During the ceasefire between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government, Human Rights Watch researchers went to Batticaloa, Trincomalee, and Kilinochchi to document the LTTE’s use of children in armed combat.
Human Rights Watch, in its report, documented instances where the LTTE forcibly recruited children through intimidation and torture, utilized acts of collective punishment against child soldiers, forcibly recruited more than one child per family, and re-recruited children who previously served. During the ceasefire, the LTTE continued to recruit large numbers of children. What is arguably most significant is that the LTTE’s forced recruitment of children further exacerbated the educational decline of Tamil youth. Now that the war is over, Tamil children may get a chance to further their level of education.
I interviewed Jo Becker, advocacy director of the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, and writer of the “Living in Fear” human rights report documenting the LTTE’s use of children in armed combat.
Jo Becker discussed tactics utilized by the LTTE to force children into joining the rebel group. Despite resistance from Tamil parents, Becker stated, the LTTE would make repeated visits to the family, if a child is not given voluntarily, the LTTE would take one by force—for example, by abducting children.
Becker recalled a specific instance where a girl, due to persistent pressure and threats by the LTTE, decided to unwillingly join the LTTE in fear that “if she did not go they might take her younger sister.”
Another tactic utilized by the LTTE to recruit children, Becker recalled, was by forcing principals and teachers in schools to allow LTTE representatives to give “time in front of classrooms to talk about martyrs to the cause and talk about the responsibility of children to join.”
For instance, according to the Trincomalee Senior Superintendent of Police, the LTTE in July 2004 provided area teachers and principals with exams on the history of the LTTE.
An international worker in Trincomalee said, “The LTTE calls these history lessons. We call them propaganda campaigns. The LTTE says it’s not recruitment, and if individuals choose to join afterwards, so be it. Principals don’t have a choice. The LTTE doesn’t ask permission, they just go.”
In some places, Becker stated, “there were street theatre or public meetings where people were encouraged to join.”
Becker also disclosed stories from children she met who voluntarily joined due to government abuses by soldiers, for example, “maybe their mother had been killed or their father had been killed and [the children] held the government responsible.” “In many cases, these children joined the LTTE to get revenge. They weren’t pressured or coerced,” Becker stated.
A 1993 study of adolescents in Vaddukoddai in the North found that one quarter of the children studied had witnessed violence personally. In response, many children joined the LTTE, seeking to protect their families or to avenge real or perceived abuses.
However, Becker reiterated that “a majority of cases we documented, there was definitely some coercion of threat involved.”
I asked Jo Becker about the common misconception that the LTTE only recruited one child per family. As documented in the Human Rights Watch report, there were several instances where more than one child per family was recruited.
The LTTE demand for one child from each Tamil family does not in practice mean that they only take one child. Becker recalled interviewing a young lady who served for the LTTE, she was sent into battle, and lost her leg as a result of fighting with the LTTE. The young woman, Becker stated, was discharged and sent back home where her younger brother was caring for her due to her disability which made it difficult for her to take care of herself. Then, Becker recalled, “the LTTE came to their house and started pressuring her younger brother to join and she told [the LTTE], ‘I already gave myself to you. I gave my leg for you and now you want my younger brother. What am I going to do if he is taken from me?’ And that was definitely a case where they took more than one child per family.”
A Tamil girl Indra, then fifteen, was approached by the LTTE when she went to a local shop. She said, “They told me you have to join with us.” Indra had an older brother who joined the LTTE at age eighteen and spent nine years with the movement. She said: I told them, “My brother is already in the LTTE,” but they didn’t listen to me. They took me by force in a van. I was crying. My parents heard I was taken and ran to the camp. The LTTE said, “We did not take any girls today.” I was already in the camp. They kept me in a closed room. I kept crying continuously, saying “I want to go home; I want to go home.”
Another girl said that her brother, a seventeen year old, was abducted in 2001; she was forced to join two years later, at age thirteen.
I asked Jo Becker about the severe abuse child soldiers faced while serving under the LTTE. Becker characterized the level of training children were subject to as “rigorous” training involving a lot of physical training in very bad weather. If children got dizzy or could not keep up, the commanders would not let the children take a break or rest and often children would work past their point of endurance.
In addition, Becker stated that the LTTE implemented collective punishment on child soldiers. Ammani, who trained with the LTTE at age thirteen said, “If you make a mistake or don’t follow orders, you are assigned difficult physical training. This happened to me once. One girl in my group made a mistake, so we were all punished.
Children who are caught are typically beaten in front of their training unit, in part as a warning to others. Nirmala, recruited at age fourteen, said: Lots of people tried to escape. But if you get caught, they take you back and beat you. Some children die. If you do it twice, they shoot you. In my wing, if someone escaped, the whole group was lined up to watch them get beaten. I saw it happen, and know of cases from other groups. If the person dies, they don’t tell you, but we know it happens.
