MEDIA AND THE THAMILEELAM STRUGGLE
The Case of ‘The Spontaneous Explosion’ of Boats
On the first of May this year, the Sri Lankan navy and the Ministry of Defense reported a case of an explosion in a boat off the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. They said, the LTTE was transporting boatloads of arms by sea, in clear violation of the ceasefire agreement, and that one of the boats exploded ‘without a single shot being fired by the navy’.
As it turned out, it was a dreadful hoax by the Sri Lankan navy. The navy shot up some fishing boats anchored in the area fishing for ‘sea-slugs’, and as a result two innocent fishermen were killed. The navy then dropped some military hardware into the boats, and took a European Ceasefire Monitor from Trincomalee to the spot, at 1 a.m. that night, to ‘prove the LTTE violation’. The Ceasefire Monitor was, however, not impressed by this obviously amateurish antic by the Sri Lankan navy.
Regardless, the world media carried the navy version of the story as follows:
The Reuters headlines [May 1, 2002] said:
“Sri Lanka rebel boat explodes in first truce clash.”
The AFP report [2 May 2002] was more detailed:
“The military said on Thursday for the first time two Tiger boats were destroyed in a cat-and-mouse gun battle off the eastern coast, retracting the official position that no shots had been fired when a rebel flotilla stumbled on a navy patrol. “Having seen the naval boats in pursuit, one of the (rebel) trawlers, blew itself up causing a huge pall of fire and smoke,” a Defence Ministry statement said. After the explosion, the navy spent 35 minutes chasing a second trawler manned by rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) through coastal waters packed with fishing boats.
“Suddenly some LTTE boats sprang up... and opened fire,” the statement said. Another rebel boat was destroyed in the fighting but the trawler escaped with its suspected cargo of arms, it said. The navy salvaged some arms from the debris of the trawler that blew up, it said.”
Reuters report, datelined 3 May 2002, said:
“Sri Lanka’s navy stepped up patrols off the island’s eastern coast following a confrontation with a suspected flotilla of Tamil rebel boats which has raised fears for the island’s fragile peace process. On Wednesday evening a boat suspected of belonging to the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) exploded while being pursued by the navy off the coast of Vakarai.”
Nirupama Subramanian, quintessential LTTE baiter and apologist for the Sri Lankan government, in a report in The Hindu, said two LTTE boats had exploded in the incident.
“Two suspected LTTE arms shipment boats blew up and one more was damaged on the eastern coast off LTTE-controlled Vakkarai in Batticaloa district in a clash with the Sri Lankan Navy…” [The Hindu; 3 May 2002]
Christian Science Monitor [7 May 2002] too pitched in with:
“… there has been evidence that the feared Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers, have been using the cease-fire to rearm themselves. Two weeks ago, the Sri Lankan Navy captured three boats packed with heavy weapons destined for the northern Tamil stronghold of Jaffna peninsula. A fourth boat, stopped by Navy gunboats on Thursday, exploded while Sri Lankan Navy personnel tried to conduct a search of its contents.”
Rediff.com [7 May 2002] used more colorful language:
“On May 1, the dreaded Sea Tigers, the naval wing of the LTTE, blew up a boat suspected to be carrying arms for the much-feared outfit when they were challenged by the Sri Lankan Navy on the east coast.” [Emphasis ours]
The LTTE, which had no clue as to what these reports were about, scrambled to find out and finally issued a statement four days later.
“The Tamil Tigers categorically rejected the charge by the Sri Lankan Navy that the fishing trawlers were involved in arms smuggling. ‘This is a ludicrous lie fabricated by the naval authorities to justify their atrocities against innocent fishermen’.” [TamilNet; 5 May 2002]
The same day, the TamilNet also published an eyewitness account by the survivors of the attack, with photographs of the fishermen testifying to the SLMM. [TamilNet; 5 May 2002]
The Sinhala and Tamil broadcasts of the BBC then joined in with the true version of the incident.
