A people on the run

By Rajan Hoole

6 September 2016

For a quarter century, the Tamils of Sri Lanka have been displaced, massacred and bombed. Now, a section is cornered in the Vanni.
Illustration: Zachary Miller

Illustration: Zachary Miller

The capture of Kilinochchi in late December and the Mullaitivu ‘command hub’ in late January by government forces marks another milestone in the unending saga of Tamil refugees. From mid-2007, the bulk of the LTTE was confined to the Vanni, fighting in the last block of land under its control. By now, this war running 30 years, during which the social fabric of the engaged societies has been shredded, has been shown to be futile. The war had nothing to do with honour or the good of the people.

The Colombo government has been conducting the campaign under a blanket of severe censorship, enforced less by regulation than by physical attacks on journalists, in an attempt to hide the figures of troops dead and maimed. But had the government just put forward a political settlement and assured security for Tamils – both those living under its control and those escaping from the LTTE – the rebels’ defeat could have been secured politically, rather than through an excess of blood and repression. In the absence of a political vision to win over the minorities and unite the country, the ‘war on terror’ has become a licence for state terror against them, and for long-term impunity in general. Already, since early 2006, over 1500 Tamil civilians have been killed by hit squads operating under state intelligence services. Several of these victims had children in the LTTE or gave the rebels food in order to help a young person risking his or her life.

From the time the LTTE forced a large section of civilians living in Jaffna into the Vanni in 1995, it placed severe restrictions on their leaving the area, introducing an elaborate pass system and forcing military training on both schoolchildren and adults. From 2006, it ruled that every family must send at least one fighter to the LTTE forces, a diktat it began to enforce by raiding homes and abducting minors as they reached their 17th birthday. If the victim had already been sent into hiding, they took a proxy. As things became desperate in 2008, the required number of inductees per family was increased depending on its size – two from a family with four children, while one with an only child was officially exempt. Mostly young, unwilling, barely trained conscripts were being sent into the battlefield. Yet no political means of rescuing these conscripts was ever contemplated by Colombo officialdom.

Even as it pulled back, the LTTE’s main hope was to inflict maximum casualties and wear down the government’s ability to protract the war. Casualties in recent months have indeed been high. Many of the soldiers being killed are poor, unemployed victims of a mismanaged economy and a massively self-perpetuating defence budget; they had not been told that, after training, they would be sent into a veritable mincing machine. Perhaps inevitably, desertion levels grew significantly. Meanwhile, the LTTE is holding civilians under worsening conditions, their movement restricted and subjected to regular bombing and shelling. Rather than move to government-controlled areas, most of them earlier preferred to either flee to India or remain in the LTTE areas. Of course, the situation in India is little better. Over the years, many refugees have engaged in perilous sea crossings, only to return out of desperation, get beaten again, lose their family members and property, and dissolutely re-make the journey to India. After several such experiences, these individuals inevitably become desperately poor and bereft of will.

In northern Sri Lanka, by the end of January, up to 35 civilians were dying in government bombing and shelling every day. Mullaitivu District Government Agent Emelda Sukumar, out of sheer desperation perhaps, told Reuters, “When people occupy particular places, the LTTE sends shells from that area, and then the army also targets the same area.” That dual callousness too is a long-running, unspeakable aspect of the Tamil saga.

The beginning

Events moved quickly from then on. The LTTE massacred about 73 Sinhalese civilians in South Mullaitivu, most of them convicts settled in Manal Aru. The government responded by massacring scores of Tamils in the surrounding area. During February 1985, Tamil peasant families who entered the area to harvest their fields were fired upon by Air Force helicopters, killing over a hundred, including women and children. Since then, Manal Aru has remained part of the militarised High Security Zone in which Sinhalese settlements were established, leading to the permanent displacement of at least 2500 Tamil families. In May 1985, following a series of killings by government forces, LTTE cadres entered the heavily militarised sacred city of Anuradhapura, and massacred 120 Sinhalese pilgrims. The government responded with a series of massacres of Tamils, killing 2200 in 1985 alone. These attacks led to two main developments: first, the rise of the Tigers; and second, the burgeoning phenomenon of Tamil refugees.

The LTTE’s ruthless military image appealed to a section of Tamil nationalist sentiment, which saw in it the answer to Sinhalese nationalist violence. Other Tamil militants with Marxist ideas – who wanted to work with like-minded Sinhalese and create a socialist Lanka free of ethno-chauvinism – were weakened by the extreme violence of the times. The LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, consolidated his totalitarian control of the organisation, targeting effective leaders in rival groups and, during late 1986, militarily decimating his rivals to become the ‘sole representative’ of the Tamil people. Thereafter, there were few dissident voices among the Tamils, mainly out of fear. Some students who instinctively reacted against totalitarianism did at first resist the LTTE, but were soon silenced.

