The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon

Sachi Sri Kantha
[15 November 2002]

Nuda Veritas on
The Muslim Factor

Nuda Veritas, for those who are unaware, is the Latin expression for ‘naked truth’ [nudus = naked; veritas = truth]. There are quite a number of analysts, among whom rank the prattling authors of the Broken Palmyra book, who pretend to provide unvarnished ‘naked truth’ on affairs related to Eelam Tamils and Muslims. The holes in their cloak of ‘naked truth’ need to be exposed and this chapter provides an aliquot of it.

Three inter-twined ingredients which contributed noticeably to Pirabhakaran’s agenda in confronting the Sinhalese government in the Eastern Front, since mid-1980s, were the land (state-aided colonization which increased the Sinhalese population significantly), the Special Task Force (STF) operatives (who were established as the Sri Lankan version of the Gestapo-gang in the early 1980s) , and the resident Muslim population. In the previous two chapters, I had introduced two of these three ingredients, namely the land issue and the STF operatives. In this chapter, I will analyze the issue of Muslim factor and their circumstantial link to the STF operations. This is undoubtedly an explosive issue, even in the currently prevailing sustained peace-dialogue atmosphere. But, I adhere to the spirit that historical facts need to be discussed and cannot be glossed over for reasons of political correctness.

The Muslim politics of playing the ‘Eating the Cake and Having It’ Game

In a commentary I wrote to the Tamil Times (London) in 1983, before Pirabhakaran’s ascendancy, I had made the following observations on the Tamil-speaking Muslims of Sri Lanka, incorporating an open secret which Michael Roberts (then at the University of Peradeniya) was brave enough to write. Excerpts:

“…The pattern adopted by the Muslim leaders in the post-Independent era of Sri Lanka had been succinctly described by academic Michael Roberts, as follows:

‘The Moor elites initially leaned towards an alliance with the Tamils and other minorities so as to extract political concessions from the British, but from the 1940s they have tended to ally with the Sinhalese against the Tamils; with wings in both the SLFP and UNP, they have revealed the buoyancy of a cork and a Talleyrand – an ability to stay vigorously afloat at every political overturn; and they are entrenched in the commercial sector.’ [Modern Asian Studies, 1978, vol.12, no.3, pp.353-376]

…It is my opinion that the reasons for the political alliance of Muslims with Sinhalese rather than Tamils can be listed as follows:

(1) Minority within the minority complex: Muslims, being the second largest minority group, feel that there is nothing to gain by standing with the Tamils politically, since they fear that this would result in their community ending up as minority within a minority, in especially the Tamil speaking areas.

(2) Urban-based political leadership: Although the Muslims form approximately 35% of the population in the Batticaloa district and more than 25% in the districts of Mannar, Trincomalee and Puttalam, their political leadership had emerged mainly from those residing in the Sinhalese areas. For example, the political leaders of yester generation, T.B.Jayah, Razik Fareed, A.C.M.Kaleel were Colombo-based; and Badiuddin Mahmud also belonged to this category, though he was a native of rural Sinhalese area. Even the present political leadership of Muslims exhibits this trend. Hence, these leaders do not identify themselves with the ideals and emotions of the Muslim peasants who reside in the traditional Tamil areas.

(3) Economic rivalry: Generally Muslims engage themselves in minor commercial pursuits, though a significant proportion of those living in the East coast are cultivators, herdsmen and fishermen. Hence there had developed a measure of economic rivalry between the Muslims and the Ceylon Tamils, who also possess ‘business brain’. This rivalry is somewhat inevitable.

… Even under the present UNP regime, ‘intermittent ethnic friction in the bazaars’, as mentioned by Michael Roberts, is not very uncommon... A quote from Lanka Guardian, illustrates this point.

‘In the land of gems, a young Buddhist monk is in hospital. According to his friends, he was dragged out of his temple, assaulted and marched down the road. His books were strewn about. The day before this incident a meeting was held to protest, among other things, against separatism. But what were the motive of the ostensible sponsors and their patrons? Was it really against Tamil separatism or against the Moslem gem boys? Two radical groups distributed leaflets and news-sheets condemning the racialism of the self-styled Sinhala patriots. One newspaper Desha Vimukti was lucky. The entire stock of papers was bought up by a couple of mudalalis, but not because they appreciated the Sinhala prose! A bonfire followed.’ [Sept.1, 1979, p.1]

And as recent as last year, in July 1982, ethnic friction between Sinhalese and Muslims flared up in the Galle district. Even other towns, such as Kalutara, Alutgama and Panadura, had witnessed this sort of Sinhalese-Muslim clashes during the last few years… [Tamil Times, May 1983, pp.16-17]

Badiuddin Mahmud – the servile bucket carrier to the Bandaranaikes

In the anti-LTTE tract The Broken Palmyra (1990), four authors led by Rajan Hoole announced their mission in the Author’s Preface as, “We felt strongly that the community must revive, and to do so we must face the truth in all its nakedness, both about ourselves and about all those who purported to be our saviours.” In this sentence, it is nominally understood that the word ‘ourselves’ stood for Tamils, and ‘our saviours’ referred to the LTTE.

