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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
1 November 2002
TORMENT IN THE EASTERN FRONT
Predicaments of Scenario Sketchers
Bias is an omnipotent presence in any analysis. Good natural scientists recognize the presence of bias and take steps to reduce and counteract bias in experiments to obtain results of significance. But in social science treatises and commentaries, the problem of bias is hardly addressed. Thus, day-job journalists and chronologists record answers, completely or incompletely, to questions ‘What’, ‘When’, ‘Where’ and ‘Who’ about the events they cover. They hardly have the patience (due to deadline demands), intellect (lack of linguistic and analytical skills), and print space (especially before the emergence of internet medium as a notable source of information) for in-depth understanding on answering the questions ‘How’ and ‘Why’.
Scenario sketchers, who are not day-job journalists, but who nevertheless contribute to published literature, can be broadly distinguished into three types; local variety, international variety and the expatriate-local variety. In the art world, aficionados know that the output of each scenario sketcher is dependent on multiple factors: intellect, eye sight, prevailing mood of the artist, chosen colors and canvas, and last but not the least, the age of the artist. Similarly the scenario sketchers of Eelam need to be assessed on their merits and limitations.
Literature on Pirabhakaran and LTTE, during the past two decades, is replete with information describing answers to ‘What’, ‘When’ and ‘Where’ by the three varieties of scenario sketchers I have identified. Rajan Hoole and his small cohort are the best examples of scenario sketchers belonging to the local variety. The voluminous output of Rajan Hoole’s University Teachers of Human Rights (Jaffna) since 1990 offer details on ‘What’, ‘When’ and ‘Where’. Pervasive biases in their literature deserve an extensive analysis separately. In their literature, answers to ‘Who’ and ‘How’ are described either partially or erroneously, with qualifiers. But, answers to ‘Why’ are non-existent.
The expatriate-local variety of scenario sketchers is represented by professionals like Rohan Gunaratna, H.L.D.Mahindapala and D.B.S.Jeyaraj. Because of lack of proximity and loss of contacts, the scenario sketchers of the expatriate-local variety mainly spice their contributions with past memories, and occasionally mix hearsay and tidbits (obtained from telephone calls and other communication devices) to pass as erudite opinions. They also face a peculiar professional syndrome of ‘Tirisangu Sorgam’ (literally, ‘the heaven of Tirisangu; an eponymic uncomfortable state, derived from Tirisangu, a Hindu mythological figure who was dangling in the ‘no-where zone’ after failing acceptance in heaven and kept away from hell). They cannot compete professionally with the journalists of their naturalized countries, unless they expand their canvas - which needs tremendous input of effort. Thus, they linger on as correspondents from London, Sydney or Toronto to the Colombo press, while passing their ‘expert opinions’ on LTTE.
The international variety of scenario sketchers are the foreign journalists of some reputation of their own (such as Simon Winchester, Jon Lee Anderson, Barbara Crossette) or those representing establishments with some level of credibility. These foreign journalists also possess biases, which are different from those of Rajan Hoole and his cluster. For instance, to receive a working visa into the interior of the island, the foreign journalist has to meet the top political honcho of the time, incorporate his or her not-so profound ‘sound-bites’ and record some courteous banalities on the virtue of this honcho into their works. Even the scenario sketchers of a respected magazine like the National Geographic or Time have to do this ritual gimmick. Ignoring this courtesy may mean harassment and deportation. Simon Winchester (see, The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon – part 45) who described the demolition of Tiriyai village in the Trincomalee district in 1985 faced this dilemma.
What is interesting to note is that the descriptions of the Eastern Front presented by the occasional scenario sketchers of international variety hardly appear in the literature generated by Rajan Hoole and his cluster. This vividly exposes the bias of the scenario sketchers of local variety against Pirabhakaran and LTTE. For this reason, in this chapter I wish to highlight the works of Anderson brothers (Jon Lee and Scott), and Pritt Vesilind for the National Geographic magazine. Pirabhakaran is not discussed per se in this chapter, but his thoughts are represented by his trusted colleagues Kumarappa and Karikalan.
Andersons covering the Eastern Front in early 1987
As I have noted previously (see, The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon – part 41), the chapter ‘Sri Lanka: Burying the Future’ in the Andersons’ book War Zones: Voices from the World’s Killing Grounds’ (Dodd, Mead & Co, New York, 1988, pp.173-233) is a gem to comprehend the torment of the Eastern Front. It provides a relatively balanced view (Note: I stress the word ‘relatively’), as of 1987 when Andersons visited the scene, on the significance of LTTE’s reputation in the Eastern Front. Their introductory commentary to the interviews spans a little more than four pages. The first six paragraphs are given below in entirety:
“The women of Batticaloa clutch photographs of their missing sons, tears falling from tired, bloodshot eyes. In small groups they cluster outside the offices of the Catholic bishop or the local human rights group awaiting a turn to tell of their loss, prostrating themselves before the feet of anyone they think might help them. Others seem to recognize the futility of these gestures: they kneel on the long expanse of green grass before the cathedral and hold aloft the photographs of their loved ones, softly crying to God for intervention. But there is no intervention; the men of Batticaloa are disappearing, and no one can do more than watch and keep record of their passing.
The war that has wrenched Sri Lanka since 1983 has been felt throughout this island, but most harshly in areas like Batticaloa, where the Tamils, the nation’s largest minority, are concentrated. In the northern and eastern provinces, where Tamil militants are fighting for independence, the Sri Lankan government has launched a terrifying ‘antiterrorist’ campaign. The result is a civilian population under siege from both sides.
