The nature of the situation in the South flows from what lies behind two contrasting sets of queues. One set, seen regularly in provincial capitals, consists of long lines of young men applying to join the army. The look on their faces has no hint of dare-devilry, patriotism or enthusiasm, but is one of pure resignation. They are in their best dress, carrying files of certificates and testimonials. Their bearing reflects too much awe and gravity for a job that herds them together and drives them forward to kill and too often, to have their limbs blown up.
The other set also consists mostly of young men, not different in appearance from those in the first. But these are young graduates in visa queues outside Western embassies. It is said that a very small fraction of the 400 or so young graduates receiving highly prized engineering degrees this year from our universities, can be absorbed into employment. But emigration to Australia for instance, will follow almost for the asking.
A research paper by public servants Kuhathasan and Bedewela published in the Island (21st January) gives more frightening indications of the plight of the youth. 36 percent of Sri Lankan women remain unmarried. 41% of the males and 35% of the females are unable to lead a family life due to economic reasons. 22% of males and 14% of females do not have a house of their own.
It was against this backdrop that the government was feeling nervous at the prospect of 200,000 Sri Lankans fleeing home from Saudi Arabia once war in the Gulf appeared imminent. To appease relatives who wanted them back even as paupers, a report in the Sunday Observer first gave the impression that its embassy was contacting them and making arrangements for their return. But advertisements for jobs in Saudi Arabia kept appearing, apparently with government approval. It finally turned out (Daily News, 24th January) that the government was doing little, if anything, to challenge the Saudi position that in view of most services being declared essential, exit visas are not being issued. At least in the case of those from the North-East, the government could say that in consideration of their safety, they may be better off in Saudi Arabia. Those in Jaffna are not protected by anti-missile missiles.
If Sri Lankans have become amongst the most despised and devalued human beings, crises which have matured over decades cannot be entirely blamed on the present government. But a government must be judged by how much it cared for the people, how much it did to unite them and how creatively it handled problems. It must be admitted that the current politics, both from the government and the opposition, can only enhance cynicism and resignation.
Human Rights: The government controlled `Daily News' could often be clever and convincing in its editorials. Its issue of 18th September 1990 addressed the question of burning bodies - an issue brought into focus by the police confiscating from an MP at the airport, dossiers on missing persons and photographs of burning bodies which were the property of the UN Human Rights Commission.
While being frank about the tragedy, it defended the government, attacking `human rights do-gooders' and suggesting that the subversive threat of the JVP, which did not play according to Queensberry rules, could not have been handled by legal niceties. Its final paragraph said:
"It is best that the unfortunate and ugly chapter of this nation's recent past be closed. There is no need to stir dustbins in an effort to gain political mileage. What is necessary today, is to get rid of the causes that led to the subversive rebellion and ensure that Sri Lanka will never again have to re-live the terror or resort to the counter measures of those weeks and months now passed."
If that oft repeated sentiment is genuine, there ought to have been an admission that a blunder was made and thousands of innocents were killed because the JVP, and the LTTE subsequently, subjected the forces to unaccustomed provocation. This should have been followed by some concrete measures to restore human dignity and accountability before the law, followed by steps at reconciliation. But what have we seen?
Several persons in the South whose surrender was overseen by the Independent Surrender Commission appointed by the president, were killed following their release, after August. Replying to questions raised in parliament, the defence minister suggested that these persons were criminals killed by angry villagers.
One political party, the NSSP, organised the mothers of disappeared persons into `Mothers of the Disappeared'. A senior government minister referred to this group as `mothers of criminals'!
The same logic applies in dealing with the Tamils. Despite repeated calls to forget the past and talk peace, there are no steps being taken to give Tamils confidence or to check reprisals.
In the meantime elite sections of society go on as though the rest of the country did not exist. Roman Catholic bishops and mahanayakes bless the president. The Minister for Defence will follow the Anglican Bishop of Colombo as chief guest at the Thomian Fair `91 in February, organised by his old school St.Thomas' College. He is sure to receive a public commendation for the great job he is doing.
