When I arrived last summer at the burial ceremony the ten crude wooden coffins were lined up on the concrete floor. A bare-chested Hindu priest was chanting Sanskrit verses and preparing the offerings, an assortment of freshly chopped coconuts, leaves and flowers, oil, water, and brightly colored pastes for family members to place on the coffins bearing the remains of their loved ones. As the rain gently beat on the roof of the small open-sided structure, oil lanterns of chopped coconut shells were set in front of each casket. Families began circling the coffins, sometimes joining in on the prayers, mostly remaining silent. The tears were few, though one mother broke down every time it was her turn to anoint the coffin of her son.
A hundred yards away workers had just finished digging the graves. The families followed the coffins as the sarong-clad workers carted them unceremoniously across the muddy grounds. After the burial the families boarded two white vans provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross and began their journey home to the Tamil areas in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
Colombo’s Borella Public Cemetery is filled with ornate tombstones, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu, some inlaid with photographs of the deceased. The newly dug graves, however, are likely to remain unmarked. They contain the badly decomposed remains of ten young Tamil men, victims of Sri Lanka’s long civil war between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the separatist Tamil Tigers. The men were murdered almost four years earlier in one of Sri Lanka’s most celebrated—if now largely forgotten—massacres.
On the morning of October 25, 2000, in the quiet central hill-country village of Bindunuwewa, a mob of Sinhalese villagers and residents from the nearby town of Bandarawela stormed the government “rehabilitation” center. The minimum-security center housed 41 young Tamil men who had either surrendered to the army after being involved with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or been arrested on suspicion of involvement with the Tigers. While none detained at the Bindunuwewa camp were considered serious security risks, the stigma alone of being associated with the Tigers can inflame tensions in Sinhalese areas of Sri Lanka. An altercation in the camp one evening between some inmates and Sinhalese officers launched a rumor that spread quickly with help from local police: “The Tigers are attacking.” Early the next morning a crowd of hundreds, perhaps thousands, had assembled. Armed with knives and poles and gasoline, the mob hacked and burned to death 27 of the Tamil inmates. Some 60 police officers sent the previous evening and earlier that morning to guard the camp made no effort to stop the attack. Instead, some fired on inmates trying to escape, killing one and injuring two others. No one was arrested.
Somehow, 14 inmates survived, including four former child soldiers (one aged 12, the others 16). The bodies of ten others were so badly mutilated that they were never officially identified. The remains sat in the Colombo morgue for nearly four years as legal technicalities prevented the victims’ families from claiming them for burial.
In July 2003, the High Court in Colombo convicted two mid-level police officers and three local residents of murder and sentenced them to death for their role in the massacre. Still, it took another year, and much prodding by the International Committee of the Red Cross, to arrange for something resembling a proper burial. Yet without death certificates, the families of the ten victims still have not received the $2,000 government compensation awarded the other 17 families, despite multiple letters and personal visits by family members to virtually every government official and bureaucrat directly or indirectly involved in the case.
The abandonment of the ten Bindunuwewa families—most of them desperately poor and undereducated, all Tamil, and all socially distant from the capital city Colombo—was the final twist in a long series of betrayals of these families. The first betrayal was the LTTE’s recruitment of their sons into the ranks of the Tamil Tigers. But the Sri Lankan government and NGOs—including human-rights organizations—also bear some responsibility.
* * *
Recently, even more dramatic events—and many thousands more unidentified bodies and grieving families—have thrust Sri Lanka into the global spotlight. With world attention now focused on the tsunami and its devastating effects, the story of the Bindunuwewa massacre is easy to forget. But it is an important story and carries important lessons. As governments, aid agencies, and concerned people around the world pledge to assist in rebuilding Sri Lanka’s tsunami-shattered communities, they would do well to study the recent history of human-rights efforts here and consider the unanticipated and not always constructive consequences of well-intentioned international assistance carried out in the name of “peace” and “conflict resolution.”
* * *
In February 2002, the Norwegian government brokered a cease-fire between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. For more than two decades, they had been fighting a vicious war, the product of the failure of Sri Lankan political elites to work out a mutually acceptable distribution of power between the Sinhala (mostly Buddhist) majority and the Tamil (mostly Hindu) minority.
The Sri Lankan Tamils, whom the LTTE claims to represent, are the largest minority—about 12 percent—of Sri Lanka’s population of 20 million and are historically concentrated in the north and east of the island (Tamil nationalists and the LTTE claim this area as the Tamil “homeland”). The northern province is almost entirely Tamil; the eastern province is now, after much migration of poor Sinhala farmers into the area, one third Tamil, one third Sinhala, and one third Muslim. (There is another group of Tamils, half as large, known variously as Indian Tamils, Up-Country Tamils or Plantation Tamils, who are the descendants of Tamils brought over by the British from South India in the 19th century to work on the tea estates. Most still live in the center of the country and have not been caught up in separatist militancy and violent resistance, though they do suffer as a group from discrimination.)
