1987: THE BUBBLE BURSTS
6.1Retreat to Jaffna
The L.T.T.E. showed little interest in negotiating on the basis of the December 19th proposals. With Prabhakaran's arrival, the public felt that Kittu as Jaffna leader would in due course be eclipsed.
As the year commenced the Special Task Force (S.T.F.) made rapid gains in the East forcing the L.T.T.E. out of several of its strongholds and establishing new camps. Describing the terror of civilians, a member of the Batticaloa citizens committee said:"The S.T.F. was given a blank cheque to kill, assault, torture and imprison civilians. This was used with terrifying effect. Foreign correspondents were kept out."
In the North, outside Jaffna, all areas populated by civilians were overrun by late February and several new camps were established by the Sri Lankan army. The recently built up air power had been used to good effect. India had apparently placed restrictions on the L.T.T.E. acquiring an effective counter to the government's air power. It is noteworthy that the Sri Lankan army's attempt nearly a year earlier, to establish control over the Kilinochchi district had failed when all militant groups were active. A worried L.T.T.E., withdrew most of its men from other areas and concentrated them in Jaffna. Significantly, key L.T.T.E. leaders from other areas, including Mahattaya from Vavuniya, and Radha from Mannar, made their appearance in Jaffna. This meant that the threat to Jaffna was indeed taken seriously.
This brings us to certain aspects of the L.T.T.E.. From 1985 it had been a common feature of all militant groups to attract a following by successfully bringing off sensational military operations. The T.E.L.O. which was considered a marginal group rose to prominence after its colourful attacks on the Chavakachcheri Police Station and on a troop train at Murukandy in December 1984 and January 1985, respectively. What a particular group stood for became, if anything, of marginal interest. As a corollary, the people accepted the role of spectators and often admirers. This reciprocal development went in the direction of the militant groups confining the people rigidly to this role. Advice was seldom taken. The L.T.T.E. went a step further and confined the people to the role of devotees. Those who sensed danger and wished to offer their counsel were silenced with varying degrees of politeness. The reduction of the people to devotees of the political religion of the L.T.T.E. was the culmination of a process begun by the T.U.L.F. in the early 1970's. The F.P. and later the T.U.L.F. had demanded allegiance to one party as embodying the destiny of the Tamil nation. All others were branded as traitors of various shades.
Its own following which the T.U.L.F. could keep in tow with rousing speeches, the L.T.T.E. now had to manipulate by deeds of valour which testified to its virility. The religion of the L.T.T.E. also provided for its devotees the emotional excitement of blood sacrifice. The sacrificial victims were those chosen by chance and sometimes by choice, to die in operations.
It became a regular routine that when some L.T.T.E. member died, wailing music would be broadcast over loud speakers. The roads would be decorated with coconut and plantain trees. Loudspeaker vehicles would go around announcing the deaths in melodramatic tones. Then crowds would file past the coffins by the thousands. Such occasions were used to generate hysterical emotions. This may explain Thileepan's death by fasting two months after the Accord. The L.T.T.E. felt a need to prove that its members were still willing to die and that it had not lost its grip.
Unlike the higher religions which tended towards equality of men and even living creatures, the L.T.T.E.'s religion was hierarchical. The common people counted for little except as devotees. Militants from other groups, whatever their contribution, were counted as criminals or anti-social elements. Only L.T.T.E. members could make sacrifices, be counted as martyrs, and become gods in a heavenly place reserved for them. Such a creed was expressed in one of Thileepan's last statements.
One should not under-rate such a religion which has a resemblance to the official religion of the Third Reich. The power of such a religion to captivate men's minds, make them forget all norms of civilisation and morality and weld them together as a hysterical and destructive force, is enormous. But most Tamil civilians were looking for security. Little did they realise that what the L.T.T.E. was offering them was permanent conflict, destruction and suicide, for accepting which they were not going to be thanked. Events of the coming months were to make this abundantly clear.
Following the Sri Lankan army's rapid advances in January 1987, the L.T.T.E. felt a pressing need to hit back. On the 14th of February an ingenious attempt was made on the Navatkuli army camp. The Andreisz Company which was located next to the Navatkuli camp used to supply drinking water to the Sri Lankan army. The L.T.T.E. took over the company's water bowser and placed charges in its tank, which would explode when the water dropped to a certain level. According to reports the water tank by some freak developed a leak. The bowser was taken into a lane at Kaithady. According to one report a welder was brought to repair the leak. By some accident the bowser exploded. Amongst the ten L.T.T.E. persons killed were three senior leaders, Kugan, Curdles and Vasu. The presence of Kugan who was second in command to Prabhakaran and close to him, suggests that Prabhakaran was in direct command of the operation. Forty civilians were reportedly killed. The operation had to be abandoned. The L.T.T.E. announced the deaths through loud speakers and its notice boards. A disturbing aspect of this announcement was that the civilian deaths were not mentioned.
Even the newspapers gave very little publicity to the civilian deaths. This set the precedent for developments to come. Not surprisingly it may be noted that both the Sri Lankan government and the L.T.T.E. were superstitious. The digits in dates normally chosen by the L.T.T.E. for major operations would add up to five, whereas for the government it would add up to eight. People would normally expect L.T.T.E.'s initiatives on the 5th, 14th and 23rd of a month and government initiatives on the 8th, 17th or 26th of a month.
