By Rajan Hoole –
Human rights violations in the war zone under the PA government are less the result of a conscious ethno-supremacist ideology articulated by the State. The opposite was certainly the case in the UNP government’s war strategies during 1984-87 and 1990-91, particularly the attacks and destruction of Tamil villages in the East during 1984-86. These were in flagrant breach of international humanitarian law (see Chapters 14 and 20). In their quality at least, these attacks under the UNP had the markings of genocide! However, despite the conviction in court of some rank-and-file responsible for murder and rape in the Krishanthy Kumarasamay case (our Special Report No. 12), and the forensic excavations at Chemmani, legal accountability under the PA government is a long way off.
There continue to be incidents signifying that much is amiss. From February 1996, there have been four notable massacres by the security forces where proceedings against offenders did not go far. In Batticaloa Town on 17th May 2000, the police bungled the handling of a bomb of which they had been warned. Ten minutes after the explosion, the Special Forces came on motorbikes and massacred 17 civilians including 9 children who had come to see Vesak decorations. The Government blamed the civilian deaths on the LTTE. There was no further inquiry (see our Bulletin No.23). The fear among the people to challenge such a blatant cover up tells adversely on the Government. Torture in police stations and army camps throughout the North-East continues to be routine. There are a few deaths, but several more young Tamils come out disabled. The families affected, who are generally poor, are thankful to see their loved one alive and hardly a case has been pursued in court.
A problem facing displaced civilians visiting their homes in marginal areas remains unaddressed. During 1997, scores of civilians went missing in the Kilinochchi area after being taken into custody by the Army. The issue received publicity following the murder of JDCSI clergyman Rev. Arulpalan (42) and two of his companions while visiting deserted church premises on 25th August 1997. Their severed bodies were recovered. The killers were identified as the Army by three eyewitnesses (our Bulletin No.15). The Defence Ministry blamed the LTTE, effectively conferring impunity on such actions. The problem again surfaced in the Thenmaratchy Division of Jaffna where 9 civilians including a child were bayoneted to death on 19th December 2000, as reported by a survivor. This time the Army Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle wanted the matter investigated and 9 army personnel were remanded following the exhumation of bodies and a magisterial hearing. Jaffna (including Kilinochchi) was under Balagalle’s command when Rev. Arulpalan was murdered.
The Press on 29th October 1999 carried an official statement on Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgarmar’s meeting with the UN Working Group on Disappearances. He contended that the forensic excavations in Chemmani, Jaffna, with international observers in attendance, had exonerated the Government of the mass disappearances in 1996. These, he said, “made clear that there was no ‘mass grave’ as suggested by parties that have a vested interest in tarnishing the good name earned by Sri Lanka on human rights issues in recent times”. The issue was clearly not one mass grave, but hundreds of witnessed and recorded disappearances. Furthermore, no prosecutions have resulted from the skeletons recovered and identified.
The record here is one of disingenuousness. Preventive action has fallen far short of a concerted effort to identify and punish the perpetrators and those who implicitly or explicitly sanctioned these violations. In fighting the LTTE, the PA government compromised with established practices of the Security Machinery. Its approach has been to discourage violations which attract bad publicity. But when they do occur, the trend has been to cover up (Kumaratunge’s handling of the Navaly bombing in Sect. 21.3.2 was an early example).
The PA government’s approach to grievous sexual crimes by the security forces lacks credibility. One could think of several cases where the President ordered a ‘full inquiry’ and nothing meaningful was ultimately done. One of these concerns Mrs. Koneswary Murugesupillai of Central Camp, Amparai District, on 17th May 1997. A grenade was exploded in her vaginal region after policemen raped her. Another was the case of a young mother Sarathammal of Pungudutivu, on 28th December 1999. She was raped and killed by four naval personnel after her brother, Rajasekaran, was tied up. The authorities in the local naval detachment claimed that all their men were in during the night. The matter virtually ended there.
The Navy’s torturing and killing of two youths Tamiran and Sornahasan of Nilaveli, Trincomalee District, on 13th December 2000 is suggestive of a new level of impunity. These two youths had evidently participated in a protest demonstration against the Navy’s killing of 4 innocent villagers, three weeks earlier. The element of premeditation in targetting individuals along with open threats to others is more reminiscent of the situation in 1990 and ’91.
In retrospect, we were too optimistic about the improvement of human rights under the PA government. The disappearances in Jaffna during 1996 marked a turning point. Whether the PA government acquiesced in them willingly or unwillingly, the process of covering up changed its psychology. One aspect of the persisting climate of impunity concerns the two- track approach to the Tamil problem that has long been followed by the Security Establishment.
*To be continued..
*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