Tamil Perspectives on Post-war Sri Lanka, the LTTE and the Future

by Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe
FDI Associate

(November 12, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) After nearly two decades of suppression of dissident Tamil parties by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the re-emergence of plurality in Tamil politics since the May 2009 defeat of the LTTE has altered the political landscape for Sri Lankan Tamils. In a series of exclusive interviews conducted in Sri Lanka in June 2010, FDI Associate Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe speaks with Mr Thirunavukkarasu Sridharan, leader of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front, Padmanaba faction (EPRLF-Naba) and Mr Dharmalingam Siddharthan, leader of the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and, by correspondence in October 2010, with Dr Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, Principal Researcher at the Point Pedro Institute of Development, about the general situation facing Sri Lankan Tamils after the civil war, the implications of the LTTE’s demise and Tamil aspirations for the future.

FDI: Following its defeat in May 2009, what is the general sentiment of the civilian population towards the LTTE or, for that matter, the Government of Sri Lanka?

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan: There is deep resentment towards the LTTE among a significant share of the population, due to their callous disregard for human life, recruitment of children and the immense misery that befell the general population during the final stages of the war.

There is a lot of antipathy towards the LTTE, which will last for a long time. The LTTE forced civilians to flee along with them – as human shields – right up to the beaches of northern Mullaitivu. Once the civilians vacated their homes, the LTTE cadres looted the household goods and building materials such as asbestos sheets, roof tiles, window and door frames. Civilians, particularly women, were forced to part with the jewellery they were wearing. General Sarath Fonseka revealed in Parliament recently that, during his tenure in 2009, about 200 kilograms of gold belonging to the LTTE was unearthed in the Vanni region after he retired from service, although he does not know what has happened to it since.

The young and old were randomly conscripted to work for the LTTE: either to fight or do subsidiary duties such as manning sentry points or carrying arms, ammunition and cargo. For the first time, the LTTE deployed male and female cadres together in the same bunker and that resulted in underage pregnancies. There are numerous underage single mothers in the North as a result.

Unfortunately, the Rajapakse Government has failed to capitalise on the resentment of Tamil civilians towards the LTTE. The priority of the Rajapakses1 was the consolidation of political power, rather than winning the broken hearts and minds of northern Tamils. The Rajapakses were more interested in pandering to the parochial euphoria of the majority community – playing to the gallery – rather than bonding a fractured nation.

The bitterness towards the LTTE has not, therefore, translated into goodwill towards the Government, partly due to pampering of the likes of Douglas Devananda2 and the remnants of the LTTE hierarchy, such as Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (alias Karuna Amman), Kumaran Pathmanathan (alias KP), Velautham Thayanithi (alias Thaya Master), and others, by the Government.

While the bulk of the returning internally displaced persons (IDPs) live in squalor and some are expected to be given 500,000 rupees ($4,512.00) at the most under the World Bank’s North-East Housing Reconstruction Project (NEHRP) or the Indian Government’s 50,000 Houses project, those who were complicit in crimes against humanity, such as the recruitment of child soldiers, forcible displacement of civilians, the conscription and killing of civilians attempting to flee the clutches of the LTTE, are pampered and living in relative luxury. “What justice is this?” is the thought lingering in the minds of the population.

Thirunavukkarasu Sridharan: The LTTE is a fascist organisation which dismantled Tamil society, which hates Sinhalese and Muslim people and even hates other Tamil parties that hold a different view. Now, most Tamils realise that confrontational politics is not good. The Tamil people, particularly in the Vanni [in northern Sri Lanka] utterly hate the LTTE, as do Jaffna people. Generally, this is what the people are thinking. I do not think the LTTE can revive; I doubt even in 15 years from now that there will be any form of Tamil militant movement. There might be political violence, but I doubt there will be militancy. The extremists are a small minority. In Sri Lanka now, only about 15 per cent of Tamils would support the LTTE. The Vanni people, in particular, are very angry and wary of the LTTE, as they were exposed to their brutality at the end of the war. I was told by a number of Tamil civilians who escaped from the LTTE in the final months of the war, that the LTTE were forcibly recruiting and shooting Tamil civilians.

