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Economically neglected Vanni ‑ Tamil Tigers’ main stronghold

19 May 2014 04:52 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


There were a number of mistakes made by the previous governments  during the 30- year old civil war fought in the North of Sri Lanka form 1978 that  ended in  2009.This war was  aggravated after the July 1983 riots where a  large  number of Tamils from all walks of life were killed and maimed or displaced   in the south triggered by the killing of 16 soldiers in the Jaffna Peninsula by the Tamil Tigers thus attracting international attention and condemnation specially  by  developed countries   namely  America, Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Norway  etc and  opened  their doors to refugees .

It is confusing and controversial whether these refugees left Sri Lanka for fear of genocide, harassment , discrimination etc  or for economic reasons. However, the strong Tamil Diaspora after 1983 are a formidable force in the above countries and after financing the Elam Wars are now influencing the leaders in their host countries to pursue unfounded charges of genocide and human rights violations against the present Government during the last stages of the final war that completely destroyed the Tamil Tigers in their own battle field in the Vanni in 2009.

It was with great political will, determination and fearlessness that the President Mahinda Rajapakse gave leadership and completely annihilated the Tigers .The President was successful in winning this battle for the sake of all communities in this country namely the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burgers etc and unifying the country under one flag. This achievement was possible with the effective coordination of all military operations for the first time by the Secretary Defence with the   close co ordination of the Chiefs of the three Armed Forces namely the Army, Navy and the Air Force together with the Police and Civil Defence Groups. Every Sri Lankan should be indebted for many generations to the Commander in Chief, the Secretary Defence and   the Commanders of the Forces and the officers  and but not the least the ordinary solders and other ratings in the Navy, Air Force Civil Defence for liberating Sri Lanka from the Tamil Tigers even by sacrificing their lives.

I am no military strategist, but after following very closely the civil war from its inception, there had been many   mistakes made in fighting the armed Tigers who were well trained in guerilla warfare in addition to having its own Sea Tiger Force and an   Air Force with latest ground to air missiles etc. The main mistake done was to drive away the Tigers from the Jaffna Peninsula and allowing them to move to the Vanni and regroup with their fighters and heavy amour intact. The Vanni was the ideal battle field for guerrilla warfare and the struggle continued with the stockpiling of latest   of weapons as well as recruiting more fighters including child soldiers on the cover of talking peace and ceasefire agreements. A ceasefire monitoring mission from Scandinavian countries led by Norway was completely infective to stop the Tigers in pursuing their plans for separation.

There is a general misconception that the final battle was fought in the Jaffna Peninsula but the real battle was in the Vanni jungles that completely destroyed the Tamil Tigers by our Armed Forces after 30 years of war.

I visited the Vanni and  Jaffna recently and saw to myself  significant progress  made in re settling the displaced persons as well as the restoration of the infra structure especially the roads and railways  which are even better than  those in the Colombo district  within a very short period of 5 years. It is not justified to criticize the government by the so called protectors of human rights including UNHCR, locally and abroad, for not rehabilitating and developing the North and East and also excesses by our Armed forces during the final stages of the last battle. I feel that it is mainly to take political advantage.

The other reason why the Elam War in the Vanni continued for such a long period was the fact that this region was in a bad state of neglect economically causing the people to live below the poverty line which the Tamil Tiger leadership capitalized by brainwashing them by promising a new era under a separate State.
In this regard I perused “A Manual of the Vanni District “by J.P. Lewis of the Ceylon Civil Service published in 1895 incorporating the diaries that were maintained in the Vavuniya and Mullaitivu Kachcheris from 1807 to 1845 by Mr. Turnour Collector from 1807 -13 (incomplete) and Assistant Government Agents Mr. H. Pole (1845) to Mr. Short (1892) to critically analyze the past history of the region and the reasons of its neglect during the past.

Manual of the Vanni districts –Vavuniya and Emulative (1807-1845)
The Manual deals with the important subjects in these districts which covered about 2000 square miles, 12.5 per cent of the total land area of Sri Lanka.
It is fascinating and interesting to note the elaborate details given in this manual which covers topography, historical sketch, administration, population, divisions and villages, revenue, land tenure, agriculture, fisheries, labour, cattle, roads, postal service, weights and measures, prices, vegetation, social conditions of the people, races, castes, occupation, religions, Sinhalese villages, crime and litigation, archaeology etc.

