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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
22 April 2008
The Time magazine (Asian edition) of May 3, 1993 carried the following mini-obituary note to mark the end of an ambitious career in Sri Lankan politics.
Fifteen years have lapsed since the assassination of once-powerful UNP Cabinet minister Lalith Athulathmudali (1936-1993) on 23 April 1993.
As noted in Time’s mini-obituary note, before his death, for two years he overtly crossed swords with the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa (1924-1993) in the Colombo political theater and his stellar career got mortally wounded. Fate would decide that both combatants would lose their lives to assassinations within a span of 8 days; Athulathmudali, on April 23, 1993 and President Premadasa, on May 1, 1993.
It was a double jeopardy for the Sinhalese. Accusations and innuendos filled the Colombo air that Athulathmudali was felled by Premadasa’s hand-picked assassins and, Premadasa in turn was felled by Athulathmudali’s powerful sponsors, though it became convenient for Sinhalese to place the blame on Tamil Tigers [‘the usual suspects’].
My obituary note (comparatively lengthier than what the Time magazine had offered) to Athulathmudali appeared in the Tamil Nation (print edition) of May 1993 (page 2), with marginal revision to my submitted text. It appeared anonymously.
For the record, I provide below
My obituary note on Athulathmudali again is somewhat a contra view of what has been written about him by his Sinhalese admirers. But, I had collected his quotes that reflected his then political motives in ascending to the political throne on the wings of Sinhala chauvinism.
Athulathmudali – An Appreciation,
Don’t get me wrong when I say that I love Lalith Athulathmudali in one sense. A dictionary definition for ‘attorney’ states, ‘One appointed to act for another in business or legal matters’.
To Lalith Athulathmudali, this function perfectly fitted his shoes. He was the attorney of Sinhalese interests. Personally he was not only ambitious, articulate and assertive, but also arrogant and audacious in his dealings with Eelam Tamils.
In an important way, I feel that attorney Athulathmudali was a god-send guy to the Tamils to wake them from their slumber on defending the Eelam territory. So many thousands of Tamil lives and limbs would have been spared if not for the rash decisions made by this legal scholar while he held power. Thus, he, in his arrogant style, contributed to the ‘fighting spirit’ of the Eelam Tamils and activists.
Let me present some of Lalith Athulathmudali’s thoughts chronologically as recorded in 1984 and 1985. History will record that these two years (following the 1983 holocaust) were vital for Eelam campaign. He was crowned as the ‘war minister’ in March 23, 1984 and held this position for almost five years, till President Premadasa clipped Lalith’s wings of command in early 1989. There is no doubt Athulathmudali contributed to the current vigor of Eelam consciousness. Hence, my love for him. Athulathmudali was the attorney for the Sinhalese interests in the 1980s, when he delivered the following messages;
Of these selected 13 quotes of attorney Athulathmudali, I really like quote number 5 for its brevity and truth. ‘If you are weak in the face of terrorism, you stand no chance.’ He was an agent of state-sponsored terrorism and Tamils should never forget this advice of him for a long time.
As one of the early and active proponents of ‘Demolish the Tamil Tigers’ school among the Sinhalese political elites, the deeds of Sri Lankan Army during 1984-85 under Athulathmudali’s direction deserves an extended look and what I have compiled is presented below.
Architect of the ‘Scorched Earth Policy’ in Sri Lanka
As opposed to quote number 5 (noted above), Athulathmudali’s quote number 11 was a blooper revealing his utter ignorance on military strategy and tactics in the battle field. But one could excuse Athulathmudali for his ignorance, since he was only a tub-thumbing politician cloaked in the role as a military general. But what the Tamils and Muslims living in the North-East regions of the island would never forgive and forget was Athulathmudali’s atrocious indulgence, during 1984-mid 1987, on ‘scorched earth policy’ to blunt the then budding Tamil militancy.
The tenacity of Tamil Tigers thwarted Athulathmudali’s dreams as a military hero. The adjectives used by a Western diplomat to characterize Athulathmudali’s persona in 1984 were ‘‘vigorous, tough, aggressive and mean’, according to a New York Times feature (see below).
Tamils, Muslims and even Sinhalese like President Premadasa (who opposed Athulathmudali) would hardly counter this characterization. The ‘scorched earth policy’ ardently practised by Athulathmudali’s military charges in the Tamil regions of the island, since 1984, was a generous offer from his Israeli contacts. In an interview to the New York Times, Athulathmudali had boasted “About 10 Israeli agents have trained about 100 Ceylonese in intelligence tactics in the last two months.” (see below)
Notices on Athulathmudali’s Performance in 1984
Athulathmudali’s performance has been assessed by two professors, namely Robert N. Kearney (a ranking Sri Lanka specialist among the American academics) and Kingsley M. de Silva (President Jayewardene’s biographer). I provide excerpts from the observations of both below, in chronological order.
In his contribution to the recurring annual scan on Sri Lanka to the Asian Survey journal, Prof. Kearney had written,
Prof. Kearney had continued further:
Almost a decade later [and after the assassination of Athulathmudali], Prof. Kingsley de Silva recorded the following synopsis, in his biography of President Jayewardene.
One should note that the truth was more complex than what was recorded by Prof.K.M. de Silva. Minister Athulathmudali’s gung-ho approach of ‘scorched earth policy’ in demolishing the residential habitats of Tamils living in the North-East also largely contributed to these hapless folks moving to Tamil Nadu. To indicate academic rigor, Prof. de Silva had incorporated 43 foot-notes, but not any of the published materials of that period, that I have transcribed below.
Accounts by the non-Sri Lankan Field Journalists
Thanks to the then interests of a few non-Sri Lankan journalists (William K. Stevens, Michael Hamlyn, Sanjoy Hazarika, Mary Anne Weaver and Steven R. Weisman) who had filed exclusive reports to the Occident press while visiting Colombo and the troubled locales, what Athulathmudali (during the first year of his tenure at the Minister of National Security) perpetrated in the North and East regions of the island has appeared in print. I present the transcripts of a representative selection (that I managed to collect) of these for academic and archival purposes.
Presented below are the chronologically arranged 12 news reports that had appeared in the New York and London press.
Though some ethnographic details noted in this compilation are clichéd and controversial, I have retained these for sake of completeness and faithful transcription.
Unlike some Occidental academics of these days who rake money in writing semi-fictional theses on the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict without even bothering to plant their feet in Sri Lanka, these journalists deserve recognition for visiting the troubled Tamil locations then and recording what they had seen.
Also, make a note that during the period covered (from April 1984 to February 1985), the abbreviation LTTE had not entered the political lexicon. The young Tamil militants were variously tagged as militants or terrorists or insurgents or secessionists. This was also a period before the emergence of suicide bombing strategy incorporated by the LTTE into their battle field armoury.
Did Athulathmudali succeed in his atrocious scorched earth policy? The answer appears in Michael Hamlyn’s one field report, as a sentence.