The government resumed aerial bombing of Jaffna on the 7th of March. A massive barrage of shelling from Jaffna Fort killed 17 civilians at Windsor Theatre junction and injured 50. A shell also fell on the hospital for the first time.
In the early hours of the morning on Monday, 30 March, shells again fell on the Jaffna hospital. Eight patients were killed in Ward 19/20. Two nurses and an attendant were injured. It may be noted that the ward affected was a medical ward having elderly heart patients. It should also be noted here that this shelling was strongly condemned by India. When the National Security Minister suggested that the shell was fired by the L.T.T.E., noting the fact that the shells came from the direction of the Fort, the Indian ambassador J. N. Dixit is said to have remarked sarcastically that the L.T.T.E. has a special shell which goes forward and then turns back.
On the night of 30 March, a bomb was thrown at the L.T.T.E.'s Jaffna leader Mr. Kittu, while he was visiting a friend living on 2nd Cross Street, Jaffna. One of his body guards, a youth from Mannar, was killed. Kittu himself was admitted to the hospital and had one of his legs amputated. The news came out that some prisoners had died on the evening of the following day at the L.T.T.E.'s Brown Road camp. The B.B.C. broadcast a news item which claimed shortly afterwards that a large number of prisoners held by the L.T.T.E. had been killed, following the attempt on Kittu. Some sources put the number at 70. In an atmosphere of mounting rumours, the L.T.T.E. issued a press statement on the 6th of April claiming that prisoners grabbed some weapons and tried to escape and that in the ensuing battle, two L.T.T.E. guards and 18 prisoners were killed. A member of the E.P.R.L.F. who escaped during the incident and later went to Batticaloa submitted an affidavit to the following effect: "Several of us prisoners were kept in a room at the L.T.T.E.'s Brown Road camp. In the evening Aruna (L.T.T.E.'s former Batticaloa leader) burst into the room and opened fire at us with an automatic weapon. Three of us managed to escape through another door and get away. Eighteen were killed during that incident."
Aruna is known to have been close to Kittu. In publishing the L.T.T.E.'s statement on the incident, the Jaffna daily Murasoli, of 6 April, 1987 announced in banner headlines: "18 Criminals killed." This represented new levels of opportunism in journalism. The L.T.T.E. statement had not claimed that the dead were criminals. The L.T.T.E. is believed to have killed several other E.P.R.L.F. members in other camps at the same time. One whose death was widely talked about at that time was E.P.R.L.F.'s Dr. Benjamin, who had worked with refugees. The Saturday Review after consulting a senior member of the L.T.T.E. reported that in all about 50 prisoners were killed. The identities and affiliations of Kittu's would-be-assassins were never revealed.
On 2 April, the attack by the L.T.T.E. on a mini-camp at Valvettithurai was repulsed with the L.T.T.E. suffering five dead. An ambulance carrying five persons injured by shelling from Pt. Pedro hospital to Jaffna was shelled by helicopter at Vallai-veli, killing the patients and the ambulance driver.
A senior figure in Jaffna put across to Minister Thondaman the idea of a cease-fire over the traditional Sinhalese-Tamil new year, to be used to set the scene for negotiations in order to restore peace. Mr. Thondaman asked the cabinet for a fortnight's cease fire. The cabinet agreed to a unilateral cease fire of nine days from 11th - 19th April. This was rejected by V. Prabhakaran who stated that he would consider a cease fire after the 20th of April. It was to be expected that such a response from the L.T.T.E. would have been seen by the outside world as puerile diplomacy bordering on intransigence. Though the senior figure in Jaffna felt that the government's announcement of the cease fire was sincerely intended, Prabhakaran's stand had widespread sympathy from a people who had come to believe that all the blame for the situation lay with the government. The aerial bombing and shelling of the civilian population had made the people deeply distrustful of the government. Reports of government breaches of the cease fire started appearing in the Jaffna press. Given the situation, whenever government forces shelled, it became difficult to determine who provoked and who retaliated.
On 16 April 1987, 150 Sinhalese, many of them civilians returning to Trincomalee after new year festivities at Anuradhapura, were off-loaded from their buses and massacred at Kituluttuwa. The L.T.T.E. was widely blamed and the government claimed that the massacre was led by L.T.T.E.'s Pulendran. Shortly afterwards, on 21 April, a car bomb exploded at the Pettah bus stand in Colombo, killing over 100 civilians. The attack was widely attributed to a Tamil militant group, believed to be either the E.R.O.S. or the L.T.T.E.. International opinion drifted away from sympathy for Tamils, towards approving a Sri Lankan government crack down on Tamil militants.
In the early hours of 22nd April, an L.T.T.E. party under Radha's command attacked the jetty at K.K.S. where cement bags from Lanka Cement Ltd. (L.C.L.) were being loaded into a waiting ship. This is again an example of the L.T.T.E.'s daring and capacity to improvise in order to stage sensational suicidal attacks. These attacks were usually accompanied by a heavy civilian toll and made the government more brutal and intransigent. It put the civilian population in further jeopardy while providing grist for the L.T.T.E. to further its religious appeal. The security precautions at the entrance to the jetty were elaborate. Lorries loaded with cement went North from the L.C.L. plant and had to queue up as they reached the K.K.S. - Keerimalai Road before crossing into the premises of the harbour which were under Sri Lankan army control. As the lorry that had just unloaded came out, the first lorry in the waiting queue crossed the road into the harbour premises. During the crossing a security officer from L.C.L. walked some distance with the lorry. The L.T.T.E.'s plan was a high risk, ingenious strategy and hence unexpected by the army. According to sources within the L.T.T.E., its members compete with each other to volunteer for such suicidal missions.
