Protecting Crime by Criminalising an Entire Populace
Part 6 of the UTHR(J) Special Report No 34: Protecting Crime by Criminalising an Entire Populace
Welcome to Snake Farm
Although the plight of the IDPs in Manik farm has received considerable media attention, an aspect of the IDP situation that has received little attention, illustrates best the rationale behind mass detention of IDPs. Until mid-March 2009, IDPs with the most serious injuries from shelling and bombing who were evacuated from the NFZ by the ICRC, with their care givers, landed at Trincomalee. Trincomalee is a place where most Tamils have social contacts in the local civil society, its hospital and in the government administration. It is also a place with several foreign organisations and is frequented by foreigners.
Trincomalee thus became a major point of information exchange about how the war affected civilians, but this was not a situation the Sri Lankan government appeared happy about.. During the early half of March 2009, Amos Roberts of Australia’s SBS spoke to Major General Palitha Fernando, the military liaison officer in Trincomalee. The latter informed Roberts that there was ‘absolutely no problem in visiting Trincomalee’, but added that it is not possible to interview wounded people who have been evacuated from the war areas and brought to Trincomalee. Asked why, Maj. Gen. Fernando replied, “That’s the way we want it, Simple answer.”
The ICRC landed patients at the new Indian facility at Pulmoddai from 16th March, from where patients were treated by Indian doctors or sent to other hospitals including Padaviya and Trincomalee. It made logistical sense because the distance from the war zone was shorter. It did not stop information about ‘safe zone’ injuries getting out. As civilian casualties intensified in late April 2009, The UN OCHA Vanni Emergency Situation Report of 27th/28th April posted the following announcement:
“In Trincomalee District, the local authorities informed agencies that patients and care givers evacuated by ICRC and arriving in Pulmoddai will remain in the district and will no longer be transferred to Vavuniya as was the case previously The authorities have said that the site will be opened for six months only.” Local authorities here refer to the local administration and military hierarchy taking orders from the President and Defence Ministry. What it meant was that those arriving in Pulmoddai for treatment of injuries, and others accompanying them, would not later be sent to IDP centres in Vavuniya, which were porous where information was concerned.
The immediate context was the President’s pledge reported in an Associated Press dispatch of 27th April 2009, headlined, ‘Sri Lanka to stop air strikes, shelling of rebels’: This followed the visit of John Holmes, UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. President Rajapakese pledged that “combat operations have reached their conclusion,” and that the “use of heavy calibre guns, combat aircraft and aerial weapons which could cause civilian casualties” would stop.
We also note that injuries to civilians from army shelling mounted steeply from 28th April to 2nd May, when shelling killed scores of injured in Mullivaykkal Hospital. ICRC shipping of the injured was stopped between 30th April and 7th May, reportedly due to the ICRC not being able to get agreement between the Government and the LTTE on the pick up point. The Government could have enabled the ICRC to pick up the injured as it was responsible for the shelling of the area. The ICRC’s mission was stopped after a further pick up and a minuscule food delivery on 9th May.
The significance of this could be seen in the fact that the ICRC picked up 1056 casualties from 21st to 30th April and only 357 casualties in May before it ceased operations from 10th May. These figures suggest (see Ch.5) that more than 400 major casualties were allowed to die in the deteriorating conditions at Mullivaykkal Hospital. Blame has to apportioned after a transparent inquiry, but we may say on evidence that the Government was wary of the bad publicity resulting from the ICRC shipping a large number of the injured. It further detained, criminalised, held up to public obloquy and silenced the doctors who had served in safe zones.
Granting that the Indian facility at Pulmoddai was gifted with good intention, manipulation by the Sri Lankan government raises questions about whether patients ultimately benefited from it. The ICRC was already providing specialist care at Trincomalee and the MSF too was available. While patients have nothing but praise for their treatment in the local hospitals to which they were sent and for the doctors who dealt with them, the administrative arrangements left in the hands of the Army and the clumsiness and resulting delays, caused unnecessary complications for the patients.
The two hours saved by shortening the ship’s journey may not have been to the patients’ advantage, when Trincomalee Hospital was already doing a good job with ICRC help. The new arrangements appear to have been to cover up, rather than to improve services for the war zone patients.
Bearing Witness: ‘Nirmala’, wife of a Senior Tamil Leader: Nirmala accompanied her daughter ‘Thayalini’ to Pulmoddai by ICRC ship on 23rd April. Thayalini had a bullet injury from LTTE firing near her left shoulder joint. From Pulmoddai Thayalini was transferred to Padaviya Hospital. Since there was no orthopaedic surgeon there, she was transferred to Polonnaruwa the next day. The journey took five hours with the patients kept seated in the vehicle for three hours before starting. The mother and daughter were in Polonnaruwa Hospital for two months. Thayalini’s injured arm had become infected, and made worse on account of the delays. The doctors did not want to fix it until the infection healed.
