The long-awaited UN report on Sri Lanka compiled by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released last week has predictably evoked much excitement and controversy. The UN investigation report on Sri Lanka abbreviated as OISL has provided much information about the alleged activities of the Sri Lankan armed forces, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and State affiliated para – military outfits such as the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) and Tamil Makkal Viduthalaip Puligal (TMVP). As emphasized by UN officials themselves the report is fundamentally a human rights investigation report and not a criminal investigation report. The onus is on the Sri Lankan Government to follow it up by inquiring further into the allegations and findings in the UN report.
The reaction and response to the report by some hawks on either side of the ethnic divide tend to provide a distorted perspective of the report and its findings. On the Tamil side there is a strident demand that an independent International Investigation be launched on the basis of the report. Tamil hardliners act as if the UN report has faulted the Sri Lankan State and armed forces only. The conduct by some Sinhala politicians lends credence to this belief. These politicians from the majority community describe the report as being adverse to Sri Lanka in general and the armed forces in particular.
It is being articulated widely in this regard that the “war heroes” who defeated a terrible terrorist movement and freed the Tamil people from its clutches are being unfairly portrayed as “war criminals”. The sight of LTTE and pro-LTTE elements in the Tamil Diaspora being in the forefront of agitations for an international probe strengthens the suspicion that there is indeed an international conspiracy to blame the armed forces who fought terrorism at the behest of overseas terrorists masquerading as human rights champions. Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said that the UN probe exercise is being done at the behest of the Tamil Diaspora.The attitudes and approaches of both sides unintentionally complement and reinforce each other.
A careful perusal of the 220-page UN report reveals that the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s office has been to a great extent been fair and even handed in compiling the report about alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights violations being perpetrated during the 2002 – 2009 period in general and the final phase of the war in particular. Both the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE have been accused of alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights violations. The cruel treatment of Tamil civilians by the LTTE has been documented. Blame has been apportioned to both sides but not perhaps equally. It is but natural that a democratically elected government and the legitimate armed forces of a country be held accountable at a higher level of standards than a non – State actor proscribed nationally and internationally as a terrorist organization. Apart from this there are also other factors that have restricted the UN from presenting a greater volume of information on the LTTE.
The Report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) has explained the reasons for its inability to gain more comprehensive or official details on LTTE activity thus - “As the senior leadership of the LTTE was killed by the end of the conflict, OISL could not access LTTE officials for direct information regarding the group’s policies, operations or responses to alleged abuses. Investigators interviewed a number of former LTTE cadres who had been subjected to torture and other grave violations by Government security forces. During the interviews, some provided information regarding LTTE responsibility for atrocities or abuses, but most were reluctant to acknowledge or discuss any practices or policies by the organization which might not accord with international law. In addition, the lack of availability of official LTTE documents made it difficult to confirm at what level some practices had been sanctioned. Nevertheless information from a range of sources, including victims of LTTE abuses, enabled OISL to document patterns of abuses committed by the LTTE”.
Notwithstanding the above mentioned constraints, the OISL report does present a significant volume of information on a number of issues about LTTE activity. One of these pertains to the control of movement by the LTTE.
The report states as follows:
“OISL’s findings indicate that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the LTTE had a clear high level policy of preventing civilians from leaving the Vanni, thereby unlawfully interfering with their liberty of movement. The information also shows that the policy hardened from January 2009, although the specific instructions as to how LTTE cadres should prevent anyone from leaving need to be clarified. Nevertheless, the information gathered indicates that a number of individuals, including several children were shot dead, injured or beaten by LTTE cadres as they tried to leave, in contravention of their right to life and physical integrity. These acts may amount to direct attacks on civilians not taking direct part in hostilities, in violation of international humanitarian law. If established before a court of law, and depending on the circumstances, such conduct may amount to a war crime. By compelling civilians to remain within the area of active hostilities, the LTTE also violated its obligation under international humanitarian law to take all feasible measures to protect the civilian population under its control against the effects of attacks from the security forces”.
Wretched of the Wanni Earth
The pathetic plight of the Tamil civilians in the LTTE-controlled regions of the Northern mainland known as the Wanni was of great concern to me during the conflict. I borrowed the description of Franz Fannon and referred to them as the “wretched of the Wanni earth” when writing about them. The prevention of civilian movement by the LTTE during the final phase of the war caused me great anguish then. While the war was in progress , I wrote many times appealing and demanding that the LTTE should let the Tamil civilians leave the war zone if they desired so. I was one of the few Tamil voices crying out then “to let my people go”.
