Report from Sri Lanka, Part 2

More from DJ Mitchell in Sri Lanka. He’s volunteering with Sarvodaya, an organization working to end the civil there. You can make tax-deductible donations to support their new peace initiative. (Pt 1. of his report is here)

Photo: View across Lake Street in Batticaloa. Life goes on despite the razor wire of an army installation (left) and a soldier guarding the intersection (right)
Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

Batticaloa, Day 2. A thunderstorm rolled in about 1:30 am, and I listened to the rain and thunder for about an hour. I’m told it’s unusual for the rains to last past the end of January. These are unusual times.

It rained most of the night, and while I enjoyed the sound, it is sure to make the mosquitoes thick and the day hot & sticky.

I had planned to do a little walking while I’m here. The Butterfly Garden is nearby, a sanctuary for kids that uses art to help children from the conflict areas deal with their experiences. Run by a Catholic monk, in 1998 it was a welcome bright spot in a city occupied by one army and surrounded by another. There’s also a large Hindu temple that in 1998 was closed for renovation. Today it’s open for business. But my schedule has become so full that it’s unlikely I’ll get to see the sights.

There is much I could see and do if I had the time, but my primary mission is to gather information. I interview people, and use what they tell me to broaden understanding of the conflict. I’m scheduled to interview several NGO workers, all people who work regularly in the conflict area.

My goal this time is to better understand the schism that has arisen between the LTTE and the so-called Karuna Faction. Karuna Amman was the Eastern Commander of the LTTE until 2004, when he declared himself and his troops independent. Naturally this did not sit well with the LTTE leadership in Jaffna, and there has been prolonged violence between the two sides. Karuna himself is described as an able commander, and is said to have survived five assassination attempts. The LTTE has driven Karuna and his cadres into the jungle, where they fight a guerilla war against the LTTE—which itself began as a guerilla organization.

Both sides of the schism have their public reasons for doing what they do. But the
reality is, the schism reflects a power struggle: the LTTE, based in the North, wants to rule the East. The East wants to rule themselves.

For breakfast, I went out to the Hotel Sarawanee. It was fairly clean by Sri Lanan standards, and its marquee proclaimed “Highest vegetarian food.” What more could I ask for? For someone who doesn’t eat fish, it seemed like a reasonable choice. My only problem was language. The waiter spoke no English, and I spoke no Tamil. I ordered vadai, which I saw in the display case, and I couldn’t think what else they might have.

The proprietor came over and asked in slow, careful English, “What do you want?” I replied in equally slow English, “What do you have?”
“Iddly?” he offered.

“Iddly,” I agreed. I was familiar with it, and it was hard to come by in the States.
Soon I had a plate of three iddly, white steamed dumplings, with gravy and spicy chutney, and a vadai besides. It was filling and, with a large bottle of water, it all cost about 65 cents.

Afterwards, I walked slowly home, marveling at how the peaceful view of the lagoon along Lake Street contrasted with the soldiers in combat helmets guarding the bus stand.

I feel compassion for the military (and paramilitary) men and women who put their lives at risk because they believe in their leaders, and the families of those men and women. But if the war was about two (or more) sets of soldiers and paramilitaries inflicting violence on each other, I wouldn’t have traveled 9,000 miles to try to stop it. They, at least, signed up to take that risk. What brings me here is the suffering inflicted on ordinary people.

My first stop in Batti is to visit an old priest who knows more about the situation than anyone else I know—and he’s willing to talk about it. He paints a picture of despair. The East, he says, has always been ruled by one faction or another. Colombo in the South or Jaffna in the North. Never have they had their own administrators. He tells me that the local university is to this day staffed by Tamils from Jaffna.
Karuna, he tells me, gave the people hope. In spite of the violence, he says most Easterners secretly support Karuna. “The LTTE offices are closed now,” he says. “They tried to open one, but it was attacked with hand-bombs.” Even the LTTE tax collector’s office is closed. It used to be that everyone, from businessmen to street sweepers, had to go to the tax collection office to pay their share, but not these days. The LTTE does approach some individuals to collect tax, and anyone approached pays. But many taxes apparently go uncollected.

The priest believes that in a free election with a secret ballot, Karuna would win easily. He may be overly biased, though most people I talk to agree that there is strong support for Karuna in the community. It is difficult to know how much support he has, because people are afraid to speak about the situation for fear of offending either side.

Batti, by the way, is ostensibly under government control and has a strong security force presence, but the violence between the two LTTE factions suggests that both operate freely.

Meeting the priest, I am once again overwhelmed by the magnitude of both complexity and suffering. In Moratuwa, it seems complex, but not this complex. Making our initiative successful would be walking a tightrope among amazingly diverse interests with long histories. But as I tell the priest, just because something is impossible does not mean it can’t be done. Most days I even believe it.

[tags] Sri Lanka, Sarvodaya [/tags]

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