Once an important fishing community on a coastal lagoon of eastern Sri Lanka, Batticaloa today is desolate and eerie. Police stations have been transformed into bunkers, ringed with barbed wire, sandbags and high walls. The heavily armed Special Task Force commandos patrol the streets from the relative safety of armored trucks. After dusk, Batticaloa is deserted; there is no official curfew, but the curfew of fear – of drawing the fire of jumpy commandos, of being detained and tortured as a suspected ‘terrorist’ – is just as effective.
The villagers in the countryside fare worse. When the police commandos raid a village, a thousand Tamils will be picked up for interrogation. While most are released within a day or two, many end up in prison camps without charges. Still others are ‘disappeared’, executed by the police, their bodies burnt. Since 1983, over seven hundred Tamil men have disappeared in the Batticaloa area.
But the people can hardly turn to the Tamil guerrillas for salvation. Based in a hidden camp ten miles away, the local detachment of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, now the dominant Tamil separatist group, has degenerated into banditry. The Tigers appear to devote much of their energies inflicting suffering on those they claim to represent; they demand ‘taxes’ from Tamil civilians, kidnap and ransom Tamil businessmen, and execute others they suspect of being spies.
The young men of the area must choose between terrible alternatives. The can stay in their villages and endure the roundups of the security forces. Or they can join the guerrillas and risk death in battle. Or they can run. Many have taken this last option, fleeing across the Palk Straits to India in small boats, braving the guns of Sri Lankan patrol boats. The result of it all is the virtual destruction of a Tamil generation…”
The limitations faced by Andersons
The bias present in the work of Andersons is manifold. Candidly, the Anderson brothers have recorded a few limitations they faced in trying to cover the Eastern Front of the island, and also the limitations of their book of record, in their Authors’ Note. They mention the time limitation – a one year bird’s eye view ‘to get an international view of war’ with choosing five regions of the world. They state that ‘All told, we traveled some fifty thousand miles in twelve months to write War Zones. We conducted well over two hundred and fifty interviews and transcribed more than a hundred and fifty hours of tape recordings.’
Andersons mention the work’s focus as, ‘It is not an academic survey. Our modus operandi was more instinctual and journalistic than anything else’. They also state, ‘We have done extensive editing of the original interviews; for the most part, those sections excised dealt with detailed political themes or local specifics that we felt hindered the basic thrust of the stories.’ This point is vital when one reads the interviews presented by Andersons, since what was cleaved from the ‘original interviews’ would have provided context to the interviewee’s actions. Andersons also do not mention their language limitation which could have hindered their understanding of the descriptions of interviewees.
Furthermore, Andersons passingly mention their ‘campaign’ to the Colombo bureaucrats to receive permission to visit Batticaloa as follows:
“In Colombo, we ensconced ourselves in the Gall Face, a beautiful, if slightly dilapidated, old colonial hotel facing the Indian Ocean. From there, we launched a persistent campaign to gain government approval to travel into the contested northern and eastern parts of the country. While we waited, we traveled around the ‘permissible’ parts of the island, the hill country around Kandy, the ancient Buddhist city of Anuradhapura, both to conduct interviews and to see some of the sights of the culturally-rich country.
Finally, we were given permission to go to the front-line eastern city of Batticaloa. In that embattled town, Jon celebrated his thirtieth birthday. Scott, racing against curfew, scurried through the town looking for a celebratory bottle of champagne but could only come up with a bar of stale chocolate.
The next day, we made arrangements to meet up with the Tamil Tigers. Following their instructions, we began walking down a dirt road when two motorcyclists pulled up and motioned us on board. With the Tiger couriers, we sped out of town, taking detours to avoid military patrols, until we reached a lagoon. Crossing in canoes, we were met on the other side by a larger contingent of guerrillas, bundled aboard a jeep and taken to meet Kumarappa, the local Tiger leader.
The meeting was an unsettling one, both because of the youthfulness of the guerrillas, and because of the presence of Athuma, a Tamil woman the Tigers were about to execute for spying. Eleven days after our visit, government forces launched a dawn raid and the Tiger camp was wiped out.”
Despite this caveat, the work of Andersons has to be considered unparalleled for its presentation of Tamil torment in the Eastern Front. Of the 42 interviews presented by Andersons in their chapter on the Sri Lankan war, I reproduce below completely the interviews Andersons had with S.M.Lena (a Batticaloa Tamil, aged 79), Kumarappa (the then Tiger commander of the Eastern Province, aged 27), Sumith Silva (the then Coordinating Officer of Special Task Force-the STF, formed only in 1983), Christopher Romesh (a Christian Tamil from Batticaloa, aged 30) and Tim (a British mercenary pilot fighting with the Sri Lankan army).
Five Notable Interviews by Andersons
I chose these five interviews from the Sri Lankan chapter of Andersons’ book for specific reasons. Kumarappa, the LTTE leader, committed suicide in October 1987. Sumith Silva, the then honcho of Sri Lankan version of Gestapo-gang, was killed in a landmine attack in the same month. Both were adversaries. To the best of my knowledge, the viewpoints of both had not been brought to light by any other scenario sketchers. The Broken Palmyra authors mention only one sentence about Silva the state-designated terrorist as follows: “A landmine explosion killed Batticaloa’s STF chief Nimal Silva. Mr.Anthonymuthu (Government Agent, Batticaloa) who was travelling in the same vehicle was also killed.” [p.192 of their 1990 revised edition], without providing any detailed context. Christopher Romesh was one of the thousands of Batticaloa Tamil victims of STF, who lived to tell the torture. S.M.Lena was a Batticaloa Tamil belonging to the elderly population. An incompletely identified British mercenary Tim’s views, though brief, are also illuminating for their gung-ho brutishness. It appears, the deeds of STF, Sri Lanka’s Gestapo-gang, have been hidden from the paid British mercenary. One cannot blame him because Tim and his companions were paid from the Sri Lankan tax payer’s money, and at that time they were filling the role of hired pilots of helicopters, and hidden from the public. So, one can excuse their naiveté on the un-Buddhist practices of Sri Lankan armed personnel in the land.
