Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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The Plight of the Vanni People

by Visvanathan, June 7, 2009

To say that the civilians were forced by the LTTE to stay as human shield is a deliberate distortion of the truth. These people cannot any more identify themselves with Sri Lanka. Claims that these people had to be saved from the LTTE is a gross misrepresentation of the truth. The main aim of the Sri Lankan politicians in using heavy weapons against these civilians in the ‘safe zone’ was to decimate as many of the LTTE sympathisers as possible.

Colombo propaganda has it that Prabhakaran held the very people who trusted and had faith in him as human shields against the advancing Sinhalese armed forces. The so-called International Community, composed of the US, EU and Japan, plus India swallowed this argument lock, stock and barrel and were demanding that the LTTE release these unfortunate victims and allow the Sri Lankan army to perform a‘humanitarian rescue’, but the Tigers refused to release them, so the argument goes.

First of all, let us examine who these civilians, often referred to as the Vanni people, are. They were the ones who were harassed by the Sinhalese armed forces and paramilitary groups in government-controlled areas. They were accused of being LTTE sympathizers and they lived in fear for their lives. The only way they could keep their body and soul together was to run into safer areas.

These people lived under the LTTE de jure administration in the Vanni district for two decades. They chose to live and work in Vanni in LTTE-controlled areas and by so doing showed allegiance to that de jure administration that had its own legal system. They were all employed. The children went to school. The hospitals served the needs of the people. They led peaceful lives, except for the intermittent bombing and shelling. Still they preferred to live or die with dignity.

Arming himself to the teeth, President Rajapakse decided in 2008 to finish off the Tamils once and for all. When the Sri Lankan army advanced deep into LTTE territory, these unfortunate civilians had two choices; either they moved into government-controlled areas or remain behind. Those who could join their relatives in government-controlled areas without much danger moved out. Others decided to stay put. Then came the question of security. In the absence of the LTTE who was to look after them? The Sri Lankan armed forces held no credibility for them. They expected the International NGOs, and UN organisations to take care of them. Their fate was sealed when President Rajapakse ordered not only the international media, but also the NGOs and UN out of the war zones, so that he could conduct a war without witnesses. Surprisingly, these organisations meekly agreed, as if ordered by their head office. The civilians surrounded these officers and begged them not to abandon them. When this failed, what choice had they other than to retreat with the Tigers, especially when they were hearing gory stories of rape, murder and torture in the internment camps in the government-controlled areas?

Prabhakaran was in a fix. Leaving these people behind was tantamount to passing a death sentence on them. Taking them along not only restricted his manoeuvrability, but also exposed them to shelling and bombing. In addition, the LTTE had the problem of feeding them. However, he was confident he could halt the army advance and the international humanitarian organisations would rescue these people.

Whenever he halted the army advance, the military’s response was the liberal use of cluster bombs and banned white phosphorus and chemical bombs. Hundreds of cadres and civilians dropped dead on the spot. As the days went by, the plight of civilians became dire. They had no other choice, but to run into the so-called, government-created ‘no fire zone.’ They were bombed and shelled while they were on their way to the ‘no fire zone’ and in it also.

Quite a number of the people who ran to the ‘no fire zone’ were injured and were in urgent need of medical treatment. Three heroic doctors, Thangamuttu Sathiyamoorthy, Thurairajah Varatharajah and V Shanmugarajah rendered yeomen service in a make-shift hospital in this zone with limited supplies. Tirelessly, at great risk to their lives, they not only did their utmost to save lives, but also kept the outside world informed on the carnage taking place in the ‘safe zone’. They served the people right up to the end, until the army performed their great ‘humanitarian rescue’ and sent them all to the ‘welfare villages’, which are nothing else but pathetic internment camps, as you will read below.

When the situation became very precarious, Prabhakaran came to the conclusion that continuation of the resistance would incur heavy loss of civilian lives. He had to find a solution for the civilians. Leaving them in the lurch and saving the LTTE's own lives by disappearing in the jungle would be the worst form of treachery against his people –worse than what the Indians did by supporting Sri Lankan genocide against the Tamils. He asked two of his trusted and non-combatant officers, B. Nadesan and S. Puleedevan to officially surrender - though the word surrender was not in their vocabulary - and take the civilians to safety. In a flurry of emails, text messages and telephone calls that passed between NGOs, a foreign government and Sri Lankan officials in Colombo, the two LTTE political leaders frantically inquired as to how they could give themselves up.