The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) chief Trond Furuhovde, obviously not wanting to embarrass the government, was quite circumspect in his public statement. He simply said, “the SLMM didn’t have any proof that the trawler belonged to the LTTE.”
Despite this very neutral statement, that didn’t fully remove doubt on the LTTE role, the SLMM is being accused of partiality towards the LTTE. An opposition MP (a former minister) has said, “If the SLMM cannot act with impartiality, they might as well pack up and go home.”
Sangam Research [12 May 2002]
The following is a well researched article on the incident.
CONFLICTING VERSIONS OVER VAAKHARAI CONFLICT
“Poyyaich Chonnaalum Porunthach Cholla Vendum.”
“Kata Boru Kivvath Diva Boru Kiyanna Nae”
By D. B. S. Jeyaraj
Vaakharai is an eastern coastal village located more than 40 miles to the north of Batticaloa. The region could be described as a mixture of the “neidhal” (coastal), “marutham” (agricultural) and “mullai” (forestry) types of land as defined classically in ancient Tamil literature. The area has been under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for nearly a decade although temporary army incursions into the region have occurred now and then. While the armed forces have stationed themselves to the east of the lagoon, they have not been able to maintain permanent control of the areas to the west or north.
The coastal strip extending downwards from Verugal in the Mutur area of the Trincomalee District to Vaakharai in the Batticaloa district has been a point of maritime contact for the LTTE. The movement of LTTE men, women and materials between the northern and eastern provinces by land through the legendary ‘Beirut route’ has become increasingly difficult in recent times. This was after the interdicting of north-eastern territorial contiguity through the ‘Manal Aaru’ (Weli Oya) multi-military complex. Although inter-provincial travelling via land is still possible the Tigers with developed naval capabilities prefer to use the maritime option more.
Thus, the Veruhal-Vaakharai coast has been a safe ‘harbour’ for LTTE transport of cadres, provisions, armaments and supplies by boat from the northern coast of Mullaitheevu. Likewise, those intending to travel from the east to the northern mainland of the Wanni also embark on boat from this area. It has been well recorded that the usual pattern of LTTE logistics is that transport and transfer of materials and cadres from one province to another are through this coastal mode while other methods are in use for different purposes.
Procurement of arms and armaments from overseas sources is done differently. The stuff is brought by ship to the deep sea off Mullaitheevu. Thereafter, a flotilla of smaller ‘cargo’ boats accompanied by gun boats manned by armed Sea Tigers and explosive laden vessels of Black Sea Tigers transport the cargo to shore. If the navy ever accosts them in a potentially threatening manner the Black Tigers are ready to ram into the naval vessels and there have been several incidents where such things have happened.
It has become routine procedure for the navy on the rare occasions it detected arms ‘import’ by the LTTE to stay put at a safe distance and call on the air force for cover support before daring to confront.
These systematic and prudent manoeuvres dutifully followed at times of declared war seem to have been discarded at a time of declared peace if the May Day incident at Vaakharai is an example. The official version or versions conveyed through Naval Chief, Rear Admiral Daya Sandagiri, Defence Ministry Spokesperson Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne and several undisclosed sources quoted by the media projected a tale that was quite damning of the LTTE. Despite the usual vagaries of various media organs, the initial overall official version was something like this.
On Wednesday, May 1, a convoy of Dvora FAC Gunboats (some say three and others say four) had seen some suspicious vessels off the coast off Vaakharai. The time was around 5.30 in the evening. Again, one version is that there was prior intelligence of LTTE ships transporting arms while another says that it was a random patrol sighting. When the Dvora’s went near they detected a trawler ‘Duwa Mekhala’ behaving in what seemed a suspicious manner to the navy. Interestingly, the naval boats did not call for air support and after supposedly hailing it went near the trawler to verify who or what was on board.
Now, this was a feat of rare perhaps foolhardy courage on the part of the navy. It is against all safety manuals to have done so without any thought of danger. It may be recalled that the navy was cautiously cool when it sighted the LTTE boats returning home by sea after duly notifying the ceasefire monitors in advance. If the navy had acted impulsively after sighting the Tigers a different situation would have occurred. In any event the navy knows that it is futile to go charging in when Tigers are seen or suspected because they usually retaliate and pretty hard too.
