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July 15, 2007  Volume 14, Issue 4


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Will "Tamil Kudumbimalai"be turned into "Sinhala Thoppigala?"

By D. B. S. Jeyaraj


Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka congratulating troops in Thoppigala Friday (13)

It is a rockymountain with a stonypeakanda kind of mini-peak on top! Such an appearance from afarlends itself to differently imaginedperceptions.

To the English authorities it looked like aristocratic head gear. So it was Baron's Cap; to the Tamils it was like a tuft of bound hair on one's head. So it wasKudumbimalai; to the Muslims it was like a hat on one's head. So they called it Thoppikkal; the Sinhalese also perceived it like the Muslims. So they called it Thoppigala.

I saw it for the first time in 1977 when I was travelling in a vehicle with the late Sam Thambimuthu along a dirt track to Vadamunai. Thambimuthu was a leading lawyer and stalwart of the Federal Party and later the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in Batticaloa. He was legal secretary of the TULF then and was married to Kala, the daughter of former FP senator Manickam. Sam Thambimuthu was later to become EPRLF parliamentarian for Batticaloa in 1989. Both he and his wife were killed by the LTTE in 1990 as they came out of the Canadian High Commission in Colombo.

Communities lived in harmony

The region surrounding Kudumbimalai/Thoppigalawas sparsely populated. There were Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese. There were age old settlements there called Puranagama or Puranakamam. Most of them were centred around natural lakes called villus. These are depressions in the land filled by rain water.

Some of the ancient villages were Kallichenai, Oothuchenai, Meerandavillu, Keeraniavillu, Kathavanai, Maha Eliya et al. I think Kallichenai and Meerandavillu were Muslim villages while Maha Eliya was Sinhalese. The others wereTamil.

The different communities were living in absolute harmony. There was inter-marriage between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Both communities spoke each others' language to some extent. Some Tamil and Sinhalese women married Muslims and converted to Islam but would wear their traditional clothes and jewellery, and also maintain links with their kith and kin. Many of the farmers belonged to the dying breed ofchena cultivators.

The Vadamunai scheme was comparatively new. It was first started for Tamils driven away from the Gal Oya Valley in 1956 and 1958. Later, plantation Tamils uprooted in the '70s during Hector Kobbekaduwa's land reform also came to Vadamunai. In 1977 more plantation Tamils affected by the August violence were settled here. My trip to Vadamunai with Thambimuthu was to see such a settlement coordinated by a dedicated Batticaloa youth called Bobby.

Importance attached

All these memories are revived as the area is now in the news. Sadly, the mountain and region are notgiven publicity on account of its natural diversity or ethnic harmony but because of its so-called strategic importance in military terms. Even as the ethnic violence escalated this little-known area in the remote Eastern Province has acquired an importance exceeding that of itsactual relevance.

The British being ourcolonial masters then, the mountain was officiallycalled Baron's Capeven after independence. Official records would refer to it as Baron's Cap and sometimes as 'gap.' But to the people of the area it was Thoppigala, Kudumbimalai or Thoppikkal. There was a large forest around the mountain that was officially declared as a forest reserve. I think the total area was around 350-400 sq. kilometers. Almost adjoining it was the Undugala forest reserve.

Geography of the area

These areas are called theKudumbimalai /Thoppigala region. The region was roughly a triangle with Vadamunai, Baron's Cap and Tharavaikulam being the three outlying points. To the west is the Maduru Oya basin catchment area; to the south and east is the Maha Oya-Chenkalady road; to the north is the Polonnaruwa road; further to the northwest is Vahaneri tank.

The Vadamunai-Kudumbimalai- Tharavai region evolved in recent years as a stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This happened in the late '80s and '90s when Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan alias "Col." Karuna was eastern regional commander of the LTTE.

Among structures set up here was Meenagam - the military headquarters base. The political headquarters Thenagam was in Karadiyanaru. Tharavai was the cemetery for Tigers who died in the battlefield. They are known as Maaveerar or 'great heroes.'

The region's remoteness made it virtually inaccessible. With its forests, fields, waterholes, hills and rocks, the region provided much cover. Though a number of structures were set up the LTTE has at no time in the pastunder Karuna adopted positional warfare to retain territory. During Karuna's time the Tigers always melted away into the forests if and when the security forces invaded. This was the situation even when the Indian army entered the region.

Tigers not very interested

The guerillas never fought back like a conventional army to retain the region under Karuna. They simply fled and returned after the enemy went away. Neither the Indian nor Sri Lankan army remained for long in the region. They did not set up permanent bases but returned to nearby positions.

