by Carla Lee in Sri Lanka
‘Vote for patriotism…’
The posters of upcoming provincial election read in a street of Colombo. National flags, which appears to represent ‘Sinhala (majority ethnic) only’ by ethnical symbol of ‘lion’, are being waved on top of the three wheelers – the popular vehicle in South Asia -, among which are running through the jammed street, pasting a military picture on their back. Check point with various uniformed are just so many.
Due to a number of check points and high security measures, no idea how to promenade along the romantic seashore to stretch out to the city’s central Fort area, where the Tamil Tigers’ (or LTTE) suicide missions have taken place occasionally. The media, except few, are busy to carry out the triumphant story of armed forces, who are now undisputable heroes in Colombo and majority populated-south.
There are other heroes, the “Brothers”. The president Mahinda Rajapaksa is posing along with armed forces, sometimes with his brother Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Commander of Army Lt. Gen Sarath Fonseka, for a huge picture, which is hung in places. The heroes, “The Brothers and Them”, have been about to claim their full victory of War on Terror “within days” since months ago, whereas the original master minders of War on Terror, who once declared outright victory though, got bogged down in troubled Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
Vestiges of the latest cease fire and onward peace talks for several years have been completely torn apart. Journalists can be accused for their past visit to Kilinochchi, the rebel’s former capital, during the peace process, where a number of foreign diplomats had also visited to explore relationship with the Tamil Tigers (or LTTE) during the same period. Ranil Wickremasinghe, the former Prime Minister who signed the cease fire agreement with the LTTE in 2002, has been deserted by many. Among them is Prof. G.L.Peiris, the former chief negotiator under Ranil’s government, who told me 4 years ago:
“It’s all past, we need to talk with them (the LTTE)”. My question was then “Do you think the LTTE is a terrorist organisation?”
It was not ‘all past’ but became a ‘future’ in fact. On May 29th 2006, during the fragile peace process, the LTTE was newly branded as a terrorist organisation by European Union, which is comprised of 27 countries. Thus, the LTTE has been listed as a terrorist organization in America, Canada, India and now 27 countries more in a sudden. No reason left for the hard line regime in Colombo, which was narrowly elected thanks to the boycott of its hard line counterpart LTTE, to make peace with the world branded terrorist organisation, but every reason to go ahead its war on terror. It was around this time the growing violence at rampage has turned to the level of war.
As the ‘War on Terror’ has been proceeding ever since from the eastern province to the north Manar and Vanni, the Sri Lankan authority has successfully ‘displaced’ possible witnesses, notably journalists and aid workers, from the war zone. It has finally ordered all aid agencies except International Committee of Red Cross (or ICRC) and the UN to get out of Vanni in the mid of September 2008. The unprecedented ‘war without media and humanitarian aid’ was going to happen.
War without Media and Humanitarian Aid
“You can say there is a biggest toilet in the world along the 8 km coastal strip.”
One of the well-informed religious leaders on the situation in war-torn Vanni, was gasping out to continue his briefing on the phone.
“High fever, Pneumonia are said to break out. The Artillery shells have kept falling on populated area, and cluster bombs were used. Some injured persons have shown burnt skin. The Army has claimed ‘liberating’ people from Tamil Tigers, but if they killed even one person like that, can it be justified?” He asked.
According to some detailed information on Vanni as of end of March. It is estimated that one person could have a coke bottle of water per day, if water from wells in the trapped area is suitable to drink. 6 eggs cost 10 USD and 100g of rice costs 1400 rupees (about 9 EURO), which is 200 times more than the normal price, which is 70 rupees for 1 kg of rice. Rice is rare and milk powder is no more. People start to starve according to the information. They’re trapped between Sri Lanka Army on east land route and Sri Lanka Navy on the west narrow strip of coastal land. ‘Safe Zone’, which was unilaterally declared by the government, is not safe at all. The LTTE don’t allow people to flee. No where to exit.
“Given the circumstances, it’s not feasible at all for people to flee the zone unless there’s a cease fire”
One aid worker in Trincomalee, the city in Eastern Province said. She particularly worried about the government’s estimation of the number of trapped civilians, which is 70,000-80,000. The figure is terribly low comparing to the ones by the international agencies or Tamil Groups, which are between 150,000 and 330,000.
“Look, they said over 50,000 people (as of end of March) have fled the LTTE held area. Some 20,000-30,000 left according to their insisting estimation. There would be a danger of onslaught, after the government would claim that 30,000 people all flee and no more civilians there.” the aidworker added.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Defense Secretary has argued much earlier that all remains outside ‘safe zone’ were legitimate targets including hospitals. It was aired soon after the government forces, according to the Human Right Watch report, launched artillery shells and cluster bombs on the last functioning PTK hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu early of February. No more ‘hospital’ left to be hit after PTK hospital was forced to close down on February 4th.