L.T.T.E. men were hidden in a lorry with a wall of cement bags to disguise it as one going to unload. The lorry was parked in a lane towards the land side, a few yards from the crossing point, but hidden from the army. Calculating that the concentration of the army sentries will be at a low ebb in the early hours of the morning, as a lorry which had finished unloading came out of the harbour, the L.T.T.E. lorry made a dash and got in front of the one which was to enter. This went unnoticed by the army sentries who were poised on the water tank. The L.C.L. security guard was too shocked to react and followed on foot the L.T.T.E. lorry which had been allowed inside.
Once in, the L.T.T.E. men opened fire killing 18 soldiers, and were soon out again. The army was angry. They got hold of five L.C.L. security guards and killed them. One of those killed was Sergeant Mylvaganam, who had earlier been a police sergeant. Another L.C.L. foreman was dragged out of the bathroom and shot. At the time of the attack 70 labourers were employed in loading cement bags at the jetty. Fortunately for them, the Sinhalese ship's captain, fearing reprisals against them, took them aboard and put out to sea. These workers were put ashore several hours later after the captain obtained the assurance that the workers would not be molested. The Sri Lankan government overplayed its propaganda card when it wrapped bullet bands around the bodies of the L.C.L. security officers killed and displayed them on the state television Rupavahini as terrorists killed. Any intelligent viewer would have found the body of 55-year-old Sergeant Mylvaganam with greying hair, appearing as that of a youthful terrorist, too much to swallow. A more intelligent way of lying would have been to avoid the extras and blame the killing of Tamil security officers on the L.T.T.E.. This again indicates how the government treated the whole question as a military problem and was not interested in making overtures to Tamil opinion. This worked to the L.T.T.E.'s benefit.. If the government troops had been disciplined to avoid reprisals against civilians, it could have exposed the futility of the L.T.T.E.'s action. But the government had very different ideas. The next six weeks were to see an unleashing of random impersonal terror against Tamil civilians.
The people of K.K.S. and the workers at the two cement plants had been dismayed by the L.T.T.E.'s action. The L.T.T.E. had given the workers at the cement plants an assurance that it would not interfere with their work. Working relations between the army and the cement plants had been fairly good. The citizens' committees in the area had worked out an unwritten agreement between the L.T.T.E. and the army, allowing the latter free use of the K.K.S. - Palaly Road. This enabled the civilians to stay on in that area. Now all this came to an end. With an increasing number of landmine attacks by the L.T.T.E., the army took to shooting at civilians. Several civilians were shot dead, including Dr. Viswaranjan who was returning home to K.K.S. on 25 April, after working at the Jaffna hospital. This led to the total exodus of civilians from K.K.S., Myliddy and Maviddapuram. On the meaningless suffering of all these people, aided by the Sri Lankan government's intransigent brutality, was built the expanding edifice of the L.T.T.E. religion. The random shelling and aerial bombing of the Tamil civilian population commenced on 22 April. Emotional support for the L.T.T.E. increased. People asked what India was doing. A senior Indian official told a newspaper editor, that after the Pettah bomb blast and the Kituluttuwa massacre, India had lost the moral right to protest. The destructive policies of the L.T.T.E. and the Sri Lankan government received mutual sustenance from each other.
The people around K.K.S. had for a year tried a policy of live and let live with both the L.T.T.E. and the Sri Lankan army. Through its supporters within the cement plants the L.T.T.E. had enjoyed some privileges there. A workshop engineer had resigned and gone abroad in January 1987 after an L.T.T.E. party gave him their "first warning." The engineer's professional pride did not allow him to give in to certain demands. He had also been alarmed by the readiness with which people played with the safety of their colleagues for the sake of power and influence. The policy of live and let live without a principled stand was doomed to failure. The cement plants were closed on 22 April.
Another incident which influenced the local mind was the landmine attack by the L.T.T.E. on an army patrol on 25 March 1987. Subsequently the severed foot of a Sri Lankan soldier with a boot on it was exhibited successively at the Maviddapuram temple and Tellipallai junction. For its part the Sri Lankan army shelled these two places on successive nights. On the first night a temple priest lost his leg. At Tellipallai junction, Mr. Venugopal was killed. On the 31 March, the L.T.T.E.'s Jaffna leader Mr. Kittu lost a leg in a grenade attack. Many of the Hindu folk at Maviddapuram, steeped in a belief in karma, formed their own conclusions. Nevertheless, the exhibition of gore had attracted sizeable crowds. This followed the exhibition of the dead bodies of nine Sri Lankan soldiers at Kandasamy Kovil four months before. There was taking place a transformation of sensibilities. Many Hindus were disgusted, but silent.
