Make the Facts of the War Public
Letter in the Tamil Circle, 28 April 1996
"I have been struggling in my mind against
the conclusion that the SL government is trying to kill or
terrorize as many Tamil people as possible; that the
government is trying to keep the conditions of the war
unreported internationally, because if those conditions were
reported, the actions of the military would be perceived as
so deplorable that foreign nations would have no choice but
to condemn them. And this would be embarrassing to
everybody. But it seems now that no other conclusion is
I have been reading reports about the SLA's northward march with
mounting despair. At first, the reports coming from the SL military
and from the LTTE appeared diametrically opposed. The military said
that displaced Tamils were returning north to their homes
voluntarily; the LTTE said they were fleeing across the lagoon to
the mainland. The military reported that there were bodies lying
around that the LTTE hadn't picked up, and the Tigers were chastised
for being so disrespectful of their own dead. The LTTE responded
with a brief silence.
Then the reports began to converge. The LTTE also reported that
there were bodies lying around that, indeed, it had not had the
capacity to bury properly. Not only LTTE bodies, but civilian
bodies. Now according to the Reuters report (Mohan Samarasinghe) in
Circle#749, the military says it has captured the key lagoon
crossing, "to halt the flow of hundreds of Tamil civilians fleeing
The Defense Ministry appears to admit that the people travelling
north were trapped and forced in that direction by the advancing
army. The LTTE has reported that fleeing Tamil civilians have been
subject to strafing and shelling by the army; military officials say
that "hundreds of Tamil civilians are risking being shot at" to flee
to safety across the lagoon. One may well ask these military
officials who exactly is shooting at these fleeing civilians?
Meanwhile those who travel north into the Valigamam area are,
according to the military, "screened to ensure there is no LTTE
infiltration," while the LTTE reports that all young Tamil men and
women entering Valigamam are being arrested and being taken in for
questioning, which is the only thing (in this context, and in my
view) that "screening" could mean.
No journalists or outside reporters or observers of any kind are
allowed into the north. No aid of any kind is allowed into areas
that are not "controlled by the military." Such areas are being
shelled as enemy territory. Can we believe Samarasinghe's article?
It seems intelligent and consistent with other knowledge received.
I have been struggling in my mind against the conclusion that
the SL government is trying to kill or terrorize as many Tamil
people as possible; that the government is trying to keep the
conditions of the war unreported internationally, because if
those conditions were reported, the actions of the military
would be perceived as so deplorable that foreign nations would
have no choice but to condemn them. And this would be
embarrassing to everybody. But it seems now that no other
conclusion is possible.
The SL military intends to end the war by "destroying" all Tigers
*and* all *potential* Tigers. Does "destroy" mean kill? Or does it
mean something worse? The army will not succeed in this task, but
what will almost certainly happen is that the Tigers will again
create a loud and possibly bloody explosion in Colombo, and the SLA
will retaliate in its usual unendearing fashion, the Tigers will get
more support from internal and external sources to fight the army,
as the army gets new weaponry the Tigers will steal it from them,
and so it will continue ...
The most important thing is not the number of people who die. The
most important thing is the pain endured by those who live,
including those who survive the death of loved ones. The pain
spreads like poison and infects unborn generations in horrible ways.
It is not impossible to stop this poison, I think, but it takes many
people working hard to do it.
There are people in SL at this time who are risking their lives to
convince specific terrorists (*real* terrorists, not "terrorists" in
quotes) that it is not in their own best interests to inflict
intense pain upon others. There are people giving their whole lives
to staunch the flow of pain. But there are many others still, inside
SL and outside, who profit from the war that makes the pain.
A ray of hope (alas - I am always looking for rays of hope!)
consists in the fact that the SL government has revealed one easily
targeted weak spot. It does not want the conditions of the war in
the north to be made public. It fears that if its means of carrying
out the war were known, it might have to stop doing whatever it's
Some of the members of that government are among those who profit
from the war, and I think they would like to have it continue for a
long time, in just the way that it is continuing now. I for one
would prefer that the war not continue. I would like the killing and
torture, the terrorization, extortion and oppression to stop. There
is an obvious way to help make these things stop. The warmakers
themselves have shown us the way.
MAKE THE FACTS OF THE WAR PUBLIC.
Is there something wrong with this logic? Why are not more of us
doing it then? I mean not only the obscure ones among us, but the
highly placed ones among us, who have expensive skills and know how
to get attention. The lawyers, the doctors, the prize-winning
investigative journalists, the tenured professors with famous books
to their credit.
My fear is that we are not doing what needs to be done because to
act would be to alienate people even more powerful than us upon whom
our smaller powers depend.
We would have to demand of our friendly MPs where they get their
money from. We would have to demand of our governments that they not
send military equipment to Sri Lanka. We would have to demand of our
universities that they help refugees (Massey, my own! - demand that
New Zealand milk powder be delivered directly to refugee camps in
the north, regardless of whether they are under military control or
We would have to risk our careers, our reputations, maybe even our
lives, by doing things that people who have a lot to lose won't
normally do. We would have to go to the places we are forbidden to
go, see the things we are forbidden to see, and report those things.
We would have to put our bodies where the shells are falling - our
own highly valued, foreign-educated, fair-skinned bodies.
We would have to mobilize our love, our anger, our fear, our faith
and our power to bring a just peace in Sri Lanka. We would have to
give up our security, our privacy.
We would have to join together and help one another. We would have
to recognize that we have all already been poisoned enough and this
is what makes us spend our energy scratching and biting each other.
I think a lot of us are fully able to make the sacrifices we need to
make to help end the war.
Maybe each of us is waiting because each of us knows that if s/he
acts alone, s/he will be giving up everything for nothing. But we
can't really wait much longer. I would like to go to the north of
the island, despite the prohibition, to see and report the manner in
which the war is being executed. A way can surely be found. Would
anyone like to come with me?
Sincerely, Margaret Trawick
Professor of Social Anthropology Massey University Palmerston North