Sri Lanka is a small island. The distance from Colombo to Jaffna is barely 250 miles or even less as the crow flies. But it is not unusual for goings on in those now distant parts to reach the pages of the Colombo press, and perhaps the rulers of this land through Reuter International. So the Island of 4th January broke the news of the massacre in the Jaffna Lagoon of the night of Saturday 2nd January, quoting a Reuter report filed from Colombo on the 3rd, headlined:
Nine Civilians Killed in Naval Attack
"Nine civilians were killed on Saturday night when navy patrol craft attacked a flotilla of boats trying to cross Jaffna lagoon where travel is banned, residents said today. Sixteen boats each carrying about 20 people were attacked as they tried to cross the lagoon from Jaffna to the mainland, they said.
"People panicked and started screaming and shouting," he said after he reached Vavuniya. "I saw rounds of tracer fly past my boat and hit the water. The Jaffna lagoon, the scene of frequent fire fights between the navy and the Tamil rebels has been declared a no-go zone by the military where people can be shot on sight.
The resident said the firing continued for about 30 minutes."Only six boats in the flotilla reached the mainland. The rest turned back", he added. . .
The Island of 5th January (Tuesday) carried the following item filed by Shamindra Ferdinando, referring to the same incident headlined,
"Navy demolishes Tiger boats"
"Naval patrol boats operating in the Jaffna lagoon blasted at least four fibre glass dinghies last Saturday night killing over a dozen persons, authoritative military sources revealed yesterday.
"The dinghies operated by Sea Tigers were moving in a convoy when the Navy patrol boats had swooped down on them. However some of the dinghies had escaped carrying the wounded persons.
"The Navy boats operating from Nagathevanthurai radar-naval station had confronted the boats while they were moving towards the peninsula the sources indicated . . ."
"According to the Joint Operations Command (JOC) the navy's in shore patrol craft operating from Nagathivanthurai were successful in controlling Sea Tiger activities in the Jaffna lagoon. "All boats trying to break the government imposed ban will be dealt with", an officer said"
It appeared from the hard attitude above that the government and its forces had made up their minds that anyone using the Jaffna lagoon was a Tiger crossing in a Tiger boat. Not so, it seems, according to a Daily News front page report of 6th January headlined.
Tiger morale declining day by day
Nearly 3000 Tigers killed in 1992
By Daryll de Silva.
"A Senior military source yesterday told the Daily News: "They (the Tigers) are now being frowned upon by the very people they claim to be fighting for. It is the people's pressure that will ultimately be their downfall. . . . the Tigers are not allowing any traffic to move up and down through the Elephant Pass Road, although the security forces have repeatedly assured the civilians of Jaffna. .
"This he said, left the civilians with no option but the use of `no go' Jaffna lagoon Kilaly Point crossing, at great risk to their lives, as the area is heavily patrolled by the navy."
"Most of those moving to the mainland on the Kilaly crossing were deserters, They are in such poor shape that they are risking their lives to come South. . ."
Now what have we here? Are civilians Tiger deserters, or is it that Tiger deserters with Tiger passes are crossing the lagoon in Tiger boats? Some were getting their act mixed up. [Top]
This supplements that given in 1.4 of this report. See also 5.1 of Report No9. Shortly after the outbreak of war in June 199O the northern railroad was stripped by the Tigers and even road traffic through Elephant Pass, which was under army control, ceased.The Tigers imposed a pass system to stem the civilian exodus and travel to the South became a hazardous affair involving extortionate sums, with civilians subject to occasional attacks from the air.
Following the LTTE's failed attempt to overrun Elephant Pass in July 1991, the army gradually expanded its control over surrounding areas. It then prohibited civilian traffic through other routes and wanted civilians to travel along the main road through Elephant Pass as during the previous bout of war ending in July 1987. To reinforce the ban and cut off the peninsula, the army subsequently took control of the alternative ferry crossing at Puneryn. The Tigers cited military reasons for themselves banning civilian traffic through Elephant Pass. They claimed that the army would advance behind the civilians into Jaffna. Whether this fear was genuine is questionable. The forces are known to have used civilian cover, particularly in the East, to move about in areas where resistance was likely to be light and sporadic. [See 1.2 and 4.11 of Briefing No. 1 & Ch. 6 of this report] But when commencing advances in areas where heavy resistance was to be expected and much publicity would be focused, there was a standard established pattern. This was to declare curfew and advance behind armoured vehicles after heavy pounding from land - based artillery and from the air. This has been the pattern for operations in Jaffna since 1987. Civilian cover was used in Kayts in August 199O, but much after the initial advance and when little resistance was expected.