Which is why the navy conduct at Vaakharai was uncharacteristic. According to the initial version, the navy did not see any fishing boats and to have gone so close to a suspicious vessel without knowing what lay in store was truly a bold step particularly for the navy. Some media reports say that the Dvora went very close to a distance of only five metres separating both. Suddenly, there was an explosion on the trawler. Again, lady luck was on the side of the sailors. Despite the short distance nothing happened to the Dvora, because according to this version, the explosion had been on the other side of the vessel.
Karunaratne was quite emphatic when he revealed in the initial version that the navy had done nothing and was simply looking when the vessel exploded. The explanation was that the LTTE had been smuggling weapons and armaments in violation of the ceasefire and perhaps to avoid detection had exploded their own boat. Other media versions went one step ahead and stated that three Black Tigers and one Sea Tiger were killed in the incident. There has however been no recovery of any Black or Sea Tiger corpse so far. The LTTE radio from which the military intelligence gains most of its information was silent on this issue. This then was the situation on May 1.
Meanwhile, there was pandemonium in Colombo defence circles and it was widely believed that the LTTE had broken the truce and were about to start attacking the capital. Security precautions were enhanced. Fortunately for the country, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the de facto head of state, refused to be panicked into any false move. The Norwegian led Ceasefire Monitoring Mission was urgently alerted in what was in essence an SOS type message. When the monitors contacted LTTE circles there was a flat denial. The LTTE said that none of their vessels had been involved or even damaged.
On Thursday, May 2 morning, a fresh problem arose in Kaayaankerni a Muslim coastal village in the Vaalachchenai area. Apparently 38 fisherfolk in 12 boats and trawlers had gone ‘fishing’ off the Vaakharai coast the previous evening for sea slugs or ‘Beche de mer’ a marine export delicacy that earns much foreign exchange. The fisherfolk comprised migrants from Kalpitiya and Puttalam along the western coast who had established a ‘vaadi’ at Kaayankerni, and also locals from Valachchenai - Ottamavadi. Ethnically, they were 20 Muslims, 16 Sinhala and two Tamils. None of them had returned home. The villagers were worried that the LTTE had abducted them wholesale. A complaint was made to the Valachchenai Police and also communicated to the Ceasefire monitors.
With concerns being raised in the Batticaloa district about fishermen going missing at Vaakharai and the LTTE denying that any of their boats had been damaged the initial version about the Vaakharai incident began to be doubted. It was at this point that a second version with more details surfaced. The first version was simple in the sense that a suspicious vessel suspected of carrying arms for the LTTE had blown up when the navy went close. According to the updated version there was a second vessel also that had been blown up, this time directly by the navy. Although Karunaratne had said that the navy had done nothing it was now transpiring that the navy had indeed done something.
It was stated that after the first vessel blew up the navy gave chase to another suspicious vessel that had beached itself on the Vaakharai coast. The army was alerted to this but once again not the air force. The Dvoras could not go close because the waters were shallow and/or rocky according to different media reports. Strangely for some unknown reason the safely beached suspected LTTE vessel ventured out again in spite of the prowling Dvoras (apparently every actor in Vaakharai was behaving unpredictably). The Dvoras gave chase and the boat slipped into a flotilla of fishing boats. Suddenly, some LTTE boats appeared from behind the fishing boats and opened fire. The navy promptly fired back and hit the boat they were chasing which went up in a fireball of smoke. The LTTE boats that fired were not hit and that was the end of story.
There were other developments too that came to light gradually. The navy had taken a Ceasefire Monitor Victoria Lund from Trincomalee to Vaakharai by ship and shown the Scandinavian the site of conflict. The time was around 1 a.m. at night. The navy also displayed crates of some recovered armaments to Lund. They were 15 crates of 120 mm shells, two crates of 82 mm shells and six crates of rocket propelled grenade shells. A Defence Ministry statement said “the same naval boat carrying the member of the SLMM on board recovered 15 boxes of 120 mm mortars, two boxes of 82 mm mortars and six rocket propelled grenades (RPG) from the debris of the blown up trawler.” Although the statement says mortars, what was actually on board were mortar shells.