However, quite a number of unmentionables relating to the recent Eelam Tamil history have been glossed over by Rajan Hoole and his collaborators. These include the first cyanide-based suicide of Ponnuthurai Sivakumaran in June 5, 1974 and the abduction of Ohio newly-wed couple Allens (Stanley and Mary) in Jaffna by the EPRLF cadres in May 10, 1984, which almost created an international furor involving USA, India and Sri Lanka, and sullied the image of Eelam Tamils as hostage-takers.

Another glaring omission in The Broken Palmyra book is the name of Badiuddin Mahmud, the prominent Muslim politician for decades. His political antics alienated young Eelam Tamils who faced admission to Sri Lanka’s universities in the post-1970 period, from the Sri Lankan mainstream. Among all the Muslim politicians, as a servile bucket carrier to the Bandaranaikes, Badiuddin Mahmud played with fire and lived to see its after-effects. Thus it is not irrelevant to profile the career of this bucket carrier to the Bandaranaikes from four angles, in chronological order; viewed by a Sinhalese political rival (N.M.Perera), a Tamil youth who suffered in the early 1970s from the adopted policy of Badiuddin Mahmud (none other than myself, belonging to Pirabhakaran’s age cohort) and two Muslims.

N.M.Perera’s view, as told in 1975:

I have previously recorded the political peccadilloes of padre Senanayake and padre Bandaranaike in pandering the Buddhist Aryan sentiments in colonial and post-colonial Ceylon. [see, The Pirabhakakaran Phenomenon, parts 44 and 45] Here I add a primary source of evidence on the functioning of the Sinhala Maha Sabha and on the manipulations of D.S.Senanayake and padre Bandraranaike recorded by Badiuddin Mahmud, and retold by Trotskyist Party leader N.M.Perera, in his statement delivered on Sept.3, 1975 in the parliament, following removal from the post of Minister of Finance. This I consider is a vital piece of document originating from a leading Sinhalese political figure, excerpts of which deserves inclusion. In N.M.Perera’s words,

“…It is in connection with the pre-Hartal [Note by Sri Kantha: i.e., pre-1953] political movement that Mr. Bandaranaike’s name comes in. I referred to the fact that the history of the country could have been different had Mr. Bandaranaike accepted the offer made by the Opposition after the Yamuna meeting. Yamuna was the name of the house where Mr. Sri Nissanka lived. All those in the Opposition to Mr. D.S. Senanayake met at Yamuna. We had prolonged discussions at that place and we decided to offer the Premiership in 1947 to Mr. Bandaranaike because we realised that he could with our help command a majority in the Parliament. I believe Mr. Sri Nissanka was our spokesman. I never said that I offered the Premiership. It was an offer made by those who were in opposition to Mr. D.S. Senanayake.

Mr. Bandaranaike refused the offer for very good reasons from his point of view. I set out the two reasons that were commonly talked about at that time. If anybody cares to read the newspapers of that period, he or she will find that what I said was the common prevailing thought at the time.

What are the two reasons? First of all, his expectation that he will be the next Prime Minister after Mr. D.S. Senanayake, and, secondly, since he was not in political alignment with the Left parties, he was not prepared to take a plunge into the political unknown associated with the Marxists. This is a historical fact. He never accepted the Socialist ideology as we Marxists accepted it then and even later. He preferred to accept a Ministerial post in Mr. D.S. Senanayake’s Cabinet. If he was a convinced and confirmed Socialist, he would never have joined the UNP Cabinet. Is this historically wrong? I have been faithful to history. I am sorry if history hurts people. But I regret I cannot be guilty of distorting the history of this country to suit any family prestige.

Now let me quote somebody who was very close to Mr. Bandaranaike. He was the Secretary of the SLFP at its inception and for a number of years thereafter. I have here the booklet that was published. It was printed and widely distributed. I quote from page 8: [Note by Sri Kantha: Here, N.M. Perera introduces the description by Badiuddin Mahmud.]

