May 18th 2009 marked the end of a twenty-five year civil war in Sri Lanka which devastated the country and cost the lives of thousands of civilians. A segment of the Sri Lankan Tamil community has used the term “genocide” to label the atrocities which were committed against Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan government. However, in the process, a segment of the Tamil community uses the term genocide to disregard the crimes committed by the LTTE against Tamil civilians and the LTTE’s own role in stifling genuine political solutions to end the ethnic conflict, such acts by the LTTE played a significant role in the violent end to the civil war.
The term genocide, as argued by Noam Chomsky, has become “politicized and vulgarized to the extent that it has almost become meaningless.”
The second session of the Permanent People’s Tribunal on Sri Lanka held in Bremen, Germany comes to the conclusion that the Sri Lankan state committed genocide against Tamils, and that such a genocide is currently ongoing, while the Tribunal completely ignores the LTTE’s own atrocities against Tamil civilians and the LTTE’s own role in stifling the government’s implementation of political solutions to the ethnic conflict such as the Indo-Lanka Accord and the August 1995 proposals which, if fully implemented, would have significantly addressed the grievances of the minority communities.
A significant measure in the Indo-Lanka Accord to redress the imbalance in the relationship between the different ethnic groups in the country was the devolution of power to Provincial Councils by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This scheme envisaged the devolution of legislative and executive authority to eight provincial councils which were constituted within the country.
If the Sri Lankan state were bent on committing a genocide against Tamils, as the Tribunal asserts, it is indeed puzzling why the Sri Lankan government agreed to adopt the Indo-Lanka Accord which, in addition to proposing devolution of powers to the provincial councils, also declared that Sri Lanka was a “multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual plural society” consisting of four main ethnic groups—the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, and Burghers. The Sri Lankan government, as a result of the Accord, furthermore recognized that the Northern Province and the Eastern Province “had been areas of historical habitation of the Tamil speaking population.” The ideas embodied in the Accord were significant in framing policies of bilingualism, the provincial council scheme, and the temporary merger of the northern and eastern province as the unit of devolution. However, the LTTE opposed the Accord and stifled the government’s ability to fully implement the Accord, despite the unprecedented rights it gave to the Tamils.
The framers of the Indo-Lanka Accord hoped that they would present the political groups in the North and East and the South of Sri Lanka with a “fait accompli” and that they would progressively build a consensus around the main concepts and ideas embodied in the Accord. The Accord was met with opposition by both the LTTE and the JVP. The LTTE felt threatened by the Accord mainly because it was negotiated between the Indian Government and the Sri Lankan government, and excluded the LTTE from being a negotiating partner. Rajiv Gandhi, by refusing to make the LTTE a negotiating partner of the Indo-Lanka Accord, would not buy into Prabahakaran’s narrative that he was the “sole representative of the Tamil-speaking people”—an undemocratic position Prabhakaran would ruthlessly achieve by killing off leaders of rival Tamil factions. A condition for the cessation of hostilities and the implementation of the Accord was that the Tamil rebel groups would lay down their arms. Despite the fact that most Tamil factions agreed to lay down arms, Prabhakaran ultimately refused and in order to fully implement the Accord, the Indian government tried to forcefully remove the arms from the LTTE. The LTTE engaged in a war with the Indian Peacekeeping Forces (IPKF) where human rights abuses were committed by the IPKF, the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, resulting in the death of many innocent civilians. Premadasa would also covertly fund the LTTE with weapons to go on a killing spree to rid Sri Lanka of the IPKF.
A mistake in the negotiation process of the Accord was that, instead of negotiations being conducted between only the Sri Lankan government and the Indian government, the negotiation process of the Accord should have been broadened to include other parties, such as all the Tamil parties (not just the LTTE). Nevertheless, Prabhakaran’s decision to engage in a full scale war with the IPKF was disastrous for Tamils as it stifled the full implementation of the Indo-Lanka Accord, namely, as it pertains to the devolution of powers to the provincial councils which, if implemented, would have been beneficial in addressing the grievances of the ethnic minorities. The Tribunal, however, ignores such actions by the LTTE and disregards India’s contributions to providing Sri Lankan Tamils with significant constitutional rights or India’s initial attempt to peacefully implement a political solution in Sri Lanka, and instead, the Tribunal labels India as being “complicit” in the “genocide.”
