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Police in Kilinochchi train station, on their way back home. They’d been brought up from the south to provide law enforcement for the election, with the Sri Lankan Army in barracks and off the streets. By: Rosie DiManno Columnist, Published on Sun Sep 22 2013
The Toronto Star KILINOCHCHI, SRI LANKA—In an election that was largely symbolic, perhaps nowhere is a dewy sense of back-to-the-future envisioned more poignantly than here — the former de facto capital of Tigerland. This is the town that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam captured at the beginning of a brutal civil war and kept as a formidable stronghold until almost the very end. Guerrillas blew up the train tracks, severing commuter travel from the south, using the rail ties to construct fortified bunkers. When Kilinochchi fell in early 2009, so did the dream of a sovereign Tamil homeland. On Saturday, 81 per cent of the vote in the district went to the Tamil National Alliance, which took three of four provincial council seats. In all of the Northern Province, where Tamils comprise some 95 per cent of the
population, the TNA won 30 of 38 seats, handing President Mahinda Rajapaksa his most humiliating defeat since taking power in 2005. The ruling government coalition was trounced, held to just seven seats across the province, while a Muslim party secured one. It will be impossible for the regime to rhetorically spin the outcome as anything other than what it so obviously is — a thorough denunciation of the status quo as engineered in Colombo, and a shout-out that Tamils remain no less yearning for some degree of self-determination. Tamils were not bought off by the extensive reconstruction, all the multi-millions — from China, mostly — poured into new roads, new infrastructure, new hospitals, new commercial buildings, even a new sports stadium that’s going up outside the new train station. While there were hundreds of election violations, primarily by government candidate supporters, threats, some violence and palpable intimidation of civilians by the occupying Sri Lankan Army, 68 per cent of registered voters cast their ballots. The electorate turned a deaf ear to warnings that a vote for the TNA — cast by Colombo as a descendant proxy of the LTTE — was a vote for a return to secessionist disruption, chaos and “ethnic chauvinism” that could tear apart the island nation again. Marquee chief magisterial candidate C. W. Wigneswaran, retired Supreme Court judge, insisted throughout the campaigning that the TNA no longer aspires to an independent homeland, the Tigers are good and buried — if many of their bodies never returned to families — and committed to advancing Tamil rights through the political democratic process. “They must trust us,” Wigneswaran told reporters at a press conference in the provincial capital, Jaffna. “We are for an undivided Sri Lanka, where there is a certain amount of self-ruling under the federal constitution.” In a country of 20 million people, about 15 per cent are Tamils, primarily Hindu and Christian. The majority Sinhalese are mostly Buddhist. They have been at each other’s throats since ancient times of rival kingdoms, culminating in a merciless 27-year civil that cost upwards of 100,000 lives. Few want to go back down that bloody road. The wounds have not healed. Tamils, in the war-ravaged north, feel endlessly oppressed, chafing under the triumphalist policies of Colombo, resentful most especially of the heavy military presence — soldiers who don’t speak their language, swagger through their streets and build bases on their seized land. “During the war, there were LTTE cadres everywhere but the people weren’t afraid of their guns,” says Thayparan Sundarmoorthy, an elected administrator on the local council in Kilinochchi. “Now the soldiers carry guns but the people are afraid of those. “The LTTE were familiar to the citizens, we could communicate with them. The soldiers are Sinhalese and they cannot even speak to us. If they a group of men standing together, they demand to know what we’re doing. Nobody walks on the street after 7 p.m. We fear they will shoot us.” Sundarmoorthy acknowledges that reconstruction has been a boon for Kilinochchi,
which looks little like the ramshackle town it was four years ago. “There has been much change. They brought us roads. The banks came. They built bridges. We have electricity now where before there was only generator power from the LTTE. But psychologically, we can’t move around freely without fear.” The only compensation district residents received has come from aids groups, including $250 (U.S.) per family from the UN. Locals, anxious to start anew, bought tractors and home appliances, took out what were originally low-interest loans to rebuild bombed out homes. “Then, after the first two years, the premiums went up on the loans and people have not been able to pay them back. Some have committed suicide because they fell so far in debt.” What will Tamil-dominated provincial councils be able to do about that, now that the Northern Province was permitted to hold their first elections in a quarter-century? Power still rests with provincial governors appointed by the president, who can overrule any decisions made by the councilors. All financing is funnelled through the governors also. “The local council here decided to buy 16 bulldozers that the town needed,” says Manicham Sivapalan, 67. “That was two years ago. The governor still hasn’t signed the approval.” Yet the Tamils have had little to cheer since the Tigers were routed in 2009, by which time the flailing guerrillas had also become widely reviled for their cruelty, gangpressing at least one child soldier from every family into their fighting corps. “I never thought I would see this day in my lifetime,” marvels Samuel Chandrahasan, 71-year-old son of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, MP, father figure of the Tamil community for two decades, and founder of ITAK (Federal Party), which eventually became a constituent party of the TNA. Born in Jaffna, now working with refugees in Tamil Nadu — an Indian province that is home to more than 100,000 Tamils living in 112 displaced person camps — Chandrahasan returned to vote in the elections over the weekend. At the station in Kilinochchi, he waited for the train to Colombo, along with dozens of police officers — deployed to Northern Province with the army barracked on Election Day — returning home. “I never dreamed of seeing such a peaceful election, with minimal incidents. This is a unique moment, a great initiative for change.” He is halfway through rebuilding his house in Jaffna and will eventually return to stay. “All sides learned lessons the hard ways. But I’m optimistic for the future. I am a dreamer.”