Some excerpts from the manual
I would like to reproduce some pertinent excerpts from the above Manual that would interest planners and others involved in rehabilitation and development   of the Vanni which was badly affected by the recent civil war.

“Before it (the Vanni) acquired its name, it appears to have been known as the Adankapattu” (page 11)
“From the inquiries made by Mr. Turnour in 1807, it appeared that there had been a great decline in population in the Vanni between 1783 and that year” (Page 41)
“The Vanni Sinhalese are all emigrants or descendants from the North Central Province” (page 94) the same as the emigrants from the Jaffna Peninsula.
“It is curious that the Sinhalese always select the best tanks.” “As usual the yield of the Sinhalese is higher than that of the Tamil villages .The houses too of the Sinhalese villagers are superior  to those of Tamils” (page 102).

Archaeological sites in the Vanni
An excellent description of archaeological sites in the Vanni districts (Vavuniya and Mullaitivu) is contained in Chapter XXX1 of the Manual extracted from Mr. H.  Parker’s reports from 1886 .Mr. Parker  was an Irrigation Engineer who has written extensively on the ancient irrigation works of Sri Lanka and author of” Ancient Ceylon” published in 1909 .

Apart from ancient irrigation works of the Sinhalese he has written extensively on archaeological sites in the Vanni Districts.  Quoting from his notes on the Vavunikulum Tank at Vavuniya “In the northerly direction of the city , at a distance of seven yojanas , in a cave opening on the Pelivapikulama tank, above the sand,  four splendid gems had formed in size like to a small mill-stone , in colour like flax flowers( radiantly) beautiful “.

 Parker believed that the original name of the above  tank was Peli Vapi  and  that this tank was built in the 3 rd. century BC as King Dutugamunu  informed of the discovery  reigned in 161-131 BC  Before that the Anuradhapura  Kingdom was run by a Tamil invader named Elara who ruled between 205 -161 BC. Therefore the tank would have been prior to the time of Elara.

Mr. Parker recorded in 1890 that the number of tanks of all sizes known to exist in the Vavuniya district was 533. Of these 390 were in some stages of repair. In the Mullaitivu district the number was 178 out of which half were in repair.

It is interesting to note that there were   ruins of Buddhist temples widespread in the two districts and much research has to be done to find out the ages of these pre historic   archaeological sites. The northern most ruins of a Buddhist temple was located 6 miles south of Elephant Pass except for those in the Jaffna Peninsula. Two significant records are Piyangala (Friar’s Hood) where it is believed that the f the Buddha placed his sacred footprint during the second visit to the Island. The other record is that the sacred Tooth Relic was rested on its way to the south at Omanthai which was the LTTE check post and in “No Man’s” land.

From the  ruins of Buddhist temples and other factors it is evident that the Buddhist religion  and its heritage were  spread over the whole of the Vanni from ancient times particularly the 3 rd century BC  until the invasion of armies of the Tamil Kings from South India. It is significant to note that there is not a single archaeological site of Buddhist worship   built by destroying a Hindu temple but in similar sites of Hindu temples there are Buddha statutes and other sacred objects either mutilated or vandalized.  However it is also noted that some of the Buddhist ruins there were   Hindu Gods such as Gnash indicating both Hindus and Buddhists worshipped. This fact clearly proves that Buddhism is a religion that always practiced “Ahimsa” or non violence from ancient times and respected all other religions.

It is also noted that   Mullaitivu district have   ruins of Hindu, Buddhist and Catholic places of worship indicating the people of these faiths lived together without any conflict or dissention. Further, the Muslims who were mainly traders’ co existed with those of other ethnicities amicably.  There is a record that the Afghans were living in these districts and were engaged in capture and sale of elephants.

Vanni’s paddy cultivation and ancient irrigation systems
It has been recorded the paddy was extensively cultivated in the  Vanni with a number of  strains of paddy that were resistant to insects etc. and the staple diet of the people was paddy with Kurankkan as a substitute to overcome crop failures  mainly due to drought. The water for cultivation was mainly from storage tanks and no significant irrigation channels were noted. The tank after it was full; water was released to the fields by a sluice gate, and in shallow tanks, by breaching of the bund. There is evidence that vast areas of the Vanni were cultivated with paddy and was the granary of the east. During the early periods rice was even exported from these areas.

