The three-decade conflict between successive governments and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) climaxed, trapping thousands of Tamil civilians between the Indian Ocean to the north and the Sri Lankan Army in all other directions. Within these bounds they were held captive by the LTTE, who were trying their best to prompt a humanitarian crisis to compel the international community to intervene. The international community stayed away, but the LTTE did succeed in inducing a humanitarian calamity.
This was a battle that had been building momentum since independence in 1948 after the colonial British left the island and the majority Sinhalese community took over the reins. With a revival of Buddhist nationalism, the Sinhala Only Act was passed in 1956, changing the official language from English to Sinhala and alienating the Tamil minority from the civil services. The standardisation policies of the 1970s disenfranchised Tamil youth from attending universities. A number of riots targeting Tamils in the 1970s and ’80s fuelled the fire for Tamil militancy to grow in the north and east in the ’70s. The Tamil youth felt alienated from the government and universities, believed that their cultural homeland of Jaffna was occupied by a xenophobic government and army that harassed them and violently squashed civil movements against the State, and finally took to arms under many militancy movements. The LTTE dominated and emerged in 1976 as the sole outfit representing the Tamil struggle for an independent State, Tamil Eelam, led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, a charismatic youth from Jaffna.
A continued battle was waged between the LTTE and successive governments from the 1970s. There were periods of ceasefire, periods of fierce battle in the north and east, periods of bombs and suicide attacks in the capital, Colombo, and around the country, and periods of external intervention such as the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) between 1987-90 and the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement between 2002-08.
A new style of conflict took effect from 2007, and in the post- 9/11 climate, the democratically elected Sri Lankan government could wave the ‘War on Terror’ flag and the world would turn a blind eye to human rights abuses and alleged war crimes. The world wanted the LTTE finished — it would be one ‘terrorist’ group done and dealt with. The LTTE had grown significantly through the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire from 2002 and had recently acquired an air fleet of nine Cessna planes that were conducting crude attacks on Colombo. The South Asian countries were naturally unsettled by a rebel group with air power, no matter how rudimentary.
The power of Sinhala nationalist and President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had been elected in November 2005, was bolstered by financial and military backing from China. With intelligence being fed to the government from the newly defected commander of the LTTE Eastern Wing, Colonel Karuna, the stage was set for a new form of counter-insurgency to wipe out the LTTE.
The government waged a war in the eastern districts to destroy the small but significant pockets of LTTE-administered areas. This counter-insurgency went smoothly — in military terms — and was finished within a year, causing the displacement of more than 1.5 lakh civilians. The rebels’ grip was significantly weakened with Karuna’s defection, and the army rapidly and remorselessly finished the job. Civilians fled their homes in the jungle interiors of Ampara and Batticaloa districts and were cared for at Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps run by the UN and NGOs. At the time, this seemed like a humanitarian disaster, and it was, but it was nothing compared to what was about to happen in the north.
As the army enjoyed the victory over the LTTE in the east, the stage was being set for the far larger, more complicated and more dangerous job of destroying the LTTE stronghold in the Vanni, located south of Jaffna.
THE VANNI had been held by the LTTE since the 1990s and was functioning almost as an independent State. Since the LTTE’s creation in the mid-70s, they had built a vast international organisation that included channels to collect money throughout the 1 million strong Tamil diaspora across more than 35 countries. They had built solid connections throughout the international underworld of gun-running and weapons trade and had a flotilla of ships (registered mainly in Panama) that could transport arms from around the world to their headquarters in the Vanni. The LTTE had influential people in the financial world who could reinvest the money collected from the diaspora into property, stocks and shares, and gather more funds. The group was not just limited to the jungles of the Vanni, they were an organisation with an infrastructure of which many corporate giants would be jealous.
Tamil civilians in the Vanni were living under the iron grip of the LTTE. With almost every family having an active member or martyr in the Vanni, the people were, voluntarily or not, embedded into the movement and the ideology of the LTTE. Unlike the army, the LTTE honoured their martyrs lavishly. Vast, military-like graveyards were scattered across the Vanni, but these headstones were adorned with garlands of flowers and family members sat and wept next to their fallen loved ones. The tears that fell on the headstones were a mix of grief and loss but also of pride and admiration for the sacrifice they had made to help realise the dream of Tamil Eelam. Every November, Martyrs’ Day was celebrated and almost the whole population of the Vanni would flock to the graveyards, listen to the broadcasted live speech by Prabhakaran and then wail and scream next to their fallen loved ones. The ceremonies were cult-like and entrenched in Tamil history and mythology of martyrdom and sacrifice.
