Chilling stories from Sri Lanka

From Frontline, India's national magazine from the publishers of The Hindu.

COLOMBO -- In the third week of November, it would be 11 weeks since the Sri Lankan government ordered United Nations agencies and international non-governmental organisations out of areas controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the North. The ostensible reason for the orders was that the government could not take any chances with the security of international aid workers following the escalation of hostilities between the government forces and the LTTE.

The government reasoning has raised concern about the well-being of innocent civilians trapped in the war zone. After all, if the all-out war posed a threat to the liberty and life of aid workers, what would be the fate of an estimated 2.5 to 3 lakh internally displaced people (IDP) in the Wanni?

Innumerable sanctimonious statements have come from government functionaries about the supreme focus of the Army to wage the war with zero human casualty and ensure a steady supply of essential commodities to the internally displaced, at the least at the minimum level of subsistence. But is it practicable? How has it worked on the ground in the last eight or so weeks? The Wanni has been deprived of independent observers to monitor the ground situation (barring the four forays by U.N. observers for a few hours accompanying food and medicine convoys).

Herein lies the enormous significance of Special Report 31 of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), or UTHR-J, released on October 28. The UTHR-J, whose reports are based on grassroots inputs from a band of relatively unbiased observers, has an impeccable track record in collating facts and figures to the extent possible in a battle situation. The organisation has acquired a reputation that is hard to tarnish. It is known to call a spade a spade and is never deterred by the Tigers’ terror tactics. Hence the latest UTHR-J report, titled “Pawns of an un-heroic war”, makes chilling reading. Neither the LTTE nor the Mahinda Rajapaksa government makes a pretty picture of itself, while the miseries of ordinary citizens are painted completely on the UTHR-J canvas.

“We give a few cases here to show that, if anything, the human rights situation is deteriorating with signs of it getting worse. We do not minimise the importance of complete documentation. But the task is so demanding that it needs to be undertaken by organisations with dedicated resources. It may not even be possible in the current climate of terror. Inquiring into an individual case is much more demanding and frustrating than it was two years ago and one is left with the uncomfortable feeling of being a source of danger to someone. One feels truly humble before those who are willing to expose violators under these perilous conditions,” the UTHR-J notes in its summary of the latest report. Despite the categorical and candid nature of the revelations, the contents of the report have to date not been contested either by the government or by the Tigers. That is cause for serious worry.

A question uppermost in the minds of Sri Lanka-watchers since the current state of siege in the Wanni is about the way civilians have coped with the Tigers, on the one hand, and the advancing military and its periodic aerial bombardment, on the other. The UTHR-J report makes some startling observations:

“The people’s relationship with the LTTE is complex. The general mood among the people was strongly anti-LTTE four months ago, and resistance continues. But with increased aerial bombing and shelling and stories of increasingly repressive treatment of minorities coming from other parts of the country, the mood is changing.

“We have seen this happen repeatedly from 1987. But the fact that a large number of unwilling persons have been conscripted to fight must have an adverse internal impact within the LTTE. Resistance to the LTTE is either passive or tragically fatalistic. Our sources affirmed that a few girl conscripts used their weapons to kill themselves, but were unable to give more details. The girls found the militaristic environment and the injunction to kill utterly unbearable. On further inquiry, we were assured that such things do happen, as people hear when they move around areas where battles are fought and meet LTTE cadre who talk. What is more significant, they said, was inexperienced new conscripts faced with the terrible sensation of battle and deafening explosions around them, taking refuge in their cyanide capsule or their own bullet.”

On the influential clergy, the report notes that a number of Christian churches in the Wanni are stridently pacifist. But as a group, they were unable to resist conscription of their young. When one of their young dies in battle, the ministers of the churches and the Pentecostal faith have preached at funerals that God in his mercy took away these young people to spare them the pain of killing others. “Young conscripts, who resist the LTTE as conscientious objectors, are liable for heavy punishment. For this reason, several of them have taken personal vows and informed their parents and guides not to worry on their account as in whatever situation they find themselves, they have sworn not to kill, but are ready to be killed instead,” the report says.