My inaugural column for the “Daily Mirror” in October 2008 was about the wretched of the Wanni earth. In that I outlined the prevailing situation in the war zone and appealed to the LTTE to let the people go. Since almost all Tamil civilians in LTTE-controlled areas were internally displaced persons (IDPs), I referred to them as IDP’s. The following excerpts from that article would indicate my mindset at that time –
“What then is the best option available to alleviate the suffering and ensure safety of the civilians? Obviously it is an end to the war! But realistically it is not possible at this point of time when both the Government and LTTE are embroiled in a “make or break” war”.
“Under such circumstances the second best option is for the beleaguered Wanni civilians to move out from the conflict-ridden areas to the relatively safer areas under Government control. For this safe passage must be guaranteed through the setting up of a viable civilian corridor. Temporary ceasefires should also be declared and honoured. The hitch (and one hell of a one at that) is the self-styled protectors and self-imposed sole representatives of the Tamil people. The LTTE will not allow the people to move out from areas under their control”.
“The draconian pass system will prevent people from moving out. Besides, decades of totalitarian control have conditioned the people into submission. Moreover the vast distance from Vavuniya to the areas where IDP’s are concentrated is also a deterrent. Likewise there is some reluctance by the people in moving to Vavuniya. This is due to fear that they would be penalized as people with LTTE links. Also they would be kept in “camps” like in the cases of existing ones at Kalimoddai and Sirukkandal”. While acknowledging the fact that certain segments of the Wanni population would prefer to stay put in the Wanni rather than move out to Government-controlled areas it must also be emphasized that those desiring to leave LTTE areas should be permitted to do so”.
“It was this writer who first wrote in another newspaper during the first week of August about the growing IDP predicament in the Wanni and urged the LTTE publicly to allow the people to leave saying “Let my People Go”. This column reiterates that position and appeals to the LTTE that it must grant those among the wretched of the Wanni earth who want to leave Tiger territory, an opportunity to do so”.
“The easiest way is for the LTTE to relax its controls and allow “exit” to those who want to move out to government areas. The lack of care and concern displayed by this government to those civilians living in the arena of war deserves condemnation. Likewise, the callous conduct of the LTTE towards displaced Tamil civilians in the Wanni is reprehensible too”.
“IDP’s are entitled to the right of movement. They should be allowed to move to areas of safety if they want to do so. While the government increases the burden on civilians in the name of security the LTTE add to their woes in the name of liberation. The IDP’s are caught in the middle”.
“The UNHCR drafted guiding principles regarding IDP’s emphasize that the displaced be allowed freedom of movement. Principles 14 and 15 are particularly explicit on this aspect. The LTTE is violating the spirit and letter of UNHCR principles by restricting movement of IDP’s”.
“Let My People Go”- Poignant Plea
“Let my people go” was the poignant plea made by Moses to the Egyptian Despot of yore. That was a demand made to an alien ruler by the representative of an oppressed people. Today the same cry “Let my people go” can be articulated on behalf of the Wanni IDP’s to the LTTE hierarchy. Sadly, the LTTE and the Wanni civilians are all of the same ethnicity. Ironically the LTTE claims to be fighting for the Tamil cause. This then is the tragedy of the Tamils, particularly those wretched of the Wanni earth”.
The long war ended in May 2009. In 2013, I was able to visit the land of my birth after an absence of 25 years. I travelled in the North and saw at first hand how a bruised and battered people were getting on with life. I was delighted to see the civilians in the Wanni moving around freely without their right of movement being restricted. I was particularly happy to see schoolchildren on the roads without fear of being conscripted. I was glad that the wretched of the Wanni earth were enjoying the sunshine of hope in their lives.
It is against this backdrop therefore that this column focuses on how the LTTE forcibly prevented the Tamil civilians from leaving the Wanni war zone virtually holding them as hostages. I think this is essential because the Tamil people at large must do some soul searching about how the so called protectors of the Tamil people oppressed and persecuted Tamil civilians in the name of Tamil liberation. I shall be relying extensively on extracts from the UN report.