Indian hand

The displacement of Tamils from large parts of the east continued through deliberate military action. In the north, too, military reprisals, especially in the coastal areas, led to about 200,000 refugees fleeing to Tamil Nadu by 1987. The eviction of civilians also saw an increasing military presence, the creation of refugee camps and the further displacement of civilians. This may not have led to permanent damage had there been a negotiated settlement enabling refugees to return to their homes. But here, too, the LTTE had become a prisoner of the very violence that led to its sensational rise.

The reality was that once the LTTE had violently eliminated other militant groups, it had also phenomenally weakened the Tamil armed struggle. It was pitted against a state with large population reserves and relatively huge resources. Although the LTTE tried to make up numbers by recruiting children and women, and developing a unit of suicide cadres with which to leverage its human resources, it was not in a position to halt any determined military advance. This meant that Tamil communities were unendingly bombed from the air, shelled, massacred and displaced, with no end to the ordeal in sight.

A chance for peace came when India intervened in 1987, enforcing a ceasefire through the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and pushing through a political settlement under the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord in 1987. Although the LTTE agreed to this deal, the result exposed the futility of its brand of politics and its grandiose claims. To the Tamil people, India became the benefactor, while the rebels came to represent a cruel embarrassment. The LTTE resorted to war in an attempt to show India in a bad light, proceeding even to fire at the Indian Army from civilian concentrations and refugee camps.

As the Indian Army advanced into Jaffna in October 1987, two instances in particular stand out. One was when the LTTE fired with small arms at the tanks leading the Indian column from the top floor of Kokuvil Hindu College, which at the time was a refugee camp. One of these tanks subsequently swung its turret and fired into a ground-floor classroom, killing over 30 refugees. The other notable memory from that time was when the rebels directed small-arms fire at the advancing Indian Army column from a Jaffna Hospital balcony; although the LTTE cadres managed to escape, 70 patients and staff were killed when Indian soldiers moved into the hospital. Such strategies became a regular feature of the LTTE’s attempt to score political capital in addition to adding to its ranks recruits from disgruntled civilians.

The Indian Army had made excursions into Prabhakaran’s jungle hideouts, but had refrained from going in for the kill. It made more sense to Indian policymakers to negotiate a deal with a weakened LTTE, arriving at some type of political arrangement. Even though in its military actions the Indian Army was guilty of a number of rights violations and reprisal violence, mandarins in New Delhi never lost sight of the political component to the fighting. The North-East Provincial Council was set up, and the Indian Army wanted to ensure that normal economic activities were able to continue. Even as hostilities went forward, there was no debilitating red tape nor indefinite delays obstructing the free movement of people or goods. Any displacement that took place during the IPKF period was only temporary – a sharp contrast to what happened under the Sri Lankan military, especially from 2006.

To some extent, India’s role secured the political rights, economic vitality and habitat of the people of the northeast. This, of course, would have spelled the LTTE’s doom, at least if the Indian Army had managed to bring adequate discipline into its responses to provocations. It was for this reason that the LTTE cut the opportunistic deal with the government of Ranasinghe Premadasa: to get the Indian Army out. The LTTE, which required a total vacuum in the northeast, wanted President Premadasa to dissolve the North-East Provincial Council, to which he gladly agreed. The last Indian Army troops left in March 1990; within 70 days, the LTTE had returned to war. Indeed, this was not even a declared pullout from the peace deal with Colombo, but rather a calculated provocation, with the LTTE simply surrounding police stations in the east. Still labouring under the belief that this ‘quarrel’ could be peacefully resolved, the government instructed the policemen to surrender. The rebels subsequently took hundreds of disarmed Sinhalese and Muslim policemen into the jungle, massacred them and pulled out, leaving the Tamil civilians at the mercy of incensed troops and rampaging government-supported Muslim hoodlums.

The result of this evolution was a swelling of the LTTE’s ranks accompanied by the estrangement between the Tamil and Muslim communities in the east. The LTTE followed up with unprovoked massacres in two prominent Muslim villages near Batticaloa that had attempted to keep out of the violence. In turn, this resulted in a whole new and massive refugee problem, ending the relative respite the people had experienced under the Indian Army. The LTTE had no intention of holding the east or protecting its civilians.