When civilians were put into IDP camps more than 8000-10,000 people escaped and a number of LTTE fighters, about 500 hardcore members, also ran away. The pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora reported about these camps in a very exaggerated way. We know this because we visited the camps much earlier. Some people in the Tamil diaspora said that the IDP camps were like concentration camps; this was an exaggeration of the conditions. The pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora have a different psychology from the Tamils in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, our eople are more worried about their children’s education, housing and employment. But the pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora thinks about separatism and militancy – while their children are being educated.

Dharmalingam Siddharthan: At the beginning many Tamil civilians were unsure whether to complain about the LTTE, because LTTE top rankers were co-opted by the army. The Tamil civilians are very angry with these people because the men who forcibly conscripted their children are free, but many of the children are still in detention; because of this they are very angry with the Government. These LTTE people put them [child soldiers] in the frontline, and a large number of them were killed as a result, so that makes them very angry. Whoever goes there asks, “Can’t we get our child out?” That is their main demand. That is why they did not want to complain to the army because they know that those people are now close to the army, so they might get into trouble. The LTTE cadres who are working with the Army might purposefully identify the people who were opposed to them previously. There was one girl who was forcibly recruited by the LTTE and, when released, took refuge at someone’s house. She didn’t go to her own village because the man who recruited her is working with the army and is going around and identifying child soldiers; because of the fear she has for him, she is now in hiding.

Recently in Vavuniya district, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) [the largest Tamil political alliance in Sri Lanka, which has pro-LTTE affiliations] won the Parliamentary election by only 4000 votes. Even in Jaffna North, the Government lost only by 20,000 votes. So a large number of Tamils voted for the Government. If the Government committed serious war crimes, as some suggest, many Tamils would not have voted for it.

When [President] Mahinda Rajapakse speaks the Tamil language some people criticise him. I say, ‘No. At least that man had the courage to learn. We must appreciate that. He is not very good at speaking Tamil, but at least he tries.’ We realise that is at least a good gesture.

FDI: There have been reports that thousands of Tamil-speaking police officers have joined the Police in the Northern and Eastern Provinces To what extent do Tamils in Sri Lanka have confidence in the restitution of law and order and good governance in Sri Lanka after the civil war?

MS: According to my knowledge, 500-600 Tamil-speaking police officers have been recruited from the Jaffna peninsula this year and are currently undergoing training in Kalutara Police Training College, which is commendable. In the Eastern Province this has been going on for a while, but I do not know the number.

This does not mean that the law and order situation or governance in general has improved in the North or beyond. Deteriorating law and order and poor governance have been hallmarks of the Rajapakse Government in the past five years throughout the country, which continues even after the end of the war. For example, a journalist went missing in Homagama (a suburb of Colombo) a few days before the Presidential election and remains “disappeared”. One Batticaloa Municipal Council member belonging to the Thamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) political party (a constituent of the ruling alliance), is reported as missing since late-August 2010. In spite of the public appeal by the Chief Minister of the

Eastern Province for his release, the police have not been able to trace this person. A couple of months ago, two young married ladies – resettled IDPs – were gang-raped by uniformed army personnel in Visvamadu (in Mullaitivu district). Though the local police have apprehended the culprits and produced them in court, the military police have been trying their best to get the suspects released on bail. A high-profile Deputy Minister tied a public official to a tree for coming late to a meeting in Kelaniya in August 2010, but no legal action has been taken against the Deputy Minister.

These examples are hardly reassuring to the people (in the North and beyond), as regards the restoration of law and order or good governance in the aftermath of the civil war.

TS: The police have already started recruiting Tamils now. I heard 600 were recruited from Jaffna. That is good. Even if Tamil-speaking policemen are Sinhalese, there is no problem, as long as they understand the Tamil language. In the North and the East, however, the balance of Tamil representation in the police should be 50-60 per cent; the other remaining 40-50 per cent should be Sinhalese and Muslim.

DS: It is important that Tamils are recruited into the police, and later the army. Before May 2009, nobody would have joined. Only a few Tamils joined the police before May 2009 out of fear of assassination by the LTTE. If there are 40 policemen in a police station, and there are at least 20 Tamils and 20 Sinhalese, that way we can manage. If a Tamil policeman hits me, everyone will see it as a Tamil versus Tamil. In the past, the whole thing started partly because of the police excesses.

