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Home > International Tamil Conferences on Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle > > International Conference on Tamil Nationhood, Canada 1999 > Mass Graves in the Tamil Homeland
|Proceedings of International Conference On Tamil Nationhood
& Search for Peace in Sri Lanka, Ottawa, Canada 1999
Mass Graves in the Tamil Homeland
Avis Harrell Sri-Jayantha, B.A., M.A (Sociology) Princeton University
In 1998, a Sri Lankan soldier stated in a Colombo court that he had helped to bury up to 400 bodies of Tamil civilians in a mass grave at Chemmani outside of Jaffna city in the months following the Sri Lankan Army's (SLA) 1996 take-over of the Jaffna peninsula.
Since this credible allegation a year ago there has been no ordered approach to the investigation of the mass grave. The soldier has not even been taken to the area to identify the site, his physical safety has not been assured and the site has not been protected from tampering.
Sri Lankan Government (SLG) efforts to investigate the soldier's allegations can best be described as damage control, rather than a systematic effort to punish an abuse. This is almost expected of the SLG for the following reasons:
The SLG and the SLA have every motivation to make exhumation of the graves at Chemmani and elsewhere a whitewash. This is the reason that, for a credible exhumation of the graves to take place, neutral international experts must be involved during the entire process, otherwise serious questions will be raised about the conclusions drawn from the excavations.
Prosecution of those guilty of these war crimes needs to take place following exhumations of the mass graves. Prosecution is even more problematic because it is rare for a sitting government to vigorously prosecute crimes of this magnitude committed during its time in power by the country's military officials who are involved in an ongoing war. Successful prosecution of high level officials has almost always been either by a subsequent regime or an outside power. Requests by the relatives of the victims for an international tribunal to hear the Chemmani case have not yet received the sanction of the international community, as they have in the countries of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
In Bosnia, Croatia, Rwanda, and now, Kosovo the international community has demonstrated that it will not stand by and allow war crimes and crimes against humanity to go unpunished. UN General Secretary Kofi Annan recently stated that sovereignty is not inviolable when crimes against humanity are in question. (2) The world must bring its concern to bear on the crimes which have been committed, and continue to be committed, in Sri Lanka.
Without a credible exhumation and prosecution of the perpetrators the mass graves in north-eastern Sri Lanka will continue to symbolise the Sinhalese domination of the Tamils using any means necessary, including the slaughter of civilians. Those who eliminate Tamil opposition to this domination do so with impunity, indeed they are even rewarded with promotions.
Why are there Mass Graves in Sri Lanka?
There are several means a larger group uses to weaken or eliminate a smaller group which inhabits territory the larger group claims as its own. I will discuss four: discrimination; ethnic cleansing and its partner, colonisation; mass graves and mass killing; and genocide, in ascending order of criminality. Rarely does each category occur in isolation, and the crime of genocide usually includes the previous crimes, as it has in Sri Lanka.
Lutz concludes his section on `Charges of Genocide' with ``Numerous acts of genocide have been committed in Sri Lanka that went unpunished. They were committed by Sinhalese civilians, members of the security forces and members of successive governments. Likewise, there have been cases of public and direct incitement to genocide by MPs and others that went unpunished. At the time of writing [March, 1998] acts of genocide continue to be committed in the course of the war in the north and east." (8)
With regard to mass graves, note that Oette asserts that allowing indemnity to the security forces for atrocities committed implicates the government in encouraging acts of genocide. Western governments are arguing that Serbian military and political officials who do not prevent the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo may be liable to prosecution by the International War Crimes Tribunal.
