Front Note by Sachi
In Chapter 1, I had transcribed the travelogue essay of Julian West about his visit to Jaffna in early 1991 (Asiaweek, March 8, 1991). This item elicited three responses from the readers of Asiaweek. Two were from Sinhalese, and the other one was from me. For completeness, I provide these three responses at the beginning.
Chroniclers love anniversaries. I’m not an exception. I have selected three items which appeared in 1985 – two location reports and one editorial, to mark the 30th anniversary of their appearance. These are,
- Trevor Fishlock: Lanka Tamils under a Reign of Terror. Statesman (Calcutta), Jan.8, 1985, originally from the Times, London (a location report) – 740 words.
- An unsigned editorial: Siege of Jaffna. Sunday Statesman (Calcutta), Jan. 13, 1985. – 544 words.
- Anthony Davis: Ethnic Conflict spreading in Sri Lanka – Tamil Separatist Guerrillas tie down Government Forces in Jaffna Peninsula. Washington Post, May 26, 1985, p. A21. (a location report) – 1,501 words.
In particular, the treatment of the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict by Anthony Davis, via the eyes of American ‘diplomats’ [an euphemism for spy operatives then stationed in Colombo, who can be accessed by visiting journalists] deserves my comment. It suffers from bias as well. One un-named ‘Asian diplomat’ is quoted. Most likely, this ‘Asian diplomat’ was an Indian gumshoe. An unnamed ‘prominent Tamil lawyer’ is also quoted as an ‘observer’. Mostly likely, this ‘prominent Tamil lawyer’ was none other than Neelan Tiruchelvam. The assertion of Davis that ‘many of the Tamil guerrillas profess Marxist ideology’ is simply bunk, tuned to the ears of Washington operatives during the President Reagan era’s Cold-War period. Nevertheless, the report of Anthony Davis remains significant for its observation that the Anuradhapura Massacre of May 14, 1985 in which LTTE was implicated, was in fact preceded by the Valvettiturai Massacre of May 12, 1985 in which Sri Lankan Army personnel were implicated.
One should also note that the chief chroniclers of that period (aka, Sister Rajani and Three Mules – Rajan Hoole, K. Sritharan and Daya Somasundaram) in their Broken Palmyra (1989) book, never cited the materials I provide here. Either they never had access to these published materials, or by design and preference, they wished to underplay the role of Sinhalese-majority army in the conflict, in deference to their sponsors. Though pretending to be impartial in their evaluation, Rajan Hoole and his collaborators, under a fake name University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), in fact were partial to the atrocities of Sri Lankan government.
Three Responses to Julian West’s travelogue essay of Asiaweek (March 8, 1991)
M.E.Mallawaratchie, Colombo, Sri Lanka [Asiaweek, April 19, 1991]
Re Julian West’s ‘Passage to Jaffna’ [ALMANAC, March 8]: As a Sri Lankan afraid to visit parts of his own country because of terrorist activity, I would like to see another article after the same writer has interviewed government defence authorities, Sri Lankans of other communities – notably Sinhalese and Muslims – and Tamils living in Sinhalese majority areas. Perhaps Julian West could make a contribution to unity in Sri Lanka by writing a comprehensive and unbiased account of the war. An important point in such an account would be the fact that Tamils live without fear in Sinhalese majority areas while Tamils endure great hardship in areas infested by the Tamil Tigers and Sinhalese cannot exist at all in the north and east.
Edward Gunawardene, Colombo, Sri Lanka [Asiaweek, April 19, 1991]
West’s romanticisation savours of a stirring call to the youth of the region to press on. It is stange that the article makes no reference to the comfortable living enjoyed by this ‘oppressed’ minority in the city of Colombo, or the positions of authority they continue to hold in both the public and private sectors, or the gruesome massacres of innocent Sinhalese villagers from time to time by the Tigers, or the repeated peace overtures made to them by President Premadasa, or the continuing intransigence of the Tiger leadership, or the wider ambitions of the LTTE, including the destabilization of neighbouring India. The article would have had more credibility and finesse if it had alluded to a few of those facts.
