HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: The present conflict has its roots in attempts to manage conflicts of interests and to safeguard the influence of dominate power blocs without any corresponding moves to secure and enhance the basic right and freedoms of ordinary people in this country. The process of erosion of civil liberties which began over a decade ago, has been accelerated during the last three years. All armed parties were responsible for this, while the Sri Lankan state and other state powers which were directly or by proxy involved in the shaping of events, must bear the heaviest share of responsibility for their pursuit of interests with a cynical and calculated disregard for human rights.
The rapid erosion in the South came in the wake of the JVP's military campaign against the government which followed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987 and the failure of the government's military campaign against the Tamils. This was put down by the state's security establishment, now enhanced by a number of para-military units, by a campaign of counter-terror, which left a large number of Sinhalese youth killed. The visible hall-marks of this campaign were mutilated corpses burning on roadside with tiers around them. Human Rights sources in the South commonly put the number so killed at about 30,000. The number killed by the JVP is put at 1,000 - 2,000. The JVP's targets included prominent and respected Leftwing politicians who were critical of them besides figures from the UNP and the security establishments. Other victims who went dead or missing during this period and where in number of cases the state's role is alleged, include over 300 university students, some lawyers involved in filing habeas corpus applications and several activists in the main opposition party, the SLFP's leftwing. The Presidential elections of December 1988 and the parliamentary elections of February 1989 were held in conditions where the turnout in several rural areas, particularly in the deep South, was very low. Life in the south goes on under conditions where there are few tangible checks on the state and its security apparatus. The instruments often resorted to by the state were the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979 and Emergency Regulation 15A of 1983, originally enacted to combat the Tamil insurgency. It has been pointed out that under emergency rule, which has existed most of the time, killing a person in custody was effectively legal.
The erosion of civil liberties amongst Tamils in the wake of the militancy against state oppression has been discussed in earlier reports. We shall sketch recent events. By the end of 1988 the Tamil militants had deeply compromised and weakened by their past conduct and were involved in the political of survival. Whether they acknowledged it or not, all groups were in need of patrons whose first concern was not the well-being of Tamils. In November 1988, the Pro-Indian EPRLF led coalition acceded to power in the newly set up North-East Provincial council through elections which their powerful antagonists, the LTTE did not participate. Premadasa upon becoming President in December 1988, reaffirmed the government's commitment to the provincial council and to the process of devolution envisaged in a bid to find a political solution to the Tamil problem in terms of the Indo-Lanka Accord. In a reciprocal show of goodwill, Mr. Vardaraja Perumal, the Chief Minister for the North-East, personally hoisted the contentious Sri Lankan national flag on Independence day, 4th February 1989. All this did not bring a restoration of the rule of law to the North-East, where the Indian Peace keeping Forces [IPKF] was responsible for security. If anything, the stakes were placed higher and the killing rates of both sides increased particularly of civilians.
President Premadasa started talking to the LTTE in April 1989 and shortly afterwards demanded the departure of the IPKF, while the political solution to the Tamil question and the fate of the provincial council were far from settled.The pro- Indian party controlling the provincial council was sent into a state of panic as an Indian pull-out appeared increasingly likely. The Chief Minister began complaining that there was deliberate stalling on the devolution of powers and provision of finance for the Provincial government. Several of the LTTE's attacks against the IPKF brought about the not unexpected heavy reprisals against civilians. Reprisals in July/August 1989 such as at Valvettithurai and Pt. Pedro brought further discredit on the IPKF. Total of over 80 civilians were killed in these incidents. There were also commendable instances of restraint by the IPKF such as at Adampan and Mannar. In the latter instance gun men fired from inside Mannar hospital killing 24 soldiers in an army post just outside.
At this point IPKF officials bitterly complained that they had evidence of the Sri Lankan government supplying weapons to the LTTE, in order to undermine their credibility and role, for which the Sri Lankan government was party. This claim was subsequently repeated by leading opposition politicians in the South and also in local press reports. Other source have described these weapons as forming a substantial armoury.
In the meantime the LTTE appeared to be forming close links with the Sri Lankan security establishment enjoying a great deal of freedom to operate and establish check-points in the South. What happened in Tamil Nadu before 1987, now seemed to be happening in southern Sri Lanka. A number of leading LTTE personalities expressed confidence on President Premadasa in press interviews and were Lionised in the press. Many prominent Southern intellectuals acknowledged the LTTE as the legitimate representatives of the Tamil people.