In this regard, the OISL report itself observes thus -“Likewise, there must be recognition within the Tamil community, for example, of the destruction and harm inflicted on civilians and communities by the LTTE. While the LTTE no longer exists nor controls territory; the legacy of the abuses, committed by and large with total impunity, remains and must be addressed. Even now, in some parts of Sri Lanka, those who were the victims of abuses by the LTTE are still afraid to talk about what happened in the presence of former LTTE cadres”.
Moment of Introspection for Tamils
The premier political configuration of the Sri Lankan Tamils today is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The TNA issued a statement welcoming the UN report. In a refreshing departure from the past, the TNA made a solemn declaration in that statement. The TNA said: “ We also accept and undertake to carry out our responsibility to lead the Tamil people in reflecting on the past, and use this moment as a moment of introspection into our own community’s failures and the unspeakable crimes committed in our name, so as to create an enabling culture and atmosphere in which we could live with dignity and self-respect, as equal citizens of Sri Lanka”.
The UN report has revealed a lot of information about LTTE activity. I shall however confine this article to the issue of how the tigers controlled civilian movement alone. Hopefully other aspects concerning the LTTE could be delved into in greater detail in forthcoming articles. The OISL report at the outset states that “Controls on movement by the LTTE date back many years before the start of the period covered by this investigation, notably by a pass system that was used to grant permission for leaving LTTE-controlled areas. The pass system was implemented with varying degrees of severity. From the beginning of 2009, however, the restrictions became more severe and the pass system was stopped other than for urgent medical cases”.
The OISL report goes on to say: “As the conflict intensified in 2008, the pass system became more and more restrictive to the point where passes were no longer issued except for urgent medical cases referred by a medical doctor for treatment not available in the Vanni. According to a credible source, the LTTE even exercised some control over the medical referral process. LTTE cadres were assigned the responsibility to oversee and authenticate the personal details and medical condition of individuals who were being referred by doctors for treatment outside LTTE-controlled areas. By the end of 2008, therefore, as military operations in the north began to intensify, the civilians in the Vanni were already enduring severe controls and restrictions on movement: they had no option but to stay in the LTTE-controlled territories, whether they wanted to or not”.
Introduction of Coercive Measures by LTTE
The OISL report has a section titled “Introduction of coercive measures to restrict movement – 2009”. This section discloses detailed information about how and why the LTTE intensified its control over civilian movement and forcibly restrained people from leaving. I am reproducing many paragraphs from that section in order to provide a narrative about what went on in those dark - dismal - days. Here are the excerpts:
“By early 2009, measures to prevent people from leaving became increasingly coercive as the LTTE was gradually losing ground, the conflict intensified and people were becoming more desperate to leave with the SLA advancing. It emerged clearly from numerous statements received by OISL that in early 2009, most likely January, there was a decision by the LTTE leadership to prevent all civilians from leaving if they tried. The LTTE Military Wing was instructed to implement the policy. Some sources said that the instructions to military cadres were to shoot at the ground if those fleeing refused to turn back, and to seek instructions from commanders if they still refused to retreat”.
“OISL received conflicting information as to whether the senior leadership had given instructions to shoot directly at those who tried to leave. At least one source said they heard a senior leader giving orders to military cadres to shoot people if they tried to leave. On the other hand, one source alleged that when such a shooting incident occurred those responsible were punished by LTTE leaders, though OISL could not confirm this. OISL can therefore not confirm whether the killings reported below were part of an official policy, or the actions of individual cadres”.
“Witnesses stated that the LTTE told the civilians that they could not leave because the international community would intervene to protect them. Several sources suggested that the reason why the civilians were not allowed to leave was also because some of the LTTE leaders believed that high civilian casualties as the SLA advanced would provoke the intervention of the international community. Available information suggests that the LTTE put in place physical measures to prevent people from leaving its controlled areas, including the creation of checkpoints and sentry positions. These positions together with LTTE mobile patrolling units were seen stopping civilians attempting to cross into Government-controlled areas”.
“Witnesses described how LTTE cadres blocked their path as they tried to leave the conflict area, forcing them to retreat. There were allegations that some were threatened and subjected to intimidation. In some instances people were beaten, following which some were forcibly recruited by the LTTE to participate in military work such as to build trenches along LTTE’s front line positions. Fear of reprisals was often sufficient to deter many from leaving”.
