Last Word from the Borders
Crossing through War
Yesterday I got on a propeller plane that took me from Ratmallanah just south of Colombo, to Jaffna town at the northern tip of the island. Tonight I board a new Airbus A33 to take me away from this island through Kuala Lumpur to Stockholm to Newark, New Jersey. In between I went back 30 years in time to where a war had frozen a people and discussed strategy and tactics with a remarkable movement in the making. In the matter of two days, I was taken apart and made whole again, as this country does to me almost daily.
We arrived at Colombo airport at 6:30a.m. for an 8:30a.m. domestic flight. Our bags were screened twice and I had to remove the batteries from my digital camera. Before that, our little three wheel scooter taxi had to maze its way through three air force check points in the kilometer between the main road and the airport terminal.
These were the reminders that a war in this country still was hot to the touch. The civil war between the Sinhala controlled Sri Lanka government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) had been burning for close to thirty years. The LTTE sited long standing discrimination, inequality, lack of representation and resources, and an historic connection to the land of the north and east for reason to forcibly secede and create a separate state for the Tamil people.
The people of the north referred to the war as their first Tsunami. It claimed over 65,000 lives and displaced over a million people. A cease fire agreement signed in 2002 maintains an uneasy peace. The LTTE now effectively controls large portions of the east coast from Yalla in the south to areas of Batticloa, Trincomalee, and toward Jaffna. The SL army retook the town of Jaffna in 2000.
The north and eastern districts of Sri Lanka are a quilt work of control. The government operates thousands of check points, but dual power between the two effectively weaves through much of the region. In certain areas there are both army and LTTE checkpoints, regulation, and taxation. In others the LTTE controls outright.
The war extended throughout the course of my life. It developed, escalated, stalled, and restarted as I matured. As I grew older, it circumscribed everything else that it meant to be Sri Lankan. We were Catholic and Sinhala, and we lived in Black Los Angeles. Those features kept me in relative isolation from the rest of the Sri Lanka community where most community activities were around the Buddhist temple. Even then however, I knew that crossing the line of the ethnic conflict was the one taboo, the central uncrossable point in the Sinhala community. That fact remained the case as I became more politically conscious. It was semi-tolerable to be progressive or Left of center, but it was off limits to sympathize with the Tamil cause. I observed the issues with a certain distance both because of the sensitivity and the complexity and not wanting to disturb the few connections I had with my countrymen.
The expatriate community became a chief battleground in the ethnic clash. As the war intensified, hundreds of thousands of Tamils were made refugees and fled to India, Europe, Australia, and Canada. Segments of the Tamil diaspora became a core component of the LTTE infrastructure, particularly for financial support.
Parts of the Sinhala diaspora engaged on the opposite side. It was a total polarization. Many in the Sinhala community counter-organized around Sinhala nationalism. They fought against 'splitting the country.' They organized at many Sinhala events and around Buddhist functions. They supported a strong military solution to the conflict to wipe out the LTTE, and they, like their Tamil counterparts, engaged in ideological debates around the truth of Sinhala/Tamil ancient history and which group was on the island first. The pitch and seriousness of the activity became completely irresolvable as the army invaded and bombed the north and east and as the LTTE tactics turned toward civilian death and attacks in the south and in Colombo.
In the Sinhala community, the conflict became framed as a question of crushing terrorists and maintaining national unity. Tamil self-determination was represented in the context of India's trying to conquer the island. The Sinhala nationalists explained that the Tamils had a state in India(Tamil Nadu), and that they were extending their control to Sri Lanka. It therefore had to be stopped, for sovereignty and to counter Indian hegemony. It was to maintain the integrity of the Sinhala nation from future domination. Therefore it was not a liberation struggle for Tamils, but a struggle for Sinhalese to maintain their independence and sovereignty from India. There was no middle ground for dialog nor even casual relationship between the communities. In the Sinhala circles, Tamils were highly suspect.
Therefore, I was completely surprised that now only 3 years after the cease fire agreement, none of my family raised a question of my traveling to Jaffna. There were no eyebrows around visiting Tamils or fears about getting caught up in the conflict. Perhaps, it is because Jaffna is under thorough occupation. After decades of fighting, death, militarization of society, and huge monetary costs, there had also been a ground swell of support for a negotiated settlement . All sides became weary of war. Even the arms traders seemed ready for a respite.