The healing did not take place and in July they were sent back to Padaviya Hospital. The latter wanted to transfer the daughter to Kurunegala Hospital. Nirmala objected strongly and at her request they were sent to Vavuniya Hospital. It was here that she learnt from her sister that her husband and son had been taken into army custody. Vavuniya Hospital decided to transfer Thayalini to Colombo, where she was prescribed some strong drugs for the infection to heal and sent to Manik Farm in Chettikulam. All this time they were treated as prisoners whose movements and contacts were restricted, but the hospitals treated them well. From Manik Farm she applied to go to her father’s place and left in September 2009. Thayalini is still taking drugs as the infection has not subsided.
The issue here is, was all this movement and needless transfers and isolation of patients, who were already traumatised and denied means to find out the fate of their loved ones, done with their interest at heart? It took Nirmala three months to meet her sister and get some news about her husband and son. The patients themselves would have been much happier if they had been sent to Trincomalee or Vaviniya directly, where there were known people. Trauma and anxiety are obstacles to healing.
Bearing Witness: Mr. and Mrs. Kailash: Mr. and Mrs. Kailash who sailed by ICRC ship on 28th April, landed at Pulmoddai and were subsequently interned at a nearby camp at Sahanagama. Sahanagama ‘Welfare Centre’ as it was officially called had just under 7000 persons in Sites 1&2, including for those who had escaped south by sea from the NFZ. The conditions of the camp in an out of the way jungle spot with international agencies practically kept out, say much about the rationale behind the detention of IDPs.
The Kailashes never thought that they would come out of this alive. They were brought to a piece of cleared jungle and lived in tents. The inhabitants gave themselves light relief by christening the place “Snake Farm” after Manik Farm for those sent to Vavuniya. The place was full of very fierce looking poisonous snakes, the likes of which they had never seen in their parts of the Vanni. It had been remarkably common for the inmates to wake up in the morning and discover that they had kept close company with some of these reptiles during the night. They think that it is the mercy of God that no one was bitten by these creatures through their several months there.
The camp had another remarkable feature. Its fenced border was lit by electric lamps as a precaution against inmates getting ideas of saying good bye to Snake Farm. However the central area, containing the residential tents was in pitch darkness barring moonlit nights. During the evening meals the people had to sit around and eat in the dark.
The Kailashes said that the World Concern’s liaison took an interest in this matter and followed it up incurring much hassle and embarrassment with the authorities. As the result of his efforts, each family received a torch and batteries. This gave the people much relief in the nights and also gave them opportunity to scrutinise their food while eating. As however the months dragged on most of their torches became unusable. In the nights many of them ate their food along with the insects that all too easily got into their plates.
One redeeming feature was that they found the younger officers embarrassed and concerned, and tried their best. But at higher levels the management was unyielding.
After September, said the Kalishes [a time of mounting international pressure], preparations were underway by both the civilian and military authorities to clear all the paper work to send off refugees whose relatives had applied to host them. An announcement was made for all those who at any time had the slightest involvement with the LTTE to come forward. Those who went forward were then loaded into the buses that had been brought. The parents of these youngsters and relatives gathered around the buses weeping and protesting loudly, pleading that their children be released. The shock of having them taken away after all these months, after having besides protected then from the LTTE, was unbearable.
The military men then began beating up the parents mercilessly. The Kailashes escaped this treatment because they were at the back of the crowd. Snake Farm was in an isolated location. But what happened there, illustrates the contempt for the much abused people, the unchecked freedom to rebuff their fundamental liberties, and the undercurrent of violence that was waiting to erupt. The attitude illustrates the position of the IDPs and of the Tamils in general. The incident also makes clear the nonsense about screening which never took place during the long months of detention. It is another aspect of misery separate from that of the injured who died in Mullivaykkal because of the denial of relief.
To Live Perpetual Suspects under a Paramilitary Regime
Screening was long given as an excuse for keeping the IDPs behind barbed wire, but was never done in any meaningful manner and it degenerated into a vehicle for extortion and abuse. Institutionally no thought seems to have been given to what purpose it should serve. The LTTE had begun by insisting on one conscript per family and in the latter months took anyone it could catch. To catch these youngsters and ask them if they were in the LTTE becomes just meaningless bullying. Those who simply believed in the Eelam cause, and conscientiously fought for the LTTE, need to be tackled politically. Those who need to be isolated and tried are those who planned and carried out murders and criminal actions. Such persons have mostly bribed their way out. The screening going on now is a parody.
Bearing Witness: Maniam:Maniam, from Puthukkudiyiruppu, who was in a left party, is very angry. He told us, “One of my sons was conscripted by the LTTE and is missing. With much hardship I escaped with most of my family. I was able to save my 17-year-old son because other people had used force in resisting conscription and left the LTTE in a quandary. Seven persons were killed and I received a shell injury when the LTTE fired mortar shells from near us knowing that we were planning to escape and the Army fired back. I was questioned by the Indian RAW, and by Sri Lankan intelligence at Padaviya Hospital, for information about the LTTE. Their interest in our welfare stopped there.
“Tamil Nadu MPs came to Manik Farm recently. All I could see of what they achieved was the great amount of dust raised by their convoy driving in and out of Manik Farm. Who cares about the infants falling sick without proper food, having scabs and rashes all over their bodies?