Interview with S.M.Lena, an elderly Batticaloa Tamil
‘S.M.Lena, 79 is a wizened, white-haired man whose fiery temperament is moderated by his diminutive size and round spectacles. A retired high school teacher, he now devotes his energies to the Batticaloa Citizen’s Committee.
Lena: You see, here we were colonized by the British, and one thing they gave us was a trust in others. So when independence came, we trusted in the political parties. We trusted them! We wanted a political settlement. But they didn’t keep their promises.
J.L.Anderson: What do you think caused the change?
Lena: They have gone back on the promises they made to the Tamil community. They’ve gone back! Because they feel they must enslave us forever! I got involved because it’s my duty, for my community and my people. It’s my duty. We elder people saw the way, and the younger people came. They are liberating us. They have been a great service to us! We don’t call them terrorists; they’re freedom fighters. They’re fighting for a cause. I’m an old man, but I want a new country! Look at this moment. You see the children on their way to school. They are not safe. There is shooting at random. In the school, they are not safe. On the way they are not safe. In the market they are not safe. In the churches they are not safe! They are martyring our children!
You must have so much sympathy for us. That is the thing that we want you to know. Go back to your country and tell them how much we suffer; how much we suffer, how much of the victims are our children, how much of our future generation are going to be affected by this situation here. Please, for God’s sake! (Overwhelmed with emotion, the old man stops talking as he tries to stifle the tears that have appeared in his eyes.)’
Interview with Kumarappa, the LTTE commander of the Eastern Province in 1987
[the three-dots indicating omission whenever they appear, are as in the original text.]
‘Kumarappa, 27, is the Tiger commander for the Eastern Province. A heavy man with a drooping mustache and cold, brown eyes, he is wearing khaki pants and a white shirt, with a revolver tucked into his belt. Wicker chairs are arranged in a half-circle in a thatched hut; Kumarappa sits and waves for the questions to begin. His men crowd into the hut to watch and listen, and one Tiger with a camera snaps photos throughout the meeting.
Scott Anderson: Why did you join the Tigers?
Kumarappa: Me? Because I am also part of these people. I am losing my freedom. Because when I was studying, you know, advanced level, when I was doing my exams, I had to get more and more marks than the Sinhalese people. Because I was a Tamil, you know? If you want to enter any university, you had to get more marks. For example, in education, in everything education-wise, and agriculture-wise, and job-wise, everything, the government…it’s, you know, at the price of the Tamils. Actually, you know, it turned into genocide.
SA: What’s the average day like for a Tiger?
Kumarappa: Our soldiers, every day when they get up, they do some exercises first of all. Then they have to get out and guard. Then, every day, they have to do some duty, politically, economically – you know, some intellect training. Everything, you know.
Jon Lee Anderson: What are the rules about being a Tiger?
Kumarappa: You mean discipline? You know, no drinks first. Smokes, yeah, we accept – if they want, they can smoke. But no connection with a woman. They can feel with them, you know; I mean, they can love any woman, they can love, but nothing physical. They can’t make love.
JLA: For how long?
Kumarappa: That depends on the length of the war. To a girl, I will say, ‘If you want to marry me, you have to wait for me until we get our freedom.’ I mean, that’s the rule, you know. Because, in the situation in here, in the movement, we believe we can’t survive with women. Afterward, okay, everybody, if they like, they can marry. After some period, maybe three or four years, then the Tiger can marry. In the early days, no… too much weakness.
JLA: It looks like a static situation, with the STF over in Batticaloa and you here. Is there even any confrontation?
Kumarappa: We face a lot of direct confrontation. At this moment, we are taking the rest in here. But our soldiers, every day they are searching for commandos. Some direct confrontation in Batticaloa town and some other places, around STF commando camps. Every day. At this moment, we face a confrontation against EPRLF (rival Tamil guerrilla force). At this moment, they’re almost finished, EPRLF. We captured their arms and ammunitions and everything. A lot of them have surrendered.
JLA: Why the confrontation with the EPRLF?
Kumarappa: Because, you know, every day EPRLF was doing antisocial activities. Especially here in Batticaloa. We have Tamils and Muslims together here, you know, and they are actually imposing on the Muslim people. We accept the EPRLF, their self-determination and their rights, but they’re looting the Muslim shops and lorries. They’re making antisocial activities every day, day by day. Lots of times we warned them, but they persisted. That is the main reason. Because we are fighting for the liberation, the dedicated fight against the government here. Because we are, deep down, soldiers, you know, politically. That’s why.
SA: Do you find it difficult, as a Tamil, to take the life of a fellow Tamil?
Kumarappa: No. Because we’re fighting for a cause, you know. I mean, we’re dedicated to a fight, to give our lives. And the EPRLF are doing antisocial activities. We should try to cleanse them. ‘Okay, if you surrender, you can keep your life; we want only your arms and ammunition’. We got a lot of arms from the EPRLF.
JLA: What kind of country do you see for Eelam?
Kumarappa: (long pause) Oh yeah, socialist. A socialist country, yeah. Because in here, sixty percent of the people are poor; only ten percent are very rich. Corruption, you know? We have to develop our country. New socialism.