The ThermoDynamics of Destruction
The Jaffna airport in Pilalany sits in the middle of an army high security zone(HSZ) which extends for at least 10 kilometers around the airport. It includes 80 kilometers of northern coast and most of the sea around the north of the island. From the military airstrip, we were required to board a special bus which took us out of the HSZ and into town. Along the way, we passed through a series military installations: training facilities, dormitories, command posts, etc. Most of the structures seemed to have once been homes, schools, and temples, and those that were not occupied by the army were emptied and roofless.
The military presence only declined slightly as we passed out of the official zone. Soldiers are constant features throughout town at checkpoints, on foot, on bicycle, and in their seemingly many facilities. All carry automatic rifles, including those on bicycle. The rest of the town was dotted with more ruined homes and buildings that laid nterspersed amongst the active township, destroyed and abandoned. People told us that all these broken structures were a direct result of the war.
Having seen the Tsunami destruction, and now this true war scene, my brother and I became sort of experts on the discerning causes of destruction. The Jaffna ruins were different than those of the tsunami. They had been destroyed by the roof's collapsing. We speculated that it was either a bomb from the top or fire from below that resulted in their demise. Ramesh, reminded me that the tsunami houses had big round holes in the middle of them. It's the way that water circulates when it can not escape. He later diagrammed the dynamics and force of liquid motion. He sketched some house designs that could potentially reduce the risk of future water based destruction. For bombs and rocket firings however, there's much less that can be done, that is, short of designing houses as bunkers.
The Jaffna ruins had aged. Like the ruins of the Aztecs and Mayans, time has a way of making them picturesque. The structures had now been empty of human activity for up to thirty years. Nature had begun to reclaim them. Trees grew over the remains with their roots grabbing up the walls. The lack of roofing and windows and walls made them spacious and open and sun filled.
Neither the houses nor the spaces around them were concentrated or packed with the suffocation of human activity. Unlike the villages that still teemed with people, there was no overpopulation, malnutrition, garbage problem, or deterioration that needed to be fixed. Birds made nests in the rafters and cows grazed in what was once a living room. Bushes and flowers now crowded these houses. Like an unkempt gravestone that was taken over by wildflowers, there is something eerily beautiful when nature takes over man's demise. The ruins are not limited to the cemetery that is the high security zone. The gravestones are throughout the town as is the military presence.
I looked for burn marks and sure signs of fire and violence on all the abandoned buildings, but those were gone by now. It was hard to believe that all the empty places were by direct acts of war. It had to be that some people just got weary of living around war and the certainty of death, repression,and bleak futures. It must have been that many just left until it got safe to come back, like in inner cities in the U.S.-like Detroit's ruins.
Organization and A Time to Rebuild
Our first stop in Jaffna was to an association of rural workers. They have 2,000 members who own no land and work picking crops and other day labor jobs for small wages. The men now make about $4.00 a day and the women $2.50. In 1996, it was $1.25 and $.40 a day. Only now are they getting back to their principle task of being a union. The war severely stinted their organizing.
The central committee solemnly informed us that it's difficult to grow anything when bombs are going off. Agricultural production, fishing yields, and all economic activity dropped to almost nothing. The entire area froze in time. In fact the whole of Jaffna town looks like parts of Colombo did 20 years ago when I first visited as a child. And except for an occasional cell phone distributor, the main road is a dust line of archaic businesses. The shops look like they have not been improved since the last century, and the inventory looks almost as old. I thought about all the people that are forced to be so resilient in Iraq, Cuba, Afghanistan, and most of Africa.
The homes were constructed strong and robust and built in an early colonial style. The structures are most probably of Portuguese influence. Like the homes in the South, most had Spanish tile roofs, verandas, and small gardens surrounded by walls and an entry gate. However, there was no structural maintenance. What broke or disintegrated, stayed broke and continued to disintegrate. The edifices were just holding on to survive. In much better shape were the poorer people's homes which were made of traditional clay and thatched roofs. The maintenance on those can be done with natural inputs that are handy. We heard that there is one area of very big homes in Jaffna, and the entire stretch had now been taken over by international NGO's after the Tsunami.