How the vigorous scorched earth policy of Sri Lankan state’s militarists could have precipitated towards the emergence of LTTE’s suicide bombing strategy is a theme that deserves in-depth scrutiny. The subheads, dots and passages within parentheses (wherever noted) are as in the originals.
Recent Fighting in Sri Lanka Dims Hope for Ethnic Peace - [William K. Stevens, New York Times, April 22, 1984]
Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 21: Fighting between Tamils and Sinhalese in northern Sri Lanka recently has touched off fears that this island democracy is on the brink of prolonged civil strife. At least 50 people, according to Government reports, and perhaps 200 by other estimates, have died this month as Government troops, Buddhist Sinhalese in origin, have retaliated against Hindu Tamils after Tamil terrorists renewed attacks against Sinhalese in and around the northern city of Jaffna.
Sinhalese comprise about 74 percent of Sri Lanka’s 15 million people, formerly known as Ceylon, but Tamils who make up about 18 percent of the population, predominate in the north, where they are seeking to create a separate state. Until the recent violence the Tamil militants had generally refrained from political killings since the riots of last July, the worst since Sri Lanka became independent in 1948. Last July Sinhalese rioters killed an estimated 600 Tamils in six days and burned hundreds of Tamil homes, businesses and factories in Colombo, the capital, and elsewhere.
Since the last July riots, as the country has tried with difficulty to recoup its economic losses and searched for a political solution to the Tamil-Sinhalese split, a deeper sense of discouragement has set in. President J.R. Jayewardene, whose main constituency is in the Sinhalese majority, calls the chasm between Tamils and Sinhalese ‘an unbridgeable gap’. And a Tamil politician, V. Yogeswaran, morosely told an Indian publication last month: ‘Ceylon, actually has no future. At best we will be the Lebanon of Asia.’
The Government, believing that Tamil insurgents are being trained in southern India, the Tamils’ original homeland, is said to be mounting a major effort to knock out the budding insurgent movement before it can jell. The movement is believed to be divided among a number of factions, but to have the potential for throwing a force of 5,000 rebels against the Sri Lankan Army, which is not much larger.
Recently the Government created a Ministry of National Security to counter the terrorists. It is headed by a Sinhalese, Lalith Athulathmudali, who is described by a Western diplomat as ‘vigorous, tough, aggressive and mean.’ The new ministry will try to break the pattern that led to the killings last July, and that, it is feared, could lead to another bloodbath. In this pattern, Tamil terrorists kill Sinhalese troops, civil servants or ordinary citizens. Then the Sinhalese retaliate.
In the latest terrorist thrust in Jaffna, Tamils killed two off-duty Sinhalese air force personnel, then two Sinhalese policemen coming out of a tea shop, then two Sinhalese civil servants as they emerged from a restaurant after breakfast. They also tried to blow up a military convoy with a car bomb. Soldiers and airmen, according to some reports, went on avenging rampage in Jaffna, killing and, according to some accounts, raping.
This pattern was part of July’s riots, as well, and has raised the question among some as to whether the military is really under the Government’s control. So far, the country has been spared the kind of Sinhalese mob attacks against Tamils outside the Jaffna area that took place in July. But with the latest terrorist offensive and Sinhalese counteroffensive in the north, Colombo’s Tamils are once again living in a state of fear. ‘We don’t know at what moment we’ll be killed,’ said a young Tamil woman here whose home was burned in July, and who was saved then only because Sinhalese friends hid her.
All of this amounts to an irony in what is in many ways the quintessential tropical paradise, the land called ‘Serendip’ by early Arab mariners and ‘the pearl of the Orient’ by early European explorers. It is a land slightly larger than West Virginia, with clean, beautiful beaches, green mountains, trout streams, jungles and wild elephants and leopards. Its people are highly literate and healthy, with a literacy rate of more than 80 percent and a life expectancy of 68 years. Only a year ago President Jayawardene’s economic policies were credited with transforming the economy from one of scarcity to one of abundance. The Sinhalese and Tamils are divided not only by religion, but by ethnic background: the Sinhalese are of Aryan stock, the Tamils of darker-skinned Dravidian extraction.
Rivalry for a Millenium
The rivalry between the two groups goes back more than a millennium, but in recent times it has sharpened. When Ceylon was ruled by the British, Tamils eagerly learned English and achieved positions of power and influence. After independence, they held a disproportionate place in the government, in universities and in business. The Sinhalese resented this and began pressing for Government steps to reverse what they saw as favoritism to Tamils. Tamils, for their part, charged the Sinhalese with being less successful because, the Tamils said, they didn’t work hard enough.
Successive governments, bowing to the majority Sinhalese will, tried to reverse the Tamil advantage by, for example, discouraging the use of English and by limiting the Tamils’ access to universities and government positions. The pendulum is still swinging that way, and the Tamils’ sense of loss is behind their drive for a separate state. Political discussions aimed at accommodating those demands have gotten nowhere. Mr. Jayawardene has expressed sympathy for the Tamils, and has, for example, taken steps to reintroduce English as a bridge language. But he has not satisfied either the leaders of the Tamil United Liberation Front, the Tamil political party, or the Tamil extremists. Some Western diplomats say the Government has demonstrated insufficient will to reach a political solution, possibly because Mr. Jayawardene is afraid of losing the support of the Sinhalese. Many Sinhalese favor a harder line against the Tamils.
Sri Lanka’s Crisis Hurts Indian Ties [William K. Stevens, New York Times, April 29, 1984]
Colombo, Sri Lanka: Relations between India and Sri Lanka have turned increasingly sour because of what Colombo sees as Indian involvement in this country’s domestic strife. The most serious evidence of such involvement, from Sri Lanka’s point of view, was a report in India Today, one of India’s more aggressive investigative journals, that guerrilla insurgents from Sri Lanka were being trained in camps in southern India. The Indian Government has denied the report.
It is only 30 miles, less than two hours by motorboat, across the Palk Strait from northern Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. On both sides of the strait live large concentrations of ethnic Tamils. Tamils in Sri Lanka, where ethnic Sinhalese are in the majority, have mounted a guerrilla campaign for a separate Tamil state, and Tamils of India have put pressure on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to support the Tamil cause. This is an election year in India, and Mrs. Gandhi faces electoral pressures on all sides. She badly needs support from Tamil Nadu, and Government officials and Western diplomats say she might, in some circumstances, be tempted to intervene in Sri Lanka.
Indian Effort to Help
On the other hand, India has been deeply involved in a constructive way in the Sri Lanka crisis. It provided its good offices as a mediator to set up talks on accommodating the Tamils’ demands for greater political autonomy. The talks are to resume May 9 at India’s urging, but they are generally given only slim chances for success.
