ISSUES SURROUNDING THE WAR
(i) Killings of Sinhalese civilians:
The first reports of killings of Sinhalese civilians by the LTTE during this war appeared in the press on 25th July. The number killed along border areas was put at 37 by the Island of 27th July. 20 had been killed in Medawachchi, including women and children. These killings together with past killings of Sinhalese civilians represent the darker side of Tamil nationalism. It also represents the fatal inability of the dominant Tamil politics to put forward a line to the Sinhalese that expresses respect and concern. Quite often in the past the dominant Tamil forces had restored to massacres of Sinhalese civilians in a bid to escalate the conflict, whenever it was politically cornered. Example are April `87 and October `87. In the first instance the state characteristically responded with punitive aerial bombardment and shelling in Jaffna, thus setting the stage for the Indian intervention.
We must also look at how the state has handled the problem. Throughout the whole year that it had been talking to the LTTE, from April `89, it practically used the LTTE as hit men to destroy other Tamil groups and to embarrass India. Moreover the government's dealings with the LTTE came at a time when it was at a low ebb and was down to killing civil servants and citizen activists who were making life for people a little more tolerable. Instead making the LTTE question its politics, the government used it. Give its own treatment of the Sinhalese, the government was morally unfit to influence the LTTE for the better.
To place the matter in context, there have been many mature Tamil militant leaders, who despite massacres of Tamils by state forces [1983-86] and their own personal encounters with the state, held a strong political line against killing Sinhalese civilians. There were at least two major militant groups who had not indulged in this activity. But the attitudes of the Sri Lankan state and the historical process enveloping events tended to give prestige to mindless extremism on both sides. Those with coherent political ideas fell by the wayside, often in despair.
Killings of Sinhalese and Muslim civilians do mark some of the most shameful episodes in Tamil history. In coming to terms with it, it must be recognised that it is not the young who are principally to blame. Many young, despite their experience have made a conscious and successful effort to see or begin to see, Sinhalese as their people. At the same time, these unspeakable acts are condoned or looked at indifferently in some of the highest circles.
(ii) The Muslim Question
The question has its origins in the downgrading of democratic principles as say reflected in the charter of human rights and determining political influence through a crude ballot box system. In this system being a member of a minority was a server disadvantage. And each community watched the birth-rates of other communities with suspicious eyes. The most influential Tamil community, the Ceylon Tamils form 12 1/2% of the population, Hill country Tamils 5 1/2% and Muslims who are largely Tamil speaking form 7 1/2% of the population. An old dream of several Tamil politicians was to unite these three communities into an influential minority bloc. But the main Sinhalese parties have without too much effort, kept them divided. The CWC which represents the Hill Country Tamils has given crucial support to the ruling UNP, even though its own constituency were victims of race riots. Apart from geographical factors, the three communities had historically divergent interests. Similar problems existed for a single Muslim bloc, controlled by a Colombo based Muslim elite.
The muslim in the East who were a large community living alongside Tamils there, for some time into the 60's elected a number of candidates from the Tamil led Federal Party. But subsequently Muslims here came to be represented by the two national parties, the SLFP and the UNP. In 1984, the state set up agents to foment communal violence between Tamils and Muslims in the East as a means of combating the Tamil insurgency.
Having gone through this history, there developed a strong feeling amongst Eastern Muslims that their interest could not be articulated through any Tamil party or by the two national parties catering mainly to a Sinhalese electorate. This was how the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMS), having its base in the East came into being in the mid 80's. This annoyed not only the Tamil political groups, but also the Colombo based Muslim leadership and the national parties who had garnered seats in the East.
