JUNE: THE WAR BEGINS
When the war broke out on 11th June, there were many sceptics throughout the country who said that both sides needed it. A conspiracy may be hard to establish. It may more correct to say that the war was brought about by ways of reacting to situations and habits of mind, that were on both sides essentially anti-democratic. Once the tactical use of rapproachment was over, the host of political problems had to be faced. The human needs and basic rights of the Tamil and sinhalese people had not been addressed. Sinhalese people were becoming unconvinced of the utility of the deal with the Tigers. The opposition was more vocal in challenging the government's human rights record. Moves to privatise the CTB were being widely questioned and a strike by CTB workers was being threatened. Moreover, the security establishment, the strong arm of Sinhalese nationalism, consuming a very much larger part of the budget (14%) than health or education, stood discredited in the South as well.
In the Tamil areas the disquiet with the prevailing order has been mentioned. The Muslim issue had not been addressed. The Amnesty International statement (the Island 1st June) which said: "It (the LTTE) appears to condone and threaten the extra judicial execution of those it considers `traitors'.....", went on to charge the group of carrying out summary executions of purported criminals, and recommended that the ICRC be allowed access to its detainees. This was symptomatic of increasing doubts about the group's credentials internationally- something on which the group placed a high premium. Whenever in the past the LTTE had been engaged in combat with a powerful but oppressive army, which assuaged its fury in civilian reprisals, it had its strength and credibility enhanced.
For the Tamil people, however, the possibilities looked fairly bright. During the past few months, most leading educational institutions in Jaffna had either gone on tours of the South, or had advanced plans to do so. Likewise, pilgrims from the South were once more visiting shrines in the North. Communal feelings were being slowly eroded. There was also a strong feeling in the South, given the economic difficulties, the massacre of thousands of young and misgovernment, that it had its own deep seated problems and that the Tamil problem must somehow be laid to rest. This was reflected in the `Sun' editorial published as late as 15th June, after the conflict had commenced.
"Instead of seeking the impossible, we have also suggested the creation of a Federal system under which the Tamil minorities in the North and East could have greater autonomy in their affairs, thus preserving the unitary status of Sri Lanka. An urgent political solution to the current crisis is therefore the most sensible fait accompli...."
`The Sun' was a paper which catered to a readership that did not take a soft line on the Tamil issue. The term Federal system was for long a dirty word in southern political discourse and would once again become so as the conflict progressed.
Even if such a promising situation had arisen without good intentions on either side, the response of anyone interested in the well being of Tamils and perhaps of the sinhalese, would have been to encourage this trend. Every political move should have been made to marginalise the role of the military. No government could have politically justified such a heavy military expenditure as against health, education and the needs of the poor, by saying that it was afraid of the sinhalese. It would have had to use a real or imagined Tamil threat. With the role of the military marginalised, it would have served both Tamil and Sinhalese interests to give the Southern opposition a free hand in challenging the government's human rights record. Such developments would not only have posed a challenge to the Sinhalese chauvinistic ideology, but were also a threat to Tamil political ideology based solely on military prowess, conformity and a constant feeling that the Tamils were under physical threat.
All this may not have been decisive in either side consciously precipitating the war. But it would have influenced their responses to a series of challenges over a time which resulted in the war. Take for instance the `fait accompli' of spelling out a political solution that seemed a simple way out for an ordinary commonsensical `Sun' editorial writer. The government has failed to put one forward from the time it started talking to the Tigers 15 months ago. Its failure to do it even now only weakens its position.
As has been said often, the immediate issue that triggered off the war is certainly not the quarrel between the Tigers and the Batticaloa police over a civilian's illicit love affair. The Tigers had themselves reported in their media on 3rd June that talks on settling differences between themselves and the government were going well. It appears that the government had earlier given word to the Tigers that 4,000 - 5,000 persons named by them would be regularised as part of the army, police or both. This was strongly suggested in private conversations of senior LTTE members from the middle of 1989. About this time the government had also announced that recruitment to the forces would be on ethnic proportions - i.e. 18% Tamils. From the time the IPKF departed, the government, for whatever reason, does not seem to have moved on this matter. June appears to have been a kind of deadline agreed previously. A number of influential Tamils who wanted to start rehabilitation projects in the North-East were told by the Tigers to wait till June starting anything big.