The Sri Lankan government commenced random shelling of the civilian population in Jaffna, together with aerial bombing on 22 April. One could hear shells falling in quick succession in widely separated places, usually around 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Most would quickly take their families into the house or into a trench if they had one, and say their prayers. The aerial bombing was often off the mark. The Sri Lankan air force tried four times to bomb an L.T.T.E. camp in Pt. Pedro situated in the crowded market area, and finally finished the job with a bulldozer a month later, after taking over Vadamaratchi at the end of May. About a hundred civilians were killed up to 26 May as a result of the bombing and shelling.
On the 1st of May, the L.T.T.E. defied the government ban on May day processions countrywide, and organised a massive rally commencing at Urumpirai junction, and ending with a public meeting at Kandasamy Kovil. Vans, buses and lorries were commandeered and were used to ferry people from distant places. L.T.T.E. cadres knocked on doors and asked people to come. Some flatly refused. Others went with varying combinations of consent and fear. The majority who went, did so willingly or out of curiosity.
At the meeting, the L.T.T.E.'s rising star and Kugan's brother, Yogi, gave a rousing speech. It was a frank statement of what the L.T.T.E. was offering its subjects. Yogi said: "Even if 35 lakhs  1 should die, we will not be deterred from our goal of Tamil Eelam." He went on to indicate that a small fraction of the present population of Tamils is enough to people the state of Tamil Eelam. Few were alarmed by such frankness. The Tamil man was far from being suicidal, although the L.T.T.E.'s critics had come to term its brand of politics, cyanide or suicide politics. The Tamil man very much loved material security. (Curiously, the L.T.T.E. again and again stressed the need to safeguard territory. There was no corresponding stress on safeguarding life.) The fact that nearly every household in Jaffna had constructed an air raid shelter at an average cost of Rs. 1000/- showed that they were unlikely candidates for suicide. For sometime, disenchantment with the manner of the L.T.T.E.'s campaign and its indifference to the fate of civilians had been expressed by affected people from Mannar, the Eastern Province and parts of Jaffna. These had fallen on deaf ears amongst articulate folk in suburban Jaffna. For many, the manner in which the L.T.T.E. had ruled Jaffna was acceptable. There were disappearances -- a minor problem. But people could make money unmolested. Travel agents, employment agencies, those who ran coach services to Colombo, and contractors continued to make their money. The coach operators and the L.T.T.E. found it mutually advantageous to cut train services to Colombo. (Coach fares came down from Rs. 200/- to Rs. 65/- when train services resumed after the Accord. The Sri Lankan army too had good relations with the operators.) But now was approaching a time when all this might have to change and misery was going to be the common lot. When the L.T.T.E. started proceeding alone in May 1986, it had offered the people of Jaffna, "order within and security from attacks by the Sri Lankan forces." This worked well for a while, but had crumbled with time.
The Sri Lankan army had been tightening its noose by the establishment of new camps at Vasavilan, Kattuvan and Mandaitivu over the months. The Sri Lankan strategy was simple. It would create diversions from various points, such as Jaffna, Pt. Pedro, Kayts, V.V.T., Elephant Pass and Palaly. One of these would be the real column that would advance under air cover and establish a new camp. Even in the latter half of 1986, support from the E.P.R.L.F., E.R.O.S., P.L.O.T.E. and T.E.A. had been crucial in countering the Sri Lankan advance, though the L.T.T.E. hated to admit it. The counter-strategy developed by the militant groups was to have sentries posted with walkie-talkies. When an advance was sighted, the main body of fighting men, who would be mobile in pickups and mini-vans, would be summoned. This was effective up to a point. But in 1987, the L.T.T.E. was clearly over-stretched. When the Sri Lankan army advanced to Kattuvan on 28 February with just one covering helicopter, hardly any resistance was offered. According to a resident of that area, the sentry had radioed Kittu for reinforcements. He was aghast when Kittu simply ordered him to chase the army back.
On an earlier occasion, the army had attacked Kattuvan by land and air, causing the L.T.T.E. sentry to flee. The army then withdrew. In the evening Kittu arrived on the scene in his car. He left his men and walked alone into the dusk. The short and balding figure sat down by himself to reflect, his brow furrowed. He had dispatched tens of C.I.A., Mossad and C.I.D. agents in his time, without giving it any more thought than he would in deciding to have a cup of tea. Here was the man, who during the Vijitharan affair kept the University dons awestruck, while he poured out his contradictions. Their silence was as if to say, "Yes, General." The highest in Jaffna had waited on him. He had played with the lives of others and had gambled with his own. Mendis, his own friend and Jaffna leader of the P.L.O.T.E., had died in his custody. Friendship did not stand in the way of such things. Amongst his men, there were those who resented his flamboyance. But in battle, they trusted his leadership as few others' was trusted. We may never know what passed through his mind. For the first time, perhaps, he was a worried man. Did he have a premonition that his rising star would soon have its setting?