Almost immediately upon independence from Britain in 1948, Sri Lanka’s Tamils found themselves on the receiving end of Sinhala majoritarian nationalism—including, most infamously, the “Sinhala-only” policies begun in 1956 that established Sinhala as the official language and cost thousands of Tamils their civil-service jobs. Regardless of which Sinhala-dominated party was in power, whether the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) or its chief competitor, the United National Party (UNP), any government that considered the peaceful demands for equal rights and political autonomy in the largely Tamil-speaking regions of the north and east found its efforts thwarted by the opposition party, which would invoke the threatened “rights” of the Sinhala majority. Over the last half-century, no party has ever been politically strong or wise enough to define the Sri Lankan state in more pluralist and inclusive terms.
When the Tamils responded to this exclusion with Gandhi-inspired nonviolent protest, they met with violent repression. From the late 1950s through the early 1980s, attacks on Tamil civilians and property by Sinhalese mobs, often with implicit or explicit support from the police and army, left thousands dead. These responses fueled more-radical demands for a separate state of “Tamil Eelam” and a vicious cycle of hardening nationalisms. Small-scale violence began in the mid 1970s; the state responded with “anti-terrorism.” The cycle finally exploded into full-scale war following massive state-sanctioned violence against Tamil civilians in July 1983—itself triggered by the funerals of 13 Sinhalese soldiers who had been killed in an LTTE ambush.
The war has subjected young Tamils to routine harassment, indiscriminate arrest, and torture under the draconian “Prevention of Terrorism Act” and has left Tamil villagers in the north and east vulnerable to all-too-frequent massacres by Sri Lankan security forces. The LTTE, in turn, has become a ruthless and extraordinarily disciplined political and military antagonist, condemned throughout the world for its suicide bombings and regular use of child soldiers. Since crushing or incorporating its Tamil rivals, the LTTE has emerged as a deeply anti-democratic counter-state, controlling much of the north and east of Sri Lanka and maintaining tight political control over Tamils across the island and throughout the international diaspora.
But this is no simple “ethnic conflict” between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese. Much of the violence has been internal to ethnic “communities”—a product of rivalries between Sinhala political parties and infighting among Tamil militant groups, as the LTTE presses for complete political hegemony among Tamils. Two uprisings by left-wing Sinhala youth of the People’s Liberation Front (a populist-nationalist group known by its Sinhala initials, JVP)—one in 1971 and one from 1987 to 1990—were brutally suppressed by government and vigilante forces at the cost of 50,000 to 60,000 lives. Non-LTTE paramilitaries existed throughout the years of the war, most recently fighting alongside government police and army units, while also engaged in their own illicit money-making and policing activities. And tensions between the LTTE and largely Tamil-speaking Muslims living in the north and east of the island have taken violent forms since 1990, with LTTE massacres of Muslim civilians and the expulsion of an estimated 90,000 Muslims from the LTTE-controlled northern Jaffna peninsula. The wedge of anger and suspicion between many Tamils and Muslims complicates peacemaking efforts in Sri Lanka to this day.
* * *
The 2002 cease-fire and the increasingly troubled peace process that followed were made possible by the election, in December 2001, of a new Sri Lankan government dominated by the center-right United National Party and headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. Wickremasinghe had campaigned on a platform of peace talks with the LTTE and economic revitalization through foreign investment and neoliberal economic reform. The UNP and its international supporters proposed to draw the LTTE slowly into “normal” politics through negotiations that would attract international assistance for the war-torn northern and eastern provinces and lead to an interim Tiger-controlled administration there. Eventually, it was hoped, popular pressures and the temptations of economic normalcy would encourage the Tigers to give up the demand for a separate state.
The UNP-Norwegian strategy was risky, however, because it excluded other major players, including the president and leader of the SLFP, Chandrika Kumaratunga, who under Sri Lanka’s constitution is elected separately from the parliament and has unusually broad executive powers. The JVP, known for its violent insurgencies, was also excluded. Muslim political parties, divided between the government and the opposition, were unable to develop a consistent position. The LTTE’s refusal to allow a separate Muslim delegation to take part in negotiations alarmed many Muslims, who feared that they would be forcibly included in a Tiger-administered region.