The overall worsening in relations prompted one of Sri Lanka’s most powerful ministers, Lalith Athulathmudali, to accept an invitation from Mrs. Gandhi to visit New Delhi. Mr. Athulathmudali, who as the Minister of National Security is in charge of coping with the Tamil guerrillas, told Parliament here afterward that Mrs. Gandhi and other Indian officials ‘again and again reiterated their commitment to respect our unity, integrity and sovereignty’. He said also that he had ‘placed on record in India our views on the existence of terrorist training camps in south India’ and that he had proposed joint inspection of areas where the camps are said to be operating. He did not report India’s response.
According to India Today’s report, underground and Indian intelligence sources estimated that nearly 2,000 armed Tamil insurgents are ready for action as a result of training in India and that 2,000 to 3,000 more are trained and awaiting arms. The report said arms were to be provided by foreign guerrilla groups such as the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was said to have trained a handful of Tamil terrorists.
Diplomats Endorse Report
The article said that the insurgents’ arms included Kalashnikov rifles, that there were dozens of training camps in Tamil Nadu and that Indian Tamils retired from service in the Indian Army had been hired by the Sri Lanka insurgents to give the training. Western diplomats said that while some details of the report were open to dispute, it was basically accurate.
There has been much talk here of the possibility of an Indian invasion. It might come, Government officials and some Western diplomats believe, if there was more rioting such as that in July 1983, when about 600 people, most of them Tamils., were killed and hundreds of Tamil homes, businesses and factories were burned by Sinhalese in retaliation for killings of Sinhalese by Tamil guerrillas. According to a Western diplomat familiar with the matter, Indian airborne units moved to Madras, capital of Tamil Nadu, during those riots.
The riots were contained after six days, but they laid bare the Government’s inability to solve the Tamil problem and, at times, to control its own troops and policemen. Many Sinhalese troops and policemen are reported to have joined the anti-Tamil rioting, both last summer and again during violence in April this year.
New Violence in Tamil Area
The latest outbreak, the most serious since last July, resulted in the deaths of 50 people, according to Government estimates. Unofficial reports say 200 died. The killing was confined this time to the northern city of Jaffna, where Tamils are in the majority. Nationwide, Tamils constitute 12 percent of the population. Most of the deaths occurred when Sinhalese Government forces retaliated for attacks on soldiers, policemen and civil servants by Tamil guerrillas. Tamil extremists are suspected of trying to provoke islandwide retaliation by Sinhalese against Tamils, as happened in July, in hopes of putting more pressure on India to intervene.
On the basis of his talks in New Delhi, Mr. Athulathmudali told Parliament that terrorists should keep India’s commitment not to intervene well in mind and ‘remember that they will be unable to drag the Government of India to support their efforts.’ ‘This is not India’s problem,’ he said, ‘although the terrorists would like to make it so.’
In New Delhi, there is considerable skepticism that India would intervene militarily. Mrs. Gandhi, as head of the group of nations espousing nonalignment, has consistently preached the ideal of noninterference in any country’s affairs by another. To invade another democracy, one with which it has historically been friendly, would severely damage India’s international standing and credibility.
In Sri Lanka City, a Tale of Army Terror Unfolds [William K. Stevens, New York Times, May 2, 1984]
Jaffna, Sri Lanka: The curfew has been lifted for the day, and the teenage youth had gone to a neighborhood store to buy coconuts, according to accounts from Jaffna residents. On the way back, they said, soldiers stopped him, asked him where he had been, and despite the coconuts he was carrying shot him dead. Minutes later in the same neighborhood, the residents said, a goldsmith cycling to work was killed by a single bullet. Soon there were two more bodies, and the soldiers, according to the reports, piled all four bodies beside a nearby railroad track and set them afire. A visit to the area showed that only an ugly black spot remained, along with the charred bark and leaves of a nearby tree.
A few days earlier, the residents said, airforce men rolled up to a crowded open-air market where men, women and children go every day to buy bananas and watermelons, potatoes and pumpkins and chilis. With no warning, the troops reportedly sprayed the crowd with machine-gun fire. Many people, including several elderly women, were said to have been killed. Residents of this city said they assumed that the airforce men were retaliating against civilians for the terrorist slayings of two of their comrades.
Terrorists Called the Target
The Government says that in the strife in April, 50 people were killed; Western diplomats and residents say as many as 200 were killed. The Government asserts that the targets of its troops in this isolated town in the far north of Sri Lanka are terrorists who have outlawed themselves by advocating a separate state for ethnic Tamils. But people in Jaffna tell a different story. Unable or unwilling to tackle the terrorists effectively, they say, the armed forces are waging war against ordinary citizens.
Most of the troops are Sinhalese, as is most of Sri Lanka’s population. Most of Jaffna’s people are Tamils, and the two groups have historically been rivals and sometimes blood enemies. The fire at the railroad track and the reported killings at the market are only two of many incidents of murder, arson, property destruction and widespread disregard for life and human rights related by Tamil residents of Jaffna. These include many middle class professionals and businessmen who, despite a fear of discovery and reprisal, were anxious that the story be told. All asked that their identities not be divulged. ‘We wouldn’t be able to live here anymore,’ one said.
News Controlled by Government
Neither the rest of Sri Lanka nor the world at large had previously been told the story, mostly because the flow of domestic news on this island, which was formerly called Ceylon, is controlled by the Government and because Jaffna is isolated. The city is situated on a narrow sand spit, between two bodies of turquoise water, where 750,000 Tamils live in a land drier and harsher than the lushly forested remainder of Sri Lanka. It is a land of elephant-eared banana trees and quaint houses with red-tiled roofs, famous for its mangoes and palmyra-leaf weaving and also for its energetic and independent-minded people. It is also the center of the Tamil movement for a separate state, the advocacy of which was made a crime by constitutional amendment last year.
At the height of the violence in mid-April, and for some time afterward, ground transportation to Jaffna was interrupted. Telephone communication was next to impossible. Only two scheduled commercial planes fly in and out every week. Behind this communications screen, residents of Jaffna told of their ordeal and vented their contempt for and fear of the armed forces. ‘They haven’t killed a single terrorist,’ said a middle-aged Tamil textile manufacturer. ‘The Government wants our cooperation, but how can we cooperate when they burn our property, kill our children and shoot people arbitrarily?’
Many residents say the terrorists, particularly members of a separatist group called the Tamil Tigers operate with impunity. Since March 28, they have killed two off-duty airforce men here, have ambushed an army convoy with a car bomb, have gunned down two civil servants and shot to death two policemen. All the victims were Sinhalese. But instead of going after terrorists, said many citizens interviewed at random, the Sinhalese troops attack innocent citizens. Instead of trying to flush out a terrorist from a suspected hiding place, said many of those interviewed, soldiers set fire to Tamil businesses in the immediate area. Many asserted that soldiers had arreseted, beaten and killed Tamil youths who were believed, but not proved, to be connected in some way with the terrorist movement.
