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Mullaithivu blooms again

* The daunting task of winning the hearts and minds of the Tamils

* People are enjoying life after 30-years of terror



Pic : Kavindra Perera

The military in Mullaithivu is accomplishing the daunting task of winning the hearts and minds of the Tamils, who were brainwashed and misled by the LTTE for over three decades, by genuinely helping them to rise over the deadly memories of a blood soaked past, the Security Forces Commander Mullaithivu Maj. Gen. Leonard Brindly Ravindran Mark said.

“Most of the people in Mullaithivu are blood relations of LTTE leaders including V. Prabakaran. They were there until the last days of the end-battle and the majority of them have never seen outside Mullaithivu. It was a challenge to the military to change the minds of these people. But we are happy today as they are having a good relationship with soldiers”, he said.

In an interview with the Sunday Observer the battle hardened soldier, who fought three-quarter of his 32-year service in the Army said the military in Mullaithivu would not leave room for outside forces to destabilise the peace in the district, where people are enjoying life after 30-years of terror. “We believe that time will solve problems and this is evident in Mullaithivu when looking at the change in the behaviour of the people here. We have been able to change their minds in the last three years and I am confident they will not be misled again”, he said.

Maj. Gen. Mark, who is one of the first army officers to get a Gallantry Award for his military achievements in the battlefields against the LTTE in 1986, said if not the strong political leadership and the commitment of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the support and commitment of Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who directed the military machine to attack the LTTE successfully, the military would not be able to defeat the LTTE.

Explaining the military support in resettling displaced people, assisting development projects, restoration of livelihood projects and reintegration of ex-LTTE cadres, he said the Government had taken serious note about solving the unemployment problem among Tamil youth, including ex-LTTE cadres.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Q: How do you describe the situation in Mullaithivu which was the LTTE’s major stronghold for nearly two decades?

A: To answer this question I have to go back to the past where successive governments tried to destroy the LTTE. With the LTTE gradually coming out with its terror, it became a big challenge.

Though the then governments had taken several steps to attack the LTTE, they didn’ take serious note to completely destroy the terror outfit. There were instances even the forces could not resist the LTTE not because our military was weak but the then governments were not serious about destroying the LTTE. That was why LTTE terror remain for nearly three decades.

But in 2007, the Government took initiatives to go all out against LTTE terror as it was becoming harsh, killing innocent people daily. The Government, military and even the people of this country took the challenge to destroy the LTTE and the military offensives went ahead non-stop until the military rescue of over 300,000 hostages and also reducing the LTTE to zero.

The Government and the military became victorious in 2009 as we have defeated the ruthless terrorist outfit, which turned the country into a bloodbath. If not for the strong political leadership and the commitment of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the support and commitment of Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who directed the military machine to attack the LTTE successfully, we would not have defeated the LTTE and also free the people of the North lived under the iron grip of the LTTE. With three months of military offensive which were strategically designed, we were able to accomplish the challenge successfully.

In the post-conflict era the Sri Lankan military is again saddled with the daunting task of nation building and also winning the hearts and minds of the people whom were disconnected with the country’s military for nearly three decades.

The situation in Mullaithivu is very normal and people here have friendly relations with the soldiers.

Q: How safe is Mullaithivu now?

A: It is as safe as Colombo and the rest of the country. I must say it is more safer now as people are having good relations with the soldiers than before. No incident of terror has been reported from Mullaithivu since 2009 May 20.

Q: It is the soldiers that assist the people in the North to rebuild their lives and to what extent are they helping people of Mullaithivu in their day-to-day lives?

A: In this part of the country, soldiers have a vital role to play. They are engaged in rebuilding Mullaithivu while supporting the government machinery to function well.

Q: When compared to other parts of the North, Mullaithivu is different as it was under the LTTE for nearly three decades. How do you face this different situation?

A: Yes, it was under the LTTE for decades. The behavioural pattern and mindset of the people of Mullaithivu is different from other parts of the North. We have understood this difference before we planned to assist them. We have taken steps to maintain security in such a way that it will not affect the day-to-day activities of the people. Maintaining security is paramount in the Mullaithivu district and people are aware that the military is there to protect them. All military camps are established on state land and there are no complaints that military activities hinder them.

Especially soldiers in Mullaithivu are facing a daunting task as they are engaged in changing the mindset of people who were brainwashed by the LTTE terrorists. They need to have a good relationship with people to create a change in attitude.

When we joined the Army there were only 10,000 men but today it has swelled to over 180,000 men. This force is today engaged in providing manpower and skills in reconstruction, rehabilitation of ex-LTTE cadres and reintegrating them into society.

Q: It is reported that there is a delay in resettling displaced people in Mullaithivu. How true is this allegation?

A: It is not true. Over 95 percent of displaced people are back in their villages. Over 65,000 are resettled and there are over 2,000 people remaining in welfare camps as their lands are yet to be de-mined.

They are from Vellimullivaikkal, Puthukudyirippu West and East and the areas where the de-mining process is going on in Anandapuram, Manthuvil and Maligathivu. However, with the support of the NGOs and the Army de-miners, the de-mining process has been accelerated in these areas now.

Unlike in other areas people in Mullaithivu are calm and quiet and humble. The majority of them are engaged in fishing and farming. The Government has taken steps to restore their livelihoods and the military gives its fullest support to start businesses. We take part in progress review meetings held with the participation of high government officials including the Minister of Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa who heads the Presidential Task Force. We take decisions regarding resettlement and livelihood restoration and other development activities. Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa has a special interest in helping youth in the district to rebuild their lives.

Q: The youth of Mullaithivu was mostly misled by the LTTE and brainwashed to hate the people of the South. How does the military paint a different picture in the minds of thsse youth?