10th June appears to be the new deadline agreed after talks earlier in the month, for action on regularisation. (See Kautilya's column, Sunday Island, 22nd July). The attack on the army column in Vavniya which ignored orders to stop on 8th June, appears to be a signal of impatience. Why the government had not acted by the 10th June is not known. From April 1989, the whole process of government-Tiger talk proceeded with several loose ends hanging. This became evident in differences between the Sri Lankan forces and the Tigers, as the IPKF moved out.
The Tigers seem to have decided to show their hand by taking over all police stations from 11th June and challenging the movement of Sri Lankan forces, perhaps expecting fresh negotiations. this marked the commencement of the conflict. Once the conflict was in progress, it evoked a variety of rather unexpected reactions. Several southern villages which had suffered grievously during the government's counter-terror against the JVP, expressed satisfaction at armed forces' causalities by firing crackers, putting up banner and writing graffiti on walls. A number of Sinhalese of all ages and classes expressed feelings the outrage against the tigers for giving the armed forces the opportunity to reassert their legitimacy as saviours of the nation after with what they had done in the South; and also providing the government with a diversion to sweep all its misdoings under the carpet. Many of them admit that the South is in for worse times and that there will be no prospect of issues of basic justice being addressed in the South until Tamil politics of the kind is militarily subdued. For this reason they would take a fatalistic view of the current fate of Tamils.
There were many Tamils who were incensed that the government was getting away with grossly false propaganda. they are also angry with the Tigers accusing them of having acted as decoys for the government: First to get the IPKF out and to topple a legally constituted provincial government without any hint of a political settlement. They say that the government deliberately strengthened the Tigers and put them in the place of the EPRLF, so as to regain the military option denied to them after India's entry in 1987. They point out that the EPRLF was so weak that the government could never have legitimised a military option with them in control of the North-East.
It is only fair to say that the government and the army would be divided on such matters. There would be many in the government who would rather do politics without violence and military men concerned about sullying the reputation of the armed forces by killing civilians. But certain sections are bound to seize opportunities, appeal to dominant ideological presumptions and self interest and argued convincingly that no other option is open.
On the part of the tigers, their decision to confront the state forces may be argued as a logical necessity. But such necessity only arose through a series of actions and deals without reference to basic human values. Any political force seen to be respecting truth and justice could have found sounder means to secure its legitimate demands.
We give below the sequence of events pertaining to the conflict as recorded in the press:
8th June: Tigers shot at a military convoy in Vavuniya which ignored orders to stop, killing a corporal and wounding 9 soldiers.
10th June: 300 Tigers surrounded Batticaloa police station after a quarrel over the police assaulting a civilians and proceeded to occupy it.
11th June: Tigers ordered police personnel in the East to vacate all police stations with their families by 2.30 p.m. or to face the consequences. By noon hundred of policemen and their families had streamed into security forces camps and air forces camps. In Batticaloa, Tigers arranged refugee accommodation for Tamil policemen in a nearby school. Sinhalese refugee from a camp were taken air force base.
At Kalmunai tigers engaged an army convoy returning after purchasing provisions, killing 10 soldiers. At Kalmunai and Kalawnachikudi police stations, fierce fighting raged before the policemen surrendered. At Kalmunai, 8 policemen were reported killed. The LTTE had also suffered casualties - 2 killed and 17 injured according to reports.
Most police stations appear to have surrendered without a fight. By the end of the day, the Tigers were in control of 9 police stations - Batticaloa, Vellaveli, Kalmunai, Valachenai, Kalawnchikudi, Samanthurai, Eravur and Akkarapattu.