The Tamil parties, most of all the LTTE, regarded the SLMC as creating disunity within the Tamil nation. But this was a short sighted view. The SLMC was to be a party rooted in the East and represented by local people who had reason to try to secure good neighbourly relations with Tamils with whom they had to live and be sensitive to their sentiments. They need not be pawns moved by an elite leadership in Colombo. In this sense the SLMC was beneficial to the Tamils. The provincial council elections in 1988 and the general elections of 1989 proved that the SLMC did indeed have a secure base in the East. In fairness the SLMC it showed a willingness to reach accommodation with the Tamils in the context of a North-East provincial council adequate autonomy for Muslims areas.
The LTTE hostility to the SLMC was ideological in that it claimed to be the sole legitimate representative of all Tamil speaking people in the North-East. The TULF and the EPRLF led provincial administration, at the higher levels, saw the need to reach accommodation with the SLMC and talks were held. But at militant cadre level, antagonism remained. Some of it was based on old prejudices and some of it, the legacy of communal violence in 1984. However, different militant group had their own dealings with different Muslims villages and relations were often smooth. But the general attitude towards Muslims was in the manner of a military force towards the population within its area of influence. This showed through in the events following July 1987.
Muslims suffered repeatedly at the hands of Tamil militant groups. Any sign of self assertion by the Muslims was deemed a provocative act. On 3rd September `87, Mr. Habib Mohamed, the AGA of Mutur was killed. A protest hartal by Muslims in Kalmunai a week later ended with looting and burning of Muslim shops by Tamil militants. In May 1989, the bodies of a few Muslim farmers who had been kidnapped for ransom were dug up. Subsequent violence resulted in refugees on both sides. An IPKF convoy carrying food for refugees was fired at. Both Tamil and Muslim sources identified the persons who did the firing as off-duty Muslim policemen. Both sides have also alleged, possible instigation from higher up. There followed an orgy of looting and burning in Samanthurai by Tamil militants allied to the IPKF.
A finger has often been pointed at the Muslim Jihad. This was a vigilante group whose formation in 1984 was encouraged by the Sri Lankan state. This was never a large organisation and there were probably more Muslims in Tamil militant groups. About 7 members of the Muslim jihad were killed in Samanthurai while doing sentry duty around Muslim areas during the disturbances. Their weapons were nothing more sophisticated than shot guns. The Jihad was never intended to be a serious military force.
By November, the IPKF had pulled out of the southern sector of the Eastern province, leaving the Tamil National Army, the conscript army of mostly unwilling youngsters it had armed, to defend for themselves. The TNA killed a number of Muslims and on 17th November the TNA massacred 40 Muslim policemen and members of the CVF [the provincial police trained by the IPFK with the consent of the government] from Samanthurai, Nintavur and Sainthamathuru. The TNA consisted of panic stricken youngsters confronted with the LTTE and the Sri Lanka forces who were advancing. It has been claimed that they received `advice' to stir up trouble so as to obtain IPKF support.
Once in control, the LTTE banned the SLMC and pressurised leading Muslims to join its political party, the PFLT. Stirring of protest was met with intimidation and strong arm measures. The violence to which the LTTE resorted against Muslim policemen and civilians after the June war broke out, suggest that the LTTE was resentful that its methods were not succeeding.
The government's indifference to complaints by the SLMC when it was close to the LTTE, coupled often with remarks of disrespect, suggest that Muslim self-assertion in the East was as unwelcome to the government as it was to Tamil groups. This puts the Muslims in an unenviable situation.
The manner in which Tamils have mishandled their relations with Muslims, parallels that in which Sinhalese have done theirs with Tamils. It is for the Tamils to make a decisive gesture of reconciliation. The Muslims and the Tamils in the East have to live together. Whatever autonomy the Muslims want is best conceded ungrudgingly. The Muslims have had a difficult time in finding a political direction to articulate their interests. Many, to whom a patronising view of Muslims comes naturally have treated this as a subject of uncharitable humour. Muslim distrust of Tamils goes back a very long time and Tamils need to work very hard to overcome that.The late justice Hussein, an Eastern Province Muslim, once told a Tamil friend: " You people do not question the legacy of Tamil leaders like Sir P.Ramanathan. During the Sinhalese-Muslim riots of 1915 Ramanathan went all the way to England braving German torpedo boats, to plead the case of the Sinhalese with the colonial power. He did not have one word to say for the Muslim victims." Having gone through recent experiences, the feelings of eastern Muslims as a distinct community would have been strengthened. Not to respect this will open the way to further tragedies.