“From what is talked about among the IDPs, Sornam and Kutty were the only senior LTTE leaders who survived and came to Manik Farm. Kutty I hear is in London and Sornam too must be out. Why on earth are we detained, we who suffered immensely from the LTTE and the Military, and barely escaped with our lives? Why are we punished like criminals with such substandard living conditions? Despite promises, the medical care we receive here is far below what I have seen in Padaviya Hospital.” Sornam, we learn, died on 15th May 2009.
The case of K. Thayapararajah
K. Thayapararajaha brilliant product of the Engineering Faculty at Peradeniya was the head of the Vanni Tech, as both a civilian teacher and administrator. He would have met Charles Anthony, now dead, and a few other LTTE figeres at board meetings. He fell out with the LTTE and came out of the NFZ with his family in late March, identified himself to the Army and was questioned before being sent on. He joined his family in Vavuniya for some time, went to Colombo to find his way abroad. He was arrested in September 2009 in Colombo and tortured at a security camp in Avissawela, was shot and injured on 13th September while being taken to court under escort and died at Kalubowila Hospital two days later. Such actions introduce a needless element of insecurity into the life of every Tamil. The Government did not even acknowledge the incident, leave alone investigate it, nor did the Press report it.
We now go back to some of the earlier experiences of IDPs in internment camps and their prospects for the near future.
Interned behind barbed wire in ‘Welfare Centres’; Whose Welfare?
This is a matter that has received a great deal of publicity in the Press and we confine ourselves to some salient features. Most of the IDPs lacking any income were totally dependent on the Government and charity support. The Government first cited security and the need for screening as the reason for confining the people. When this started to become untenable it brought in mine clearance. Under international pressure and the pressure of elections in prospect, resettlement was begun, but how far it would be carried and whether all civilians would be allowed to return to their areas remains in question after what happened to the people of Sampoor south of Trincomalee. Those who have been resettled are subject to surveillance, the cruising of the dreaded white vans and arbitrary arrest.
With an election in the offing and the Government being in a hurry to resettle the IDPs, the commonsense approach seems to have been taken. People are being resettled in areas reasonably free of mines, are being told which areas to avoid and are being given instruction in mine awareness. But some unpleasant questions need to be answered by the authorities.
The people of the Vanni have been systematically isolated from the time International NGOs and the UN were ordered to vacate for the safety of their staff in September 2008. Unlike any self respecting government, this one gave scant regard to the safety of its own people and was apparently only concerned about the safety of foreigners (who might otherwise become witnesses). Was it also out of concern for their safety that the Government kept international NGO staff out of IDP camps, even when these IDPs had urgent needs that were being neglected?
The Government dared not admit the true reason that it was really to prevent the refugees speaking out. The President has repeatedly said that he would never countenance a war crimes inquiry against the armed forces. For this purpose he had to criminalise the population of Vanni and shut them up.
Bearing Witness: A Medical Specialist: IDP camps were organized militarily with full control by the military. The way the camps were run and the meetings with higher authorities (under General Chandrasiri) suggested the actual goal was to prevent stories getting out. There appeared to be actual fear of war crimes investigations at the highest levels and everything was done to prevent any evidence getting out. At every level there were military on committees. Further Sinhalese were appointed to all levels, and every Tamil civilian authority (even those with maturity and experience) had a Sinhalese counterpart (sometimes younger and less experienced) over him. The intent appeared to be to prevent stories getting out. INGO’s were not given access expect for a few who followed the rules and did not say anything to the outside world. Those who did were sent away or their visas cancelled. Communications, visits, phones etc. were strictly controlled.
For those who had been traumatised by what had happened during the fighting (the majority) the best form of treatment was counselling but this was specifically prohibited as the stories would come out. Counselling and psychological help even became a dirty word in Colombo. Tamils working with the IDP’s who spoke out or said something to the outside media were intimidated and silenced. An atmosphere of silence and control was instituted. People understood what was wanted and acted accordingly.
Non government actors, like academics, scholars etc., also supported this concealment and projection of a benign counter terrorist campaign. For example they compared events in World War II or the internment of Japanese in the US to what was happening in the Vanni. High officials and authorities gave glowing accounts of what was being done in the camps and came to the defense of what was happening.
Its agenda of concealment did not prevent this government from disingenuously demanding that the international community should bear the cost of imprisonment. If those confined were not adequately nourished, it blamed the international community. During August 2009, when the rains came and the camps had pools of floating sewage, the Government blamed the UN for faulty drainage.
Physical weakness, all sorts of dangerous diseases, regular deaths, the weakening of their infants at a critical stage of development became the lot of the IDPs. They received basic rations like rice, dhal, potatoes and sugar from the World Food Programme. But items like vegetables, salt, condiments and infant food were gifted by NGOs occasionally and irregularly. While spending on an undiminished defence budget, the Government was unwilling to spend on these people it detained illegally even what it is obliged to spend on convicted criminals in state prisons. Instead it bullied and begged embarrassed international donors to spend on maintaining its illegal prisons, threatening to throw out expatriate staff of agencies that did not cooperate.
As the frustration of those detained increased, the soldiers too started becoming more hostile. People seeking to do ordinary things like communicating with friends and relatives outside were punished like criminals. The internees have been beaten by the
military if caught talking to a relative outside on a cell phone they managed to conceal. They have been given military type punishments such as being made to carry a load and run till they are close to collapse or made to stand a day in the sun, and in rare cases even shot in the leg, for crossing through barbed wire to talk to a relative or family member in an adjacent camp. Their cameras which contained mementoes of their experience were confiscated.