Perhaps, the development of the L.T.T.E. leadership is related to something deeply ingrained in the human psyche appearing in the evolution myths of ancient lore. Many of the L.T.T.E. leaders had lived like the ancient gods. Like Wotan in Niebelung's Ring and Keat's Hyperion, gods who reach their limits of action must wish for self annihilation. This is probably just a fancy that may explain one aspect of their development. Motives are complex things and the L.T.T.E. leadership was moving in several directions at the same time. Many of its leaders, Mahattaya, Kittu and Kumarappa, were either married or were on the verge of it. Their leader Prabhakaran was the father of two. The leadership had also demonstrated on several occasions that it was interested in an arrangement where it would have settled power. In late 1986 Kittu had made overtures to leading personalities and the media in the South. There had been a good deal of comings and goings and much secret talk. After the Accord of July 1987 much of the L.T.T.E.'s performance had been a bid for power. The agreement reached with India during secret negotiations at the the time of the fast, talked almost exclusively of power. In fact, they wanted exclusive power, and to this end, they pushed their gambler's luck to the brink. But the five demands put forward during Thileepan's fast to death, of September 1987 had nothing about demands for power. When the L.T.T.E. wanted something, it was prepared to play with the lives of its own men and with those of civilians. The impasse resulting from the suicide in custody of 12 L.T.T.E. members on 5 October 1987 and the subsequent massacre of Sinhalese, was part of a pattern. By provoking a crisis the L.T.T.E. seemed to hope for a decisive outcome, with perhaps help from Tamil Nadu. Their message seemed to say: "Accept our terms, for if you try anything else, we can sour things for you."
When India took on the L.T.T.E., Prabhakaran said in a message: "We have been forced into fighting to protect ourselves. India must assume full responsibility for harm resulting to the people." This was indeed, a most queer stand for someone who claimed leadership and on whom it fell to protect the people. The war dragged on. After the worst killing was over, the L.T.T.E.'s deputy leader Mahattaya, in a letter to the Indian authorities, sued for an end to the fighting. A key demand was a return to the status quo of 28 September which offered 7 out of 12 places on the interim council for the L.T.T.E.. Behind all the gore and the Homeric drama, there was a bid for something tangible -- namely power. There were the usual somersaults of traditional politics. For this reason it will be wrong to romanticise the L.T.T.E.. Every human being is ridiculous most of the time. Lord Byron, the most romanticised poet, confesses this frankly in his work Don Juan.
At the same time, the leaders of the L.T.T.E. were proud men. They were proud of what they had achieved and did not like being trifled with. India recognised this up to a point. The Tigers were prepared to risk all they had in pursuit of a goal, in addition to risking everyone else. The religious element in the L.T.T.E. has already been mentioned. They also invoked other gods. Kittu was a pious Hindu, who was also given to lighting candles at Christian shrines. The element of calculation increased, the higher one went up the hierarchy. At the bottom, there was an unquestioning religious zeal facilitated by the impressionable boyishness of the new recruits.
In May 1986, the L.T.T.E.'s admirers in Jaffna viewed them as a military force which offered them physical and material security. Between January and May 1987, a series of military reverses ensured that this offer was no longer good. The L.T.T.E. had compensated for this by substituting a religious appeal. When Yogi announced on 1 May 1987 that even if 35 lakhs die, they would stay their course until Eelam is achieved, people took it as the metaphorical expression of a religious sentiment. This was after all common enough in these parts. Politicians in the South had sworn to fight India down to the last drop of their blood. Even those members of the public who were the L.T.T.E.'s most ardent supporters did not relish the thought of departing this world. Yet they applauded. That the prospect of mass suicide was being seriously held out by the L.T.T.E. did not really sink in. The L.T.T.E.'s saying one thing and the public hoping for and understanding something else, was to have several more repetitions. No one looking back can complain that the L.T.T.E. had not made itself clear. The May day rally was held in the precincts of the Nallur Kanthasamy temple. The choice of venue itself was a sign of things to come. A massive crowd, numbering several tens of thousands had been brought to Kanthasamy Kovil in defiance of a government ban. The possibility of a shell attack from the Fort or firing from a helicopter was very real. Had this happened the scene of disaster would have made good propaganda. The fortunate fact that sanity prevailed and such an attack did not take place was again publicised as a victory for the L.T.T.E.. It had successfully defied a ban which was observed in the rest of the country. Either way the L.T.T.E. would have won. Yogi's words literally meant that the human cost was immaterial. Civilian casualties were used for propaganda abroad. But inside, L.T.T.E. casualties were announced with religious fanfare, while civilian casualties received scant attention.
