By Rajan Hoole –
Border Aggression and Civilian Massacres – Part 1
The day was 17 May 1985, the village Natpattimunai in the Eastern Province, and the headmaster Mr. T. Gunaratnam, a first class trained teacher 36 years in service. [His two sons abducted from home before his very eyes, were among the twenty three youths taken away from the village, never to be seen again.] There was, unfortunately, nothing very un- usual about this episode for the time and place. The Special Task Force (STF) was then de- ployed in the Eastern Province, and a frequent complaint was that young men were arrested by it and the arrest later denied. But people elsewhere, if they heard of such events at all, tended to shrug them off in disbelief. Or worse, to dismiss them from mind as an inevitable concomitant of the state’s campaign against armed Tamil separatists. Partly as a result, in our contention, of such indifference or lack of principled attitudes, later years would see such experiences replicated throughout the length and breadth of the land, the victims still pre- dominantly rural youth, but now including real or suspected Sinhala insurgents in their thou- sands….
Today, fifteen years after the Natpattimunai round-up, it may be useful to remind our- selves of the time and circumstances under which “disappearing” people was able to estab- lish itself in Sri Lanka as part of the modus operandi of the forces of law and order, and to ponder on its consequences and implications. – Suriya Wickremasinghe, from “Disappearances” As A Practice, Pravada December 2000
Massacres & Institutional Blindness
In this chapter we deal with one of the poi- gnant issues of the conflict where much emotion has been aroused on both sides leading to actions that are usually to the detriment of the people affected. The lives and well being of Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims living in the border areas have been rendered hostage to the aims of powerful actors far removed from their simple rural concerns. Their lives have come to be riven by violence, displacement and insecurity and communities have been turned against each other in a manner having no historical precedent. Those far away who claim to speak on their behalf have only increased the violence and misery.
The original harmony that existed in these areas is captured in an article written by R.M.A.B. Dassanayake, a Sinhalese native of Kattukulampattu West in the Trincomalee District (Ceylon Daily News, 26.4.93). He says:
“The Sinhalese and Tamil communities in those villages] moved, toiled and lived to- gether farming in their plots of field and high- land. Some small time traders from Trinco town engaged themselves in bartering house- hold provisions, cloth and trinkets with the produce of the villages such as rice and bees honey. The simple, unhampered free flow of life in these villages caused no rift, division or commotion in any way amongst themselves or with visiting traders.”
Because of its historical value, the full article has been given as Appendix III. We have re- ceived independent confirmation of this in the course of our documentation over the years, from Trincomalee, Polonnaruwa and Amparai Districts. The now deserted Tamil village of Thiriyai was part of Mr. Dassanayake’s world. We have been told by people from there how the Tamil and Sinhalese villagers used to cel- ebrate harvest festivals together. If a Tamil in Thiriyai was bitten by a snake, a bullock cart would be dispatched to Gomarankadawela to fetch the Sinhalese snake doctor and he would remain in Thiriyai until the patient was cured. The late Mr. A. Thangathurai, TULF MP for Mutur and Trincomalee, used to recall how close his people in Kiliveddy were to their Sinhalese neighbours in Dehiwatte (Lime Garden), even though the latter was a colony village.
We will try to place the story of division and bloodshed in its historical perspective. Without understanding it, a solution to the ethnic con- flict would also continue to evade us and we will be condemned to partisan shouting matches. In some ways, the latter contribute more towards tearing the nation asunder than the clash of armed groups. A good example is the set of two events in mid-September 1999. The Air Force bombed Puthukkudiyiruppu mar- ket killing 21 Tamil civilians. Three days later, on 18th September, LTTE militants, including women, attacked the border Sinhalese village of Gonawela in the Amparai District, killing about 50 civilians.
President Kumaratunge immediately con- demned the latter in the strongest terms. A state television crew was dispatched and relief was also quickly sent to Gonawela. Despite the ICRC confirming the death by bombing of Tamil ci- vilians, the military spokesman Brig. Sunil Tennekoon kept claiming that they had only bombed a carefully selected LTTE target, and that if civilians had died it was because the LTTE had planted them there. There was not a word of sympathy for the Tamil victims from the Presi- dent. Much later, under pressure, the Govern- ment agreed to hold an inquiry into the bombing, the conclusions of which have so far not been revealed. But the record has been that in the event of Tamils being killed by the state forces, there has been no word of sympathy from the Government or the President, and when it came, it was grudging and belated.
Although commentators in Colombo sug- gested that the bombing tragedy resulted from a technical error, to many balanced Tamils in the North who had lived through aerial bombing in the past, this seemed a deliberate retaliatory attack. It came soon after the Army suffered a significant defeat, and if they were taking on a well-identified target far from the scene of fight- ing, this seemed an odd time for it.
