Education International
Education International

Teaching under bombardment

published 20 March 2009 updated 20 March 2009

Sri Lanka has for decades been torn apart by the conflict between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers. Members of a Tamil education union give personal accounts of life and work in the most dangerous areas of the country. To protect the identity of the teachers who had the courage to talk about the situation despite the risks involved, all of their names have been changed.

Checkpoints and stress on the way to work Maaran works as a teacher in the area controlled by the Tamil Tigers. “My school is 40 km from Omantai, where there is a major checkpoint between the government-controlled area and the LTTE-controlled area. I live in the Vavuniya region, eight kilometres south of Omantai, in the government-controlled area. “I go to work by motorbike and the journey can take me between one and three hours, depending on the number of checkpoints I have to cross and the intensity of the checks and searches by the Sri Lankan army at the checkpoint. The main parts of my motorbike are systematically dismantled and then reassembled to check whether I’m carrying any of the items or materials that the Sri Lankan government forbids being taken into the LTTE zone. The soldiers also check that I’m not carrying more than the five litres of petrol needed for my journey to the school.” This is a measure taken by the Sri Lankan army to stop fuel being resold to the Tamil Tigers. To minimise the risks, Maaran lodges near his school during the week and only returns to Vavuniya on weekends. “The journey to my school in Omantai is dangerous; the Sri Lankan army sometimes carries out ambushes in the area, and has already set off mines as the vehicles of government employees go by, mistaking them for Tamil Tigers. It’s very dangerous throughout the LTTE-controlled area, because of the bombings carried out by the Sri Lankan army. It tries to limit civilian casualties, but contrary to what it tries to make people believe, civilians are often hit by its missiles. Schools have already been hit, and a teacher lost his life at the beginning of August after bombs were dropped from military aircraft. We all rush to the shelters during the bombings, and go back to giving classes as normal when they are over. The pupils and teachers are used to living under such stressful conditions, but it’s very difficult, nevertheless, to provide children with a good education in such circumstances.” It is impossible to summarise the civil war in Sri Lanka in just a few lines. In short, it is a conflict between the central government and a Tamil separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Internationally recognised as a terrorist group, the LTTE is demanding self-determination and the creation of a Tamil state in the northeast of the island. Tamils form 18% of the Sri Lankan population and the Sinhalese 74%. The Tamil Tigers long controlled large areas in the north and east of the country, where they established their own parallel administration to that of the central government. Owing to internal divisions and military routs, however, the parallel administration is currently confined to the north of Sri Lanka. In recent weeks, major offensives by the Sri Lankan army have further reduced the area controlled by the LTTE, but barriers to the exercise of free journalism in the conflict zones make it difficult to draw an exact picture of the military situation. For the Tamil civilian population, over and above any political considerations, one thing is clear: fear is part of their everyday lives. In the government-controlled Tamil areas, not a day goes by without civilians being arrested, tortured and beaten for suspected links with the Tamil Tigers. The plight of civilians in the areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers is no less desperate. In addition to the bombardments of the Sri Lankan army, Tamil families have to cope with a terrorist movement that tolerates no dissent and has long forced Tamil children to join it as soldiers (although it would seem that the LTTE’s use of child soldiers has diminished over recent years)."The artillery fire startles the pupils" This climate of terror has a huge psychological impact on the children. In Vavuniya, for example, a town in the government-controlled area, the Sri Lankan army fires shells practically every day at the area controlled by the LTTE, just ten kilometres north of the town. Most Tamils from Vavuniya have family or friends in that area and every fire of the cannon sparks fears for their safety. “My school is just next to a military base,” says Krishnan, a member of the Ceylon Tamil Teachers’ Union, an EI affiliate. “The sound of the artillery fire is very loud in my classroom, it startles the pupils. It’s really difficult to give classes under such circumstances.” The teachers also speak of the distress they observe among their pupils following round-up operations. These operations are generally led by the Sri Lankan army (100% Sinhalese) and consist in rounding up all the people from a given district in a public square and lecturing them on their duty to denounce LTTE sympathisers. In some instances, they are forced to file one by one in front of an army informer masked by a balaclava. If the informer nods his head as you stand before him, you are arrested under suspicion of being a Tamil Tiger sympathiser. Those arrested are generally tortured and held without trial for an indefinite period. The fact that families are constantly having to flee the combat zones is another serious problem affecting schooling. “When I was appointed to this school there were 500 pupils, but there are only 150 now, as the others have been internally displaced with their families to other parts of the LTTE-controlled area. My school was also displaced recently, when the fighting came too close. At least 55 schools have already been displaced in this area, but the cost of moving is not reimbursed, and we do not receive any kind of danger money despite the ever growing risks. All the government employees working in the LTTE area face the same difficulties,” says Krishnan. Cautious trade union movement Out of caution, most Sri Lankan trade unions take care not to get too closely involved in the conflict dividing the country. A few trade unions have, however, occasionally called on the government to abandon the military solution in favour of negotiations, even though this is very difficult with a terrorist movement such as the Tamil Tigers. One of them is NATURE, which groups 19 Sri Lankan unions, including the Ceylon Tamil Teachers’ Union. “NATURE appealed to the Sri Lankan president, urging him to end the fighting, but the government responded that there could be no peaceful solution while the LTTE continues its campaign of violence,” explains Palitha Atukorale, the president of NATURE. “So NATURE then wrote to Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE, to urge him to seek a peaceful solution, but to no avail, unfortunately.” The unions working near the combat zones have to be much more cautious. “In the past, we did carry out some initiatives in favour of peace, but when the current government came to power and decided to do away with the LTTE by military means, we had to keep quiet, so as not to place ourselves at risk,” explains Vishwanathan, a member of the Ceylon Tamil Teachers’ Union in Vavuniya. “As unions, our activities are confined to work-related issues: problems concerning promotions, taking leave, the transfer of teachers to villages far away from their homes, etc. Joint action with the rest of the Sri Lankan trade union movement is difficult: the Vavuniya region is cut off from the rest of the country by a major checkpoint in Medawachchiya, and crossing the checkpoint means wasting a lot of time, because of the all the red tape,” he continues. “The circumstances make it difficult for us to attend trade union meetings in the capital, Colombo, for example. We do, however, want to maintain contact with teachers from all around the country, because workers, be they Tamil, Sinhalese or from other communities, have every interest in remaining united, despite the fighting led by the military,” Vishwanathan says. By Samuel Grumiau. Reprinted with permission from the ITUC's Union View.

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 29, March 2009.