The problem comes back to the question of democracy. We need a politics that stresses principles rather than numbers, where it is no longer a disability to be a minority community.
(iii) The International committee of the Red Cross
In the current war, the ICRC is playing a role in a situation that had been anticipated. The demands made on it soon exceeded what it had been prepared for. It has helped in carrying foodstuffs and medicines to people cut off by war and in maintaining communications. Its rules oblige it to act observing confidentiality with the full consent of both sides. It can report breaches to the parties concerned, but cannot expose them publicly. The ICRC is ideally suited to play a role in what is called `humanising' a war, when a war is fought by conventional armies with recognisable areas of control. In such a war humanitarian services include looking after the interests of prisoners of war.
While gratefully acknowledging the services of the ICRC, it is also proper to examine its limitations. This concerns the main purpose for which the ICRC was brought into this country. The ICRC was brought in at the height of the JVP's insurgency in late September 1989, when the government's human rights record came under international condemnation. Many southern human rights activists charge that the ICRC's role in this context served the purposes of the government rather than the interests of detainees. The time at which the ICRC was invited in just preceded the Sri Lanka aid group meeting in early October 1989. Though the coming of the ICRC raised hopes, nothing notable happened for several months. Bodies continued to appear by the roadside.
Eventually, the ICRC did monitor the 12 or so official detention centers including the big one at Boosa. According to these sources, there were many detainees being held at unofficial detention centers some of them sited within security forces camps and some were private houses. The problem arose with these. When the June war began, these centers had to be cleared to move the forces to the combat Zone. Having told the world that it was now treating prisoners lawfully even to the point of opening its doors to ICRC monitoring, the government now had a problem in acknowledging the existence of other detainees. They associated this problem with the appearance in the South of a large number of burning bodies during the early weeks of the war. The ICRC, they say, is painfully aware of this problem, but must remain silent. If there had been no ICRC monitoring, they say, many of these prisoners at the unofficial centers may have been simply dumped at the regular ones. The relatives of many detainees who banked much on the ICRC have been left feeling bitter.
With the problem of Tamil detainees coming up, these activists have concluded that in this situation the monitoring is best done by persons or organisations who are not inhibited from acting on any information and publicising their findings. While the government accepted an ICRC role, it has shown itself wildly hostile to the Amnesty International.
(iv) The Tamil Militant Groups opposed to the LTTE
These groups have gone through a history of downgrading of their political outlook through militarisation, decimation by the LTTE, being used by India against the LTTE, alienation from the people and often brutalisation. Thus even the EPRLF which kept up a democratic structure as late as 1986 and staved off the kind of internal killings for which some groups became notorious, gave way to some bouts of irrational frenzy against ordinary people when in service of the IPKF. Other disabilities suffered by these groups came from some of their able leaders being systematically targeted and from a loss of a number of their politically sensitive cadre in the process of militarisation. As examples of the first we have the killings of Sundaram of the PLOTE and LTTE associates Iraikumaran & Umaikumaran in 1982, Mano Master of the TELO in 1984 and recently the killings of 13 senior EPRLF leaders in Madras on 19th June 1990.
Whenever state powers or agencies wanted to use any militant group, they tried to use them not as political organisation but as hit squads. Thus the Sri Lankan government which first used the LTTE against these groups would like to reverse the roles, now that it is at war with the LTTE. When the war broke, their first reaction was based on their antagonism towards the LTTE. Again, people became very concerned that these groups had almost nothing to say on the sufferings of Tamil civilians. This state of affairs did not last long. Many of them indicated privately that they were sensitive to civilian sentiments. A number of their MPs did make private representations to the authorities. The first detailed public statement was made in Parliament by an EPRLF member on 19th July. These groups started meeting in Colombo with the aim of adopting a common stand.
