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Home > International Conferences > International Tamil Eelam Research Conference, U.S.A., 1991 > Preliminary Announcement
International Tamil Eelam Research Conference,
Sacramento State University, U.S.A.,
21-22 July 1991
On the use of Governmental Aggression to Suppress a Minority's Quest
for Self Determination
- or One Journalist's Impressions of the Civil War in Sri Lanka
[see also Tamil Armed Resistance & the Law]
Staff Writer/Foreign Correspondent, Insight Magazine
"...One little boy was running an errand for his mother, driving a bike much too big for him. Suddenly the helicopters appeared. Schooled in the etiquette of survival, the boy sounded the alarm for his neighbourhood to let others know to clear the street. 'Heli! Heli!' he screamed, his skinny legs not knowing whether to peddle or run, tangling into the bike chain. Still he screamed to warn others -- 'Helil Heli! as he fell and dragged himself to the side of the road. Other children, just babies, have learned to crowd into the nearest bomb shelter at the sound of oncoming air planes...."
'Every people has its special Mission, which will cooperate toward the fulfilment of the general mission of humanity. That mission constitutes its nationality. Nationality is sacred.' - Act of Brotherhood of Young Europe
Last summer (1990), I spent five weeks in Sri Lanka reporting on the civil war in the North and East. I am not a scholar of Sub continental politics or history, nor am I a think tank or development agency intellectual -- my work is more a glorified form of visiting with people than anything so respectable. When in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Amritsar and the Middle East, my job description has been amended to visiting with people who are fighting for independence. In my work, I have seen horrific torture, beatings, bombings and shootings, but nothing so terrible as I witnessed in Sri Lanka last year.
It is almost impossible to describe the extreme, off-the-chart beauty that is Sri Lanka, and the equally excessive horror of institutionalised racism and brutality that exists there. It is difficult for Westerners to comprehend the long-simmering rivalries and historical enmities of that exotic tear-drop of an island. The escalation of barbaric atrocities between government forces and nationalist militant forces such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, blinds most outside observers.
As a reporter, it's difficult to get stories on Sri Lanka published. 'People are exhausted by the years of stories of atrocities a jaded foreign editor once told me. 'We just don't have anything comparable in the United States. any history of such a violent and continuing resistance that our readers can relate to.' I disagreed, citing the American Revolution against Britain. 'Oh,' said the editor. 'Yes, well, but that was a very long time ago.'
It dawned on me just recently, how very wrong the editor was. I was at a parade a few weekends ago in my hometown of San Francisco, where the marching bands and floats were held up by demonstrators from a militant group, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, or ACT UP. The protester lay down in front of the mayor's car, backing up the big brass bands, clowns and drill teams we lied been waiting for. The crowd began to complain, saying that ACT UP was rude and impolite to interrupt our fun.
In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote that 'The fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct toward the rest.'
In the July issue of The Advocate, a rational gay magazine, the founder of ACT UP, Larry Kramer characterises his organisation as 'impolite, abrasive and rude - like the disease that is calling us." Kramer quotes President George Bush at a recent press conference, where he says the president encouraged the use of 'reason in settling disputes. Crusades.. ' he said 'demand correct behaviour.'
Mr. Kramer pointed out that reason and politeness are in short supply just now for those who are living with AIDS. In the past decade, 110,530 people have died from the disease. Another 100,000 will die by the end of 1992. By the year 2000, 40 million people will be infected with HIV or AIDS. Ten million of those people will be children. In Mr. Kramer's view and in the opinions of Congress, the National Academy of Sciences and scientists who work treating AIDS patients, the government ' is not doing enough research on AIDS, and governmental bureaucracy is preventing the release of life-extending drugs. 'I am so tired of being ignored and left to die,' says Mr. Kramer. "And my president wants me to be polite."
I do not agree with all of ACT UP's disruptive activities, but I understand why they must resist - and sometimes resist violently - the policies of a government that hastens, through neglect, the death of people with AIDS. In the same vein I do not support the use of terrorism by any nationalist insurgent group. Having heard the screams of children when the bombs are dropped -- and the crash, and the silence afterward -- I am certain there is no such thing as a just war. Still, so long as there is something to be gained through the use of force, governments will go to war. And as long as militants believe there is something to be gained by resisting - creating or restoring a nation, or preserving dignity and securing the right to self-government - they will.
In Sri Lanka, the attack by the government is worse than neglect. Amnesty International projects that 30,000 people may have disappeared as a result of government death squads and non judicial executions between 1987 and 1990 -- in the South of Sri Lanka alone.
That doesn't count the more than 5,000 Sri Lankans who have died as a result of fighting in the North and East of the island since fighting began again in June 1990. This type of government aggression breeds a desperation which converts easily to violence.