‘For Us, It’s Terrible’
One result is that Jaffna families who might never have sided with the Tamil radicals are now said to be gravitating to that side. This is true even though many residents expressed dislike for the terrorists and their tactics. ‘For the Tigers,’ said one resident, a civil servant, ‘It’s fun. For us, it’s terrible. We can’t get out, can’t go about our business.’ Jaffna residents, constantly on the watch for soldiers, pointed out what they said were the scenes of much of the violence in April:
The town’s biggest supermarket, set afire and destroyed, according to witnesses, by soldiers. A telex office, similarly destroyed. A few blocks away, a Buddhist hostel, used by Sinhalese pilgrims, burned and destroyed by Tamil terrorists. Across the street, a Buddhist temple damaged by the terrorists. In a culvert nearby, the remains of bicycles and what were said to be human bones, all that was left of the reported killing of some 20 Tamil youths by Sinhalese troops. Not far away, a Catholic Church defaced by men described as soldiers who went on a shooting and burning spree against the neighborhood after their convoy was ambushed by terrorists in broad daylight. Next door, a school burned out by terrorists so that the army could not use it for a command post. And all over the city, Tamil businesses destroyed.
The reports seem consistent with a well-documented pattern of behavior by the police and armed forces in previous periods of civil strife. A team of Amnesty International investigators concluded that similar incidents, including slayings of young Tamils by Sinhalese security forces took place during disturbances in 1981.
Jayewardene Offers Strategy for Devolution and Security [Michael Hamlyn in Colombo: London Times, May 7, 1984]
President Jayewardene of Sri Lanka laid out in detail at the weekend his strategy for dealing with the appalling ethnic problems his island republic faces. In a wide-ranging interview with The Times the 78 year-old President made it clear that his plans included two main thrusts: first to yield as much devolved authority to local government as the majority groups will allow, and second, to contain terrorism in the north.
He also made it plain, however, that in the end he would not depend on universal approval from the all-party talks which reopen in Colombo this week. ‘Ultimately it is the state that has to decide, anyway.’ he said. On security he is eager to show his disapproval of excesses of which his troops have been accused. At the same time he is encouraging specialist training in anti-guerrilla techniques by private consultants.
The all-party talks began in January and were adjourned in March. They reopen on Wednesday at the Bandaranaike memorial conference centre here. When the talks began it was hoped that a measure of regional devolution could be agreed that would both satisfy Tamil aspirations and not offend Sinhala sensibilities. The Government is about to offer a scheme it hopes will do the trick. The conference will be asked to split into two committees. The first will decide what powers should be devolved upon local government. The second will consider the grievances of the minority groups in education, employment and language.
The conference will be presented with a Government-backed plan for devolution. Legislative control of the councils would remain at the district level but each council would have an elected chairman who would be an MP and a nominated minister – also an MP. These two would form a joint executive committee with the chairman and ministers of one or two other district councils. They would meet under the chairmanship of the President.
The proposals falls a good way short of the kind of regional councils or provincial councils that the Tamil spokesmen have sought, but they would be regional, and they would have considerable power. Three districts in the northern province, including Jaffna, would be able to get together but would not be able to combine with the other two. Nor would they be able to join with the three districts in the eastern province, who could get together on their own – if they wanted to. The extent of their powers would, the President said, ‘be the maximum devolution of powers the majority is prepared to concede.’ He added that if the Tamil United Liberation Front did not agree ‘they can stay out. We don’t need agreement with them to go ahead with our proposals.’
Mr Jayewardene was conscious that the front would have a difficult task of salesmanship ahead if they did agree. ‘They will have to say that whatever the all party talks have accepted is as close as possible to Eelam as they can make it,’ he said. ‘And we in the non-Front side will have to show that it is as far from Eelam as possible.’
Eelam is the independent Tamil state that the minority militants are committed to establishing in the north and east of the island. But the President was also dismissive of the amount of power the Front politicians have left to them. ‘They are as dead as a dodo,’ he insisted. ‘They represent nothing. As soon as India tells them to go away they will have nothing.’ The problem lay with the terrorists, the President felt. He would be glad to talk to them if it would do any good. ‘We have offered amnesty, you know. We have put out feelers, but we have had no response.’ Giving into Tamil demands would not satisfy the terrorists. ‘They will not even be satisfied with Eelam: they want Marxism.’
Mr Jayewardene and his new Minister of National Security, the former Oxford Union president Mr Lalith Athulathmudali, are therefore relying on a military solution. A group of counter-insurgency experts from Oman, ‘though they have a British background,’ are giving specialist training to the Sri Lankan armed forces. ‘They are people who have experience of terrorism,’ Mr Jayewardene explained.
The President felt that the new tactics were already beginning to pay off. ‘They seem to be more under control,’ he said. He was also hopeful that educational measures among the armed forces in the north would reduce the occasions on which the troops themselves reacted against the local population. ‘They are being told: Unless you obey orders, we cannot succeed,’ the President said.
In fact the politicians found it difficult to take more dramatic measures to curb the excesses of their soldiers. ‘We are dealing with a very sensitive army.’ The President observed, adding: ‘We have had three coups in this country, so it is not unusual.’ He maintained that if India would take more effective measures against the terrorists it would assist him in containing them. ‘I don’t mean the Indian Government,’ he said. ‘I mean Tamil Nadu. They must decide whether it is right or wrong for them to do it.’
Sri Lanka Army Said to Set Town Ablaze [AP newsreport, New York Times, August 14, 1984]
Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, Aug.13: A Tamil twon in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province was set ablaze Sunday by army troops retaliating for a rebel bomb attack on a military convoy, official sources said today. The Government confirmed that houses had been set on fire and said troops would be punished if they were found to have been involved.
The fires set in the Tamil town of Mannar left 3,000 people homeless and were still burning today, according to reports reaching here. The troops were also reported to have shot indiscriminately at civilians in two villages in another incident today. According to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Mannar, the Rev. Thomas Soundranayagam, soldiers rampaged through the streets of Mannar on Sunday, the day after Tamil rebels fighting for an independent homeland attacked a military convoy. Government sources said 8 to 10 soldiers were killed when a remote-controlled bomb exploded on a highway north of Mannar; the Government said officially that 6 soldiers had been killed.
‘Like an Army of Invasion’
‘It is like an army of invasion flattening everything in its path,’ Bishop Soundranayagam said. ‘Only four to five buildings have been left standing in Mannar,’ one source said. The town, 50 miles south of Jaffna, is on the Gulf of Mannar separating Sri Lanka and India. The Tamils are Hindus, closely linked to 50 million Tamils in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, across a strait from Sri Lanka. Most Sri Lankans are Sinhalese Buddhists, and the Tamils complain of discrimination.
