By Rajan Hoole –
Under these conditions, officers like Kotakadeniya were in their element. On 21.8.95, the Press (Island and CDN) reported a claim by Kotakadeniya “that the financial hub of operations of terrorists had been smashed”. The claim was based on the arrest by the CDB of a Tamil businessman with an office in the Pettah, which the DIG said had revealed the “vast dimensions” of the LTTE’s financial network. The man, the DIG said, claimed that people visited him and gave him money to be sent to the LTTE [in the North]. He elaborated in a later report (Island 27.8.95) that, “The monies most of which are collected in Western countries are channelled through London, Switzerland and Singapore before reaching Colombo”.
All that was found to substantiate this gargantuan claim was a cellular phone, a fax machine, some minor items and an absurdly modest sum of Rs. 2 million (then USD 40,000). It was the kind of money a ‘travel agency’ would have charged for sending about two persons to Canada. No list of ‘contributors’, local or foreign, was found.
It was generally known that the LTTE generated enough money in the North-East for its local expenses. Its principal need was hard currency for arms purchases. Why on earth was it converting hard currency into rupees and sending it to the North through a Tamil businessman in Colombo? Clearly, the man was for the most part no more than fulfilling a need of expatriate Tamils to send money to their families in the North expeditiously, which the normal banks would not do. The Press was quite happy to publish tall claims without any investigation.
During this period the Government placed itself in a weak position by its approach of trying to deny that the Tamils in the North suffered by the actions of the armed forces in the course of their advance on Jaffna. It chose this alienating course, rather than admitting the truth and trying to ensure that civilian safety was being respected. Another event of aerial bombing in Nagar Kovil where 39 civilians including 24 school children were killed on 22nd September 1995, was again rudely denied by the military spokesman, Brigadier Sarath Munasinghe. Once again, for the Government’s convenience, the Tamils were essentially liars. In this situation, the LTTE hoped to score a major propaganda coup at the expense of the people. On 30th October 1995, it forced almost the entire population to move out of Jaffna City and Valikamam. It had already sent out agents to the West, including a member of the Christian clergy, to spread the word that a humanitarian crisis had resulted from 500,000 people spontaneously fleeing their homes to escape the Sri Lankan Army and to be with the Tigers (see out Special Report No.6).
An appeal for humanitarian help by the MSF appeared in the South China Morning Post of 2.11.95, but was then stopped by the MSF from appearing elsewhere. The UN Secretary General Boutros Ghali too expressed concern. The humanitarian crisis was real, but the enthusiasm for it quickly waned, as the truth came out through various channels into the international and Indian media that the crisis was engineered by the LTTE. But the Government panicked and lost its head, and showed symptoms of xenophobia without appreciating the fact that the foreign presence was essentially an asset in the Government’s favour.
During this period the LTTE stepped up terrorist attacks in Colombo (e.g. the attack on the oil tanks at Kolonnawa) and conducted massacres of Sinhalese civilians in the East – 122 killed along the border from 21st – 23rd October 1995. Instead of exposing the LTTE, the Government was pre-occupied with trying to make out that there were no major Tamil casualties. The official military spokesman said on 2nd November that there were at most 10 unconfirmed civilian casualties in Jaffna during one month of military operations.
However, Mr. Ponnambalam, GA Jaffna’s figures quoted by the international media gave 104 killed and 194 injured by bombing and shelling for the same period. His figures were in fact conservative and were incident by incident corroborated by Jaffna Hospital. The GA’s figures were in particular cases, much lower than initial figures given by civilians. The Government was angry. In Parliament on 7th November, Mr. Ronnie de Mel from the UNP quoted the figures given by GA, Jaffna. Industrial Development Minister Mr. C.V. Gooneratne then told the House that he had been informed by Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte that GA Jaffna had been interdicted “for furnishing misleading reports on the situation in Jaffna”. Mr. Gooneratne also proposed placing the country on a “war footing” and raising a civil defence force.
Mr. Ronnie de Mel apologised for having quoted the GA Jaffna, adding, “I did not know that his reports were false”. It was thus that the GA, Jaffna, and the rest of the world, learnt unofficially of his interdiction. Here it was, the Government, the Opposition and the Press were getting together on a ‘war footing’, and the truth had ceased to matter. It had again become imperative that even the most respected persons in Tamil society should be shut out as liars.
It placed the South in a very difficult and flawed position if the war was about safeguarding the unity of the country. Not being able to judge between one Tamil and another, they had no way of finding out what was going on within the community, what tragedies they were subject to, and what they felt. Mr. Ponnambalam was an honest officer and an asset to the Government. Like with police officers, the PA government had placed a premium on administrators who were expert at playing both sides to their personal advantage. With Mr. Ponnambalam’s exit, this is what the Government got, thus cutting themselves off further from the Tamil people.
