By Rajan Hoole –
The PA government led by Chandrika Kumaratunga was voted into power in August 1994 on a peace platform. Although the LTTE agreed to talk to the Government, to the more careful observer it had clearly signalled its long term intentions. This it did by using a suicide boat to sink the naval vessel Sagarawardene off Mannar in September 1994 and then killing the UNP presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake in a suicide attack in October 1994. A cease-fire came into force and the LTTE ended the cease-fire on 19th, April 1995 with a suicide attack sinking two anchored naval vessels in Trincomalee.
The Government had entered into peace talks with such optimism that it misjudged the LTTE and failed to come to grips with the military and political challenges ahead. As for the LTTE, it had attacked the Sagarawardene on 19th September 1994 after a cordial exchange of letters between President Kumaratunge and the LTTE leader, and talks had already been fixed for 13th October 1994. During the cease-fire the LTTE demanded the removal of the embargo on banned items to the North, removal of certain army camps and the lifting of the ban on fishing. The Government lifted the ban on fishing everywhere in the Jaffna peninsula except near Karainagar and KKS naval harbours. The LTTE remained insistent. The LTTE ended the cease- fire with a surprise attack on naval vessels anchored in Trincomalee. To many Tamil observers and residents in Jaffna, it had been clear from September 1994, that the LTTE’s main intention had been to cripple the Navy.
Observers in Jaffna opine that the renewal of war was timed to coincide with the LTTE’s acquisition of surface-to-air missiles. Two military flights were downed before April ended. Initially there was panic in Colombo. It was feared that the Government’s sprawling military base in Palaly, the naval base in Karainagar and the Elephant Pass camp would be cut off by land, sea and air. The Government was thus forced to take the entire Jaffna peninsula or pull out. The peninsula was brought under control by April 1996, and this was both a significant military and political gain for the Government (see The Jaffna Exodus, our Special Report No.6).
The LTTE had in the meantime used a mixture of persuasion, force and intimidation to drive a considerable segment of Jaffna’s nominal population of 850 000 into the Vanni mainland, where the LTTE was withdrawing. Ever since then, the Government has been trying to take the Vanni and from mid-1996, the war has been dominated by ups and downs in the Vanni. The civilian population lives there under very deprived conditions. Many have fled the area paying extortionate rates to cross the sea to either Jaffna or India, and hundreds have perished in the attempt. Those remaining, particularly the children, face constant pressure to join the LTTE.
As for the Army itself, there has been a significant improvement in its behaviour towards the civilian population by the standards of the 1980s and early 1990s. It cannot however be said that there has been a decisive qualitative change in the character of the security forces. See Sect. 23.3 for an overview on human rights. A major human rights disaster occurred in Jaffna from July to October 1996 where a number exceeding 340 persons disappeared in the Valikamam and Thenmaratchy sectors of the Jaffna peninsula. It happened despite orders given regularly by President Kumaratunge to the security forces to respect human rights.
As we have pointed out in our Special Report No.12 of April 1999, the Military Committee of Inquiry into the Jaffna disappearances was a sham. These disappearances received publicity owing to the harrowing rape and murder of a schoolgirl Krishanthy Kumarasamy, along with the murder of her mother, brother and family friend who went to inquire about her. This happened at the tail end of this period of impunity. It resulted in a court hearing where death sentences were passed on several soldiers.
We argued in our report that very definite pointers to culpability at a much higher level, which turned up in the testimony before the High Court, had been bypassed in the proceedings. Disclosures by those convicted led to excavations in Jaffna and several skeletons were found. Some were identified, corroborating the testimony of the relatives. The Government has been trying to minimise the damage rather than coming clean. Given the long period involved and that inquiries for the missing were continually being made, one cannot accept that the Government remained ignorant of the fact that systematic disappearances were taking place.
It once more raises disturbing questions about the command structure of the Army. Who sanctioned the disappearances? Was it the Army Commander Rohan Daluwatte or the then Jaffna Commander and the next Army Commander Srilal Weerasooriya? Or was it that out of old habit the Army was geared towards this, and everyone knew something and everyone down the line from the Deputy Defence Minister and Army Commander turned a blind eye? If these questions have no proper answer, it means that the problems with looseness in the command structure of the Army still run very deep.
There is an urgent need to disengage operations and promotions in the security services from politicians. Then operations would be less disastrous and responsibility much clearer. Service commanders then could be, and should be, held answerable for human rights violations and breaches of the Geneva Conventions. (We pointed out in Chapter 14 that the ethnic conflict had got so much out of hand that Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions governing international conflicts seems more applicable here than Protocol II governing internal conflicts.) With such a separation of functions, the interests of civilians caught up amidst conflict, and of the platoon commander and foot soldier who are most at risk, would be better served.
We may also record here that the first real attempt to curb violations against civilians by the Army came about with the induction of the ICRC (International Committee of Red Cross) in late 1989. This was strengthened by the agreement the Government signed after discussions between the Government and Amnesty International in the autumn of 1991 where the former accepted a number of recommendations by the latter. Previously, concern had been raised for a number of years since the JVP insurgency of 1971 by the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka which enabled international bodies such as the Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, Asia Watch and the ICRC to become involved.
Locally, the Human Rights Task Force headed by Justice J.F.A. Soza did excellent monitoring work from 1991-1994. It has since been succeeded by the Human Rights Commission. The limitation of these bodies is that the President could simply ignore their findings. Justice Soza investigated specific instances of grave violations. These included the 158 missing persons who were taken by the Army from Eastern University on 5th September 1990 and the 184 persons, including 68 children, from around Sathurukondan just north of Batticaloa town on 9th September. Both these remain unaddressed to this day.
Yet, even this very inadequate climate of accountability helped a better sort of officer to come forward and give confidence to the civilians. Notable among them was Brigadier Larry Wijeratne who served two years in Vadamaratchy, which included Prabhakaran’s home town of Valvettithurai. He succeeded in getting the civilians behind him while being militarily effective (our Special Reports 7, 9 and 10). He was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber on 14th May 1998 while leaving after his final farewell lunch – in some sense a unique tribute.
*To be continued.. next week “Looking Back: The Role of Civil Society”
*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