In place of reconciliation, the country is being alienated and subject to resentment at various levels. From which source will spring the next bout of violence remains unpredictable. Something looking harmless enough today may change its character in a crisis brought about by politics of this kind. Many Kandyan Sinhalese for instance have observed that hundreds of burning bodies appeared in the Central Province when a low-country Sinhalese was DIG. It does not strike them so forcefully that the same thing happened when this same officer was in the Southern Province. We do not have a politics of reconciliation that would combat tribalism.
The government appears to be trapped into a series of ill-fated decisions, without the character or the imagination to end the cycle of brutality. Finally everything boils down to sensitivity regarding human rights in its widest sense. We shall briefly examine how some key institutions have responded to this politics in a manner that has made them part of the problem. The role of the opposition has been examined elsewhere in this report.
The Press: In a normally functioning civil society, the press ought to play a creative role in checking degenerative tendencies, presenting facts, clarifying issues and raising questions. The direction here is determined by the fact that journalists who want more openness and fairness find themselves constrained by terror. The mainline press, instead of giving confidence to the oppressed and encouraging rationality, has only increased alienation. Its pro-armed forces stance and selective reporting have further alienated Tamils and large sections of the Sinhalese, and is by no means even helpful to the armed forces. The Island on 1st November 1991, gave on its front page a small report on 30 headless bodies in Thirukkovil, in the East. The reaction from the Defence Ministry two days later was so harsh and intimidating that this was never attempted again. What has been reported in the press is a series of massacres of Sinhalese and Muslims by the LTTE. There was little hint of the thousands of Tamils killed - including the recent killing of 54 Tamils by the STF in the Amparai District in reprisal for 7 STF men killed. With reporting of this kind, large numbers of Sinhalese who have experienced the forces at first hand, remain skeptical of what they are told. For Tamils, such reporting combined with the general chauvinistic undertone, reinforces the view - the Sinhalese cannot be trusted.
If the press was to be part of a rational political process, it would, apart from trying to understand the ethnic problem and checking unlawful behaviour by the state, have tried to probe the nature of the LTTE, the internal drama within where human beings are moulded, the nature of its international support and its arms procurements. This is how a democratic society would handle the problem. The armed forces are then held in check while being sensitive to the human reality.
We have very little of that kind of press . What appears about the LTTE is mostly unprofitable gossip taken out of context. We read about Balasingam's missing dog four months late, jibes about Baby Brigades, gold sovereigns and speculations about Prabakaran's health. Taken out of its tragic human context, when Baby Brigades also deliver bloody noses, it becomes all the more mystifying and demoralising. Indifference and lack of information, and brutality coupled with mystification, are two sides of the same coin. Thus to the defence ministry, the theft of 30 torch batteries became worthy of citation as a ceasefire violation, while the army complains that during the LTTE-Premadasa honeymoon, containers for the LTTE had slipped in through the port of Colombo.
Inspite of the army being lionised in the press and the jingoistic coverage given to its activities, how really helpful has the press been even to the army? The current Mossad Commission inquiry is revealing. When so many things are wanting, it is probably not fair to judge officers by whether they knew the difference between a circuit diagram for a radar system and that of a vacuum cleaner allegedly displayed by Elta Electoranics of Israel. But the officers who went there were no fools. They discovered that Israel sold them three Dvora naval craft with defective generators, and tried to sell others with engines tampered to run above design speed, to meet tender specifications. It was plain that Israelis were hardly friends. Almost certainly, who was making money would have been the subject of much talk in officers' mess'. Why did the press hold up Israel as a friend? Was it in the interests of the army to keep all this in the dark?
If the Israelis brought in by the Americans were so deceitful and the LTTE's arms supplies such a well kept secret, it was clear that the government's reputation was such that Sri Lanka had next to no real friends. Why did the press not question this state of affairs? After all, the people of this country, including the army, were paying the price! The bogeyman picked by the press - the so called expatriate Tamil lobby - has now been shown to be in reality a cardboard Tarzan.
Take the manner in which the IPKF was sent out of this country. The army had grave reservations about it. But the press joined in the euphoria over the IPKF's departure. Even recently, the Island (2nd January) has, with qualifications, commended it as a positive achievement of Premadasa. We do not question the desirability of the IPKF's going. But its presence was precipitated by historical developments concerning the Tamils. There was no surgical option. No questions were raised about what alternative security was being given to the Tamils. The whole question was viewed chauvinistically. The LTTE-Premadasa talks were mainly about subcontracting to an armed group, the right to do as it pleased with the Tamils. As early as January 1988, a Tamil editor had his press blown up for saying that, to ditch the Accord and talk to the government was to ride a clay horse. To the forces, it meant stepping into a quagmire.