At a news conference in Colombo, 105 miles south of here, National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali confirmed that houses had been set afire in Mannar and said an inquiry was under way to determine who was responsible. ‘A police investigation is on to find out whether a mob that set fire to houses in Mannar comprised members of the Sri Lanka army,’ he said. ‘If the army was involved, they would be dealt with severely under military law.’ There was no immediate report on casualties. The authorities have imposed strict news censorship under current Emergency Laws. The official sources said troops riding in jeeps sprayed gunfire at Tamil crowds in two villages on Monday. Details of the attacks were not known.
Rebels Bomb Police Station
In separate attacks, Tamil rebels bombed the Kayts police station 10 miles outside Jaffna at dawn, officials said, adding that five guerrillas were killed as the attack was repulsed. No police casualties were reported. Insurgents and a convoy of troops fought a gun battle with insurgents near Elephant Pass, a strip linking the Jaffna Peninsula with the main island, and 10 of the rebels were killed, a Defense Ministry statement said. It said nine rebels had been captured but made no mention of army casualties.
President Junius R. Jayewardene’s Government reported that at least 36 Tamil separatists were killed in the previous two days in a military offensive in the north. ‘I would say there was a war,’ said Bishop B.Deogu Pillai of Jaffna. ‘The army is behaving like an occupation force in a foreign country.’ The Bishop called Sri Lanka’s 2.7 million Tamils ‘an oppressed minority’ in this Indian Ocean island nation of 16 million people. ‘The military is not not disciplined,’ he said. ‘If one of them is killed, they go on a rampage.’ Interviews with residents in the region showed widespread fear of the army.
Israel and Britain Said to Aid Sri Lanka Force [Sanjoy Hazarika, New York Times, August 26, 1984, p.8]
Colombo, Sri Lanka, Aug.25: Israeli intelligence agents and former British Army commandos are training Sri Lanka’s security forces as part of a new drive by the Government to combat a violent Tamil separatist movement in the north, the country’s National Security Affairs Minister says. The minister, Lalith Athulathmudali, said in an interview this week that the training programs were aimed at overhauling the organization of intelligence gathering, building an effective information-gathering network and training a paramilitary unit to combat the Tamil insurgents. [In Israel, Government officials denied any role in military training aid to Sri Lanka. A Sri Lanka official on a private visit to Israel had hinted earlier at assistance from the Israelis in an antiterrorist intelligence program.] Mr. Athulathmudali, reiterating statements made last month by the President of Sri Lanka, Junius R. Jayawardene, said Sri Lanka had turned to the Israelis as a final resort after the United States, Britain and West Germany rejected official requests for aid in improving the intelligence system and training troops in counterinsurgency.
Since June 1 Sri Lanka has allowed Israel, with which it broke diplomatic relations in 1970, to maintain a special interests section under the protection of the United States Embassy here. ‘Our intelligence system was not geared to this kind of thing,’ said Mr. Athulathmudali. About 10 Israeli agents have trained about 100 Ceylonese in intelligence tactics in the last two months, he said. ‘They come in batches and give a course,’ the minister said. ‘They do not go outside the classroom.’ The training is being conducted in Colombo at a site that Mr Athulathmudali declined to identify.
The minister said that former members of Britain’s Special Armed Services, now working for a private security company based in the Channel Islands off Britain, had already trained a group of paratroopers who took part in a recent antiterrorist operation. They performed ‘quite well’, and ‘have come back for further training,’ he said. A British diplomat said he did not know much about the British training team although he confirmed their presence.
The presence of the Israelis, the Security Affairs minister said, drew a few initial protests from ambassadors of nations proclaiming nonalignment, especially from the Middle EDast. The displeasure eased, he said, after President Jayewardene summoned the Arab diplomats and told them this was an internal matter. But the Moslems of Sri Lanka were offended, and there has been rioting this summer to protest Mr Jayewardene’s announcement about Israeli assistance. ‘The Moslems are still angry,’ a senior Government source said, ‘although they have become quieter on the issue.’
The matter has been complicated by the recent visit of a high Government official to Jerusalem, where he spoke of Arab pressure on Sri Lanka to end dealings with Israel and of how the Government had resisted it. The official is Douglas Liyanage, secretary in the Ministry of State and the chief censor of domestic news reports. In an apparent attempt to head off a possible outburst of Arab irritation, a Government spokesman said Thursday that Mr. Liyanage had not been authorized to visit Israel and that his statements represented his private views.
Israelis Deny Training Role
Jerusalem, Aug. 25: Israeli Government officials have denied any role in military training aid to Sri Lanka. Officials here, when asked about reports of help in military training, have always said there was no operative aid, suggesting Israel was not involved in current military operations against Tamil dissidents.
Sri Lankan Separatist Violence Raises Fears of Intervention [Sanjoy Hazarika; New York Times, August 26, 1984]
Colombo, Sri Lanka: For the third time in a year, the communal peace on this island close to India’s southern tip has been shaken by violence between members of the Sinhalese majority and Tamils, the largest minority. Government officials say that the trouble began early this month when militants fighting for a separate state in the Tamil-dominated northern province launched an offensive against Sinhalese troops.
About 100 people, some say 200, have died in clashes between Sinhalese civilians and troops and Tamil militants. Most Tamils are Hindus and the Sinhalese are predominantly Buddhist. The Government says 40 of those killed were terrorists, but Tamil leaders insist that all but a few were innocent bystanders.
Discipline among the troops broke down, especially at the northern port of Mannar, where soldiers killed at least five people and burned 139 stores and homes on Aug. 11 in retaliation for the ambush and killing of six soldiers. Thirty three soldiers were arrested after the attack at Mannar. Lalith Athulathmudali, the National Security Affairs Minister, blamed the indiscipline on ‘lack of training’. Sri Lanka’s tiny army of 9,000 combatants has never fought a war. ‘You can call it being temporarily unhinged in that kind of situation,’ he added; 255 members of the armed forces have been dismissed for improper behavior since last year’s anti-Tamil violence.
In an incident the week before the Mannar killings, the army was accused of burning homes and shops at Valvettithurai, a fishing village known to support the guerrillas, after two sailors and two security men were killed by terrorists in separate attacks. Navy gunboats also fired at the village, which is the home of one of the Tamil separatist leaders who lives in self-imposed exile in Madras, India. Officials confirmed that security forces had rounded up 680 young Tamils in the area and taken them away for questioning.
Local analysts say the military indiscipline has undermined confidence in President Junius Jayewardene’s Government, which has also been hurt economically by a sharp drop in tourism and is under fire from opponents for inviting Israeli intelligence agents to train police officers in antiterrorist operations. Sri Lanka has important economic relations with Middle Eastern countries that are hostile to Israel. Iraq is a major importer of Sri Lankan tea, and an estimated 100,000 Sri Lankan workers send money home from the Middle East, a major source of foreign exchange.
Fear of Indian Intervention
The army, largely a ceremonial unit, had no training in counterinsurgency in a hostile environment such as Valvettithurai on the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula. One official said the jumpiness of the troops reflected general unease among Sinhalese, who account for 70 percent of the population of 15 million. About 26 percent are Tamils, whose origins are Indian.