JLA: Two countries, Sri Lanka and Eelam?
Kumarappa: Yeah. A separate state.
SA: Will the Tigers accept anything less than a separate state?
Kumarappa: No. We will fight, you know. We want it, the Tamils. And to get Eelam we will fight.
JLA: So you don’t think negotiations will work?
Kumarappa: I think that’s a failure. Better to fight. My opinion, and of all the Tigers who have been here in this situation. Because every day, the STF commandos kill innocent people and loot our properties, destroy our economic schemes. Every day.
SA: All your soldiers carry cyanide capsules, is that correct?
Kumarappa: Yes, and, you know, the cyanide, no other army in the world goes into a fight with it. I think the cyanide helps our morale, you know? Especially, it increases our morale…and people have to keep our secrets.
JLA: Have any of your men had to use it?
Kumarappa: A lot of them. Time to time, since ’83. Sometimes men are captured by STF commandos. They take this, and that’s it.
JLA: What if he doesn’t take the cyanide. Say, he gets caught and is afraid?
Kumarappa: He must have to take it. That’s our rules. A Tiger, he will. [An interrupting note by Sri Kantha: Here, one should dip his head to Kumarappa’s conviction, because, he ultimately did what he was saying - in Oct.1987. How many politicians in Sri Lanka or anywhere else – who preach about the worth of giving their lives to their country - can match this deed?]. Sometimes there’s no opportunity. For example, two or three of our Tiger soldiers, they didn’t have any cyanide capsules. They were caught, but they fight with the STF so they would shoot them. It’s a good death…
JLA: To make them shoot you?
Kumarappa: Yeah, it’s a good death. Our soldiers did that. It’s a very brave death…I’m not afraid to die, you know?
SA: Is this a fight between the Tigers and the government, or between the Tamils and the Sinhalese?
Kumarappa: The government and the Tigers. We love the Sinhalese people, you know, we love them. They are also innocent. But we are trying to gain the power. When they support the government, they don’t accept our homeland and our self-determination. We are a separate culture – everything, you know, separate religion, separate language. Everything.
JLA: When the STF goes berserk after an attack by you and kills civilians, does that make you feel partly responsible?
Kumarappa: Yeah, but that’s a very uncontrolled army, you know, uncontrolled troops. Especially here, the STF commandos react to the civilians. Every day they’re doing that here. Today, one incident, the STF commandos opened fire on the ferry, people that were passing on the river. Two of them killed, two civilians. Sometimes we also feel like doing that, you know. Actually, we don’t like that, but sometimes, you know, we don’t have any alternatives. Sometimes we have to do that job, too. We have to kill them also.
JLA: Do you feel you have popular support?
Kumarappa: Yeah. We have the popular support. You know, some government intelligence service, they moderate the people by money and they are getting a lot of information about us. The government intelligence is getting the messages every day. We can show you one spy that we have caught.
JLA: You have a spy here?
Kumarappa: Yeah, a spy here. Government-backed, I think MOSSAD-backed, you know? She’s a thirty-six-year-old woman. She infiltrated our area and was getting the message and giving it to the commando camp. We’ve captured a lot of spies.
JLA: But she’s Tamil?
Kumarappa: Yeah, she’s a Tamil.
SA: When did you find her?
Kumarappa: We knew about her two months ago, but day before yesterday, we captured her. Now there is an inquiry.
JLA: What will happen to her if you find she is guilty?
Kumarappa: Sentence her to death. That’s her final punishment. That’s the way it has to be, you know? They can’t survive.
SA: And how are they executed?
Kumarappa: Sometime we put them on the lamppost, sometime, you know, we have the Cordex explosive wire – just around her body and then we detonate it. This is our maximum punishment. We do it sometimes. Two or three times we’ve done it…
The woman ‘spy’ Kanaratnam Athumah Kirikith, is brought into the hut. She is a tiny woman with wild, unkempt hair. Her eyes are unfocused; she seems to be in a state of shock. Athuma limps badly and is made to sit in the chair next to Kumarappa.
SA: How did you catch her?
Kumarappa: In Mandur, some ten miles from here. The officer in charge of Vellaveli police station operated her. All the time, if she wanted to pass a message, she would go to Vellaveli police station commandos.
SA: Has she confessed?
Kumarappa: Uh…yeah. She passed information through other sources, sometimes direct.
SA: But she’s admitted doing that?
SA: She’s confessed?
Kumarappa: Yeah! Without any torturing, she accepts everything. Now, she asks me for her life now.
JLA: Has she said why she did it?
Kumarappa: Because of money. She’s suffering in poverty, you know.
JLA: It’s not because the STF leaned on her, are holding her husband or brother or something like that?
Kumarappa: I think now they are holding her brother.
SA: When will you decide what to do with her?
Kumarappa: We have to keep her alive for a little bit, because we need to have some other persons for the inquiry. So you have to keep them alive.
JLA: But it also happens, doesn’t it, that the STF captures Tamil civilians, holds them, and then maybe goes to the relatives and says, ‘If you want your son back you must bring us information’. Doesn’t that happen?
Kumarappa: Yeah, that’s also happening here. A lot of cases of that.
JLA: (to Athuma) Do you have children?
Athuma: (in English) Seven children. One boy. He’s six.
JLA: Did you think this would happen to you?
Athuma: (answers in Tamil)
Kumarappa: She know one day it will happen.
JLA: If you knew it was going to happen, why did you do it?