“The media says ‘makeshift hospital’ but it’s not. It’s a makeshift medical point in a school or community center, where staffs of ministry of health trying to do their best to care of patients. People have been constantly moving to less expose to the battle. They move to the coast to fish for food but there’s no water. So they move back to inland, but there’s fighting going on.”
Sophie Romanens, the spokesperson of ICRC has complaint the word of ‘makeshift hospital’ by media.
Indeed, media reports have been very much questionable this time. As no media could be a true witness of the war, most of information on Vanni has been heavily relied on Sri Lankan Military sources, and civilians in Internally Displaced Persons (or IDPs) camp or the severely injured persons who were transferred to be admitted in hospitals. All they, except military sources, speak in Tamil and few English. It is crucial to notice that Sri Lanka is not a bi-lingual country. It is a two mono-languages spoken country, where people hardly speak the both languages, Tamil and Sinhalese. As one senior Tamil journalist, who’s working for the state owned media, has complaint, ‘Tamil journalists are often excluded for the Ministry of Defense (or MOD) organized media tour’. Not only journalist, but the elected Tamil MPs are not allowed to access, except Douglas Devanadda, the president of EPDP which is a pro-government political party having paramilitary group.
“I was stopped at Medawachchiya (near Vavuniya). The security said we cannot forward without permission of Ministy of Defense. I am an elected MP. I wanted to see my people who were terribly affected by war. Why should i get permission? But finally I had to turn back”
Shresh Premachandran, the MP of Tamil National Alliance (or TNA) said. Likewise, the president of TNA, R.Samphantan was also denied to visit the Camp and Trincomalee General hospital in Trincomalee, from where he was elected.
One Tamil activist who speaks both languages said he has witnessed wrong translation by his Sinhalese company, who speaks the both languages and helped his visit to Vavunya hospital.
“We visited one ward in Vavuniya hospital, where people, who were injured by grenade attack between Omantai to Kilinochchi, were admitted. They said they didn’t know who attacked them, but my company translated (for accompanied foreigner) ‘they were attacked by rebels’. ”
The area between Omantai and Kilinochchi must be, without a single doubt, heavy-secured area by government forces. When asked “why don’t you try to visit the hospital independently?” He exclaimed, “No way! they gonna kill me!”
Dilemma of ‘Human shields’
Sri Lankan government and international community have blamed the LTTE for holding civilians as human shields. There’s little doubt that the LTTE, which used to control 15,000 sq km of territory in the Island as a de facto government, has imposed a so-called ‘immigration law of Tamil Eelam’ on its ‘citizens’ not to cross over to its enemy’s territory, except the severely injured, who have been transferred to Trincomalee by ICRC shipment. Calling on the LTTE to ‘release’ people, however, have been in dilemmas in many respects, as many of “human shields” are families or relatives of the LTTE cadres inside Vanni. They are destined to be ‘detained’ in ‘welfare village’ if they are ‘released’ by the LTTE or even after taking ‘dead or amputated’ risks for fleeing outside Vanni.
“I’ve met some patients who were transferred here Trincomalee. They were the family, relatives of the LTTE, which has conscripted ‘one cadre out of one family’. They have been closed with the LTTE. They like there and wanted to live there.” Sivanesathurai Santhirakanthan (non de guerre ‘Pillayan’, 33), the chief minister of eastern province said.
Pillayan used to be a commander of military wing of TMVP, Karuna-led breakaway faction from the LTTE and political party having paramilitary force. Karuna, the former eastern commander of the LTTE, and Pillaya again were split up last year, leading their own faction to blame each other, killing each other.
“At the same time”, Pillayan continued, “The LTTE has given a fear, saying ‘if you go out, you will be harassed and suffered’. The LTTE knows very well that they would be finished soon if there’s no civilian with them. So the both ways have made it happen what’s happening now. The government believes it can finish very quickly, but it cannot.”
According to one diplomat in Colombo, who has visited to certainly best welfare village namely ‘Manik Farm IDPs relief village’, the camp are surrounded by razor wired police inner line and another razor wired army outer line. There are reportedly Tamil paramilitary personnel as well. No freedom of movement for IDPs at all. And international NGOs are allowed to visit only for a few hours twice a week on average. On top of that, the most disturbing rumor is “disappearance” during the screen process to ‘clear’ infiltrating LTTE cadres and also from the IDPs camps.