‘Those days I [i.e., Mahmud] asked him [i.e., Bandaranaike] why the Lake House Press is continuing a campaign against him. Thereupon, he spoke to me and said ‘alright if you want to know the secret about that I will tell you’ and he gave me the details of that matter. In 1947, there was no party called the UNP. In the 1947 elections, the strongest party that went before the people was not the UNP but the Sinhala Maha Sabha. Dudley Senanayake, Sir John Kotelawela, E.A. Nugawela, A. Ratnayake, C.W.W. Kannnangara and such others were all members of the Sinhala Maha Sabha. On that occasion, this party obtained about 40 seats. Mr. Bandaranaike could then have become the Prime Minister. In 1947, most people requested him to accept the prime ministership, but displaying his good qualities and expressing his sense of justice, he rejected the request. ‘Let the old gentleman Mr. D.S. Senanayake be the Prime Minister. I have still time. I can consider it afterwards’; were the explanations that he then trotted out. Mr. D.S. Senanayake met Mr. Bandaranaike and told him, ‘Banda this time give me the opportunity to become the prime minister. After me, you will have that opportunity. Ask me for any ministerial office, I will give that to you.’ That is the promise that Mr. Senanayake gave on that occasion to Mr. Bandaranaike. In this way, Mr. Bandaranaike deprived himself of the opportunity he had to become the prime minister of this country. Nevertheless, as Mr. Bandaranaike himself expressed to me, what did Mr. D.S. Senanayake do? He summoned the Proprietor of the Lake House institution and told him, ‘from now on work towards the destruction of Mr. Bandaranaike.’ I must mention that this is the biggest political crime in the history of Lanka’s politics. In some ways, the occurrence of a crime in this way may be treated as the good fortune for this country. When you contemplate, this, we cannot help feeling this because, if not for that crime, perhaps Mr. Bandaranaike might not have gone along the socialist path as he did.’ [Note by Sri Kantha: Thus ends, N.M. Perera reproducing Badiuddin Mahmud’s recollections on his talks with padre Bandaranaike. Then, N.M. Perera continued further as follows:

This is a Government publication published in September 1973 on the occasion of the Bandaranaike Commemoration Day. This was culled out of a speech made by Mr. Badiuddin Mahmud before the Buddhist Society of the Education Ministry. What is the difference between what I stated and the statement of Mr. Mahmud, who was so close to Mr. Bandaranaike? He has said precisely what I said in different language. Is it a crime when I say this? Is it quite acceptable when a member of the SLFP says it? Is there one law for the SLFP members and another law for the LSSP members? This is like the laws of the famous King Kekille….” [Source: NM Explains – Statement on Removal from Government, an undated 32 page pamphlet published as ‘A Sama Samaja Publication’, pp.18-20]

Sachi Sri Kantha’s views, as written in 1977 and 1983:

“[In the 1977 General Election, contesting in Batticaloa constituency], Ex-Education Minister, Dr.Badiuddin Mahmud, the self-claimed, undisputed leader of the Muslims, who contested a seat for the first time in his so-called 50-year span of political career, was pushed to 4th place and suffered a humiliating defeat. [Tribune, Colombo, Aug.27, 1977.]

“…It is also noteworthy to cite at this juncture, one folly of the so-called ‘undisputed leader of the Muslim community’ (who had never been elected to parliament), Badiuddin Mahmud, who was the Minister of Education between 1960-64 and 1970-77. Though he was successful moderately in uplifting Muslim interests, he could not succeed completely. The master tactician Badiuddin was, he requested the Muslim youth to study in the Sinhala medium, raising hopes that by switching to the language of the majority community they would be better positioned to have their share of government teaching posts. However, the effort of Badiuddin backfired in the 1970s, when the Muslims, educated in Sinhala medium entered the schools in Sinhala districts. They were greeted by the racist slogan, Thambila apita eppa. Then only, Badiuddin wisely learnt the folly of courting the Sinhala language…” [Tamil Times, May 1983, pp.16-17]

Views of two Sri Lankan Muslims in 2001-2002

“…It was the Muslim leaders like Sir Razik Fareed and Badiuddin Mahmud who fervently campaigned for the ‘Sinhala Only’ policy which sought to make Sinhala the sole official language of the country, replacing English.” [Asiff Hussein; ‘The Obvious Link’, Sunday Observer, Colombo, June 10, 2001]

“…The provisions provided for in the Memorandum of Understanding between the Government and the LTTE have taken absolutely no account of them [i.e., Muslims] although they account for a third of the Eastern Province, and, together with the Sinhalese constitute two thirds of the population. It has to be understood and recognized that the era commencing from the 1978 Constitution had been a distinct disadvantageous one to the Muslims. During this period President J.R. Jayewardene chose to wash his hands off the problems that had been created for the Muslims. The beleaguered Muslims were asked then to negotiate their future with the LTTE and seek the solution themselves; for the Muslims it was a position in many ways similar to the position they are in today.

The situation then resulted in a cross-party Muslim conglomerate led by Dr. Badiuddin Mahmud to travel to Madras, run from pillar to post, and conduct talks with the LTTE and others to extract some accommodation. But today unfortunately neither is there an overwhelming personality like Dr. Mahmud nor an Eastern leader with the commitment and capacity of M.H.M. Ashraff…” [Dr.H.M.Mauroof, President, National Muslim Movement and ex-MP, SLFP; The ethnic tangle and the dilemma for the Muslims, Daily News, Colombo, Aug.13, 2002]