These groups also faced an acute dilemma in asserting their independence of the Sri Lankan state. India had finished with them. If they went to the North-East, they would be at the mercy of the LTTE or the Sri Lankan forces. It was difficult for them to stay in the South and oppose the government. They were being given reminders that their help in tracking down the Tigers would be welcome. The killing of 15 PLOTE members in Kalmunai by `unidentified persons' appeared to carry a message. One group sent 8 of its cadre to work with the Sri Lankan forces in Batticaloa. Two of them who were brought back to Colombo on their own insistence said that they could not stomach the terrible sight of Tamils being killed. Another group reportedly sent 25 of its cadre to operate with the state forces in Trincomalee, saying that their presence may help to soften the treatment of Tamil civilians.
The only creative way out for them is to put principles first and come out with the whole truth publicly. Those who wish to lead must first earn the peoples' trust. They have once mismanaged their relations with the people. They can hardly afford to do it again.
(v) The Salient Features of the Current War:
We mention these points about the war because they are intimately concerned with prospects for human rights in this country. A senior general in the Sri Lankan Army has stated that the aim of the Army is to gain the upper hand before a political solution is talked about. This means that until victory is in sight, it is the military aims that will be talked about, while a silence is maintained on the political settlement. For the Tamils the first causes resentment and the second suspicion. Thus both these confer legitimacy to the notion that the government cannot be trusted and must be confronted militarily. As the war becomes vicious with heavy causalities among the forces and civilians, the inhibition against killing Tamil civilians decreases sharply. In turn, this makes the state's propaganda a patently one sided whitewashing affair. Tamil opinion is driven to feel angry and cornered, irrespective of whether or not they approve of the Tigers. With no newspapers and no communication with the outside, except government radio broadcasts and the vague hopes created by broadcasts from Tamil Nadu, people are fed on stories of atrocities by state forces carried by refugees. In their own experience this is confirmed by shelling and aerial attacks which appear purely vindictive. While generous dispatches of food and medicine are announced in Colombo, hardly anything is seen to arrive in the war zone. Patients have to be denied treatment for even routine ailments like dog bite and tetanus. Without facilities for medical care, needless amputations have to be performed on those with shell injuries caused by the state. Children are amongst the worst sufferers. All this is seen to be caused deliberately. The young begin to feel that once the state forces come in, they will be killed. Even those with no love for the current militant cause begin feel that they are left with no alternative.
The militant force through years of experience is geared to take full advantage of every weakness of the state, particularly its unconcern for civilians. The state's often punitive reactions to its killing of Sinhalese civilians strengthens its image as the defender of the Tamil people.
The government forces have paid in heavy causalities to take control of heavily mined and fortified population centers. The Tigers then retreated to jungle sanctuaries where they had built up facilities during the last few months. The spate of disappearances in areas under the control of the state forces, help the spread of fear among the young.
Earlier government boasts about smashing the Tigers and having a quick decision have given way to more sanguinary expectations Casualty figures in 1 1/2 months have climbed to a figure comparable with the 600-700 figure during the campaign of 1984-87. Air support is deemed grossly inadequate to cover co-ordinate guerilla attacked in places far apart. Many more naval craft are thought necessary to cover guerilla transportation routes along the coast and across the Palk Straits. [See The Drive for the North can be Costly' - Rohan Gunasekara, Sunday Island, 29th July]. There are also moves to increase the current military strength of 50,000. The financial and technological requirements of both sides are well beyond the resources of this poor country. This means that the conflict has been effectively internationalised. But the social cost must be paid for here.