Keeping the Vanni

Once again, refugees from North Trincomalee, who had been resettled when the Indian Army had been present, fled by boat to Mullaitivu in the north or directly to Nagapattinam in India. Then, the LTTE, for the first time raising its own conventional army for offensive operations, attempted to drive the Sri Lanka Army out of the north. This was a desperate gamble. That it succeeded to the extent that it did is surprising, given that the LTTE would ultimately be no match for Colombo. After holding it became untenable, the army eventually withdrew from Jaffna Fort. By the end of 1990, the army was forced to vacate virtually the whole of the Vanni, including Kilinochchi and Mankulam. These were to be the scenes for the battles that took place in 2007 through 2009.

The LTTE’s efforts to drive the army out of Elephant Pass in July 1991 failed. The dead included over 500 young children, often 14 and above, thrown into the fray in desperation, at a time when the offensive began to falter. Its attempt to drive the army out of Pooneryn, in 1993, likewise succeeded only partially, leaving nearly 400 dead. All of this meant a huge cost being placed on the civilian population through bombing, shelling and displacement. As society and economic life disintegrated, young recruits, particularly children, were killed in large numbers. Another segment, which used the war prolonged by the incompatibility of LTTE politics and peace, to obtain refugee status in the West, underwent a change of psychology to materially support the LTTE’s brand of extremism to the detriment and agony of those in their former homeland.

This period also saw the deliberate displacement of Muslims from the north. Being a totalitarian movement with an ideology – and one that gave its leader quasi-divine status, enjoying the right to the indiscriminate use of humans around him – the LTTE could not get the Muslims, even formally, under its ideological umbrella. This community constituted an indispensable part of the northern society and economy, but maintained a social cohesion and aloofness from the LTTE. Several articulate Christian clergy, on the other hand, long being made comfortable with Tamil nationalism, made opportunistic compromises with the Tigers, which for its part also found their connections with the West useful. In October 1990, the LTTE drove out 80,000 Muslims from the north with just two hours’ notice, carrying only the clothes on their back. To this day, most of these forsaken people remain in refugee camps around Puttalam (see Himal January 2008, “The right of return to Jaffna”).

In 1991, the army in Jaffna was confined to a small area around Palaly, which was militarily untenable. General Denzil Kobbekaduwa set in motion a plan to retake Jaffna and, as a first step, he extended the area of control around Palaly. This caused a fresh round of displacement from some of the best agricultural land in Jaffna, which has since remained part of the High Security Zone. By 1994, the war had entered a stalemate. The following year, however, the LTTE began another round of war, after aborting seven months of peace talks with the new government of Chandrika Kumaratunga. The rebels also had a new military strategy in place, after having stocked up on anti-aircraft weaponry. The government forces in the Jaffna Peninsula suddenly found themselves under siege, after two military transport planes were brought down and with the Sea Tigers threatening the supply by sea.

Colombo was thus forced either to take the whole of Jaffna or lose the north altogether. Once again, the LTTE had underestimated the government’s military capacity. The government’s first attempt in July 1995 was aborted after heavy displacement and about 300 civilians killed by missiles. Faced with losing Jaffna, exactly five years after it had forced out the Muslim population, on 30 October 1995, the LTTE forced most of Jaffna’s civilian population to move into the Vanni. Recruiting from the displaced population once again, it was able to maintain the Vanni as its main base – at least until government forces began retaking this territory in recent months.

Ideology and extremism

Before coming to the most recent developments, we should pause to explore the links between ideology, displacement, and political and military strategy. First is the Sinhalese nationalist extremist viewpoint that the island belongs to the Sinhalese, and is sacred to Buddhism. Any assertion of the northeast as the homeland of the Tamils had to be confronted by ‘Sinhalising’ the region – ie, by planting Sinhalese settlements. As it happened, this was accomplished by violent means and displacement. A direct result of this strategy was to facilitate the LTTE’s brand of extremism in order to take control of the Tamil liberation struggle.

Second, there is the Tamil nationalist extremism. Although having violently marginalised the opposition among the Tamils, the LTTE was no match for the resources of the Sri Lankan state. The rebel force raised the stakes by making Prabhakaran into a demigod, and using its monopoly over propaganda to recruit children and women. Yet its inability to deliver despite several rounds of ‘final war’ left it politically vulnerable, and unable to survive in a quasi-democratic environment. It had to continue ratcheting up the rhetoric, emphasising that a separate state was the only viable settlement. This meant that negotiations were purely tactical and insincere, leading to the organisation launching an indefinite series of ‘final wars’ whose only results were displacement, refugees, loss of habitable territory and loss of population, the latter to both death and emigration. The diaspora that resulted from this loss of population also served as the potent mafia arm of the LTTE, able to maintain a phenomenal supply of weapons, thus bringing greater misery to those at home.