Sachi Sri Kantha, Osaka, Japan [Asiaweek, May 17, 1991]
As a Sri Lankan Tamil I appreciate your publishing Julian West’s well-balanced ‘Passage to Jaffna’ [ALMANAC, March 8]. It portrayed the war-ravaged Jaffna peninsula warts and all. In my opinion, readerss M. E. Mallawaratchie and Edward Gunawardene [LETTERS, April 19] are really agonized by the popular support LTTE rebels command among the Tamils of Sri Lanka.
The recurrent attacks on Tamils in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983 prove the falsehood of Mallawaratchie’s claim that ‘Tamils live without fear in Sinhalese majority areas.’ This type of aggression was the major factor in the emergence of the LTTE. It is an open secret that since 1971 more than 95% of recruits to the Sri Lankan armed forces have been Sinhalese, though Sinhalese constitute about 75% of the total population. Even Tamils living in Sinhalese-majority areas have little chance of joining the armed forces. So much for the security Tamils enjoy in the Sinhalese majority areas.
Lanka Tamils Under a Reign of Terror
by Trevor Fishlock in Jaffna [The Statesman, Calcutta, Jan.8, 1985]
Sri Lankan forces are conducting a harsh and remorseless campaign of intimidation among the island’s Tamil minority. By means of random murder, indiscriminate shooting, beatings, torture and plunder, ill-disciplined and trigger-happy soldiers keep the Tamils in the north in a state of constant fear.
With the vanishing of reason the fight against Tamil separatist terrorists now has the shrill tones of naked ethnic struggle. The predominantly Sinhalese Army seems to have a free hand as it cracks down on the civilian population in the overwhelmingly Tamil Northern Province.
Military restrictions, and the army’s savage response to Tamil terrorism, have almost shut down the economy of this region. At least 25,000 fishermen are prohibited from fishing, the sea having been declared out of bounds, and there is growing anxiety in fishing communities, and among civic leaders, that unless food is brought into areas already chronically short of supplies, people will begin to starve. Women have been selling their necklaces and bangles to buy food, but few dealers now have any money left to buy their jewellery, even at low prices.
Many thousands of people, mostly women and children, have fled to India and to Europe. Thousands of youths have been rounded up and held in Army camps. Their parents do not know where they are; they have become Sri Lanka’s disappeared ones. There is strong evidence of beating, torture and murder of young men in Army custody. Rigid curfew and a plethora of complex regulations and permits have reduced transport to over-worked skeleton services. People find it hard to get to work and to transport food and raw materials. The army has it grip on the jugular of commerce. Factories are closing, trade in most shops has dwindled away. It is becoming impossible to freight goods to and from Colombo by road.
People are dying because they cannot be taken to hospital in the 6 pm to 5 am curfew. Jaffna Hospital is running out of vital drugs, oxygen and anaesthetics. Meanwhile thousands of displaced people, driven from their homes in army ‘combing out’ operations, are in refugee camps.
There is no longer any proper law enforcement. There are no policemen to be seen on the streets of Jaffna, city city of the north. They dare not go out on patrol. They stay in their sand-bagged police posts. Troops move only in large armoured convoys. The army’s rampages, massacres and brutality have swung even moderate Tamil opinion against the authorities. The army and police are despised.
Father Michael Samy, Vicar-General of Jaffna said: ‘This is a reign of terror.’ The Bishop of Jaffna said: ‘People live in fright and despair. They feel helpless. There is no equality or democracy left here anymore. Tamils are being treated as second class citizens.’
A young clerk, typical of a number of people interviewed, said: ‘Everyone here is afraid. You know that the army has killed people for no reason and has shot them down on the streets. Those who can afford it are getting out of Sri Lanka. If I had the money I would go too. Those who will be left will be the old, the poor and the very young.’