Again, this is not in any way an apology for violence; neither sides atrocities can justify the others. But as Amnesty International stressed in their 1990 report on Sri Lanka, a government has a superior obligation to treat its people with humanity.
"Governments bear the responsibility of protecting their citizens from violent crime and for bringing those responsible to justice. In doing so, however, they must ensure that fundamental human rights are respected. Under International human rights law, certain fundamental rights - particularly the right to life and the right not to be subjected to torture - must be upheld by governments at all times and in all circumstances."
I will not attempt in this paper to trace back who started what in Sri Lanka. Without a doubt , there are wrongs on all sides. I knew that I must be about to enter into a very strange war when, upon my first visit to the Sri Lankan Embassy to the United States, in Washington D.C, I was given a number of pamphlets on 'Sri Lankan Tamil Eelam Narco Terrorism,' and 'The Truth About Race Relations in Sri Lanka.'
When I arrived in Sri Lanka on August 2, 1990, the Gulf War had just begun. Alongside the headlines decrying the U.N. embargo in Sri Lanka's English dailies were headlines describing the government's version of its war against the LTTE. Since the fighting had reigned in June, government troops had been trapped in the Jaffna Fort. Fabricated reports of the army's retaking the Fort ran each day, next to swaggering declaration from then Defence Minister- Ranjan Wijeratne, who boasted in his typically flowery rhetoric that he would "push the LTTE out of the jungles and into the salty waters of the Palk Strait."
I decided to visit those salty waters to see for myself the truth of this war.
After, a short trip to Polonnaruwa and Kandy on which a government tour guide took me and my photographer, we returned to Colombo to secure travel permits for Batticaloa and Anuradhapura. Although the Minister of Defence's office signed these laisse passer letters quickly and was extremely helpful, a somewhat different experience awaited us in the army-controlled North and East.
The checkpoints and arguments increased as we neared Batticaloa just outside of Chenkaladi we stumbled into an army operation in which three divisions were preparing to sweep down on the small villeges outside Batticaloa. 'Terrorists are hiding there,' the lieutenants and colonel told us. They allowed us to drive on with the warning that their attack would be just 15 minutes behind us.
The villagers we met along the way swore they hadn't seen any LTTE fighters for days, then rushed off to find their children. When we came to Erevur, we saw the army had already visited. Their plastic lunch wrappers littered several of the looted stores, although the army sentries posted along the ruined rows of shops swore that the LTTE had looted the shops.
Down the road in Kattankudi, villagers huddled into the yard of the mosque. They led us to the graves of more then 110 Muslim men, women and children who had been slaughtered. Bullet-marks covered the walls of the mosque where the faithful were mowed down when they prayed.
Some villagers said they had seen the face of a LTTE cadre among those doing the shooting, other villagers said the killers were a government death squad, and pointed out that the defence minister had, on the day of the massacre, been appealing for arms from Arab leaders. Still others spoke of dissension among LTTE leaders.
In Batticaloa, the villagers had stopped eating fish from the lagoon because of the large number of bodies found floating there.
The Catholic bishop there worried and waited for the return of Father Horbart - an American citizen and Jesuit priest who was a day late returning from a neighbouring convent. Father Herbert never returned. The last people to see him alive say he was being questioned by army personnel when they saw him.
A health care worker in Batticaloa says he has never seen such brutality: he whispered about his difficult, 12 hour drive to Colombo to transport a 15-year-old boy whose larynx was punctured. 'His larynx was damaged when two army officers cut his neck from ear-to-ear ' said the health care worker.
From Batticaloa we tried to drive to Trincomalee, but were turned back by army authorities - despite our travel passes. We drove on to Medawachchiya, where the roads were thick with refugees fleeing the fighting between militants and the army. Some would go to Colombo to stay with relatives, others would go to the West Coast, and try to get to the refugee camps in India. We decided to follow them to Rameswaram, where diplomatic sources told me more than 100,000 refugees had landed in less than three months.
We were detained overnight by the army at Vavuniya, but the officers were good enough to allow us to use the phone to complain to the U.S. Embassy. We were told to stay for the night. The officers treated us well, and one even came to our room for a drink before retiring. 'You should be careful of the shooting,' he said in reference to helicopters that patrol the main roads of the North. .'If you were to come off of the road where I've told you to drive tomorrow, we would shoot you, which would be a shame.'
In the morning we amid good-bye, confirmed the road we were to stay on, and set off. All was well until we hit a small mine. 'Oh, this road has been mined for months'' a villager would tell us later. My photographer patched up our car as best he could, and we drove on to Vankalai.