Heads of State whose military or police commit atrocities are now being held responsible. Gen. Pinochet of Chile may well stand trial in Spain for genocide and the the current president of the former Yugoslavia, Milosevic, has been charged with crimes against humanity committed by his military during his term of office. The indictment says that the military forces of Serbia and Yugoslavia "acting at the direction, with the encouragement, or with the support of Slobodan Milosevic" have committed acts resulting "in the forced deportation of approximately 740,000 Kosovo Albanians." Acts of shelling, intimidation, random shooting, systematic humiliation and destruction are described. (9)
The former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, has been indicted for war crimes committed by his military. More directly, the Bosnian Serb military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic and Maj. Gen. Radislav Krstic have been indicted for war crimes. Gen. Mladic was present during the killing of 4,000--7,000 Muslim men at Srebrenica in 1995. Gen. Krstic is believed to have been acting under Mladic's ``direct orders when he led the attack on Srebrenica and has been indicted for genocide because of his direct personal involvement in the commission of these crimes" as well as his ``command responsibility." (10)
Similar questions about 'direct personal involvement' and 'command responsibility' must be raised in prosecuting those responsible for the killing of civilians after the attack on Jaffna, those responsible for the deaths of people buried at the stadium in Jaffna and those responsible for the massacres in Navalady, Saththurukkondaan and Kokkaddichcholai in Batticaloa. The killings of Tamils over the years have been on a large enough scale that it is impossible to attribute them only to the actions of low level soldiers acting without orders. Responsibility for atrocities against Tamils must be carried to levels which the international community now considers appropriate.
Nadesan Satyendra states that the genocidal intent of the Sri Lanka government is proved by:
Prof. Leo Kuper in his book 'Prevention of Genocide', identifies the following features of domestic genocide:
In International Action against Genocide, Kuper adds, among others,
We can see that all these structural elements of a genocidal situation are present in Sri Lanka.
I. L. Horowitz identifies genocide as "a fundamental mechanism for the unification of the national state (14) and this is certainly an issue in Sri Lanka where the current conflict is over the structure of the state and the distribution of power within that state, with the Sinhalese not willing to share the power and the spoils of the state with other groups and completely unwilling, just like Milosevic, Habibie of Indonesia and Jiang of China, to recognise the Tamils' right to self-determination.
When the LTTE raised the issue of alleviating some of the genocidal conditions affecting the Tamils during the 1995 peace talks, especially the embargo on Tamil areas and the lack of freedom of movement of Tamils, the SLG complained that the LTTE did not want to talk about a political solution.
In the winter and spring of 1995/1996 the SLA invaded the Jaffna Peninsula after 5 years of de facto LTTE control. The peninsula's population centres were under military control by the end of May, 1996. Hundreds of thousands people fled the assault. These internal refugees have been slowly returning ever since because of the harsh conditions elsewhere. After May, the SLA turned to consolidation of its conquests, with a rhetoric of `hearts and minds,' but a reality of bunds, checkpoints and disappearances.
Tamils began disappearing almost immediately after the SLA took control. The bodies of people arrested by the military were regularly found dumped by the sides of the area's roads. (15) News of disappearances started to come out of Jaffna in the fall of 1996. In a telephone conversation, the US State Department's human rights officer for South Asia said that an LTTE press release of 15 March, 1997, which quoted the Colombo-based Centre for Human Dignity figure of 676 disappeared, (16) was 'conservative.' He said that the government used a figure of 723 disappearances. It sounded like he would not be surprised if the real figure was even higher. (17) He said the next question was what had happened to all these people and, if they had all been killed, it was `horrifying.'
Amnesty International said that, of the up to 600 Jaffna Tamils who disappeared in Sri Lankan military custody, "nearly all have died as a result of torture or been deliberately killed in detention." (18) Further, "it had found reliable evidence suggesting that bodies "may have been disposed of in lavatory pits, disused wells and shallow graves." (19)
In the Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Disappearances and Extra-judicial Killings, Mr. Bacre Waly N'diaya, following his 1997 visit to Sri Lanka, comments,
The 5 member Bandula Kulatunge committee, composed of senior military and police officers was appointed in mid-1997 to probe the disappearances. The committee submitted its report in April, 1998 in which it identified those responsible for 25 disappearances. The report remains unpublished and no action has followed. (21)
As Prof. Oberst pointed out concerning the East, (22) most killings there have been of rural, low caste people, which he attributes to caste prejudice. It is always easier to kill those with little power and few contacts, which Krishanthi's case demonstrates.