Generations had grown up in Jaffna and the Vanni knowing only the rule of the LTTE and lived under an incredibly welloiled propaganda machine. The Tamil diaspora was also deluged with propaganda; the LTTE media wing constantly fed the world with images and footage of well-shot and edited battle victories. But the suffering and harassment of the community at the hands of the government and the army continued. The diaspora responded by stepping up funding to the movement, and lobbying governments around the world to support the struggle for independence. This model continued to work and develop until 9/11. In the post-9/11 world, separatist movements that used suicide bombers, child soldiers and targeted civilian areas were seen in a different light. The conflict suddenly became black and white as the War on Terror grew and the LTTE became proscribed as a terrorist movement around the world.
The civilians in the Vanni lived a subsistence life. It was the poorest and least developed district in Sri Lanka. The families were small-scale fishermen, paddy farmers and cattle herders. There was little or no industry to speak of and a large percentage of the population lived off aid handouts from the UN and NGOs and subsidised income from family members within the international diaspora. Life was hard and almost everyone had been affected by prolonged war, being repeatedly displaced and living in camps for sometime. But it was a well-knit community and it was peaceful. Children walked hand-in-hand to school along sandy tracks through the jungle. The schools were often temporary structures and were pock-marked with bullet holes from previous battles, but they functioned well and gave good education. Women and men worked together in the fields and on the beaches fishing and leading a superficially idyllic life, which one can still see played out in parts of rural Tamil Nadu.
The LTTE practised a strong feminist ideology, partly to further attract women to the movement. They abolished the dowry system and women were free to work and secure to move around, even after dark. Although separated in training practices and barracks, women did exactly the same training and fought side by side their male counterparts. Many women who had lost their families through the war or suffered sexual violence at the hands of the army or the IPKF in the 1990s voluntarily signed up for the infamous Black Tiger regiment (the suicide teams). These women were strong, focussed and determined but deeply psychologically disturbed and vengeful. Many female Black Tigers had lost everything to the enemy and were therefore perfect suicide bombers.
AS THE battles in the east were being waged, in late 2007, a new front opened in the Forward Defence Lines between government-held Jaffna and the LTTE-held Vanni. For months afterwards, a constant barrage of artillery shells was launched back and forth between the army and the LTTE, neither side making any advances but flexing muscles continually. The civilian settlements in the affected areas along the coast were displaced and they once again lived under trees and in temporary shelters. As the conflict in the east drew to a close with a decisive victory for the army, the focus shifted to the Vanni.
The army began a prolonged pincer movement from the southeast, southwest and northern borders of the Vanni. A continuous barrage of artillery and air strikes fell into the rural villages along the borders. Villagers fled en masse, moving closer and closer to the centre of the Vanni: Kilinochchi, the LTTE administrative capital. Schools closed, farmers abandoned their fields and cattle, and families packed up their belongings and fled the shelling, a few kilometres at a time. But the shelling caught up with them time and again. By the time the 2 lakh people got close to Kilinochchi in September 2008, they had displaced multiple times. They were tired and disoriented but continued to have complete faith that this was just another conflict between the LTTE and the army and it would soon be over and they would return home.
The government ordered the UN and NGOs to leave the Vanni in September 2008, stating that they could no longer guarantee their security. The UN and the international community put minimal pressure on the government and removed themselves from the Vanni. Tamil civilians came and pleaded outside the UN compounds not to leave. They understood that without an international witness, atrocities would occur, but they didn’t realise to what extent.
This was the beginning of a new form of counter-insurgency: remove humanitarian aid and human rights monitoring, do not allow any journalist (apart from government journalists) into the battle theatre, regard all pleas for help and images from the battlefield that leak out as terrorist propaganda. With that stage set, the government spent the next six months destroying the Vanni, the LTTE and the civilians.
Flying the flag of a ‘rescue mission’ from the clutches of terrorism, the government told the international community that there were zero civilian casualties. They underplayed the number of civilians trapped in the battle zone by ludicrous proportions, refusing to allow humanitarian assistance, food and medicines into the Vanni. They set up No-Fire Zones (NFZs) where the civilians could supposedly congregate safely as they fought the LTTE. However, the NFZs became the target of the majority of the attacks. Hospitals that were set up in the zones were targeted, food distribution lines in the NFZs were shelled and the number of civilian casualties and dead piled up on a mammoth scale.
The UN and the international community knew what was happening — the war was being monitored by satellites. But this wasn’t Libya with oil reserves and strategic influence. This was just Sri Lanka with coconuts and nice beaches. Statements circulated within the diplomatic communities stated how terrible the situation was but a terrible consensus held firm — that the job of finishing the Tigers should be completed, that ‘collateral damage’ was inevitable and this should all be over quickly. The Sri Lankan government blatantly lied to the heads of missions with manipulated numbers of civilians within the battle zone and the number of casualties. On 18 May 2009, the war finished with the death of the LTTE leadership who were gunned down whilst surrendering to the army and the trapped civilians finally fled across the lagoon into the hands of the army
Those last gory days saw so much blood spilt on a once-pristine piece of coastline. The army dealt with the LTTE in the jungles and away from the UN, human rights monitors and the international media. Female combatants were raped and murdered. Male combatants were tortured and killed. Two years later, images taken by the army as trophy videos and photographs began to emerge — again brushed off by the government merely as LTTE-manipulated images and propaganda.