It is from persons who came out illegally that we got the most vivid decsriptions of the trauma they had been through, having constantly witnessed for many months, shelling, aerial bombing, death and dismembered limbs around them; or shot by the LTTE, even more sadistically in the latter stages, if they attempted escape. It seemed to many survivors that they would never get out alive.
People made gaps in the barbed wire to cross the space in between IDP camps and put the broken wires back in place after use. Sometimes people went to the next camp to spend the day under shelter cooler than the tarpaulin tents in their assigned camp.
This was a dangerous trend where the Government was giving authority to the security forces to confine and punish people illegally, merely to prevent information about their experience going out. Persons spending two days flying from Jaffna to Colombo and then coming to Vavuniya by road to see someone in an IDP camp, under military watchfulness, were frequently asked to go away after 10 minutes.
People who have been through the harrowing ordeal suffered by these IDPs were not even allowed the opportunity to cry and speak freely to someone close to them. Subjecting people to such psychological stress in a situation where they are forcibly detained is a crime in itself. It constitutes cruel and unusual treatment.
The Talking Game of Releasing IDPs
Under constant international pressure to release IDPs the Government resorted to increasing deception. Although the Government cited screening as a cause for delaying the release there was no attempt to screen them systematically.
IDPs from the Eastern Province were told that they could fill up forms given by the Rehabilitation Ministry and apply to go home. About 450 did so. Once approval came from the Rehabilitation Ministry, it was the turn of the Defence Ministry. The latter sent persons who claimed they were from the paramilitary Karuna group, to do the screening. The applicants were treated harshly and several of them were beaten in the course of interrogation. When the others learnt of their treatment, they decided this was not the way they wanted to go out.
Prior to the UN Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe’s visit (17th to 18th September 2009) the Government announced that IDPs who had relatives outside willing to keep them would be allowed to leave. The relatives had to make the application. Lakbimanews (20 Sept.09) reported that while President Rajapakse told Pascoe on 18th September of a poor response where only 2000 applications had been received from relatives to the Government’s advertisement, reports from Vavuniya said that the local administration suspended receiving applications two days earlier.
An example of how the release was meant to work came also with Pascoe’s visit. The Government announced with ceremony that it is going to release some IDPs from places in the south of Mannar District such as Nanattan and Vankalai. On 16th September 2009, two days before Pascoe’s visit, 150 IDPs were taken from the major IDP camps to a small camp in Iluppaikulam about ¼ mile interior to the south from the Mannar-Vavuniya Rd., 10 miles east of Mannar.
The IDPs were told that there is a three day delay in their resettlement. NGOs present locally were asked to feed them for the duration. Three days later, the day after Pascoe left, they were told that there was a delay of a few more days. Meanwhile a further 100 or so persons had been brought for resettlement, making the total about 250. On 22nd September a meeting was called between the civil administration, the military authorities and the NGOs. The military authorities announced that they were not going to resettle the people now because they had not been screened. It was pointed out that the people were brought in the first place with the promise of resettlement. The Army replied that they would make arrangements to release pregnant women and those over 60.
Locally the people were very angry. Releasing persons over 60 and pregnant women were assurances given several months earlier. So pitifully slow was the process that it was later paraded as a new concession. It is now clearer that the Government was intent on lying and prevaricating to avoid releasing anyone soon. Then preparations were already underway to place the IDPs in smaller camps where they would be thoroughly cut off from the outside world. Only about four NGOs willing to accept military dictates were to be allowed access, so as to relieve the Government of the expense of feeding those confined. Another IDP camp was prepared at Jeevodhayam, the Methodist housing scheme in Murungan. Almost every reason the Government gave to continue the detention fell apart on inspection.
A report in the Island (31 Aug.09) by Shamindra Ferdinando gave a glimpse into the real thinking of the Government. The report quoted an influential section of the security establishment not just wanting to extend the confinement, but also to further isolate them so as to avoid the bad publicity resulting from their conditions. The excuse was that terrorists were hiding among the IDPs, and Prabhakaran’s near octogenarian parents were cited as the possibility of many more. They wanted smaller and more manageable camps. Here too there was another reason. The IDPs increasingly resented the confinement leading to disturbances and fears of riots.
On 26th September, the Army opened fire at a group of civilians crossing from one camp to the other after an exchange of words, injuring six persons including a woman and two children of three and six years, the latter seriously. The Army later made up a story that the civilians tried to attack them with poles and a grenade, and the next day forced people in Anandacoomaraswamy Village (Zone-1) to remain in their tents for 8 hours as they pretended to search for grenades .
Screening – a Farcical Exercise leading to Crime
The Government regularly claimed that many LTTE members are hiding among the IDPs and the former army commander claimed that they were regularly arresting LTTE cadres in camps – without of course any methodical screening.
A brigadier concerned with resettlement backed their position with figures. He claimed that they had to account for a total number of 40,000 LTTE cadres. Of these, he claims 20,000 died in the recent war. Another 10,000 have escaped to some foreign country. Thus he deduced that 10,000 are in the IDP camps. That is why he claims that they cannot release any of the IDPs without thorough screening. This, we shall see, was rather disingenuous.