The north is now in a state of chaos and high nervous tension. The civil power’s hold on the situation is not strong. Hundreds of guerrillas, estimates range from 1,000 to 5,000 or more, are committed to fighting for Eelam, a separate Tamil state in the north and east. Split into several main factions, they run a terror campaign against the authorities, mining roads, blowing up police stations, robbing banks, murdering and kidnapping policemen.
The army hits back with massive round-ups and interrogation of youths. Troops have been looting and burning houses. Many women have complained of being robbed of jewellery. A civil servant said: ‘To the army every Tamil is now a terrorist.’
It is part of the Sri Lankan tragedy that the Government has come to define the long-smouldering Tamil question as simply one of terrorist eradication. Sinhalese antipathy to Tamils, rooted in ancient fears of conquest, has been stirred up. With emotions running high, the conflict has its strong element of propaganda and disinformation.
The government’s case is that it is acting firmly against a terrorist threat to the country’s integrity. But the Tamils, who form a fifth of the 15 million population, believe that the army is being used to subjugate them, to settle historic scores.
Siege of Jaffna
Unsigned editorial [Sunday Statesman, Calcutta, Jan.13, 1985]
The hopes raised by the dismissal of Sri Lanka’s ministerial hawk, Mr. Cyril Mathew, have not been fulfilled. On the contrary, the United National Party Government seems bent on treating justified minority grievances as only a law and order problem, and every Tamil, including women, children and the Christian clergy, as a terrorist. There seems to be no rational explanation for this madness; but then neither can Colombo’s recklessness in quite unnecessarily aggravating differences with India through provocative naval action be easily explained. It may be pleaded that President Jayewardene faces a major revolt by Sinhalese Buddhist extremists among his followers, and fears that Mrs Bandaranaike will exploit the wave of chauvinism sweeping the island. His two reform Bills, though inadequate, were abandoned to placate militant Buddhist priests, and he may possibly feel that the only way of retaining majority support is to adopt a rigid attitude to all Tamils and a militant one in relation to India. The suffering inflicted on Jaffna and the north, which is virtually under military siege and subject to frequent brutal atrocities, may seem to be of little account. But the President appears to be unaware that such repression can only estrange the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front and strengthen the secessionist demand.
Sri Lanka also faces a serious economic crisis because of its inept handling of the Tamil problem. Trade, agriculture and tourism have all been disrupted: defence spending has increased from Rs 1.23 billion in 1982 to this year’s Rs 3.4 billion; and military intelligence now absorbs 28 percent of the defence budget against the earlier 13 percent. While Tamil-inhabited areas are denied all funds for development, thereby exacerbating the economic imbalance that lies at the root of minority complaints, the plan to give compulsory military training to all Sinhalese fishermen and farmers can only add to communal tension. Even the USA, which generally endorses President Jayewardene’s conservative political and economic policies, is now willing to provide arms to fight ‘residual terrorism’ only after a ‘political reconciliation’ has been reached with the minority. But Colombo shows little desire to move in that direction; and in spite of Mr Amirthalingam’s suggestion of renewed talks, President Jayewardene has made no attempt to return to the negotiating table.
Equally to be deplored are the continuing attacks on Indian fishermen in India’s territorial waters culminating in Friday’s unfortunate incident which holds the threat of more serious conflict. Sri Lanka still affects to want New Delhi’s mediation in the dispute; and Mr Athulathmudali recently expressed the hope that Mr Gandhi’s Government would be able to play a more constructive part after the elections. But the incidents reported from Dhanushkodi hardly suggest any serious interest in profiting from India’s good offices or even in retaining India’s good will. Having apparently decided that every Sri Lankan Tamil is a secessionist, Colombo seems also to have come to the unwarranted conclusion that every coastal villager in Tamil Nadu is a terrorist. Mr Mathew’s complaint was that President Jayewardene’s abortive reforms ‘very nearly grants the desired Eelam’. He and others like him do not yet seem to realize that confrontation fuels separatist demands far more surely than concessions. The present cruel and insensate siege of Jaffna may achieve what enlightened compromise would have made impossible.