The UNP-Norwegian strategy also gave the Tigers’ military free reign in the north and east. The UNP government never publicly criticized the Tigers for its rash of political assassinations—which began almost from the beginning of the cease-fire—or for continued child recruitment, an arms build-up, or illegal taxation. To many Sri Lankans, especially Sinhalese, the UNP was recklessly compromising both security and liberal-democratic principles. As one Tamil critic of the LTTE told me last summer, the UNP confused “engaging” the Tigers with “empowering” them; the former was unavoidable if you wanted peace; the latter was unforgivable if you wanted a just and sustainable peace.
But the government’s best efforts were not enough for the LTTE. In April 2003 the Tigers broke off talks with the government, complaining that they had been excluded from an international donors’ meeting and that little progress had been made in “normalizing” living conditions in the war-ravaged areas of the north and east. After a few months of back and forth with the UNP government over creating an effective mechanism for delivering reconstruction aid to the north and east, the LTTE announced that it would offer its own proposal. The LTTE plan—publicly unveiled on October 31, 2003—called for an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA) for the north and east.
A blueprint for an independent state in all but name, the ISGA scheme was roundly condemned by Sinhala critics and opposition political parties. But Prime Minister Wickremasinghe and the UNP government chose to see the proposals as the opening gambit in what would likely be a long process, and pledged to restart negotiations on their basis. And at this point, President Kumaratunga quickly thrust herself back into the center of the political arena. Arguing that the UNP government had, in the name of peace, left Sri Lanka’s security in a perilous condition, she suspended parliament and took direct control of the ministries of defense, the interior (which controls the police), and media. Although she pledged to work with the prime minister to pursue the peace process in a more “balanced” and inclusive fashion, Wickremasinghe refused to continue without control of the armed forces and police. Meanwhile the Norwegians announced that they were suspending their role as facilitators until the power struggle could be sorted out.
After months of fruitless negotiations, the president dissolved parliament and called new elections for April 2004. Running in coalition with the JVP, the President’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party won enough seats to cobble together a working majority in parliament. But the government has not been strong enough to restart negotiations with the LTTE, in large part because of continued disagreements between the president and the JVP, which opposes reentering negotiations that would be based on the ISGA scheme alone—which is the LTTE’s precondition for participating.
Ironically, while Sinhalese fears about the Tiger’s increased military and political strength drove much of the resistance to reopening negotiations, LTTE’s insistence that talks be based on their proposed ISGA reflected their own sense of increased insecurity. In March 2004, the Tigers’ top military commander in the eastern province, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitheran—known by the nom de guerre Colonel Karuna—announced that he was breaking off from the mainstream LTTE, headquartered in the northern region. Karuna complained that eastern Tamils had been denied their fair share of positions in the LTTE leadership and denied the benefits of peace, even though they had supplied a disproportionate number of fighters killed in the Tamil liberation struggle. The northern forces attacked in early April and quickly overran Karuna’s forces. Rather than face a complete defeat, Karuna disbanded his remaining troops, estimated to be as many as 5,000 to 6,000. Many turned out to be underage—below the internationally accepted legal standard of 18.
Thus, by mid-April, the eastern province was filled with thousands of recently disbanded child soldiers, almost half of whom turned out to be girls. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other humanitarian agencies struggled to cope with the overload. Their work was made even more difficult by the fact that the victorious northern faction of the LTTE almost immediately called for the disbanded fighters to return to their barracks and began “re-recruiting” them, including those underage. Since defeating Karuna’s forces, the LTTE has struggled to reassert its control over the eastern province, even as small bands of Karuna’s fighters mount regular attacks on their former LTTE comrades. The LTTE has been hunting down remnants of Karuna’s forces wherever they could be found, assassinating Tamils with direct links to Sri Lankan military intelligence, and killing Tamils with links to any of the handful of remaining anti-LTTE political parties, despite the fact that the cease-fire required all such Tamil party members to be disarmed.
Meanwhile, reports began to emerge in summer 2004 from the eastern province about families taking the unusual and courageous step of publicly resisting the LTTE and refusing to hand back their children. To add to the increasingly difficult human-rights terrain, connections seemed to be emerging between Karuna’s forces, other Tamil dissidents, and the Sri Lankan military.
* * *
Human-rights work is always highly political, but Sri Lanka’s profound, persistent, and cross-cutting conflicts have made efforts there especially charged. Publications written for Sinhala speakers and for the English-speaking elite will report at great length on the Tigers’ human-rights violations, but not so often on the government’s abuses of Tamils. At the same time, the Tamil press has become stridently pro-LTTE, giving extensive play to the smallest reported incident of army or police abuse and virtually ignoring LTTE crimes. This politicization of human-rights issues extends beyond the media and interested parties to include human-rights organizations themselves. While some Sinhala activists are willing to criticize the government, only a handful will consistently point out the failings of both the government and the Tigers. And very few Tamil activists will publicly criticize the LTTE.