An Analysis on Badiuddin Mahmud's politics

Analyzing the above-quoted passages from four observers, spanning almost three decades from 1973 to 2002, the following are apparent: (1) Badiuddin Mahmud was a Muslim politician who aligned himself with the SLFP since its inception and he fervently campaigned for the ‘Sinhala Only’ policy. (2) Immense political power he wielded, especially between 1970 and 1977, benefited the Muslim community at the expense of the younger generation of Eelam Tamils. (3) Though he was an unabashed pro-Sinhalese politician for decades, when it came to the 1977 general election, rather than contesting from Sinhala-dominated constituencies like Beruwela or Gampola, he came ‘carpet-bagging’ to Batticaloa to contest the election, and he lost in that too. (4) When LTTE gained ascendancy by extra-parliamentary means and came to dictate terms, Badiuddin had to ‘travel to Madras, run from pillar to post, and conduct talks with the LTTE and others to extract some accommodation, in the words of Mauroof. Whether LTTE had to accede to Mahmud’s political requests, in terms of inter-ethnic harmony, is a moot point. But, contemporary Muslim analysts never bother to question the morality of what their political leaders like Badiuddin Mahmud did for four decades (between 1947 and 1987) in suffocating the human rights of Tamils, through the power they gained in the parliament as fence-sitters and moolah worshippers.

As M.A. Nuhman, a recognized Tamil language poet and Muslim academic, noted perspectively, “During the post-independence period Eastern province Muslims seriously engaged in political battles for seats in parliament. Political opportunism, coupled with the scarcity of land, and economic competition created a mood of suspicion and hostility between Muslims and Tamils in the region and led even to some violent clashes in the 1950s and 60s. Later developments resulted in ethnic segregation of these communities to a certain extent.” [Essay: Ethnic Identity, Religious Fundamentalism and Muslim Women in Sri Lanka, Dossier 21; Women Living Under Muslim Laws, Sept.1988; accessed via internet.] It is a given that opportunism is a key element in the professional politician of any land. But the Muslim politicians of Sri Lanka belong to a breed apart and deserve the tag ‘Cunningly Enterprising Opportunists’ (CEOs).

I qualify my tag with the following observation, which I recorded in 1977. Relating to what Nuhman mentioned in passing as per ‘political battles for seats in parliament’ in the Eastern province, I had observed:

“Regarding the Tamil speaking Muslims of the EP [i.e., Eastern Province], in the past it had been a sad spectacle, that the Muslim MPs elected on the FP [i.e., Federal Party ticket], for example, (Mr.M.S.Kariapper – Kalmunai; Mr.M.M.Mustapha – Pottuvil; Mr.M.C.Ahamed – Kalmunai; and Mr.M.E.H.Mohamed Ali – Mutur) jumped on to the bandwagon of UNP or SLFP, after they entered the portals of parliament. It is my humble opinion that this ‘jumping over the fence’ attitude practiced by the EP Tamil-speaking Muslim politicos might have had a considerable impact on the Muslim voters this time. They would have thought, (with due apologies to the TULF- Muslim candidates) ‘Why vote for a TULF Muslim candidate, who most probably will jump to UNP/SLFP later? It is better to cast the vote for the Muslim candidate who is wearing the green label earlier itself?’ [‘A Reply to Fr.T.Balasuriya’, Tribune, Colombo, Dec.31, 1977]

I do not disagree with the assessment of M.A. Nuhman on Badiuddin Mahmud, that indeed Mahmud was the “…widely accepted Muslim political leader who contributed much to the development of Muslim education in this country (i.e., Sri Lanka), introduced the concept of Islamic music and dance and appointed Muslim women to teach these aesthetic subjects in Muslim schools.” [Essay: Ethnic Identity, Religious Fundamentalism and Muslim Women in Sri Lanka, Dossier 21; Women Living Under Muslim Laws, Sept.1988; accessed via internet.]

But the vital question is, ‘at whose expense?’ – the answer is: at the expense of Eelam Tamils. Nuhman has recorded as follows:

“In 1974 the Sri Lankan government introduced a system of standardisation for the university entrance examination (that is G.C.E.A/L) and a special quota for the backward districts by which the Eastern province youths, both Tamils and Muslims, were greatly benefited while the Jaffna Tamil youths were badly affected. [Italics added by Sri Kantha for emphasis.] The introduction of this new system paved the way for better opportunities in higher education for Muslims and created a new professional class and an educated elite among them. They are the more ethnically sensitive and opinion making social groups. These groups were the base for the new Muslim political leadership in the East and they formed a Muslim political party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) in 1980.” [ibid]

The first sentence needs clarification. The then newly elected SLFP-dominated government, for which Badiuddin Mahmud served as the Minister of Education, introduced the ethnically profiled, crude standardisation scheme from 1971. I speak with authority, since I entered the University of Colombo from the Colombo district in January 1972, after sitting for the G.C.E. Advanced Level exam in Dec.1970, as the second batch which passed this ethnically profiled, crude standardisation scheme. Even Tamil ethnic students who studied and sat the university entrance exam from Colombo were badly bruised by this racist discriminatory treatment. I should also add that the university entrance exam held in Dec.1970 was the last one, in which students sitting for the natural science subjects (Chemistry, Physics, Botany and Zoology) were examined with both the theory and practical components. Following an uproar by the Tamil Student Federation (Tamil Maanavar Peravai) largely emanating from the Jaffna peninsula, Mrs. Bandaranaike’s Cabinet led by Badiuddin Mahmud tampered and ‘refined’ (if that is the appropriate word!) the then executed university admission criteria to what Nuhman mentions as and a special quota for the backward districts by which the Eastern province youths, both Tamils and Muslims, were greatly benefited. The Tamil Student Federation was the incubator for the Tamil militant movement which eventually led to the birth of LTTE.