6.2 The Navaratne episode
It was now clear to many that the Sri Lankan government was preparing to launch an offensive to recapture the entire peninsula. Few doubted that they would succeed. The prospect of the entire Jaffna peninsula being turned into a refugee camp, like the Eastern Province, was very real. Several persons felt that a group of leading citizens should talk to the L.T.T.E., with a view to persuading them of at least talking to the government on the basis of the December 19th proposals. There were at this time several channels of communication between the government and the L.T.T.E.. One of these was the editor of the Saturday Review, Mr. Gamini Navaratne. He had been the editor of the English Weekly published from Jaffna during the crucial period which followed the 1983 riots. Being Sinhalese, his role was a delicate one in which he was often misunderstood. Having been a lobby correspondent he knew the senior parliamentarians well. He had the ability and guts, to push his luck to the edge in publishing news of human rights violations by the government. Unlike editors in the West, Mr. Navaratne was aware that restrictions were placed on journalism by the contending parties to the conflict, all of whom had much to hide. He was keen that the truth should somehow be brought out, and in this his performance was well above the standards in this country. While being critical of Jayewardene's handling of the ethnic crisis, Mr. Navaratne did have an affectionate regard for him. He did look upon certain of the militant leaders with a paternal affection. Among them were Kittu and Raheem of the L.T.T.E., the E.R.O.S. leader, Balakumar, and the late Dr. Benjamin of the E.P.R.L.F.. He often expressed the feeling that the boys had done a great job in standing up to the Sri Lankan forces, and yet they were just boys who needed help in the form of mature counsel. The December 19th proposals, he felt, were a reasonable basis for negotiations, and that unless a settlement was reached fast, Jaffna would collapse under the strain. No doubt, events proved him right. He was forthright in expressing these views, which were accepted by a section of the public. But another uncharitable section of the public were deeply suspicious of him. In the highest circles in Jaffna he was accused of being an agent of one kind or the other including being J. R.'s agent. Now that Kittu and Raheem were under a cloud the leadership of the L.T.T.E. was suspicious of him. Mr. Navaratne's recent attempts to talk to the L.T.T.E., regarding the December 19th proposals had met with rebuffs. Where others had taken the hint, Navaratne was not so easily put off.
On 11 May, a group of persons met independently at the university to discuss an approach to the L.T.T.E. with a view to averting the looming prospect. Navaratne heard of this meeting and arrived at the university. He spent a few minutes giving his views on the subject and went away after wishing them luck. It was on this occasion that the full extent of the L.T.T.E.'s spy network at the University was revealed. A highly fanciful rumour was sent out by some senior persons to the effect that Mr. Navaratne was at the University to organise a petition against the L.T.T.E., that was to be presented at the S.A.A.R.C. Editors' Conference. It was a shocking revelation that both amongst the staff and students, colleagues were spying on colleagues, with little thought of the possibility that they might put their colleagues in grave danger. Navaratne was followed and placed under arrest by a medical student. The manner of his arrest was disrespectful and gave no consideration to his invaluable services. After an investigation led by Mahattaya himself, the L.T.T.E. was convinced that they had been fed with bad information, by some of their so-called senior advisors. Mr. Navaratne was released four days later. It was a sign of the wretched state of Jaffna that in the face of disaster, some of its elites could do no better than to cast speculative aspersions on a man who, after all, believed that he was doing something for the people. Several months later, after the L.T.T.E. had lost its position of control in the wake of the Indian offensive, some in the L.T.T.E. recognised the value of independent journalism. A high ranker in the L.T.T.E. told a senior citizen that they would like Mr. Navaratne to continue his editorial work in Jaffna. The senior citizen replied: "Had Mr. Navaratne been here on the night of 5th October, you would have made a bonfire of him in the Jaffna Hindu College grounds." The 5th of October was the night when the L.T.T.E. launched a manhunt against Sinhalese residents in Jaffna.
6.3 The closing of Jaffna Hospital
Another episode pertaining to this period was the government's attempt to close down Jaffna hospital. A letter from the Ministry of teaching hospitals dated 27 April reached the hands of the Medical Superintendent, Jaffna, on 3 May. This letter contained an order for him to close the Jaffna hospital by the 8th of May. This was a sign that the government was getting ready for an offensive. The government had received bad publicity on account of shells falling on Jaffna hospital and the casualties resulting from it. Many of the doctors admitted that given the army's order to fire back when fired upon, it was inevitable that even if the army commanders were careful, shells fired from the Jaffna Fort would fall on Jaffna hospital. The army had the unenviable task of maintaining a mere presence in Jaffna. For the rest, the soldiers were cooped up and vulnerable to missiles fired from outside. In January 1986, the army was ordered to retaliate with cannon, up to a radius of 1 kilometre from the Jaffna fort. The commercial hub of Jaffna and the hospital fell within this distance. This marked an escalation of the conflict in terms of civilian cost. By the middle of 1986, shells had been aimed at targets 3 miles from the Fort. One aimed apparently at an L.T.T.E. camp killed the bridegroom and the bride's father when it exploded amidst a wedding party. As time went by the shelling acquired a more indiscriminate character. Snipers too were brought in later. Several ordinary citizens getting about Bankshall Street and K.K.S. Road fell victim to snipers. One army officer, regarded as a considerate man, told a Tamil friend that they would sometimes watch from the fort in the night in a state of fear. When they sometimes observed fire directed at the Fort, it could easily appear to come from the hospital. At the same time the staff at the hospital had obtained from the militants a guarantee that their premises would not be used to fire at the army and were certain that the guarantee had been honoured. But in such a volatile environment, the danger to the hospital was there. A rational way out of it would have been a truce in the Fort area. But when lethal means are available, rationality tends to go out of the window. Cannon came in handy when the army was in a bad temper and wished to take it out on the civilians.
The press in Jaffna mentioned only the shelling by the army. But many journalists would admit that there was also constant provocation by firing things into the Fort. If the L.T.T.E.'s conduct during the hospital crisis of May 1987 did anything at all, it added weight to the suspicion that its attitude towards civilians was basically cynical.