The Indo-Lanka Accord did have some flaws. A flaw of the Indo-Lanka Accord, as argued by Neelan Tiruchelvam, was that “while the Accord called for a redefinition of the Sri Lankan polity, it did not bring about a change in the unitary character of the Sri Lankan state….The Accord did declare that Sri Lanka was a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual plural society consisting primarily of four main ethnic groups: the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, and Burghers. However, no change was envisaged in section 2 of the Sri Lankan Constitution which entrenched the unitary state.” The problem with Section 2 of the Sri Lankan constitution, Tiruchlevam argued, is that it “entrenches a unitary state and this conception of the unitary state has influenced the outlook of the bureaucracy and the judiciary in the resolution of center-provincial disputes. The executive presidency inevitably leads to a concentration of power and authority in the center, and constrained the meaningful devolution of powers to the provinces.”
In 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga was elected President of Sri Lanka and won an overwhelming mandate with more than 62% of the vote running explicitly on a campaign of negotiating with the LTTE to peacefully end the civil war.
A peace process between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE was in effect. The Kumaratunga government was able to establish a cessation of hostilities with the LTTE. Throughout the peace process, the government was focused on developing a political solution, a constitutional reform proposal, which if implemented, would fulfill Chandrika’s mandate in bringing a peaceful end to the civil war.
On April 18th 1995, after eight months of no hostilities, the LTTE broke the ceasefire, citing the government’s failure to implement its pledges in lifting the ban on certain items from entering LTTE controlled areas. The LTTE’s violation of the cessation of hostilities was a devastating blow to the prospects of peacefully ending the civil war. The Tigers sank two navy gunboats (a fourth of the Sri Lankan navy’s entire gunboat fleet), wiped out a military camp killing at least 30 soldiers, and destroyed a police post killing another six.
Despite the fact that the LTTE broke the ceasefire established during the 1994-1995 peace talks, the Kumaratunga government released its constitutional reform proposals on August 3rd 1995 in hopes of resuscitating peace talks.
The August 3rd 1995 proposal, otherwise known as the GL-Neelan package, corrected the mentioned flaws within the Indo-Lanka Accord, and, to date remains Sri Lanka’s boldest attempt to redress the imbalance in the relationship between the different ethnic groups through devolution of power to the regions. The August 3rd 1995 proposal, as argued by Dr.Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, was “federalism in all but name.” Saravanamuttu argued that under the GL-Neelan package, Article 2 and 76, dealing with the unitary state, “would have been amended by the adoption of the federal principle of power sharing and partnership in governance.”
It is indeed puzzling why the Sri Lankan government, bent on committing “genocide” against the Tamil people, as the Tribunal asserts, would propose a political solution that would provide Tamils with unprecedented devolutionary powers and a political solution that would change Sri Lanka into a governing system which was “federalism in all but name.”
The August 3rd 1995 proposals, as articulated by Tiruchelvam, envisaged a “fundamental reconstruction of the distribution of power by the Centre to Provinces. They further envisage more effective mechanisms for ensuring that the Center does not intrude or encroach upon the powers of the Provinces. More effective arrangements for settling of disputes between the Center and the Provinces and a measure of assured finances for the Provinces are also being proposed.” Each Region, President Kumaratunga asserted, “would have a Regional Council with the legislative competence within the devolved sphere and a governor and a Board of Ministers who will exercise the executive power of the region. The governor will be appointed by the President with the concurrence of the Chief Minister and the Governor shall act on the advice of the Chief Minister and the Board of Ministers. The Governor will call upon the person who commands the confidence of the majority in the Regional Council to form the Regional Administration.”
During the peace process, in a February 5th 1995 interview, as it pertains to devolution, Anton Balasingham asserted, “We are told that the government is working on a substantial set of proposals. Once the proposals are given to us we will study it and respond accordingly—we will have to find out whether it satisfies the aspirations of our people.”
However, once the proposals were released, the LTTE reportedly condemned the proposals without even having read them and then killed the individual, Neelan Tiruchelvam, who played a key role in its formulation.
The LTTE, as in the case of the Indo-Lanka Accord, once again, blatantly rejected a political solution to peacefully end the ethnic conflict, in favor of prolonging the civil war. The ensuing war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE would result in the death of thousands of civilians.
