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HomeTamils - a Nation without a State > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Muslims & Tamil Eelam > The Gruesome Threshing Floor in Udubankulam


The Gruesome Threshing Floor in Udubankulam
K.N.Tharmalingam - February 2003, Northeastern Herald

[ see also Udumbankulam survives mass murder, forced eviction, 19 February 2003]

Twilight over the Udumbankulam Tank.

Nineteenth February marked the 18th anniversary of the Thangavelayuthapuram massacre where the security forces murdered 128 persons in cold blood. After years of wondering and privation, a few families are returning taking advantage of the Ceasefire Agreement

Thangavelauthapuram, a village in the Thirukkovil Divisional Secretary’s area, was formally known by the less pretentious name of Udumbankulam. Names changed in 1969 when an affluent farmer and influential denizen of the area, Arambai Gnanamuttu, pioneered a settlement in the dense dry zone jungles of Udumbankulam with people drawn from areas such as Chenaikudy, Natputtimunai, Central Camp, Chavalakadai and Naavithanveli.

A large number of these settlers were originally from Thuraineelavanai and Kurumanveli in the southern corner of the Batticaloa district.

Many of them had lost their traditional grazing lands and paddy fields to state-sponsored, armed Sinhala colonists in 1956. Pollution and silt from the Gal Oya scheme salinated cultivable land around Thuraineelavanai and Kurumanveli and killed off many varieties of fish in the lagoon, leading to rampant unemployment and landlessness. The Kanchikudichiyaaru Scheme, under which Tamils were offered forestland clearing and cultivation in the late sixties, was a big boon to families driven to destitution in the southern parts of Batticaloa due to the direct and indirect consequences of state sponsored Sinhala colonization in 1956-58.

The late 1960s are well known for the ‘grow more food’ campaign of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake’s government, which initiated the programme in the hope of attaining self-sufficiency in rice production. Victor Unantenne, government agent, was instrumental in bringing vast areas in the eastern region under the programme.

Though the environs of Thangavelayuthapuram were alienated for cultivation only with the restoration of the Kanchikudichiyaaru tank in 1969 as part of the ‘grow more food’ drive, land in other areas of the present Amparai District had been a matter of contention between the Tamils and the Muslims from at least a decade before. M. Mustapha, MP, once a member of the Federal Party, after crossing over to S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s MEP pleaded that Muslims of the area were landless cultivators exploited by the Tamils and demanded they be given land of their own.

C. P. De Silva, ever willing to pour fuel into the fire of ethnic rivalry, agreed to alienate 7000 acres to the Muslims. The Tamils, who perceived the changes in land ownership in the area as a subtle way of undermining their traditional economic and demographic status in the region, also demanded alienation of land for cultivation to counterbalance the recent acquisitions by the Muslims. In the wake of this, a swathe of 3000 acres including areas between Akkaraipattu and Pottuvil was alienated to Tamil farmers under the Land Development Ordinance where each settler got five acres. However, though they did receive allotments, the Tamil villagers delayed settling there. The overall rivalry for land between the Tamils and the Muslims has to be kept in mind if the drama going to unfold is to be correctly understood. To come back to the newly set up Thangavelayuthapuram, the village was prospering by 1971. There were 349 families comprising 1326 persons.

New settlers from Karaitheevu, Akkaraipattu, Kolavil, Thambattai and Thambiluvil joined the earlier settlers. In the early days however the farmers practiced slash and burn (chena) cultivation in the area since the land that was claimed from the forest was littered by tree-stumps that created obstacles to drive the plough. The crops cultivated in the first two-three years were maize, kurakkan, plantain, groundnut and vegetables.

In 1973 an Agrarian Service Centre was set up in Thangavelayuthapuram, which spearheaded the sinking of wells and the restoration of tanks and other irrigation works. These efforts, coupled with the soil becoming more obstacle-free and conducive to the cultivation of rice led to the area coming under paddy. The industry of the cultivators and the bounty of the earth resulted in overflowing granaries. The seasons permitted both rain-fed and irrigation-assisted cultivation.