A: The SFHQ Mullaithivu has a vision and a target to be achieved. Our target group is the younger generation of the district. The secondary objective is to improve their educational facilities.

The vision is to make them aware of the reality through education and also through integration with the Southern people. They are going to be the leaders of Mullaithivu one day. Therefore we want to tap their hidden talent and to change their mindset.

These youth were born and bred under LTTE terror and have not seen the world outside Mullaithivu in their lives. They don’t know what is going in the South and were trained to look at the Southern people with suspicion.

We think sports is one way that we could strengthen the bond between them and us. We have organised sports events and helped develop the grounds. We have also asked the private sector to organise events to brush up their skills.

The military does lots of things to win the hearts and minds of the people of Mullaithivu. We took children from several schools to Colombo with the blessings of their parents and teachers. They have never stepped outside Mullaithivu all their lives. They told us that they thought they do not belong to Sri Lanka as the LTTE had brainwashed them about a separate country.

Those children were amazed to see people of the South welcoming them and treating them like other children. We get the support of the Army Headquaters and also the Ministry of Defence to organise these trips.

Finding the finance for these trips is a major issue but our officers who are committed to help these children find donors through their friends to organise such trips. We took them to schools, cultural sites including the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, other important places in Colombo and Kandy, to famous eateries, restaurants and hotels like Cinnamon Grand.

During the trip to Cinnamon Grand, which was sponsored by the hotel itself, children asked whether Tamils were employed in the hotel. Then they couldn’t believe their ears that the General Manager Rohan Karr was a Tamil. He later introduced the other Tamils on his staff and the children realised that they were a part of this country and Tamils were well treated by the Government and the people of the South. Later they said that the trip cleared the doubts about people in the South. The Army helps construct houses and we have built over 680 houses so far.

Q: For the last 30 years the LTTE propagated the image of soldiers as being that of an armed man and as killers. How did you change this image among the Mullaithivu people?

A:This depends on their behaviour. When I address them I always talk to them about the importance of good behaviour to win their trust. My officers in their addresses brief them. Now people know that it is the soldiers who saved them from terrorists and that they were in Mullaithivu to protect them. The relationship between soldiers and the people is excellent.

Q: There are nearly 300 rehabilitated ex-LTTE cadres who have been integrated into society. Once you said the military was trying to build the image of ex-LTTEers among their own people. Why?

A: Yes, we have undertaken the task of building the image of ex-cadres as most of them were not welcomed by society.

These people suffered a lot under the LTTE and they do not want the LTTE or any other force to make their lives a misery.

We have taken much trouble to convince them. It is still very difficult to find them jobs as owners refuse to employ them. People say they are enjoying peace after more than 20 years and they do not want the LTTE to return.

Q: The Tamil diaspora can play a vital role in the post conflict development in the North. How do you comment about their support to re-build the North?

A: I must say the support of the Tamil diaspora is not sufficient at all. We know that the Tamil diaspora is divided. One segment is exploring the possibilities of investing on development for the betterment of their people. They visit Sri Lanka on fact finding missions and they want to verify the ground realities as the pro-LTTE diaspora has painted a different picture.

We think these visits open new chapters in their lives as they see how relatives and friends who suffered under LTTE terror are trying to stand on their own.

The doors are open for them to convey the true picture of Mullaithivu to the world. Most of them have never seen the ground realities where the Government has developed their villages and the military helping them to stand on their own.

Q: Can you explain the progress in de-mining the former battlefields of the LTTE?

A: The authorities have identified the risk areas and we have given priority to de-mine villages, state buildings, schools, religious places and agricultural fields as we wanted to expedite the resettlement process and also restoring their livelihood activities.

The areas where the LTTE fought its final battle are to be de-mined and we will de-mine the remaining forest areas later as priority is being given to de-mine former villages.

We are confident, the remaining displaced people in welfare centres can be resettled within the next two months once the de-mining process is completed.

The military has taken steps to reduce mine casualties and I am happy to say that no mine casualty has been reported so far. Civilian movement in some areas are restricted because of the mine threat.Handing over vehicles in the NFZs is progressing and we have handed over a considerable number of vehicles to those who have proof to show ownership.

The Government Agent has a mechanism to identify true owners and the process is going on. However May 31 will be the deadline to claim ownership for vehicles.

Q: Some claim that even three years after the annihilation of the LTTE still the military presence in the district is high. Do you have any plans to reduce it?

A: I refute this allegation as two Divisions have already been sent to other parts of the country. Task Force 2 was sent to Hambantota and the 62 Division is now deployed in Vavuniya. The remaining Divisions - 59,64 and 68 - are sufficient to maintain security in the district as well as help run the government machinery and the development process.

The Government machinery is still not geared to assist people and the military played a vital role in assisting them. Once it is in order the military presence will be gradually reduced. But the military will keep a sharp eye to prevent any force that might try to destabilise the peace in the district.

Q: The LTTE’s Sea Tiger bases were in Mullaithivu? How do you maintain security to avert any external threat in future?

A: We have a considerable presence of the military along the beaches. The military has close links with the fishing community. This is a very important aspect with regard to coastal security. The fishermen are aware that the military is there to protect them and we also help them in their livelihood restoration.

When the LTTE was here apart from taxing them, their daily catch was taken by terrorists for a nominal amount. Today when the Army buys fish it pays the market price.

Q: Are people free to call you directly?

A: Yes, I have given my contact numbers to those who want to contact the military to solve their problems. Most of them come to the SFHQ to discuss their problems with us.

Our relationship with the ordinary people is progressing and we invite them for some of our events like New Year and Vesak celebrations.

 

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