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On The Spot

Back to Batticaloa

The best things remain the same – The sea and the lagoon make Batticaloa a virtual Venice, a city of bridges

Muslims are very likely a majority in the east. The thambis or ‘little brothers’ are now the dominant ethnic group

Dozens of Sinhala day trippers from Dambulla and Polonnaruwa now make their way to the pristine beaches of Kalkudah and Passekudah

Text and pics By R. Wijewardene
 in Batticaloa 

You hurtle at speed along a road so flat and smooth it resembles polished dark glass. 

In the darkness villages, towns and houses flash by in a blur of fluorescent light, and neon. Kilometre posts appear and disappear in seconds — even the darkness is accelerated.

Is this the rush of an unlit autobahn at night or lonely highway cleaving its way through the American Midwest? No.  Its the A-11 between Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa, perhaps the finest stretch of rolled tar in the country. 

More than the quality of road however what’s striking is the darkness.

To travel to Batticaloa through the emptiness beyond Medawachchiya and through the once fraught towns of Valaichchenai, Kiran and Eravur  in the darkness — without fear  or  check points is to experience, in a journey, the magnitude of the changes that have gripped this country over the past few months.

A night time journey to Batticaloa has been impossible for almost three decades. Daylight reveals the full extent of the changes that have taken place in the town and the surrounding area.

While the demolition of houses and shop fronts in the centre of Batti thanks to a road widening scheme makes the town appear like more of a war zone than it ever did previously, there is a relaxed, unthreatening air on the streets of Batticaloa that speaks volumes about its progress. 

The hair trigger tension of what has for decades been the least stable major town in the country outside of the peninsula is gone. The armed presence has diminished.

Checks points are virtually non existent — newly recruited Tamil officers now patrol the streets and people move freely at all times.

Once forlorn bars, restaurants and hotels  are crowded  extraordinarily not with foreign visitors or NGO workers but with Sinhala businessmen and tourists.

Scenes that have been unimaginable for years; scores of Sinhala day trippers from Polonnaruwa and Dambulla bathing in the placid waters at Passekuda – are now almost routine. 

The best things of course remains the same. The lagoons and the sea gleam – a dozen shades of blue under the searing eastern sun. The view from the Kallady bridge remains a vision of a virtual Venice – a city, more than any other in this country defined and surrounded by water.  A city surely with a future as bright as the light that bounces off the dazzling surface of its lagoons.

But things in this country are rarely that simple. Beneath Batticaloa’s  fresh veneer — its sparkling Food City, and rows of refurbished banks  there are visible cracks, fissures that threaten to collapse this vision of a town wrapped securely in the folds of development and progress. 

Feuding factions:TMVP vs TMVP

The rift within  the TMVP is deep. Pillayan and Karuna’s factions remain in open confrontation. The last weeks have seen Pillayan prevented from opening offices in parts of the east by Karuna loyalists. 

Within the limits of Batticaloa town the Pillayan faction of the TMVP have replaced the  old roaring Tiger emblem which decorated their offices, bases and bunkers with a new emblem — a sleek motor boat powering into the future.

But outside his strongholds in Batticaloa and Trincomalee towns Pillayan’s ship appears to be sinking. 

In the Tamil hinterlands of the interior and coastal villages Kurana reigns supreme — his cadres unlike Pillayan’s never handed over their weapons and posters affirming his closeness to the island’s shawled, mustachioed centre of power.

Pillayan by daring to ask that more power be handed over to the Eastern Provincial Council has incurred the wrath of the mighty centre. 

No longer in control of an armed force and undercut by the central government his power base is rapidly being decimated. He is at loggerheads with the appointed governor of the Eastern Province — a battle he cannot expect to win given the enormous powers vested in the governor. The new mayor of Batticaloa too is thought to be sympathetic to Karuna.

Even within his stronghold of Batticaloa therefore his position is  becoming untenable — his failure to win concessions from the government have revealed the  narrow  limits of the Chief Minister’s power. And faced with the Chief Minister’s impotence his inability to win concessions from the central government the people have turned against Pillayan.

However that is not to say they are in favour of Karuna either. 

Ultimately from the whisperings in the town’s eating houses and conversations with veteran analysts of Batticaloa’s political situation an outsider can glean that for the most part the people of Batticaloa regard both Karuna and Pillayan as stooges of the government. Their inability to wok together to win more rights for the Tamil people is seen as a final act of betrayal.

Extraordinarily in and around Batticaloa there remains robust support for the TNA despite the party’s absolutely rudderless present state and its links to the vanquished LTTE.  “If there were free elections in the province the TNA would win the Tamil vote and win easily” were the words of a seasoned journalist.

The same sentiments were repeated again and again by those prepared to comment on the situation.  The government has crushed the LTTE and delivered unprecedented infrastructure development however the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of the east is far from won. 

Changing the mindset of a people who have endured decades of restrictions, repression and fear will take time.  Roads and bridges cannot undo decades of fear and suspicion; the wounds in this part of the country are still fresh and deep.  

A damaged people

Beyond the highways the glass fronted buildings and the sleek roads of Batticaloa remain profoundly damaged. Not in the sense of bullet ridden buildings or craters left from past shellings – there are none of these, but the bruised psychology of the people reveals a shattered landscape.

This is a land of mental scars and where buildings have been rebuilt, damage remains manifest in the province’s people.

