The time to act is now.

Weliweriya haunts me

I can’t sleep. For two days in a row, I woke up at 3 am. The first time, I didn’t know why I was awake. Today, it’s much clearer. Those moving images of armed soldiers and battle-tanks mowing down defenceless villagers at Weliweriya haunt me.

In my mind, the events keep merging: What I saw happen at Weliweriya from amateur television footage; and what I imagine might have happened in the North, during those final, anguished months of the army’s war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Civilians had perished in that battle. In Weliweriya, too, there was a battle. It was even more disproportionate than the war in the North. In Weliweriya, there were no armed fighters—terrorists—to retaliate, in any form, against advancing troops. If they could kill with such careless abandon Sinhala villagers in the South, demonstrating for clean water…

But amidst the sleeplessness, a third snapshot mingles with the other two in my mind. It is of a park. The park we take our children to on some evenings. It used to be an empty plot of land, bordered on one side by a stinking canal. There were trucks parked there, laden with sand and bricks. You could negotiate with them to buy building material.

Now it’s officially an Urban Wetland Park. It’s a beautiful thing, if a little too structured. There is a fountain in front that is a work of art. The children like it because in the narrow streams that surround this water feature, there are fish. Sometimes, when it’s too dark to see, I shine my torch into the water so that we can watch the tiny tadpoles together.

There are walking tracks. I should be using those but I haven’t found the time because I prefer to spend every waking moment—when I’m not working—with the children. Life is short.

There is also a children’s park, a late addition. But, for me, what stands out is the presence of a battle tank behind the fountain. Every time we go there, the kids scramble into it, creep through its interior and climb onto the top of it. “Amma, look, Amma, Amma, Amma, look…”

I just sit there. I don’t have the energy. My husband makes sure they don’t fall off and break their necks. Absently, I read the placard which describes what sort of tank this is, where it was manufactured, how old it is and so on. I do it every time. But, for the world of me, I still can’t remember the make of it—or any of the other details, for that matter.

I had always found it jarring to see a battle tank in a manicured recreation park. Why, amidst the green leaves and purple and yellow flowers, is there a broken down instrument of war begging for people to come and admire it?
After Weliweriya, things fall a little more into place. Not intentionally, but they do. Our life in Sri Lanka today is like this park: Structured by the State, manicured by the State, guided by the State, controlled by the State and, as sure as Hell, set upon by the State if we trip out of line.

So, when you walk among those green leaves and purple and yellow flowers, don’t lose sight of the battle tank. It’s important.

My brother, who is a botanist in Singapore, went with us to the park recently. He said that the wetland ponds in the centre of the park will choke and die if more water from the main canal wasn’t channelled into them. Okay…

We walked around a bit more. And then he asked: “Why do you have so many soldiers around, telling people to keep off the grass?” he asked. Isn’t that a stupid question? Well, because that’s what they do now, Malli—they keep us off the grass.

I can’t sleep. There is a constriction my chest. I think it’s my own breath, catching. Weliweriya was such a horrible, horrible incident. I still hear the gunshots from that amateur footage. Yet, I also see fleeting images of President Mahinda Rajapaksa from many years ago, when he was Labour Minister and I was a junior reporter assigned to cover his ministry.

There were so many strikes in those days and so many industrial disputes; so many roundtable discussions and so many trade unionists hanging around the entrance to his office at the Labour Secretariat in Narahenpita.

Mahinda Rajapaksa negotiated through each of these with unmatchable charm. He would chuckle while discussing the most serious of matters and would put people at ease. He was, by far, the most approachable, unpretentious minister in President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Cabinet. A wonderful human being, especially to a star-struck cub reporter.

I remember his smile. He smiled a lot. Is he smiling now?

They had petrol bombs, some people tell me. Your “innocent civilians” in Weliweriya had petrol bombs! So I checked with onsite reporters. Yes, they had had “petrol bombs”. After the army relentlessly sprayed bullets into the crowd, some people, in desperation, had rolled up cloth, dipped them in fuel, lit them up and futilely flung them out.
They also threw stones. And took up whatever implement they could find when it became obvious that the army would not stop firing. Surely, there are other ways to control an unruly crowd than to spray live bullets into it? They kept shooting, even when people were clearly running away. They fired while chasing behind them.

No, it wasn’t the petrol bombs. It couldn’t have been the petrol bombs.

“They didn’t care who they shot at,” one woman said. “Men, women, children, they didn’t care.” And so a child died. Most of the injured had suffered gunshot injuries to their backs. Were they fleeing when the military fired at them? Is that why they had wounds on their backs?

Not Akila Dinesh, the schoolboy; the 17-year-old schoolboy. He was shot in the chest. He didn’t have a petrol bomb. Or a sword. He had gone to fetch his mother who was returning from work.

They fired into the church and assaulted people seeking refuge inside. The Sunday Times onsite reporter quoted one witness who said that, when a Catholic nun had locked up some villagers in a room for safety, a soldier had pointed his rifle at her chest. When she pleaded with him not to harm anyone, another soldier had shouted: “Kawda umbalawa den balaganney! Api kotith paradduwa. Umbala vedak nehe!” (Who is there to look after you now? We defeated the Tigers. You are of no use).

It makes me cry. It makes me cry that we have such a blighted, manipulated, traumatised population living among us with no treatment. We are not all Tigers, brother. Whatever they might tell you, we are not all Tigers.

There were people in Weliweriya who shed tears of blood when soldiers were dying like flies in the North. There were people in Weliweriya who cried tears of joy when you defeated the Tigers.

The government thinks there was a conspiracy in Weliweriya. A minister told me that this protest had been planned for weeks and that a powerful Western nation is behind it. Nothing was wrong with the water.

The glove factory, owned by one of the country’s most powerful conglomerates, was not polluting the water, he said. The powerful Western nation had instigated the protest to force the glove factory to close down. Then everyone would tell investors not to come to Sri Lanka because the government was sealing up legitimate businesses.

I like this minister. He is very much like Mahinda Rajapaksa before he became president. He has an easy smile, is approachable and sensible. Many businesspeople tell me they can discuss their problems with him. And that he listens, understands and learns.

Did he really believe there had been a plot? Is that why his government didn’t think twice about sending troops with live ammunition into Weliweriya? Or was he trotting out the usual conspiracy theory as an excuse to inexcusable actions? For this was indefensible.

Who can tell? As a journalist, I have learnt that the truth is never what we see in the open. That is the only most observable layer, the book cover. Several layers below is where the truth lies, behind closed doors. We might think something is something based on what we see. It is often not. It is often something else. And it is never, ever what they tell you in public.

The brutal military action in Weliweriya was a message. There is no doubt about who is in control of the country and what manner of control is being exerted. This government has lost sight of democracy. After Weliweriya, there isn’t even pretence of it.

In a democracy, there are other mechanisms for dealing with protests or, indeed, with conspiracies. You don’t just barge in and shoot people dead.

A buffel with uniformed soldiers drove past the Jubilee Post junction on Friday morning. Now that the war was over, it was such an unusual sight to see military hardware on the streets. “Where is it going?” I wondered while stroking the soft, curly hair of the two-year-old was sitting on my lap in the car. And I kissed top of her silky head.

Now I know. It was returning from Weliweriya, after executing a one-sided battle the previous night. The war in the North has ended. But the government hasn’t stopped fighting. And there might be more to come.

No wonder I can’t sleep.

I would just li…

I would just like to say something, ladies and gentlemen. Something that I think is very important. It is that, you, we, we own this country. We, we own it. It is not you owning it, and not politicians owning it. Politicians are employees of ours. (Clint Eastwood)