The IDPs saw LTTE cadres identifying themselves at the Omanthai entry point and then being dispatched to IDP camps. The Army already had their particulars. One witness told us that he knows of about 15 LTTE members who identified themselves at Omanthai, who were sent to IDP camps and were later picked up by the Army as an investigative triumph.
Witnesses say there was no consistency either. On the one hand conscripts who had been with the LTTE for only a few days and then escaped were sent to rehabilitation camps. On the other hand, there were several girls with the characteristic short hair cuts of LTTE cadres in IDP camps; they had recognisably been in the LTTE, and were occasionally called for questioning, but not removed to rehabilitation camps.
Other witnesses told us that soon after the IDPs were brought to camps, the Army announced over the loudspeaker in a tone of polite entreaty asking all those who belonged to the LTTE to come forward and identify themselves. Most people with such connections lacking other means of escape did so. They were sent back and later picked up in groups for questioning. When asked what they did, most of them said sentry duty. They were beaten, asked how long they were in the LTTE, and then told that they must have killed at least so many soldiers after being there that long and beaten again.
As this illegal detention was prolonged, screening degenerated into a protection racket and in several cases something worse for women. When persons are summoned repeatedly for interrogation, it has nothing to do with intelligence about a group that is no longer a significant threat.
Bearing Witness: the Sister of a retired LTTE member: The very first time her brother was called up for questioning by the intelligence unit, he told the entire truth about himself. He had been a member of the LTTE in the 1980s, dropped out in 1989 and was then was a tailor in a town in the Vanni and is a married man with several children. When he was called the third time, he felt that the intelligence men were fishing for money and that it would get scary and embarrassing if he is called up repeatedly. So he had offered them money. After paying Rs. 100 000/=, he has been left alone for some time, but with no real assurance.
This man’s sister said that she is aware of many similar cases where the families have been milked for huge sums of money in the name of protection. She is also aware of actual cadres who have paid heavily for their exit, some going abroad and others living in towns like Colombo and Vavuniya playing informants and noddys.
Other Escape Attempts
In another instance, a lady spoke of her brother who was the second assistant of the intelligence wing commander, who came into the Manik farm as an IDP. When a fellow IDP recognised him and threatened to inform, he bribed him with ten thousand rupees. Then he bribed his way out of the camp with Rs. 200,000/=. Now he is said to be living in Colombo, fully supporting the military.
A man who was detained by the LTTE for six years and escaped has since seen some of his warders and torturers working as agents of the security forces in Vavuniya.
Another lady had tried hard to get the release of her brother who had been arrested by the military and taken away from the family when coming out of the Vanni. She says that the boy is innocent. (This is the plight of many in the camps who are kept under “arrest”). The lady had said that she felt like writing a letter to the President. It is those who cannot afford to pay that are detained. Anyone with an ear to the ground would tell you that almost all who mattered, who survived the war, have paid their way out.
Women and the Risk of Abuse
A lady with several IDP relatives said that there are many stories within the camps of young girls being singled out – especially those with links – and taken away for questioning; and of their allegedly being sexually abused. She said that none of these stories was confirmed, adding that as long as there is no clear mechanism to protect the inmates against impunity and arbitrary treatment, people will not speak up.
Some women activists looking after the interests of interned women warned us that focusing on sexual abuse might actually do these women a disservice. For one thing such allegations are difficult to prove because of the hazards faced by women in coming forward. Besides, these kinds of abuses take on many convoluted forms, all of which work towards making affected women vulnerable and defenceless in the long term.
Take for example historical examples from areas in southwest Vanni where IDPs are currently being sent back to their villages. Two cases over the past nine years illustrate the problem.
In March 2001 of two innocent women Sinnathamby Sivamany Weerakoon (24) and Vijikala Nanthakumar (22), were picked up by the Navy in Mannar and taken the same night to the Counter Subversive Unit under OIC Suraweera for an ‘inquiry’. They were gang raped by naval personnel and policemen attached to the CSU. The case against the perpetrators was strong (Bulletin No.25), but eventually the case was moved to Anuradhapura where Tamils find it scary, instead of being heard in Vauniya. CSU personnel also on occasion visited the home area of one of the women and marked their attendance by making inquiries about her. The woman had to go into hiding. That was practically the end of the case.
There is also the unsolved case of the Martins: husband, wife and their two children, a girl and a boy, both less than 10 years of age, being brutally murdered by the security forces on the night of 9th June 2006. The local village headman who originally said it was deliberate murder, changed his story to suicide after being questioned by the CID a number of times (Supplement to Special Report 23).
The position of civilians being resettled in the Vanni, who are fractured families, cripples, widows without support and their community leaders who have been thoroughly intimidated, would be at least as bad. They would be under a paramilitary regime taking orders from the security forces, making them easy pickings for predators.
This is far from speculation when we are talking about people who have been told by action that they have no rights. There are many young women who had been conscripted by the LTTE detained in a rehabilitation camp in Vavuniya. To outsiders they are being well treated, but a woman activist told us that after a protest by these women demanding greater access to visitors, many of them were beaten by the camp authorities.