Agriculture –Dry grain cultivation and cash crops
The Manual published in 1895 refers to the two districts namely Vavuniya and Mullaitivu which also included the present Killinochchi district. This area in Sri Lanka is basically well suited for paddy cultivation as well as cultivation of other crops such as Kurakkan , Maize, pulses etc. The soil is also suited for citrus cultivations such as oranges limes etc. Tobacco and cotton also was grown extensively in these areas.

The main impediment for development of such agricultural crops was the lack of water.

Mahaweli Master Plan
 It must be revealed that the Master Plan for the Integrated  Development of Irrigation and Power under the Mahaweli Project drawn up by the  UNDP had given priority to the construction of the Moragahakanda Reservoir and  widespread system of canals to take the water to the Giant’s Tank through the Vanni and when the Project was launched in 1978 with significant  bi lateral donor assistance the construction of this reservoir was shelved at that time giving priority to the south and was discriminatory.

My contention is that if this project was completed in the 1980s there would have been extensive cultivation of paddy and other crops and the Vanni would have been the leading agricultural region of the country.  Such discrimination led to the people of the Vanni getting poorer and living below the poverty level even now. This action had a domino effect as it bred terrorism and the  Leaders of the Tamil Tigers were able to brain wash the people of the area  to support their  separatist movement.
 The revival of the Moragahakanda  Project by the present government will undoubtedly provide water to the Vanni and help the people to extensively cultivate their paddy fields and engage in other forms of agriculture  as well as agro industries thus improving the socio economic conditions of the people who will then not support separatism.

Recommendations for Vanni development- Vavuniya and Mullaittivu
With the cost of so many innocent lives  of  all ethnic groups namely Tamils , Sinhalese , Muslims and with the sacrifice of our armed forces, we have achieved a hard earned peace in the country. We should not forget to think back and correct the faults and see that the ugly head of terrorism is not allowed to be raised. Our hard earned peace in Sri Lank should be maintained at all costs if development is to be carried out by the Government in these areas and the rest of the country.
Accordingly, the government may pursue the following recommendations:

 1. It must be stressed that the first priority of the Government is to expedite the completion of the Moragahakanda Project   according to the Mahaweli Master Plan and  construct  the main  irrigation channel to take the water to the Giant’s tank in the Mannar district through the Vanni .

2. The construction of feeder channels to the abandoned and existing tanks in the Vavuniya and Mullaitivu districts should also be carried out simultaneously.
3. Maintain the present camps of the Security forces in the Vanni and employ these personnel to repair and restore over 1000 tanks of various sizes in both the two Districts with the close cooperation of all political parties and the people of the area on a Master Plan drawn up by the Government.

4. Improve the infra structure particularly roads to the small towns and cities and also develop over 1000 small villagers   that were scarcely populated in 1891.
5. Carry out a detailed study of the archaeological sites in the Vanni as described in the Manual and restore as far as possible these ancient temples with the assistance of the relevant Ministries and Agencies   of the Government and promote cultural tours.

6. Seek foreign assistance both bi lateral and multi lateral for restoration of the irrigation tanks and infrastructure.
 7. Educate the multilateral agencies and the UNHCR    on the long term Plan in bringing about peaceful co existence of the various ethnic groups based on the ancient concept of   integrating    places of religious worship, storage tanks and paddy fields within a single village for effective and appropriate agriculture and agro based  and other  industries  to improve  the socio economic conditions of the people.

I have in this short article given some religious, cultural,  historical and socio economic conditions of the people of all ethnicities   who lived  in  the Vanni   comprised  of  Vavuniya and Mullaitivu districts   as recorded   in a Manual  published in 1895 covering the period 1872 to 1893 during the British occupation of the Island.
The mistakes made by the earlier governments  depriving the people of the Vanni of water for their agriculture and neglecting the socio economic conditions   encouraged and catalyzed  separatism in the region , the  main battlefield of the Tamil Tigers during the final  stages and their total destruction  in 2009 by the Security forces

In order to  guarantee  that terrorism will never raise its head again  and spread its tentacles in the North and East of Sri  Lanka,  meaningful steps should be taken to improve the quality of life of the people in these areas  by promoting agriculture and other industries especially fisheries and    industries etc . The social conditions of the people in the area by providing health, education etc should also be improved.

To this end, it is suggested   that   the  Security  forces together with the people of the area including political parties continue the development activities under the” Uthuru Navodaya” already launched by the Government  with amendments on the basis of facts and figures contained in the 1895 Manual on the Vanni Districts as  summarized  in this article.

 (The writer is a retired Economic Affairs Officer, United Nations ESCAP and can be reached at )

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