Since Chandrika won the Presidential elections with an overwhelming mandate (more than 62% of the vote) to negotiate a peaceful end to the war with the LTTE, if the LTTE agreed to negotiate with the August 1995 proposals, the Sri Lankan public would have put immense pressure on the UNP to negotiate with the PA government on its August 1995 proposals and find common ground.
However, the Tribunal ignores the repeated reluctance on the part of the LTTE to arrive at a political solution with the Sri Lankan government to end the ethnic conflict.
The Tribunal asserts that the Sri Lankan state by killing members of the Tamil group through the orchestration of several massacres ranging from the June 1956 (Inginiyagala massacre) to June 2008 (Puthukuddiyrippu bombing), the government’s indiscriminate shelling and hurdling civilians into No Fire Zones, and the government’s killing of leading Tamil figures like Kumar Ponnambalam, Nadaraja Raviraj, Joseph Pararajasingam, has met a component of genocide.
However, the Tribunal fails to acknowledge the LTTE’s own massacres against the Muslim people, the LTTE’s own massacre of Tamil civilians by using them as human shields during the final stages of the war, and the LTTE’s own killing of leading Tamil figures like Neelan Tiruchelvam, Kethesh Loganathan, Rajini Thiranagama, V.Yogeswaran, S.Yogeswaran, and Appapillai Amirthalingam.
The Tribunal asserts that the Sri Lankan state, by causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the Tamil group, has met another component of genocide against Tamils. The Tribunal discusses the egregious acts of sexual violence committed by the Sri Lankan state and the Tribunal also discusses the “mass displacement of the Tamil people throughout the whole period of the war, spanning well over 30 years. Forced starvation, food and medicine embargos, restrictions on livelihood and basic humanitarian needs also greatly contributed in creating appalling conditions in those areas….The Tribunal also finds that the continuous displacement and endless trauma caused by protracted war had a devastating impact on the minds of the younger Eelam Tamil generations.”
I agree with the Tribunal that serious bodily and mental harm has been caused by the Sri Lankan state against the Tamil people; however, I criticize the Tribunal for not mentioning that the LTTE’s actions against Tamils also resulted in serious bodily and mental harm.
A serious form of trauma against the Tamil people was caused by the LTTE through their forced recruitment of Tamil children to fight in armed combat, as noted by Human Rights Watch.
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 had a generational impact as it 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.
Incidentally, Human Rights Watch (HRW) is also a source cited in the Tribunal’s report—however, the Tribunal, evidently, has selectively chosen only to use HRW reports which discuss atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan government against Tamil civilians and to ignore reports which discuss atrocities committed by the LTTE against Tamil civilians.
The LTTE also caused serious mental and bodily harm to the Muslim people, through its forced expulsion of the Muslim people from the North, the subsequent displacement, homelessness, and economic impoverishment of an estimated 72,000 Muslim civilians, and orchestration of the Kattankuddy Mosque Massacre which killed 147 Muslims, and the Palliyagodella massacre where the LTTE killed up to an estimated 285 Muslims. These atrocities committed by the LTTE against Muslims are regarded by the Muslim community as ethnic cleansing; however, when I interviewed the Prime Minister of the TGTE, he said the LTTE’s actions against the Muslims were not ethnic cleansing. The Muslims were oppressed by both the LTTE and, as recently evidenced, by radical Sinhala-Buddhist fanatics. Both the LTTE and the Sinhala-Buddhist fanatics oppressed the human rights and distinct identity of the Muslim people.
The Tribunal cites that “the genocidal process reached its climax from September 2008 to May 2009 – the Mullivaikkal extermination with a reported 146,679 victims unaccounted for and more than 70,000 people feared dead (some sources have higher figures).”
However, the Tribunal fails to disclose that the LTTE, through their use of civilians as human shields, during the final stages of the war, contributed to this figure.
Human Rights Watch asserts that during the final stages of the war: “The LTTE shot at and injured or killed many of those trying to flee from the war zone to government-held territory. LTTE forces also deployed near densely populated areas, placing civilians in increased danger of attack. As the fighting intensified, the LTTE stepped up its practice of forcibly recruiting civilians, including children, into its ranks and, to hazardous forced labor on the battlefield. Government forces repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled densely populated areas, sometimes using heavy artillery and other area weapons incapable of distinguishing between civilians and combatants. As the LTTE-controlled area shrank, the government unilaterally declared “no-fire zones” or “safe zones” on three different occasions, calling upon civilians to seek shelter there; nevertheless, government forces continued attacking these areas.”
