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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)
'Curiouser and curiouser'
25th January 1998
The last thing one can safely predict about the Jaffna elections is that it will be a turning point in the calamitous course of Tamil politics. It will do less to normalise Jaffna than what the outcome of the local polls in 1994 March did to pacify the east where most Pradheshiya Sabhas have been co-opted by the LTTE and the Batticaloa municipal council is a pathetic joke.
No one in the fray is today confident of anything. Devananda was sure of winning until this week. His strategy was based on carefully cultivating the impression among the Jaffna people that he and his party had no problems with the LTTE and on dispensing wide array of promises, including a speedy "resolution" to the vexed question of the missing persons in Jaffna.
The EPDP's main concern when it began work in Jaffna was to completely dissociate itself from the EPRLF's activities in Jaffna under the Indian army. And, hence, it carefully avoided making the same mistake it thought the EPRLF had made in 1987-1990 by helping the security forces fighting the Tigers. The EPDP clearly believed that taking a publicly anti- LTTE stand in Jaffna would alienate it from the population as it did in the case of the EPRLF under the Indian army. Devananda was not altogether wrong in assuming this for the EPRLF now goes around in the peninsula seeking the people's pardon for what it did under the Indian army claiming that those who were active in the group at that time are no more working with it.
The largest selling Tamil weekly in the country, Thinamurasu, which is widely believed to be backed by the EPDP did a remarkable job in propagating the impression that Devananda was on good terms with the LTTE. The paper has accused the other groups contesting the elections of denigrating the Liberation Tigers by signing the document prepared by the MAFFE and the PAFFREL, which, according to the paper says that the LTTE is an opponent of democracy. Devananda had refused to sign, according to the paper , because he had realised this ulterior motive.
All this contributed in no small measure to creating the general impression among the people of Jaffna who have little or no access to Colombo papers that everything was fine between Devananda and the Liberation Tigers. In fact he even gave an appointment to the Paris Eelamurasu to interview him over the phone from France. In short the EPDP was trying to do what the EROS did in the 1989 general election but in a more subtle manner. In that election the EROS secured the majority of the Jaffna vote despite the Indian army's presence by convincing the people that it was backed by the LTTE.
And Devananda had an excellent relationship with the only daily published in Jaffna, the "Uthayan". So everything looked fine until last week. The EPDP was brimming with confidence as it were.
But now the tables have been turned on him. The LTTE has attacked and killed his armed cadres in the island of Punguduthivu thoroughly upsetting the impression he had cultivated with great care and acumen, he has totally antagonised the Uthayan paper and the TULF looks set to turn part of the floating vote away from him.
His calamities began with a lead news in the Uthayan daily. At the outset I must say that the trouble with the Uthayan was his own making, the result of trying to be over-smart compounded by baseless braggadocio. It began with a lead story in the paper last Monday saying that some European countries might deport Tamil asylum seekers following the Jaffna elections on the grounds that normalcy is returning to peninsula. This is a genuine concern among the Jaffna people, regardless of whether the Uthayan wrote it or not. No party contesting the elections was bothered by this story except Devananda. He was apparently alarmed that it might discourage the people from voting (assuming, of course, that the majority was planning to vote for his group). An EPDP messenger was first sent to the paper office denying the story. The Uthayan said that it would prominently carry a denial issued in writing by any western embassy in Colombo that the elections would not be cause for its government to send back asylum seekers if this could be procured by Devananda. The paper said that if this could be done it would be doing a service to Tamils abroad by providing them documentary proof to argue their case against repatriation. The EPDP leader phoned most western embassies that day from Jaffna seeking a denial of the Uthayan story.
But he was unable to get the missions to commit themselves on the matter in writing. However, he used his influence over the state run Thinakaran (Tamil daily) to carry a lead story the next day that western missions in Colombo had assured him that the elections in Jaffna would not be linked to the repatriation of Tamil asylum seekers. He did not let the matter rest here. He complained to Jaffna security forces commander Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle that the Uthayan had carried the story on the instructions of the LTTE to disrupt the polls. The security forces commander knew better. The Uthayan is a middle of the road and well established paper in the peninsula.