An indication of the scale of the human suffering that remains in the district years after its liberation is the fact that there are 60 orphanages in and around Batticaloa town. Each housing dozens of children. Young people who endured the worst atrocities of war saw their families massacred, their houses burned and their lives destroyed.

The homes range from well run and caring facilities to ridiculously  extravagant air-conditioned equipped compounds now crumbling for want of funds.

Of these various houses of sorrow only five are registered. Some are extremely well run, others much less so but all continue to function as the government recognises that closing unregistered orphanages would only inundate a system that is even at present barely coping. There are simply thousands of orphans in the district.

Almost all these orphanages were built with generous donor funding and promises of long term assistance to the children in their care. But as the world’s attention has now turned to new crises donor funding is proving harder to come and many of these homes are struggling for funds.

Some have had to go to extraordinary lengths to secure the funding they need.

“Before we were funded by international donors – from Italy and other European countries we were following a programme where the children were looked after by carers who functioned like surrogate mothers. But the funding for that programme ran out and now we have an agreement with ‘Art of Living’ Ravi Shankar’s foundation. The children are raised according to the principles of Shankar’s philosophy, breathing exercises, compulsory laughter and crying – its helps balance their minds and souls”

The man in charge of the centre seems enthusiastic about the new system but whether the east’s orphans should be raised according to the new age teachings of an Indian guru is an open question.

Some orphanages in fact are nothing less that fully fledged Indian style ashrams with rhythmic chanting broadcast constantly over manicured gardens populated by shaven-headed orphans in dhottis who spend their days listening to mantrams and worshipping photographs of their distant Indian guru.

It all seems frighteningly arbitrary – Ravi Shankar orphanages, ashram orphanages, Catholic orphanages, fundamentalist protestant orphanages all without any particular regulation or supervision.

However for the most, the children are well clothed, fed and the current chaos may in fact be the best solution for what is a genuinely intractable problem. Government intervention might have the effect of closing orphanages or might only make things worse.

Ultimately the idea that children who saw their parents killed in front of their eyes, who had their mothers immolate themselves on hearing the news of their fathers’ death will ever lead normal lives is, for the most part, an unrealistic dream.

The horror of the conflict will live on in these children indefinitely; for decades they will be a reminder of a past everyone else is already eager to forget.

Electric refugees

Another living reminder of the east’s dark past are the refugees.  Of course it was announced that all the east’s refugees had been resettled and allowed to return home months ago. But as ever things are not quite what they are announced to be.

While the vast majority of refuges  have returned – there is a single but crucial exception – hundreds of families evicted from their homes in Sampur remain trapped in the tented limbo of IDP camps outside of Batticaloa.

Their former homes have been declared a high security zone. In reality of course the zone is the site of the proposed Sampur coal power plant and the government having encountered land disputes and protests that accompanied the construction of the power plant at Norochcholai is keen to make sure that the people never return.

These are therefore not refugees from the war but from development – displaced by the country’s need for electricity.

While the government has offered these electric refugees compensation and alternative land they continue to demand the right to return to the land of their ancestors. That the country needs development is unquestionable but why a community already battered by the war and tsunami should pay the heaviest price for this development is an open and uncomfortable question.

The Sampur refugees sweltering in their tin roofed temporary homes reveal both the duplicity and concealment of the government and the failure of the media who distracted by various other issues have failed to follow up on this painful but profoundly important case.

Eastern Tamils; a peoplein decline

Ultimately the reality of Batticaloa today is complex. There is the clear reality of development programmes and investment but also the reality that displacement destruction and death have damaged the region’s people, particularly its Tamil people, almost beyond repair.

North of the town in recently ‘cleared’ villages rent by the tsunami and the war the situation remains bleak. The land is parched from months of drought, the remaining water resources are barely adequate all the talk is of emigration and escape.

The inescapable reality is that the Tamils of the east are a people in decline. Literally so as their numbers continue to dwindle as the Sinhala and Muslim population of the east expands. Sinhala villages line the road from Polonnaruwa almost to Valaichchenai and Muslims dominate the coast from Kattankudi to Kalmunai and beyond.

An accurate census would almost certainly reveal that Muslims are in fact the largest ethnic group in the province. The thambis or ‘little brothers’ are now the dominant ethnic group in the east and Tamils now struggle even to constitute the largest minority group. 

Separatism and autonomy are no longer even a remote possibility for a people who after decades of armed struggle are now a minority in a province they once claimed as their own.

Peace and the end of separatism must be a relief for any and all those who are truly fond of this ancient island but that one of the east’s cultures appears to be disappearing gradually pushed by emigration, disenchantment and despair into insignificance can only be a source of sadness,

For now in the evenings the air in the centre of Batticaloa town is still perfumed. Thick with incense as burning camphor is offered to the gods – as it has been for over thousands of years. But how much longer these rituals will persist in the face of the inexorable demographic and economic changes now gripping the east is difficult to predict.

And the best advice for those looking to understand the multifaceted and complex reality of this island’s most complex and fascinating province is visit now. Visit often. Fantastic roads and fabulous new intercity trains will take you there. Second class Colombo-Batticaloa train tickets on the comfortable newly donated Chinese intercity express start from Rs. 500 and you can roll into Batticaloa on the wheels of progress.

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