In sum, Badiuddin Mahmud contributed immensely to the Muslim community first and foremost, and by his bucket-carrying servility contributed markedly to the Sinhalese leadership as well. If in 1988, his conciliatory approach to the LTTE was rebuffed indirectly, the reasons are self-explanatory.

The Loyalty dilemma of Muslims

Pirabhakaran’s LTTE has had the distinction of engaging Sri Lankan armed forces and India’s army. But an overlooked fact is that LTTE also has to wage a covert war against the plans of Pakistan’s Generals and Intelligence operatives, who were major backers of the Sri Lankan establishment in arsenal and technical help. This is a 20 year-old history, beginning from 1982, even before the active Indian interest on the Eelam Tamil issue. Given the ever-volatile nature of the Indo-Pakistan political brinkmanship, it may not be even wrong to infer that Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister of India, became strongly interested in the political issue of Eelam, only because Zia ul Haq, the then dictator of Pakistan, had already planted his boots into the Colombo camp.

It takes years for truth to show its appearance. But, it eventually appear in bits and pieces – after the departure of the leading actors of that period, namely Indira Gandhi, Zia ul Haq and J.R.Jayewardene. To quote a passage from the book The Dilemma of an Island by Meril Gunaratne, the ex-Director General of Intelligence & Security,

“…The Special Task Force comprising of policemen, and versed in paramilitary skills, should be the ideal organisation to release a body of troops to the umbrella organisation. I recall General Tissa Weeratunga, former Army Commander, narrating a discussion he had with late President Zia ul Haq in Pakistan in 1982.

After listening to General Weeratunga concerning the situation in Jaffna, the President of Pakistan had said, ‘General, your problem is that you do not have anything between the Army and the Police.’ The President of Pakistan was trying to drive home the point that a paramilitary Police, rather than the Army, should be mobilised in the early stages of terrorism. The STF was yet to be born at the time General Zia ul Haq made this comment.

It may be possible that the STF is deployed excessively in the north and east today… [Book excerpt entitled, ‘Combating Terrorism in Colombo’, Daily News, Colombo, August 31, 2001]

It is pertinent to think about what has been the stand of the Muslim leaders in Sri Lanka since 1983? Though linked by the common language of Tamil, while Eelam Tamils have an emotional identity with India for cultural reasons, Muslim politicians in Sri Lanka have shown a strong emotional bond with Pakistan in preference to India, on the basis of religion. How many Muslims in Sri Lanka can speak the languages of Pakistan (Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashtu, Siraki, Urdu and Balochi)? Did any one of the Muslim leaders (M.H. Mohamed, A.C.S. Hameed, Badiuddin Mahmud, Alavi Moulana, M.H.M. Ashraff) make a moral representation to Pakistan’s Generals and Intelligence operatives - on behalf of Tamils – to refrain from supplying military hardware and software to the Sri Lankan government because the actions of STF are hurting the Tamils badly in the Eastern Front. From the political platforms, the Muslim leaders in Sri Lanka had praised the deeds of M.A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, in separating from India. But why they have not bothered to support the same demand, when it was made by Chelvanayakam or Amirthalingam or Pirabhakaran, is not a mystery.

The perfidy of the Muslim political leaders belonging to the Sinhalese ruling parties in arranging military support from Pakistan for the Sri Lankan armed forces has remained an unmentionable theme in the anti-LTTE tracts of the cluster of quasi human rights activists, who fault the LTTE for its anti-Muslim activities. The J.R. Jayewardene regime did implement the 1982 suggestions on dictator Zia ul Haq and established the dreaded Special Task Force section in 1983. Here is a self-laudatory passage from the website of Sri Lankan Police, which appears under the sub-heading ‘The Birth of the Special Task Force’. To quote,

“The nucleus of the Special Task Force (STF) was formed in 1983, drawing on policemen already in service and having them trained by the Army in the handling of Infantry weapons and given basic training in jungle operations. The first few Platoons formed were deployed mainly to provide support for police stations in the North of Sri Lanka.

The level of the STF was considerably enhanced in 1983 with the introduction of crack former Special Air Service (SAS) teams to provide specialized training in all aspects of counter insurgency and counter terrorist operations. By the year 1987, the STF had taken over the control of the Batticaloa division from Kiran, right down to Potuvil in the South and were deployed in Company formation in no less than 15 camps. When the Indian Peace Keeping Force was introduced into Sri Lanka, the STF was dominating the ground in the Batticaloa division, having scored several successes against the terrorist groups. Normalcy was restored with the life of the citizen proceeding without interruption, trains and buses running as usual and having the proud record of not having a single STF camp come under attack from the LTTE from 1983 right up to the time that the IPKF moved into the Batticaloa division.” [source: website]

Tale of two American Jesuit Priests in Batticaloa

Despite the unspecified ‘several successes’ recorded in the above blurb until 1987, Anderson brothers in their book, War Zones (1988) had described the trauma caused by the STF operations to the Tamils in the Eastern Front. [see, The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon – part 46] The ‘several successes’ of STF caused the loss and disappearance of thousands of Tamil civilians.