The exhausted, traumatised and fragmented Tamil community was housed in Manik Farm, which became the world’s largest IDP camp overnight. Again, the UN and international organisations were not allowed full access to the camps and further atrocities, sexual violence and disappearances were commonplace.
A victorious Rajapaksa had huge billboards of himself installed all over the country, especially in the north, around Manik Farm: the saviour of Sri Lanka, the destroyer of terrorism, a model of counter-insurgency for the world to admire. And the world did admire the operation with the UN congratulating the government on a successful end to a terrorist group.
The Tamil civilians who survived were held for nearly a year in appalling conditions. Many paid off Sri Lankan soldiers or the police who facilitated their escape to Colombo, Chennai, Europe or Canada — giving the lie to the government’s insistence that the internment of huge numbers of Tamils was a necessary precaution against the rebels, being managed efficiently, openly and humanely. In fact, to all intents and purposes, they were presiding over an abusive protection racket — hugely profitable to corrupt officials at all levels of administration, and amounting to collective punishment of Tamil civilians. The civilians who finally remained were sent back into the Vanni but under the ever-watchful eyes of the victorious army who had set up camps, barracks and watchtowers all over the Vanni, changed the names of roads and buildings to Sinhala and incentivised Sinhala people to move to the north with grants of land and fishing rights. Suddenly those areas where women could formerly walk safely at night were anything but safe and stories of sexual harassment and exploitation were commonplace, but who to complain to — the army and police?
The displaced people who live in Chennai and abroad are destroyed. They live under constant surveillance and distrust; even their own brethren will often give them up to make life easier for themselves — the old British technique of divide and rule continues to flourish. The international community has been insultingly weak in speaking out for the Sri Lankan Tamils and tiptoes around the subject whilst concentrating on far more important issues like Libya — where the money is.
But last year, the UN panel report was published, which stated that war crimes had occurred in Sri Lanka from both the government and the LTTE. Few people read and acted on the report it seemed but then a television station in the UK, Channel 4, released a film on the atrocities, mostly compiled from clips filmed on cell phones by Tamils themselves in the war zone — and by the army as trophy videos. The film, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, was watched around the world. As the war itself had been shrouded in a media blackout, the world now saw Sri Lanka as a brutal island. An island once seen as the place to go for a honeymoon or cheap package tours was revealed to also host a government targeting its own civilians, the rape and murder of its women and 2 lakh people left starving in internment camps. The world suddenly started talking about Sri Lanka.
LAST WEEK in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted on a resolution against Sri Lanka and demanded it answer serious allegations about its conduct through the war and take action of its own report, The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The UNHRC called on the government to take all necessary steps to fulfil its legal obligations and commitment to initiate credible and independent actions to ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans. The UNHRC further requested the government to present a comprehensive action plan detailing the steps implementing the recommendations made in the commission’s report and to address alleged violations of international law.
However, the Rajapaksa government believes that it should be allowed simply to move on and healing and reconciliation will happen naturally as people “get over” the loss of their family members or their limbs.
Last week, the Indian government found itself in a difficult diplomatic situation with pressures from the international, regional and domestic levels. Internationally, India is a signatory to the UN Declaration of Human Rights and therefore has a legal and moral obligation to back UN resolutions that highlighted war crimes. As the major power in South Asia, India needed to show that it was on board with US, EU and UN policies of investigating crimes and abuse of State power. Regionally, Sri Lanka is an important neighbour and as the country has been attracting investment and post-conflict development from its close ally, China, India needed to stay close to the Rajapaksa government and not alienate itself. Domestically, India was receiving huge pressure from the DMK and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu to vote for the resolution against Sri Lanka. Finally, New Delhi took a stand and voted against Sri Lanka and tried to soften the resolution to limit interference with the sovereignty of the Sri Lankan State to a minimum.
The Tamil community all over the world is left fractured. People have lost homes, dreams, loved ones and are now displaced in countries and cultures that are completely alien to them. If the country is to heal, justice must be delivered to the people who saw so much of their blood spilt on the golden sands of Puttamattallan beach. There needs to be a probe into the conflict and answers given to the thousands of civilians who either perished in the conflict or have disappeared in its aftermath. Until that happens, and until women can again live securely inside their own homes without the threat of a soldier knocking on the door, it will only be a matter of time before another young Prabhakaran — who has lost everything, including hope — rises up and starts the war anew.
Benjamin Dix worked in the Vanni between 2004-08 and contributed to the film Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. He is currently analysing the conflict and its portrayal from an academic perspective at the University of Sussex.