There was encouragement for domestic paddy production due to the import substitution philosophy of the SLFP government (1970-1977).

It helped the yield and the farmers. Markets were created for paddy and the village once produced 40 tons of manioc, a staple in those trying times. Flowing from the prosperity, a village school and a cooperative society came up.

Such times were to continue despite the new government that came into office in 1977 emphasising export promotion rather than domestic agriculture production, and the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, which transformed the Tamils’ peaceful struggle for their rights into an armed conflict that had led to widespread violence in the northeast. The latter was to however result in Tamil guerrillas from nearly all the groups setting up training camps in the remote interiors of the northeast, including the jungles of Kanchikichchiyaaru, from where limited sorties were launched on the military and police.

In paddy cultivation it is customary for sowing to take place in October and harvesting by end January. In the year 1985, farmers began harvesting by 1 February. As is usual agriculture labourers from Batticaloa and Amparai were engaged for the task; though mostly Tamils, there were among them a sprinkling of gypsies from Aligambai, a hamlet east of Thirukkovil.

Around 10.00 a.m. in the morning of 19 February a group of soldiers and an armoured vehicle arrived at Thangavelayuthapuram. Informed sources in Thirukkovil say that the soldiers were from the Kondawattuwan army camp near Amparai and that they had trekked through the thick jungles that separate the Kanchikichchiyaaru region from the Sinhala settlements of Igniygala scheme. Residents who escaped the massacre, however, believe that the soldiers were from the Special Task Force (STF) camp in Lahugala near Pottuvil.

The military did not ask many questions. It merely rounded up the agricultural labourers, beat up some, tied their hands and made them sit huddled on the threshing floor. When the soldiers ran short of rope to tie up, they pulled off barbed wire from the fences of the paddy fields and wound up the feet and hands of the victims.

“The soldiers told the women to remain in the huts. They ordered many of them to lift up their sarees and beat them on their genitals with sticks as they screamed in pain and begged to be spared of the humilation”, said Velmurugu Manoharan, 30, who escaped the round up and hid in the jungle. He was a boy of 13 who had gone to harvest paddy with a relative.

Then the soldiers mercilessly hacked with machetes and beat up with logs the men of Udumbankulam. Some were knifed to death. Skulls were cracked with heavy blows from thick logs. The men were helpless, as their hands and feet had been carefully tied up.

Women who herd the death screams of their men tried to run up to the threshing floor, shouting for mercy. They were shot at and chased away. Before returning to camp the marauders set the threshing floor on fire and left a mangled pile of smouldering human entrails. People in the adjacent areas were too scared to get close to Udumbankulam.

“One of the boys who fled with me into the jungle recognized his father’s body in the pile when we returned the following morning. The man’s burnt hands were still wound up with barbed wire. Later the boy went with the LTTE and we heard that he became a Black Tiger,” said Manoharan.

The army (and STF possibly) did not come through the jungle unaided. They needed a guide or a tracker. The survivors identified the guide as Saheed from the Muslim village of Addalachenai.

One of those killed was Arumugam Nallathambi, a kulak of the area who owned a tractor. His sons were also in the fields and died with him. Nallathamby’s daughter-in-law had gone to Karaitheevu on some matter and was returning to Thangavelayuthapuram when she saw clouds of smoke from the grotesque ‘harvest’ on the threshing floor hanging in the evening air. Villagers Thandiyadi told her there had been a massacre and urged her to keep away from the village. It was through her the Citizens’ Committee of Batticaloa got to know about the incident. They informed the District Coordinating Officer who was the superintendent of police.

The government initially tried to suppress all information from leaking to the world outside. One of earliest accounts to appear was in The Hindu of either of 20 or 21 February 1985. It had referred to around 50 persons killed that were much less than the actual number – 128.Faced with a political embarrassment of gigantic proportions and with the United Nations Human Rights Commission sessions to be held but a month later, the government assisted by its duplicitous national security minister, Lalith Athulathmudali, attempted to refute the truth by concocting a story the essence of which is as follows: EROS had wrested control of a large extent of land from Muslims of the area and was cultivating cannabis there. The STF had come to investigate the complaint and had been resisted. In the ensuing melee 40 terrorists had been killed.

