by Dr.Rajan Hoole
With the LTTE gone, our common objective should be creatively to use the potential the people of this country have to live and prosper together. We see instead fears of an LTTE resurgence being drummed up artificially to justify policies that foster division and discord.
The strength of a nation depends on its ability to speak the truth about its actions and be transparent and respectful of the law in its dealings. The contrary often signals that the nation blunders on by continual evasion and major violations of human rights. Symptomatic of the state of affairs here is the alacrity with which some leading sections of the state and private media rushed to misquote Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala’s presentation before the LLRC as justifying blanket exemption from humanitarian law in fighting terrorism.
An earnest investigation would show that the Military used excessive force in ‘liberating’ Sampoor during the night of 27th August 2006. Moreover, subsequent policies of the Government towards the Sampoor population were meant to further its agenda, with scant regard for rights of the civilians. Humanitarian law now or in the future would never countenance excessive force or displacement that was avoidable or permanent.
Once Sampoor was captured, there was no further threat to security. President Rajapakse said on 4th September 2006 that they recaptured Sampoor ‘purely for the benefit of the people’. Military Spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe told the Daily Mirror categorically (5th September 2006) that ‘the threat posed by the LTTE to the Trincomalee harbour and the adjoining naval base was no more following the successful operation involving the three forces.’ He added that once the area was cleared the civilians could be resettled in the next few days. This was never done.
Contradictions and abuse of International Law
The Government’s obligation under international law was expeditiously to help the people to return to their homes and let any new development proposals go through the due process. That is the minimum courtesy the Government owed them. Many women and children were involved; including those forcibly conscripted by the LTTE who had escaped. Instead, ‘attacks or other acts of violence against internally displaced persons, who do not or no longer participate in hostilities’ prohibited by international law, were regularly carried out by state-sponsored vigilantes against a terrified people.
Citing national security (ICCPR Art. 12) for the permanent displacement of a Tamil population is a dangerous argument and also tenuous. Admiral Wijewickrema referred hesitantly to the security argument (contradicted by Prasad Samarasinghe) telling Lakbimanews (29 Aug.10) that the LTTE used the area to attack Trincomalee naval base. He added as though to convince himself, “It was decided by the government that this place, like any other harbour area in the world, will not be occupied by people.”
Who, and by what right, decides that Tamil people should be deprived of their homes in several parts of the North-East? It is a structure in which almost unlimited power is held by military and ex-military men who had previously, along with the LTTE, violated international human rights and humanitarian laws by which these same people were protected. Other areas facing expropriation for new military establishments are Mullikulam, 28 miles south of Mannar and Channar east of Vidatthaltivu, which supplies its water and agricultural produce. The pattern is the same. Reasonably prosperous people who farmed from a few to 40 acres of rich agricultural land are to be given 20 perches of land in some barren backwater. This is just the thin end of the wedge.
The ICRC commentary on Article 17 of Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions, applicable to internal and international conflicts states, “Clearly, imperative military reasons cannot be justified by political motives. For example, it would be prohibited to move a population in order to exercise more effective control over a dissident ethnic group.” This is why it is dangerous. Depriving Tamils of their habitations on security grounds carries the general presumption that Tamils are collectively a security risk. Whence, they must be corralled and checked by repressive means. In 1984, the UNP government started with Weli Oya and the present one wants to go to the logical extreme. It gives the world the message that a façade of a single nation could only be sustained by systematic ethnic oppression. This is a logical consequence of state ideology.
Policies inspired by Sinhalese supremacist ideology create conflicts where none existed. The people of Sampoor never drove the Sri Lankan Army out, nor did the LTTE fight for it. Sampoor was gifted to the LTTE when the Army quit area near early 1996 to move troops to the North. It was due to the weakness of the State, which also did not anticipate a Sea Tiger threat to Trincomalee. If the displaced people are allowed to move back, they would continue peacefully as before. Why bring up an artificial threat to Trincomalee now and turn the population into a disgruntled one?
Supremacist Ideology and Vandalism
For a military hierarchy and extremists behind the present government, depriving minorities of their habitations is also based on the ideological presumption that Tamils and Muslims are usurpers who robbed land that belongs to Sinhalese Buddhists. Thus coveting land anywhere in the North-East to build a Buddhist temple or to create conditions for Sinhalese settlement becomes a birthright. The Hindus have no such rights, not even to keep a temple they have possessed for centuries.
But Sampoor also has traditions old as any in that region, as old as Koneswaram and the economic and cultural links centred on it covering the villages of Trincomalee District. Pathirakaali Amman temple in Sampoor, which forms part of the tradition, is destined to decay without devotees. The houses of those devotees that were largely intact in early 2007 were destroyed after the Government arbitrarily changed its mind and decided that there would be a harbour, an Indian coal power plant and no people; at least not Tamil.
Narrow nationalists pervert and mangle historical reality to make their claims. The rule of the kings of Kotte and Kandy in the region is cited to assert Sinhalese claims to the East. These kings however respected and fostered local traditions. The last rites of Bhuvaneka Bahu VII were performed at Koneswaram. They did not build a Buddhist temple in the precincts of Koneswaram citing some dubious history, as modern narrow nationalists have done. With regard to Sampoor, the respect Kandyan kings accorded local traditions is evident in the extract from the diary of Jacques Fabrice Van Senden, administrator of the province of Trincomalee, Wednesday 7th, 1776:
“Visited the Temple at Tamblegam. Shown images rescued from Koneswaram – King Koneesar and Queen Isowerie in well lit temple – Presented by King Kollekote, founder of the tank at Kandelay. Representation by priest: While Tamblegamme was under the King of Kandy, a tenth of the produce was collected as tribute by the prince, who remitted half in favour of the Pagoda (Temple); that since the Company had taken the entire tax, death had entered the country and the harvest was diminishing yearly, that before the death of Commandant Shorer, they had obtained a promise from him that he would request permission to assign at least 600 parrahs of paddy yearly for the maintenance of the temple.”
Unlike today’s narrow nationalists, the kings of Kandy and Kotte were often cosmopolitan in outlook, whose culture was sensitive to local traditions and customary law. Today’s politics of narrow nationalism is about creating discord, and its ideas of development, vandalism – vandalising the rich tapestry of Lankan heritage.
And debilitation of the State
The weakness of the State as evidenced in repeated humiliation at the hands of relatively small insurgent forces over decades owes much to its human rights violations. The LTTE’s strength was the State’s brutality and the fears it created by development projects like Weli Oya. The State can only become strong if it seeks reconciliation with the minorities rather than design policies treating them as a security risk.
Today’s hard line is also influenced by propaganda which lauds President Rajapakse as the man of destiny, who defeated Tamil terrorism. The facts speak differently. Even after capturing Elephant Pass in 2000, the LTTE had reached a dead end. By conscripting children it made it evident that Operation Jayasikuru had depleted its fighting capacity. The country had a splendid opportunity to do something right by itself in passing Kumaratunge’s constitutional package of August 2000. Had that been done, the Sri Lankan state would have been on course steadily transforming to one representative of all peoples of Lanka and giving it the moral high ground to check mate the LTTE and its backers.
The opportunity was undermined by Sinhalese extremists joining forces with Mahinda Rajapakse, Ranil Wickremasinghe and the LTTE. This failure, signifying Sri Lanka’s inability to resolve the ethnic problem, combined with the LTTE’s ability to manipulate the politics of the South, with its total control of political space in the North-East, gave it the propaganda edge to push for the Norway-brokered CFA. The rest of the decade was the playing out of a tragedy where the worst could have been avoided. If that were now understood, the end of the war should have led to humility rather than the arrogance on display.