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Last Updated: Friday, 2 January, 2004, 15:20 GMT
Sri Lanka's 'state within a state'

By Priyath Liyanage
BBC Sinhala Service editor

To get into the areas of northern Sri Lanka controlled by the Tamil Tiger rebels you have to go through two sets of check points - the first run by a government security team, the second by the Tigers themselves.

It feels like you are entering a different country as you pass through makeshift immigration and customs offices manned by young Tamil Tigers cadres.

Memorial for Tamil Tiger fighter
A memorial for a Tamil Tiger fighter
They impose taxes on any material taken through the checkpoints.

Many travellers complain quietly about how heavy the duties and taxes are.

The taxes are raised to sustain the heavy administrative structures the Tigers have in place in the areas under their control.

Those structures include their own judiciary and police force.

It is approaching two years now since the Tamil Tigers and the government began a ceasefire in Sri Lanka's protracted civil war.

In that time life in the Tamil Tiger areas has begun to change.

Some areas have been cleared of landmines, although many mines still remain, posing a hidden menace to local people.

Bullet holes

Shops are now filled with goods, locally produced and brought in from elsewhere.

Ordinary people wait to see the outcome - 2004 is going to be a crucial year for the peace process
But the reminders of the horrors of war are everywhere.

You can still find ruined buildings where every square metre of wall still standing is riddled with bullet holes.

Even the shrines and statues of religious icons bear the scars of 20 years of bloody war.

Meanwhile, the rebel offices in their stronghold of Kilinochchi have expanded in the recent.

There are also many international organisations active in the area.

The increased access to the area since the start of the ceasefire has generated a small, but thriving tourist industry.

Roadside stalls and shops sell local specialities from dry fish to the local drink, toddy for the travellers arriving from the south.

Many of the Hindu temples destroyed during the war are being restored.

Shrines for Hindu deities stand side by side with memorials for Tiger fighters killed in the war.

Many people have now gone back to live in the homes they were forced to flee because of the fighting.

Others still fear to go home because of the landmines.

Finding the mines, and rendering them harmless, is a long and hard struggle.

The former fighting forces have not agreed to supply the maps of the minefields.

Easily identified

It is not easy to really know what ordinary people in the Tiger-controlled areas really think and fee.

Dried fish stall
Dried fish and toddy await the visitor

They do not speak their minds freely. Young Tamil Tiger cadres are everywhere.

They are easily identified by their flared trousers and black belts - only a few still carry weapons.

As for the political mood, the rebel leaders are now waiting to see the results of the current power struggle in the capital, Colombo, where President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe have deep differences over the peace process.

No significant negotiations with the Tamil Tigers is likely to take place until those differences are resolved.

So ordinary people wait to see the outcome. 2004 is going to be a crucial year for the peace process in Sri Lanka.


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