By Rajan Hoole –
In the foregoing sections we have dealt with administrative practices and political pressures that have contributed to the degeneration of the Police Service in the next 5 years after showing fresh signs of hope in mid-1995. We will now concentrate largely on the responsibility of civil society. A series of events beginning with a military operation in Jaffna on 9th July 1995 created a mood in the South that was more chauvinistic, xenophobic and gullible, and hence more tolerant of abuses and falsehood by the Government, the security services and the Police. The Press too surrendered its initiative and succumbed to the same kind of forces whose articulation led to the Southern unrest in 1987.
It began with deception. The Air Force bombed the refugee concentration around the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Navaly, on 9th July killing about 120 civilians. This was on the first day of an offensive in Jaffna. The ICRC in publicising the incident referred to damage to the church. It is the kind of inaccuracy that creeps in when there is an urgent need to publicise a real human tragedy. The President promised an inquiry. Subsequent reports made it clear that 6 to 8 bombs had fallen in the area missing the church, but a large number of people had been killed and several buildings in the vicinity destroyed.
The Military however maintained (Reuters, CDN 29.7.95) that it still was, after more than two weeks, trying to determine if the Air Force bombed the area. It added that it could not tell who was responsible because of a lack of access!
Then at a press conference (CDN 5.8.95), the President harped on the fact that the church building was intact. She said that a bomb had exploded in the compound and some had died, but the cause was not known. As if to suggest a cause, she said that the LTTE had been camped close by and firing mortar shells at the advancing army, but that the latter were firing artillery shells elsewhere. She dismissed reports confirming the aerial bombing. Such reports came from the ICRC and Mr. K. Ponnambalam, Government Agent, Jaffna. The latter she said was a hostage in the hands of the LTTE. This was the beginning of Mr. Ponnambalam’s troubles, a man who was an honest and respected senior administrative officer. Earlier the Foreign Minister had pulled up the ICRC in a rather ungainly manner.
In order to uphold a silly piece of deception, the President was willing to cast aspersions on her own officer, the GA Jaffna, and the ICRC. The line that Tamils and foreigners were liars appealed to chauvinist sentiment in the South. It set a disastrous cue for the Police.
The cue was taken up early by none other than DIG Kotakadeniya, who was made DIG (Metropolitan) on 10.7.95. On the morning of 21st July, about 40 police officers, including a DIG and SSP, raided the National Christian Council HQ off Bullers Road, Colombo. They had come with a warrant looking for arms, ammunition and posters dealing with the White Lotus Movement, a government sponsored charity and peace movement. After 8 hours of searching, they found no arms, ammunition or anything remotely subversive.
All they found (NCC statement, CDN 30.7.95) was an A4 size computer printout on the tray of NCC General Secretary, the Rev. Rienzie Perera. It had a ‘besmirched’ lotus flower with a statement about the sufferings of the people of Jaffna and asked what the churches were doing about it. Only one copy had been made. On finding out that the author of the printout was Kenneth Mulder, a 28-year- old American Methodist volunteer, a physics graduate from Oregon and peace activist, they ordered his arrest.
Mulder was on his way to Jaffna with Jaffna’s Bishop Jebanesan. Their vehicle was stopped in Vavuniya, Mulder was arrested and all their documents were removed. It was found that there were no arms, ammunition or subversive literature “as alleged in the press”. The Police also searched the homes of 5 Tamil female staff working for the NCC. Mulder’s printout was none other than a healthy and private reaction to war by a young man.
Undaunted by the lack of substance, DIG Kotakadeniya went on to claim before the media that he had nipped in the bud a highly subversive campaign to circulate anti- government literature islandwide. Unfortunately for the IGP Frank de Silva, who was to retire on 28th July, the NCC where his wife was employed was also on the same premises as the Anglican cathedral where he worshipped on Sundays. Frank de Silva, to whom prior reference had not been made, was obliged to voice officially the police version – “offensive literature against President Chandrika Kumaratunga… dozens of documents and other forms of literature of a questionable nature… apparently printed overseas” (Sunday Times lead 23.7.95).
An A4 size computer print out about the suffering of people from bombing and shelling, which was meant for private circulation among a few dozen NCC staff, was, by default, snowballing into a major anti-national conspiracy. Justice Minister and legal luminary Prof. G.L. Peiris told Reuters that Mulder was found holding ‘suspicious documents’. Even the President who was a student in Paris during the 1968 student uprising where anti-war sentiment featured prominently, and should have known better, was perhaps lulled by the solicitousness of patriotic security officers. The Attorney General ordered Mulder’s deportation using the fact of his being a foreigner, without charging him in court. Had he been produced in court, many people, beginning with DIG Kotakadeniya and the Justice Minister, would have looked very silly indeed. Here was a Third World country behaving with the same arrogance towards a non-national with which the West is usually credited.
The deportation was convenient. Kotakadeniya went on maintaining that he had busted a major anti-government conspiracy in which others too were involved. No major newspaper investigated the matter and gave the true facts. The Island maintained (27.7.95), “Mulder was arrested following the seizure of some anti-government posters and some sensitive literature”. The Island editorial of 28.7.95 evasively voiced the position of the Third World Right. Having said that they were unaware of what Mulder’s “offensive propaganda” was, the news paper conceded the right of the Government to deport a foreign national if there is “sufficient proof” that he or she had been acting against “national interest”.
However, the Island editorial did not demand such proof, which, they knew, did not exist. It associated Mulder with the “lunatic fringe” in the West – on the contrary he was a sober young man who was learning – and went on to say that conflict-ridden Third World countries do not take a tolerant view of dissent. A month after this came the new IGP’s revelations over STF involvement in the “corpses in lakes” scandal.
A few days later (2.9.95) the Island said in a lead item that “The arrest of the entire team of STF intelligence operatives had put an end to covert operations conducted by the STF”. This it said happened after the CID accused undercover operatives of extra-judicial killings. Defence analysts were quoted as saying that the halt in the STF’s covert operations was a big loss. This was followed by an editorial on the STF on 8.9.95.
The editorial expressed shock at the sudden transfer of Lionel Karunasena, DIG, STF, and thought it a curious co-incidence that this transfer came a few days after accusations against the STF on the floating corpses issue. It praised the STF for having done an excellent job in the East and expressed concern over declining morale. But to Tamils familiar with the East, concerns over Karunasena’s record go back many years. In such a closed and tightly controlled unit as the STF, Karunasena would have fond it difficult to distance himself from complicity in suspects being tortured and strangled at the STF HQ. Some of the worst in his record took place in 1990. The STF asked Tamil refugees who had fled Pottuvil to return. On 2nd August 1990 about 120 from among the returnees were abducted by the STF and Police. Subsequently thick billows of smoke were seen rising from the police station premises (see our Special Report No.3). Nothing more was heard of those taken. The STF then operating out of Arugam Bay nearby was in charge of the area. During September and early October 1990 again, the STF from Thirukkovil, then under Inspector Ratnayake, dumped about 80 beheaded corpses into the sea.
Here was a Press, supposedly upholding basic principles of objectivity and social justice, lobbying on behalf of security officials who are answerable for grave crimes and trying to create panic among the public over the Government’s moves to restrict the activities of such officials. Even Tamils detained by the Police at random on a daily quota basis were being referred to as LTTE suspects. On some days, the number of ‘LTTE suspects’ detained in Colombo ran into several hundreds!
*To be continued.. next week Conspiracies Galore: NGOs, Tamils, Priests and Xenophobia
*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