Cynicism was widespread in this conflict and was in the long run destructive to all who employed it. If a landmine went off in a remote village, the army would hit the civilians hard in the hope that it would destroy the militants' support base. One way or the other the militants would welcome the government action as bringing in additional support for their cause. It was an extension of July 1983. A case of how this cynicism deepened enmity between groups was that of a young member of the E.P.R.L.F. from Batticaloa. He was travelling along Hospital Road, when he got a bullet in the back. This would normally have been associated with a sniper in the Fort. This boy later said in hospital, that he had looked back as he lost consciousness and fell down. He had only seen L.T.T.E. sentries. He claimed that the bullet extracted from his body was not from a sniper rifle but was fired from an M-16. Rightly or wrongly he had formed his conclusions and was extremely bitter.
The order to close Jaffna hospital gave rise to widespread shock and panic. This came at the height of indiscriminate shelling resulting in casualties, who but for Jaffna hospital would have faced death. The Tellipallai and Pt. Pedro hospitals too had been hit by shells, and after the shelling of an ambulance from Pt. Pedro on 4 April, the transport of patients became a precarious activity. The short supply of petrol added to the complications. By 6 May, Jaffna had virtually become a ghost town. Shops shifted their goods and residents fled their homes. This too was a tricky affair. Those lucky enough to rent a house in the interior had to move again on discovering that the house had once been a militant camp. Such places were considered fair game for Sri Lankan bombers. The hospital started discharging most of its patients from Monday the 4th of May. It is a tribute to the grit of the common man that most services kept functioning during this fearsome period. The banks remained open for a few hours in the mornings. Life went on against a background of shell blasts and firing from L.T.T.E. sentries.
Mrs. Sivapakiam Nadarajah, a long term resident in front of Jaffna hospital, was on 5 May, packing her things to send them away to Chavakachcheri. One then witnessed the amazing spectacle of a milkman, who calmly dismounted from his bicycle and rang his bell for someone to fetch the milk. He then lazily looked up at the sky and at the twittering birds on the trees. His whistling could be heard between shell blasts. Three shells fell only 90 minutes later on a building opposite the new Out-Patients' Department (O.P.D.) in the hospital, about 40 yards to the West of Commercial bank. This demonstrated the kind of risk involved. That the thought of death was writ large on people's minds was evident. Asked how he came to terms with coming to work given the risk involved; Mr. Arul Gnanaseelan, an employee of the Commercial Bank said: "I trust in God and come to work. If He has a purpose in keeping me alive, I will live. If it is time for me to go, it is in His hands." Mr. Mohanachandran, another milkman, said, covering his anxiety with a smile, that distributing milk had become a cumbersome business. When he went to the homes of some of his customers, he had to ring his bell for a long time and wait on the road listening to the music of the shells. This was because many of his customers were inside trenches. During a slight pause, the customer would cautiously emerge, make a dash for the gate, collect his milk in a pan and then beat an unceremonious retreat. He added: "I too spend the nights in a trench with my family in Kopay. One must understand the feelings of those soldiers too. They must be feeling pretty rotten after the Pettah bomb blast and the Kitul-uttuwa massacre." The people of Jaffna can be proud, that amongst the humble ranks of its milkmen, can be found the right material for the world's most intrepid war correspondents.
In the meantime, representatives from amongst the hospital authorities and the G.M.O.A. (Government Medical Officers Association) went to Colombo to make representations concerning the case for Jaffna hospital. Even before the closure threat, the region's largest hospital with 1150 beds, was down to having 550 patients. The main body of the G.M.O.A. in Colombo was sympathetic to the need to keep Jaffna hospital open. So was the Ministry for Teaching Hospitals, which had even earlier argued against the closure. In consequence of their discussions with the L.T.T.E., the doctors from Jaffna felt that the L.T.T.E. would go along with any reasonable arrangement to keep the hospital open. The L.T.T.E. did have sound military reasons for keeping the hospital open. If the hospital was to be closed, the town would be abandoned. For, this would remove all restrictions placed on Sri Lankan military activity. The L.T.T.E. would thus lose the civilian cover which made it possible for it to maintain a presence around Jaffna Fort. When the news of the closure order came, the L.T.T.E. backed a demonstration in which a large number of medical students took part. The demonstrators demanded that the hospital staff should defy the closure order and stay put. Some suggested that if the hospital was shelled and some doctors got killed, it would so much the more embarrass the Sri Lankan authorities. The doctors pointed out that things may not work that way. A shell for instance could fall at a harmless distance away from a ward, causing a patient a minor cut. The patients would then promptly desert the hospital, effectively closing it. The hospital staff would then have nothing to show for defying their ministry. The L.T.T.E. by all accounts was worried.
In Colombo, the Jaffna Hospital doctors received crucial support for their cause from the Indian High Commission. Given the wide ranging pressure, the President and the National Security Minister agreed to lift the closure order if a fire-free zone could be negotiated around the hospital between the L.T.T.E. and the Sri Lankan army. For while the G.M.O.A. accepted the word of the Jaffna doctors that the hospital to the best of their knowledge had not been used to fire at the Jaffna Fort, the National Security ministry stood by the contrary. It was then felt that such an agreement of a fire free zone would solve the problem. This was a victory for common humanity. In their enthusiasm, the doctors took it upon themselves to arrange such negotiations. It was agreed that the telephone link between the fort and the hospital would be restored and that Captain Kotelawela who had previously developed a rapport with Kittu, Rahim and some other L.T.T.E. leaders would be available at the Jaffna Fort on the afternoon of 10 May. Hopes rose high. One of the Jaffna newspapers got wind of this from what was thought of as a private talk and stated that the planned negotiations were announced at a press conference at the hospital.