The Sinhalese see India’s hand behind the insurgents, who include students, lawyers and former Government employees, many of them Marxists. Threats of invasion from Indian politicians in Madras do not help, Mr Athulathmudali said. There are 50 million Tamils in India. Unlike last year’s massacres in which 400 people, mostly Tamils, were killed by rampaging mobs, this month’s violence has not spread to the general population. Analysts in Colombo believe this is because the army, despite its shortcomings, has been able to hold its own against the terrorists and because of fear that a repetition of last year’s mayhem would trigger Indian intervention.
In an effort to bridge the suspicion and hatred dividing his country, President Jayewardene has begun consulting leaders of political parties, including the Tamil United Liberation Front, the main Tamil party, on changing the Constitution to take account of minority concerns. The Front, which has spearheaded the movement for a separate Tamil state for years, is publicly committed to nonviolence. Recently party officials said they would be prepared to accept a solution short of independence.
Slow progress is being made toward a new system of parliamentary representation, sources familiar with the negotiations said. Under consideration is a proposal to establish a second parliamentary chamber that would provide minority groups with more say in the administration of their affairs. The scope of the autonomy that would be granted to the Tamils, however, is still very much in dispute. But diplomats say that the Liberation Front has lost support among Tamils as a consequence of its presence at the conference table. The influence of militants, meanwhile, has been growing. Party leaders acknowledge that ‘the militants are more assertive and in the forefront of the struggle,’ as one put it. ‘The militants say they will reject a negotiated solution.’
The emotional appeal of separatism is tempered by economic fundamentals. The Tamils of the North depend on trade with the South for a substantial portion of their income. In fact, many Tamils operate large and thriving businesses in Sinhalese areas, but they seem to have little hope of achieving a separate state in the near future, despite their growing radicalization.
Army in Sri Lanka is Said to Kill 102 [Associated Press report; New York Times, Dec.8, 1984]
Colombo, Sri Lanka, Dec.7: More than 100 people were shot dead after a guerrilla attack on an army convoy in northwest Sri Lanka, official sources said today. The informants said 102 bodies were recovered from several locations after the attack on Tuesday in Mannar, a coastal district about 185 miles northwest of the capital, Colombo. Initial reports Tuesday quoted officials and residents as saying that as many as 53 people were killed.
The informants, who had access to official reports from the area, confirmed the assertions from residents that most of the victims were Tamil civilians killed by Sinhalese army troops. The shootings occurred after Tamil separatists detonated land mines that destroyed an army jeep, killing one soldier and wounding six others. The Government has denied that soldiers went on a rampage but has acknowledged that some civilians were killed in a ‘mopping up’ operation.
‘We have to Investigate’
‘The Government does not condone such killings,’ National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali said today. ‘When anyone dies it is a minus for this country. We have to investigate. We shall act to discipline them if there is grave evidence that they lined up people and killed them.’
P.S.Soosinathin [sic; Note by Sachi: Soosaithasan], a former Member of Parliament from Mannar, said troops stopped two buses Tuesday, killing at least 16 people in one and an undetermined number in the other. He said by telephone from Colombo that six post office employees were lined up and shot to death. At least 40 other people were gunned down while working in their fields, he said. Mr. Soosinathin is a Tamil belonging to the Tamil United Liberation Front, a political party banned from Parliament last year for refusing to denounce separatism. Officials in Colombo did not challenge his account.
Tamil rebels intensified their campaign for a separate nation in the north and east of the country three years ago. The Tamils, who make up about 18 percent of the national population but form a majority in the northern Jaffna Peninsula, say they are persecuted by the Sinhalese majority. A Government spokesman said today that Sri Lanka had received military equipment from abroad to cope with the violence and that more was on the way. He would not disclose the type or source, but China has supplied Sri Lanka with gunboats and rifles.
Sri Lanka Seeks British Arms Aid to Crush Rebels [Mary Anne Weaver in Colombo; Sunday Times, London, Feb.3, 1985]
Two Sri Lankan government ministers went to London last week to urge the British government to increase military assistance to this beleaguered island, where the struggle to subdue Tamil secessionists is now dangerously close to civil war. The visit by the ministers of National Security and Foreign Affairs (to be followed later this month by the Finance Minister) comes at a time of growing concern that the undisciplined 11,000-man Sri Lankan army could stage a military coup.
Coup talk is always plentiful in Third World states, but during a two-week visit to the island, whether in the Tamil North or Sinhalese South, I was continually struck by how many officers spoke openly and disparagingly of the politicians in Colombo, particularly of the 78 year-old Junius Jayawardene. They also complained bitterly of being dispatched with no clear government writ into the country’s embattled North to combat the growing ranks of Tamil rebels, who are better armed, disciplined and train than the government forces.
The rebels, now believed to number 5,000, have been able during the past year to match and outpace the army even though it has deployed 3,600 troops – more than a quarter of its manpower. ‘It is a battle we can never hope to win,’ conceded one senior officer. When asked if a military government would be better equipped to deal with the war, he laughed and said: ‘If it were so simple, we would have taken over by now. But even if we did take over, we couldn’t hold our ground. And you’ve seen the performance of our rank-and-file. Nearly every week the ranks go amok. As officers, we are fighting two wars simultaneously, one against the insurgents and one against our enlisted men.’
It is the anarchy among the rank-and-file, and among some junior officers, which most worries senior government officials and Western diplomats. Both now fear that as the disorder grows a lieutenant or a captain could seize power in collusion with the orthodox Buddhist priests and declare Sri Lanka – with a 75% Buddhist majority – de facto a Buddhist-Sinhalese state.
This worry, combined with Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record and army atrocities against Tamil civilians, prompted the American administration to turn down a request for $100m in military assistance when General Vernon Walters visited the island last December. The request was again turned down by the American Secretary of State, George Shultz, last Monday in a meeting with Lalith Athulathmudali, Sri Lanka’s controversial minister of National Security.
This minister and A.C.S. Hameed, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, met British ministers in London later last week for a resumption of talks with the Tamils and also raised the question of human rights. But the Foreign Office insists that military aid was neither discussed nor on offer. However, according to senior Sri Lankan officials, the British government agreed, after the Walters December visit, to provide Sri Lanka with credits for small arms and 10 naval gunships. The gunships, built by Cougar Holdings of Southampton, cost 1.3m pounds each and will be used to patrol the Straits between India and Sri Lanka. One is already on trial off Sri Lanka’s northern coast.
The British high commission in Colombo denied that the British government had provided loans for arms. A spokesman said: ‘It appears that the Sri Lankan government has misunderstood the difference between a government-to-government agreement and a commercial sale.’ After the Walters visit Sri Lankan embassies around the world launched an arms procurement drive, with a military budget much expanded. Britain was reportedly the only NATO member country which responded favourably. Nations which agreed to straight commercial purchases included China, South Korea, Singapore and Pakistan.