The villagers visited the site of the harrowing ordeal. Among them were members of the Batticaloa Citizens’ Committee including the late Sam Thambimuttu MP, and the late Chandra Fernando. Rev. Fr. Mariyadas who was then stationed in Thirukkovil and in charge of Pottuvil and Komari parishes accompanied them.

Here are extracts from the diary of K. N. Tharmalingam, a well-known human rights activist in Amparai on the account Dasan Luxmi (20) from Devanagar (Aligambai) gave him. “I was married to Ramalingam Arulnathan. My son is one year old. My husband left with seven others from Aligambai including Massan Paul, Dasappu Selliah, Massan Jeyaraj, Dasappu Samithambi, Dasappu Sebamalai, Mahalingam and Vengattu Kulatheva.

“I heard on the 19th evening that my spouse had been killed by the STF. On the following day (20th) we went to Thangavelayuthapuram and found half-burnt bodies and bones on the choodu (threshing floor). I recognised my spouse by his clothes. We gathered the limbs and burnt them there.” She went on to say that the landlord who had hired her husband was also killed and his tractor burnt. “I have every reason to believe that my spouse was killed by the STF,” she concludes.

In 2001 Tharmalingam met Luxmi. Her son was 13 years old now. But no compensation had been paid.

Interestingly, the STF camp in Thirukkovil was set up only a few weeks previous to the incident. Though they were initially suspected of having a hand in the massacre, it was later proved the dastardly deed was not the doing of the STF of Thirukkovil camp.

The Sri Lanka Army appointed a commission consisting three military officers, but the Tamils boycotted it and refused to give evidence on the grounds it was biased and the government had deliberately deceived the public by lying about the roots of the incident. Needless to say nothing ever came of the commission.

It is believed Saheed’s involvement is due to long-standing disputes between the Tamils and the Muslims over land. However, informed sources in Ampara, familiar with the counter insurgency tactics of the STF, insist that Saheed was a calculated ‘invention’ to further exacerbate tensions between the Muslims and Tamils in the district. They alluded to the notorious SLA killer in Batticaloa identified by the Muslim name ‘Munaz’. Justice Souza as a Sinhalese called Richard Dias later identified the man. That a Muslim was responsible for gruesome massacres in Batticaloa enraged many Tamils and led to incidents that rent sunder and deeply divided society in the east to the advantage of the Sri Lankan military.

The manner in which the STF instigated Muslim attacks on Tamil villages in the coastal parts of Ampara 1985 has been documented by independent observers who investigated the conflagration.

The fact of the matter was that though he could be identified, since the Tamils were refused to lead evidence or make representations before the commission he was never punished.

The massacre at Thangavelayuthapuram heralded round after round of counter-insurgency measures unleashed by the STF and the security forces in the Amparai District. The repression was so intense that it led to an exodus not only from Thangavelayuthapuram, but also from many other areas from 1985 onwards reaching its apogee in 1990 when the STF forced people to leave the region en masse following the resumption of the Eelam War. Villagers were barred by the STF from returning to their lands or herding their cattle. Those who dared to break the order were detained, tortured or were shot on the spot by STF patrols.

With the exodus there disappeared the bountiful harvests too and it is only now more than dozen years later that people are returning slowly and cautiously to resettle and begin life again.

Udumbankulam survives mass murder, forced eviction
[TamilNet, February 19, 2003 21:30 GMT]

In Udumbankulam, a minor Tamil hamlet in the little known interior of Sri Lanka’s southeastern coast, the fields are densely green where 17 years ago on February 19, 1986 the Sri Lankan military hacked and beat to death 128 farmers on the village’s threshing floor. The area is being gradually retrieved from the clutches of the jungle. A handful of intrepid former residents who returned to the village five months ago are eagerly looking forward to a bumper crop of rice. But Feb 19 remains an indelibly bitter day for them.  As often is the case, the Sri Lankan government did nothing to investigate the mass murder of Udumbankulam.

