TISHANI DOSHI records Muttiah Muralitharan's interview with Sudhamaster.
The team and Muttiah Muralitharan (third from left) with Sudhamaster fourth from left).
IN February 2002, after a dramatic jungle press conference near the ravaged town of Kilinochchi, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Velupillai Prabhakaran, signed a long-term ceasefire agreement with the Sri Lankan Government. A few months later, the infamous A9 highway between Colombo and Jaffna was reopened, allowing journalists, civilians and NGOs to pass freely into previously forbidden territories of the north-east for the first time in over two decades of civil war. In the two years of relative peace that has followed, a visible move towards reconstruction has occurred. Building materials and household goods are pouring in on a daily basis, and according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), over three million people have crossed the entry points between the government and the LTTE controlled areas this year alone.
Travelling the A9 highway however, is still far from being a stress-free journey. There are three checkpoints where all your materials are unloaded, scrupulously examined and taxed: Thandikulam (the army checkpoint one kilometre from Vavuniya, where the ICRC then escorts civilians and cargo to the next checkpoint), Omanthai (LTTE entry/exit point), and Muhamalai (the government controlled area to Jaffna). At 7 a.m. the gates are lifted, and at 5.30 p.m., the ICRC flags on both sides of the 600 metres of No Man's Land are taken down. There is still the unnerving scenery of headless trees, roofless homes, abandoned tankers and large looming landmine warnings. But day to day life carries on: children go to school, markets bustle, funeral workers have time to go fishing in the river. The people of this area may have their own law courts, police force and banks, and live in a time zone which runs half an hour behind the rest of the country, but they are still hopeful that international intervention will kick-start sluggish communication lines between the Government and the LTTE to help achieve a permanent solution for peace.
Days after the Japanese special envoy Yashusi Akashi visited the area, and before Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jan Peterson came to Kilinochchi, I arrived there with a United Nations World Food Programme (World Food Programme) contingent and their very own special "Partner against Hunger" ambassador, <15,0m,,0>MUTTIAH MURALITHARAN.
After a hectic three-day schedule of visiting WFP-assisted projects rural schools, mother-child clinics, and farmer irrigation projects in the worst hit regions of Wanni, we stopped off at Kilinochchi to discuss the findings and the future goals of these projects with <15,0m,,0>SUDHAMASTER, deputy head of the political wing of the LTTE.
For all the hardships that Wanni has suffered over the last 20 years, the base camp boardroom is an oasis of plush: split level air-conditioners, glass-top tables, marble paper weights with mini-LTTE flags, lace serviettes, fake flowers, tinted glass, and bow-tied waiters breezing in and out with coffee in china cups. In this somewhat surreal setting, with a more than motley crew, Sri Lanka's famous spin king engaged in an hour long candid conversation with the immaculate Sudhamaster, who in a spotless white shirt, polished shoes and sleek glasses, discussed the possibility of building cricket pitches, the problems of rebuilding a community, and the need for peace.
Excerpts from the interview which took place in Kilinochchi on November 2, 2004, and translated from Tamil.
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WE have been travelling around this area seeing that the people still lack basic necessities. What is the role of NGOs in this area and what are your expectations for their activities?
SUDHAMASTER: After two decades of war, this area has been completely destroyed and we are beginning to start from zero point. Our hope is that the work carried out by NGOs and INGOs will do something for the people here and provide them with means to achieve their aspirations and goals. We'd like the U.N. umbrella agencies to expand their activities and focus more on long-term projects which will look at sustainable development for children and farmers, and also to work with the local NGOs in a way that they can contribute to their own development in terms of job creation and also capacity.
What are the main problems that the people of these areas are facing and what do you think needs most urgently to be addressed?
I'd like to stress that our people didn't get much during the time of war but we are hoping that this peace process will fulfil their needs. The current scenario due to the war has severely affected education especially.
The government in the south creates a situation where the people start to lost the hope that they had in the beginning. In the beginning, we hoped that the Interim Self Government Authority (ISGA) would be the basis to restart the negotiations which were on hold for so long.
From that time the Government did not take any positive measure to restart the peace process which has disappointed the people, causing them to lose faith in the Government. Our main aim is to get donations for the people here. As far as the LTTE is concerned, we are fully committed to the peace process.
We want permanent peace for our people. We are very happy that you are visiting these areas and we urge the international community also to visit and see the ground reality.