There is, nonetheless, a small, embattled, loosely organized network of committed Tamil, Sinhala, and Muslim dissenters who are critical of violations on all sides. When I was in Sri Lanka in July 2004 I found a new sense of urgency in this group—urgency and extreme frustration at the inability of established institutions to prevent ongoing and increasingly severe violations by the Tigers.
The situation of younger girls and boys caught up in the conflict was a particular focus of increasing attention. The Sinhalese and English-language media were expressing anguish about LTTE recruitment of Tamil girls and boys, despite two and a half years of cease-fire. The April 2003 “Action Plan for Children Affected by War” negotiated by UNICEF, the Sri Lankan government, and the LTTE was a target of especially sharp criticism. The action plan envisaged a host of programs designed to improve the lives of the tens of thousands of children severely affected by years of war. Most notably, it included a pledge by the LTTE—the latest in a long line—not to recruit children and to release any underage fighters in its ranks. Most controversially, the action plan required UNICEF to provide millions of dollars to the LTTE’s so-called humanitarian agency, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization, for constructing and administering three “transit centers” to house the released children.
By the fall of 2004, though, UNICEF’s own records listed the names of more than 3,500 children the LTTE has recruited—many of them through abduction or other forms of coercion—over the course of the cease-fire. These figures include only cases reported to UNICEF, and are likely only a fraction of the total. In response to the criticism, UNICEF officials have recently grown more stern and direct in their criticism of the LTTE, but they have continued with the program, arguing that maintaining their access to the LTTE has given them the ability to broker the release of more children than they would otherwise be able to.
One small but constructive response to the growing frustration was the formation of the Collective for Batticaloa. Composed of relatively young Sinhala, Muslim, and Tamil activists—academics, students, NGO workers, and professionals based in various parts of the country—the group was an ad-hoc initiative to learn more about the plight of children released by Karuna. The aim was to lend whatever support they could to the children, their families, and those who were assisting them—as well as to all those in the eastern province caught in the crossfire between the different LTTE factions. The initiative also expressed concern about the tense state of Tamil–Muslim relations in the east.
In early June, roughly a dozen observer-activists visited Batticaloa, the epicenter of Karuna’s rebellion and one of the three districts that make up the eastern province. What they found was alarming, though perhaps not entirely hopeless. Their report (which, unfortunately, was not distributed widely until months later) described average people caught between LTTE factions, not knowing whom to trust, and trying, sometimes literally, to keep their heads down. “‘We do not ask questions from anybody nor do we talk about these things as we do not know who is who,’” the report quotes one local resident as saying. Writing of the effects of the multiple occupations that Batticaloa’s people have had to endure from the Sri Lanka military and the LTTE (and now the remnants of Karuna’s forces battling the main branch of the LTTE), the report says:
Occupations are not only about brute violence. Occupation buys your willingness to live under the most difficult conditions: occupation is about consenting to violence. Occupation allows one to be spoken for and spoken to. Occupation means one does not hear or talk about the violent death of a friend, the trauma of a brother/father/mother when their 13 year old daughter has been abducted by the LTTE; it means that one’s home with its familiar adornments of pictures, couches, flowers, and porches do not provide one with the usual sense of middle class security. One does not know whether the person who walks in with a friendly greeting has a gun tucked away. Occupation means: ‘we do not know who killed X. We do not ask. It is not our concern.’
The report details the difficulties facing those fighters—many of them still children—released by Karuna. Many lack the identity cards that are required to pass through Sri Lankan military checkpoints and to do most business with the government. (The report notes that the LTTE issued a directive to the local authorities—who take orders more from the LTTE than the central government they putatively serve—not to issue them ID cards). Worse still, families of the returned children are often so poor that they have few if any resources to care for them—even as they live in fear of re-recruitment. According to the report, many of “those brave enough to attempt to return to school have been ostracized and even refused admission in some instances.” And those schools that do take the disbanded soldiers are rarely equipped to handle their special needs.
Approximately half of the released child fighters were girls, and they face an especially daunting situation. In addition to the “normal” difficulties of readjusting to civilian life and returning to school, in some cases after years of absence, the girls also face “social ostracization and fear; their short hair continues to stigmatize them as ex-fighters for years until it grows back to the traditional long style. Parents of the other children are scared that their own children might be recruited in a new wave of recruitment if they befriend these [returned] children. [Or] the children would introduce the others to unwelcome ‘conduct.’”
The report roundly criticized numerous international organizations as slow, uncoordinated, and ineffectual. Even with offices in Batticaloa, UNICEF and the other international and local NGOs have been unable to protect the disbanded fighters from being forcibly recruited. The few programs focused on former child combatants have in some cases become magnets for the very LTTE recruiters the children are trying to escape.