She added that several of the staff are very good, but do not see anything unusual in beating as a means of control. At best the community is being driven into a patronising relationship. The activist said that conditions have since improved with regard to having visitors.
Sivalingam whom we quoted above told his interlocutor that in his camp at Manik Farm, the CID comes in the night and makes a count of the children.
More disturbingly, he added that young women, who are ostensibly suspected of having received LTTE training, are taken away in ambulances at night and brought back in the morning. When that happens he says the mothers rush behind the ambulances to the place of interrogation. Although he says they are taken to a place in Vavuniya, it does not square with the mothers being able to go there unless it is to the investigation centre within the camp itself. Sivalingam, while wondering why the security forces should do this to young women by night using ambulances, adds defensively that after the event he could not gather from the faces of the parties concerned that anything untoward had happened. Others in camps have told us that after nightfall the security men are often drunk. The use of ambulances for such purposes has a very sinister ring.
We have seen letters sent from Manik farm making very similar allegations about the treatment of ex-women LTTE cadres. Other allegations received in a letter concern the exploitation of persons who are mentally weak for indecent purposes.
In a normal society such would be dealt through normal processes of the law. But here it apparently happens to a people who dare not protest and are denied any real access to the law. The fact that all these must remain a mountain of allegations exemplifies a nasty situation.
The situation at Vavuniya Hospital throws further light on this.
Military Abuses at Vavuniya Hospital
The Government faced a problem with Vavuniya Hospital; it did not trust the doctors, who were mainly Tamil, even though they are government servants. Such mistrust is not unique to Vavuniya; it has caused witnesses in other sensitive cases to be shifted from one hospital to another; and court cases to be transferred to Sinhalese areas.
In Vavuniya, injured patients from the war zone were being brought there whose evidence might contradict the Government’s versions of some key incidents and also patients who were suspected of LTTE involvement. It has been the Government’s practice to deny the latter the benefits prescribed by the law. It resulted in a climate of intimidation for Tamil doctors and forced ideological conformity. The case of Dr. Murali Vallipuranathan, a specialist doctor attached to the Ministry of Health in Colombo marks a disturbing development.
The case of Dr. Murali Vallipuranathan
On 12th May 2009, Dr. Chrisantha Abeysena of Kelaniya University sent Dr. Murali by email a link for a CNN poll. To the question, “Should the International Community intervene in Sri Lanka?”, Abeysena told the recipients to vote ‘No’. Dr. Murali said in an email reply:
“What do you want us to do? Observe silently the inhuman treatment taking place at the Forced Detention Camps (FDC) under the name of provision of health services and security? I think this is time for us (the medical professionals) to discuss this more openly without any racial feelings. I hope you are aware of what is really happening at the FDC if not please watch the channel 4 and enlighten yourself.
Anyway IC will not interfere just because somebody voted at CNN.
Await you kind response (except the white van reaction).”
As an exchange of personal opinion between colleagues, though provocative on both sides, it should have ended there. But Dr. Abeysena evidently complained to the Ministry of Health, whose Director sent in the Investigation and Flying Squad, who were not medical men, summoned Dr. Murali for an inquiry in July. Dr. Murali was sent an interdiction order in Sinhalese on 10th November 2009 for bringing ‘Disrepute on the Government of Sri Lanka’ and his salary was stopped. No charge sheet was served. This is a case of the Government acting unconstitutionally in violation of the 17th Amendment that required such an action as the dismissal of a public servant to be made by a non partisan body appointed by the Constitutional Council. Medicine has become politicised in the hands of apparatchiks acting outside the law.
The other side of the coin is that the doctors in Vavuniya Hospital are forced to conform to a paramilitary regime with no hope of support from the Health Ministry or medical professionals in the South. In the new building at Vavuniya Hospital, the ground floor is the OPD (Outpatient Department), the 1st and 2nd floors are clinics, and the 3rd floor has quarters for doctors, now used mainly by troops.
Bearing Witness: a Hospital Worker: Above the third floor is a penthouse, also known as the Fourth Floor, to which the staff are at present denied access. This place is alleged to be used for torture and interrogation. The person in charge of ‘paramilitary’ personnel at the Hospital is reportedly an ex-LTTEer called Ranjit who is seen to enjoy considerable power over the Sinhalese under him. Once a person taken up, the hospital staff heard, was brought down in a poor state, revived and then taken back.
Bearing Witness: a Consultant Doctor with intimate knowledge of Vavuniya Hospital: Staff at the Hospital, speak of patients being removed by security elements from hospital wards along with documents marking their presence. Of the dozens so removed, the Hospital has no record of where they were taken. On one occasion a doctor resisted the military wanting to remove a patient at 9.00 PM, despite feeling enormous fear. Finally the men took away the patient in the morning when the doctor discharged him, after getting their particulars recorded on the bed head ticket. On one occasion security-related elements took away a young patient in an auto-rickshaw with a cannula in her arm. A lady doctor who witnessed it was threatened by troops.
A woman and a child, who were injured in the explosion caused according to the Army by a woman suicide bomber, at their rescue centre at Visuamadu on 9th February 2009, were warded at the Hospital. When they revived several hospital staff are aware that their account contradicted the Army’s version.