Thus today, for the LTTE, using every pre- text to massacre Sinhalese in the border areas has become more a credit than a liability, be- cause the Government continues to react in a manner demonstrating to the Tamil people that it is at heart a government of the Sinhalese alone. It does not do any good to the Sinhalese or to the Tamils. That aspect of partisanship with which the problem originated remains the same despite changes of government. Nowhere is this official partisanship better demonstrated than in the document titled Massacres of Civil- ians presented to Parliament by the Deputy Minister for Defence Anuruddha Ratwatte on 6th February 1996, and was no doubt eagerly purveyed by Sri Lankan missions abroad. President Kumaratunge holds the portfolio for defence.
It is a document which lists incidents in which nearly 2900 mostly Sinhalese civilians were killed. A “minor omission” concerns those violations by the state forces in which, up to then, in the region of 20,000 Tamils were killed. The institutional memory of the State is at a to- tal loss as to what it has been doing to Tamil ci- vilians. For practical purposes, the Tamils exist only in the ranks of terrorists. Even with regard to massacres of Sinhalese civilians in the North- East by Tamil militants, there are significant omissions. In the period covered in the docu- ment (1984-1996) there were also massacres of Sinhalese civilians in the South by the armed forces during 1988-1990 by way of reprisals (see Sect.17.2). These massacres of Sinhalese do not find mention in the official document Massacres of Civilians. With these qualifications, it is a very useful document giving an idea of massacres of Sinhalese civilians by Tamil militants up to early 1996. We take this as our starting point.
The first massacre of Sinhalese civilians took place at Kent and Dollar Farms in the Mullaitivu District on 30th November 1984 where 62 persons were killed by the LTTE, fol- lowed by 11 civilians among the migrant Sin- halese fishing community nearby in Kokkilai the following day. Five and a half months later on 14th May 1985, the LTTE intruded into the City of Anuradhapura and massacred 120 Sin- halese civilians (figure from the document). We will argue that these two incidents are excep- tions in the sense that they were not yet part of the established policy or practice of Tamil groups. They cannot be understood without reference to surrounding events that have hardly been mentioned in the Sri Lankan Press. If mentioned at all, they were only as refuta- tions by National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali of reports in the Indian or Brit- ish media, or the BBC. That too, as we shall see, tells a story of its own.
The LTTE leader Prabhakaran was then asked about the Kent and Dollar Farms incident through an expatriate contact. His response was that they were criminals brought there to harass Tamils. He also said that they tried to avoid kill- ing women, but one woman clung to her hus- band as he was thrust into a building with oth- ers before it was exploded. At this point Prabhakaran appears to have been sensitive to killing civilians and this action was in part a re- sponse to the unrelentingly harsh methods used by the Sri Lankan State from mid-1984, which we will come to. We may further add that the LTTE did not launch a policy of systematic at- tacks against Sinhalese civilians until the end of May 1986. That was just after the bloody LTTE attack on the fraternal group TELO. Then further inhibitions were shed and Prabhakaran was ready to use the same methods against Tamil civilians.
For the rest of 1985, from 31st May, 43 Sinha- lese civilians were killed, as we shall see, mainly during local skirmishes and reprisals. By this time, Sinhalese civilians in border areas had been armed as home guards and the atmosphere was charged. There were few incidents from September 1985 until May 1986 where Sinhalese had been deliberately targetted. The most seri- ous incident was a land mine blast on the Allai- Kantalai Road (not given in the Minister’s docu- ment). Its exceptional nature during that period leads one to doubt if civilians were deliberately targetted in that incident. This sketch suggests that massacres of Sinhalese civilians did not be- come systematic policy until May 1986.
The following are figures from the Minister’s document of Sinhalese civilians killed by Tamil militants from 31st May 1985 (all by the LTTE from May 1986). 31st May-Dec 1985: 43, May- July 1986: 123, Jan-June 1987: 375, 10th October- Dec 1987: 172, March 1988: 114, April-Sept 1988: 78, Oct-Nov 1988: 72, February 1989: 88.
Among incidents omitted by the Minister is the one on the night of 6th October 1987 when the Colombo mail train from Batticaloa was waylaid in Valaichenai and 40 Sinhalese passen- gers were lined up and shot. This would place the number of Sinhalese civilians massacred by the LTTE, as part of its sabotaging of the Indo- Lanka Accord during 5th to 10th October 1987, at about 150.
We will now probe the context behind the massacres of civilians in general. For easy reference, we will first summarise the earlier developments.
To be continued..