Rebels in Lotus Land: Sri Lanka Hunts ‘the Boys’ [Steven R.Weisman; New York Times, February 8, 1985]
Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, Feb.3: Several dozen women stood silently outside the drab, barricaded police headquarters of this quiet fishing town today. They were waiting for word of their husbands, brothers and sons. Residents say the drama of the waiting women has become a fixture of Batticaloa, near the eastern coast of this island nation. In stifling heat, the women wept openly as they appealed to the Rev. Joshua Ratnam, a Roman Catholic priest, for help in securing the release of men from this area whohave been arrested by the police.
‘They want to know if I can do something,’ said Father Ratnam, a big, round man with a sad face who looked improbable, wearing white robes and cradling a motorcycle helmet. ‘I take their names and try to speed up the inquiries. But mostly there is nothing we can do. We can only share their suffering. We are unable to console them in any way.’ For a few months now, Sri Lanka Government security forces have been combing this region of rice paddies, lagoons, coconut trees and lotus and hibiscus blossoms for the men known as ‘the Tigers’ or ‘the Boys’.
A Major Insurgency
The Government effort has been a key part of the drive to stop attacks by Tamil guerrillas who are fighting to create an independent state in the north and eastern part of the island. Sri Lanka, off the southern tip of India, is gripped by a major insurgency from the Tamil guerrillas. Three-quarters of the population are Sinhalese, a group that practices Buddhism and speaks the Sinhalese language.
The Hindu Tamils, descended from and related to the darker skinned Dravidians of southern India, make up about a fifth of the 15 million people in this country, which was formerly known as Ceylon. They have increasingly turned to violence in recent years as a protest against what they feel has been discrimination by the Sinhalese. Most of the Tamil insurgent activity in recent years has been in Sri Lanka’s north, where violent attacks by Tamils on armed convoys and police head quarters have led to mass arrests and the detention of hundreds, perhaps thousand of Tamils. Hundreds of Tamils and Sinhalese have been killed in various clashes.
Stories of Sorrow
At the Batticaloa police station, the people tell stories of unrelieved sorrow. ‘The commandos take innocent boys from the paddy fields,’ said one man, a Government inspector. ‘They take the boys and torture them,’ another man said. ‘We can’t go out on the road without being threatened. We can’t go to our shops. We have no freedom at all.’ The Government authorities have a different story. To them, the mass arrests led to breakthroughs in the drive to stop the insurgents. The Tamil guerrillas, they say, have preyed on the civilian population to a far greater extent than the Government. The authorities say also that Batticaloa is especially important because of evident that Tamils use it as a receiving point for arms shipments from guerrilla headquarters in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India.
As elsewhere in Sri Lanka, tourism is down in Batticaloa. The few posh beach hotels are nearly empty. No one ventures out in the light of a full moon to the Kalladi bridge to hear the famous singing fish of Batticaloa.
Indeed, the landscape of this area is scarred by evidence of guerrilla activity. On one road, next to a huge banyan tree, lies an immense crater, the remains of an explosion that was recently set off under an ambulance during the night. Four people were killed, including an 8 year-old girl. All the victims were Tamils. There have been other civilian deaths, but the attacks on the police have been more fierce.
At the nearby town of Kaluwanchikudy, the small police station bears the marks of bullet holes left from an assault a couple months ago in which four attackers died. Inside, the policemen – mere boys in sport shirts and shorts, carrying shotguns and rifles – joked nervously about being ready for another assault.
Says Rebels Are Falling
All the police stations in this region are virtually bunkers. Each is surrounded by sandbags and nets strung high to catch stray grenades. A tower with armed sentries has been put up next to the bungalow of Sarath Seneviratne, the Batticaloa police coordinator. Despite the barricades, Mr. Seneviratne said in an interview in his bungalow that only a few random incidents had occurred. ‘We don’t arrest each and every person,’ he said. ‘We arrest only the people we know are involved in terrorism.’
Mr. Seneviratne, a square-faced Sinhalese with gray hair clipped in a crew-cut, said Tamil insurgents were failing in Batticaloa because they had no support in the large Moslem population and were losing support among Tamils because of their indiscriminate killing. But none of the dozens of Tamils interviewed at random in Batticaloa agreed. All said the police actions were making Tamils increasingly angry and sympathetic to the arguments for Tamil Eelam, the name that the insurgents want to give to the Tamil state.
Batticaloa residents were also angered over the weekend by a symbolic step taken by President J.R. Jayewardene. In honor of Independence day Feb. 4, Mr. Jayewardene ordered Government offices to fly the Sri Lankan flag even in Tamil areas. In Batticaloa, Mr. Jayewardene’s order was widely regarded as insulting. A couple of days ago, five young insurgents marched into the main Government headquarters in town and pointed guns at a civil servant. They demanded that he hand over his supply of national flags. The civil servant, himself a Tamil, says with a sad smile: ‘We recognize we are potential targets. We get no protection. But still we do the job.’
Sri Lanka Army Accused of Massacre in the Jungle [Michael Hamlyn in Mannar; London Times, Feb.11, 1985, p.1]
News of another jungle massacre carried out by the armed forces in Northern Sri Lanka is being circulated in this coastal town. According to the heavily-censored press, which has to rely exclusively on government hand-outs for news of activities by both Tamil separatist guerrillas and security forces, a raid on a jungle camp during an operation around a number of villages in Mannar district 12 days ago resulted in the death of seven guerrillas and the capture of a considerable amount of military equipment.
According to people who were there, the reality was quite different. Distraught villagers said no guerrillas were in the villages, that none were short, and no military equipment was seized. They said instead that 32 innocent men were shot in cold blood, often in front of their wives and children. The people of Mannar, a sparsely-inhabited agricultural region, just south of the Jaffna peninsula, said they had been unable to get out news about the massacre because they had been virtually isolated from the rest of the country.
Two women widowed in the massacre told me their story when I visited a community centre in the district. They were anxious that I should not give their names, for fear of reprisals, and the same fear affected by interpreter. Mrs S, aged 40, has three daughters, almost grown up, and an eight year-old son. She came originally from Batticaloa, on the East coast. Mrs T, aged 28, a Tamil of Indian origin, moved from the hill country, first to Vavuniya, and later to Mannar. Both their husbands had been landless labourers working for day wages on other people’s fields. They both lived in isolated cadjan huts, little more than sheds with dirt floors, built out of thatch, in the village of Vattakandal.
‘We were awakened,’ Mrs S said, ‘at about five o’ clock, by people shouting for the houseowners to come out. We don’t actually own the house, but my husband came out anyway. Six soldiers were there. When I followed him out they asked for his identity card, so I went back inside for it. When I came out one of them took it, and another shot him in the head.’ She pointed at her temple. Two of them took the body away to a jeep while the other four asked for paraffin. They doused the thatch and set it on fire.