One particular disappearance was that of Eugene J. Hebert, an American Jesuit priest stationed in Batticaloa. It became internationally known via the Insight magazine (Washington DC), only because his brother-in-law J. Hubert Dumesnil of Lafayette, Lousiana, contributed a letter to this magazine, incorporating the last letter written by this disappeared priest Hebert to one of his friends. I provide below this published letter by J.Hubert Dumesnil, under the caption: ‘Missing Priest’s Own View of Sri Lanka’. [Insight magazine, Dec.10, 1990]

 “Your cover story of Oct.22 on Sri Lanka, describing the vicious conflict between the Sinhalese and the rebel Tamil Tigers, is excellent.

The American Jesuit, the Rev.Eugene J.Hebert, reported missing in the Eastern Province, is my brother-in-law. Father Hebert has been in Sri Lanka 42 years. He is well regarded and respected by Tamils and Sinhalese alike. He is nonpolitical and possibly best known for his talents as a basketball coach.

Father Hebert is originally from Jennings, La., and is the first American Jesuit missing in the Sri Lankan conflict. It is now over 3 and a half months since he was reported missing, and we have received no factual explanation. The police force in Batticaloa has initiated a special investigation. I appeal to the governments of the United States and Sri Lanka to insist that this crime not go unsolved. His last letter, to a fellow Jesuit in New Orleans, Tom Clancey, is below.

J.Hubert Dumesnil,

Lafayette, La.”


Though Fr.Hebert’s brother-in-law had wished that ‘this crime not go unsolved’ – it still remains unsolved. The last agony-filled letter of disappeared Fr.Hebert, as printed in the Insight magazine, with his photo, read as follows [Brief descriptions within parentheses, are as in the originally published version]:

“Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

August 4, 1990

Dear Tom,

It was good to hear from you. In fact this was the first letter I received in over two months. As you must know we are in the middle of a civil war. During the past seven years we have been taken over by the special police, the Indian Army, some of the Tamil militant groups, the Tamil Tigers and now the Sri Lanka Army. Every one of our conquerors have made the population of Batticaloa suffer. We are cut off from the rest of the island and the world. We listen to the radio distortions of what is really happening to us. The only transport out is a convoy of buses that take a select few every week or sometimes two weeks. Electricity is sporadic. We have been without for the last three days. Water is gotten from wells with a bucket and rope.

When the army first came in on June 25 no shot was fired as the Tamil Tigers had withdrawn to fight first in Jaffna. But then began arrests of innocent citizens, looting, killings and burning on public roads to terrorize the people, etc. I had to supervise the burial of two, a man and a woman, who had been killed, put into a sack and thrown off the bridge into the lagoon just in front of St. Sebastian’s Church. They had been in the water three days before we were able to get the army to let us bury them.

There has been some improvement lately. The Peace committee, a group of citizens of which Harry Miller [a fellow Jesuit in Batticaloa] is a very active member, has made many representations to the Army authorities. Their efforts have stopped the burning of bodies on the public roads and there has not been any persons thrown off the bridge for two weeks now. But the arrests of boys, mostly innocent, continue.

Two past presidents of the Citizens for Peace Committee have been shot and killed, including the parish priest of the Cathedral. But Harry Miller, using his American citizenship as a partial protection, does what he can to alleviate the sufferings of the poor people. Father Selvaraj, a young diocesan priest, was killed a month ago because he was a Tamil. Another young priest, Father Ambrose, was stoned by the Muslims as he passed through their village taking a boy to the hospital. He is in intensive care in Colombo. He was flown there by air force helicopter. He is just beginning to recognize people and can now take food through the mouth.

Enough of our trials. The Lord continues to take care of us. Batticaloa is better off than the other sections of the Eastern and Northern provinces. To get to the information you requested, the fiscal year of the ETI [the Eastern Technical Institute, a trade school that was then run by Father Hebert] ends on March 31. I had really planned to write to U.S. AID [the Agency for International Development] for another grant. We are running rehabilitation courses for ex-militants and other youth. Every four months we train 20 boys in welding, 20 in refrigeration repairs and 25 in house wiring. Every six months we train 15 in radio and TV repair. These courses are being funded by Norad and a Canadian group. This is in addition to our regular three-year course in general mechanical trades. So we are short on space and I had hoped to get U.S. AID to fund the extension of our buildings. But it is impossible to get estimates or do anything now. There is very little activity in the town now. Only in the last few days have a few of the shops opened. Even the ETI, which was able to function in the worst days, is hardly working now. We open part of the morning only. Only the staff comes. None of the boys dare to come on the streets until conditions improve.

Pray for us. God willing, things will be changed by the time I write again. We are used to vast fluctuations in fortune.