Athuma: (a long, breathless passage in Tamil, her voice barely above a whisper, her eyes fixed on the tape recorder)
Kumarappa: I think she’s bluffing, yeah? She’s saying her family – you know, the children – are suffering. She says she had two children, and an officer in the Batticaloa police station, his sister took those children – because of the poverty, you know. Sergeant Dissanayake said, ‘Okay, we keep your children; you give us the information.’ She accepted to give the two children, and they are now in Colombo with this sergeant’s sister.
(Athuma mumbles continuously in Tamil in a low, hysterical voice.)
Kumarappa: She said the first incident to meet Mr.Dissanayake was the time she went to get her passport. Normally, you have to go to Colombo – very difficult to get a passport. But somebody said, ‘Okay, no problem. If you go see Sergeant Dissanayake, you can get passport.’ Then she went to the Batticaloa police station and talked with Sergeant Dissanayake, so he made her do this way (inform).
JLA: What happened to her husband?
Kumarappa: She says the STF commandos, they beat her husband. He didn’t do anything. After, he couldn’t do anything – I mean, he couldn’t do any business or any work. Now he’s in the house.
SA: What does she think is going to happen to her?
(Athuma answers softly)
Kumarappa: She knows very well the final decision. She knows we’re going to kill her.
(Athuma begins another long monologue, repeated over and over until Kumarappa interrupts)
Kumarappa: She says, you know…I mean, she’s pleading, ‘They’re going to take my life.’
JLA: Did people die as a result of her information?
JLA: Then why can’t you forgive her?
Kumarappa: (sighs) Because you know…she made a big mistake.
(Athuma is led out by several armed guerrillas and returns to the hut that is her cell.)’
Andersons had noted as follows in italics:
‘It can be assumed that Athuma was executed within a few days of the interview. Attempts to intercede on her behalf with Tiger supporters in Batticaloa were futile. Eleven days later, the STF launched a massive raid on Kumarappa’s base. In the battle, at least twenty-one of the Tigers were reported killed, including Kumarappa. [Note by Sri Kantha: This is in error. Kumarappa was not killed in this offensive. He committed suicide by taking cyanide, along with eleven other LTTE cadres, in Oct.1987 - after being held in detention in Jaffna.] The Batticaloa Citizen’s Committee, however, charged the STF with executing twenty-seven people at the nearby shrimp hatchery and estimated the attack’s overall death toll at nearly two hundred, mostly civilians.’
Interview with Sumith Silva, the then Coordinating Officer of STF for Batticaloa district
[the three-dots indicating omission whenever they appear, are as in the original text.]
‘The khaki-clad Coordinating Officer of Batticaloa District, Sumith Silva, is a huge, brawny man, his affability and personal civility at odds with the reputation of the forces under his command. The interview is at the Special Task Force (STF) headquarters, a heavily fortified complex several miles outside of Batticaloa. The base also doubles as an interrogation and detention center for Tamil terrorist suspects. Also seated in Silva’s office is a younger officer in jogging gear who won’t identify himself.
Silva: When violence is taken, any state has to take action to counter that violence. This whole problem can be sorted out; if the terrorists lay down their arms, the army packs up and goes. But the terrorists continue their acts of violence.
J.L.Anderson: They continue theirs and, according to an overwhelming number of people in Batticaloa, you continue yours.
Silva: We don’t. Now, suppose we act in self-defense – it is not an act of violence. In every action in Batticaloa, the first act of violence has always been committed by the terrorists. This is how it happens. We go out on patrol. The first shot is fired by a terrorist. Our counter attack begins in defense, obviously in defense – we have to shoot to save ourselves, you see? In the process, there may be some…innocents (hit), but that is provided for by the law. In a situation where someone is trying to shoot me and I shoot back, but hit the wrong man, that is self-defense, provided for by the law. This law is not our law; it is faithfully reproduced from the British law.
Scott Anderson: But we’re not talking about people killed in cross fires. There are dozens of women wandering around Batticaloa looking for their sons, their fathers, and they can’t find them.
Silva: Can’t find them? You know, I think that’s an exaggeration. What happens is this – I’ve talked about this over and over again but – in 1981, they started their training camps in India. The little youths in Jaffna were brainwashed, were regimented, and they left their homes on their own free will without their parents’ consent. Parents didn’t know where they were. They’ve all gone across the Palk Straits to the training camps. Today, I think ninety-five percent of the so-called disappearances are in training camps.
JLA: But some of these disappearances have happened this morning. We’ve been to places and had the women coming up crying-
Silva: But why do you believe what you see?
JLA: Come on. The women are falling on the ground and crying.
Silva: How do you know what the truth is? That can be arranged, can’t it? The women come here also.
JLA: Are you saying they’re professional grievers?
Silva: (laughs) I’ve been here in instances when they came here and said, ‘So-and-so-died.’ But we have no reason to deny it, you know, if we have shot this boy in action, killed him in action. I won’t hide anything from you.
Anonymous Officer: For instance, yesterday, the security forces arrested 110 men after a shootout with the terrorists. Killed three terrorists – LTTE – and then the village was surrounded and we have taken 110 persons into custody. This morning we released 102, 105.
JLA: We were told that the three killed yesterday, one was a boy who was urinating in his garden –
Silva: (laughs) Oh no, no, no.
JLA: - and the other two were crossing the lagoon on a boat.
Silva: (laughs) What can I say? I have perfect proof, but I cannot show it to you. Perfect proof, that would be accepted in any court of law anywhere in the world, that they were terrorists. I’m assuring you of that. Only, I can’t show it to you.
JLA: One was a government servant.
Silva: Government servants can also be terrorists.
JLA: It was a shoot-out and they were shooting back at your forces?
