The Military-Buddhist Complex

by Indi Samarajiva, The Sunday Leader, June 6, 2010

In this backdrop the military sponsorship of Vesak could be seen as communal triumphalism. As a sort of rubbing it in. The military, despite being composed of all races and creeds, remains a primarily Sinhala body. Celebrations remained centered around government establishments and military camps, attended by visitors from the south…In the nascent, united culture of the island, Buddhism seems to be at the fore, backed by the military and the state.
Stupa built by the 55th Army Division in Jaffna town

This year, the Sri Lankan military organised Buddhist celebrations in traditionally Tamil/Hindu areas of the country, including Jaffna. “These celebrations were not for the Army, they were for the whole community,” said Army Spokesman, Major General Prasad Samarasinghe. The celebrations passed peacefully, but not without some dissent or at least confusion from local Tamil people and leaders. “They’re trying to show that the Northern Province is a Buddhist area,” said Jaffna MP Suresh Premachandran. “I think they’re making a mistake.”

Vesak

Vesak is a modern Buddhist festival, founded in 1950 and celebrated by Buddhist countries throughout the region. In Sri Lanka the celebration is centered around the display of lights and lanterns at home and more elaborate, sponsored displays in the streets. Crowds flock to Colombo and major cities, crowding in vans and lorries to see the displays at night.

This year marked the first time that Vesak was celebrated in Jaffna. “After 30 years of violence, after liberation, the Army organised Yapa Patunai Daham Amawai for the benefit of all civilians,” said Major General Samarasinghe. “Tamil people also participated. We received over 200,000 people per day. People from down south came, it was like a reunion.”

Appearances

These peaceful celebrations, however, have a symbolic import beyond a simple festival. The main event took place near the Jaffna Public Library. That building, now aglow with lights, was set on fire in 1981, reportedly by police and paramilitary. That blaze destroyed over 97,000 volumes of priceless literature and remains a sore spot for Sri Lankans around the world. In a 2006 speech President Mahinda Rajapaksa said “burning the Library sacred to the people of Jaffna was similar to shooting down Lord Buddha.”

In this shadow, the Sri Lankan military chose to sponsor a Vesak celebration, attended by  hundreds of thousands, including over 30,000 from out of town. There was no violence, this was ensured by armed guards posted, at times, every five meters around the display grounds. The displays themselves were assembled by various Army divisions, surely a welcome respite from the works of war.

Sensitivity

During the festival, Buddhist flags adorned every checkpoint and lights and flags fluttered in front of every government and military building. Average homes, however, were dark. “I don’t think there is a single Tamil Buddhist in the North,” said MP Premachandran.

Even the former LTTE capital of Kilinochchi, however, was decorated for Vesak. The most dominant landmark in that town — besides the fallen water tower — is now a Buddhist temple. All of this leads to fear of southern encroachment on the culture and identity of the North. At the same time, the military bulldozed LTTE monuments like the cemetery at Chaaty Beach, near Jaffna.

A trishaw driver who wished to remain anonymous said that this wasn’t right. He said that many people on the peninsula had supported the LTTE, but didn’t go on. The site has been razed to rubble. Tourists swim nearby.

Parity

In this backdrop the military sponsorship of Vesak could be seen as communal triumphalism. As a sort of rubbing it in. The military, despite being composed of all races and creeds, remains a primarily Sinhala body. Celebrations remained centered around government establishments and military camps, attended by visitors from the south.

“The Army is non-religious,” said Major General Samarasinghe. He said that the forces would contribute to any requirement and that they assisted in this Vesak because “this is a Buddhist country.” He also added that the Army had been vital in supporting the Nallur Kovil festival in Jaffna and repairing the Madhu Church near Mannar.

When asked whether the Army would extend Vesak-level support to any Hindu festival, however, MP Premachandran said “They will not, never ever.”

Street View

Many Tamil people in Jaffna, however, seem ambivalent when asked about the celebrations.  ”We enjoyed,” said one student at the University of Jaffna. “All religions are welcome.” Whether these comments are sincere remains to be seen.

Few Jaffna Tamils will go on record to say what they really feel.

One young Jaffna resident (called Guru) did speak candidly. He said, “They want to say that the whole country is Sinhala Buddhist, that it’s united. If you want to say it’s united inclusively, this is not the things you do. It confirms the fear that this is a Sinhala Buddhist country, even if this isn’t their intention. I think this is their intention.”  The Army Spokesman, however, said that the Army belonged to the whole country and that their services are available to assist the practitioners of any faith. It also remains that the festival went off without any violence or communal discord and did mix people from the North and South, a process President Rajapaksa deemed vital in a recent interview with Al Jazeera. Whatever the intent, the Army did make a strong Buddhist display this Vesak. In the nascent, united culture of the island, Buddhism seems to be at the fore, backed by the military and the state.

