By Rajan Hoole –
Father Harry Miller was among the group of American missionaries who came to Ceylon in the late 1940s to serve at the Jesuit foundation of St. Michael’s Batticaloa. He was the last surviving member of the group who passed away in Batticaloa on 31st December 2018. The missionaries were a great strength to the people during the war years. Fr. Eugene Hebert disappeared during those tragic days in 1990 when Tamil-Muslim clashes were engineered in Batticaloa by the LTTE and the Government was not slow in finding them useful (See last days of Fr. Hebert in UTHR (J) Special Report No.3 ). In fact it was the Jayewardene Government that first initiated the clashes in 1985 by using Muslim thugs ferried from Colombo to attack Karaitivu.
Although based in the Tamil community, Fr. Miller was rigorously fair and was sympathetic to the Muslim civilians who were caught up in violence they did not want. Being in the heart of the storm, Fr. Miller would have heard the Muslims being constantly blamed, but he kept his balance. He saw through the popular hypocrisy of support for the LTTE and held that they should be tried for their crimes. He maintained the same standard towards the state forces and tried repeatedly, without success, to have their crimes investigated and the perpetrators punished (see UTHR (J) Reports 7 and 8). He strongly believed that there was no peace without the rule of law.
The following extract from Rajan Hoole’s Palmyra Fallen recalls the UTHR (Jaffna)’s contacts with Human Rights defenders in the Batticaloa District in the early 1990s.
Batticaloa had seen many incidents of massacre and disappearance in the second half of 1990. It was in February 1991 that we were able to go there. The Eastern University had been reopened and our hosts were Sritharan’s contemporaries at Peradeniya, Rabindranath and Jeyasingham, who had attended the commemoration for Rajani in November 1989. Rabindranath became vice chancellor and disappeared in 2006 after being abducted reportedly by the Karuna group under licence from the Defence Ministry. They had detailed information on the abduction and disappearance of 159 refugees from Eastern University on 5th September 1990. With their help we interviewed students of Eastern University from various parts of Batticaloa (Report No.7). Anzar (if I remember the name correctly), a top ranking mathematics student enabled us to visit Kattankudy where there had been two massacres by the LTTE in mosques, where we also subsequently met widows of the victims. Rev. Arulrajah of the Methodist Church helped us to visit Eravur, where too there had been a massacre of Muslims. In its aftermath, the Army used Muslim home guards to massacre Tamils (Report No.7).
On a subsequent visit to Batticaloa in July 1991, we made contact with Fr. Harry Miller SJ of the Batticaloa Peace Committee, which was relentless in documenting disappearances and trying to deliver justice to the victims of the Sathurukondan Massacre by the Army, involving close to 200 persons, just after the disappearances at Eastern University. A lone survivor from the massacre testified before the Peace Committee. Amnesty International got a pledge from the Government to investigate it. The Army then sent in bulldozers and destroyed the evidence.
We then became friends with Fr. Joseph Mary SJ and his twin brother Alphonse Mary, both ardent Federal Party supporters. Rural Batticaloa, of which they knew every nook and cranny, was poetically entwined with their being. While being strong advocates of the Tamil cause, they also wanted the LTTE’s misdeeds exposed. In July 1991 there was an army massacre in Mahiladitivu, Kokkadichcholai. Despite LTTE movement in the area Fr. Joseph Mary thought we could risk a visit there across the lagoon. This was our first visit there with Joseph Mary.
The LTTE had at mid-day on 12th June 1991, set off a landmine and attacked an army tractor carrying supplies from the jetty, killing two soldiers. The Army then came to the village in large numbers, massacred over a hundred people, raped six women, looted, burnt several houses and withdrew. Joseph Mary took us to a leading man in the village, Veerasingam, who had details of what happened. As to how it began, Veerasingam said evasively that they did not know who did what and, there being so many parties in uniform, they could not tell one from another. We then had a demonstration of the authority the priest enjoyed. Joseph Mary cut in sternly, “Veerasingam…the truth.” Veerasingam’s eloquence ceased mid-flight. He then said in a calmer and contrite tone, “Yes it was the LTTE that attacked the Army. They ran away and simply watched from a distance. If they had fired just two shots the Army would never have come. However the LTTE came the next morning to take videos of the carnage.”
The rationale for the carnage was a singular feature of the liberation struggle. From the State’s standpoint, killing Tamils was ideologically congenial. For the LTTE, these killings meant recruits and propaganda videos. It is easy to see what a visiting peace group would have gathered on a visit to the area. Certainly they would have seen evidence of the carnage, but next to nothing about what the LTTE did. An army officer subsequently posted to the area tried to explain away the massacre as the work of village boys with inadequate training. But in fact it was a massacre planned and executed, led by a bearded man with a red cloth on his head. Ten Tamil boys from the PLOTE who were with the Army had been disarmed with forethought (see Report No.8).
On a later visit, Fr. Harry Miller remarked to us that some Tamil priests he met had been unhappy about our reports and asked the reasons for it. We were aware that the Church was divided and non-committal on the LTTE. This enabled some priests who supported the LTTE to speak as though they were the Church and the people. Fr. Miller then remarked that he had told them that where he was concerned, whatever he told us had been reported accurately. He had the same reservations about the Tigers that we had. Our contact with Fr. Miller continued and we were happily on the same wavelength.
The Batticaloa Peace Committee collected a tremendous amount of information about atrocities by the security forces. Likewise it would have been easy to get hold of a large amount of information in the Amparai District. But the commissions of inquiry President Kumaratunge appointed in 1995 did very little to expose the truth. No senior officer of major general or brigadier rank, who was literally on the spot, was questioned. One needs to be pessimistic about Sri Lanka’s ability to come to terms impartially with a host of dastardly official crimes.
In our reports we credited army officers who had acted professionally in trying situations to the benefit of the civilians. Some objected that it gave credit to an army whose record was abysmally bad, most of the time.
Sritharan said in response that had our liberation struggle been virtuous to the extent of being mindful of the lives of the people and, as far as possible, keeping them out of harm’s way, we would have had no need to commend the actions of individual officers of the Army. But our struggle had in fact descended to the nadir of ethical conduct, deliberately provoking the Army in ways calculated to ensure huge reprisals that would maximise propaganda and net a catch of angry recruits. When our acclaimed defenders constantly resorted to such methods, the only protection the people had was the good sense of the few officers who refused to be provoked and thereby saved lives. It is then only right that we should express our appreciation and encourage such behaviour from more officers.