by Pearl Thevanayagam
The recently concluded war with all its human miseries such as loss of lives, widowhood, displaced and maimed civilians, orphans, destruction of properties and denigration of agricultural lands and the disruption to normal life throughout the island was not all that bad as far as a significant part of the populace was concerned.
This war economy earned millions for those who exploited a bad situation to win themselves kudos and made them rich overnight. Arms procurers, funeral directors, guest-house owners in the conflict areas catering to foreign NGOs, foreign correspondents, humanitarian agencies, those who catered to the fleeing civilians, NGOs researching and analysing the conflict for international think-tank organisations, local academics recruited by World Bank and IMF to conduct research on the pattern of IDPs and the demographics and of course our local journalists who were earning a pittance suddenly exported to the four corners of the world to counter LTTE propaganda as dis-information counsellors perhaps never had it so good.
Amidst the exploding shells, air-raids, rocket launchers and suicide bombings there was a heightened euphoria among these to make the most of the situation and strike while the iron was hot.
Add the politicians like the late Mannenai Maheswaran MP who procured kerosene monopoly in the North and East above his concern for the suffering civilians, Minister Douglas Devananda who has a fleet of buses plying between North and East and ships transporting essential items and the breakaway LTTE elements such as Karuna and Pillayan and we have a pretty good idea why these beneficiaries did not want the war to end.
In the nineties, a colleague of mine at Weekend Express who was from Jaffna, was paying Rs50.00 per day for a mat and pillow in one of the guest houses in the city run by Minister Devananda.
Back in Colombo, a booming business was thriving supplying bullet-proof vehicles to politicians and high-ranking officers in the combined armed forces and to a lesser extent those supplying uniforms to the soldiers in the warfront. Then of course we have the army deserters who absconded with weapons much sought after for lucrative contracts in mercenary killings.
The bribes demanded by the police following arrests of mostly innocent civilians from the North and East coming to Colombo to go abroad in search of jobs earned them quite a pretty penny and continues to this very day.
An employee of Weekend Express who was six months pregnant was looking for the passport office situated close to the Old Parliament with her female cousin when she was taken into custody by the Slave Island police. As the news editor, I went to the police station to find her in a police cell. When I asked the man in charge at the desk what her offence was he said, “They came from Batticaloa and we have to check them for LTTE connections”.
I know of at least five from the Tamil diaspora who were abducted for ransom while on holiday in Sri Lanka.
At this point I used my position and said he should either produce her in court or release her. I also reminded him that I would write about this the next day in the newspaper. He promptly discharged them.
Tea, rubber and coconut exports, garment manufacturing and other industries took a back seat amidst this sudden turn-around of the national economy which would send the share prices up or down on whether the war is accelerating or bogged down by pesky peace-talks and mediation through foreign intervention.
Necessity, being the mother of invention, the LTTE discovered a novel method of acquiring fuel for running a motor bicycle in the nineties when the government imposed fuel ban to the North and East. You dip a rag in kerosene to kick-start and then you run it on water!!!. How ingenious is that? Bicycles were fitted with a tarpaulin as people carrier in Jaffna.
Plundered railway tracks had many uses. When I traveled through Omanthai checkpoint in mid-nineties I was checked in at the border control of the LTTE while my luggage was placed on this track-counter. And I also slept on these make-shift tracks doubling as beds while I waited to be vetted and my ‘pass’ processed to proceed to Kilinochchi.
It is quite interesting to note that with the escalation of the ethnic war sprouted many independent TV and radio stations, and newspapers not to mention websites and e-news.
Many aspiring journalists found a niche in these budding media institutions and several have gone on to become stringers for international news agencies and some who worked for NGOs even became editors of national newspapers!!!