by Maneshka Borham
Recent tearful scenes to bid farewell to a military officer serving in Vishwamadu, Mullaitivu underscores immediate needs in the impoverished and war-torn region, the continuing stigmatisation of rehabilitated ex-LTTE cadre, and the desperation for humanity and respect in a vulnerable community
In the backdrop of militarisation fatigue and continuing calls for the removal of the armed forces from civilian structures in the war-affected Northern and Eastern Provinces, scenes last week of Tamil civilians and ex-LTTE combatants in Vishwamadu, Mullaitivu bidding a senior military officer tearful farewell on his transfer to Ambepussa, sent shock waves all over the country.
In the south, the scenes of sobbing men and women trailing the heavily garlanded army officer being carried on the shoulders of rehabilitated Tamil combatants, was hailed a major victory for reconciliation, and a reinforcement of the notion that the military was in fact working to uplift the lives of those devastated by war. But in the Northern Province, the story was viewed with deep suspicion among some activists, who worried it was ‘romanticising’ militarisation of the war-torn districts. Other activists working with communities on the ground however, acknowledged that the affection of the people for Lt. Colonel Ratnapriya Bandula was real, because during his tenure in Vishwamadu he had gone beyond the call of duty to help war-affected residents, and particularly ex-LTTE cadres in the region once controlled by the Tigers.
Vishwamadu is located north of Puthukuduirippu and Nandikadal, where the final battles of the civil war unfolded. With the military moving south-east of Kilinochchi after the rebel’s de facto capital fell in January 2009, Vishwamadu was one of the last areas to be captured by the Army after many decades under LTTE rule. The area was an epicenter of LTTE activity with many of the groups key military and civilian offices being established there. Today, nine years since the end of the war, Vishwamadu is home to hundreds of former LTTE cadres and their families. Rehabilitated but without livelihood options and struggling to be reintegrated into Tamil society, many of these ex cadres have found jobs with the Civil Security Department (CSD). Since 2012, the CSD has hired over 3500 ex-LTTE cadres. These rehabilitated ex-combatants work in CSD run farms engaging in agriculture and animal husbandry activities and have also been hired as pre-school teachers by the Department. Lt. Col. Ratnapriya was commanding officer of the CSD in Vishwamadu, Mullaitivu.
Organisations like the Jaffna-based Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research have called these military run livelihood programs exploitative, since no other livelihood options are available for ex-LTTE cadres and being recruited by the CSD has meant less harassment by the military. But other activists working in the war-torn districts acknowledge that they meet vital immediate needs of people affected by war, where other Government and civil structures are failing.
Selvarasa (name changed on request) who was once a former senior LTTE cadre now attached to the CSD, spoke to the Sunday Observer about Lt. Col. Ratnapriya’s extraordinary farewell from Vishwamadu. It was not a ‘show’ or staged event, he insists, but a true outpouring affection from the people in the area.
Selvarasa admits he joined the CSD with great reluctance several years ago. “I was initially apprehensive. But I saw how Lt. Col. Ratnapriya Bandula went out of his way to help people and by doing so, their apprehensions also broke down,” he explains. “People would come to him to get their problems solved.”
The rehabilitated cadre, in his interview with the Sunday Observer, said on his own volition, the military officer had been credited with forming dancing troupes, a music group, encouraging sporting activities and creating various employment opportunities for rehabilitated cadres including those who were severely injured. Selvarasa admits they have been criticised for hailing a Sri Lanka Army officer the way they did. “But this was not to celebrate the army. We were only honouring the service he had done for us,” he explained in a lengthy interview. Politicians in particular had no right to criticise the grand farewell, Selvarasa says, because none of them had engaged in efforts to find employment opportunities for former LTTE fighters and cadre.
“I myself have gone behind politicians but no one helped me saying I was ex-LTTE. Finally, it was only the CSD that hired us” he points out. “We just honoured his humanity and service – that’s it,” he said.
The CSD has been viewed with suspicion, believed to have evolved from the ‘grama arakshaka’ or home guard unit that was originally set up to train sinhala and muslim villages in what was those days called ‘border villages’ against raids by the LTTE. this unit later became a much more sophisticated division with expanded reach in all areas of the country, though particularly focused on the war affected North and East. There were concerns that the CSD with its reach was creating vigilante networks to step up surveillance in these regions post-war. Some claimed the employment of ex-LTTE cadres was part of this mission.
“The CSD have taken over vast areas of land in the Wanni and runs farms in which they employ ex LTTE cadres. With no other means of livelihood and the constant threat of surveillance ex LTTE cadres have found CSD farms to be a source of income. That they have to work in these farms for survival is nothing but an act of economic coercion, said Executive Director of Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research Dr K. Guruparan on Twitter after pictures of the army officer’s farewell went viral. Dr Guruparan argues that these farms must be handed over to co-operatives which can then employ people from the area.
But one human rights activist, who specifically did not want to be named, said that while the original purpose of the CSD may have been dubious, Lt. Col. Ratnapriya had gone beyond his official duties to help former cadres and their families. “He uplifted a vulnerable community, this is why he was celebrated” the activist who works with communities on the ground in the Northern Province told the Sunday Observer. Under Ratnapriya’s command, the CSD had gone on to deploy units to uplift Tamil culture, even while elsewhere post-war attempts were being made to break down social and cultural structures and identity, the activist said. “For example, they were trained in the Bharata natyam,” she pointed out. The officer had assisted the poorest of the poor, and many former militants started to directly approach him for employment.
To date, CSD has 15,000 job applications pending, even though the department stopped hiring years ago.
Once glorified as saviours fighting for Tamil rights, ex-LTTE cadres that survived the final stage of the war, continue to face intense social stigmatisation and ostracism once they reintegrate into society following rehabilitation. “Nobody will marry them. Nobody will give them jobs – because they are considered tainted by their association with the Tigers,” the activist said. “All these people were treated with dignity and respect by this officer,” she added, “in doing so he filled a vaccuum left by politicians, the Government and even the vocal Tamil Diaspora.”
Jaffna-based political economist Dr Ahilan Kadirgamar concurred that the former LTTE combatants and cadres continue to face stigmatisation in the north.
In its budget proposals, the Government has sought to incentivise companies hiring former LTTE cadres, but Dr Kadirgamar says execution of this policy has been too slow since the proposal is very new.
Rights activist Shreen Saroor explained that while people’s immediate needs had to be met, the issue had structural implications. “He delivered as a human being,” Saroor says, speaking of Ratnapriya, “but the Government structure has failed – it is the Government, and not the military that should be delivering in the North.”