On 7 September, 1996, at the height of the disappearances, a school girl in the 12th grade at a prestigious girls' school in Jaffna, Krishanthi Kumarasamy, going home after her `A' level chemistry exam and the funeral of a classmate who had been hit by an army truck, was arrested at the Kaithady checkpoint in broad daylight in front of several witnesses, raped by 11 men and killed at Chemmani, an army camp in a SE suburb of Jaffna. Krishanthi's mother, a retired school principal, her 16 year old brother and a male neighbour went to look for her and disappeared also. The SLA denied ever arresting the four, as they frequently do for people who `disappear.' Amnesty International issued an Urgent Action Appeal (23) on 20 September 1996. A Colombo newspaper, the Virakesari, published the story and Batticaloa MP Mr. Joseph Pararajasingam raised the matter in Parliament on September 16.
Apparently a boy noticed the remains in shallow graves within the army camp in mid-October and the SLA notified the only remaining sister, who lives in Colombo. The bodies were taken to Colombo at her insistence. The SLA imposed the condition that the bodies be cremated within 24 hours.
A case was filed on Krishanthi's behalf and 9 low level soldiers were prosecuted. President Kumaratunga took an interest in the case and decreed a trial-at-bar, rather than a trial by jury, which assured an expedited procedure. In late spring of 1998 well informed sources thought there was little hope of winning the case because of the lack of forensic evidence.
In July, 1998, five soldiers and a policeman were found guilty and sentenced to death. During the locutus one of those sentenced, Lance Corporal Rajapakse, said that he had personally been involved in the burial of Tamil civilians killed by other Sri Lankan troops and said bodies had been brought to Chemmani, a water-logged stretch of wasteland a few kilometres from Jaffna, for burial. He said, ``there are 300 to 400 bodies on this land" (where Krishanthi's and the other three bodies were discovered). He also said "Almost every evening, dead bodies were brought there and the soldiers were asked to bury them." (24) Rajapakse's statements were corroborated by another accused in the case, Jayatilleke.
Within 10 days of Rajapakse's statements in court, Yukthiya, a Sinhalese language newspaper, printed a map showing the location of the burials and reported "There is absolutely no way that so many civilians could have been killed and buried without the knowledge of these officers (Operation Riveresa senior commanders in Jaffna). (26) In July, the Human Rights Commission initiated investigations concerning the mass grave and on July 22 the Ministry of Defence issued a statement indicating that the police Criminal Investigation Dept.(CID) had been directed to investigate Rajapakse's allegation. (27)
The CID recorded a statement from Rajapakse and announced that he would be taken to Chemmani to identify the location of the graves in early August. This has not yet occurred, however. Taking Rajapakse to Jaffna is the obvious first step in the process of prosecuting the criminals who killed and buried civilians in these graves. When this did not happen, suspicions of a cover-up were raised that have not since been dispelled. Rajapakse was assaulted in jail, presumably in attempt to get him to retract his allegations, and ended up hospitalised. (28) There are fears that Rajapakse will be executed before he can point out the locations of the graves.
The Chemmani area has been shut to civilians since 1995. (29) Those responsible for the war crimes are in charge of the evidence. Since Rajapakse's allegations, the Tamil Centre for Human Rights in London says that smoke has been seen rising from the area and the sounds of heavy machinery moving around have been heard. (30)
The Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong expressed concern that the army may destroy the evidence. (31)
The Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission (HRC) has expressed concern that the site was being tampered with. (32) This fear is not unfounded considering that Serbian activities have destroyed much of the evidence of the slaughter at Srebrenica. (33)
Pressure developed from the outside world on the SLG investigate such an obvious allegation of abuses by the security forces.