President Kumaratunge later held that Mr. Ponnambalam should have had the courtesy to inform her before making his figures public. This is hard to accept. The figure of 104 killed represented a mounting casualty through October in 5 incidents beginning with 22 on 4th October. It was the GA’s job to keep those in authority in Colombo informed with regular reports of the situation and urgent requirements. There is no doubt he did this. It is not as though he suddenly released the total in November to make a propaganda splash. He intended no such thing. He was accessible and if a responsible person or organisation asked him about what he knew of civilian casualties, he was bound to answer. There had been instances (e.g. 24.7.83) where GA, Jaffna, had given the media civilian casualty figures at variance with official figures from Colombo. Even the Jayewardene government had the sense to drop the matter.
The Sri Lanka NGO Forum was to hold two days of discussions in Bentota on 15th and 16th November 1995. The foreign NGOs represented included Amnesty International, Asia Watch, Article XIX and several others who had also been critical of the LTTE. But reading far too much into the MSF advertisement and the statement of concern by Bourtros Ghali, a campaign was orchestrated by chauvinist elements in Colombo and London, and by the local media. They held that the NGO Forum was going to inaugurate an intense propaganda campaign on behalf of the LTTE, so as to deny the Government the capture of Jaffna by bringing a halt to the offensive. The Government too came under their spell.
But there was simply no chance of the NGO Forum taking a pro-LTTE line. However, concern for the victims and refugees from the fighting, and the Sinhalese victims of LTTE massacres, was bound to be voiced by any humanitarian organisation worth its name. Although the reported 104 Tamil civilian deaths could, and should, have been avoided, given the intensity of fighting and several hundred combatant deaths, the civilian deaths made little impact on foreign observers. The general tenor of briefings by the Western embassies was of an improvement in the human rights situation and a prospective reduction of NGO programmes.
On 14th November, in view of the orchestrated campaign, the NGO Forum sent Sunanda Deshapriya, editor of the Yukthiya, and Walter Keller of the German journal Sudasien to the sea resort of Bentota to inspect the situation. They were set upon by a mob and their vehicle was smashed. Sunanda was badly assaulted and Keller received minor injuries. Keller had in fact published features that were very critical of the LTTE. The assailants, it turned out, were not all of them PA goons. Even those from extremist factions with a different agenda had joined in. A man who assaulted Sunanda had accused him of joining Chandrika (the President) and selling the country to the Tamils.
The next day, the Forum tried to meet instead at a venue in Ratmalana. The delegates were met by demonstrators who included Dr. Nalin de Silva, a vocal member of the camp which held that there was no Tamil problem, but only a terrorist problem. The Police came there and stopped the meeting saying that they did not have permission from the Foreign Ministry. When contacted, the Foreign Ministry, which had earlier granted permission after an amicable discussion, started being evasive. A further irony was that many of the local delegates at the Forum had helped to bring the PA to power the previous year on a peace platform, and were personally close to several cabinet ministers.
Although a minor incident in relation to many things that happened later, it was an important milestone. It was the first time under the PA that government party goons were deployed to attack dissenters physically. That the Police were under orders to turn a blind eye is clear from the fact they went to the aid of the victims of the assault in Bentota, only after a telephone call from a cabinet minister who had been contacted. DIG Nalin Delgoda, the police officer in charge of the area told the Press that the Forum meeting had been put off after “protests”. The Batalanda Commission (CDN 18.12.99) found this officer (then SSP Kelaniya) to be among those, including Ranil Wickremasinghe (then a UNP minister), indirectly responsible for the maintenance of unauthorised detention and torture camps in the Kelaniya area, during the JVP era. The tendency to oblige politicians is clearly independent of the party in power.
This was also a time when a broad spectrum of society gave its consent to the deployment of government thugs for physical violence against a group outside the mainstream and failed to question where this would lead to. The editorials of both the Island and the Daily News (16.11.95) showed broad agreement in failing to condemn the violence and obliquely justifying it. The Island accused the NGOs of being dangerous pro-LTTE organisations (most dangerous being those dealing with human rights!) who “cannot and should not” be permitted into this country. As to civilian suffering, it argued that this is inevitable in war and should not stand in the way of the goal of the military operation – an argument that rules out monitoring as means to safeguarding basic civilian interests. It said rhetorically, “Only the NGOs can now save Prabhakaran and they are doing their best to…save the ‘Master of Terror of South Asia’… as described by the New York Times”.