The forces appear to have had tacitly accepted that the civilians had little choice. After July 1991 civilians continued to use the land route through Kompaddi, an open space about 2 1/2 miles east of Elephant Pass, using boats for the flooded stretches when the rains came from October. People travelled within sight of army sentries, occasionally shelled, but for the most part ignored.
This continued for about an year, both civilian traffic and essential food supplies travelling by this route, until further consolidation of the army's position in the Elephant Pass area put a stop to this. The forces increased their insistence that civilians must use the Elephant Pass route (highway A-9). With Puneryn cut off the Tigers responded by allowing the civilians to travel only through the 20 mile sea-route from Kilaly - a new course not known to living memory. Ordinary civilians made the crossing at 8 knots in slow boats while Tiger boats fitted with several outboard motors did the crossing at about 30 knots or more. Whether the army or the Tigers had greater need for civilian cover in this instance would be a topic for an interesting debate among military strategists.
It was clear that ordinary civilians had
a problem. Once more civilians continued to travel, occasionally shelled from
Puneryn and Elephant Pass and sometimes attacked by naval craft, where civilians
were killed. [See Chapter 1 of this report]. But there was no concerted
attempt to go all out and kill civilians, at least until December 1992. The
intention, from a purely military angle, seemed to be to apply pressure on the
civilians to use Elephant Pass.
Even before the present massacre there had been a regular toll on civilians.But this was consistently played down by the Tigers. Little publicity was given to civilian casualties resulting from naval action in the lagoon. Bodies were regularly discovered on the shores by local villagers and buried. The news of these diffused slowly by word of mouth. It is also significant that following the recent massacre, while Tamil political figures in Colombo and the press were reporting the number dead at about 4O or more, the LTTE office in London gave a figure of 14. This is contrary to the normal Tiger practice of multiplying several fold casualties from airforce bombing. Clearly the Tigers were trying not to scare people from using the lagoon, resulting in greater pressure on then to allow the use of Elephant Pass.
The plight of the civilians remained largely unaddressed in a balanced and effective manner. Given the necessity to travel, the civilians had no choice, except to take the course that involved the least risk as they saw it. In October 1992, the BBC correspondent raised with the LTTE spokesman Yogi the question of civilians using Elephant Pass. Yogi responded that this would be agreeable to the LTTE provided that the government gave an assurance that it would not use Elephant Pass for a military advance into Jaffna. The military command gave such a verbal assurance. But the matter dropped and nothing happened with regard to enforcing such an agreement. It was widely remarked by the people that Yogi went off the international air waves for a long time.
Something serious and big was waiting to
happen. The first moves towards this began in mid-December. The army began issuing
hand bills to travellers through Vavuniya not to use the Kilaly crossing. The
Tigers announced through the press in Jaffna that they would offer protection
to people using the Kilaly crossing.
Many passengers came to understand later that the Tiger offer of protection amounted to giving fast rides to passengers in their boats for a payment of a sum of Rs. 1500/-. For the vast majority who could not afford it, it was to be the slow boat at Rs. 200/-. Which announcement came first is probably unimportant. From the point of view of the forces it had become a prestige battle. From the Tigers' point of view it was a propaganda gambit. They had neither before nor after demonstrated a will or the capacity to protect civilian traffic in the Jaffna lagoon. Though the navy claims to have destroyed a number of Tiger boats variously ranging from 60 to many more, it is doubtful if even a couple of them were Tiger boats rather than civilian sitting ducks travelling at 8 knots. Both needed to make their point at the people's expense.