The Human Rights Commission requested forensic assistance from the UNHCHR, which was promptly granted, (35) although there was concern about payment. The SLG has not yet given permission for this assistance to be rendered. Foreign Minister Kadirgamar, however, did say in September, when questioned in New York at the Asia Society, that a forensic team was being assembled and the investigation would begin shortly. (36)
A letter was sent by the Jaffna-based Guardians of Missing Persons Association to High Commissioner Mary Robinson signed by 10,000 people urging excavation of Chemmani. (37) Parents and relatives of missing persons, notably the President of the Guardian Association, filed habeas corpus petitions in the Jaffna courts in the fall. (38)
The US State Dept. Report on Human Rights in 1998 mentions that ``The Government has been slow to investigate this claim (of a mass grave at Chemmani)." George Pickart, Special Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for South Asia visited the site of Chemmani in late August, 1998. (39) He reportedly remarked that ``This is not going to change anything [in US-Sri Lanka relations]." He probably meant that the US does not intend to use its influence to choke off World Bank and IMF money as the US did this winter to force the release of the Bosnian Croat, Dario Kordic, to the International War Crimes Tribunal. (40)
In February 1999 the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry announced that the Jaffna magistrate had authorised the excavation of the site to start on March 5. The local magistrate, Judge Ekanathan, sharply rebutted this statement, saying he had only authorised a hearing, (41) and also complained of the SLA 'protection' he was being given. The LTTE's Jaffna political section leader wrote a letter shortly thereafter in which he said, ``The local courts in Jaffna are handling the inquiries into the Chemmani graves. The government is not going to give justice to the people of Jaffna," and ordered the closure of all local courts. (42)
The SLG tried to use this closure as an excuse to explain further delay in exhumation of the remains. All aspects are not clear to outsiders, but the most likely interpretation is that the LTTE wants an International War Crimes Tribunal to try the case. It has no faith that local courts are capable of withstanding pressure from the SLA. The Jaffna courts have been limping along due to the continuing tussle over legitimacy and power in the North between the SLA and the LTTE. The SLA is trying to install a civilian administration to make it appear the North is not under military rule, and the LTTE is contesting the establishment of a 'Vichy' regime.
An Additional Magistrate for Jaffna, N. Arulsagaran, was appointed and flown from Colombo to supervise taking of soil samples to determine if the Chemmani site had been disturbed. The CID had requested permission for excavation to begin, but Arulsagaran would only authorise soil samples. (43)
The operation was criticised because Rajapakse had not identified areas to be tested. Instead, samples were taken from close to a main road where all passers-by could have seen bodies being buried, Uthyan (44) said the whole affair could be seen as a political stunt by the SLG for the forthcoming provincial council elections. In any case, analysis of the soil samples determined the site had been tampered with. At the presentation of the soil samples in Colombo before the Additional Magistrate at the beginning of April, he set the date of June 15 for taking Rajapakse to Jaffna, with the exhumation to begin the following day. The attorney who appeared on behalf of the victims told a reporter that he would not appear in future hearings as there had been no involvement of foreign experts. There was also some concern expressed by both the judge and this attorney that the venue of the case had been shifted to Colombo (45) .
To date no international experts have been involved in the exhumation of a mass grave of Tamils to assure an unbiased investigation. Amnesty has said that it will send observers as soon as any full exhumation of the Chemmani site begins, but has not yet received permission from the Sri Lankan government. (55) Permission for international forensic experts to be present at Chemmani has also not been given.
If the SLG wants to do an impartial, investigation producing evidence that will stand up in court, then it must allow neutral parties to be present during all phases of the exhumation and analysis, including the lab work, to assuage the very strong suspicions that the SLG itself, as mentioned before, has the motivation to whitewash their own armed forces of these war crimes. If neutral parties are not present during the entire process, no one will believe the results or conclusions drawn from the exhumation. This mistrust is deep and based on decades of abuses. No one would expect Serbian geologists and forensic scientists to do a neutral job of excavating mass graves in Kosovo, or would permit a Belgrade lab to study Kosovar soil samples, but exactly this scenario is unfolding in Sri Lanka.
There have been enough mass graves excavated around the world that accepted procedures have been developed. A UN protocol is also available to serve as a guideline. Each grave poses particular challenges, but the work of medico-legal investigation teams is usually divided into five phases:
The quality of the whole process is determined by the skill and motivation of the people involved in the excavation. As the Argentina Anthropology Forensic Team notes, for instance,
The independence from military and political influences of those working on the graves in the Northeast will be a significant issue and will determine the credibility of the results.
At least three sources, as noted above, have raised fears that the Chemmani site has been tampered with since allegations were made in July. If the site has been tampered with, as has occurred in Srebrenica and the Congo, useful information from the site can still be obtained by a motivated excavation.
(1) Sri Lanka: The Continuing Spectre of Disappearances, November 27, 1997, (ASA 37/27/97).