Mrs T’s experience was similar. Just before dawn, five soldiers called for them to come out. ‘I and two of my girls came out.’ she said. She left her husband still asleep on his mat, and a third child indoors.’ They asked me if there were any men inside, so I said ‘Yes’. They went in and shot him as he lay there on his mat.’ She pointed to the centre of her forehead. While the soldiers were pulling out her husband’s body and setting the hut on fire, she and her three girls ran away in the jungle. ‘They looked like devils,’ she said. Mrs S did not run. ‘Because of fear, I didn’t do anything.’
According to the Mannar Citizens’ Committee, an organization which includes lawyers, Christian priests, shopkeepers, Muslim officials and others, and which is drawing up a letter to President Jayewardene giving details of the massacre, the soldiers also called at the village school, rousing out of their quarters the principal and his two assistants. All three were shot dead. One man told me that their hands were tied behind them before they were shot. After the killings, the Army released seven bodies to the local mortuary. The villagers found and buried another four in the fields. ‘We estimate that 32 people were killed,’ a member of the Citizens’ committee said. ‘But we think the Army has disposed of the other 20.’
The committee points out that the Army now takes away the bodies of those it kills. After the massacre at the end of last year, the security forces made the mistake of not taking the bodies away, leaving them in the fields and at the roadsides, where they could be counted. The Army has still not heard the last of it.
The local population theorizes that the armed forces received information from somewhere that Tamil militants were hiding in the jungle near the villages, and that the raid was carried out in the first place to find them, and secondly to terrorize the inhabitants into refusing to give the guerrillas support in the future. ‘How could we have fed the terrorists?’ Mrs S asked plaintively, ‘We don’t have enough to feed ourselves.’
Army Terror that Feeds a Burning Fuse [Michael Hamlyn in Colombo; London Times, February 18, 1985, p.12]
The Sinhalese, the majority race in Sri Lanka, are essentially friendly people. They smile easily and wave as you drive past. But in putting down the insurrection by Tamils asking a separate state in the Northern and Eastern provinces, they have displayed nothing short of barbarism.
The Mannar massacre is a case in point. On December 4, a vehicle carrying an army patrol was blown up by a mine on the road leading through the jungle to the small northern town. One soldier was killed and 11 wounded. In the carnage that followed, troops poured out of their camps and, according to townspeople, killed more than 100 civilians. One group stopped a bus and ordered everyone off. The conductor, a Sinhalese, not a Tamil, told the soldiers that he was responsible for the safety of his passengers and before they killed them, they would have to shoot him first. The soldiers accordingly shot him first and then shot all the other male passengers, including the Muslim driver. Another 20 died when the same treatment was meted out to a bus-load of passengers traveling in the opposite direction.
Off the main road, an army Jeep drove into the village of Parappankandal. The soldiers fired indiscriminately, killing 12 people including a mother nursing her infant child at her breast. The child survived, although three toes were blown away by the bullet that killed its mother. No inquests will be held on these and other killings because, according to the security forces, the victims were in crossfire between the army and terrorists, and in such circumstances inquests can be dispensed with under the draconian Emergency Regulations.
A similar fabrication surrounds death of 39 Tamil prisoners at Vaviniya, 70 miles from Mannar, in early December. The official version is that they were killed while trying to escape. In fact, a senior government official told me, ‘a soldier ran amok and emptied the magazine of an automatic weapon at them’. Some senior government officials are ashamed of events like these and are pressing for action to be taken against those responsible. But nothing has been done.
Since the Sikh riots in India which followed the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi, 2,600 people have been charged with various offences. Since the anti-Tamil disturbances of July 1983, only 169 Sri Lankans have been charged. There has not been one court martial. Military atrocities work against the Sinhalese interest. Tamil resistance is stiffened and hatred for the government grows. They also increase the possibility of bringing about what the Sinhalese most fear – the direct participation of India. At the very least, the tales of horror circulating in India make the likelihood of any clampdown on the Tamil rebels operating out of southern India more remote.
My dispatch describing one jungle massacre was given considerable publicity in the Indian press. It was the lead story in two of the largest circulation papers in the country and frong-paged in most of the rest. The prominence given to it prompted an instant denial by the Sri Lankan High Commission in Delhi, which described it as ‘totally false’. Such blanket denials are counterproductive. This one led the exiled leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front, Mr A. Amirthalingam, to find his own eye witnesses to the attack in refugee camps in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu and to make the point that victims of the terror are being compelled to leave Sri Lanka and seek shelter in India.
The number of refugees entering Tamil Nadu appears to be increasing. According to Mr Amirthalingam 2,400 have crossed the narrow strip of water dividing the two countries in the past two weeks. The flow, he said, reminded him of the early days of the Bangladesh struggle for independence, when refugees fleeing the Pakistani army flooded into India. India eventually intervened militarily on the Bangladeshis’ side.
The fact that the Tamils are leaving Sri Lanka is significant. About half the Tamil population of the island lived outside the traditional Tamil homelands in the north and east of the country, and previous bouts of intercommunal trouble – a regular occurrence in recent years, culminating in the appalling spasm of killing and burning in July 1983 – have led to a flood of refugees arriving in the north. ‘We came north to avoid being killed by our neighbours in the south,’ one refugee told me. ‘Now where can we go to avoid being killed by the army here!’
Although many Tamils have returned to the south, to the jobs and property they abandoned in 1983, many are still deeply insecure there. Burned-out shops still gape blindly at the street in southern towns. The exodus of educated and intelligent young Tamils from the professions and from management positions is having a noticeable effect on the country’s business. Whenever I have spoken to the ministers in charge of the military operations – President Jayewardene and the Minister for National Security, Mr Lalith Athulathmudali – both have admitted military excesses but say the army is beginning to behave in a more disciplined fashion.
Mr Athulathmudali likes to compare the behaviour of his soldiers with that of the British army in Londonderry or the Americans in Vietnam. But Bloody Sunday was a long time ago, with fewer than a tenth of Sri Lanka’s casualties in the past three months. As for Vietnam, that was lost partly because of the excesses of the occupying army against the local population. It seems the same is happening in Sri Lanka. While trying to generate sufficient terror among the Tamils to prevent them giving shelter to the militant rebels, the armed forces are driving them to consider themselves as aliens.
It may be possible, given a just political solution to Sri Lanka’s dreadful ethnic problem, to reverse the de facto separation of the country now being institutionalized. But until the excesses of the armed forces can be curbed – and there is little sign of that, despite the official assurances – that seems unlikely.
‘A lot of people here are now afraid to sleep in their homes,’ said one Northern worthy, ‘so they take their mats and bedrolls into the jungle. Of course, there they may be taken for terrorists and shot. But they prefer to take that risk. You are shot if you stay at home, you’re shot if you go out. You are shot if you run when challenged, you are shot if you stand still. What can we do?’