New York Times Editorial

Tentative Hopes in Sri Lanka

The New York Times wrote a one-sided editorial on Sri Lanka [Tentative Hopes in Sri Lanka; 22 April 2002]. Tamils responded, but with their past experience with New York Times not publishing any of their letters, some have released theirs to the sangam. Here are a few.


To the Editor
New York Times
229 West 43rd Street
New York,
NY 10036-8959

Dear Editor:

As a Tamil, I’m appalled by your audacity to tag Velupillai Prabhakaran, Eelam’s military leader, as “the man who possesses one of the world’s worst records for suicide bombings and other attacks on civilians” (editorial, April 22). ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her’ admonishes the New Testament (John 8:7). Those who are from the nation which produced airmen Hap Arnold, James Doolittle and Carl Spaatz who masterminded and caused misery and death to millions of civilians by their firebomb raids in Germany and Japan have the least right to condemn Prabhakaran as a terrorist. 

Historically speaking, Prabhakaran was not the first to use suicide bombing as a war strategy. He adopted it from the manuals used by the Japanese and Vietnamese to protect Tamil civilians in the northern region of Sri Lanka, from being killed indiscriminately by the poorly targeted air-raids perpetrated by the Sri Lankan army, who themselves were trained by the military advisors from USA, Israel and Pakistan.

Having witnessed the pitiable political leadership for the past seven years, your naivete in calling the Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga to be ‘more supportive’ of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s peace efforts with Prabhakaran is nothing but a crude joke on the intelligence of Sri Lankans. Amen.

Sachi Sri Kantha
Gifu City
Date of Submission: April 24, 2002.

Dear Editor:
Your editorial ‘Tentative Hopes in Sri Lanka’ [New York Times; 22 April 2002] has, with wordplay and insinuations, made the ‘victims’ into ‘villains’ and the ‘villains’ into ‘angels’.

Your reference to “Tamil uprisings, brutal crackdowns, assassinations and other aspects of a revenge cycle” and that “Lately Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has tried to break the cycle” ignores several facts. The 19-year war in Sri Lanka was preceded by thirty-five years of progressively oppressive rule against the Tamils, peaceful (Ghandiyan style) efforts by Tamils to resist, and ‘one-sided’ broken promises and revoked  written-pacts, all by the successive Sinhala dominated governments. The armed resistance started only after non-violent efforts by the Tamils to regain their rights were thwarted with state-sponsored mob-violence against Tamil civilians, and police and army brutality mostly against Tamil civilians.

You deride ‘suicide bombings’ (I do too), but what do you expect when a government with a duty to protect all its citizens, bombs civilians from the air, even those (unarmed) seeking refuge in churches and schools. Just look at the numbers – an excess of 65,000 non-combatant Tamil civilians have been killed by the state forces, with bombs and large-scale massacres – as opposed to a few hundreds killed in the suicide bombings.

You laud Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe for his efforts to break the cycle of violence. He certainly deserves the praise, but Mr. Pirabakaran deserves more. It is his efforts with several unilateral ceasefires over several years, which has finally been reciprocated.

If an end to the violence in Sri Lanka is your goal, making villains out of the victims will not advance it.

Rajan Sriskandarajah

New York

Dear Sir:

I refer to your editorial on the above subject. I was surprised that such an eminent and influential newspaper such as yours could write such an editorial which is not based on facts. Surely there is enough information available for you to check before writing on such an important matter.

You have written about ‘suicide bombings’ and other ‘attacks on civilians’. Both have to be despised. However, one must understand the reasons. When the depth of one’s feelings are so deep-seated and the enemy security forces outnumber yours by 5 to 120 times, and has the wherewithal to obtain the most devastating weapons to attack your forces and your people, one is even driven to undertake the ultimate sacrifice. The LTTE attacks are a response to State terrorism. Sinhalese civilians have been killed only in the course of attack on economic targets, or as reprisals to massacres of Tamil civilians. I do agree that killing under any circumstance is not justified.

You give the impression that the liberation fighters are responsible for all the killings. Have you ever kept abreast of the state terrorism unleashed on Tamil civilians. There is nary a word about it. The number of Tamil civilians killed by indiscriminate bombing, strafing and shelling and by mob violence amount to over 65,000, whereas the number of Sinhalese civilians killed do not exceed 5,000. The destruction of hospitals, schools, temples, residences, and infrastructure in Tamil areas belie imagination. Other horrors have been committed under Emergency Regulations and Prevention of Terrorism Act, and under cover of censorship, resulting in indiscriminate arrests, rape, torture, and extra judicial killings by security forces on Tamil civilians.

War has resulted in over 800,000 external Tamil refugees and a million internally displaced persons. Children affected by war amount to over 400,000. There is rampant malnutrition and lack of schooling amongst children. There are over 20,000 widows and 40,000 orphans. All that you have to do is to read the yearly country reports by the US State Department, the UNHCR, Human Rights Watch, US Committee for Refugees, Asian Human Rights, Amnesty International, International Alert, ICRC, MSF and other human rights organizations.