They were told: "Get a piece of white cloth, put up your hands and walk towards the other side in a non-threatening manner." This they did. A spray of bullets ended the lives of these two gallant leaders. Nadesan’s wife, who was a Sinhalese, shouted at them as to why they had to kill people who were surrendering. They abused her and shot her dead. All these are war crimes under the Geneva Convention.

If not for the 300,000 civilians, the Tigers would have ended up their resistance much earlier and melted away into the jungles. Nadesan was calling for a ceasefire to hand over these people to an international NGO, so as to ensure their safety. The so-called International Community made some feeble calls for a ceasefire. M.K. Narayanan and Shiv Shankar Menon were flying up and down and trying to keep Tamil Nadu at ease and at the same time enjoying President Rajapaksa’s hospitality. The Indian Foreign Minister, Pernab Mukherjee was singing his usual refrain, “Repeatedly, we have told the Sri Lankan authorities that a military solution is no solution. We are requesting Sri Lankan authorities to have a pause or cessation of hostilities till the last civilian comes out of the conflict zone.” Meanwhile, murderous fire was directed at the civilians. Death and destruction was everywhere. Nadesan’s and Puleedevan’s last ditch attempt to save the situation ended in more deaths.

To say that the civilians were forced by the LTTE to stay as human shield is a deliberate distortion of the truth. These people cannot any more identify themselves with Sri Lanka. Claims that these people had to be saved from the LTTE is a gross misrepresentation of the truth. The main aim of the Sri Lankan politicians in using heavy weapons against these civilians in the ‘safe zone’ was to decimate as many of the LTTE sympathisers as possible. The 300,000 civilians taken over by the government are living under miserable conditions in internment camps. Here is an account given by none other than the Sri Lankan Chief Justice, Mr. Sarath Silva:

"Vanni IDPs sheltered in transit centres in Cheddiku'lam cannot expect justice under the Sri Lanka’s law. Law of the country does not show any interest on these IDPs. I openly say this. The authorities can penalize me for telling this," said Sri Lanka's Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva when he addressed a public meeting which followed the ceremonial opening of a court complex at Marawila in Negombo district. These transit centres are described as internment camps by human rights activists.

Sarath N. Silva further said:

“I visited 'relief villages' where Vanni IDP families are sheltered. I
cannot explain their suffering and grief in words. It is an utter lie
if we continue to say that there is only one race and no majority or
minority in the country. I visited Cheddiku'lam camps where IDP
families live. I cannot explain the pathetic situation they undergo. I
was unable to console them. They survive amid immense suffering and distress.

"We construct massive building on our side. But these IDPs live in
tent-shelters. Ten IDPs live in one tent-shelter. They could stand
straight only in the centre of the tent shelter. Their neck will break
down if they move to aside of the tent-shelter.

"IDPs are seen waiting in queues, extending from 50 to 100 yards to take their turn to answer a call of nature. This is the life of Vanni
IDPs in Cheddiku'lam camp

"I attempted to smile at these IDPs. But it was without success. I
failed to express my feeling towards them. I was unable to tell them
that we also were crying with them for their suffering. I was unable
to tell them that I would supply new clothes to them.

"They should be provided with enough relief. We would be blamed if we fail to supply them with enough relief.

"They cannot expect justice from the law of the country. Their plight
and suffering are not brought to the court of law in our country. I
openly say this. I will be penalized for telling this”, said Mr.Sarath
Silva who is to retire from the post of Chief Justice at the end June
when he reaches 60 years of age.
(Sarath Silva's address was aired with Tamil translation Wednesday
night in MTV News bulletin.)

Chief Justice Sarath Silva merely stated what he saw in the internment camp. Removal of young men and women from the camps are concealed from the public eye. According to reports of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, over 13,000 internally displaced people have disappeared from Sri Lanka’s internment camps for Tamil civilians. Moreover, UN sources in Colombo are saying that Sri Lankan nationals who are Sinhalese are deliberately downplaying the 13,000 "missing" IDPs, which would otherwise be of much concern given the reports of disappearances from the camps, the seizing of teenage males for detention and females for sexual abuse.

Separately, Sri Lanka's foreign secretary, Palitha Kohona, has been speaking of the government-run camps where more than 250,000 Tamils from the war zone are detained. He said everyone there had to be carefully screened, adding that it was "quite likely" that even many elderly people were "with the LTTE, at least mentally". (Even mentally associated with the Tigers is a cardinal sin in Sri Lanka. What do you expect the Tamils who ran away from Sinhalese atrocities to do?)