Sincerely in Christ,

Eugene J.Hebert, S.J.

[Handwritten] Don’t know when you will receive this letter.”


Father Eugene Hebert was 63, when he disappeared in 1990. He was the first and only American to suffer this fate in Eelam territory, and now after 12 years, it can be reasonably assumed that he had been killed – but not by the LTTE. Who killed Father Hebert? In his last letter, Fr. Hebert had noted the killing of Father Selvaraj around July 1990 ‘because he was a Tamil’ and that Father Ambrose was ‘stoned’ by the Muslims. Father Hebert also mentioned about fellow Jesuit Rev. Harry Miller in his letter. Fr. Miller is still living, and he was met by Edward Gargan, the New York Times correspondent an year later, whose report appeared in 1991, with the caption, ‘Tracking Death in Sri Lanka: A Priest chronicles the Civil War’s Tragic Consequences.’ I reproduce it in full for record, since reference was also made about Fr.Hebert’s disappearance.

“Batticaloa, Sri Lanka - The other day, the Reverend Harry Miller walked into the parched scrub land outside this war-weary town. He walked until a couple of young men with automatic rifles materialized from the landscape to escort him to their camp. It was the local headquarters of the guerrilla army of ethnic Tamils – the so-called Tamil Tigers – who are fighting to establish a separate state on this island.

‘They had kidnapped this guy,’ said Father Miller, 65, his native Louisiana lilt skewed by a South Asian cadence nurtured over the last 43 years here. ‘They wanted him to provide them with 75,000 rupees’, about $1,875. ‘He’s a pensioner working on our Peace Committee. I told them, ‘You’re not going to get any money from him even if you kill him.’ Finally, I gave them 10,000 rupees and he’s back.’ For Father Miller, it was a routine day, perhaps a bit better than routine because for the first time in a while he had saved a life. More often in the last year, though, it has been chronicling the deaths and disappearances of thousands of local people that has consumed the New Orleans Jesuit.

In a corner turret of the high school he once ran, Father Miller records each death, each disappearance, each buried body, each pile of ashes, all the final product, he says, of arrests and roundups of Tamils by the Sri Lankan Army and police. He tells the tale of what happened to Kockkadicholai village in July. ‘There was this army tractor going along hauling some things and the Tigers blew it up and killed the soldiers,’ he said. ‘The army came back and massacred the people of this village, 123 dead and 40 in the hospital. They burned 350 kadjan houses, coconut-leaf houses. They just shot the people. Fifty-six of the bodies were burned, 67 were buried. It was the army. No doubt about it.

‘They feel free to burn bodies at the roadside because nobody will testify against them. They feel free to throw boys in wells because nobody will testify against them. They feel free to kick boys in the head because nobody will testify against them. They feel free to dispose of 2,700 citizens of Batticaloa.’

Behind his battered wooden desk, Father Miller flips through page after page listing the names of people who are no longer found in Batticaloa, names that the Peace Committee has compiled and sent to the local army and police commanders seeking information. The committee, a group of local people put together by Father Miller, badgers the authorities for explanations. Rarely do they get any; more often than not, it is subtle threats of violence that filter their way. ‘Already, two presidents of the Peace Committee have resigned,’ Father Miller said. ‘They were afraid for their families.’

For nearly a decade the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan armed forces have battled for control of the eastern part of this island. The Tigers say they fight for the rights of the Tamil ethnic minority, for years discriminated against by the majority Sinhalese; the Sri Lankan forces battle to preserve national unity. In daylight hours, the army controls the single 80-kilometer (50-mile) stretch of road between Batticaloa and government-controlled areas to the west. But when the sun settles into the mountains, the countryside and the road return to the Tigers.

When Father Miller came here in 1948 as a fresh-faced missionary, Sri Lanka was a drowsy place of farmers and fishermen. ‘It was like 1890s America, like the Louisiana my grandfather grew up in,’ he said. ‘It’s changed a bit and changed for the worse. In those days, there was never any violence, except on the football field.’ Last year, a fellow Jesuit from Louisiana, Eugene J. Hebert, disappeared while riding his scooter back to Batticaloa from an outlying convent. ‘I went to the army and the police,’ Father Miller said, ‘and no investigation was ever done.’

Last year, he said, the killing reached a climax and the work of the Peace Committee began in earnest. ‘Last July, we started to keep a record of the people taken into custody by the army. As of this month, we have 2,700 disappeared people. Some came back. Most of those who didn’t come back are probably dead. In the early days last year, we saw piles of burning bodies. People continue to disappear.’