Ethnic Conflict Spreading in Sri Lanka
by Anthony Davis [Washington Post, May 26, 1985, p. A21]
Jaffna, Sri Lanka – Ethnic conflict involving the Sri Lankan armed forces and minority Tamil guerrillas in the northern part of this island nation appears to be spreading to other parts of the country, with nearly 300 deaths in one week this month.
Here on the Jaffna peninsula in the north, where most of the minority Tamils live and where the fighting has been the heaviest, Tamil civilians are caught between a pervasive militant presence and what has been described as indiscriminate Army retaliation.
The Palali airport here used to cater to civil air traffic until the end of last year. Now it is an all-military installation with helicopter gunships and helmeted troops with automatic rifles scanning the palm-dotted fields beyond. The airport symbolizes the extent to which the Sri Lankan Army is now beleaguered by the growing guerrilla insurgency.
In the Jaffna peninsula, the militants, estimated to number between 500 to 750, have managed to tie down the 3,000 government forces in the key camps of Palali, Karainagar, Gurunagar and Jaffna Fort.
“There is a real sense of insecurity here,” said one prominent member of the Jaffna Citizens’ Committee in a telephone interview.
‘It’s not yet Beirut, but at the present rate of deterioration it soon may well be,’ commented one western diplomat in Colombo, about 175 miles to the south.
Travel to the Jaffna peninsula, which has been declared a security zone, is severely restricted, but this reported was permitted to make a one-day visit Monday escorted by Brig. Hamilton Wanasinghe, commander of security forces in the region. Information about the violence was also supplied by diplomats and Sri Lankan politicians, journalists, lawyers and other professionals in Colombo, the capital.
For the past 13 years, this island nation off the southern tip of India has been plagued by the conflict between the separatist Tamils, the predominantly Hindu group in the north, and the majority Sinhalese in the south, most of whom are Buddhists.
Nationwide, 3,000 to 5,000 Tamil guerrillas are fighting the 12,000-man Sri Lankan Army. The guerrillas, many of whom profess Marxist ideology, are seeking to set up a separate state called Eelam in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces for the minority Tamils. There are four main guerrilla factions.
The Army is predominantly Sinhalese, the ethnic group that makes up 74 percent of Sri Lanka’s 15 million people. Attacks by the Army on Tamil civilians appear to be a key factor in driving Tamil youths into guerrilla ranks and fanning the general sense of insecurity among the Tamil population.
‘The Tamil community now identifies itself much more closely with the militants than in the past,’ said one former Tamil politician, himself a moderate. ‘They don’t see any other way out.’
Recent allegations have focused on a British Broadcasting Corp, report of an alleged massacre May 9 of Tamil civilians by Army troops in the fishing village of Velvettiturai. More than 70 were said to have been killed in that raid, including 25 who were herded into a community center into which Army troops then threw grenades.
The incident is widely believed to have been a factor behind the slaughter of nearly 150 Sinhalese civilians by Tamil terrorists five days later in the north-central town of Anuradhapura, the holy seat of Sinhalese Buddhism. The Tamil insurgent attack on Anuradhapura was significant because it marked the first time Sinhalese civilians had been targeted by Tamil extremists beyond the boundaries of the area they call Eelam.
[Earlier last week, Sri Lankan President Junius Jayewardene said he would declare martial law to combat Tamil separatist guerrillas ‘if the necessity arises,’ Reuter reported from Colombo. Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that hundreds of chanting Buddhist monks demonstrated near Sri Lanka’s Parliament Thursday to ask for protection of places of worship after the attack in Anuradhapura.]
A day after the Anuradhapura massacre, an attack on Tamil civilians aboard a ferry traveling from the island of Delft to Jaffna was reported. The government has confirmed that 32 men, women and children were killed by assailants in plainclothes armed with knives and axes, and that about 30 more were injured. But it has denied reports that military personnel were involved.
‘The Navy commanding officer has made inquiries and is absolutely certain that none of their people were out of station at that time,’ said Minister of National Security Lalith Athulathmudali at a press conference. The Army also has denied that any excesses took place at the fishing village of Velvettiturai.