An important factor has been the persistent absence of mature political leadership in the Sinhalese south. The LTTE’s malicious provocations of the Sinhalese are undoubtedly calculated to weaken the enlightened sections among them. Even though the war continued, Colombo governments until the Rajapakse presidency did not formally tamper with the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces under the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord. While formally committed to a political settlement, all governments from 1990 kept the North-East Provincial Council dissolved, which was a disturbing sign that powerful sections in the south continued to harbour the Sinhalisation agenda.

With Chandrika Kumaratunga becoming president in 1994, many among the Sinhalese intelligentsia took the view that a federal settlement was the only way forward, with or without the LTTE’s cooperation. The key aim here was winning over the Tamils and defusing the appeal of its extremism. The long-delayed attempt in 2000 to get a settlement through Parliament ultimately failed, however, due to the opportunism of a section of the Colombo elite supporting the United National Party (UNP) opposition and, of course, the Sinhalese extremist parties. The LTTE also assassinated and intimidated Tamil parliamentarians who supported the settlement.

In 2002, the new UNP government signed a ceasefire agreement with Norwegian facilitation, the main inspiration of which was the appeasement of the LTTE. This was supported overwhelmingly by local and foreign peace activists. Predictably, the LTTE used the ceasefire period to build up its military capacity for another round of war. By 2005, the Sinhalese extremists mobilised against the tattered peace agreement, and the peace community was thoroughly discredited. By enforcing a Tamil boycott of the 2005 presidential election, the LTTE played a crucial role in electing, by a whisker, Mahinda Rajapakse, who was backed by Sinhalese extremist groupings. Once more, the LTTE banked on provoking a war in which the president, backed by extremists, would be seen in a bad light. This, the thinking went, would give the rebels a political edge if they could score a few sensational military gains.

Scorched earth

Again, the LTTE miscalculated against a potentially much stronger enemy. Further to the LTTE’s misfortune, the West largely blamed it for the failure of the Norwegian-brokered peace process, and several countries, including the EU, banned the LTTE in early 2006. The LTTE’s attempt to smuggle in anti-aircraft missiles was intercepted by a US government sting operation. These two events were ultimately crucial in determining the LTTE’s military fate. There was now little chance of the LTTE holding onto the areas it controlled in the east, especially after its eastern chief Colonel ‘Karuna’ split off from Prabhakaran with many cadres to eventually form a paramilitary outfit under the government’s direction. Nonetheless, Prabhakaran’s best chance lay in overrunning the Jaffna Peninsula, where 44,000 troops were stationed, and forcing a government with an extremist image into negotiations. This is exactly what he tried, and failed, to do in August 2006. There went the LTTE’s last chance.

By this time, the Sinhalese extremists backing President Rajapakse could smell the blood in the water. Just as the LTTE believed that its strategy of negotiations and war would finally push things in its favour, the Sinhalese extremists figured that, given the LTTE’s military limitations (particularly following the Karuna split), opposing any political settlement and pushing for a military solution would ultimately work in their favour. The LTTE’s provocations and abuse of negotiations helped their cause. Their agenda was Sinhalese hegemony over the minorities, which included their displacement and Sinhalese settlement.

In 2006, President Rajapakse found it expedient to claim that he stood for a political settlement, and thereupon set up the All Party Representatives Committee (APRC) to work out one. Although India had been disengaged since the withdrawal of the IPKF in 1990, New Delhi insisted on a political settlement. But in 2006, Colombo began to dismantle the consensus reached under the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord, and moved the Supreme Court to annul the northeast merger, which in principle recognised a Tamil-majority region. Indian policy lacked the focus and vision to counter the government’s wiles in these actions and appears to have been caught napping. Two years later, in January 2008, after deliberate delay, President Rajapakse was to go back on his solemn pledges and instead impose his own draft proposals on the APRC chairman. These proposals were a feeble reflection of what was envisaged under the Indo-Lanka Accord, with no pretence at addressing the political aspirations of the minorities. New Delhi announced that the sham proposals were a “welcome first step”, suggesting that it was giving the Colombo government free run in combating the LTTE, without doing anything meaningful to secure the rights and security of the Tamils.

From 2006, the government began to do what would have been unthinkable after 1987. Intense shelling and deliberate displacement of Tamil populations became integral to its military strategy. Starting in August 2006, it drove the Tamils out of Mutur East and Vaharai through intense bombing and shelling, during which 300 civilians were killed. It then declared Sampoor, a culturally important Tamil area, as the location for a thermal power station to be constructed by India. Even while survivors were in refugee camps, the government began to destroy houses and build roads – direct echoes of the mid-1980s plans to establish Sinhalese settlements, which had been shelved after the Indo-Lanka Accord.