Would-be child-protection agencies are at a loss: while well intentioned, they lack the authorization and resources to physically protect all the children, or to remove them to areas of Sri Lanka that are less dominated by the LTTE. (This continues to the present, post-tsunami, situation, in which children living in refugee camps are particularly vulnerable to recruitment, whether through persuasion or force.)
The report also confirmed what almost all observers of Sri Lanka’s eastern province recognize: that “relations between Muslims and Tamils in the east are under great strain and are scarred by tragic hostility.” Muslim traders continued to complain of high levels of LTTE “taxation”; Muslim farmers—who constitute the bulk of the Muslim community in the east—complain of difficulty in gaining access to their farmland. LTTE intimidation of politically independent Muslims—including abductions and assassinations—continues, and it continues to produce sporadic acts of violent resistance from Muslims. And yet, the report writes, “both communities showed a great willingness to begin the process of mending relations. In no place did we hear of any bitter acrimony against the other community . . . Muslim groups repeatedly emphasized the distinction between the LTTE, at whose hands they as an ethnic group had suffered, and the Tamil people.”
* * *
I arrived in Sri Lanka too late to enlist in the collective’s research trip, but I had long wanted to visit Batticaloa. When I first came to Sri Lanka, the war was raging in the north and east; it had been very difficult for foreigners to get access. This time, I was traveling to Batticaloa in the hope of learning more about the extent of resistance to LTTE recruitment and control. My trip also took me throughout Sri Lanka, where I met those caught up in the Bindunuwewa massacre. I had arranged to meet with a number of survivors of the attack, and with the families of those killed who had still not received their death certificates and promised compensation.
* * *
Batticaloa is roughly 150 miles northeast of the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, but it can be reached only through very roundabout routes and over roads that are always narrow, sometimes crowded, and at other times not even paved. While it is much easier to get to and from Batticaloa now than during the times of active warfare, the trip still takes some eight to ten hours. As a result, Batticaloa remains a world apart, separated both from the richer and more cosmopolitan Colombo and from the poor and rural areas of the southern and western, predominantly Sinhala, parts of the island.
As I approached Batticaloa town, more and more troops from the Sri Lankan Army appeared along the roads, generally hidden behind piles of sandbags, barrels, and other makeshift bunkers. Security was particularly tight in early July. There had recently been a series of attacks on LTTE officials by Karuna’s men in the Batticaloa area, and “Black Tiger Day” was fast approaching. This is the day set aside by the Tamil Tigers to commemorate the heroism of the hundreds of their specially trained recruits who have died in suicide attacks on Sri Lankan government targets (and taken the lives of hundreds of civilians in the process). On July 5, the morning of Black Tiger Day, I was interviewing (with the help of a Tamil-speaking friend) the family members of one of the surrendered LTTE members killed at Bindunuwewa when news came that someone had just been shot in Batticaloa town. We learned later that some of Karuna’s men had wounded the local head of the LTTE political wing.
The violence underscored what I had learned from conversations with activists and NGO workers—that the report from the Collective for Batticaloa, while insightful and revealing, may have been too optimistic. The fragile sense of possibility inspired by Karuna’s revolt, the disbanding of his fighters, and their initial refusal to return to LTTE’s ranks, had largely faded in the preceding month. Over that period, the LTTE had stepped up efforts to re-recruit its disbanded fighters and was putting tremendous pressure on families that resisted. Efforts by mothers in the town of Vaharai had apparently been crushed by cadres of LTTE women specially sent for the task. And this despite the direct intervention in support of the mothers by a number of different international organizations. We heard repeated stories of how the LTTE—exploiting class and status divisions—tended to recruit most actively from especially poor families, from female-headed households, and from families with lower social status—all of whom are less able to resist recruitment and to get their children back once they are taken.
Even those with no particular shortage of money and political connections—UNICEF, Save the Children, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, the Scandinavian-staffed Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, tasked with overseeing the cease-fire—seemed almost powerless. We heard complaints from all sides about the lack of effective coordination between local activists and NGOs—rich with local knowledge and political savvy—and international organizations, whose resources and political clout with the LTTE should count for something.
* * *
The lack of coordination between international organizations and local activists and organizations in Batticaloa is only one aspect of the larger difficulty facing efforts to build effective human-rights networks in Sri Lanka. One of the most unusual and promising aims of the initiative behind the Collective for Batticaloa was to begin the work of strengthening ties between Colombo-based groups and activists and those based in the rest of the country, including the east. The difficulty of forging effective links between human-rights workers in Colombo and activists and victims outside the capital, especially in rural areas, is partly a matter of physical distance, lack of resources, and cultural and social differences. But equally important is what might be called the bureaucratization of activism. While the growing professionalism and institutionalization of various forms of civil society over the past decade in Colombo has had many positive effects, the reliance of political activists on bureaucratized procedures to gain funds from international donors has come at a high cost.