Construction and rebuilding is only now starting. We stayed in one of the only hotels that were operating. It would barely qualify as a motel in the united states, but it held Canadian Parliamentarians the day we were there. The operators were briskly adding rooms and services, and around town many of the shattered places were being worked on. There was a sense that the whole place was utilizing the influx of money and people after the Tsunami and the opening through the cease fire as a strategic opportunity, a very smart move. It seemed that the people were organizing both the aid and their resources to the maximum.
In fact, in relation to Tsunami relief and overall organization, the community based organizations seemed much better organized in the north. Despite war and economic downturn and constant military intervention, the the rural workers had a membership of over 2,000 in just the Jaffna area. They maintained their own office and cultural area and ran their own day care center out of it. During the war years the rural workers society was forced to deal with issues of displacement, support to victims of violence, and humanitarian relief. With the cease fire, land is being planted and people are going back to work. We met in the top floor of their office which was a roof covered deck. On every side new harvests were coming up: rice, tobacco, vegetables. Their members were getting work in construction related industries, rebuilding, and mining for construction materials.
The Fisherman's union was even more impressive. The cooperative/union bought a building from which they ran a repair shop and sold fishing supplies and equipment. They had signed supply contracts with distributors so that when the Tsunami hit they were first in line for scarce equipment. They didn't possess a typewriter or a computer but their operation was much more together than many of ours in the United States. With the help of a little notebook, the head of the organization counted down in exacting detail and with great authority, village by village, district by district, kilometer by kilometer the issues and status of fisher folk. He broke down statistics, history, and sorted the information in any way we asked.
Unlike, the south, the fisher people's union was in charge of the Tsunami aid. They already negotiated with international NGO's to replenish the fishermen's needs. They executed written memorandums of understanding(MOU) for over 2,000 boats, engines, nets, bicycles, and accessories for their members and other area fisher people. The feat seemed amazing given the context, and it reflected a very systematic and sophisticated method for engaging and negotiating with the power structures, government and non-governmental. They had a very strong base organization and their own income generation operation. Every organization I saw in Sri Lanka had as its core program wor a mixture of what we in the United States would call service programs, organizing, advocacy, and direct political work.
Going Back Home Aint Easy
Many of the rural workers association's members still live in displacement camps. Some 350,000 people still wait in war related camps throughout the country. At one, there were 30 families out of 130 that formerly formed a village. They had been moved 7 times in the last ten years. The present camp was set up by a U.N. agency two years ago. It has a limestone mine at its entrance. Rumor has it that the owner of the land, the area chief, wants it back. They will be forced to move again soon.
The group's original village is in the high security zone on the coast. After fifteen years their central desire is to return to it. However, it is unclear what is left of their former homes. Best case scenario is that the village has become a beautiful gravestone which they can clean and rebuild, but more likely, it was completely destroyed by either the war or by the tsunami. Either way, the chances of returning to it any time soon seem slim. They, with villagers from other internally displaced camps in the area, are having a march this Friday to again demand their land back. They expect 5,000 people to march through the military town.
For these people, and the hundreds of thousands of others displaced by the war, the tsunami is only the latest in a series of dislocating events. Many of the 'welfare camps' have been operational for over 15 years. The government has become accustomed to having them around and shifting them at will, with vague or no plans for permanent replacement or rebuilding. Many with experience with war refugees have a wary premonition for the long term fate of Tsunami survivors. They could easily become additions to the permanently internally displaced as temporary shelters become semi-permanent refuges. I thought about the Tsunami destruction becoming a long term tourist attraction as nature recovers it while the people continue to lie in wait.
In the world of displacement and replacement, land issues quickly turn into a complicated matrix to work through. With the cease fire, renewed hopes of return make for difficult reconciliations. As the rebuilding process begins, many displaced people are returning from where they landed. Across villages, districts, regions, and nations, people who went to stay with relatives, in refugee camps, and abroad are returning to reassemble their past and their homes where the conditions make it possible.
They often find that their homes have been occupied. Those who had the will to stay or had no options to leave have moved in and made their own claims on the land. They too, are looking forward to rebuilding. The law says that any property that was left for more than ten years is forfeited. However, the returnees from overseas often come with valuable foreign currency, and thereby, power to reclaim.