In Vankalai we could hear a distant , almost subsonic booming noise. "Oh, that's just the shelling,' said the priest, who allowed us to stay with him for the night. The priest told of the looting of villagers' houses by soldiers. 'All of my parish have left, except for the very old, because it is too dangerous to stay here." he said. He walked us to the beach in the morning, and found a group of merchants who were moving supplies to Manner Island.
On Mannar Island we were greeted by a helicopter shooting up the town square. Because of the cut-off of petrol, life has gone backwards more than a decade; there is only one bus each day to Talaimannar. We climbed on top of the bus, and locals pointed out the landmarks from where the LTTE had blown out the bridge linking Mannar to the main island, to where the IPKF had once been billeted. Finally we came to Talaimannar, the last point in the trip to the refugee camps in India. At midnight we stumbled out to the beach, along with hundreds of families seeking to make the crossing. A boat of refugees had recently been caught by the Sri Lankan Navy, and stories abounded of the fate of those caught. We boarded a boat meant for five with 20 other people and set out for Rameswaram.
Sunrise exposed a silent armada of refugees who had crossed the Palk Strait overnight. We watched the lines of families stand in line after line for food, clean clothes and a bath. The Rameswaram bazaar did a brisk business, with buses of refugees stirring the dust and scattering shoppers. In the afternoon we returned to Talaimannar, where groups of newly arrived families camped and waited for the boats to deliver them to Rameswaram.
In the morning we left for Vankalai, where the situation had become much worse. The looting had expanded right up to the doors of the church. Parishioners had piled their goods inside the parish hall. The priest was beside himself at having to leave them. "What else can I do," he asked. 'It isn't safe here.' He introduced us to an elderly man whose son had been caught crossing to Ramesweram. The father showed us where his wrists had been bound, and where he had been beaten with a plastic pipe. We drove him to his home in Vidattaitivu. His youngest son wept when he asked. 'Where is my brother?'
In the morning we left for Pooneryn. We left our car and borrowed bicycles which we drove North. The roads were pocked from helicopter fire, but several small merchants took their chances and hauled bags of rice to the North. In the evening we reached Pooneryn, where five people had just been killed by helicopter fire, and several more were injured.
On the next day we went to the political office of the LTTE and arranged to travel across the lagoon to Jaffna. There was no crossing that night, they said, because of the helicopter attacks and the full moon. Suddenly, a helicopter swooped down and began shooting in the nearby street. A shepherd came to the door with a bullet fragment in his back. I shared my medical kit. and the boys decided they would take us across the lagoon. We poled across the water in a tiny canoe weighted down with one of the helicopter's victims in a rose-scented casket.
The fighting on Kayts and in Jaffna intensified for the week that we were there. There is no way to describe the mass destruction of what was once a town, or the indomitable spirits of those who have decided to remain in their homes. Each morning we were awakened with the sound of helicopters and jets. In the Manipay Hospital the halls were flooded with the injured and dying. Doctors showed us the burned victims of barrel bombs, the shattered victims of mines. They pointed to holes in the operating theatre ceiling and floor where government planes had recently fired on the hospital. 'I don't know how much longer we can stand this," said the doctor.
The saddest of all were the children who have become accustomed to living in a war. One little boy was running an errand for his mother, driving a bike much too big for him. Suddenly the helicopters appeared. Schooled in the etiquette of survival, the boy sounded the alarm for his neighbourhood to let others know to clear the street. 'Heli! Heli!' he screamed, his skinny legs not knowing whether to peddle or run, tangling into the bike chain. Still he screamed to warn others -- 'Helil Heli! as he fell and dragged himself to the side of the road. Other children, just babies, have learned to crowd into the nearest bomb shelter at the sound of oncoming air planes. It is a heart-stopping feeling when you see the nose of a fighter plane declining toward your neighbourhood, your kovil, your home.
My photographer and I returned to Colombo after seeing the wreckage of Jaffna. In Colombo, the some flowery threats filled the newspapers, only this time the Defence Minister spoke of 'strategic targets' being hit by the army, and residential areas being avoided by bombers. Even though the Jaffna Fort has been relieved and the Jaffna Hospital reopened by the Red Cross, the rubble that is Jaffna is being ground to fine pebbles. Letters I receive from the friends I made in Sri Lanka tell me that the fighting is just as bad this summer in Jaffna.
The continued fighting defies reason. Continued attacks on civilian residential areas is both a violation of internationally accepted human rights, and poor military strategy for a country that claims to be serious in its pursuit of unity and peace. Wasn't it the military philosopher Sun Tzu who cautioned, 'The worst Policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative.' Those who are truly interested in dialogue and in the preservation of that heart breakingly beautiful island should remember what Sun Tzu told his students': 'For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.'