FDI: Describe the relationship between the military and the Tamil civilian population in the North. What are the negative and positive attributes of this relationship? What has the military done to alleviate the plight of the Tamil civilian population since the end of the war?

MS: The relationship between the civilian population and the armed forces (including the police), in the North has improved tremendously since June 2009, because security check-points have been drastically reduced and high security zones cut back. Having said that, very young armed forces personnel on the streets of the North and East still pose a real and perceived threat to young women; the scale of sexual violence against women has been reduced, but still remains.

The negative effect of scaled-down security check-points is the increased criminal activities of pro-government militias and common criminals. In fact, the pro-government militias are undoing the goodwill built-up between the armed forces personnel and the civilians. Disarmament and disbanding of the pro-government militias is sine qua non for winning the hearts and minds of the civilian population in the North and East.

The Army is actively involved in clearing landmines and building homes for the displaced population both in Jaffna and the Vanni. In the business world, it is said that it could take a long time to win a customer, but it would take just a second to lose a customer. In the same way, the Army may do one hundred good things for the welfare of civilians, but one horrific incident like the rape of the women in Visvamadu has the potential to obliterate the entire goodwill built up over the months/years with the civilian population. The business principle above should be inculcated into the hearts and minds of the armed forces personnel. I do not, however, foresee demilitarisation to any significant extent while the Rajapakses are in power. Militarisation is indispensable for the perpetuation of the Rajapakse “dynasty”.3

TS: The presence of large numbers of troops in the north and east is intimidating and needs to be reduced. As for the emergency laws, after decades some crucial laws have been lifted. The A9 road has only the Omanthai checkpoint, which is not checked heavily, but randomly, and in a polite and professional way. Civilians can now travel throughout the Vanni region, with some exceptions where restrictions apply and permission is required from the Army. There are no problems between the Army and the civilian population, definitely not. The Army has been very polite and is also helping to build homes. In the future, we think the Sri Lanka Army must be organised as a multi-ethnic army consisting of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim youth – that way we’ll establish a united Sri Lanka.

DS: In the North, there is very good communication between the public and the Army. If there’s any problem, the people don’t hesitate to tell the Army, and the Army tries their best to do it. I’ve never come across any serious complaint about the Army. In certain areas, the Army sends groups of soldiers who rebuild houses for the civilians. That is quite a good thing they are doing. In line with this, another reason Tamil people voted for the Government at the presidential elections in January this year is because some of them felt that at least the Government has helped them to recover.

FDI: How would you describe the conditions and treatment of the Tamil civilians who were placed in IDP camps at the end of the civil war? What were the problems and how were they alleviated over the last 12 months? How many are currently remaining in IDP camps?

MS: The conditions and treatment of Tamil civilians in the IDP camps were pathetic. Sri Lankan public services or the non-governmental organisations were, or are, not capable of handling such a large number of IDPs at any one place. Although I would blame the LTTE for instigating such a huge internal displacement, my view is that the Government need not have brought them all to Vavuniya or Mannar districts. The Government could have allowed the IDPs from Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar and Vavuniya to go to their places of origin within a month after the end of the civil war. The problem of landmines has been overplayed to my knowledge and had been used as an excuse to delay the release of civilians from welfare camps.

While innocent civilians languished in squalor in welfare camps, many people with money and/or influence (including LTTE personnel), got out of the camps and fled abroad – to India, for instance. I know of at least two Cabinet Ministers and many Armed Forces personnel involved in making big money out of the misery of the IDPs. Overcrowding and lack of bathroom and toilet facilities were longstanding problems in the camps. Food supply was also inadequate at times.

1 Mahinda Rajapakse, President of Sri Lanka; Gotabaya Rajapakse, Defence Secretary; Basil Rajapakse, Minister of Economic Development and Chamal Rajapakse, Speaker of the Sri Lankan Parliament.

2 Douglas Devananda is the leader of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) and is Minister for Traditional Industries and Small Enterprises in the current government of President Mahinda Rajapakse.

3 In current terms, referring to the Rajapakse brothers and Namal Rajapakse, Member of Parliament for Hambantota District and son of Mahinda Rajapakse, and Shashindra Rajapakse, Chief Minister of Uva Province and son of Chamal Rajapakse.
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