The Collective for Batticaloa illustrates the challenges that come with such dependence. For example, the group could not find sources of short-term funding that would have allowed it to develop and quickly implement an ad-hoc plan for travel and research in Batticaloa. In the absence of timely funding, the collective scaled back its plans and went ahead while the project could still be useful. When the group finally heard back from a donor it had approached, the response was negative. According to the donor, the report from the trip gave insufficient space to the views of Batticaloa residents and instead consisted of general, and highly political, assessments that could have been made without the fact-finding visit. The donor worried that such a partisan document, without a balanced survey of politically diverse views, might do more harm than good.
Indeed, according to the vision of conflict resolution that has come to dominate internationally supported peace work in Sri Lanka, the Batticaloa Collective’s approach could well be seen as irresponsible and disruptive of efforts to build trust and understanding between opposing political and ethnic groups.
Yet to demand that human-rights interventions be rigorously evenhanded and run no risk of further raising political tensions threatens to render any such efforts ineffectual.
As it turned out, the significance of the Batticaloa Collective’s report was borne out by the subsequent dialogue it generated among activists throughout the country and the Sri Lankan diaspora. And the recent Human Rights Watch report on child soldiers in Sri Lanka confirms virtually all of the report’s claims—and much of the political analysis—albeit with more extensive documentation and in a more professional form.
Still, the donor’s critical response was perhaps not surprising given the dismissive tone that emerges in the collective’s report when it accuses “the peace lobby” (of which the particular donor in question is firmly a part) of allowing the LTTE to violate people’s fundamental rights in the name of a false “peace.” Take, for instance, this powerful but loaded passage that comes toward the end of the report:
As one mother told us: ‘First the LTTE denied having my child in the camp until I got to know of it through other sources. Even after that when I visited they would not let me talk to him for long. They (the LTTE) said, if the mother is with the child for a long time, mother’s love would increase and love for the land would diminish.’ In the meantime, the child combatant falls through the cracks between mother and motherland: a contradiction that peacemakers have not taken note of. A grandfather broke down: ‘What they say they would do they do not; what they do, they do not say.’ This grandfather and mother have been left out of the peace process. May we ask why?” [Emphasis added.]
The Batticaloa Collective’s outspoken indignation at the blindness of peace advocates to the cost of (inauthentic) peace is not the first time the rhetoric of Sri Lankan human rights has alienated some potential supporters who share their basic commitment to a just and democratic settlement of Tamils’ collective aspirations. Human-rights critics of the LTTE might, perhaps, have more success if they could develop ways of addressing the arguments—rooted in quite plausible hopes and fears—of those who take rights and democracy seriously but whose desire for peace pushes them to downplay criticisms of the LTTE.
More difficult still is the task of engaging with those Tamils, especially those in the international diaspora, who support the LTTE’s nationalist struggle regardless of its costs to Tamils themselves. Human-rights appeals might be more persuasive were they at least to acknowledge how the LTTE and its supporters see things—especially their sense of righteous victimization at the hands of Sinhala oppression. Unfortunately, the reports and bulletins of human-rights defenders rarely characterize the LTTE and their supporters as anything more than power-hungry fascists and cowards silenced by fear, rather than people with a political vision—however problematic—that they believe is right, so much so that it is worth making moral compromises to achieve.
To have any chance of persuading LTTE sympathizers that LTTE’s actions are wrong—and that they threaten the well-being of the Tamils, whose cause they claim to champion—activists would need to find ways to address the hold of the ideology of nationalist injury and sacrifice, which is used to justify all forms of struggle. For LTTE leaders this ideology is rooted in the experience of joining the liberation struggle as teenagers, and it at least partly explains their willingness to risk international condemnation by continuing child recruitment. Their conviction that they are pursuing a righteous collective struggle—and not merely an unbridled lust for power—allows Tiger supporters to consider those Tamil groups aligned with the government as traitors that need to be crushed. (The fact that non-LTTE Tamil parties and their paramilitary wings have in the past engaged in their own serious violations of human rights no doubt helps to confirm this belief.) Finally, one can’t forget the long history of failure of the Sinhala-dominated political establishment to make any serious and consistent efforts to accommodate Tamil aspirations. This allows today’s LTTE leaders and pro-LTTE Tamil nationalists to interpret the present government’s reluctance to accept the LTTE’s ISGA proposal as the basis of talks as an extension of the historical pattern—and thus to ignore the central role that LTTE’s own violations play in hardening the positions and hearts of many Sinhalese.