Several children said that they considered trying to run away but abandoned their plans when they saw the beatings others received. Selvamani, recruited in 2002 at age fifteen said, “Some others tried to escape, and ran to their homes, so the LTTE was able to recapture them. They were tied and beaten. I thought about trying to escape, but saw others being beaten, so changed my mind.”
Anton Balasingham, during the ceasefire, made the following statement: “With regard to the demobilization of child soldiers, we wish to emphasize that we do not recruit any underage persons following the conventions of the United Nations requesting all countries and non-state actors not to recruit children below age of 18. And we have been releasing quite a large number of underage persons and we have handed them over.”
However, to the contrary, Becker stated that “the LTTE used the ceasefire as an opportunity to recruit additional numbers of children. And recruitment rose during that period.”
Becker referenced the UNICEF database which held a detailed record of children recruited by the LTTE. Becker stated that by the end of 2004, UNICEF’s database contained records of over 4,000 children who were recruited since the beginning of the ceasefire.
I explicitly asked Jo Becker, as it pertains to the Conventions of the Rights of Child which prohibited any recruitment or use of children under the age of fifteen, whether the LTTE did indeed recruit children under the age of fifteen while the convention was still in effect.
Becker responded by stating, “There are a number of different international laws that relate to child recruitment—it is customary under international law that no child under the age of fifteen should be recruited. In fact, it is considered a war crime if children under fifteen are recruited—whether it is by government forces or by an armed group like the LTTE. There is also an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that says that children under the age of eighteen should never be forcibly recruited or sent to fight in hostilities. What we found in our investigation was cases of children both under age fifteen and eighteen who had been recruited into the LTTE.”
Becker stressed the necessity to avoid recruiting children under eighteen due to their lack of “mental or physical maturity” which makes them extremely vulnerable. In addition, Becker stated, “with younger children [there is also an issue] of not fully understanding the implications of what they are being asked to do being more susceptible to manipulation or coercion, perhaps following orders more easily.”
I asked Jo Becker as to whether children recruited by the LTTE would be immediately sent to the battlefield to fight or whether the LTTE also utilized children for other purposes. Becker asserted that she saw “a range of different activities that children were recruited for” ranging from combat operations, enrolment within LTTE-run schools, working in administration (helping to keep records), acting as personal bodyguards to LTTE leaders, and more or less “education or preparatory [training] beforehand.”
Children were initially recruited into what was known as the “Baby Brigade,” but were later integrated into other units. An elite “Leopard Brigade” (Sirthai puligal) was formed of children drawn from LTTE-run orphanages and was considered one of the LTTE’s fiercest fighting units. UNICEF reports that more than 40 percent of children recruited by the LTTE are girls.
In 2004, there was a split between the LTTE main faction and the Karuna-led faction. Subsequently, fighting between these two factions emerged and Tamil children, instead of fighting the imposing government forces, were also fighting and killing each other.
Becker stated that Tamil families began to voice opposition when they found out that their children were going to be fighting and killing each other instead of only the imposing government forces. A large group of parents went to an LTTE camp to get the release of their children. The report documented an instance where about 250 to 300 parents, due to the fighting between the Karuna and Vanni forces, went to an LTTE camp to demand the release of their children.
Becker stated, “For some parents that was a tipping point—they could understand their children being recruited to fight against imposing forces but to have children fighting each other was something they found unthinkable. Parents that were reluctant to protest became emboldened by that situation and felt they could no longer be silent.”
Karuna, at one point, realized that his faction was going to be defeated. Becker stated, “Karuna had over 2,000 children in his forces at that point. These children all went home, but within a short period of time, the LTTE main faction started to track them down and re-recruit them.”
The LTTE organized village meetings, use motorized three-wheeled vehicles make announcements, and sent letters to families, demanding their return.
The children, Becker stated, were “terrified of going back” and resorted to hiding from the LTTE at distant relatives’ homes or other places. Girls who were in the Karuna faction, Becker explained, had their hair cut short and consequently the girls were afraid to go out in public in fear that they would be identified as a former LTTE cadre.
A large number of LTTE cadres got married in order to prevent being re-recruited. There is a general perception that the LTTE does not recruit from among persons who are married (and for many years the LTTE had strict rules prohibiting marriage between its cadres)
Becker emphasized, “even though there was not fighting when we were there, between the government and the LTTE, there was a real climate of fear.”
Certain individuals within the Tamil diaspora, I told Becker, criticized Human Rights Watch’s report, “stating that the report disproportionately focused on children recruited by Karuna’s faction and thus is not an accurate reflection of the LTTE’s activities.”
Becker responded by stating that it is “certainly true that the large majority of children we interviewed had been in Karuna’s faction.” Becker emphasized that Human Rights Watch never tried to conceal that information and explicitly stated where the interviews were conducted, “in regions such as Batticaloa, Trincomalee which were primarily Karuna’s territory.” Becker clarified, “we weren’t representing these interviews as being representative of all children in the LTTE.”
