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?
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 minimize 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 cadres 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. .
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.
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?”