LTTE Sentry Points by the Water
“A number of sources told OISL that they had heard of people being shot, or shots being fired, when civilians tried to leave. OISL received information from other sources about a number of specific incidents, including allegations of several incidents in which civilians were reported to have been killed. One witness described how in the middle of the night, on an unspecified date, they and about 40 or 50 others tried to get to a ship which was bringing in humanitarian supplies, but that the LTTE had set up sentry points by the water and threatened to shoot them if they tried to get past. They tried another route but were again stopped by the LTTE, whom they identified as new recruits because of their uniforms, and because they looked like teenagers. According to the account, when one of the groups started shouting at the cadres to let them go, one of the cadres fatally shot him in the chest. The group were reportedly later blocked by a small group of teenagers armed with rifles who were visibly distressed at their task. Eventually they let the group move forward”.
“In another incident on February 4 at Udayaarkaadu, hundreds of civilians, including children, were stopped by a group of armed LTTE military cadres as they tried to cross a paddy field towards the Government side. The civilians were told to retreat but they kept moving. The cadres reportedly fired warning shots in the air and then on the ground causing bullets to bounce up towards the crowd. Several persons were reportedly injured on the legs from the ricocheting bullets and one person was killed as a result. Bullet injuries to the lower legs were also described in another case, which reportedly occurred in April when two men were shot as they tried to leave. It is not clear whether the injuries were due to direct shots or ricocheting bullets”.
“Other shooting incidents, reported in March, include the shooting and injuring of a 12-year-old girl. She was with her young sister and parents as they moved towards the lagoon to leave. LTTE cadres arrived and shot at them, injuring the girl in the thigh and causing the family to fall into the water. They were brought back to the shore by the LTTE and the girl was taken for treatment. One of the cadres told the witness that they had orders to shoot at people if they tried to leave”.
Elilan Head of LTTE Recruitment Wing
“In another incident, on or around March 20, thousands gathered on the beach after at least one very young child was killed, reportedly when the LTTE fired shots to prevent the crowd from leaving the previous night. Some reports indicate that others were also killed as they tried to flee. The protesting crowd pleaded to be taken on an ICRC ship that had arrived to deliver humanitarian assistance and evacuate seriously ill patients. Witnesses said that people were shocked and disillusioned after these incidents because they never expected the LTTE to treat the people in that way”. The crowd was eventually dispersed by several hundred LTTE cadres. Senior LTTE leader Elilan who was the then head of the LTTE’s recruitment wing, was among those reportedly involved in the incident at the beach”.
“In another reported incident in March, almost a thousand people tried to escape across the lagoon. The LTTE had set up sentry points near the water; however some of those who tried to escape were beaten with sticks and PVC pipes. Men were reportedly taken away to build bunkers. Several young people, including children aged approximately 14 years old were reportedly forcibly recruited causing distress to them and their families”.
“Witnesses described another incident on April 22, after intense SLA shelling, including immediately around Puthumathalan Hospital, when thousands of civilians attempted to leave the LTTE-controlled area. According to witnesses’ testimony, the LTTE threatened them and fired shots into the air to scare them, in an attempt to force the crowd to retreat. Later that same night, they managed to escape from the LTTE-controlled area in spite of the continued shelling and shooting, reportedly coming this time from the SLA positions. According to witnesses’ testimony, people were very desperate to flee the fighting and began walking towards the Nandi Kaddal lagoon, some carrying their friends or relatives who were unable to walk due to injuries or exhaustion. The LTTE did not attempt to stop them this time, and some cadres even helped them. Unconfirmed reports suggest that some of those trying to cross may have been killed by the SLA shooting, because at the time there was no counter fire from behind where the LTTE military was located”.
“In other cases, individuals were reportedly beaten by the LTTE, such as one man when he tried to leave with a crowd of some 200 individuals on March 18. The LTTE was ultimately not able to control the angry crowd, who were then able to leave. Another witness recounted being beaten with a stick by LTTE cadres when she tried to leave and saw others also being beaten. Witnesses said people were desperate to leave; even though they risked being shot by the SLA as they crossed over. In one incident, around March 14, 2009, near PTK, the LTTE reportedly physically assaulted a couple and prevented them from leaving. The man was forcibly taken by the LTTE for what she believes was military duties close to the LTTE’s front-line positions, though he managed to escape a few days later”.
Female Suicide Bomber at Vishwamadu
“On February 9, 2009, a female suicide bomber crossed over and blew herself up at an IDP registration point at Vishwamadu in the Mullaitivu District, killing a number of soldiers and at least eight civilians, including a child. The United Nations spokesperson in Sri Lanka at the time stated “the UN deplores the attack that killed and endangered the lives of innocent civilians, especially those fleeing the fighting”.