Anonymous Officer: (pause) Yes. Across the lagoon. A helicopter was shot (at).
Silva: (opens a ledger book) Here is the incident – we record everything. Here is the history, brief history. Everything is documented. (on the top page of the book are a couple of handwritten sentences; he begins to read them aloud) On sixteenth January, security forces conducted search at Kullamanam. Boat was seen in lagoon. The people in the boat suddenly attacked; the STF returned fire, killing three terrorists. (closes ledger)
Now everyone says they are innocent, but we know they are terrorists. We have it from very top authority. The authority I cannot quote to you, because I would be divulging my source of information. I can’t do that, because I couldn’t go and get information again from these sources. (laughs) We have people who tell us these things. That is because we have perfect rapport with the large majority of the people here.
Anonymous Officer: So far, they (Tamil Tigers) have killed 118 innocent Tamil people tied to lampposts in Batticaloa. One hundred and eighteen. Women and men both, up to last Thursday. Tied to lampposts.
Silva: We don’t do that.
JLA: We don’t dispute the atrocities of the militants, but we’re talking about something different. It wouldn’t seem that you’re exactly welcomed by the populace here, judging by the way your camp is fortified. Your people don’t smile at the local people –
Anonymous Officer: If we smiled at you, you would be against a lamppost tomorrow morning. Women, children, it doesn’t matter.
Silva: Look, the terrorists’ very existence is against the law. Their presence here is obviously for the purpose of dividing Sri Lanka, which is against the constitution, which is treason, punishable by death in Sri Lanka.
JLA: What about torture? Everyone says you use it widely.
Silva: Sometimes, if they resist arrest, force must be used to restrain them, but once they are brought to the camps they are not tortured.
JLA: How can that be? Literally everyone you’ve picked up has either been tortured himself or seen someone else undergo it. There are very specific details on how the torture is carried out. There is the ‘helicopter training’, the beating, the chili powder –
Silva: (laughs) Those are just figments of imagination.
Silva: Well, there may be cases here and there, but a microminority.
JLA: But surely your forces must feel frustrated here, among a people whose language they don’t speak, fighting an invisible enemy –
Silva: There’s no frustration amongst the forces, but there may be a few instances where they may be guilty of excesses. But such actions are very few, and such instances, when they do occur, we view very, very sternly.
JLA: How sternly?
Silva: Such as dismissal, for example.
JLA: What kinds of crimes merit dismissal from the forces?
Silva: Unwarranted torture, rape of women, unwarranted use of force…They’ll be dismissed forthwith?
JLA: What about unwarranted murder?
Silva: As yet we’ve had no cases of officers, of any ranks, accused of murder, because there have been no cases proved. In the three months I’ve been here in Batticaloa there has been no allegations of murder made with justification. I can’t speak about before.
JLA: Do you, personally, have any problems with the way the war is being waged?
Silva: Killing is inevitable, as far as the terrorists are concerned, so we are totally within our rights to fire back. If a murderer is hiding somewhere, I’m duty-bound to go and arrest him. Murder is an offense punishable by death. And when I go there, if he opens fire at me, I’m perfectly justified in defending myself. You know, this isn’t a conventional war yet; they are still of this country, so whatever they do is illegal and punishable by the laws of the country. The STF never opens fire first. I can truthfully say that!
Anonymous Officer: A Tamil terrorist – there are none from Batticaloa to begin with; they all come from Jaffna – they have not been welcomed by the population. The people are sick of them. About three months ago, they abducted eight Tamils – Tamils! – and they raised twelve million rupees, just to raise money!
Silva: They are ruthless, ruthless murderers who are brainwashed and can’t see a democratic solution to anything.
SA: Is it true you have a place here in the camp where you burn the bodies of those killed by your troops?
Silva: No, no, no. Who told you that?
SA: Well, we’ve talked to many people, including the mothers of men who have been killed in the last few days, and they say you don’t give the bodies back to them for burial but burn them in the camp. Is it true you don’t give the families their bodies?
Silva: (long pause, looks out window) Sometimes…we don’t give the bodies back, because it’s …they’re…because, sometimes, they’ll use it for propaganda purposes, the terrorists. For security concerns the law allows us to not give them to their owners. But we don’t burn them. We have a place, a cemetry adjoining the camp. They are, however, perfectly able to come to do the last rites –
JLA: Oh, so each has a grave. You have a graveyard?
Silva: (stares) No. There is a common grave.
SA: But the families are allowed to come and perform last rites?
Silva: Well, not in large numbers, of course. But yes, we allow them.
A few days later, an official of the National Security Ministry in Colombo ridiculed the suggestion that bodies were being buried in the Batticaloa STF base. ‘Whoever told you that must be a terrorist or a terrorist sympathizer.’
In October 1987, Sumith Silva was travelling with the Batticaloa Government Agent Anthonimuthu when their vehicle was destroyed by a Tiger land mine. Silva was killed instantly.’
Interview with Christopher Romesh, a Tamil victim of Special Task Force commandos in Batticaloa
[the three-dots indicating omission whenever they appear, are as in the original text.]
‘Christopher Romesh, 30, is a thin, frail Tamil with haunted eyes and a severe stutter. A Christian, his left arm bears burn scares in the shape of a cross, made by torturer’s cigarettes. From Batticaloa in the Eastern Province, Christopher now lives in Madras, India, but hopes to be sent to a hospital in Europe to obtain physical and psychological therapy.