(1a) Yukthiya, July 12, 1998
(2) The New York Times, April 8, 1999.
(3) Is Jaya Sikurui Raising Weli Oya Spectre Again? - The Island, 1 June, 1997.
(4) Colonisation and Politics: Political Use of Space in Sri Lanka's Ethnic Conflict in Chelvadurai Manogaran and Brian Pfaffenberger - Sri Lankan Tamils: Ethnicity and Identity - Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1994.
(5) Patricia Lawrence, unpublished manuscript, 1999
(7) Prevention of Terrorism Act and several Emergency Regulations.
(8) Lutz Oette, The International Crime of Genocide: The Case of the Tamil People of Sri Lanka. Tamil Information Centre, London; March, 1998; p.52--54.
(9) The New York Times, "Warrants Served for Serbs Leader and Four Assistants," 28 May, 1999.
(10) The New York Times}, "Bosnian Serb General is Arrested in Genocide Case", 2 December 1998.
(12) Prevention of Genocide, Yale University Press, 1985, p.200.
(13) International Action Against Genocide, Minority Rights Group, 1982, p.7.
(14) I. L. Horowitz, Genocide, State Power and Mass Murder, 1976, p. 79
(16) Of which 271 were government officials and 26 students - The Sri Lanka Monitor , July, 1998.
(17) Dr. Sathananthan states that 1,500 people disappeared on the Jaffna peninsula in 1996 and 1997, - Hot Spring}, November 1998, p.31
(18) ASA 37/27/97, 21 November 1997
(19) ASA 37/18/98, 3 August 1998
(20) Released March, 1998, document E/CN.4/1998/68. Visit was 24 August to 5 September 1997.
(21) The Sri Lanka Monitor, July, 1998
(22)Robert C. Oberst, ``Hell in a Faraway Place: The Silent War Against the Batticaloa Tamils, 1990-1997," a paper presented at the South Asia Conference, Madison, Wisconsin, October 1998.
(23) UA 222/96
(24) ASA 37/17/98, 3 July, 1998.
(25) UTHR(J) report no. 12, 28 April, 1999 quoted in The Island, 12 May, 1999
(26) Translated and reported in TamilNet, 13 July 1998
(27)US State Dept. Sri Lanka Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1998, p.4.
(28) Agence-France Presse, 23 August 1998
(29) BBC, March 5, 1999
(31) AHRC SL/UA980825
(32) TamilNet, 31 July, 1999
(33) The New York Times, April 4, 1999
(34) ASA 37/18/98, 3 August 1998
(35) AFP, 2 Sept, 1998
(36) The HRC does not seem to be actively involved in the Chemmani case currently. In fact, not much has been heard of them since 2 of their Jaffna staffers who were investigating disappearances were transferred out of Jaffna in August, according to TamilNet, 29 August 1998.
(37) AFP, 28 Sept., 1998.
(38) TamilNet, 20 Sept., 1998.
(39) The Sunday Times, Sept.1, 1998.
(40) The New York Times, April 12, 1999
(41) TamilNet, 18 February 1999; BBC, 18 February 1999
(42) Tamil Guardian, 13 March, 1999
(43) The Sunday Times}, 7 March, 1999
(44) Uthayan quoted in TamilNet, 6 March, 1999.
(45) TamilNet, April 1, 1999
(46) THCR Press Release, 06B/1998, 29 August, 1998 So far nothing has been done to investigate these reports.
(47) ASA/37/18/98, 3 August, 1998
(48) TamilNet, 18 April, 1998
(49) The Sri Lanka Monitor, December, 1998
(50) Robert Oberst, op.cit.
(51) Taraki, The Sunday Times}, 28 March, 1999
(52) 31 March, 1998.
(54)Taraki, op.cit.}; Dr. Patricia Lawrence, unpublished manuscript, 1999; TamilNet, "Investigate eastern graves -- TULF MP," April 20, 1999.
(55) BBC, March 5,1999. ASA 37/13/99, 18 May, 1999
(55a) US satellites are being used to identify possible sites of mass graves in Kosovo.
(57) Biannual Report 1996-1997, Argentina Forensic Anthropology Team, p. 4