Thulasi Muttlingam, an aid worker stationed in the North, when I asked her whether the LTTE used civilians as human shields, asserted that, “Every single last person in the Vanni who [was] caught in that last time frame they all tell the same story. And these are people who were part of LTTE’s most important martyr families themselves. Here it is common knowledge, and that level of betrayal for them, they expect [that] the army would do this, the government will do this, but when the LTTE did that to them [using Tamils as human shields], the shock of that betrayal…they have been heavily traumatized by that.”
The Tribunal rightfully points out the egregious crimes committed against innocent Tamil civilians under the Rajapaksa government. However, the Tribunal fails to mention that it was the LTTE, by boycotting the elections in the North, and forcing civilians in the North not to vote in the election, which secured Rajapaksa’s narrow victory against Ranil Wickremesinghe in the 2005 Presidential elections.
Prabhakaran wanted to reenergize support for the separatist movement. Prabhakaran thought that by electing a Sinhala-Buddhist hardliner like Rajapaksa, he would get more sympathy for his separatist cause from the international community. Ranil Wickremesinghe, Rajapaksa’s opponent in the 2005 Presidential elections, throughout the Norway-backed peace process, was viewed more favorably by the LTTE delegation (including Anton Balasingham) in comparison to Chandrika Kumaratunga. Wickremesinghe was more open to the political aspirations of the LTTE, even announcing his intention to setup an interim administration for the Northeast in which all political parties represented in the region would have a place—providing a clear nod to the longstanding Tamil demand.
Allegations regarding a secret deal between Mahinda and the LTTE leadership to boycott the election, where a certain sum of money was requested and paid by Rajapaksa to the LTTE, have long surfaced in the Sri Lanka media. Ranil Wickremesinghe even referred to it in Parliament. Mark Salter asserts, “If it is in fact the case that Mahinda, a man who destroyed the LTTE, came into power on the backs of a deal with the LTTE, then there is serious reflection that needs to be done among LTTE supporters as to whether the LTTE are also to blame for the fate of Tamil people in the final stages of the war. If Ranil was voted into power, it could have been a very different trajectory.”
However, the Tribunal fails to take into account the LTTE’s catastrophic decision of boycotting the election which had deadly consequences for the Tamil people.
The co-chair of this Tribunal is a man I have great respect for, his name is Denis Halliday. As a result of the UN sanctions against Iraq, spearheaded by the United States, which resulted in the killing of over 500,000 Iraqi children, Denis Halliday boldly condemned the UN sanctions as “genocidal” and resigned from his 34-year career at the United Nations. However, despite Halliday’s bold and courageous past, I argue that the conclusion by the Permanent People’s Tribunal on Sri Lanka is immensely disingenuous in its use of the term genocide to describe the atrocities against the Tamil civilians.
It is without question that the Sri Lankan government’s atrocities prior to and during the civil war violated human rights, and the government’s atrocities during the civil war of aerial bombing, torture, rape, the White flag incident, and effectively, numerous violations of the Geneva Conventions, are egregious human rights abuses. There must be accountability in this regard.
The Sri Lankan government was not the only party committing atrocities against Tamils, the LTTE were committing atrocities against Tamil civilians as well. However, a segment of the Tamil diaspora, by labeling the Sri Lankan government’s atrocities against Tamils as “genocide,” effectively disregard the LTTE’s role in stifling genuine political proposals engaged with by the Sri Lankan government to peacefully resolve the ethnic conflict such as the Indo-Lanka Accord, and the August 1995 proposals, which, if fully implemented, would have significantly addressed key grievances faced by the Tamil people and the minority communities in Sri Lanka. In addition, a segment of the Tamil diaspora, by using the term genocide, undermines the LTTE’s own atrocities against Tamil and Muslim civilians. Furthermore, the label of genocide is effectively being used as a tool by LTTE supporters to call for a separate state while stepping on the very graves of the Tamil people the LTTE killed.