At this point the L.T.T.E. pounced on the doctors. They were found fault with for arranging meetings for the L.T.T.E. without their authority. Further, they said, it was through the press that they were being informed of this meeting. Apart from a possible technical blunder involving the press, the doctors felt that they were acting for the common good. No commitment at this time was forthcoming from the L.T.T.E.. Later the doctors learnt from Captain Kotelawela that he had contacted the L.T.T.E. independently and had arranged to meet with them the following morning. Captain Kotelawela further added that he had come on "multiple missions" and had not sounded as if the hospital matter was amongst the key subjects. It was learnt the following morning that the L.T.T.E. had not kept its appointment, assuming there was one, with the Captain who had been kept impatiently waiting. Subsequently the L.T.T.E. put forward a demand that since it could not trust the government, it was willing to talk if 5 persons nominated by them would be present. These included Dr. Ratnapriya, National Secretary of the G.M.O.A., and the Rev. Fr. Yohan Devananda. The L.T.T.E. should have known that its demand that a representative of the International Red Cross, the I.R.C., should be present would not be met. The government agreed to 4 of the delegates and added that while it cannot admit an I.R.C. representative, the L.T.T.E. could choose anyone else from this country it could trust. The doctors suggested that the L.T.T.E. could as a compromise, suggest an employee of the Indian High Commission.
The L.T.T.E.'s effective rejection was protracted. In the meantime, the matter had received so much publicity that the government found itself unable to go ahead with the closure of the hospital. The L.T.T.E. had played its characteristic game, abusing the good intentions of the Jaffna doctors, the goodwill of the G.M.O.A., and the residual decency in the government to gain its own ends. For the moment the L.T.T.E. had won. It was to try the same gamble during Thileepan's fast in September, win for a start, and then lose by overplaying its hand. For the Sri Lankan government, it was the end of the road for negotiations which it had tried perhaps half-heartedly in deference to international opinion and some members of its cabinet. It had strengthened its drive for a military solution to its Tamil problem by silencing critics within and showing up the L.T.T.E. as implacable and irresponsible in the eyes of the world. In this sense the Sri Lankan government had not lost. For its part, the government had not behaved as though it was dealing with human beings over whom it claimed sovereignty. Even the Geneva convention provided for far better treatment during war for the population on the opposing side. A senior citizen with personal contacts at the Indian High Commission, said at this time that India was not more than nominally interested in pushing the December 19th proposals. It would appear that India was building up a case for direct intervention of some kind. The decision was taken perhaps, sometime between January and May 1987. When the Sri Lankan government had launched an offensive earlier in the year, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India had warned that if a political solution is not reached, the level of violence in Sri Lanka "will" increase. The message was not lost in Colombo. The L.T.T.E.'s actions, together with the government reprisals against the Tamils, had served to build up India's case.
In one respect, the support received by the Jaffna doctors for their cause from the Indian High Commission was fateful, as events proved. During the Indian offensive on Jaffna later in October that year, the Jaffna hospital authorities assumed that because India had in the past been a friend of the hospital, she would exercise extreme consideration for the hospital during the offensive. As it turned out, the need for the hospital had been as great in October as it had been in May. Several hundred persons, ordinary men, women and children, who were victims of Indian shelling were in need of urgent medical care. When the Indians took Jaffna town on 21st October, there were no signs that they had given any thought to the hospital.
A medical Consultant, reflecting on the events of May in light of October's harrowing experiences, said: "One can now appreciate the National Security Minister, Lalith Athulathmudali's wanting to close Jaffna Hospital. He knew that if an attempt was to be made to take Jaffna, while advancing from the Fort, something embarrassing was bound to happen at the hospital. Having faced bad publicity over the years, the Sri Lankan government was used to thinking along these lines. The Indians did not seem to have a clue." Another Consultant-Professor on the same subject said: "We should have closed the hospital on 11 October. But people are concerned about patients and they are used to cutting it fine. By their past concern, the Indians had encouraged us to do this."
On the other hand, the Sri Lankan government had learnt much from this experience of May. When they launched Operation Liberation three weeks' later, they took extreme care over Pt. Pedro hospital. The Sri Lankan army was helped in this by the fact that the L.T.T.E. had withdrawn from the area around Pt. Pedro hospital a day before the army advanced from Nelliady. The Indian army did not have this advantage. One should be careful not to make comparisons from this. A few months earlier the Sri Lankan air force had bombed the hospital at Adampan. Adampan was a remote area in the Mannar district. The operation in Jaffna, thanks in part to India, had to be done under the spotlight of international publicity. The difference between Adampan and Jaffna was well understood by the Sri Lankan government. If the L.T.T.E. had learnt anything, it was the value of bad publicity for the other side. During the Indian offensive of October, the L.T.T.E. would itself commission lawyers to obtain affidavits from victims, for whose misfortune, the L.T.T.E. must itself share the responsibility.[Top]
Home | History
| Briefings | Statements
| Bulletins | Reports
| Special Reports | Publications
Copyright © UTHR 2001