Are you interested in "real" peace, or are you just talking about it?
We want real peace by talking to the Government. From our heart we are trying to get peace.
AFP/WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME
Humanitarian mission -- Muttiah Muralitharan in Sri Lanka's northern Wanni region.
Is it the Government that is delaying the peace talks or you?
During these past 21/2 years of cease-fire, have the people here got any real peace or assistance or benefits from the Government? We don't think they have. And for this reason, the people are distrustful of any peace talks.
Sri Lankans in the south have some reservations regarding the LTTE's commitment to peace and whether you will pursue your agenda through peaceful negotiations or by war.
We and our people are expecting the problems to be solved by negotiation. We don't want war, as war has destroyed our community. We want peace, but if the Government doesn't take any action to give rights to the Tamil people through peace, and if they force us to start the war, or if they take action against us, then we are prepared to face the war.
In your opinion, do you believe that this problem will be solved without violence?
At the moment, the Sri Lankan Government is not politically strong enough to come to the negotiation table, so we can't speak for them. But the LTTE strongly supports a solution through the peace process and without violence.
I've been watching political talk shows in the south where politicians of every party debate issues on TV. The gist of most of these programmes is that the Government is not willing to base any peace talks on the LTTE's demands for the ISGA they want to come to a direct federal solution, but the LTTE demands that any future talks can be based solely on the ISGA. If this is the case, then there appears to be no solution to the deadlock.
We have entered into the peace process after over two decades of war, so no one can expect us to find a solution in a short period. What we are insisting is that the Government lets us resume peace talks on the basis of the ISGA so that different opinions can be discussed on the negotiation table. If we go immediately to a federal system to solve the problem, there won't be any real lasting peace. There will be many problems which is why we want to collaborate with the international community for these negotiations and why we want the ISGA to make sure that the people get their benefits and their rights.
We can give the people of these areas their benefits only with the ISGA, and through this, come to a more permanent solution. First we must discuss how we are going to get the ISGA for the people to continue to have faith in us. After that, we can talk about a more permanent solution.
Are you demanding the ISGA because you want to provide the people of this area with the basic facilities and necessities that they lack, or are you scared that if you go straight into a federal system, the money pouring in from world organisations will go to the Government and will not be allocated to this area?
A lot of funds must come straight to the north-east, more than any other place in Sri Lanka because of the war. To get people's faith we must ensure that funds are properly divided to the people. This can be done through the ISGA.
The government in the south has proved that it is not prepared to find a settlement through the peace process. The United National Party (UNP) government and the LTTE were at the negotiation table, but the Chandrika government then destroyed the whole set-up. Then she set up a coalition with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and took all the power. The Government's action now is not to find a settlement but to last the ceasefire.
So is it that you have confidence only in the UNP Government and no confidence in the present government to get the peace process going?
In 1996, the current President (Chandrika Kumaratunga) initiated the peace process through the Norwegians. Then she put some very strong demands, the talks disintegrated, and there was war again, and the Sri Lankan government through the war tried to get our motherland and destroy our people.
Now, Chandrika has once again destroyed the peace process by changing the government with the JVP and the coalition. Before that, the UNP were interested in negotiating on the basis of the ISGA.
This present government is trying to pass the time, they are not interested in a permanent solution, they are postponing the process. We are prepared to talk with any government, through the mediators and the help of the international community, but it has to be on the basis of the ISGA. This is what we have told the politicians in the south through the Norwegians.
You have been talking a great deal about your expectations of the U.N. and other NGOs to rehabilitate these areas, but what exactly is the LTTE doing for the people of this area?
When the war started it was not just a war of weapons, it was also an embargo on food and medicines and many other things that would help economically.
So we have fought over a long period of time confronting all these forms of warfare and for all this we have always had several organisations within the LTTE, mother-child organisations and such, which ensured that even during war time, the people were looked after. And we are proud to say that not one person during the 20 years of war died of hunger.
During the period of war and ceasefire, many organisations came and worked here and we have given them our full support. We can say with confidence that we have established homes for women and children who are mentally disabled and if you walk around this area you will see that there are no beggars, no memtally unsound or unstable people. We have 3,00,000 civilians and they are all taken care of in a proper way and been given proper assistance.
Tishani Doshi is a freelance writer and is currently working on Muttiah Muralitharan's biography.
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