Feature Article

Vanni ban leaves little to take

[TamilNet, Monday, 26 February 2001, 18:37 GMT]
A note at the bottom of a circular by Sri Lanka's Ministry of Defence listing the things that are not allowed to the Vanni sent to government officials in Vavuniya, reveals the extensive and arbitrary manner in which Colombo's economic embargo is imposed on the northern region.

Tamilnet Library Photo
"A person can/should be stopped from taking things with him on the advice of an authorised officer. Even permitted items can be stopped at the last moment on the basis of information received by the army about the future needs and plans of the terrorists. Soldiers at the checkpoint can decide whether a person should be stopped from passing through or whether to postpone the checking of his bags," the note says. "The list of banned and permitted items displayed here to the public and government departments is totally deceptive. In effect, an officer or soldier has the right and authority to stop anything from being taken to Vanni purely at their discretion," explained an official at the Vavuniya District secretariat Monday.

Goods in lories bound for Vanni being checked near the entry point.TamilNet Library Photo.
The special gazette notification (No. 867/12) listing the items banned was issued on 20 April 1995. There is neither a Tamil nor English translation available in Vavuniya, the border town from which people begin their hazardous journey to the Vanni.

Soldiers at the Piramanalankulam check point, which is the main entry point between the Vanni and the Sri Lanka army controlled part of the Vavuniya district, seized goods ranging from Nylon ropes to sanitary napkins from travellers and burnt these in the evenings on days when the public was allowed to pass through. The Vavuniya district judge M.Ilancheliyan gave a directive earlier this month that the practice was not legal even in the context of the sweeping and arbitrary powers granted to the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) under the Emergency Regulations and the special gazette notification of April 95.

The following are the items banned under the gazette notification No. 867/12 of April 1995:

  1. Weapons, explosives
  2. Incendiaries, fireworks
  3. Remote control devices
  4. Helmets (except those used for riding motorbikes), caps
  5. Binoculars
  6. Telescopes
  7. Compasses
  8. Cloth which may resemble those used for making military uniforms
  9. Iron, steel rods
  10. Oxygen gas
  11. Welding instruments
  12. Barbed wire
  13. Instruments for cutting wire
  14. All inflammable fuels except kerosene
  15. Camphor
  16. Urea or urea based fertilisers
  17. Pen torch batteries (AA size)
  18. Lead or things made of lead
  19. Petrol and Diesel
  20. Electricity and instruments for generating electricity
  21. Cement
  22. Spare parts for motor vehicles

The list encompasses a very wide range of things that are not specifically mentioned in it. For example, item number 9 on the gazetted list automatically includes sluice gates for irrigations channels, iron nails, bolts, rivets, iron beams etc., Similarly, cooking utensils made of lead are banned under No. 18 and a wide range of cloth (of green colour and shades of it or of a certain thickness for instance) are banned under No.8 of the 95 April gazette list.

In short, the list promotes unmitigated arbitrariness on the part of soldiers at the entry point and officers at the SLA Vavuniya headquarters and at the Ministry of Defence in Colombo in deciding what can go to the Vanni and what cannot.

There is a second list of things that can be taken to the Vanni only with the permission of the Operational headquarters of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Officials at the Vavuniya District Secretariat with whom TamilNet discussed the matter, said that the legal standing of this is not clear because it is not gazetted.

The following are the things on the second MoD list:

  1. All vehicles including motorbikes
  2. Generators
  3. Water pumps with motors
  4. Batteries for vehicles
  5. Outboard motors and diving equipment
  6. Fibre mats
  7. Type writers
  8. Cyclo-style machines
  9. Photocopiers (Xerox machines)
  10. Printing machines
  11. Video equipment
  12. Cameras
  13. Surgical instruments and equipment
  14. Medicines, drugs (in bulk)
  15. Fertilisers
  16. Agro-chemicals
  17. Chemicals
  18. Aluminium and things made of aluminium
  19. Kerosene (in large quantities)

This list is mainly to cater to the needs of government departments and international aid agencies operating in the Vanni such as the UNHCR and the ICRC, according to a senior Vavuniya Kachcheri official. "Otherwise, all the items in this list are in effect banned for the civilians" he said.