For the navy to make its point, it needed to sink some boats it could lay its hands on (i.e the sitting ducks). For the Tigers to make their point, they needed to fire on navy boats and make a break for it. The worst was bound to happen sometime. [Top]
The night's crossing on Saturday 2nd January started in the usual manner. Passengers had queued up and were taking their turn in crossing by boats leaving at intervals carrying 15 to 20 passengers each. The first four boats from Kilaly reached the mainland to the south without incident. A naval gun boat fitted with cannon was in the lagoon at that time. This boat could operate in an area in the centre of the lagoon where the water was deep enough. But could not approach the shores. Whether the naval men saw the first four boats is not known. Since movements were monitored by radar, it is possible that these being slow boats, they were monitored and allowed to pass. We next come to a crucial fact based on the testimony of one witness, but on which most others are understandably reticent. Following the first four boats, according to this witness was a fast boat with three outboard motors of the kind used by Tigers. According to this witness the three or so persons in the boat were not armed and were thought to be Tiger helpers rather than Tigers.
Upon seeing the gun-boat, the fast boat made a U-turn and sped away northwards. The gun-boat gave a chase. The fast boat ran close to a group of passenger boats heading south and escaped northwards. The gun-boat opened fire at these passenger boats from a distance and kept firing for a long time - half an hour according to the Reuter report quoted above.Not having received return fire at any stage, it was then clear that there were no Tigers about the place. The gun-boat did not go any nearer, probably because it was then near shallow water. The stricken passenger boats were then boarded by naval men who came in smaller boats. According to the testimony of Sellathurai, a survivor,(`Virakesari' of 5/1): "A navy boat suddenly appeared alongside our boats and ordered us to stop. Then a torch beam was flashed on us, followed by gun shots. Those in my boat screamed and fell to the ground. I did the same. The other boats were similarly shot at.The boatmen jumped into the sea."
This happened between 7 & 8 p.m and the lagoon water was rough. The navy men set about attacking the passengers at least in one boat with knives irrespective of age and sex. The boats were then towed away. One of the boats broke loose and the navy men left it drifting without attempting to secure it. It was this boat that was brought to the mainland subsequently.In the meantime some other boats had taken in passengers and were about to begin the crossing. Suddenly an LTTE boat appeared and asked them not to cross. Sensing that things were not safe and that there had been a tragedy, many of the women began to cry. Several of the boatmen who had become aneasthetised to danger in return for a small income, told the passengers that if only the Tigers let them go, they would do so without any trouble.
These boat with casualities which came ashore had about 4 survivors with cut injuries and about 9 corpses. A lady who had lain against the prow of the boat had been missed by the attackers. The first reports to emerge spoke of nine to fifteen or so dead. The figure later rose to over 35 to include passengers from other boats who were either missing or whose bodies were recovered. Among the first to be reported dead or missing were Sellathurai, an employee of the Primary Courts, Mannar, Nalini, a lady in her 20s, a school teacher in Killinochchi and Dr. Sathiaseelan, District Medical Officer of Killinochchi.
We ascertained the following from a close
relative of Sellathurai (quoted above) who spoke to him. He and his wife Parameswary
were travelling to Colombo to meet two children living there and two others
coming from abroad. Parameswary was among those killed when the naval men opened
fire. Sellathurai lay injured. Naval men came into the boat. A naval man first
assaulted him and demanded money and jewellery. Sellathurai emptied his purse.
The naval man then ripped the gold chain around his dead wife's neck. Sellathurai
tried to unscrew her ear rings to give the naval man. An order rang out asking
the men to return quickly. The man immediately cut portions the dead woman's
ears with the rings and vanished. The boat was then tied for towing,but broke
loose. It was left behind. A little later a boat man who had earlier jumped
out, came into the boat. It was he who took the boat to the southern shore.
Five boats were said to have been taken by the navy.