Writing in a similar vein, the state-owned Daily News accused the NGOs of trying to dictate government policy and hinted that the violence was a reaction of the people who had been “infuriated”. (Did we hear this in July 1983?) Towards the end of November, Kotakadeniya closed all lodges in Colombo after allegedly finding a suspected LTTE woman in a lodge. Several hundred Tamils who had come from outstations found themselves on the streets with nowhere to go for the night. Kotakadeniya was transferred out after an outcry over his methods by Tamil representatives. However, the Island (30.11.95) supported him editorially and published reports later (e.g.7.2.96) claiming that the security of Colombo had been jeopardised by his transfer. The private media in general continued publishing features supporting individual security officials against whom there were serious charges of violations or corruption.
On 11th November 1995 there was some panic in Colombo after two LTTE suicide bombers detonated themselves prematurely near Army HQ. But what happened subsequently made a strong impression on ordinary Tamils. Two days later The Island carried a front page item headlined “LTTE trying to make Colombo ‘Little Jaffna’ – IGP”. This is defensible in that it was said in the context of the LTTE trying to disrupt civil administration. But at the same time large numbers of Tamils were picked up in Colombo and humiliated. For example, two Tamils picked up at random were made to sit on either side of the toilet bowl in an over-crowded police lock- up at Kohuwela, while Sinhalese criminals occupying the main cell urinated between them.
Respected Indian journalists with Tamil names too underwent humiliation. One was Miss. Nirupama Subramanian of India Today, who had to spend 4 hours at Bentota police station. Her press accreditation card had met with the rebuff ‘all Tamils are forgers’ (Counterpoint, March 1996). Finally, when her colleague Amit Baruah from the Hindu met the IGP, Mr. Rajaguru, and obtained her release, there was no apology, but only the perspicacious observation that the men were being extra vigilant! Miss. Subramanian later observed, “I realised during this visit to Sri Lanka that society here is really racist.”
Another event which contributed to the NGO scare, was the arrest of two Jaffna-based Roman Catholic priests, Rev. Fathers Saverimuthu Jebanesan and Emmanuel Pius, at the checkpoint at Thandikulam prior to entering the North. On 11th November ’95 a front page headline in the Island read, “Priests had VHF equipment, mortar catalogues”, and in the Daily News, “CID busts massive fund raising racket for LTTE”. A search of the house in Kotahena where the priests resided was said by the CID to have revealed photographs of mortars, communication sets and solar cells.
The solar cells, the CID pointed out, were used by the LTTE to charge car batteries! The priests were said to have been carrying Rs. 13.5 lakhs in cash (Rs.24 million according to CDN) and are said to have had 2.4 million in their bank account. They were also said to have been taking banned items such as copper wire, torch batteries and motor-cycle spares in a hidden compartment. T.V. Sumanasekera was then DIG, CID; SSP O.K. Hemachandra, director CID and SSP Bandula Wickremasinghe, deputy director CID.
The assistance of Interpol was said to have been sought. The government news agency Lankapuwath named Deputy Director CID as handling investigations (Island 11.11.95) and quoted him as saying that the priests had Rs. 24 million in their bank accounts which he believed to be funds collected in Colombo for the LTTE.
After this horrifying build up, the priests were released at the end of January 1996 after more than 2 months in custody, cleared of all the charges and everything taken from them was returned. A statement by the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference (Island 30.1.96) described the fuss as “much ado about nothing”. It had been established through letters that the cash they were carrying (a modest sum) had been requested by GA, Kilinochchi, and the Bishop of Jaffna, for refugee relief. Although they had not declared the cash at the checkpoint, it was not a banned item. The banned items, the statement said, were a negligible quantity, for private use rather than part of a smuggling operation. They comprised 4 pen torch batteries, 2 1/2 kg of copper wire to repair a generator and 3 motor cycle oil seals. There was no secret chamber in their vehicle as alleged in the media.
One sees in the instances above, a characteristic weakness on the part of the Churches. If the Church authorities believed in the innocence of the two priests, they ought to have resorted to strong action much earlier rather than try to pacify the authorities. After all, if they had been ordinary Tamils rather than priests, they would very likely have been locked up indefinitely in Kalutara prison without being charged in court. In the Mulder case, the NCC should have demanded from day one that Mulder be produced before a judge and charged. They waited almost a week by when his deportation was well under way and issued a statement. This allowed the authorities to extricate themselves. It also explains how the churches deal so ineffectively with the LTTE.
*To be continued.. next week “On the Road to Retrogression”
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here