It was in these circumstances that the pro-Indian party adopted the cruel and ill-considered response of conscripting young persons of protecting the provincial government in the eventuality of an Indian pull-out. The manner in which this was done, together with anarchic killings by pro-Indian groups in the wake of the LTTE's advance, totally discredited the pro-Indian groups. The LTTE took control of the North-East between November 1989 and March 1990 as the IPKF pulled out. The LTTE's advance in the East and in the Wanni was facilitated by support from Sri Lankan forces. The Sri Lankan government reluctantly or otherwise acceded to the LTTE's demand that its forces should only mark a passive presence, leaving the maintenance of order to the LTTE. The LTTE emerged with its legitimacy and fame greatly enhanced.
It would have ideally liked quick provincial council elections to consolidate its position, absorb its cadre into a provincial police force and legitimately maintain its organisation at state expense. It appeared even prepared to tolerate some dissent, limited press freedom, a token opposition and even international observers at elections. such moves, while providing some relief to those on the wrong side of the LTTE, would have enhanced its international image.
The TNA disintegrated in the course of the LTTE's advance, after putting up some resistances in the East. A large quantity of Indian supplied weapons fell into the LTTE 's hands. Whether by supplying them to an to ill-prepared conscript army, India actually wanted the LTTE to have these weapons, in view of a predicted confrontation with the Sri Lankan army, is one that has been much speculated upon. Many conscripts who surrendered to the LTTE were returned to their parents. In a number of places where there was resistance, those who surrendered were treated harshly. In Batticaloa, about 11.12.89, an estimated 75 TNA members who surrendered were shot dead with their hands tied. Over 1,000 members of Pro-Indian groups were shipped to India by the IPKF. The rest scattered. a number of them who tried to cross to India with their supporters and families were killed at sea, and a number of bodies appeared on the shores of India and northern Sri Lanka. The LTTE and the Sri Lankan navy were blamed for these killings, either separately or in collusion, in press reports in India and by local villagers. The Sri Lankan government denied Indian charges of firing at these fugitives from the air (Sunday Island, 11.2.90). Pro-LTTE sources (eg.Voice of the Tamils, March 1990, Toronto) alleged that the killings were the result of divisions within the TNA. But in general protests or expressions of concern from the Tamil side were strangely muted, considering that women and children were among the victims.
The UN Human Rights sub-commission hearings of February 1990, brought to the surface an aspect of the relationship between the government and the LTTE that been implicit right along. Leading opposition parliamentarians who went to Geneva to rise the matter of human rights violations, particularly in Southern Sri Lanka, were upset at finding the LTTE closely supporting the Sri Lanka government. One of them, Mr. Vasudeva Nanayakkara, belonged to the NSSP, which had all along taken a consistently humane line on the Tamil question. In 1987 and earlier, all Tamil militant groups had sent representatives to the sub-commission and had been vehemently critical of the government. The Victims were then mostly Tamil civilians. Looking back at the entire process which lasted 14 months, and statements by leaders on both sides, it becomes evident that the understanding between the LTTE and the government had little to do with the rights of the Tamil people, the Sinhalese people or of mutual understanding between the two. The Government had neither done nor said anything to suggest that it repented its former military approach to the Tamil problem which left over 10,000 dead. Nor did the leading protagonists on the Tamil side regret killings of Sinhalese civilians by Tamil militants or show any sensitivity towards the feelings of rural Sinhalese over the loss of thousands of their young during the recent campaign of counter-terror. True, both sides had staked much in a tactical understanding to undermine India's position. What followed raises the question, whether agreements not based on trust, justice and a common respect for the dignity, rights and well-being of all people, are worth anything. In this case, ordinary people are paying a high price for the adventurism of leaders whose vision was confined to the problem of immediate survival.
Towards war: From all that has surfaced in public, its appears that the LTTE's long drawn out negotiations with the government were mostly about the regularisation of the LTTE's cadre as part of the police and armed forces and about manning levels and deployment of Sri Lankan forces in camps and stations in the North-East upon the IPKF's pull out. There appears to have been no final agreement on a political solution. The LTTE perhaps thought that with the enhancement of its legitimacy following provincial council elections, it would be in a strong political position both locally and internationally to get what it wanted in a bargaining process. It was already engaged in strengthening its position in India after finding an ally in Mr. Karunanithi, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, besides others. Equally, the Sri Lankan government feared such an eventuality. It is understandable that the government tried to buy time. One problem raised by the government, the technical problem of dissolving the existing provincial council whose leaders were in exile, turned out to be more cosmetic, given the casual ease of past constitutional amendments.