There was much evidence of the naval men's handiwwork. Many of the bodies recovered were badly mutilated. Tharmaraja,the deceased director of education had an eye gouged out. His thgh too had a deep cut. The corpse of a lady which reached the shore was without its head. Of the five or so boats towed away, the bodies of the dead were placed in one boat and the boat was set on fire according to local reports. Many of the dead also had gaping wounds suggesting that these were caused by cannon rather than small arms. A government version of this incident broadcast over "Makkal Kural" for a Tamil audience did speak about a fast boat which approached the gun-boat, did a U-turn and ran into the passenger boats. But it also added that the fast boat had fired at the navy, which was denied by civilian witnesses. several boats going north reached their destination later in the night completely unaware that there had been an incident. The wind and rough sea would have had the effect of muffling gun shot noises.
The Virakesari of 5/1 said: 14 bodies recovered were brought to the Killinochchi Hospital. Six of the bodies belonged to women. Among the dead was A. Tharmarajah (51) from Nunavil, Regional Director of Education Killinochchi. Of the 14 bodies, only 9 have so far been identified. They are mostly persons from Jaffna past their middle age. The names of the bodies identified were released by K. Ponnampalam, Government Agent, Killinochchi. These are: S.Subramaniam (57), retired police driver; S.Balasubramaniam (40), bakery owner; S. Parameswary (52) and her daughter T. Nalini(20), teacher, D-5 Killinochchi; Gopalapillai (40), Tea Boutique owner, Pooneryn; Mdm A. Arulamma (36); V. Sellathurai;(28), Mannar Courts.
The injured were: Mdm. Rohinidevi Nadarajah (26); N. Selvaratnam, Security Officer, People's Bank, Nallur; K. Alagan (25), trader; K. Sellathurai (62), retired government servant; Aingaran (27), trader. The first was sent to Anuradhapura for advanced surgery.
The Virakesari report added: "Five boats proceeding South to the mainland were affected during the incident. . . . Those travelling in the lagoon the following (Sunday) morning reported seeing floating corpses. large numbers of ordinary people scoured both shores of the lagoon for more bodies." Despite the fear travel resumed two days later. As the `Virakesari' of 6th January indicated, the people had become so alienated from the forces, that they had come to believe that the Tigers were their protectors, in Jaffna lagoon at least. There are also reasons for the high incidence of government officers among the victims. It was the Christmas - New Year season. Government leaks to thee Colombo press, highly publicised speeches by the president and reports of Minister Hameed's talks with the LTTE in Europe had all given the impression that an unofficial ceasefire prevailed in the North and that peace was imminent. Thus many government servants and students who needed to cross the lagoon for a quick visit to their families had assumed that this was the best time.
The Virakesari of 9th January reported that
a further 11 bodies were recoved in the last few days bringing the total to
25. These have not been identified. The Vavuniya Police had said that Rohinidevi
Nadarajah who was taken to Anuradhapura hospital had died.
There are several aspects of the navy's conduct that are indefensible. The first is the gun-boat firing its cannon towards civilian boats continuously for a considerable time without apparently a single return shot being fired. The second, the frightning spectre of naval personel dominated by indiscipline, greed and a concomitant readiness to kill and rob. [Top]
The `Virakesari' of 6/1 and the Island of
7/1 reported that two Tamil MPs Navaratnam & Premachandran had protested
about the incident to the president and had called on him to institute an independent
inquiry. There was in the coming few days no direct, response from the president.
But oblique government responses appeared in the front pages of the Daily News
of 6/1 and 7/1 although the government controlled paper had not recorded the
massacre. The first filed by Lankapuwath headlined `Main highway to Jaffna open since July `91', quoted a JOC spokesman: "The security forces had done their duty by the public of Jaffna by clearing and reopening the main A-9 highway and safe passage was ensured to the public by the security forces. However, the public were being prevented from using the highway by the LTTE who were more interested in extorting money by forcing the public to use their transport in No-Go-Zones and also by preventing the transport of ample stocks of food and other essential items. . . ."
The second was a print out of what was broadcast the previous day. This seemed to suggest that Jaffna lagoon had only now been declared a prohibited zone. It read: "The Jaffna lagoon has been declared a prohibited zone under section 5 (Chapter 40) of the Public Security Ordinance, under which no person will be permitted to ply or use any vessel, other than a vessel belonging to the Sri Lanka Navy or any vessel authorised in that behalf by the competent authority.