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The Military Buddhist Complex

by indi.ca, June 2, 2010

Vesak display in front of the Jaffna Public Library

The Sri Lankan military staged an elaborate Buddhist Vesak festival in Jaffna, attracting over 30,000 visitors from the south. I think many of the primarily Tamil, Hindu people were, at best, ambivalent. There were rumors of anti-Sinhala posters around town. It is a bit odd seeing Buddhist flags in front of every military outpost, the fair grounds flanked every five meters by soldiers with guns. However, on the whole, I think this may be OK. Last time I came down the A9 there was a parade of armored personnel carriers heading south. This time they were transported Vesak Kuduwa, basically giant paper lanterns. I think that’s an improvement.

Soldiers checking the scene

It remains weird that the Buddhist flag flies at every military outpost. That is, at every ferry point the Buddhist flag is flying next to armed guards. It is also a bit odd that every government building is lit up but private houses are not. It was also, personally, horrifying that southern traffic gummed up the whole city, but that is a festival thing and not entirely unright.

I wandered around the festival scene, looking at the lights. In view of the once burnt Public Library, military divisions had put up displays and were watching as the things spun and glowed. It was excellent work, really, better than the Vesak displays I’ve seen in Colombo.

Near the Fort Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil families were wandering around eating ice cream and checking out the scene. Armed troops were omnipresent, but most of the troops were off duty and just looking around. There was a carnival with music and games and a woman driver spinning round the Well Of Death. There was a human-powered ferris wheel, literally guys hanging off and spinning it.

This is all OK. It’s all actually nice. I do feel a bit imposed on even as a casual visitor to Jaffna. I love the place and I don’t love the traffic, the hooting crowds at Casuarina, the overload and closing of the Nageepa ferry point, the elbow to elbow jostling in Keerimalai. But who am I. It’s their country too and if everybody happens to get off work for Vesak, there will be a crowd. I had the luxury of hanging around till Monday and then everything was OK.

But I do wonder how the Jaffna people feel. At the end of the day I am Sinhala Buddhist and I don’t feel especially imposed upon by the flag. But it is a territorial display, surrounded by guns. Those guys are cool with me and we can be like ‘oh, you’re from Matara, my family came from Matara.’ In my stilted Sinhala. But they still speak almost no Tamil. And we’re thronging the town.

I enjoyed Vesak and I think, on the face of it, most people there did. It’s nice to get out of the house. I just wonder how the old Tamil pride is doing. I hope the military does a similar show for Hindu festivals, but that’s seems unlikely. This seems to be the new order, light it or not.

Vanni, Northern Sri Lanka, Where War Has Never Ended

by Melani Manel Perera, Asia News, June 1, 2010

The area is still actually in the hands of the military, which allowed the return of the population but force them to live in absolute poverty. The military blocks any attempts to improve their lives, but does not stop abuse and violence.

Vanni Sri Lanka May 2010Colombo (AsiaNews) – A year after the end of the war in the north, the situation is described as “calm and peaceful” by the government and ordinary people. But some visitors who do not fall into these two categories, think differently. One of them is Rukshan Fernando, human rights activist and director of the Justice, Law & Society Trust, Colombo. Returning from a trip to Vanni, he tells AsiaNews that the situation is far from peaceful.

Many of the people encountered in the area have began talking with big smiles, saying they were glad to be back in their lands despite losing all their possessions and adverse conditions. But as they talked, “I was left speechless at seeing that eyes that filled with tears.” Many families have returned to their homes incomplete: not only without ownership, but without family, killed, missing or detained.

How was your trip to Vanni given the restrictions on mobility?

On most occasions as we turned from the A9 road or from the Mannar – Medwachiya road to go interior villages, it seemed to arouse suspicion and curiosity in soldiers. Familiar questions of earlier years, such as “where are you going?” “why are you going?” “who are you” were thrown at us. Our response that we are going to visit friends didn’t appear to be a satisfactory answer. In the Vanni, it seems to be considered something abnormal and suspicious to visit friends!  My Tamils friends from the North found these questions offensive.  “This is our land, our people are living here, these soldiers are from outside, how dare they ask us all these questions and stop us? Why can’t I visit my place? Why can’t I visit my relatives and friends? Why can’t I invite friends (meaning me)?” were the angry and frustrated refrain I was to hear often from my friends.  The fact that I was Sinhalese from Colombo seemed to arouse further suspicions and curiosity amongst the soldiers.  We asked why they were trying to stop us from visiting, especially as these were areas formally declared as areas cleared of land mines and people were already living there.  “We don’t know, we just follow orders” was the inevitable response. Some of the soldiers were apologetic. On several occasions, it was mentioned that we have to get permission from the Ministry of Defense or that we should go to a nearby Brigade Headquarters and get special permission or a pass.  My friends and I tried to maintain our composure and sometimes soldiers at the check points tried to help us by contacting their superiors while we waited patiently. Some occasions, soldiers did their best to sooth our frustration by offering us chairs, chatting to us and giving us tips about how bad the roads were! I didn’t think they had anything else to offer. On one occasion, we waited for about 30 minutes near Paranthan on the A9 road and one solider rode on a bicycle to inform the checkpoint that the commander had given a special permission for us to proceed to Uruthirapuram. On another occasion, me and a priest friend from Mannar waited in vain in the hot sun for about an hour at the Mankulam junction check point awaiting permission to visit the recently returned people in Oddusudan. The permission never came and we left the embarrassed and apologetic soldiers at the checkpoint and turned back.  Anyways, like we did with the LTTE during the time they were in control of the Vanni and restricting travel to Mullativu and other interior villages, my friends and I did manage to negotiate with those trying to stop us and visit our friends in the interior villages.