In the Kalmunai area, a number of policemen who surrendered were driven off to an undisclosed destination. On 17th June, the papers quoted Ranaweera, a policemen who escaped with injuries, saying that he and 113 of his colleagues from Kalmunai police station were lined up and shot. The fact the there was resistance in Kalmunai together with Tiger casualties may have influenced the inexcusable conduct of the Tigers. This in turn would have influenced the conduct of the army when it re-occupied Kalmunai.
On two occasions, 13th and 16th June, ceasefires were agreed to between the LTTE and the government's negotiator, justice minister A.C.S.Hameed. Both these broke down shortly.
The Island of 16th June reported quoting informed sources that 100 Tigers were killed in Trincomalee when the armed forces counter attacked. It failed to add that the tigers were not around during the counter attack.
On the 16th June, the press also reported a press conference given by Minister M.H.Mohamed at his parliament office. The Minister charged the Israeli experts had joined the LTTE to create trouble and turmoil. The paper did not report any significant evidence. Why this influential minister and Senior member of the UNP should raise it at this time was not clear. The Minister is a leading member of the Sri Lanka Arab Friendship society. There was hardly any response to the minister from other members of the government, expect what appeared to be an embarrased silence.The aother parlimentarian who has charged that the Israelis are helping the tigers is Vasudeva Nanayakkara from the left end of the political spectrum. If there is substance to this charge, what is likely is that the Israelis started helping the Tigers about the time President Premadasa began talks with them in April 1989. Such help would then have been in concord with the government's own policy of with the US policy of arming and strengthening them. It would also have been in keeping with the US policy of containing Indian influence. The Israeli Interests Section housed in the US Embassy premises was brought in during 1984 as part of US efforts to help the government find a military solution on the Tamil problem, as against India's aims. The government had the Israeli Interests Section withdrawn earlier this year about the time of the withdrawal of the IPKF. this was reportedly due to Islamic pressure. It would have seemed like getting rid of an awkward ally, while denying him the political price he wanted in return. The United State had conveyed its displeasure at this action.
The sunday Observer of 17th June quoted, President Premadasa as having said in a speech,the Tigers would face the JVP's fate. The same issue in its leading item, filed by a special correspondent from London, claimed that LTTE's strategists had met in London to draw up a master-plan to destabilise Sri Lanka. Kittu was listed as one of the strategists who participated. The plan was obviously an invention on the Observer's part to create war hysteria. According to this plan journalists were not to be encouraged to visit those parts where the LTTE had gone into action. Anyone who knows the LTTE should know that they are far more sophisticated at using the media. Where there had been action there would be reprisals against civilians to report.
On 23rd June President Premadasa opened the grand "Gam Udawa 90" exhibition at Pallekele near Kandy. this brief flash of royal splendor coincided with the President's birth day. It also had a chilling side to it. during the recent upsurge of activity by the JVP, the Pallekele army camp had been successfully raided. In reprisals late last year, the security forces had killed and burnt a large number of villagers. 15,000 security forces personnel were tied up in providing security for the exhibition. This is said to be one reason why any major military initiative in the North was delayed until July.
While the government was using the killing of surrendered policemen by the tigers to claim the moral high ground, it was itself quietly doing something sinister and reprehensible. Shortly after the conflict began, a large number of burning bodies started appearing in the south. Mr. Lakshman Kiriella, S.L.F.P. MP for the Kandy district told a meeting of his party M.P's that 40 bodies a day were appearing by the road sides in the Kandy district. A southern University source said that 27 bodies appeared by the road side at Kuliyapitiya. Other locals have said that civilians had been seen inside the local army camp. these bodies are believed to be those of JVP suspects held at unofficial detention centres, not registered with the ICRC. These were apparently being cleared in preparation for moving army units to the North-East. This says something about the nature of the army that was being sent to wage a moral war in the North-East. [Top]
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