Kanapathipillai Sivanesarajah, 58, looks over his field, standing near the Udumbankulam reservoir's spill.
“I escaped the massacre because I was out on business that day. Everyone was scared. We were able to get here only the next day. The threshing floor was full of burnt and half burnt bodies. It was an unbearable sight. A boy who escaped and hid in the jungle told us that some of the victims were alive when the soldiers set them on fire. Exactly five months later the military came here again and shot dead two men from the village, on 19 July 86”, said Nakamany Kandasamy, 48, the local headman.

Three years after the gruesome massacre, those villagers who dared to remain in Udumbankulam were driven out en masse by the elite counter insurgency arm of the Sri Lankan military the Special Task Force (STF).

Krishnan Sivajothy beating a sheaf of paddy on the threshing floor of a field in Thangavelauthapuram.
“STF commandos burnt our house and shop in 1990. They destroyed the village school and co-operative society building too. The STF set fire to our harvested paddy and destroyed 25 thousand manioc plants in our farm which we had planted for the season. My husband and I barely escaped death. We hid in the jungles for many days. We have come back here after 12 years. But starting life all over again is very hard”, says Kumarakulasingham Thangeswary, 45.

“But worst of all is that the STF blew up the bunds of water reservoirs here. The reservoirs have remained breached for almost a decade. The Tamil Eelam Economic Development Organisation (TEEDOR) has helped repair the bund of the Udumbankulam reservoir. Other the breached bunds of the other minor tanks (reservoirs) have also been repaired in recent months”, said the President of the Rural Development Society for the area, Mr. Murugesu Varatharajan, 33.

He said families are reluctant to resettle on a permanent basis because even the rudimentary infrastructure needed to sustain human habitation has been systematically and ruthlessly destroyed in the STF’s counter insurgency operations in the region.

Nakamany Kandasamy, 48, on his way to Udumbankulam at dusk.
“To many of our people who go about in luxury vehicles, discussing the reconstruction of our homeland with foreigners, we are just an inconspicuous dot on the map. Pregnant women have to walk more than eight kilometres from here to get a bus to Thirukkovil”, he adds bitterly.

“We had to break granite stones for a living. We could not cultivate the lands here and my family is still sunk in poverty. Three meals a day is a luxury for my family”, says Krishnan Sivajothy, 38, as she beats with a stick a sheaf of paddy she and her friends had been allowed to collect from the floor of a harvested field in Thangavelauthapuram, a village near Udumbankulam.

“A hard day’s work gets us enough grains of rice to give the children a square meal”, she said.

Sivajothy and her colleagues are from the village of Thandiady, about 94 kilometers south of Batticaloa, on the main road along the island’s southeastern coast.

The STF held the village for more than decade, like an open prison, human rights activists in Batticaloa say.

Indiscriminate arrest, detention, torture and disappearance were rampant here. No journalist has been to the area since the STF took control more than 18 years ago.

Thousands of families which were driven out almost overnight as part of the STF’s counter insurgency strategy designed according to western manuals on the subject, lived as refugees for more than 12 years in the villages of Thirukkovil and Thambiluvil, 76 kilometers south of Batticaloa. Many were driven to destitution and despair as the STF continued to deny access to their fertile lands and cattle herds.

Those who dared to go back were shot dead by STF patrols in ambush.

However, the STF’s decade long counter insurgency measures, successfully tested and honed over the years in other parts of the world, neither curbed the military activities of the Liberation Tigers nor succeeded in scaring the population away from the Tigers.

Instead, the scorched earth policy which successive government’s tacitly promoted in the region evolved into a cover to the STF for a perpetuating a comfortable way of corrupt life, which the terrorized population was forced to pay dearly for.

“We had to lose a few people. But public protests here since the signing of the ceasefire have shown the STF that our people cannot be treated like slaves for ever”, says Vivekanandan, a social activist and journalist in Thirukkovil.


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