When the press publishes something strong, it is seldom to do with healthy democratic reasons. It usually meant that there was a powerful lobby that was unhappy. During September, the Sunday Island published an article by a former diplomat, strongly protesting the moves to associate the name and the cause of the Buddha with those responsible for murder and inhumanity.
One columnist in the Island has obviously been inspired by the army to give vent to their grievances and signal its unhappiness with the recent cease-fire. It came out with many things either viewed with approval at that time or passed over in silence. It recalled the government's inaction over the killing by the LTTE of Tamil MP's and the help given to the LTTE to decimate rival groups and capture arms.
It recounted: "Helicopters were given to top terrorist leaders... sophisticated communication equipment and other items including machine pistols were imported via an unsuspecting Sri Lankan defence official. All packages to the Colombo based terrorists were sent through this official, informed sources say.... Terrorists were allowed to import containers full of supplies. All these containers were cleared with full speed.... Ruling party leaders continuously backed this bunch of criminals and the opposition failed to do much.... Hundreds of soldiers and well experienced officers had been killed in action. All these were the result of the government allowing Prabhakaran and..... to gain supremacy in the North East, concerned people say..." (Sunday Island 6th January 1991).
There is little doubt that information such as what comes out during the Mossad Commission inquiry which commenced sittings in Colombo during January, will only hurt once powerful persons who had fallen from grace. The commission is inquiring into allegations made by Ostrovsky in his `By way of deception', pertaining to Sri Lanka. It was also reported that two stars of Jayewardene's cabinet were quizzed by the CID after Premadasa became President. The press will not ask what Premadasa was doing all those years as Jayewardene's second? There will hardly be commissions to investigate the disenfranchisement of Mrs.Bandaranaike, the Welikade massacre, and the banning of Left parties as the alleged organisers of the July 1983 violence.
For a government that proliferates commissions and task forces, there is remarkable resistance to appoint a commission to inquire into the inquiry concerning the killing of journalist Richard de Zoysa. The demand comes from the international community and the opposition. There is thus a natural inhibition on the part of journalists about probing too far. Even probing into the LTTE's current strength may not leave the government looking too good.
The press could be entertaining. But it has hardly been anyone's friend, or of much help to the nation.
The University of Peradeniya, when it was the University of Ceylon, was an outstanding university in Asia. For a university where lively political debate continued into the 70's, now political discussion is taboo. The events of the 80's, the racial violence, the civil war and then the JVP's terror and the government's counter terror, have completely changed the character of the universities. Students at Peradeniya have been warned by the authorities not to come crying to them if they get into trouble with the security forces. Most students who were forcibly kept away from their studies by the JVP, do not mind this. Like their counter-parts in Jaffna, they are totally disillusioned with the politics they have seen and share the same aim - to quickly get their certificate and get out of this country. Their experience which led to such cynicism, has also removed the need to think about the future of this country and how they are going to live in it. They care as little for their fellow students as they do for the armed forces. If a fellow student or staff member disappears, a widespread comment would be that he asked for it.
In an atmosphere where students are discouraged
from thinking about political issues connected with justice and their collective
well being, the students who come into prominence are those prone to hooliganism.
The ideal Vice Chancellor in such situations is not one inspired by great ideas,
but one who will play the Brigadier. The Faculty of Engineering which once produced
Vickramabahu Karunaratne, Lionel Bopage and Viswanandadevan is today a very
The staff too are painfully discovering that political issues are things that they cannot isolate themselves from. For instance, many of the staff in Engineering, Medicine and the Sciences are those who have striven to maintain standards over years of contracting resources and staff, resisting the temptation to emigrate. But the economic and political milieu is one where students come out indifferent towards the country, its people, and looking towards Australia and Canada. The staff in turn have to wonder what they are about in terms of results achieved.
One legacy of the 80's is that right wing values - order, discipline toughness -are held in widespread admiration. When it is said, `only this government can run this country', what they mean is that this country has no future and only repression could keep discontent at bay, until at least they are safely out of it.