While the Defence Ministry inspired propaganda blared forth in this manner there were guarded, terse, statements to sections of the media by the ceasefire monitors who declined to confirm these claims. The monitors have made it clear that they did not actually see any boxes being recovered either from the destroyed vessel or from the sea. They had only been shown boxes purportedly recovered from the LTTE. They were also not sure of the exact contents of all the boxes. Moreover, they also reiterated that the LTTE was denying any of their vessels being lost or damaged. They could also not confirm or deny to the media that the LTTE was smuggling arms at Vaakharai.
Interestingly enough no one seemed to have asked the monitors whether they inspected the seized shells personally. Those shells must have been quite a rare type indeed to have not exploded despite being on board a vessel that blew up as a fireball or not sunk in the waters in spite of the weight. Also there has been no mention of the brave sailors who recovered the arms being rewarded or details of how they did it being related to the media.
Another fact that came to light subsequently was when Naval Chief Sandagiri told The Sunday Leader that on suspecting the two boats of being loaded with arms from a bigger ship anchored at midsea, naval teams had scouted the area and discovered a ship 30 nautical miles away from Vaakharai. The vessel LGRECO had a Malta registration and had last travelled from an Indian port. It had nothing other than 600 steel wire coils. The navy let it go because no armaments were on board. The candid revelation by Sandagiri deflates to a considerable degree the popular belief that the LTTE was off loading arms from a midsea ship at Vaakharai instead of the usual Challai and that too without adequate armed escort.
Even as the English and Sinhala national media and most international media kept on parroting the ‘official’ version in different styles, the BBC’s Sinhala language ‘Sandesaya’ and Tamil Language ‘ThamilOsai’ broadcasts along with the Colombo based Tamil national daily’s Virakesari and Thinakkural reports threw fresh light on the gloomy scenario. Thirty six of the fisherfolk who set out to the Vaakharai seas from Kaayankerni and 11 of their boats had reached the LTTE held area of Panichankerny safely. They had tales to tell of their experiences about and after the Vaakharai incident that went against the grain of ‘official’ stories.
The most remarkable account came from 24 year old Noor Muhammed Nazeer of Valachchenai. According to Nazeer, he along with 34 year old Mohammed Kiyaath and 27 year old Mohammed Thambi Sabeek had set off to Vaakharai on May 1 evening. They were from the fourth ‘kurichi’ of Vaalachchenai. They were in a 34 ft. trawler ‘Duwa Mekhala’ owned by Sabeek. They were about 4 km from the Vaakharai shore when four naval gun boats came into the scene. It was about six at dusk. The gun boats started firing at their trawler. The boat was shattered. The owner Sabeek was killed on the spot. Both Nazeer and Kiyaath were injured. Nazeer got hold of an empty plastic container with one hand and kept himself afloat. With the other hand he gripped the worse affected Kiyaath.
At about 1 a.m. on Thursday, Kiyaath said that he could not go on and asked Nazeer to let go of him. Nazeer obliged sadly and Kiyaath too is presumed drowned. Nazeer however kept on floating despite the injuries and after a heroic struggle for life was awash the shores of Panichankerny at about 9 p.m. in the evening of May 2. The Tigers rescued him and treated his wounds and provided saline, thereby saving his life. Nazeer related his tale in a statement to Batticaloa Ceasefire Monitor Larsz Raeboek on Friday, May 3. He is now admitted in the Vaalaichenai hospital.
The other survivors Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils also told their tales to the ceasefire monitors. Some statements were also recorded formally. They were from 44 year old A. L. Meera Muhaideen Munsoor of Puttalam, 35 year old Upali Chandrasena of Kalpitiya and also J. M. Ajith Fernando and W. Suren Nishantha of Puttalam. These statements also corroborated Nazeer’s version. They were fishing for sea slugs at Vaakharai for nearly a month now. The navy knew who they were and what they were doing. Naval gun boats had come and begun firing suddenly and indiscriminately without provocation. They had fled from the scene towards deep sea to escape the navy. Some ran out of fuel. Finally, they had reached the shores of Panichankerny to safety.