Now let us look at the plight of the three doctors. During the final phase of the war, the group of doctors treated wounded and ill patients admitted to the makeshift health posts in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)-held zone encircled by government forces. Two of them were senior local health directors and the United States has said they "helped save many lives" while the UN called them "heroic".

But the BBC's Charles Haviland in Colombo says that the government was infuriated by the doctors' media interviews from the zone, in which they said some of the shelling there had come from the government side and had killed civilians.

In an interview with BBC World TV, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama accused the doctors of "spreading falsehoods". He said that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had full access to them.

Mr Bogollagama said the issue was whether the pair had been looking after civilians or whether they had been used by the rebels "for other purposes".

"What is the heroic act the doctors have done in terms of supporting the Tamil Tigers agenda?" he asked.

'Conspiracy’

Images sent by the doctors appeared to show bodies and building damage. Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told the BBC they are being detained at the Criminal Investigation Department on "reasonable suspicion of collaboration with the LTTE."

"I don't know what the investigations would reveal but may be they were even part of that whole conspiracy to put forward this notion that government forces were shelling and targeting hospitals and indiscriminately targeting civilians as a result of the shelling," he said.

The government says not a single civilian died as a result of its final offensive, despite international allegations to the contrary. The minister says the doctors must be produced in court every month while investigations proceed, pending possible charges. He said the investigation could last up to a year, but there might be extensions to that.

With journalists banned from the conflict zone, the doctors became an important source of news about the fighting during the final bloody months of war. Let us hope and pray that these doctors are not silenced by some dubious means. The Sri Lankan authorities are trying to eradicate all evidence of the genocide they had committed, but they fail to realize that truth will ultimately prevail.

On UN Human Rights Council’s acceptance, by majority vote, of a self-congratulatory resolution tabled by Sri Lanka, British human rights lawyer and international war crimes judge, Geoffrey Robertson QC said that the Council is “highly politicized” body staffed by diplomats of various countries, including those abusing human rights, rather than human rights experts. There are other avenues for the UN including the UN Human Rights Committee, which can investigate individuals’ complaints against states under the International
Convention on Human Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a signatory. Mr. Robertson has served as an appeal judge at the UN’s Special Court for Sierra Leone from 2002-2007 and is presently on the UN’s Internal Justice Council.

Another thorn on the Sri Lankan flesh is the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. Addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council, the former war crimes judge stressed that reconciliation would be impossible without a full reckoning of transgressions.

“I believe that accountability is a prerequisite for the attainment of justice and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans and, thus, a foundation for lasting peace,” she said. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the military both ought to held responsible for killing and mistreating civilians in the last throes of their 25-year conflict.

Her remarks sought to keep up pressure on Sri Lanka, in spite of the Human Rights Council's failed attempt to scrutinise the conduct of both sides during and after the 25-year separatist war that Colombo declared over last month. While celebrating the victory of the Sinhalese over the Tamils, President Rajapaksa has to be aware that this so-called victory has come at a heavy cost. In spite of the
support from Russia, President Milosovic of Serbia could not escape accountability. It is about time President Rajapaksa listens to some words of wisdom from Ban Ki-moon and President Barak Obama.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today reiterated his appeal to the Government of Sri Lanka to heed international calls for accountability and transparency, and for an inquiry into alleged abuses committed during the recently concluded conflict with Tamil rebels.

“It is crucially important that the Sri Lankan Government follow up on all the promises that they have made,” Mr. Ban told reporters following an informal discussion with Security Council members on Sri Lanka.

“Whenever and wherever there are credible allegations of violations of humanitarian law, there should be a proper investigation,” the Secretary-General said.

“Any inquiry, to be meaningful, should be supported by the members of the United Nations, and also should be very impartial and objective,” he added.

"The international community has an obligation, even when it's inconvenient, to act when genocide is occurring," US President Barack Obama said during a visit to Germany. He was responding to reporters asking how the Holocaust mantra of "never again" might apply to current crises in the Darfur region of Sudan or in Sri Lanka. He also said that it is up to other nations to take action to stop genocide
when it occurs.

Later, during a visit to a Nazi concentration camp, President Obama argued today’s leaders must not rest against the spread of such evil. "This place teaches us that we must be ever vigilant about the spread of evil in our times. ... We have to guard against cruelty in ourselves ....," President Obama said after touring the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, where 56,000 Jews were killed.