It is one of the handful of concerns which decided to stay back in Jaffna when the LTTE wanted everyone to pack up and leave during the Riviresa Operation and began functioning with the goodwill and rapport of the army, particularly with Maj. Gen. Balagalle who, as an old hand in the Eelam war and as an intelligence expert, was keen to develop a good relationship with the local press. Hence, the commander, who personally knows the people who run the paper had not taken the complaint of Devananda seriously. At this juncture, the Divaina published a page one lead story on Thursday Jan.22 that the LTTE was trying to disrupt the Jaffna elections by planting the "asylum seekers" story in the Uthayan. It was attributed to a Tamil politician in Jaffna.
But curiously, the same day the Thinamurasu's lead story said that the Australian deputy high commissioner in Colombo had visited Jaffna with a view to sending back Tamil asylum seekers and that other European countries were likely to follow suit as the Jaffna elections would help the government claim that there is normalcy in Jaffna. And this in turn, according to the Thinamurasu, could silence the voice of human rights groups in Switzerland, Germany and Australia which are currently blocking the repatriation of Tamil asylum seekers.
So, if one were to go by Douglas Devananda's own measure, the Thinamurasu, which is generally considered to be backed by him, was carrying out the order of the LTTE in publishing this story in its latest issue. "Curiouser and curiouser" as Lewis Carrol would have said.
Meanwhile, the Uthayan paper's publishing editor was summoned to the EPDP office where Devananda's advisor Dr. Vigneswaran (formerly secretary to NEPC C.M Varatharaja Perumal) had been rude to him during the argument. The Uthayan's publishing editor, being a veteran journalist from the Dawasa group, was not prepared to take it lying down.
On Friday, the Uthayan carried the Divaina story asserting that Devananda was the source with an unmercifully scathing editor's note which revealed the fact that he had complained against the paper to the Jaffna security forces commander. The Uthayan also carried the Thinamurasu lead story about the repatriation of Tamil asylum seekers. The paper without doubt has greater credibility among the people of Jaffna than the EPDP.
Devananda knows this.
But it was too late by then to make peace as he was beset by another calamity in the early hours of Friday morning. The LTTE overran the EPDP's well defended positions in Madaththuveli in the island of Punguduthivu.
The LTTE has been usually active in the Aaladi area of the island where it had a "tax" collection centre. All those in Jaffna identified and summoned by the LTTE's finance and revenue wing come here to negotiate the "tax" they have to pay the Tigers. ( If someone in the Jaffna nowadays says he is going to Punguduthivu, it is generally understood that he is going to negotiate the "taxes" stipulated in the Tiger summons sent to him). The general impression until Thursday was that there was peaceful co-existence in the island between the EPDP and the LTTE.
This was helping the EPDP promote its pro-LTTE image for the Jaffna polls.
Friday's attack on the EPDP has rattled even the few in Jaffna who were prepared to come out and vote.
Meanwhile the reception for TULF has been lukewarm in Jaffna. No crowds thronged for the belated first election meeting of the party at the Gandhi community centre in Ariyalai. But one hears the prediction that some voters above forty might silently vote for the TULF. People are cautious about getting too close to the TULF, knowing what the LTTE's views are about the party. The party's Mayoral candidate Ms Sarojini Yogeswaran seems to be having few neighbours visiting her. However, the Tamil groups are worried that the government might tacitly back the TULF and help it win the elections. The defacing of their posters and expensive hoardings since last weekend is seen by them and sections of the public as a move in that direction though they are not unaware that the laws governing local polls prohibit posters. The Tamil groups, whether they win or lose, have put their cents worth to impress upon the people that the LTTE calls the shots in Jaffna.
The Jaffna local election is going to be a non event- they will come and go but very little will change. And the Jaffna people want it to come and go soon, so that they can get on with their lives with less calamities.