Will recognizing and engaging directly with these beliefs reduce the risk that human-rights critiques of the Tigers will fan the flames of Sinhala nationalism? It is certainly easy for an outsider to counsel others who are deeply enmeshed in a decades-long violent conflict about the potential advantages of using temperate and inclusive language and considering the full range of political arguments. But perhaps political change doesn’t come from engaging the arguments of opposition die-hards or international donors or even former allies who have made different choices about how to negotiate the dilemma of peace vs. human rights. The best hope for political change may lie in mobilizing those—Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhala—who have suffered and who don’t accept what is being done to them and in their name. Perhaps human-rights struggle is what is needed, not human-rights dialogue. Or perhaps truly meaningful dialogue can only come after the political battle lines have been more clearly drawn.
* * *
To their credit, the Collective for Batticaloa has been wrestling with these issues, as their report’s concluding question indicates: where, they ask, does peace come from? Does it come by opposing those who make war and weakening their power to wage it? Or does it come by working with those who have the guns, ratifying their hold on “their” people in the hopes of gradually transforming the way they make use of their power? The report reads,
The east is going to be the touchstone for the success of the peace process. Unless peace makers attend to the imperatives of peace and not of war they will be greatly failing in their mission. Peace making should involve resistance to the operations of the war machinery. We have cracks appearing in the east; mothers have resisted the forcible recruitment of their children. ‘My mother resisted the LTTE. But she was beaten up by them.’ When the Vanni and Karuna factions had lined up along either side of the Verugal river in Vaharai, in silent hostility, mothers had gone and demanded the release of their children. The courage of the families has to be applauded, materially and ideologically supported. We have a duty towards these people as they are resisting for us too, in our name. [Emphasis added.]
A more recent report issued by Human Rights Watch suggests the space for such resistance has now virtually disappeared. Yet the question remains: how best to encourage a just and sustainable peace, and how best to act in solidarity with people caught in between warring parties who have, over the past 25 years, shown little interest in their rights or well-being?
For the first few years of Sri Lanka’s increasingly fragile peace process, the approach taken by most local and international groups came to be known as “constructive engagement.” They believed that LTTE’s political transformation would take time and would be fostered more by collaboration than public criticism, and that an approach giving greater emphasis to economic rights, social rights, and humanitarian norms would be more attractive to LTTE. Many argued that it was time to move beyond the traditional tactic of “naming and shaming”: publicly denouncing human-rights shortcomings and demanding immediate compliance with international norms. Hence the explosion of international “visibility” trips for the LTTE’s political leadership to European capitals, political seminars and human-rights training workshops with mid-level LTTE cadres, international support for developing an LTTE administrative infrastructure in the north and the east, and funding for LTTE radio stations and satellite links and for pro-LTTE newspapers and civil society.
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Much of the appeal of this approach came from its apparently realistic appraisal of the LTTE’s military power and the central role this would give the LTTE in any process of negotiating a sustainable settlement. The approach gained further credence from the Norwegian-facilitated cease-fire, which was in its basic structure oriented to produce a deal between the LTTE and the government and guaranteed the marginalization of many of the constituencies whose consent will be necessary for the success of the peace process: the president and her Sri Lankan Freedom Party, Muslim parties, the Sinhala-nationalist JVP, other smaller Sinhala and Tamil parties, and the Buddhist clergy.
Over the past year, the Tigers’ killings and forcible recruitment of underage fighters have become so sustained and so brazen that many of those sympathetic to constructive engagement have begun to recognize its severe limitations. The hardening of attitudes in Colombo’s diplomatic community was already evident during the summer, and it had become even stronger over the months preceding the tsunami.
Debates about constructive engagement have themselves been part of a larger public debate about the proper role of the international community in shaping Sri Lanka’s future. There is widespread recognition that Sri Lanka’s political class has failed spectacularly in managing the country’s political conflicts, and that it could benefit from the assistance of neutral facilitators and “peacebuilders.” But under current conditions, international involvement has become a source of bickering and mistrust. All sides to Sri Lanka’s overlapping conflicts have grown increasingly suspicious that international support to the peace process benefits their opponents. Thus the Tigers’ decision in April 2003 to withdraw from peace talks was precipitated in part by their exclusion from an international donors’ meeting held in Washington, D.C. (an exclusion made necessary because the LTTE is banned in the United States under anti-terrorist legislation) and in part by efforts by the Sri Lankan government to construct a so-called international security safety net, to be activated in the event that the peace process fails. Of particular concern here has been apparently closer ties between the Sri Lankan and American militaries, and the agreement in principle between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments to a defense-cooperation agreement, which would offer the Sri Lankan state potentially significant military support in the event of renewed hostilities.