"Any person who contravenes the provisions of this regulation will be guilty of an offence. These regulations will be cited as the Emergency (Establishment of a Prohibited Zone) Regulations No. 1 of 1992 . . . . A certificate under the hand of the Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy (Competent Authority appointed by the president), to the effect that any area specified in such certificate is within the Prohibited Zone shall be admissible in evidence and shall be prima facie evidence of the facts stated therein. . . "
These attempts at a response lightly skirt the serious issues. The Jaffna highway is by no means cleared and reopened by the security forces in the sense of their being able to offer reasonable protection and right of passage to those who use it. If people travelling on it are stopped at gun-point a few hundred yards up or down the road from Elephant Pass, there is nothing the security forces would do about it, except perhaps fire some shells.
The second about the prohibited zone is a very euphemistic representation of a harsh reality. It suggests that someone using the prohibited zone will be committing an offence like trespassing on private property. The offender will when caught be taken to court and the naval commander's certificate will be produced as proof of an offence.
Firstly what is the effect of it? The prohibition against the use of Jaffna lagoon has been in force for a long time whether given legal sanction through gazette notification or not. Would the government state publicly that government servants, corporation employees, university staff and employees will not receive promotions and scholarships because the Tigers prevent them from travelling to Colombo through Elephant Pass for appropriate examinations and interviews? Will it pay teachers who cannot report for work for the same reason, or find university places in the South for students so prevented from attending the University of Jaffna? We know from experience that for practical reasons and reasons of bad publicity the government will not take up such positions. Indeed, letters for official functions, conferences, interviews and examinations have been sent as if people could travel without hindrance! Is it then responsible for the government to issue the navy commander with a certificate to enforce the prohibition and close its eyes to the consequences?
Secondly one must look at the pitiable traditions in which the law of the land and its enforcement have evolved. One positive aspect of the statement of the emergency regulation above is that it indicates limits of action the navy could resort to in enforcing it. Implicitly it implies that the navy could open fire only in self defence. Otherwise it could only stop boats, question people and discretionarily treat them as offenders to be produced in court. Firing on unarmed boats it totally ruled out.
Indeed for navy men to behave like parang wielding pirates of the South China Sea or of the archipelagi of the East Indies is unthinkable. The navy has shown that the spirit of the Kumudini boat massacre of 1985 is very much alive. The action is also reminiscent of the days in 1987, shortly before the Indian army arrived, when government servants in government helicopters used to shoot at government servants on bicycles and vans reporting for work via Kopay Veli (Open Land).
Here we have the sight of the nation going to pieces by the government not facing up to its responsibilities towards the people and their basic needs. [Top]
In the 5Os and 6Os the imposition of curfew did not mean that curfew breakers were meant to be shot. The forces were first meant to ascertain whether there was a threat to security. If not there would have been no meaning in the issue of curfew passes. People did get shot without justification. But those with urgent needs, such as one to see a doctor, could often talk their way through. The principle of the state being responsible for the basic welfare of people was acknowledged. Care was taken to give people notice and time to stock up and attend to essential chores. In the treatment of the people of the North today, all these obligations are being violated. Over the years the armed forces have been given the freedom to act without reference to the basic needs of people. The armed forces have been given the freedom to interfere with anything from the transport of essential goods and medicines. Its only effect has been to make lots of people rich without bringing peace any nearer. With the build up of cynicism all round, it has become a war with widespread corruption in the forces accompained by a mistaken sense of pride. Press reports of corruption in sections of the forces have been persistent.
During the phase of the war ending in July 1987 a quantity of basic goods to be distributed through co-operative societies was regularly passed. Today, it is charged by very responsible persons that such societies with the least capacity to bribe are the most harassed by authorities in Colombo, while private traders function smoothly. The Vavuniya check point has been notorious. At times when passes were not issued in Colombo for large quantities of kerosene to the North, lorry loads had been allowed through, while people carrying small quantities with permits of authority coming immediately behind had been sorely harassed.