Becker, reiterated, “at the same time, UNICEF had been doing systematic documentation accepting reports of children who had been recruited by anyone in the LTTE—whether it is Karuna or other commanders—and had come up with a database of over 4,000 children. Even though the experiences with Karuna may have been a bit different than with children from other parts of the LTTE, it was certainly a very widespread practice within the LTTE.”
Becker, furthermore clarified, “It certainly was not only Karuna who was recruiting children, that is held up by the UNICEF database and also by Human Rights Watch’s own network that found that the main LTTE faction was trying to re-recruit.”
I asked Jo Becker to talk about what the Action Plan was and to discuss the LTTE’s unwillingness to abide by it.
The Action Plan, Becker explained, was an agreement between the LTTE and UNICEF to ensure the release of children from LTTE forces and to ensure the released children receive rehabilitation assistance and were able to reintegrate into society. There were several facilities [transit centers] set up in the North to receive children that were being released by the LTTE.
However, despite the creation of the Action Plan, Becker explained that “in fact, very few children were ever released and sent to those transit centers and [the] vast majority of children [who were] recruited were not released.”
Since the Action Plan was signed, UNICEF figures show that more than twice as many children have been recruited as have been released. One transit center opened in October 2003, but received a total of only 172 children in its first year of operation.
Although the center has the capacity for one hundred children, it never held more than 49 and for a six-week period in mid-2004, was completely empty. Two other transit centers were constructed but never opened because of the low number of children released
As a result of the Action Plan, UNICEF was given a significant role for monitoring the rights of children. I asked Jo Becker whether it is justified to criticize UNICEF because it provided funds to the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) and accepted the TRO as an implementing partner for the plan.
Local sources in Trincomalee told Human Rights Watch that many TRO representatives are former LTTE soldiers. The TRO is controlled largely by the LTTE, and its credibility is riddled with allegations about its political motives.
According to Canadian intelligence sources, the TRO raises funds from Tamils abroad which it claims to use to assist displaced peoples and former child soldiers in Sri Lanka, but channels much of the money directly to the LTTE.
Becker responded, “There are many who believe that the TRO was an arm of the LTTE. So there was criticism at the time of why UNICEF would cooperate with a civilian arm of the LTTE to facilitate the release of child soldiers from the LTTE.” However, Becker stated that at the time UNICEF felt the only way to get a deal with the LTTE was to form an agreement with the TRO. UNICEF knew it was not a perfect solution, Becker explained, but it was the best they could get at the time.
I questioned Becker in regards to why UNICEF was not able to adequately coordinate with local NGOs especially in response to the mass release of children by the Karuna group in April of 2004. Furthermore, I asked Becker why UNICEF was unwilling to go into the fields and directly speak with mothers in order to prevent further recruitment of children.
Becker responded, “I think UNICEF was doing the best it could. A very large number of children had been released all at the same time. UNICEF was working very hard to setup programs, respond appropriately, they had not anticipated that huge event or the massive release of [children] at the same time. [UNICEF] probably did not have means to coordinate [and consequently] local NGOs [sensed] that they were not getting the help they needed.”
Significantly, Becker stated, because families were told by the LTTE not to talk to outsiders such as UNICEF or Human Rights Watch, consequently, cases were never reported because families were afraid. It can be inferred, Becker stated, “the number of cases reported is just a segment and many cases were not reported.”
The argument voiced by Tamils, in the diaspora, is that it was out of sheer necessity that the LTTE recruited children in order to liberate the Tamil people from “an occupying Sinhala government.”
Becker responded, “If you accept the idea that the cause was just….every party to armed conflict, whether they are an armed group or government, should be willing to abide by the laws of war.
The laws of war have been agreed universally. There are certain things you do not do. You don’t kill civilians, torture prisoners of war, and these laws were agreed so parties would know that the other side was going to adhere to a certain level of decency. For decades it has been agreed that one of the things you don’t do in conflict situations is recruit and use child soldiers. That is a basic tenant of international humanitarian law. Even in desperate measures you don’t want to stoop to war crimes. Using children under 15 is a war crime. No matter how just people feel their cause is… they should be able to adhere to certain standards of conduct.”
To the members of the Sri Lankan community, Becker stated, “I would like to reiterate that Human Rights Watch never took sides in the conflict. We never made any judgments about who was right or wrong. We criticized both sides [of] the conflict. In addition to our reporting on LTTE recruitment of child soldiers, we also issued many number of reports on abuses that were carried out by the Sri Lankan government. We are an objective organization…we weren’t singling out the LTTE for political purposes but it is our practice to document and report on violations of the laws of war and we have done that in many conflict countries around the world including Sri Lanka.”
I find it plainly obvious, because this was a crime committed by the LTTE, and not the Sri Lankan government, the diaspora refuses to acknowledge the grievances of those Tamils affected by the LTTE’s actions in the North and East. The Tamil diaspora considers such grievances as being insufficient to acknowledge. As a result, the Tamil community is stifling key grievances held by its own people.
If you would like to watch the full interview I conducted with Jo Becker, you may do so by clicking here.