Even government departments providing such essential services as health find it extremely difficult to obtain permission for items on this list. It is not enough that the MoD grants clearance for these but the SLA Co-ordinating office in Vavuniya too has to give its permission to take things on this list to the Vanni. Although included in this list, several items, such as outboard motors and printing machines are actually banned, officials say.

"Only a total nut would apply to the MoD for permission to take diving equipment or a press to the Vanni" quipped the director of a local NGO in Vavuniya town.

The process for getting clearance is prolonged and tedious even if the applicant is a government department dealing with the essential services, say officials.

There is a third list put out by the SLA comprising items that may be taken to the Vanni in very limited quantities by civilians if permission is obtained from the military co-ordinating officer for Vavuniya. This too is an un-gazetted list.

The following are the items on this list:

    (a) Foodstuff that can be used by terrorists
    1. Instant noodles
    2. Canned fruits
    3. Fruit juice packets and cordials
    4. Powdered drinks
    5. Soup cubes
    6. Gelatine powder
    7. Biscuits (packs weighing less than 250 grams)
    8. Cheese tins
    9. Glucose
    10. Canned fish (weighing less than 250 grams)

    Few civilians bother apply for permission to take the goods on this list given all the hassle involved in getting clearance from the army.

    The following categories are also restricted according to the conditions stipulated in the same list:

    (b) All base material that could be used for making grease and all fuel that can be used as (friction reducing) oil.

    (c) All commodities that can used by the terrorists for propaganda purposes:

    1. film
    2. maps and paper used for cartography
    3. newsprint
    4. paper for cyclostyle machines
    5. ink for printing and cyclostyle work
    6. Bristol board
    7. full-scape paper (unlined)

      This list basically bans many things that are necessary to run schools, according to an official at the Department of Education in Vavuniya. He said that although not on the list, paint for making blackboards is also not permitted to the Vanni.

    (d) Other commodities which may aid terrorism:

    1. Building materials
    2. Empty sacs, polyethene, polythene bags
    3. All types of resins
    4. Jerry cans and all other types of cans
    5. Metal buckets
    6. All agricultural implements, including mammoties, spades, crowbars etc.,
    7. Parts for motors and related instruments
    8. Tires, tubes and other spare parts for bicycles.

TamilNet Library Photo.
The list stipulates furthermore that a person or a small business person travelling from the army-controlled area to the Vanni might be permitted to take limited amounts of the following items:

  1. Drugs and medicine given to a person going to the Vanni who has been warded in a government hospital and received treatment there provided he/she has a letter from the hospital authorities confirming the matter.

  2. Drugs prescribed by a government doctor to a person travelling to the Vanni.

A person may be allowed to take the following without having to show a (government doctor's) prescription:

  1. Forty-eight pills of aspirin or Disprin or paracetamol (Panadol).
  2. Two medium sized bottles of balm.
  3. Syrups (medicinal) two medium bottles.
  4. One bottle of eau de cologne.
  5. Thirty Vitamin tablets capsules or tablets required for a month.
  6. Sixty malaria pills.

A person may take:

  1. foodstuffs other than those listed in (a) which can be carried by hand in two bags.
  2. Three slabs of any type of chocolate (after each one is opened and examined).
  3. Two litres of vegetable or coconut oil.
  4. Cigarettes and liquor (local and foreign) -unlimited.
  5. Cloth and garments-any type of cloth except those resembling military uniforms, cloth of dark blue, dark green and black colours and ready made garments are permitted.

Colour will not be considered for the following items:

  1. Men's underwear.
  2. Women's underwear and brassieres.

Other goods:

The following items may be allowed per person by the army according to the numbers indicated in the list:

  1. A dozen boxes of matches
  2. Two torch batteries.
  3. One battery operated radio (not AA size).
  4. One children's tricycle.
  5. One litre of white or cream colour emulsion paint.

The last item clealry shows that one cannot take any colour paint except cream and white.

There are scores of items, including medicine for cattle diseases etc., which are not listed officially but are banned or severely restricted.

A person cannot take more than ten thousand rupees (approx. 110 US dollars) to the Vanni.

However, even these things that are allowed in very limited quantities may be stopped quite arbitrarily if a soldier or officer at the entry point or clearing offices decided to do so.

TamilNet Library Photo.


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