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Terror in Jaffna I: smothering politics and economic revival

The all-pervasive climate of terror being engineered in the Jaffna peninsula is intended to stifle the revival of Tamil political and economic activity there.

The brutal killings, abductions, ‘disappearances’ and intimidation are not random or manifestations of ‘lawlessness’, but a deliberate campaign of targeted violence with specific political and economic goals.

The targets

The two categories of people targeted in the recent spate attacks are businesspeople  and those engaged in social and political activism.

These comprise the core of civil society anywhere, and their activities are fundmantal to the revival and growth of social, economic and political life in the war-shattered Tamil areas.

In Jaffna, blighted by decades of war and militarization (the tiny peninsula is dominated by 40,000 troops), these activities are vital if society is to recover and thereafter develop and become vibrant again.

Notably, the same types of individuals, along with media workers, politicians and aid workers, were constantly targeted during the war and especially during Norwegian-led peace process.

Then, as now, Army-backed paramilitaries and military intelligence operatives are responsible.

Why now?

The timing of the expanded terror campaign is linked directly to increasing emergence of civil society mobilisation in Jaffna, and the resurgence of Tamil entrepreneurship.

The backdrop is the President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s strategy to establish in the Tamil areas a Sinhala-dominated economy and rule through local proxies.

During the armed conflict, the proxies included the EPDP and TMVP paramilitary groups. In addition, his ruling party is now seeking to install its own cadre in local government machinery.

Almost two years after the end of the war – and fifteen years after Sri Lanka’s military captured the peninsula – Jaffna remains deliberately starved of government resources. What is provided used to consolidate the EPDP and other government loyalists. The administration is still run to the military’s diktat.

Large numbers of people displaced during the conflict have returned to Jaffna, but most are unable to return to their home villages, which remain enclosed in military High Security Zones (HSZs). Whilst refusing to allow these families to return, the military has been using – and profiting from – cultivating their farmlands.

These practices and the continued militarization of Jaffna and other towns and villages, along with the continued neglect of societal infrastructure – hospitals, schools, etc – has fuelled simmering frustration amongst the populace.

Emerging opposition

This has resulted in a range of localized mobilizations and agitation against the pernicious effects of continuing militarized rule. This resistance has received limited succor from some more established civil society actors and international action.

At the same time, there are renewed efforts by Tamil businesses, including several startups, to bypass continued official and undeclared restrictions on Tamil economic activities and take advantage of the post-war possibilities.

Such efforts have been encouraged by renewed efforts at normalization and development in the peninsula by the international community, especially India.

The Colombo government has responded by finding ways to disrupt these nascent efforts, such as bureaucratic and other restrictions, including those often arbitrarily imposed by the military.

The government is meanwhile encouraging, with military and bureaucratic support, Sinhala businesses to set up in the peninsula. These include business ventures controlled by ruling party figures and allies. President Rajapaksa’s son, Namal, has established a ferry-crossing business.

Burning the grass roots

These efforts at limiting Jaffna’s civil society efforts have not been successful. Which is why the government has now unleashed a campaign of violent terror.

Those targeted in recent killings and disappearances include community leaders, business entrepreneurs and individuals who have gained degree of standing for their contribution to society.

There is an immediate goal for the terror campaign: influencing local government elections and a census due this year.

Amid the fear psychosis induced by killings and disappearances – widely recognised by the populace as state-sponsored – it is impossible for opponents and critics of the government to engage in meaningful political activity.

Despite the anger amongst the populace, political parties other than the ruling party will not find individuals prepared to become candidates, campaigners and party activists.

Especially given that Sri Lanka already has a history of rigged elections in which the ruling party uses the police military and state media to its advantage – with even Sinhala parties in the south contesting declared results.

The census by a government unabashedly undertaking a campaign of ethnic colonization was never going to be a transparent and rigorous affair. (It is not surprising why the government is conducting a census despite the absence of normalcy and continued mass displaced of hundreds of thousand of Tamils.)

But the pervasive climate of fear is intended to make challenges and protests impossible.

In short, faced with determined efforts by emergent groups amongst the Jaffna populace to challenge the government’s continued deprivation of the region, and efforts by many to generate income-generation and economic activity despite the government’s restrictions.