So gruesome has the situation become that the local police chief talks of his police camp as Belsen, a reference to the Nazi death camp. ‘That’s where they take young boys to question them,’ Father Miller said. ‘They tie them up, drop them in a well. ‘Are you a Tiger? ‘No.’ Drop them again. ‘Are you a Tiger?’ ‘No’. Eventually they get a confession.’ Father Miller shook his head. ‘There’s no resolution. Neither side has lost. Neither side can win.’ [source: International Herald Tribune, Sept.4, 1991, p.6]

The 1990-1991 scenario in the Eastern Front, as presented by Jesuit Fathers from Louisiana, Eugene Hebert and Harry Miller, was revealing for the torture received by young Tamils. One notable feature in both documents (the last letter of Fr. Hebert and the interview of Fr. Miller with correspondent Edward Gargan) is that the sufferings of Muslims at the hands of Tamil Tigers have not been even passingly indicated. Could it be inferred that these two American Jesuit priests were partial to the LTTE and were oblivious about the alleged torture of Muslims by the Tamil Tigers? Not by objective reasoning, since Fr. Miller had informed correspondent Gargan about the kidnapping of a member of the Citizen’s Committee by the Tamil Tigers. Evidence of torture as presented by Fr. Hebert and Fr. Miller was tilted towards the Sri Lankan army and police (inclusive of the STF operatives). It should be noted that the STF operatives were recruited exclusively from the Sinhalese and Muslim ethnic groups.

One statement which appears in Fr. Hebert’s last letter that “Battiacaloa is better off than the other sections of the Eastern and Northern provinces.” received independent confirmation from Newsweek’s correspondents Tony Emerson and Steve Le Vine in March 1991, reporting from Trincomalee. It carried the caption ‘Black Shirts in Sri Lanka’. Excerpts are given below:

Black Shirts in Sri Lanka: Rise of ‘disappearances’

“In the beautiful harbor of Trincomalee, capital of Sri Lanka’s northeastern province, ethnic Tamils whisper of security men who come at night, wearing black shirts and pants, and announce that ‘you are wanted for questioning’. No one knows how many Tamils have disappeared from Trincomalee, apparent casualties of a new phase in Sri Lanka’s eight-year-old civil war. The Sri Lankan Army is pressing a campaign to purge civilian areas of rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who are fighting for an independent state in the northern and eastern regions. From Batticaloa, south of Trincomalee, human rights observers report that in the last nine months, 2,000 Tamil youths have been arrested on unknown charges – and have not been seen since.

It will be difficult to count the missing in Trincomalee, an increasingly silent and empty city. Last June the Liberation Tigers broke a 13-month truce by massacring scores of police officers. [Italics added for emphasis by Sri Kantha, for a later analysis on the ‘600-700 ‘missing policemen’ killed by the LTTE.] The Colombo government responded by dropping ‘barrel bombs’, oil drums filled with burning liquid, in civilian neighborhoods to smoke out the rebels. Nationwide, more than 4,000 people have died in rebel ambushes and Army reprisals since that time; in Trincomalee, an estimated one fourth of the 350,000 residents have fled the fighting and Army manhunts – not always to safety.

Soldiers have searched for rebel suspects in some of the 30 refugee camps that now ring Trincomalee. A leader of one camp, near the village of Nilaveli north of Trincomalee, said that 84 men were detained in a series of Army sweeps last year. One refugee who returned said he was locked in a prison that held about 350 men. ‘They tied my hands behind my back and kept a blindfold around my eyes. I hardly ate for two weeks,’ he said. ‘I was finally released with 15 (men). We don’t know what happened to the others.’ The camp leader, who requested anonymity, said only 45 of the 84 detainees are accounted for. The others ‘disappeared or have been killed. We don’t know.’

The apparent Army crackdown on civilians has not improved its position on the battlefield. The rebels still hold sway over much of the northern and eastern provinces, except in big cities where government forces guard roadblocks by day and usually retreat to barracks by night. Diplomats in Colombo say President Ranasinghe Premadasa, considered pragmatic but occasionally ruthless, has given Army hard-liners until June to gain the upper hand, or he may attempt to reopen peace talks. An Army surge seems unlikely, but so is a Tiger victory. In the Trincomalee district, the army estimates that the rebels are outnumbered by at least 10,000 to 800.

Most Tamils in Trincomalee won’t discuss the disappearances, even under the cloak of anonymity. ‘I’ve stopped working in human rights because it’s not wise anymore,’ says a formerly outspoken advocate. A local relief official said he seeks an escort from international organizations just to deliver medicine to the refugee camps. Another adds, ‘We don’t get involved with human-rights issues. Our lives literally depend on it.’ A citizens committee set up by the military to represent refugees directs inquiries about missing persons back to the Army. Brig. Siri Pieris, Army commander in the Trincomalee district, said he had received no official complaints of disappearances, but was investigating the reports nonetheless…” [Newsweek International edition, March 25, 1991, p.39]

One can guess that Brig. Siri Pieris should have some oblique sense of humor. Also of note is the date of this report’s publication – March 25, 1991. This was nearly two months before Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in Sri Perumbudur. The passing remark by Emerson and Le Vine regarding President Premadasa giving the “Army hard-liners until June to gain the upper hand, or he may attempt to reopen peace talks”, when linked with the torture and killing of Tamils in the Eastern Province by the STF operatives (as recorded by Father Hebert, Father Miller and correspondents Emerson and Le Vine) might have been of some significance which has gone un-noticed, after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination on May 21, 1991. [To be continued.]