Interestingly, Karuna did not try to hold on to this region even when the split occurred in the LTTE. Everyone expected Karuna to fall back to Kudumbimalaiand fight a last ditch stand after the defeats in Verugal- Kathiraveli-Vaharai at the hands of the mainstream LTTE in April 2004. But he did not.

Even more interesting was the fact that the mainstream LTTE too did not try to maintain a large, permanent presence in the region after the Karuna revolt. For reasons best known to them the Tigers shut down the Meenagam base and dismantled structures.

Some of the construction material and furniture were given to Tamil peasant families as charity. The LTTE also stoppedburials at Tharavai and began using Thandiaddy near Kokkaticholai as their burial grounds. All this shows that the LTTE had been gradually downsizing their reliance on the region.

LTTE revives "Beirut trail"

It was in recent timesthat the LTTE began to utilise the region more. Once the LTTE began withdrawing from Trincomalee South, Vaharai region and then the Paduvaankarai region, the bulk of the cadres began relocating to the northern mainland of the Wanni. The remaining cadres began moving into the Vadamunai-Kudumbimalai- Tharavai region. There were reasons for this.

One was that recent developments had revived the importance of the "Beirut trail" again. The 'Beirut trail' is a loose term referring to ad hoc jungle routes followed by cadres travelling to and from the north.

Let it be remembered that there was a time when the LTTE did not control extensive swathes of territory. The LTTE also did not have a well-developed Sea Tigers wing in the not so distant past.

It was not possible for Tiger boats to ferry eastern Tigers to the north and vice versa easily. So much of the north-east movement was on foot.

The Tigers used to travel through jungle routes. The journey commenced from the Kudumbimalai jungles to Vahaneri. Travelling northwards, they crossed the Veruhal river. Then they moved through jungles near Kiliveddy, Mawilaru, Serunuwara, Kinniya, Kadavanaikulam, etc., into the Manalaaru/Weli Oya region and further north. It was an ardous and difficult journey but the Tigers used the Beirut trail frequently.

Sea power

As time progressed and the LTTE acquired much sea power and also expanded territorial control, the Beirut trail went out of mode. Tigers would get into boats at Vaharai or Paalsenai or Verugal or Ilakkanthaiand land at Mullaithivu via the sea. Likewise, Tigers from the north would travel to the east also by sea.

But in recent times the LTTE has lost control of the eastern coast right down to Panichankerny in Batticaloa and Sampur in Trincomalee. With sea movement becoming restricted the land route of Beirut trail was reactivated again. This enhanced the importance of the Kudumbimalai region.

Another reason for the region's recent importance was the fact that it offers the best possible cover for classic guerrilla warfare. The Vadamunai-Kudumbimalai-Tharavai region provides natural cover to a great extent. It is possible for small groups of guerillas to move about in the region and conduct occasional forays.

Tigers' guerilla tactics

It appears that the LTTE is now transforming itself in the east from positional warfare to guerrilla tactics. The LTTE sent its last major batch of guerillas from the east to the north some weeks ago. More than 300 cadres went back with Col. Ramesh. The LTTE also managed to transport most of its military assets as well.

More than200 cadres are still left in the region. Ram, Nagesh, Pallavan, Keerthi, and Mano Master amongst others are all in the region with small groups of guerrillas. All of them are eastern sons of the soil.

"Col." Jeyam, a northerner, is also in the region. He commands an elite group of special commandos.

The LTTE has also sent most of its new recruits and conscripts back. Married cadres have also been sent back. Most of the women cadres have gone to the Wanni.

Against this backdrop the region does not require a strong, permanent military presence to control it. Such control is not possible. The cost effective method is to dominate the region by conducting frequent patrols, search operations and limited ground offensives.

This is why the Indian Army never established a permanent presence. This is why Generals like Lucky Algama or Janaka Perera also refrained from doing so while in the east.

Most intellectual soldier

Despite Janaka Perera's controversial record in certain spheres there is no denying that he was the most intellectual of Sri Lanka's top soldiers. As for Algama he proved himself by successfully clearing the east in the mid- '90s to conduct safe polls.

It is in this context that the strategic importance of the Kudumbimalai/Thoppigala region is being questioned publicly. Retired Indian General Ashok Metha did so. Military Intelligence (retd) Chief Col. Hariharan has done so. Several UNP leaders have done so. All of them are being severely criticised by government circles.