The UTHR-J further observes that the LTTE had a large camp at Moonru-Murippu, now overrun by government forces. The camp had scores of metal cages, with pointed wires extending inside. Conscripted persons who refused to fight were shut inside. “The pointed wires ensured that they had to stand in a bent position and get pricked if they tried to move. They were let out only when they agreed to the LTTE’s demands. These cages had, during the ceasefire, been used to coerce people, particularly businessmen abducted for extortion. By October 2008, the LTTE had once again become very aggressive in conscription. They visited families with lists provided by Village Headmen (GS [gram sevak] officers). For a family with three or four children, they demanded two fighters; one for a family with two; and none for a family with one. The general attitude of the populace now is not to quarrel with the LTTE. They figure that many of those who objected to conscription had been placed on the front line and are dead. But many of those who joined without resistance have been placed in safer areas and have survived. Since early September, sources from the Wanni say that the LTTE has conscripted 9,000 ‘very young’ persons who are now under training,” the report says.

It asserts that a large number of desertions have been reported from LTTE circles; recently about 250 cadre ran away and are hiding in the jungle. Three of them are very senior and as per the report, many of the LTTE conscripts are desperately trying to identify escape routes to the government-controlled area. The report observes:

“After the Army announced safe areas for civilians in East Wanni in Viswamadu (Vattakachchi and Dharmapuram) and Oddusuddan, by 9th October, the civilians were moving towards these areas. Yet their utility remains questionable without agreement from the LTTE and the absence of a sufficient number of neutral monitors. A section of the civilians, both natives of Kilinochchi district and those who came from further south, had plans of moving to Jaffna in fishing boats that came from Jaffna. Around September end, nearly 2,500 of them had gathered in Ruthirapuram, three miles north-west of Kilinochchi, with plans of crossing the lagoon to Jaffna. At this time, there was a wave of bombing and shelling around Kilinochchi, in which the LTTE political office was hit. A shell fell in Ruthirapuram, injuring a girl in her 30s.

“The LTTE came there and wanted to shift the people to the East Wanni. Some people objected saying that they want to go to the government-controlled area. The LTTE named a large sum of money adding that if anyone would pay that sum, they could pay and go. The people were then shifted to the east. Apart from the LTTE stopping them, there are other pressing reasons why families are reluctant to flee from the Wanni. Many of their children have been conscripted and are either dead or serving on the battle lines. As far as the government is concerned they are marked, irrespective of the fact that their children were forcibly removed. Once in the government-controlled area, they would be photographed, confined to camps and paraded before masked informants, often persons from their area who know their family history.”

The report also raises some disturbing questions about the excessive emphasis of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government on the military strategy with little or no attention paid to the resolution of the genuine grievances of the minorities in the island nation and the manner in which it has left innocent civilians stranded in the war zone at the mercy of the Tigers. It notes that in the North, as the Army advances along the western half of the Wanni and edges closer to Kilinochchi, an estimated 200,000 displaced civilians (the latest U.N. figures say the number of IDPs is close to 300,000) attempting to escape the ravages of the war, are getting hemmed in.

As per the report, the IDPs, forced to move at short notice owing to the continual bombing and shelling, had even stopped putting up temporary shelters. “The choices for them were never human. Initially they moved north to escape shelling from the advancing army. Then the LTTE prevented those who tried to move into government-controlled areas. The government in turn confines those escaping LTTE-controlled areas in mass detention centres from which they are not allowed to leave. Those in Vavuniya find themselves in a place of crime and lawlessness, where torture, murder, extortion, abduction and rape are routine and women are powerless. The blame lies mainly with the security forces and Tamil paramilitary elements working alongside them,” it says.

The report surmises that the south (the part of the island nation outside North and East) too will not escape unscathed as a very disproportionate burden of fighting the war is placed on the backs of rural Sinhalese youth, sowing the seeds of future discord. It maintains that for the poor everywhere it is their families that are their main source of joy, and accuses the government of treating their children as cheap cannon fodder for the sake of its perverted ideology instead of protecting them.