During previous rounds of war, precedents had been set in which the army took areas without displacing the civilians, such as by asking civilians by radio to move temporarily into schools and places of worship until the troops arrived. But a distinctly new strategy was clearly at play when the army cleared Mutur, Mutur East and Vaharai, where the military forced civilians to run for their lives under fire. In the Muslim-majority town of Mutur, 50 civilians were killed when indiscriminately fired government shells struck mosques, churches and schools, where civilians had taken shelter after the LTTE occupied the town. Thereafter, Tamil civilians, including elderly and children, fled south on foot. Wherever they stopped they were bombed and shelled. In Kathiraveli, with no LTTE provocation, the army shelled a school with refugees, killing over 40. Once the civilians reached Vaharai, the LTTE prevented them from moving further south. In December 2006, the army rained shells into Vaharai, and by the middle of that month about 10,000 civilians had placed themselves in and around Vaharai Hospital, as their last hope, until a shell struck the Hospital.

Civilians began fleeing, in defiance of the LTTE. At this stage, the LTTE fired at army lines from among the civilians, goading the army into firing back and preventing the civilians from fleeing. A number of witnesses assert that people died due to firing by both sides, and that the LTTE fired at people whose desperation had finally exceeded their fear of the Tigers. Quite a few drowned trying to ford the Vaharai lagoon, or when overloaded boats capsized during attempts to flee by sea. This scorched-earth policy towards Tamil civilians was later to be repeated in the Vanni.

Government control

It was pointed out earlier that Tamil civilians in the east were deliberately displaced and then confined to refugee camps far from their homes. Their resettlement was very slow. In Sampoor and the surrounding environs, the land was converted into the High Security Zone from which civilians are still barred. When troops were withdrawn from their area in 1996, these civilians had no choice but to live under LTTE control. Inevitably, they have children and relatives who had served in the LTTE, mainly under duress. Once displaced and confined to refugee camps, their movements were not restricted; however, several of them were followed by government death squads and either shot on the streets or abducted from their camps. These people are often very poor, and only the few who had relatives elsewhere willing to accommodate them were able to move out and find relative security.

In the Vanni, those who fled the LTTE were confined to detention centres, officially misnamed as ‘welfare centres’. One aspect confirming the prison status of these camps is the fact that families are not allowed to seek shelter with host families, hitherto a common arrangement for the displaced in Sri Lanka. People who had made arrangements to go abroad before they were displaced – such as young women whose fiancés were waiting for them – were also not allowed to leave. (After some delay, however, university students have been allowed out.) Such a situation is completely unprecedented. People of all ages are treated as detainees, yet of course there are no criminal charges. The people of the Vanni are now divided into three main groups: those who have escaped to India; those confined to camps south of Vanni by the government and kept in isolation; and the estimated 250,000 within the shrinking LTTE-controlled area, living without proper care and shelter, and regularly subjected to army bombing and shelling. Recently some have also begun escaping north to the Jaffna Peninsula – an open-air prison.

In Jaffna, the attitude of the government is reflected in the enormous restrictions on movement, such as the arbitrary closure of roads for several hours to allow an army convoy to pass. Long bureaucratic delays, of weeks or months, are required to gain permission to leave the peninsula and fly to Colombo. This has brought the economy to a standstill. By imposing a debilitating security regime on the Tamils, the government is virtually forcing the Tamils to go elsewhere.

In the final analysis, there were ways in which the Colombo government could have won over the Tamil population. All it would have had to do was to acknowledge that irrespective of the LTTE, this long-suffering community has political rights, and the authorities should have used the international machinery to safeguard human rights and maintain humanitarian norms. That would have resulted in minimum loss of life and damage to the economy as a whole. Guided instead by Sinhalese extremists, the Rajapakse regime took the course of inflicting maximum destruction on the northeast, breaking the spirit of the people and using media repression to hide the costs from the Sinhalese masses.

Over the past three decades, the handling of the situation in the east and north has thoroughly alienated the people of these areas. If Sri Lanka is to be put back on its track, there needs to be a political solution that offers genuine devolution. The militarisation of the administration and the arbitrary interference with the people’s right to movement must end. So must the pall of xenophobia under which international engagement has been crippled. The people of Sri Lanka need genuine democracy – not the sham democracy that has been put in place in the east, to be managed by killers of the security forces and their armed Tamil proxies masquerading as political parties.

~ Rajan Hoole is a Tamil human rights activist based in Jaffna.

The article originally published in Himal Southasian, February 2009.

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