The universities, which are integral to the current politics, are thus of little use in terms of giving direction to the nation. When it comes to solving the nations problems, the end result of state repression is that rather than obtain help, the government has in the universities, something nearing a white elephant.
As is usual in cases of repression, people feel powerless and their world is greatly narrowed down to their personal concerns. They tend to jealously guard personal privileges, whether deserved or undeserved. Take the performance of the universities during the current war. Only the Open University Teachers' Association condemned the bombing of civilians in the North in addition to the acts of LTTE, and called for the government to bring the Tamils into a political process by clearly stating the terms of a solution. Attempts by the OUTA to get the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) to move in the matter were of little avail.
There was then the matter of hundreds of students from the University of Jaffna wanting transfers to universities in the South. Their reasons were varied. Some had faced intimidation and feared returning to Jaffna. Some just could not operate as self respecting persons under the LTTE regime. Some could not face the physical insecurity created by the government's campaign. Others felt a mixture of these causes or felt that the University of Jaffna was going to be in a state of crisis for a long time, and that they would be better off with a degree from the South.
There was firstly the question of space and facilities. But it was a matter requiring a principled response from Students' and Teachers' Associations in the South. Medical students from Jaffna who talked to Southern colleagues and directly or indirectly with staff, found the response almost wholly negative. These responses were largely based on gut personal feelings, such as a desire to restrict competition or the possibility of losing British Medical Council recognition, which Jaffna lacked. Comments were reportedly made by staff such as, `We lost two years. Now it is their turn', or `Sinhalese students cannot study in Jaffna and we cannot even tour Jaffna. Why should we have them here'.
While such feelings may be justified on a personal level, how do they help the country and how politically prudent are actions based on such feelings? It is a matter of regret to many in Jaffna that the university's base has been narrowed down by the exclusion of Sinhalese and more recently of Muslims. The tide cannot be turned overnight, but it is left to those concerned persons to promote non-sectarian and universal values through their actions. The southern universities lost an opportunity to lift the stigma that descended on them in July 1983. Some of these students will return to Jaffna with the feeling that one cannot blame the LTTE too much.
By contrast, sensing an opportunity to score a tactical victory to discredit the ideology of Eelam, even a UNP cabinet was able to rise above gut communal feelings, and issue a directive to find places in the South for students from the University of Jaffna wanting transfers. (Nevertheless it was doing much else to give credence to that ideology). The universities were largely insensitive, even to the point of being blind to national self interest.
While doing little that is laudable in the current context, one can be sure that when everything is over, many dead and governments changed, there will be from scholarly circles in the universities and other well funded institutes, objective and very readable treatises on what is past and buried.
The Armed Forces: Over the last year, a number of items have surfaced in the press to suggest strongly that there was much discontent among the forces, particularly with the role into which the government (and the opposition by default) was thrusting them. They have made their feelings felt through the press and chiefly through Mrs.Bandaranaike, the leader of the opposition.
In January 1990, Mrs.Bandaranaike made a statement on the floor of the House UTHR(J), Report No.4], alleging that army officers were being ordered to get mixed up in political killings, particularly by co-operating with vigilante units. She was careful to add that only a small minority was associated in this and referred to a particular officer in the Army HQ.
There are strong indications that some officers had approached foreign embassies for help in leaving the country, because they disliked their orders. Following the Richard de Zoysa killing, the press reflected puzzlement and dismay among certain quarters of the security establishment. Some of them had even thought of de Zoysa as their man.
Going by traditions built up since the early 80's, it would appear that the average officer is not very sensitive about killing civilians. But many are by indications sensitive about hit lists - particularly when there is the class factor.
The political opportunism which pushed them unprepared into the current war, made the forces both angry and irrational, further strengthening and legitimising the LTTE. The president's boast about doing to the LTTE what was done to the JVP, with its macabre connotations, and the defence minister's rash promise to wrap things up in two weeks, both came crashing down. The army found itself feeling weak and demoralised. From the beginning of the war complaints have surfaced that the army suffered by being deprived of air support because politicians were then using helicopters for other purposes. One such complaint attributed to the former national security minister in an interview, was later denied by him, and there was speculation about his political future under this government. The latest was made in parliament by Mrs.Bandaranaike, soon after the Mankulam debacle in late November 1990. That was the time President Premadasa was visiting Jaffna. A complaint also surfaced in the Sunday Times just after Mankulam that wounded army personnel had suffered because of inadequate surgical facilities. Government doctors were enjoined to volunteer. All these charges were strenuously denied. The minister for defence angrily suggested in parliament that army personnel with SLFP affiliations were circulating such falsehoods.