We have reliable testimony of a regular run of banned items to the North from the Puttalam lagoon area to the LTTE controlled coast further north with naval complicity. The run needs to be accomplished between times of naval patrols from Talai-Mannar, given in advance. Those in the Wanni intimately familiar with the network of corruption and vested interests surrounding this war despair of its ever coming to an end. Corruption is a means by which basic human needs triumph over the harshest restrictions. But at very great cost to the moral fabric of the nation and the well-being of ordinary people. Malaria, para-typhoid and malnutrition have become endemic among people of the North. A generation of infants in the North is growing up permanently impaired.
When there is widespread corruption a wrong sense of pride takes over. While allowing banned goods through some channels, there is also an accompanying need for the forces to shoot up civilians and boats transporting innocuous civilian goods in the Jaffna lagoon to prove that a great job is being done in fighting the war. Press statements by the forces unashamedly speak of the cargo of several boats captured or sunk as consisting of stuff like rice bags and bicycles. That is the level at which military success is being measured.
A large part of the blame for this state of affairs should be placed on the government. Had the government politically identified itself with the well-being of the Tamil people, there would have been no major war in the first place. When political paralysis leads to thinking that the basic needs of the people, guaranteed by international conventions, can be interfered with for military reasons, things are bound to deteriorate. Once an ill-advised decision is taken to make it illegal for people to do what they normally ought to do in the routine course of life, a military force vested with enforcing it cannot be expected to sit around simply watching people get about their lives .
If the ban on travel in the Jaffna lagoon were to be lifted it would militarily make little difference to the government. The Tigers will use it with or without a ban, as they did in 1987. It is not food for the Tigers that comes through the lagoon. It is a piece of old wisdom that bad laws which allow ordinary people no alternative but to break them, only bring the law into disrepute and lead to corruption. The ban on travel in the Jaffna lagoon must be lifted. Though appearing to be a military loss, it will be an enormous political gain. Particularly when nearly all press commentators are saying that the military mission of the government is an impossible one, there is a greater practical need to make political gestures to the Tamil people. [Top]
We have said elsewhere in this report that given the paralysis in the government, there was a duty which fell on other international and civilian organisations to represent the interests of the people. THe people of Jaffna could rightly and legitimately appeal to the government, but they are unable to question the arbitrary actions of the Tigers. This gap should have been filled by others outside, raising matters such as the Elephant Pass affair with the Tigers. Sadly most statements and observations talked about the government forces shooting at civilians in the Jaffna lagoon without asking why the Tigers forced them to endure this. Clearly the interests of the people are not being represented. When asked why the Tigers make them travel in this manner, the usual answer is `We cannot speak'. It is one thing for leading international figures, such as church men to promote the Tigers as sole representatives of the Tamil people. If so they should be able to talk to them and influence them to act in the interests of the people. If not leadership becomes a totally vacuous and a merely verbal concept.
Army spokesman on the Jaffna Lagoon
Reporting on the Cabinet news conference of the previous day, the Island of 8th January reported as follows: "The military is prepared to consider opening the Jaffna lagoon which has been declared a `prohibited zone' for civilian traffic to and from the Jaffna peninsula during daylight under strict naval surveillance, military spokesman Brigadier Anil Angamana announced yesterday."
Purely as a gesture, this announcement is welcome. Whether it will bear fruit or not depends on whether there is also the will to give considerable priority to the needs of civilians.
More inexcusably the military spokesman still continued to deny having received confirmation of the civilian deaths, although the list was issued by the senior-most government officer of the district. Also there is the ICRC reporting directly to the president in addition to Reuter. The government it seems had no contact with the government agent of Killinochchi. But the spokesman when asked about the District Education Officer killed in the incident said, "I heard that he was executed by the LTTE". The government's response in such instances continues to be silly and counter-productive.
It transpired in the Cabinet news conference that the government had no defensible position on the Kilaly issue, except to repeat an umpteen times that the A-9 through Elephant Pass was the normal authorised route to Jaffna. It was as though its being blocked by some other force that could not be dislodged was not a fact to be taken cognizance of. In its blundering manner the government was trying to limit the damage by pretending that the navy's action was purely a military matter. That it was an act of blatant piracy was something the government did not have the character to face up to. [Top]
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