“We are concerned over human rights violations that could happen at other time. Visiting and presence are different. International NGOs must present inside the camp.” Paikiasothy Sarvanamuttu, the executive director of Center for Policy Alternative (or CPA) said.
Therefore, using the word of “Human shields” shouldn’t be a nothing more than a habitual attack on the rebel forces, which commonly carry out guerrilla warfare. There must be an aggressive change the so-called ‘welfare village’ from ‘concentration camp’ to genuine ‘relief camp’.
“People forgot that the LTTE is basically guerrilla forces, which nature is to mix them with civilians.” Visaka Dharmadasa, the chairperson of Association of War Affected Women pointed out. She strongly suggested a ‘cease fire’ in return the LTTE to release war prisoners, among them would be her second son.
“Since the troops overran Kilinochchi, first time in my life, even when my son went missing I did not have this kind of mental problem. Now I’m feeling very uneasy” She said.
Her second son, Achintha Senarath Sri Lankan military serviceman went missing in action in 1998. She believes that her son is still alive in the LTTE’s prison, where thousands Prisoners of War (or POWs) might have detained for years, if not dead in recent war. It is also believed that high casualties of Sri Lankan armed forces in a current war have been claimed. However, the authority has not release how many soldiers have been killed, in fear that releasing casualty figure would weaken their soldiers and supports of war in South, where many soldiers are recruited. The Prime Minister once mentioned of some 14,000 soldiers have been killed in the past a few years. But silence since then.
“To eradicate the LTTE and then things are going to be very nice? No. It’s not gonna happen. We will see much more brutal war in 10 years, because roots and cause of conflict are still there!” the grieving mother, Visaka argued.
The similar view is shared by Lal Wikrematunga, a chairman of the <Sunday Leader>, which editor and also his brother was assassinated early of this year.
“LTTE cell has an international network. Even if you diminish the LTTE here, but network is still there. Unless you address the idea of their head, it won’t be finished. It might be died out several years, but come up again. Another Prabhakaran will be born. Maybe 25 will be born.”
The LTTE is believed to be going back to the jungle, where they were born, to wage guerrilla warfare, which has been witnessed in Eastern Province, the ‘liberated’ area from the LTTE as the government has claimed.
Back to the Jungle
On March 14th early morning, 4 TMVP cadres were gun downed by unknown persons in Sorikalmunai village in Kalmunai of Eastern Province. Unknown persons, who have captured weapons and ammunitions as well, are said to be the LTTE, which has kept its cadres probably up to a few hundred in East.
I’ve travelled from Batticaloa to Akkraipattu days after the attack. On the way to Kalmunai (in the middle) and around Kalmunai, the security forces were nearly lined up every hundred meter along the passing villages. There are a number of ‘body check points’ and check points. And near the entrance of Vellaveli, where 14 years old girl was raped by either policeman or security forces early of March, more security personnel were stand.
Interestingly, it was not difficult to hear private chat from villagers and three wheeler drivers that ‘security forces rape this girl or that girl before killing her’. It was a sign of distrust or detest on security forces. At the same time it was almost impossible to find out what’s going on the 14 years old girl afterwards and how and where the victim and her families are. No individual or organization wanted to talk about the issue to journalist out of fear. The only explanation by Human Rights Commission branch office in one of the eastern cities was unthinkable.
“There were pig problems and messy in a village..so the police went there and it (rape) happened…”
The troubled by ‘unknown persons’ or security forces in Eastern Province might be a future of North or the Country. Heavy military presence in the region would inevitably drag human rights violations, while guerilla warfare would make the society get trouble easily, as guerillas would be mixed with civilians. In other words, they cannot survive without civilians’ support.
“The LTTE is now downing here Akkraipattu. But media reports are not there.” One senior journalist in Akkraipattu said.
“IRA, which doesn’t have grassroots support, could manage to attack…even recently two British soldiers were killed. Tamil Tigers has, with more than 50% support, it could be able to create instibility.”
One western NGO worker who has lived for long in the country observed.
There is another unquestioned factor in mystery. That is about the LTTE’s heavy weapons, which are not much shown by Sri Lankan Armed force, which could have captured large amount of them to show. The Tamil MP Suresh Premachandran, who used to be on the LTTE hit list when he was with a rival militant group, said.
“It is mystery that where the hell the LTTE hid or buried their heavy weapons, when they have been cornered such a small square km. The LTTE has hundreds of mortars, artilleries and they would have captured lots of weapons, vehicles from SLA…They gonna do guerrillas war with those weapons for another 20-30 years.”