Batticaloa police caught me under suspicion of railway robbery. They caught me on February 6, 1982. I was in prison for one year and three months. When I was in the police station, they tortured me very badly. After that, I was suffering from asthma. They used to say me, ‘Lie on the bench’, and they gave me leg belt. They used to hammer with a big, big pole everywhere. After, they put on me chili powder. This was in the police station; then they took me to Batticaloa Prison. They released me in May ’83.
Then, February ’85, I was caught in Batticaloa by police commandos. They used to take boys (as informants), and they would go by the roads. So they ask the boy who is who, like that. If they do like this (nods head), the police take us. This way they caught me. And I was wearing a T-shirt and trousers. So they took my T-shirt and tied my eyes and they put the handcuff like this and they put me inside the van and I was lying down. So they took me to police commando’s camp.
So five days, my eyes were tied. Sixth day, they took me and they said, ‘Will you tell anything?’ I said I don’t know anything. So they said, ‘We are going to give you helicopter training’. Helicopter training means to tie your hands like that (behind back), and they used to hang you like that…So I was ha-ha-hanging- like…for nearly five hours. I was in the, uh…while – and they were ha-ha-hammering also. They were hammering with the poles and the strong pipe with cement inside.
They asked me whether I was in the movement, or ‘Do you know anyone who is in the movement.’ I say I don’t know anything. And they were putting chilis – this was the worst – they put in the eyes, nose, mouth, everywhere, all over our body. Then after five hours, they put me down. My hands were paralyzed. I couldn’t move my hands or anything. I was inside a very small cell; there were about ten boys. So I couldn’t go to the toilet or anything. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t move my hand at all. So boys used to help me. They used to feed me, take me to toilet and everything. But they didn’t do the helicopter again.
When I was in the camp, about fifty boys were dying. Sometimes they hammered, struck on head. Sometimes they used to bury and sometimes they used to burn. After killing them, they would say (to the families), ‘We didn’t have him.’ Once we saw two bodies in the hall, and another one, he escaped and ran, so this one they shot. And they came in and showed me: ‘If anybody escapes, we will do like this.’
I know Sinhalese also. I can talk Sinhalese. I used to talk with the police commandos. They used to come and talk with me, but they say, ‘We can’t help this. It’s a hard time for you, but we can’t help you.’ They kept me two months, and my mother went to the MP for (the town of) Galle in order to pursue my thing. After that, they moved me to Colombo hospital. They gave me physical therapy. In hospital, I was in for fifty days. After forty days, little by little I got my feeling in hands back. Then I came home. For two months after I didn’t speak anything. I was shocked. I thought I’m going to die like that (mute).
I was staying at home, but I not go out because I knew I would have problems. I was staying for a while, and then, in November ’85, there was a case, some militants put a landmine and police jeep went over it and some police were injured. So police commandos came and they took about fifty boys and they shot thirteen boys on the incident. So, because of that, my parents were scared to keep me, so I came here on November twenty fifth ’85. My friends are helping, so I stay here. But it’s very hard to pass the time; I just read books. Because I have suffered enough. I just want to go somewhere.
Actually I like Sinhalese. I know it is just for politics that they do things like this. It is unnatural. Just like us, they are human beings. So we Tamils must fight and we must kill persons, no? But I have no guts for that thing. I am very softhearted.’
Interview with Tim, a British mercenary
[the three-dots indicating omission whenever they appear, are as in the original text.]
‘Tim, a deeply tanned Briton with predatory eyes, is a mercenary pilot fighting with the Sri Lankan Army in the southern reaches of the Jaffna Peninsula.
I just don’t think the Sinhalese have it in them. The Tamils are a more…vigorous people – I guess that’s the right word. You know, the Sinhalese have this whole Buddhism and karma thing… They fight a gentleman’s war. They’ve carried over all the worst characteristics from the old British Army. They’ll go out, fire a few bullets, and be home in time for tea. They have a…lack of enthusiasm.
We were out on a patrol and drew fire from some coconut (trees) near this village. They wouldn’t return fire: ‘Too close to the village, might hit some civilians!’ I mean, they practically won’t let you shoot unless you actually see the bloke standing there with the gun in his hand. All the boys over from South Africa and Rhodesia, this was a joke to them. They got totally fucked off with it; most of ‘em packed up and left. Went to Nicaragua.
I just think these boys don’t know how to fight. And don’t want to fight. They just want to hold back and wait for a settlement. I tell you, it’s bloody frustrating. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to the colonel and cussed out the whole lot of ‘em.’
Priit Vesilind covering the Eastern Front in the Fall of 1995
The National Geographic magazine of January 1997 carried a feature on Sri Lanka by Priit Vesilind, in which Pirabhakaran received a passing mention in five sentences as follows:
“In the late 1970s and ‘80s radical Tamils renewed calls for a separate state, to be called Eelam. The Tigers were one of several antigovernment groups, but their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, consolidated power with a string of political assassinations, including, it is alleged, the killing of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
The war has come to a critical juncture. Prabhakaran, hidden somewhere in the jungles of the north, controls an insurgent army of 10,000, including a potent naval unit. He and the Tigers responded to the Jaffna offensive by attacking five villages of Sinhalese peasants on the border of Tiger territory, killing more than 120 innocent people.”