Since independence Tamils have been discriminated in all spheres of life. Tamil areas were settled with state aided colonization by Sinhalese. Tamils were oppressed and several periodical communal pogroms committed on them, often with the assistance of Sinhalese security forces. Attempts at redressing the grievances by parliamentary means and nonviolent demonstrations a la Mahatma Gandhi were of no avail. Talks were entered into and pacts signed with both the major Sinhalese parties, but abrogated by the signing Sinhalese party at the instance of the other major party. The Constitution was changed eliminating the protection given to minorities, and Buddhism virtually made a State religion. It was as a last resort that the Tamils gave an overwhelming mandate to their representatives at a general election in 1977 to seek a separate state. Again Parliamentary methods failed to give redress and youth took to arms. The war started in 1983 after the worst ever pogrom of 1983 when nearly 3,000 Tamils were killed and billions of dollars worth of houses and businesses destroyed.

Since 1983 there were the following talks to settle the problem: -

1.Talks in Thimpu in 1995 under the aegis of the Indian government when Tamil representatives, including all militant groups, met with the representatives of the Sri Lankan Government. Tamils offered to give up the demand for a separate state provided their aspirations (which were spelt out) were met, but were turned down out of hand.

2. Talks by the LTTE with the Premadasa government in 1990 after the ignominious withdrawal of the Indian army, which was sent to disarm the militants, having faced their ‘Vietnam’. The talks failed because of duplicity by Premadasa who negotiated with other militant groups behind LTTE’s back after having undertaken not to do so, and non-implementation of certain matters such as the manning of police stations, amongst others.

3. Talks in 1995 with the Chandrika government which was elected on a “peace platform”. The LTTE declared a unilateral cease-fire on the election of the new government. The government did not respond. Eventually over 40 letters were exchanged between Chandrika and the leader of the tigers. Talks started four months later. However, the personnel sent for a few hours of discussion on four occasions were nonpolitical technocrats and military officials who could not take any decisions. There was also no meeting of the minds on the matters to be discussed. The Government wanting to discuss a nonexistent “peace package” and the LTTE wanting to bring the lives of Tamils who were suffering under an embargo of food, medicine and other essentials to normalcy. Verbal agreements arrived at during the meetings were negated when the delegates returned to Colombo. A Cessation of Hostilities Agreement was signed which provided for its abrogation with 72 hours notice. The LTTE gave three weeks notice, which was extended by a further two weeks at the request of the government. The government convinced themselves and the world by false propaganda that the LTTE broke the talks unilaterally

Last year the LTTE declared a four-month unilateral cease-fire, but this was again not reciprocated by the government. The LTTE lost more than 400 men during that period. It was agreed that Norway would be the facilitator but subsequently the government demanded the withdrawal of Eric Solheim who was appointed for this purpose, alleging that he was pro-LTTE.

In the run up to the Dec.2001 elections the government of Chandrika accused the United National Front (UNF) led by the current Prime Minister of having agreed with the Tigers to divide the country. Yet the UNF won the largest number of seats. After some dilly-dallying, Chandrika who as President had the power to appoint the Prime Minister, grudgingly appointed the new Prime Minister. There is an uneasy peace between the two who belong to parties opposed to each other. The President has been making noises that she can stop the peace process and that she is the Commander in chief and therefore has the power to order the armed forces. It looks like it is the differences between the President and Prime Minister that can upset the peace process, since the Norwegian Government seems pleased with the progress thus far.

It is simplistic, and illogical to write a one-sided editorial without ascertaining the facts behind what has been dubbed terrorism. Please do not write editorials without checking the facts

New Jersey


The Editorial
New York Times
(April 22, 2002)

Tentative Hopes in Sri Lanka

In this season of global terrorism, few people even know the name of the man who possesses one of the world’s worst records for suicide bombings and other attacks on civilians. He is Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the militant Tamil group that seeks an independent nation, or Eelam, in the northern and eastern parts of the tiny island nation of Sri Lanka, off the southern tip of India. Mr. Prabhakaran recently emerged from hiding to support a cease-fire and political negotiations. It was an extraordinary and hopeful development in a conflict that has cost 60,000 lives since 1983.

Cease-fires and negotiations in Sri Lanka have come and gone, but this time hopes are higher because of some moderately conciliatory statements by Mr. Prabhakaran. At an unusual news conference on April 10, he said his group — the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — was not yet ready to drop its demand for an independent nation, but he indicated that he might settle for something short of secession. He even labeled the 1991 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India, attributed to the Tigers, as a “tragic” event.

Norway has been sponsoring the mediation efforts in Sri Lanka, and there is even talk of a future monitoring role for Scandinavian forces. But there are grounds for caution. Tamil gestures in the past have been followed by violence. There remain signs that the Tigers maintain a high level of arms. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken a gamble on peace talks, but opposition politicians led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga need to be more supportive of his efforts.

Two years ago, Michael Ondaatje wrote in his novel “Anil’s Ghost” that the Sri Lanka conflict had become “a Hundred Years’ War with modern weaponry.” It began decades ago with the suppression of Tamil rights by the island’s ethnic majority, the Sinhalese. It was followed by Tamil uprisings, brutal crackdowns, assassinations and other aspects of a revenge cycle. Lately Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has tried to break the cycle, allowing the transport of people and goods in Tamil-controlled areas on the island. If negotiations are to succeed, the government in Colombo must consider granting Tamils self-rule in their areas.

Those yearning for peace in Sri Lanka can pin their hopes on the possibility that Mr. Prabhakaran has changed. He has a bloody past, but the latest developments are the most hopeful turn of events in some time. This conflict is one of those for which the word “intractable” is used with some justification. It would be inspiring to retire that word in at least one of the world’s most blood-soaked places.