It also surfaced in the press in early December that a handful of senior army officers had revealed their intentions of leaving the army, some at least to emigrate. These departing officers are often from model UNP families. There is little doubt that the army senses that, obligatory praise apart, hardly anyone loves them - in the South as much as in the North. Even the government, it would appear, is not serious about them. They are not sensitive about those whom they kill, but they keenly feel that they are being made to carry the can for the failures of national politics.
It is in the current context of political ineptitude and demoralisation in battle, that plans have been announced to double the size of the army to about 100,000. As we pointed out earlier, the army recruits as much as the LTTE recruits are victims of the system who are moved mainly by circumstances. For persons who have spent 20 years in the army to rise to the rank of colonel, to resign, go abroad and live as nondescript persons in the West, can come mainly from disillusionment. The country itself is largely cynical. School leavers among the elite are hardly likely to look upon army careers in the earlier manner.
Expanding the army under these conditions would bring about serious problems of its own. A healthy non-elitist conception of the army could be achieved under a different kind of politics. But here we are trying to induct into the army disillusioned, deprived youth in an elite dominated society with its value system in an acute state of crisis and confusion. For young army officers who think of themselves as basically decent, it becomes painful to face the fact that they are in an outfit where looting is virtually regularised. Amidst political indecision, such an army is being pitched against an enemy that is clear about its politics and plays its cards carefully. The prospects for the army are not bright.
Expansion is also bound to heighten the tension between professional and non-professional types - a distinction probably blurred in practice. An extreme example of the latter is a police officer, who in 1971 was reportedly deemed disturbed, and instructions were given to keep him away from firearms. He showed his potential in a political service he rendered in 1982 which found disfavour in a court of law. Thereafter his career zoomed, reaching heights of notoriety during the anti-JVP campaign. The Richard de Zoysa affair brought other names into public view. While such persons find favour under the present political dispensation, many of their colleagues would feel uncomfortable.
General: What we have here is a dominant ideology with its world view that has not been challenged. A politics based on it is getting the country into deeper crises, with its misery, alienation and division. Under this dispensation institutions including those of a liberal origin, function in such a way as to reinforce the crisis. The hold of this ideology is seen in that, with so much at stake (lives and the future of the nation), while hedging for so long on putting forward the basis for a solution, the president has to publicly seek the advice of the chief Buddhist clergy - the Mahanayakes. The army which is a victim of the whole process is still groping. Even with increased numbers it does not hope for victory. It only hopes to get the edge over the Tigers in terms of brute force so as to pursue that old will-o-the wisp. That is to negotiate from a position of strength with those with the guns, over the dead bodies of thousands of ordinary people.
All this is being done with no idea of the consequences, as if India is far away, there are not 200,000 Tamil refugees in India, that Tamil Nadu politics is not closely linked to Tamil politics here and that the IPKF was only a bad dream. Suppose the LTTE is militarily smothered, what if Tamil sentiment turns to India to intervene at any cost?
Again the government though beleaguered from so many quarters appears strong and stable, because the opposition has no cogent ideas and the government is seen as the ablest practitioner to meet the demands and contingencies of current politics. Only this government it appears can bridge the gap between high sentiments and low deeds. Only it can hammer the Tamils today and embrace the Tigers tomorrow. The tragedy is that these are seen as necessities by influential sections.
Unless a new basis is found for Sri Lankan politics and the opposition sees its way to articulating human rights with greater consistency than for mere effect, we are in for greater tragedies. It is notable that the opposition while campaigning over human rights violations in the South, has come up with no ideas about the Tamil problem, except to continue the military thrust. Too many opposition speeches suggest that care should be exercised in the North, not because there are human beings there, but so as not to give India an excuse to intervene. This gives substance to angry allegations by the government, implying that when they feel threatened, the opposition would opt for repression, however crude. [Top]
Next||previous||Contents of Report6
Home | History
| Briefings | Statements
| Bulletins | Reports
| Special Reports | Publications
Copyright © UTHR 2001