“The Government claimed that all the civilians were “held hostage” or used as “human shields” and their goal was to liberate them. Some witnesses told OISL that they moved with the LTTE because they believed that the LTTE would successfully counter the SLA and a ceasefire would be announced, or they believed that the international community would intervene. Some said they felt a sense of moral obligation to follow the LTTE who they believed were fighting for the Tamil people”.
“A number of witnesses also said that they remained in the LTTE areas because they feared being caught in the crossfire whilst attempting to cross the front-line positions. “Between a combination of the LTTE preventing the people from leaving the Vanni and the dangers of trying to cross over the front lines between combatants (and often mines) we were helpless and trapped”, stated one witness. Others said that they felt they could not leave because they had a family member or relative with the LTTE – including those who had been forcibly recruited. Several others had relatives who were too old, sick or injured to leave, and therefore, decided to remain in the Vanni”.
“Many also feared harassment or abuse by the SLA if they crossed to the other side. Several witnesses cited fear of sexual harassment and abuse, of being falsely accused or being perceived as LTTE supporters and being “white vanned” and disappeared by the SLA. Others expressed apprehension regarding the screening process and subsequent deprivation of their liberty that they would be subjected to in Government-managed IDP camps. The available information suggests, nevertheless, that these fears were also manipulated by the LTTE in such a way as to discourage people from leaving the Vanni. The LTTE held public meetings where they warned people of ongoing abuses by the SLA. At a meeting in April 2009, the LTTE leaders reportedly used the fear of women being raped as a reason for justifying preventing people from leaving the Vanni”.
Psychological Trauma of Feeling Trapped
“Witnesses described fears of punishment from the LTTE if they tried to leave and this exacerbated their constant state of panic at being forced to stay in an area that was under almost constant attack by the SLA. Witnesses told OISL that they continue to suffer from the psychological trauma of feeling trapped while exposed to artillery strikes and gunfire. Most of the cases of shootings reported to OISL were related to shots fired in the air or on the ground. In several cases, armed LTTE military cadres shot directly at civilians attempting to flee, reportedly causing fatalities. In some of these cases ricocheting bullets caused injuries (see below). Most of the incidents reported to OISL occurred in March 2009 and a few in April”.
“In spite of this policy of forcing tens of thousands of civilians to remain in an area which was constantly being shelled, with high civilian casualties, and in spite of the attempts by the LTTE to prevent people leaving through threats and violent means, an increasing number tried to do so. Many testimonies indicate that in the last few weeks of the conflict, most civilians, as well as some cadres, were desperate to leave because of the intense shelling and shooting, forced recruitment, multiple displacement, lack of food, water and sanitation, and they were prepared to risk being caught in cross fire or be subjected to reprisals from the LTTE”.
“People escaped by night when they would not be seen, although in doing so they risked being shot at by the SLA. Others were able to escape by negotiating with local LTTE cadres they knew. For example on February 4, a group of about 50 families who were initially denied permission to leave finally managed to obtain authorization from a local commander that some of them knew. In spite of shooting from both parties, they crossed the lagoon carrying white flags on a stick. About 100,000 fled when the Government forces broke through the LTTE defence lines on April 20”.
LTTE Leader Prabhakaran Gave Orders
“On May 14, according to reports, LTTE leader Prabhakaran gave orders which were made public that the population were free to leave and would not be stopped by the LTTE. Tens of thousands then crossed over into Government-controlled territory”.
This then is the tragic tale of how the LTTE prevented the beleaguered Tamil civilians from seeking safety by leaving areas under Tiger-control. The UN report has provided much detailed information. It is the duty of the Sri Lankan Govt, the TNA and human rights organizations to ensure that allegations of LTTE atrocities also be investigated fairly. The UN and the so-called international community must see that allegations against the LTTE are examined in detail by whatever mechanism is set up by the Sri Lankan Govt. Failure to do so would reinforce the suspicion that the UN investigation was only aimed at targeting Sri Lankan armed forces and not the LTTE. The Tamil people must face up to the fact that the LTTE conducted itself cruelly in the name of Tamil liberation. It remains to be seen as to whether affected Tamils would come forward and publicly testify at tribunals and truth seeking commissions about the suffering they underwent at the hands of the self-styled sole representatives.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org