An Open Letter to Richard Roech and Colleen Malone

Dear Richard Roech and Colleen Malone,

Your article on Sri Lanka in the Spring, 1999 The Asia Pacific Monitor has upset me quite a bit. I understand a good deal of the thinking of those from the Northeast of Sri Lanka and am probably one of the few who do who read your newsletter, so I will respond to some of the issues you raise.

I know that you feel the need to be nonpartisan in your judgments of the situation, but being nonpartisan does not mean ignoring issues of justice and does not mean you must critique each side equally.

In Guatemala, each side in the conflict committed violations of international law, yet the proportions are now believed to have been 80% by the government and less than 10% by the insurgents. A similar situation exists in Sri Lanka, based on the facts available. Look at the roughest casualty figures. Out of a minimum of 70,000 people directly killed in the conflict since 1983, at most 2,000 are Sinhalese civilians and 21,000 are combatants. The remaining 47,000 are Tamil civilians (and this will rise if ever a Truth Commission is set up). Which side in the war deserves the most condemnation?

In Guatemala, the government was controlled directly by the military, which made it easy to criticize. In Sri Lanka there is a ‘democratic’ government in most of the country, yet the Northeast has been occupied by the Sri Lankan army since the satyagraha of 1960 and has been under military control since at least 1983. It is the military commanders who determine conditions of life in the Northeast, not the elected officials in Colombo. Perhaps you and your Sri Lankan contacts have had faith in Chandrika and her promises of peace, but when she appointed her uncle, Ratwatte, as Deputy Defense Minister just after she was elected in 1994, everybody I know knew just what her intentions were, or at least the constraints within which she would have to operate.

In your fourth paragraph you say, without the slightest touch of disapproval, that the US State Dept. declared the LTTE a terrorist organization, in your words, "recognizing the failure of that organization to respect its own commitment to observe the Rules of War under the Geneva Conventions - which would be an essential step for all parties in the search for peace."

This would have been a good place for you to mention that the Sri Lankan government also does not observe the Rules of War, on an even grander scale than the LTTE, and should also be declared a terrorist organization. Or at least you could have said that when the LTTE commits an atrocity it is a war crime, not a terrorist act, because there is a war going on in the country. Or you could even have written that the US training Sri Lankan armed forces and criminalizing the LTTE makes it a poor candidate to "facilitate an end to the country’s prolonged conflict."

Do you believe that criminalizing the underdog in this war is the correct response by the US? One certainly gets that impression from your article. I know that you abhor violence, as do the organizations you work with, but would not you agree that in almost all situations the state has a greater capacity for violence than any other constituent of society? Other than the rhetoric of politicians who know the language of liberal democracy, what makes you believe that the state is a force morally equal to the LTTE in this fight and that it is not using all the violence at its disposal against a section of what it considers its own population? I follow the Quaker Afrikaner who befriended Mandela in believing that justice must be a factor in understanding and reacting to such conflicts.

It is rather amazing that, in an article on human rights in Sri Lanka, you do not mention the shelling of civilian areas by the armed forces or the blockade of food, medicine and agricultural inputs, although you do obliquely refer to "disputes over the reality of food needs in the Wanni." I put this down to your emphasis on and access to areas under government control.

I found the APC statement about freedom of expression in LTTE-controlled areas did not jibe with my understanding of reality. I think this derives from the words "under the de facto control of the LTTE" in the APC statement. Nowhere and at no time have there been LTTE-controlled areas that have not been under bombardment, a blockade and the threat of invasion by the Sri Lankan armed forces, which makes the mention of elections rather ludicrous. It is my personal belief that elections will be held within a reasonable period after a definitive halt to the conflict. This belief is based on reports about how the LTTE relied on the mechanisms of civil society during their period in Jaffna and Kilinochchi in the early ‘90s, rather than attempting to impose their will in all areas, and the observation of their efforts to improve civil society (such as top LTTE officials working to obtain chemicals so Vanni students can take their A level practical exams in chemistry) in the most difficult circumstances. The ‘creation of democratic space for Tamils’ that you urge will only occur when there is a peaceful, political resolution of this war outside a centralized system of government controlled by one ethnic group and based on fundamentalist rhetoric.

Most of the LTTE’s "intimidation, torture, ‘disappearance’, and extrajudicial execution" that you mention have occurred at times when the LTTE did not have ‘de facto’, but only marginal control, notably in the middle to late ‘80s, and most took place against rival groups (notice what is happening in Vavuniya today between PLOTE and TELO). There have also been LTTE abuses against spies and informers. It is important to remember that not all killings attributed to the LTTE were actually carried out by them. It is hard for me to imagine where the US State Dept. got the information it did for the abuses it says the LTTE committed over the last year. If you have specific information supporting these statements of current LTTE abuses, I would be happy to hear it, however.

Our friends and relatives who have lived under the LTTE have felt relatively safe and free and I take my opinions from them. Just before the army’s invasion of Jaffna in 1995, feeling the impending tragedies to come, and after living under the LTTE for 5 years, my sister-in-law’s father (a retired accountant) wrote to her, "Give me liberty or give me death", not even aware of whom he was quoting.

You do not sound like you have access to this segment of opinion, and you need it for you to have any hopes of acting as peacemakers. Peacemakers also need to have a neutral attitude to the conflict. Simply equating and balancing abuses by each side does not make one neutral. Not having a specific ‘ax to grind,’ being able to see with one’s eyes open, makes one neutral. I know that you do not think that you are supporting the government, but by making equivalent their abuse of power with that of the LTTE, I believe that you are. I certainly hope that your articles will reflect more of the true situation in Sri Lanka in the future.

Very truly yours,
A sangam member