That Pirabhakaran is presented with a negative image to the readership of National Geographic is not surprising, if one continues to read the subsequent sentences. Vesilind was unable to meet Pirabhakaran in person. Rather one could conveniently infer that he probably had regurgitated the opinion of a then Foreign Ministry Poo-Bah in Colombo, whom he had to meet. Vesilind wrote,
“The press has been kept from the war, and the government openly censors local newspapers. The spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Colombo, Ravinatha Aryasinha, politely denies my request to visit Jaffna, but assures me, ‘This is a clean process, a clean war. There is no one going berserk. There will be some civilian casualties, of course.’…”
While denying permission to visit the Jaffna region, it appears Mr.Aryasinha had granted permission for Vesilind to visit the Eastern Front. He had somehow tracked Karikalan, the LTTE political leader in the East. Here is what Vesilind saw there:
“The war has divided Sri Lanka into zones. At the time of my visit the government controls the south-central core, the Tigers the northern and eastern coasts, where Tamils, Malays and Muslim descendants of Arab cinnamon traders have traditionally lived. The government maintains only a tenuous grip on Trincomalee and Batticaloa, the main towns on the east coast, which have been reduced to army-held bastions surrounded by a hostile Tamil population.
I hitch a ride to Batticaloa with a Tamil who works with a nongovernmental developmental agency. We drive as if parting the waters, scattering goats, bicycles, coconut-water vendors, cattle and monks carrying black umbrellas against the wilting sun. The land turns dry and scrubby and blazes with rampant bougainvillea as we pass through coastal villages, some Tamil, some Muslim. Gaunt men balancing piles of firewood on the backs of their bicycles teeter beside us.
‘Rotary Club – Batticaloa – Drive Carefully’ a sign says, and we cross a bridge into the quiet Tamil town once famous for its legendary singing fish. They say if you dip your head in the water by Kalladi Bridge, you can hear them, a sort of harmonious noise in a disquieting place. Few of the government troops who occupy Batticaloa speak Tamil, and their fear is palpable. Spencer Morawilla, a professor at the university here, tells me, ‘We understand the soldiers. They think that all Tamils have tails. No one trusts anyone.’
There is no official way to reach the Tigers. We simply negotiate past the final army checkpoint into one of the most destitute areas of Sri Lanka and on to the village of Vakarai, 35 miles north of Batticaloa. Here, from a side road surrounded by thick vegetation, three Black Tigers emerge, wearing flip-flops and strolling with cautious bravado. They are suicide cadres, sworn to take their own lives if captured. Around their necks are vials of cyanide. ‘Why do you fight?’ I challenge them. ‘The army is much stronger than you.’
‘When we fight, they run’, says 22-year-old Ramesh Kanth, not quite smiling. ‘Mentally they are not very strong.’ His own toughness comes down to the matter of cyanide, and my heart churns as Kanth pulls the two-inch-long plastic vial from beneath his shirt. He puts it between his teeth, to demonstrate; ‘You have to keep it in your mouth and bite down’.
A waiting list exists to join the suicide squads. On the wall of a deserted hospital a recruiting poster depicts three Black Tigers, two boys and one girl, about 15. In 1995 they blew up a Sri Lankan naval vessel, and themselves, in Trincomalee harbor. The photographs show them just before the mission, with the explosives strapped to their backs, looking scared and fiercely angelic.
On the following morning we track down the elusive Sivagnanam Karikalan, the Tigers’ political officer, at a camp west of Batticaloa. I ask him why the Tigers will not consider the president’s proposal to form autonomous districts. ‘We have entered into this war to achieve a separate state’, he says, ‘Nothing much will happen through negotiations with the Sri Lankan government’. But Karikalan denies that Tigers are responsible for the massacre of Sinhalese villagers: ‘If we wanted to kill innocent people, it would be easy for us; we could do it all the time. But we are not terrorists. We are a liberating force.’ And the recruitment of children?
‘When a young person makes a decision to become a Black Tiger – to destroy himself – he goes through several training courses. It is his final act, his only act, and here is where the dedication of our young people is built. There is no liberation without sacrifice.’
I am the father of teenagers, and that evening I can do no more than sit on the hotel roof and absorb the healing beauty of the sunset over Batticaloa lagoon….” [pp.125-126]
One can assume that this piece by Vesilind, typical of a National Geographic’s scenario-capture format, is neither condemning nor laudatory of the LTTE warriors. But, Vesilind has omitted to answer the vital question ‘Why’ the emergence of suicide cadre among the young generation of Tamils. May be, he is not a sociologist or has not read Emile Durkheim’s classic work on suicide, where the French sociologist has classified one category of suicide as ‘altruistic suicide’. Even if Vesilind would have bothered to include this interpretation into his Sri Lankan feature on the Eastern Front, for reasons of political correctness, the editorial scissors at the National Geographic desk would have pruned it.
The National Geographic magazine, though having a stellar reputation and credibility, has also its bias of not overtly antagonizing the government in power, for reasons of access to its feature writers and photographers. This bias prevented them from reporting objectively the excesses of Nazi regime in Europe and the Stalin-era torture camps of the Soviet Union. Having noted this, I wish to include another short paragraph from Vesilind’s feature which is of interest. Wrote Vesilind,
“I read daily in Colombo newspapers about suicides over seemingly trivial things like a bad grade or an insult. ‘Sri Lanka has one of the highest suicide rates in the world,’ a U.S. official in Colombo told me. ‘Why should we be surprised that a Tiger would commit suicide for his nation, when a wife will do it because her husband didn’t like dinner?” [p.130]
This penetrating remark by an unidentified ‘U.S. official’ stationed in Colombo places in perspective, that the suicides of Tiger cadres belong to the ‘altruistic type’ of suicide identified by Durkheim which are carried out for a specific objective to save his or her ethnic members. May be one should not be harsh on Vesilind after all. He brought out the difference between the routine suicides in Sri Lanka and that of a Tamil Tiger through the quote of this unidentified ‘U.S. official’, without including Durkheim’s name. [continued.]