The victory in Kudumbimalai/Thoppigala should not be underestimated. It cannot be pooh-poohed as insignificant. At the same time it cannot be disproportionately overblown as a great victory either. The strategic importance of the region also cannot be exaggerated out of proportion simply to project an impression that a magnificent victory has been achieved.

Government's hidden agenda

The plans afoot to have a big tamasha to celebrate the victory is done with ulterior political motives. An undisguised attempt is being made to create a larger than life, latter day Dutu- gemunu image for Mahendra Percival Rajapakse. To what extent these cheap manoeuvres would succeed remains to be seen since one effective counter strike by the LTTE could deflate this 'gas balloon.'

There could however be a hidden agenda in the Rajapakse regime's unseemly interest in consolidating a greater hold on the Thoppigala region. If it was merely from a military angle then a permanent presence is unnecessary. But there could be other reasons.

One pecuniary reason could be the vast timber available. It is very possible to chop trees and transport timber from the region using the resources of the security forces. Even suggesting such a thing would be akin to blasphemy in the old days. Its not so nowadays.

In a land where top security people are 'suspected' of running an abduction for ransom racket these things are feasible. Anything is possible in acountry where money was allegedly paid to one's chief enemy to ensure electoral victory.

Dangerously counter-productive

The other motive could be dangerously counter-productive in political terms. It has been a fervent dream ofcertain Sinhala chauvinists tocolonise Tamil and Muslim areas with Sinhala settlers. This dream is now becoming a reality under the Rajapakse regime. Recent events in Trincomalee and Pottuvil denote this growing trend.

Given recent history it is quite probable that a permanent strong military presenceis being set up to facilitate Sinhala colonisation of the Kudumbimalai region. The possibility is not far fetched in view of what happened more than 20 years ago.

It was in 1983 that the Ven. Kithalagama Seelankara Thero (Dimbulagala Thero) organised an illegal colonisation attempt in the region. The controversial bhikku was implementing a plan devised by people like Gamini Dissanayake, N.G.P. Panditharatne and Herman Malinga Gunaratne.

Around 40,000 Sinhala settlers were taken in Mahaweli Authority vehicles and dropped in the Vadamunai-Kudumbimalai-Tharavaikulam jungles. Finances were provided by the Mahaweli Development Ministry and Sinhala businessmen.

Armed security was provided by ex -navy personnel. Most of them had been fired from the navy for engaging in communal violence against innocent Tamils in Trincomalee during July 1983.

In fairness to President J.R. Jayewardene he was in the dark about this sordid exercise. When an international outcry led by India and Canada ensued a beleaguered Jayewardene was frantic.

Besides the gentle Tamil Minister K.W. Devanayagam was uncharacteristically tough on this issue. The lands came under Kalkudah, his electorate.

When questioned Dissanayake underplayed the issue saying only around 5,000 settlers had converged on their own volition. Jayewardene sent his trusted nephew Ranil Wickremesinghe by helicopter to ascertain the truth.

Ranil reports truth

Wickremesinghe reported back truthfully that 40,000 persons aided by Mahaweli personnel were squatting illegally. This led to a major showdown in cabinet between Wickremesinghe and Dissanayake.

Both Panditharatne and Dissanayake declined to dismantle the project. So President Jayewardene appointed Kaduwela MP and lawyer Paul Perera as Polonnaruwa District minister, and deputed him to handle the issue.

Perera with the assistance of some ex-army officers adopted unofficial rough tactics to drive away the illegal squatters. Thus ended that drama.

Well planned official exercise

But now those plans could be revived. What was an ad hoc, unofficial attempt then could become a well-planned official exercise under the Rajapakse regime.

The new Nagenahira Navodhaya scheme for eastern resurgence could have a few such projects on the agenda. For successful settlement a strong military presence is essential.

A similar exercise as done in the Manalaaru/Weli Oya region could be undertaken in the Kudumbimalai-Thoppigala region.

When the battle for Sampur commenced this columnist warned of plans to set up a High Security Zone in Sampur and Muttur East. I predicted that the dispersed people would not be allowed to go back to their residences. This has now become harsh reality.

Likewise the Rajapakse regime could go ahead with such plans unless checked now. If no action is taken by interested parties despite advanced warnings then a replay of Sampur is very likely.

If that happens the region south of the Trincomalee District could become a buffer as in the case of the region north of the same district.

There Tamil Manalaaru became Sinhala Weli Oya. Here Tamil Kudumbimalai could become Sinhala Thoppigala.

 

 


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