Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Child Recruitment

by K. Mylvaganam

The Sinhala owned media and the Sinhalese political parties cry from the top of the roof about the "child recruitment" by the LTTE. But why are they so silent about the child abuses that is so prevalent in the Sinhala dominated areas where several hundred thousands of children are affected?

In the Colombo-based newspapers the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are blamed for child recruitment, abduction and forcible conscription.  These newspapers never uttered a word when the EPRLF under the leadership of Varatharajaperumal,  aided and abetted by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), conducted  forcible conscription of children even of tender ages during 1985 to 1989.

UNICEF also has accused the Tigers for recruiting children under the age of 18. I live in Vanni and I do accept that there is some truth in the allegations made by UNICEF, but definitely not to the magnitue to which it is magnified and exaggerated by the Colombo press.

I worked for the North East Secretariat On Human Rights (NESOHR) for some time last year. During that time I did receive complaints from some parents that their children who were under 18 have been recruited by the LTTE. On receipt of such complaints we took up the matter with the LTTE and requested them to produce those children for verification.

Let me present here specifically some cases for the readers. Once there were five such complaints. A date was fixed for the parents and their children to be brought together in our office at Karadipoku,  Kilinochchi. A representative from the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), Mr. Lars Kjerland, invited by me was also present. I started to record the proceedings.

All those five children maintained that they were 18 and over, but the parents disputed their statements. None of the five recruits said that they were forcibly taken in by the LTTE.  They all joined voluntarily they said.  When I asked the parents for the birth certificates of their children, none of them were able to produce the certificates. All of them said that they got lost during the exodus in October 1995 when nearly 500,000 people had to move out of Jaffna.  That was a true statement. 

It is so difficult to judge the ages of these children as most of them are under nourished. Two of the children definitely looked to be under 18, hence I told those two that their parents are better judges of their ages and that they have to go with their parents. One of the youths agreed to my proposal without protest,  but the other one started to cry. He did not want to go with the mother. With a little more advice and persuasion, both by me and Lars, he agreed finally.

Out of the three left, two were girls. Both the girls and the boy adamantly refused to join the parents. The mother of one of the girls broke down and wept severely. Out of pity for her, I suggested that her daughter join the mother. She vehemently refused to accept my suggestion. When I tried to persuade a little more, she said "If you send me with my mother today I will go, but I will come back to join the LTTE next week."

The other two remaining maintained that they were not 18 but 19. One of them openly accused the father for his excessive drinking habits and beating the mother and her siblings. Hence I had to request the parents of those three to produce the birth cetificates for us to do the needful. 

At this time, during the ceasefire, it is possible to obain birth certificaes at the Jaffna kaccheri [government office].  But the parents never turned up thereafter.

The first two youngsters and  their parents were taken to the office of UNICEF in Kilinochchi for the formal handing over.

This is the true situation prevailing here in Vanni.

Now let us take the whole of Sri Lanka into this perspective. With the LTTE there may be a few hundred who are under the age of 18. [The UN maintains the number is 1,500. -- Editor] This is not acceptable, but can be dealt with if everyone works together.

But what is happening in the South  of Sri Lanka?. A few months back the Sunday Leader published a photograph of a child 12 years old in camouflage uniform holding an AK47 riffle in his hand standing on sentry duty outside the base of a paramilitary group working in collaboration with the Sri Lankan army.

There are several thousand children under 15 who are abused for sexual needs. According to the National Child Protection Authority  (N.C.P.A.)   nine hundred thousand (900 000) children under 16 are employed in some form or other. Poverty at home has compelled their parents to send them for work. How many children are SOLD by the parents to brothels in the Colombo city and in its suburbs?

We see humpty number of children, most of them under ten years old, begging on the streets of Colombo, Kandy, Matara, Kurunagala and even in Vavuniya. You will also find them in the army controlled areas  of Jaffna and Batticaloa as well. The president of the N.C.P.A. Dr.Hiranthy Wijeyamanna said that most of the children begging on the roads of the big cities are under 8 years old. This is because people tend to pity the young ones and give more to them than to the older children. Hence those unscruplous gangs who employ these children go for the very young ones, preferably the  handicapped ones. According to her some of these children may collect up to Rs.2000.00 a day. In the old days people gave 5 or 10 cents to the beggars. Now it is either Rs.5.00 or 10.00. But the children get only a few rupees and some food at the end of the day and the employer grabs the rest. These children are not provided any facilities either. They are continuously watched by the members of the gang that employs them. They sleep on pavements inhaling exhaust fumes emitted by the belching vehicles,  amid the stinking market garbage. I shudder to think what they do when it rains in the nights.

Some of these children are used by the drug barons as carriers of their contraband. It is an easy guess as to where such children will end finally - drug addicts and the crimes connected with it.

One always sees children hawking something or other at market places, roads, on temple premises, railway station and bus stands. They do not attend school.

Whilst condemning the parties, whoever they may be for recruiting underaged children to fight, why are all those international organisations, the SL government and the Colombo media who shout so much about the LTTE recruiting a few hundred children intentionally or otherwise, tight lipped when it comes to nearly a million children in the south who are  either begging or  under all sorts of employment for meagre wages.

In the LTTE controlled areas you cannot see a single beggar or even a child selling things, though these areas are the most poverty stricken places in Sri Lanka. The reason is that the children who do not have anyone to take care of them are looked after by the LTTE. These kids are put into homes meant for them. They are well looked after in those homes, not only by providing food and shelter but with LOVE. They are sent to ordinary schools just like any other children.

There are several homes in Vanni itself - Sencholai,  Kantharuban, Gurukulam  and Ilamthalir to mention a few. No one uses the terminology "Orphanage" here as the children are not considered orphans.

Gurukulam 2006

To cite one example, I visit Sencholai whenever I find the time. The lady in charge is called Janani, who was at the Jaffna university before she joined the movement. She is lovingly called ' Periyamma' [elder aunt] by the kids. Those under 7 or 8 are allowed to take turns in batches of four or five to sleep in her room. It is a great joy for them and they await for their turn anxiously. The youngest is only a few months old and the eldest is 22. It is like a family calling each other 'Akka' [big sister] or by name if the other one is younger. The caretakers are all 'Chithys.'

'The mentally retarded people are kept in a home of their own and nursed properly and given medical treatment. Psychiatrists and psychologists from among the Tamil Diaspora are taken there regularly to provide treatment and train the nurses and the local doctors.

Alternatively, disabled children (in Tamil Eelam  the word "Disabled" is not used) are kept separately in special homes. There are a good number of them who have lost some limb or hearing or eyesight due to the war. They are not only cared for and nursed, but are given the opportunity to learn things that they are interested in.  To begin with, it is compulsory that they follow the ordinary course of education until they pass the OL examination. Subsequently, depending on their ability and aptitude, they are offered courses in computing, masonary, carpentry, classical music, Baratha Natiyam,etc. I once attended a cultural night organised by them. Their perfomances were excellent. One girl who is completely blind performed Baratham comprising of Alarippu. Jatheeswaram and a Patham beautifully like a proffesional.

The Sinhala owned media and the Sinhalese political parties cry from the top of the roof about the "child recruitment" by the LTTE. But why are they so silent about the child abuses that is so prevalent in the Sinhala dominated areas where several hundred thousands of children are affected?

Before I conclude this article, I wonder whether it is correct to recruit underaged children into religious monastries, a common practice within Buddhism. In the majority of the cases the children are taken in, of course, with the approval of the parents with a view to make them as Buddhist monks later. But is it proper to decide the future of a child at such a tender age without the consent of the child? Do not these children have the right to decide what they want to be when they are grown up?