By Ratnajeevan H. Hoole –
Canada’s denying asylum to Sri Lanka’s Captain Ravindra Bandanage, 38, made headlines this week. Many have been denied, but Bandanage made news because he claimed being ordered to plant explosives at former TNA parliamentarian M.K. Sivajilingam’s home. This was the first time a senior officer had admitted to planting evidence on opponents and to torture and other crimes by our government against Tamils, although for Tamils these are facts of life.
The Defence ministry, as expected, lashed out, calling Bandanage a liar, “a man of dubious repute and questionable integrity towards his motherland.” Would it have been all right, then, if the “motherland” was not involved? The mendacious ministry, we recall, arrested the Mullaitivu doctors to forcibly recant their accounts of hospital bombings and murder of thousands, which the government had to admit after the census.
M.K. Sivajilingam on War Crimes
Why Sivajilingam was targeted is found in the words of Patricia Butenis, former US Ambassador, in her leaked cable of Jan. 2010: “The one prominent Tamil who has spoken publicly [on accountability for war crimes] is [TNA MP] Sivajilingam,” who has demanded “an international inquiry to get justice for the deaths and suffering of the Tamil people.”
Sivajilingam expressed what many Tamils privately think but fear to say. For, Butenis writes further of her discussions with R. Sampanthan, who said “he believed accountability was important, [but] the Tamil community was ‘vulnerable’ on the issue” and “he would not discuss ‘war crimes’ per se in parliament for fear of retaliation.” Of the few Tamils who think otherwise is the Tamil National People’s Front’s Pathmini Sithamparanathan who postures as a nationalist before Tamils but privately told Butenis in mid-December 2009 that “now was not the time for war crimes-type investigations.” It is clear why the army wanted Sivajilingam, the only person who tenaciously and loudly wanted accountability, framed.
The government is very foolish in going after Sivajilingam and eliminating Tamils who voice the people’s unspoken feelings. Sivajilingam is an unpredictable maverick. For example he stood as a candidate in the last presidential elections because he did not agree with his TNA’s endorsement of General Fonseka who had said terrible things about Tamils. At the same time he could not see how Tamils could vote for Rajapaksa who is culpable for war crimes under command responsibility. Many Tamils had similar feelings but went with the TNA’s recommendation out of loyalty and therefore Sivajilingam hardly received any votes.
But Sivajilingam’s was probably the one TNA voice during LTTE times that could question Prabhakaran in public as an elder from Valvettithurai. In one incident when Sivajilingam went into the jungles to challenge a decision by Prabhakaran, Prabhakaran could not face him and went deeper into the jungles to avoid him, giving security issues as an excuse.
Just 6-7 months ago, when fishermen in Kothiyaal, Valvettithurai had a trawler dispute with the army, it was Sivajilingam who averted violence. When the Jaffna Library was to be reopened by Mayor Kandaiyan, Prabhakaran wanted it stopped. Sivajilingam worked on a compromise but LTTE Political Commissar Ilamparithy threatened those who would open the library with death. Today in government eyes, Sivajilingam is bad while Ilamparithy is hunting LTTE remnants with the army. The government has gone mad.
Planting Evidence: University
A TNA stalwart is emphatic that Bandanage lied in claiming asylum, saying “I will never believe a man in Khakis.” But I am not so certain. As I write the rampant tactic of planting evidence against opponents like Sivajilingam is ongoing at Jaffna University following last week’s disturbances by the army. Most students did not even know about any lamp lighting.
A shadow intelligence service is in charge like in LTTE times. It is not answerable to anyone in the regular forces. University persons meeting the DIG say he knows little – not where his orders to arrest the students were coming from, what they were charged with or being interrogated about.
As the world looks the government seeks to legitimize the army’s incursion with some arrests. But there is no charge for lighting lamps. So Sri-TELO, a government creation, claimed a petrol bomb exploding at its Thinnavely office. Two students including the Secretary, Arts Faculty Union (who was beaten up by intelligence men on motorcycles with steel rods on Heroes’ Day 2011) were arrested. The Police claimed that Sri-TELO gave their names over the bomb blast; but the latter deny it, making plain that the bomb was a ruse. Altogether, 4 arrested students were taken to Vavuniya and Colombo in vans. There is fear for their lives, going by past army practice.
In blundering, the security forces have shown they treat Tamils as enemies. The episode poses a difficult challenge to the university’s plans to be multi-ethnic. An assistant lecturer friendly with Sinhalese students was asked by SMS about 27th Nov and he replied it was Heroes’ Day. His innocuous reply was forwarded to intelligence which subjected him to interrogation. The trilingual first year science students’ representative was ordered to report to the CID in Colombo after a handful of Sinhalese students demanded his replacement because he was among students when stones were thrown at “our national army.” Some of these students are regular visitors at nearby army camps and sometimes eat there.
Said a Sinhalese student “Trying to hunt Tigers we are turning the students into Tigers. We cannot beat the Tamils this way.”
Denial of Asylum: Poor Judgement
Thus Bandanage’s claims are credible. The benefit of the doubt was his but the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) failed him. In denying Bandanage refugee protection, Canada argued that his being asked to place a bomb on Sivajilingam showed he was a trusted officer, aware of the “relentless brutality” of the Sri Lanka Army towards Tamil civilians and its “countless crimes against humanity.”
That seems a poor argument, especially when the judgement itself shows that Canada is well aware of the criminal nature of our government. Tamils and Sinhalese too know of the countless crimes by the army but that does not make us complicit in their crimes. We are simply powerless. In Sri Lanka, ordering an underling to do dirty work does not imply trust but rather arrogant expectation of obedience.
Canada’s IRB Discourages Evidence
However, this ruling should have been expected in light of a similar denial earlier this year to a former Sri Lankan naval officer, Commodore Nadarajah Kuruparan, on the grounds that he “had been complicit in the crimes against humanity because he had a long service with the navy, an organization that was known to regularly and systematically commit human rights abuses against the LTTE, the Tamil population and individuals suspected or perceived to be LTTE collaborators or sympathizers.”
What will happen to Bandanage and Kuruparan now? Sri Lanka is too dangerous for them and, having had asylum rejected, a third country to go to would be difficult to find. This denial also would make other witnesses to war crimes reluctant to come forward, in fear of being accused of being in the trusted circle of criminals.
Tamils in Sri Lankan Forces
Kuruparan’s denial makes the case that no Tamil should join any Sri Lankan armed force for fear of being held complicit, whereas for us Tamils, having Tamils in the forces at least gives us channels of sympathetic communication with our dreaded forces.
A very good friend of mine with a Sinhalese surname had no knowledge of Sinhalese because he was born to a Tamil Hindu mother and brought up with us in Jaffna. He went by his first name, using his father’s name as an initial. Few outside our circle knew he was Sinhalese by paternal lineage. He joined the police because he wanted a job. Learning his father’s language, he became a good policeman, serving for years until he was assaulted by fellow policemen as the communal cauldron heated up and he was thought to be Tamil. He went to the Middle East as a security officer after his suitcases were thrown out of the top floor of his police quarters in Colombo. By Canada’s misguided argument, he was complicit in all police crimes although in fact he helped many Tamils as a policeman.
Canada, after making a fuss over the upcoming Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka because of Colombo’s culpability in war crimes, should not now make it impossible for Sinhalese soldiers to give evidence on those crimes in fear of being held complicit. Nor should Canada label decent Tamils in the Sri Lankan armed forces as complicit traitors.