In this complicated knot of rights, the Muslim community has been caught on all sides. Being the smallest minority and scattered throughout the coastline, they have little political power and are vulnerable to both Sinhala and Tamil inflections. Many of them fled Tamil dominated eastern coasts during the war and have now been the hardest hit by the tsunami. They have no place to go. The coasts in the southeast are lined by Tamil paddy(rice) farmers in a fragile balance with the fishing communities. The government's 200 m policy pushes them directly into Tamil paddy land. This crunch is already causing high tensions between the communities, and as the cease fire holds, more Muslims who were originally displaced by war are also returning both to the south and north east. Whether it be the Sinhala controlled government or the LTTE, they are vulnerable and anxious.
Ethnic Reconciliation and the possibilities of war
The embryonic return process is in the context of highly fragile politics and potentially explosive tensions. National elections are coming, and the JVP party is re-fueling Sinhala nationalism in the south. With a combination of left populism rooted in the mass of Sinhala farmers, fishers, and Buddhists, the party is surging. As the neo-liberal model leaves farmers and peasants further pauperized and as workers get squeezed in the international bottom of the labor pool, the anger of those masses has potential to bubble. Unfortunately, much of the target of that anger seems to be directed toward the Tamils. If the JVP takes control, all signs point to their driving a wedge counter to any further political resolution of the peace process. Even a federalist solution is an unwarranted concession for them.
Meanwhile, the 'liberal' ruling government, with whom the JVP is in fragile tactical alliance, moves headstrong towards an economy that is squarely ruled by multi-national capital. They, despite populist rhetoric and an alliance with the JVP, are driving the economic policy of pauperization. They are rapidly privatizing the coasts, the water, mineral resources, and putting multi-national corporations in charge of the Tsunami reconstruction effort. In this sense both the government and the JVP are transforming the old feudal structures, the JVP from the bottom by supporting the interests of the Sinhala farmers, peasants, and some workers and the government from the very top in coalition with international finance capital. The two tendencies are on a collision course.
Finally, the United States is making its presence and intentions felt in the country. A few days before my arrival, George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton made a rare joint trip to the island. They came to tour the Tsunami affected areas, but their designs, according to one fishermen, was to “steal our water.” In the works, is a scheme to export Sri Lanka's water supply as a export crop. In India, this has meant turning the rivers over to Coca-Cola. When confronted about the lack of water for the people, Coke reportedly responded: “Drink Coca-Cola.”
Colin Powell had been in Sri Lanka a few days before that. In addition to Tsunami relief, the U.S. is negotiating with the government around security issues. With the eminent shutting down of the military base at the small island of Diego Garcia, Sri Lanka becomes crucial to U.S. military interests. It's ports, particularly the harbor at Trincomalee, is a crucial fueling depot for American military vessels crossing from Asia to the Middle East. The State Department is pushing for increased military funding for the Sri Lanka army and navy in its confrontation with the LTTE while simultaneously supporting the resumption of peace talks between the two.
All of these are charging the atmosphere around the cease fire and contributing to even more tensions around land and resources. Whether the cease fire will hold seems completely up in the air. Between the various contradictions and the very new peace, lies a volatile powder keg.
One small step being taken to positively resolve the contradictions is a process called the People to People Dialog which is bringing together intellectuals, grassroots organizations, and NGO's from the north, south, and east. They are discussing about issues relevant to farmers and fishers, Tamils, Sinhala, and Muslim.
In addition to discussions, the group is beginning to take some small action. On March 30th, for example, participants in the group which include NAFSO and the Free Trade Zone workers union are rallying in Colombo against the government's buffer zone policy. They are concentrating on the land issues and connecting the post-Tsunami issues around the buffer zone with those related to the war.
The initiative is small in numbers, highly over powered, and working at a pace that is severely outrun by the dominant trends above. Furthermore, at this point it is largely dominated by intellectuals. The process in the norht is incredibly nascent, while it's burden is enormous.
However, the people involved seem to understand the scale of the implications and the importance of their mission. With all that is stacked up against it, all I can hope is that the initiative works steadily and smartly and quickly as possible to build. The odds are scant that they can be successful. The forces against them have the strength of an entire empire, state power, the military, and vast media and ideological institutions that allow them to act without process.
NAFSO and its partners are in the opposite position on every front, but so is the state of progressive movements throughout the world. The hope is in the resilience of those people that I spent time with. They have been up against a lot more for a lot longer time. They are drawing on their resolve and looking to us for support.
I return with that obligation and some piece of that resolve as inspiration.