Some speak of a “militarisation” of the area, what did you experience in this regards?

Yes, On most roads inside the Vanni, whether on the A9 or interior roads, I felt as if we were traveling within a military camp. Military camps and check posts were along all the roads.  In Pooneryn, the main road literally ran through a newly built Army camp. In several other places including the A9 road, army camps occupied the main tarred road and we as civilians were forced to take a roundabout route, on muddy dusty makeshift pathways. In the more bushy and jungle areas, sign boards on the roadside indicated military camps inside the jungles.  Soldiers were everywhere with uniforms and with weapons. Some soldiers were in civil but were easily identifiable through the gun on their shoulders, even as they were walking or riding their bicycles. Other soldiers were relaxing, playing cricket and bathing in small streams. The buildings that were in the best conditions were all military and police structures. I could very well empathize with what one elderly gentleman in Mulangavil told me; “it looks as if it’s their (military) land and we are strangers, while the truth is they are occupying our land”.  Clearly, the military has less to do on military matters now. I saw and heard in several places that the military is assisting with road construction, distributing water, organizing cultural and sports events etc. I also heard of efforts of some military officials to assist civilians in their basic needs. In view of the massive needs of the population for basic services and infrastructure, and the very weak civil administration and reluctance of the government to allow NGOs access to help those in need, people are compelled to depend on the military for even basic services like water.  Also, when I went to Eechalavakai, along the Periyamadu Road from Vidathalthivu, in the Mannar district. There, I met some people who were still living in tents in a common village land as displaced persons. Amongst them was a 10 day old infant.  “We were told by the Divisional Secretary that we can go back to our lands. So we came from the camps. But when we came and started to clean up the land, the land we have been living for more than 25 years, the Army came and told us to go away. When we asked why, they told us that they are going to take our land for a Army Camp” one villager told us.  Later, we were shown their lands, in nearby Sannar, where notices were pinned to trees saying “This land is reserved for Army”

Are there still security fears in the area?

Of course! The huge military presence, with past experiences of abuses, has caused deep rooted fear amongst many of civilians I spoke to.  “We are scared to have young girls and boys walk around in the dark” one mother told us.  Catholic sisters who had gone to be with the people had sent additional reinforcements, as they didn’t want sisters to be alone.  “I was accused several times by the Army intelligence of being in the LTTE. Another boy was also accused. The Army had also told a villager that I would be taken away. I’m scared and don’t go anywhere alone” was what one man in Kathalampiddy, close to Vidathalthivu told us. “Although only two people had been threatened, the whole village is now scared” another woman from the village told us.  They are living the thought of “Will the Army leave soon?”  which I had no answer.

Many also fear of sexual abuse committed by military …

Yes, we come to know about some incidents but some of them could not get confirmed.   “In front of our own eyes, and inside our premises, the army was touching a young girl…so what would happen if we are also not there” one Catholic sister asked me when I met her in the Vanni.  Amidst the huge military presence, one lady was raped in newly resettled area of Alkataveli, close to Adampan and north of Mannar and one person was killed in Killinochi. The checkpoint and soldiers with their guns had been unable to prevent or bring perpetrators to justice. An incident of sexual abuse by a soldier in Nachikuda was narrated to me. I heard of other incidents of rape, sexual abuse, killings, but could not get confirmation.

What is the situation of freedom of association?

The government is also trying to restrict any peaceful mobilization, collective action of empowerment of people in the Vanni.  The Presidential Task Force headed by the President’s brother Basil Rajapakse had granted permission to some NGOs to launch some projects to assist people in need of assistance.  One head of an NGO based in Mannar told me “permission has been granted only to build houses and infrastructure and start income generating activities. Permission has been rejected for counselling, capacity building and empowerment activities. So we are restricted in what we can do”.