The woman of about 18 years, who was in the surgical unit was in mid-March 2009, after she was sufficiently recovered, sent to other clinics for check ups. During these rounds when she felt sufficiently reassured, she spoke of what she had experienced at the IDP reception centre on 9th February. She refuted the charge that there was a suicide attack. She said that it was an explosion triggered among the IDPs targeting the surrendees (IDPs). The explosion was followed by troops firing at the surrendees. She said that both the explosion and the army firing killed about 18 persons. At one clinic she was started on drug treatment and there was a second session to assess her status. She was not seen again. This is not unusual in Vavuniya Hospital. The doctors were kept very busy with patients. The admission and removal of Vanni survivors from the wards was done entirely by the Army and the doctors had no control over it. ‘Missing’ from the wards had become so ‘normal’ that the doctors dared not raise questions. The woman would have gone ‘missing from the wards’. That is all the information that the doctors were entitled to and they could not intervene to check her status.
Defrauding a People in War and in Peace
For several Tamils who move closely with leading personalities in the Government, and know their attitudes and realities on the ground, there are no illusions about the Government’s good intentions towards the minorities. Several of them are pessimistic to the point of saying that even the release of Tamils from IDP camps on the payment of large sums of money was being done by the Police and Army with the full knowledge of the Government.
Such practices fit well with the intentions of ideologues close to the Government, who would not allow the minority communities any autonomous existence. Through such practices as harassment and illegal detention, the funds received by Tamils from relatives abroad is through necessity siphoned off to a large extent on bribing the security forces to get out of some scrape or detention. They are largely unable to do anything meaningful with their resources in this country except to pay an agent to seek asylum elsewhere.
One way or the other the community is being weakened without any hope in this country. It would appear that the Government is doing to the Tamils at a leisured pace what the Tigers did to the Northern Muslims in one go. The difference is that the Tigers were not the internationally acknowledged legal authority in the North and were unlikely to get away with it in the long term. It was in that sense different from the Jayewardene government chasing the Tamils out of places like Manal Aru, now Weli Oya, in Mullaitivu. The party that committed this crime against humanity being the internationally acknowledged government of these people, rather than a rebel group, it made it much harder for people to get their lands back.
Donors Throw Up Their Hands
Ideally, the problems of Tamils who feel threatened by the impunity of the regime and economic hardship should be alleviated by political means that should precede rehabilitation. But the Government is resistant to any loosening up that would threaten its Sinhala extremist agenda or disrupt huge profits flowing to the rulers from donor funds.
The West and Japan backed peace process that went wrong, followed by the war in which the Government largely scorned these nations, followed by massive disruption in the North-East triggering claims for asylum. These have left the West weary of Lanka.. Unable to do anything constructive, the Western governments seem to be taking the easy way out by putting aside their obligations to ensure human rights are protected and respected, largely denying asylum even to those provably under significant threat, and giving instead the Government some money for reconstruction of the North-East to salve their conscience. Here too those who control power seem intent of fleecing the same people they crushed in war. And things look ugly.
All development work in the North must go through the Presidential Task Force that has the President’s brother Basil as chairman, and 18 others who are persons mainly retired from the security forces. The Foreign Ministry web site shows only one member from a minority. Any NGO or agency wanting to work among the displaced must get authorisation from the Task Force and NGOs wanting to start work have been paralysed.
Normally when people want to do some work they go to the government administration for advice on where the needs are which they could fulfill and begin work. An NGO activist in South Vanni told us that their organisation was not even able to do an innocuous project like giving five chickens to displaced widows starting a new life. Government officers are scared to talk to NGOs because they had been warned by superiors not to cooperate with them.
A key member of the Task Force, one who is a relation of the President known as “Mr. 10 Per Cent,” sets the tone by being featured unnamed in the Lakbimanews lead item of 25th October 2009, ‘Mabey & Johnson’s collapsing flyovers and bribes’. The report said ‘Contracts worth 22 million pounds had been awarded [to the company] for building nine bridges and one of Britain’s richest families had admitted to paying bribes to win contracts in Ghana, Jamaica and Iraq.’ Questioned by the paper about the award of the contract Minister of Highways T B Ekanayake told the paper nonchalantly that ‘the English company was selected through their local agent in Colombo and that he in turn had recommended the firm.’
his is the context in which foreign aid for the reconstruction of the North becomes a gold mine for several persons in and around the Task Force. This may in the end do more harm to the people for some temporary relief, by spreading the stink of corruption and control all around. The Task Force’s powers are being used to keep out established NGOs and assign work to selected NGOs who would use this position to canvass money. It is an old trick used by NGOs that were in good standing with the LTTE.
Those on the ground told us, several ministers and high powered persons are starting their NGOs and this includes our first lady Shiranthi Rajapakse as well. Minister Rizard Bathiudeen, we understand has kept other NGOs out of the newly resettled Muslim villages to provide work for his brother’s NGO.
To concerned observers, the Task Force’s (hidden) mandate is to ensure that international aid is channelled through the Government which is now largely militarised in the North-East as seen in the composition of the Task Force. In turn it would be contractors close to this network who would get the jobs and share out the booty. There is no people’s participation or civil societies’ voice in what is being done. Simply put, the Task Force eliminates all forms of monitoring and consultation with the needy.