Given the Southern mental and political framework from which this war is conducted, creeping disillusionment often leads to an uncritical admiration of the dominant Tamil group, further legitimising its role. It is deemed to speak for all Tamils. We saw this actually happening in 1986-87 and in 1989. Even liberal sections in the South tended to become impatient with any suggestion that human rights violations by this group against civilians deserved serious concern. The tragedies faced by this country during the last few years are the result of this lack of principle.
Just as the government has to come to terms with its limitations, the Tigers too have theirs. The Tamils are a small disillusioned community, lacking the ability to provide man power for a prolonged conflict. Their material capacity to assert independence is very limited. They must depend on the state for food, medicines, electricity, banking salaries etc. The prospects of social collapse and exhaustion are very real. The militants seem to have banked on a couple of quick sensational victories, such as the capture of Jaffna Fort and do not appear to be happy with the way things went. As things progress with no end in sight, it is natural for ordinary people to plead for a reprieve from endless suffering. This is often met with coldness and anger.
A qualitative change for the better can be brought into this conflict only if the state spells out first a reasonable political solution and goes on to give the Tamil people confidence that no harm will come to them. Not only will the conduct of the forces have to change, but tangible guarantees for the safety of the young must be given. Not to do this will be to live through old tragedies once more.
(vi) The Victimisation of Non-Combatant Civilians
The prime example of this was the 1983 race-riots against Tamils and the military campaign conducted by the state during the succeeding years. A large number of Tamil civilians were also killed during the IPKF campaigns lasting 2 years from October 1987.
The first and most sensational killing of Sinhalese civilians was the LTTE's Anuradhapura massacre in May 1985. This was regarded a reprisal for the blasting of 70 Tamil civilians by the army in Valvettithurai a few days earlier. Following the Anuradhapura massacre, the Sri Lankan Navy killed passengers in the boat Kumudhini off Jaffna. In the latter as in the Anuradhapura massacre, women and infants were among the victims. According to militant sources, many of the participants in the Anuradhapura massacre kept having nightmares and formed habits of addiction to forms of stimuli. These set the pattern for future massacres. Apart from reprisals being a motive for massacres, the state wanted to diminish Tamil claims to territory in the Trincomalee and Vavuniya districts. Equally, Tamil militants wanted to make Sinhalese settlements unconducive. Many Tamil civilians were also killed by militant groups.
The massacre of Sinhalese civilians in the East on 5th October 1987, had the distinction that many of the victims were long term Sinhalese residents having good relations with Tamils. It is reported that the area leader in Batticaloa, who was a native of the place, was unhappy with the instructions.
When pro-Indian groups operated under the IPKF, many of the civilian victims were unarmed supporters of the LTTE or citizens' committee members close to the LTTE. During the same period [1988,89], the LTTE's victims were often those having contact with the IPKF, civil administrators and activists and politicians whom it regarded a political threat. Up to the end of this time, family members of persons regarded as enemies for some reason or the other were generally spared. A noticeable qualitative change came with the IPKF withdrawal. Thousands of persons related to members of pro-Indian groups wanted to flee the country. The majority of these civilians were from areas outside Jaffna. The hunt for them was helped by the Sri Lankan navy as they attempted to flee to India in boats. Two boat loads of refugees were reportedly sunk by the Sri Lankan navy off Mannar. A number of refugee families captured at sea were reportedly killed on land, in places such as the cremation grounds at Vathiri. Even loyal LTTE supporters expressed shock.
In the course of the current war Sri Lankan forces have killed a large number of non-combatant civilians. The motive behind the disappearance of the Kalmunai citizens' committee leader appears to be that of suppression of information on activities of the forces. Killings of Muslim civilians have been reported in the press. A small minority of the victims were Muslims associated with the LTTE. At this point it is not possible to say what proportion of the Muslim victims were political activists, ordinary civilians or relatives of Jihad members. The `Sun' of 3rd August reported that the LTTE had killed the father and the son of a Muslim homeguard in Majeedpur, Samanthurai. A number of Tamils have also been reportedly abducted by Muslim homeguards. [Top]
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