Brig. Wanasinghe said he knew nothing of the reported community center killings. In an interview at his headquarters at the Palali airport, he said that during a cordon-and-search operation, an Army major was killed and a total of 27 Tamils died, six of whom were confirmed as terrorists following Army intercepts of insurgent radio communications.
Conceding that civilian casualties ‘may have been high’, he said this was because ‘troops are not going to take a chance’ in a situation in which terrorists and civilians are virtually indistinguishable. Stories of a massacre, he added, were ‘false and fabricated.’
Political observers of both communities in Colombo call official disclaimers unconvincing. Regarding the ferry attack, Tamil sources pointed out that no Sinhalese civilians live on the Tamil-populated islands and it was ‘utterly implausible’ that Tamil civilians would have attacked members of their own community so brutally.
Many observers argue the massacre was retaliation by Sinhalese Navy men for the Anuradhapura killings. ‘It’s now simple tit-for-tat’, said one western diplomat. Since the December breakdown of a government-sponsored all-party conference aimed at negotiating a solution to grievances among the island’s 1.9 million indigenous Tamils, unrest has also spread to the Eastern Province, inhabited by a mix o Moslems, Hindu Tamils and majority Buddhist Sinhalese.
The most striking index of insurgent confidence, according to Athulathmudali, has been a shift from hit-and-run harassment of security forces to frontal assaults on police stations and Army camps, backed by homemade mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
Growing coordination among the different extremist factions is also giving the government concern. ‘Some of these groups have got together and when they come for attacks are using larger numbers of men,’ said Wanasinghe. Insurgent attacks are now made in units of up to 100, he said. An April 10 attack on a Jaffna police station in which four policemen died and the building was largely destroyed was one example of militant tactics, he said.
Since then, assaults have been launched on the Karainagar naval base, 12 miles northwest of the town of Jaffna, which was pounded by mortar fire from May 3 to May 4; the Gurunagar Army camp in the town, attacked the same night; an Army camp at Kokavil, 18 miles south of the peninsula, and the police station at Mannar on the north-west coast, overrun May 10.
Police stations have been relatively easy targets, with the defenders generally fleeing after only brief resistance. The insurgents have yet to overrun an Army camp, something political and diplomatic observers say they are planning in a bid to give their campaign a major psychological and propaganda boost.
On the Jaffna peninsula, where Army forces are confined to their camps, movement between the strong points is almost entirely by helicopter. Electronically detonated mines, generally simple but massive charges of high explosive buried beneath road surfaces, have proved highly effective in reducing Army mobility. ‘If we have to get from A to B we can,’ said Brig. Gen. Nalin Seneviratne, commander of Sri Lanka’s Army. ‘But movement is slowed down because we have to clear the roads.’
When security forces do venture beyond their camps, they move in-force to conduct what are called cordon-and-search operations, set up roadblocks, conduct house-to-house searches and return to their garrisons at night.
The impression among informed Sri Lankans of both communities is also that the government is covering up for the excesses of a military it will not or cannot control. The result, it is argued, is a situation in which a censored press provides the majority Sinhalese community only with accounts of Tamil attacks while avoiding discussion of excesses by the Sinhalese military.
‘The government has studiously avoided telling people in the south what is happening in the north,’ said one Asian diplomat. While some troops have been discharged from the Army for alleged killings, none has been brought to trial, and there have been no independent inquiries. The government has cited lack of sufficient evidence to secure convictions. But some observers, including a prominent Tamil lawyer, said the failure to bring errant soldiers to justice has led to a steady erosion of professional standards in the forces and a sense that, as the lawyer put it, ‘they can get away with anything.’
The small, inexperienced Army that has traditionally fulfilled ceremonial duties is also ill-equipped for its current role. The root of the problem, many diplomats and Sri Lankan professionals said, is the government’s unwillingness to risk antagonizing an Army that, for all its shortcomings, is the only tool at its disposal to tackle a growing insurgency.