The report says: “The plight of the people of the Wanni, whose children are forced into military service by the LTTE and have suffered continuous death, deprivation and displacement because of the government’s heavy weaponry, has long been headline news. The U.N. and international agencies were the only ones present to provide reliable humanitarian capability as well as to witness. That the whole structure was dismantled literally overnight on an order from a government too well known for its disregard of the rule of law and humanitarian norms, should make us wonder at the fragility of international machinery we expect so much from. It raises questions about what the international order and agencies should realistically aim for. Have humanitarian norms fallen victim to the ‘war on terror’, whose rhetoric so many nation-states across the globe find useful? Are influential governments being soft on the Lankan government, because they were earlier soft on the LTTE?

“Since 1986 many people have posed the exasperating question, ‘How on earth does one deal with a phenomenon like the LTTE?’ It has over the years shown a capacity to descend to the lowest depths without any qualms in the treatment of its own people, do the unthinkable such as conscripting children as young as ten, exploit and betray the most intimate forms of trust and one could go on. To those who understand that this phenomenon grew out of a persistent denial of political rights to the Tamils, accompanied by humiliation and violence, it is in addressing these that the cure should begin,” the report says.

The predicament of the U.N. agencies and international NGOs (INGOs) is unenviable. For a variety of reasons, the government continues to view them as “suspects” and makes use of every opportunity to paint them in a bad light. A report posted on the Defence Ministry’s website on November 7 best illustrates the point. Under the heading, “A new twist - INGO vacancy ads with LTTE obituaries”, it reads: “According to available evidence, it appears that the local propaganda newspapers published by the LTTE carried advertisements from international aid and relief organisations such as the ICRC, Save the Children and the Danish Refugee Council for vacancies in their organisations, alongside LTTE obituaries for its terrorist cadre, in the Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu districts. ‘We are greatly concerned with this as the LTTE might have used the INGOs to shield its recruitment drive and lure youth for interviews and later to be abducted in due course,’ a defence observer said.

“The positions advertised by the ICRC [International Red Cross Committee], Save the Children and Danish Refugee Council are for field officer, project officer and radio operators in Kilinochchi. Defence analysts are not ruling out the possibility that some agents or individual members of these organisations, that are supportive of the LTTE, having these advertisements placed, in order to both attract youth to the dwindling LTTE cadre, and also funding the terrorist outfit either locally or abroad through these advertisements… .

“Recently the government took proactive measures to relocate INGOs and many aid agencies in safe quarters in Vavuniya, following clear assessments obtained of the possible danger to workers of these organisations by the LTTE. The government decision has minimised collateral damage and denied LTTE ‘aid canopies’ which it had used on many an occasion to divert aerial attacks.

“Earlier, it was found that LTTE terrorists have taken heavy earth-moving vehicles, trucks, tractors and several land cruiser jeeps from the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) in Kilinochchi, which was reported to the defence authorities much later, when it was said these were taken forcibly.”

What has been made out to be a grand conspiracy hatched by the INGOs in league with the Tigers turned out to be much ado about nothing. The advertisement in question appeared in a newspaper circulated in the Tiger-dominated areas and is a newspaper registered with the government agent. “How else can we recruit our local staff to man our missions in the LTTE areas? It is elementary and the government is fully conscious of the situation. Yet, some trigger-happy bureaucrat in the Defence Ministry was allowed to indulge in mud-slinging against the INGOs, including the ICRC. And they expect us to be the bridge between the people stranded in the war zone and the government. It cannot get more ironical,” lamented a senior official of an INGO.

If the government is really serious about defeating the LTTE militarily and winning the hearts of ordinary citizens, it should stop looking for motives behind the actions of every player in the troubled areas. In the words of the UTHR-J report, “A responsible government must think and do the political work it is there to do, in winning over the Tamils and to persuade the world that it has a viable plan to minimise the damage and loss of life, before sending in the armed forces. To conduct a war with the present chauvinistic outlook is utterly irresponsible with the Sinhalese youth being sacrificed, even if the state has no empathy for the Tamil victims. But what is to be gained by giving the Tamils the message that they would lose everything and have no place in this country if the LTTE is defeated?”

B. Muralidhar Reddy writes regularly from Sri Lanka for the Indian newspaper, The Hindu.