A more real problem for the government was the question of surrender of arms by the LTTE. This was being demanded by almost every shade of political opinion in parliament, particularly by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress [SLMC] which had its base in the East. The LTTE had banned political activity by the SLMC and a number of violent incidents left the Muslims with a view of the LTTE as a repressive force. The LTTE on the other hand claimed to speak for all Tamil speaking people, including the Muslims. But its conduct made this claim unsustainable. Also the LTTE's ambivalence on several issue and reports of its military build up made particularly the Southerners very uncomfortable. A case of ambivalence pertained to the laying down of arms. Earlier during this year, the LTTE's Chief Spokesman Anton Balasingam stated while reaffirming confidence in existing arrangements, that the LTTE would lay down its arms once the last Indian soldier departed from this Island. With the progressive departure of Indian troops [completed by 31st March]. the emerging LTTE position was that the government must create conditions where the Tamils would not require the protection of arms. The government maintained that the provincial council elections could be held only in a gun-free environment.
While the government's stand was legally correct, in this matter at least the LTTE had some good arguments on its side. Given that the government found it in order to hold North-East provincial council elections in November, 1988 while pro-Indian groups moved around with arms, why could these elections not be held now while the LTTE did the same? What had changed substantively since July 1983 to reassure the Tamils that the government would protect them and administer the law impartially? Had not the government itself supplied the Tigers with weapons a few months earlier "When they told the `authorities' of a so called grave danger to them by other Tamil groups?" [`Miscalculations can cost us this war'- Shamindra Ferdinando, Sunday Island, 15th July 1990]. Who could say that such a danger was past? After all, had not the government itself ignored or taken lightly complaints by Muslim and Tamil parliamentarians over the LTTE'S continuing hunt for `traitors'? The government lacked the moral authority to counter these arguments.
The conscription campaign initiated in July 1989 by India and its allies, provoked so much resentment and fear, that a large number of young boys in their early teens joined LTTE ranks. The LTTE's fame and legitimacy reached a peak about February 1990 when Indian troops vacated most parts of Jaffna. In this atmosphere even younger children received training from the LTTE with next to no public protest. Since no final agreement had been reached with the government and the outcome of further negotiations would be inevitably influenced by military strength, it was only natural that both sides should prepare themselves militarily. The result was an escalating game of brinkmanship. Every time the government forces tried to move out or to establish a new post, they were challenged. There ensued either a time of tension or a minor skirmish, followed by talks. Nearly every time, the government appeared to give in. Army camps at Pt.pedro and Valvettithurai were removed. Policemen stayed in barracks anxiously peering out of sentry points, while LTTE posters outside warned them not to move out without permission.
As the weeks dragged on, the political position of the Tigers became more shaky on the ground. Though many admired them and felt that they had given the Tamils a sense of strength and dignity, confidence in what they held out was lacking. More mature boys generally kept aloof from them. Spokes persons for the LTTE's student wing, the SOLT, stopped visiting boys' schools when the tendency for awkward questions became infectious. Taxation and interference in areas of civilian life such as culture and entertainment became irritants. The LTTE in turn hardened its approach. A number of persons with past dissident connections had fled the North-East upon hearing that the LTTE had inquired about them or had called at their homes. Sources in Batticaloa District put the number killed between October `89 and June `90 at over 300. In Jaffna the number killed is believed to be much lower, but the LTTE had claimed that it was holding over 1,000 prisoners. [See Amnesty International statement, June 1990]. On the matter of taxation, LTTE sympathizers maintained that it was forced on them by the government postponing elections and the regularisation of its armed cadre which would have given them official status and funds.
As the LTTE became more anxious about its position, there was also the suspicion of a deliberate government conspiracy in the delay. The government could have countered this by stating unequivocally what it was prepared to give towards a political solution. This it did not do, encouraging unhealthy speculation on the Tamil as well on the Sinhalese sides.
The end of May marked a period of tension when the government had talks with militant groups which were previously aligned to India, and when air force helicopters flew over Jaffna, civilians were advised to build air raid shelters. On 3rd June, the LTTE's information network abroad announced confidently that talks on reaching accommodation over differences with the Sri Lankan government were going smoothly and that the tide of tension and anxiety had receded. When the conflict escalated on 11th June, the manner in which hundreds of policemen surrendered without resistance suggested that the government was unprepared and instructions had not been given. Military camps too were unprepared for prolonged sieges. [Top]
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