In response to pointed questions by the monitors, the fisherfolk said clearly and unambiguously that there were no LTTE boats amidst them or in the vicinity when the navy appeared. They also stated that it was the naval gun boat that started firing and that the trawler exploded because of it. They denied that there was any firing or counterfiring from the LTTE who in any case were non-existent there. The only point unclear was that some persons said two boats were destroyed while most said only one was destroyed. Some boats had sustained minor damages. The officially recorded statements from predominantly Sinhala and Muslim fisherfolk about their experience at Vaakharai have provided authentic testimony about what really happened
One aspect the fisherfolk were unanimous about was the treatment they received from the LTTE. They were fearful when they reached Panichankerny, knowing it was a Tiger area. They had however been provided refuge, food, medicine and new clothes by the Tigers of the area. After their statements were recorded the stranded men returned to Kaayankerny along with their boats on Saturday, May 4. Before that, fuel was obtained for the 11 boats from Ottamavadi. Fearing a journey by sea where the navy ‘rules the waves’ the fishermen opted to return via the lagoon at Vaakharai.
The commanding officers of the 232 brigade manning the area were informed of the returning fishermen and provided assurances of safe passage. The LTTE military commander of the area (Aandaankulam Division) Reggie and political commissar Senathirajah accompanied the fishermen up to Kathiraveli, where they were handed over to relatives and friends. There were tearful farewells and one person, Upali Chandrasena, told assembled local scribes that the last three days were the most unforgettable ones in his life.
With the tide turning in its favour, the LTTE began launching its propaganda offensive. The LTTE had worked closely with the monitoring committee and did not contribute to an unnecessary crisis situation being created by interested parties. Now, the LTTE shattered its conspicuous ‘public’ silence. LTTE Political Wing Chief S. P. Thamilchelvan complained formally of the incident to Monitoring Mission Head, Trond Furuhovde. Batticaloa-Amparai Political Leader Visu formally complained to the Batticaloa ceasefire monitoring panel attaching copies of statements by the survivors at Vaakharai. These developments were given wide publicity over the LTTE media organs in the Wanni.
TULF MP for Batticaloa District Joseph Pararajasingham issued a hard hitting statement condemning the navy for the incident. He deplored the attempts to cover up the matter and blame the LTTE by alluding to a Tamil saying about trying to conceal the whole pumpkin in a plate of rice. Pararajasingham said that his party along with other constituents of the TNA will raise this issue at both national and international levels. The chairman of Batticaloa District NGO’s, Selvendran also issued a statement condemning the incident and presented a complaint to the monitors.
On Sunday, May 5, the LTTE headquarters in Kilinochchi issued a press release in English for international consumption. It charged the navy of “a grave and serious violation of the ceasefire agreement” and went on to say “This is the latest of a series of hostile and provocative actions unleashed by the Sri Lankan Navy in recent weeks. Such violent action by the navy personnel we strongly suspect is intended to breach the truce agreement.”
It further appealed to the Sri Lankan government asking it “to prevail upon the naval authorities to abandon its hostile attitude and strictly follow the terms and conditions of the peace agreement.” The Tigers also rejected the charge against them of smuggling arms by the Sri Lankan Navy “This is a ludicrous lie fabricated by the naval authorities to justify their atrocities against innocent fishermen,” it said.
Against this backdrop of claims and counter claims, charges and counter charges levelled by both sides there is no doubt that the task of the monitoring committee in ascertaining the whole truth is formidable. In any case, the committee will not make its verdict public but only inform the parties concerned. Whatever the final decision of the monitors about the conflicting versions of the Vaakharai conflict, there seems very little doubt indeed in the court of informed public opinion.
Courtesy: Sunday Leader [12 May 2002]