Moreover, it prevents international and local NGOs monitoring of their funds being distributed to the needy in a fair and responsible manner. Every move with regard to the IDPs is militarised and as a local activist put it, “Under the blanket of security, corruption is rampant and proceeds in a hidden manner, not open to challenge.”
The activist added, “For example most of the road development in the North is assigned to contractors by the same gentleman who makes money out of flyover contracts to Mabey and Johnson. The supervision is not done by the local Road Development engineer, but selected engineers are brought from the South to pass the work. In the name of security, Tamil officers and IDPs would not be allowed into areas where big projects, including some highways, are undertaken in their name.”
This tendency was already seen in contracts given for Manik Farm where questions were raised in the Press. The welfare of the IDPs is a priority abysmally low in comparison with the greed of the politically well-connected, who opened all stops to make money out of both war and peace.
Fooling India and the World, and Getting Away with It
One of the remarkable features of the saga is that almost the whole world protested at the illegality and arrogance of detaining the IDPs. The Government simply arm twisted the relief agencies through pressures like threatening to cancel their employees’ visas and curtail their access to the IDPs totally. The Government bargained using its own citizens virtually as hostages and won. The UN agreed to play a support role in the camps even though the conditions fell far below the stipulations of humanitarian norms. When the rains brought pools of sewage within low lying areas of camps, the Government happily blamed the UN for poor drainage, even though the people were prisoners of the Government and not the UN.
More puzzling is the manner in which the Government appears to have checkmated India into playing its game and then dumping some of the dirt on her. It began with the Government, in late 2006, getting India’s agreement to build a coal power plant in Sampoor from where the people had been expelled by shelling and denied the right to return in violation of the ICCPR and international law.
The Indian Hospital which began operations in mid-March 2009 was a boon to the injured being evacuated by the ICRC. There is no doubt that the sympathies of the Indian doctors were with the injured. An Indian surgeon in Pulmoddai who spoke to a Tamil civilian confessed that he had not seen this degree and scale of civilian injuries before. The hospital was later relocated at Anandacoomaraswamy Village in Manik Farm.
Bearing Witness: “Guna”: Guna, a translator for the Indian medical personnel told us that once the President’s brother Basil Rajapakse came there with an entourage of journalists. The Indian surgeon showed him a six year old child from near whose heart he had removed a piece of shrapnel, and asked Basil whether this boy was a terrorist? Basil and the journalists kept pin drop silence and the group moved off. The surgeon was angry and told Guna that he would rather see two patients than use the time posing for a photograph with Basil’s group.
Yet the Government manipulated the presence of the Indian Hospital in Pulmoddai to conceal the injured and other witnesses brought by the ICRC from the war zone in the latter stages by shutting them up eventually in Snake Farm. Thus everything India did is open to misrepresentation, especially so in the current state of opinion among IDPs where India is believed to have backed the Sri Lankan government to the hilt, disregarding the plight of the people at death’s door. Thus in mine clearance where India with good reason is intent on a speedy return of IDPs, even Tamils who have no truck with the LTTE, see India’s participation as connivance with the Sri Lankan government to destroy evidence of war crimes. The fact that the Government turned down de-mining offers from the West is cited as confirmation of this.
By helping Sri Lanka to defeat a motion before the UN Human Rights Council calling for an investigation on how both sides conducted themselves during the war, India seems to have invited more trouble than it bargained for. Sri Lankan officials and commentators have regularly said that Sri Lanka fought India’s war. The theme was recently elaborated by a columnist for a leading Colombo daily (4th November 2009).
The article evidently reproduces arguments advanced by members of the Sri Lankan establishment which are not quite borne out by facts. The burden of the piece is that the Sri Lankan forces were in no hurry to finish the war as they wanted to give due consideration to the safety of the civilian population. It suggests that it was Indian Foreign Minister Mukherjee who on the instigation of the family of Rajiv Gandhi wanted at first a swift end to the war. The weakness of these suggestions is revealed in these lines from the piece:
Finally, pursuant to Mukherjee’s instructions, the war was slowed down and heavy artillery attacks were curbed during the Indian general elections period. But, when the Indian general elections results were being announced, all possible action and artillery were deployed to destroy Prabhakaran and end the war. If heavy civilian casualties had resulted it was due to India’s need to expeditiously finish the war.”
It is hard to argue that military action in the Vanni was slowed down in the run up to the Indian elections. The last phase involving heaviest casualty rate began on 8th May 2009, days before Tamil Nadu went to vote. If at all, the Government curtailed the ICRC bringing the injured out and used the Indian medical facility at Pulmoddai to conceal those injured brought from the war zone. It would be more convincing to argue that the Sri Lankan government tried hard to finish the war before the results of the Indian elections were out, rather than face uncertainty if a new government were elected.
If the call for a war crimes inquiry gathers momentum, we could expect the claim that ‘the Sinhalese government blackened its name with heavy Tamil civilian casualties because of India’s urging’, would receive more coherent expression than above. India would find anyone in this country hard to please. Perhaps, this is the price of India’s time honoured bilateralism with a neighbouring government having no standards.