Exasperated IDPs use direct action to press demands

With two years of agitation to remove the high security zone (HSZ) in the Vadmaradtchi and Themaradtchi areas of Jaffna falling on deaf ears and a golden opportunity emerging to embarrass the government while it was busy celebrating the country’s independence, residents who had been displaced through the policies of successive governments decided to resort to direct action to press for their demands.

Direct action also appeared to be a suitable modus operandi for winning rights due to a series of successful agitations launched by sections of the public sector in southern Sri Lanka demanding wage increases, protesting privatisation and for redressing other grievances. The protest also appeared appropriate in the context of leaders and parliamentarians of the TNA stating publicly that the Tamils had not won ‘independence’ in 1948 but had got rid of British colonialism only to be confronted by Sinhala hegemony.

Two groups of agitators began a fast to death in Jaffna on 4 February, even as a military parade was marching in Colombo before the country’s president, prime minister and other dignitaries as part of independence day celebrations. One group, numbering 12 persons from Vadamradtchi began fasting in front of the office of the divisional secretariat for Valigamam North in Tellippalai. They were all residents who had been displaced by the war.The action of the IDPs from Vadamaradtchi coincided with those of a group of farmers from Thenmaradtchi who commenced a similar agitation in Chavakachcheri town. They were drawing attention to the military occupation depriving them of their livelihood since a vast swathe of fertile agricultural land is part of the HSZ.

The protestors from Valigamam who were fasting at Tellippalai refused to allow the divisional secretary and members of the armed forces who had come to the divisional secretariat to celebrate independence day by hoisting the national flag. But what was more interesting was the protestors’ hostility to Mavai Senathirajah, then a sitting member of parliament for the Jaffna District and now designated to lead the TNA’s campaign in the district for the forthcoming elections.

They refused to let Senathirajah join them stating that he could do so only if he was willing to fast to death alongside them. Nor did the agitators allow him to address them. TamilNet quoted one of them saying, “We don’t want him to use us for his cheap publicity stunts by sitting with us for a few hours to dupe the world that he is behind our protests. We are tired of the false promises of these politicians.”

By 5 February there was no response from the authorities while the condition of one of the farmers agitating in Chavakachcheri, Sellakili Anandarajah, was deteriorating rapidly. He even refused to take water. His condition was widely reported by the media.

On 6 February, by which time rumours of an impending election were gathering momentum, political initiatives were taken by the government and the TNA to diffuse the situation. On the one hand Dr. K. Gunasingham, advisor to the prime minister, visited the fasting Anandarajah and promised him a house outside the HSZ. It was however reported that Anandarajah had objected saying that all the families displaced by the zone should be resettled. This was followed by three TNA members of parliament for the Jaffna District – N. Raviraj, Senathirajah and M. K. Sivajilingam – visiting Anadarajah and promising to take up the grievances of the IDPs expeditiously and persuading the protestor to give up his fast. However, some agitators had been upset at the intervention of the TNA parliamentarians claiming that it was nothing more than an election stunt.Anandarajah however gave up his fast that day.

No sooner elections were announced on 8 February, two very significant moves were made with regard to the HSZ in Thenmaradtchi. The army vacated a part of the zone, thereby freeing around 80 houses for occupation. This was followed by the EPDP, protected by an armed military guard, visiting the area vacated by the army and claiming that the party was instrumental in securing the release of the houses.

It is yet uncertain whether the government would give up other areas of the HSZ in view of the election, especially since President Chandrika Kumaratunga is in charge of the ministry of defence, and the EPDP, her staunch ally, is using every possible method to upgrade its public profile. It however remains to be seen whether the army will reclaim the areas it has vacated once the elections are over.

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