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EPDP: examining an alternative

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For almost two decades now, the Sri Lankan state has sought to construct and promote alternatives to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as the Tamil political leadership. Efforts to promote and militarily support a number of groups as countervails to the LTTE’s independence project have failed repeatedly. While the project has not been abandoned, Sri Lanka’s objective has now been scaled back somewhat – to that of undermining the LTTE’s claim to sole representative in negotiations with the state, as opposed to replacing it as the Tamil leadership.

The main actor in this regard today is the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP). The group’s leader, Douglas Devanada, claims that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a coalition of Sri Lanka’s four largest Tamil political parties, is too closely aligned to the LTTE. This, he suggests, positions the EPDP as a political alternative to the LTTE’s hegemonic position in the Tamil polity. The EPDP is a moderate party because it is opposed to separatism, he argues. In an interview published on the group’s website, Mr. Devananda says the party supports a solution within the framework of the of the Indo- Sri Lanka accord. He also denounces the LTTE as a corrupt, fascist organisation which is simply interested in propagating the conflict for its own purposes.

Amid demands for the democratisation of Northeastern politics, the EPDP’s claim that it provides an alternative political representation for the Tamils deserves closer inspection. To begin with, while registered a political party and fielding candidates in elections, the EPDP is essentially an armed actor. It fields hundreds of paramilitary fighters alongside the Sri Lankan armed forces in operations against the LTTE and has done so for almost two decades. At present it is the largest of five paramilitary groups locked in an escalating shadow with the Tigers.

The EPDP was formed in 1987, according to its web site. It states that after Mr. Devananda was ‘betrayed’ by his erstwhile comrades in the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), he split with cadres loyal to him and joined a splinter group from the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) to form the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF). However, infighting within the ENDLF resulted in Mr. Devananda ending this arrangement and forming the EPDP, the group says.

Following the signing of the Indo-Lanka accord, the EPDP abandoned the armed struggle against the Sri Lankan state and instead opted to side with armed forces against the Tigers - as did the EPRLF, PLOTE, ENDLF and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), all of whom were dependent, albeit to varying degrees on India’s patronage. The signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord thus sparked an intra-Tamil conflict which the EPDP website characterises as an effort by the LTTE to gain dominance. That the Tigers emerged dominant is not in question, though the LTTE points out that these groups had joined the enemy to exterminate it.

Indeed, observers at the time interpreted these divisions amongst the Tamil groups as a strategic outcome engineered by the Sri Lankan state. “The parallels with South Lebanon are inescapable,” wrote Simon Freeman in the Sunday Times, on 25 October 1987. “There the Israelis hoped that by arming Christians they would, somehow, help defeat the Shi’ites. Here the Sinhalese majority seem to think that fringe Tamil groups can be manipulated in the fight against the Tigers.”

From 1987 to 1994, through the Indian military intervention and the second phase of the conflict with the Sri Lankan state, the EPDP and other Tamil paramilitary groups served alongside the armed forces in an atrocity-riddled war against the only remaining independence movement, the LTTE. In 1994, Mr. Devananda registered the EPDP as a political party and joined President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s first government after winning a handful of seats in elections criticised by European monitors.

Whilst its paramilitaries fought alongside the Sri Lankan military, the EPDP party was an integral part of the People’s Alliance (PA) coalition government during President Kumaratunga’s subsequent – and now infamous - ‘war for peace’ strategy. The war had horrific consequences for the Tamil populace. Apart from enormous casualties during the military assaults on LTTE-held population centres, including Jaffna and Kilinochchi, a near-absolute embargo was slapped on large swathes of the Northeast under LTTE control.

Following one offensive, the Asian Human Rights Commission observed in December 1999, “Refugees are on brink of starvation following the government’s denial of food relief for almost a month to this areas.” It added: “Tamil political parties and the Catholic church have called on the government to take urgent steps to rush food and medical supplies to the area where some 350,000 civilians are undergoing severe hardships.” The EPDP, however, was not one of these parties clamouring for relief.

In fact the group was being accused of abductions and torture of Tamil civilians as part of the counter-insurgency, even in the early nineties. A US State Department report observed on January 31, 1994: “in the latter part of 1993, Government security forces and alleged Tamil militias began operating what many human rights monitors called ‘a parallel system of secret detention’ in Colombo. … A fundamental rights application was filed in the Supreme Court against the leader of one such militia, the EPDP, alleging illegal abduction and torture.”

The impunity enjoyed by EPDP paramilitary cadres extended to immunity from prosecution for abuses beyond the conflict itself. EPDP cadres were, for example, accused of sexual abuse of Tamil women and girls – as indeed were members of the regular security forces also. In one notable case in Jaffna, the father of a twelve-year old girl complained to the Kayts Police that his daughter had been sexually assaulted by an EPDP cadre. There has been no prosecution of these or other crimes to date.

Mr. Devananda won a seat in Jaffna during the elections in 1999 and was subsequently appointed Minister for the Development of the North by President Kumaratunga. His democratic mandate was however less than indisputable, with a European Union monitoring mission led by John Cushnahan refusing to declare the polls ‘free and fair’. Accusations of wide spread vote-rigging continued to dog the EPDP and, more widely, the PA through subsequent elections.

Amid disquiet over the increasing hardships being inflicted on the Tamils by the conflict, meanwhile, the EPDP was compelled to take strict and sometimes lethal measures against dissenting members. The U.S. Department of State in its Sri Lanka report in 2000 observed that “The EPDP also detained [some] members for short periods in Jaffna as punishment for breaking party discipline.”

Some members who began to articulate support for the Tigers were murdered, with some reportedly fleeing the country. One notable killing was that of Atputharajah Nadarajah, who edited the EPDP’s newspaper, the Thinamurusu. Despite his party position, Nadarajah took an increasingly pro-LTTE line, to such an the extent that as the conflict escalated, the Thinamurusu emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the PA, Kumaratunga and the ‘war for peace.’ Nadarajah was of course careful not to attack the EPDP itself, though he laid into the other Tamil groups in Parliament supporting the PA’s represessive legislations and emergency measures.

Nadarajah was shot dead in November 1999. The British Refugee Council said in January 2000: “the killing of EPDP MP Atputharajah Nadarajah in November and [separately] All Ceylon Tamil Congress leader Kumar Ponnambalam in January have heightened fears. The police have stated that they would not investigate the murder of Mr Nadarajah whose writings in the Tamil journal Thinamurasu led to accusations that he supported the LTTE despite being a member of government ally, the EPDP. … Two other EPDP MPs who voted in Parliament against the extension of Emergency have fled the country and sought asylum in Britain.”

Suppressive violence was not confined to the group’s own members. There were frequent complaints of murder and intimidation of media people opposed to the group or the PA. Another prominent killing was that of BBC journalist Mylvaganam Nimalarajan who was shot dead in his Jaffna residence on October 19, 2000. Nimalrajan had been writting critically about the EPDP’s illegal trading activities and electoral malpractices, despite being warned off. The president of the North Sri Lanka Journalists Association told RSF: “a week before his death, Nimalarajan came to see me and told me he had received a death threat. He had just revealed that a ballot box in a polling station in the town of Palay had been stuffed with EPDP ballots. This report was carried by the BBC and many newspapers.”

The EPDP has also been accused of being engaged in other election violence including the murder of supporters and sympathisers of the pro-LTTE TNA. During campaigning for the bitterly fought 2001 election which toppled the PA and brought a pro-peace coalition to power, the EPDP’s killing or wounding of several TNA candidates and supporters in Jaffna triggered widespread protests and, on occasion, total shutdowns of the northern peninsula.

The question though is, rigging aside, how does the EPDP secure Tamil votes and retain its cadre base? A closer examination of Mr. Devananda’s ministerial performance reveals a possible answer.

In late 2001 the World Bank conducted a study of the impact of donor funding via Mr. Devananda’s Ministry of Northern Development. The Bank’s Country Representative, Dr. Mariana Todorova visited Jaffna and subsequently observed: “...About 1,500 youths have been recruited as development assistants by the Ministry of Northern Development at a monthly allowance of Rs 3,000 per person. They are said to have been given skills training, but their roles and responsibilities were not clear… It is not clear what they are doing. Really no focused development work.”

Speaking to reporters a month after the World Bank’s first visit to the northern town since 1990, Dr. Todorova, a Bulgarian economist, expressed concern about the state of the hospitals and schools in the peninsula. In fact, there had been almost no developmental activity at all: “It is really sad. No people, no houses, only big potholes.”

The point, already apparent to many in Jaffna, was inescapable: Mr. Devananda was using the ministry to recruit and pay for his political cadres by putting them on the ministry’s payroll, and going on to recruit fresh cadres for his party by offering well-paid jobs in his ministry.

In a pattern many analysts of economic incentives in conflict will recognise, Mr. Devananda’s organisation had also expanded into commercial activities in the war zones, including prohibited ones. For example, with the assistance of the military, the EPDP was at one stage illegally removing sand from the Vadamaradchi east coast for use in construction. At a time of a ban on taking sand off beaches, the EPDP was said to be profiteering with the collusion of the military as there was a shortage of sand for construction in Jaffna. The EPDP was even involved in the lobster business in Neduntheevu, one of the island’s off Jaffna, but that reportedly proved unprofitable. Some social activists in Jaffna have also linked EPDP members to prostitution rings close to Army bases and to narcotics and pornography.

Between its trading activities and government funding, the EPDP has been able to establish an extensive patron client network and retain a sizeable paramilitary cadre base. It has also been able to ensure sufficient leverage, particularly with the support of the armed forces, to ensure an elected presence, albeit a small one, in Parliament - which in turn has ensured Mr. Devananda a ministerial post.

Whilst the EPDP does publish policy documents, its primary role in Sri Lankan politics is that of one the military’s most effective paramilitary groups. Mr. Devananda insists that the armed cadres are solely for his protection. Having survived numerous assassination attempts, he undoubtedly needs the security. But EPDP cadres have been deployed across the Northeast in a bloody shadow war with the LTTE. The spiralling violence has alarmed Sri Lanka’s donors who have demanded Colombo disarm the Army-backed paramilitaries as stipulated in the February 2002 truce.

From a counter-insurgency perspective, the EPDP provides multiple benefits for the Sri Lankan state. Apart from its paramilitary cadres which provide a Tamil-speaking pathfinder and informant network, the group is being promoted internationally as a ‘moderate’ and ‘democratic’ challenge to the LTTE’s claim of sole representatives of the Tamils.

That the group has secured some votes cannot be disputed, though the extent of its claimed support must be questioned in the light of election monitors’ manifest misgivings. Moreover, it must also be questioned whether the ‘genuine’ votes it garners stem from its political position or, as many argue, its patron-client networks in the Jaffna peninsula. While there have been numerous public protests over the EPDP’s activities, abuses and cooperation with the Sri Lankan military, the group dismisses these as orchestrated by the LTTE or its sympathisers.

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