Elements of the present Sri Lankan government, in turn, and large portions of the Sinhalese people, are disturbed by what they see as a pro-LTTE bias on the part of the Norwegian facilitators and Scandinavian-staffed cease-fire monitors (the SLMM). Both are accused of ignoring massive Tiger cease-fire violations, thus allowing the LTTE to increase its military strength and political domination of the north and east. Many critics have been particularly troubled by Norwegian support for LTTE efforts to develop an administrative apparatus in the north and east—which legally, if not practically, remain within the jurisdiction of the Sri Lankan state.
The tsunami has clearly exacerbated these dynamics. Despite spontaneous acts of solidarity and support across ethnic and religious lines in the disaster’s immediate aftermath, the basic lines of conflict quickly reasserted themselves. Within days, the LTTE complained that the government was failing to supply adequate relief to the north and east, once more discriminating against the Tamils. (The government denied the charge, and most independent observers eventually reported that aid seemed to be getting through as well as could be expected.) Almost as quickly there emerged reliable reports that the LTTE was hijacking aid shipments and distributing them through their own networks in the areas of the north and east under their control. Independent observers also reported that Tamil refugees in LTTE-controlled areas were being forced out of government-run camps and into those administered by the LTTE’s relief and development wing, known as the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization. Most disturbing of all were the reports—verified by UNICEF and Human Rights Watch—that the LTTE was continuing to recruit children, exploiting the vulnerability of those living in refugee camps.
In the last few months, international pressure has grown on the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to agree to a “joint mechanism” for the equitable distribution of internationally funded relief and reconstruction aid in the north and east.
This proposal would for the first time give the LTTE a formal role in the distribution of large amounts of international assistance. It would thus solidify the LTTE’s hold on large portions of the Northeastern Province, while also offering the Tigers the more intangible, but perhaps even more valuable, commodity of international legitimacy.
Not surprisingly, the LTTE quickly expressed its willingness to sign such an agreement, and after some hesitation, so too has President Kumaratunga. But the JVP is strongly opposed to the joint mechanism, and has argued that it represents yet another attempt by the international community to undermine Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. It has promised to withdraw from the government—which would lead to its collapse—should the president sign the agreement.
While foreign governments and other international actors are impatient with the Sri Lankan government, they themselves have so far failed to recognize the needs of the Tamil people without offering undue recognition to the Tigers. Whatever the LTTE says, the Tigers are not the Tamil people.
What’s worse, by pushing an agreement that further empowers the LTTE without binding them to minimal democratic constraints, international donors have inadvertently strengthened the hands of the JVP and other Sinhala hardliners, offering further evidence of what these parties see as an international conspiracy to support the LTTE’s quest for a separate state. No matter what happens now, one of the two extremes is likely to feel bitterly betrayed: the JVP if the joint mechanism is agreed to, the LTTE if it isn’t. The reactions from either could well be violent.
In this sense, the problems bedeviling the distribution of tsunami relief are only the latest example of the limitations inherent in the Norwegian and international approach to peace-building, which focuses on only the two main actors. By systematically downplaying the importance of human rights and pluralism as central components in any process of trust-building and de-escalation, the bipolar approach has weakened the middle—those Sinhalese and Tamils and Muslims interested in compromise. The fact that representatives of Muslim political and civil society have been almost entirely ignored in the negotiations to devise the joint mechanism, even though Muslim communities in the eastern province suffered devastating and disproportionately severe effects from the tsunami, only further undermines the potential benefits of the proposal. The concerns of Muslims must be placed at the center of post-tsunami reconstruction and conflict-resolution efforts.
The central goal for the international community, then, should not be to devise an impossibly neutral intervention, but rather to help increase the space for Sri Lankans of all ethnicities to engage in their own independent democratic politics. The two most pressing political questions in this regard are interrelated: can foreign governments and international agencies devise effective ways to put pressure on the Tigers to curtail their worst policies—without simply letting the Sri Lankan state and Sinhalese majority off the hook? And can foreign donors learn how to support the development of forms of independent local civil-society activism capable of defending human rights more effectively?
The answers to date have not been terribly positive. With respect to the latter question, the precedents are particularly discouraging: under the rubric of constructive engagement, donor willingness to fund explicitly pro-LTTE projects—projects that make no claim to be balanced or to listen to all voices—is accompanied by a general reluctance to support any human-rights model that might complicate the dominant approach to peacemaking. (The case of the Collective for Batticaloa is not at all isolated.) To meet this challenge, donor agencies and governments must be more willing to hold themselves accountable to the Sri Lankan people and to those civil-society organizations they fund. The agendas that will shape Sri Lanka’s future must be open to debate and collaborative development rather than, as is too often the case, decided elsewhere, with Sri Lankans expected to play the role of the faithful “implementing agency.”
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The case of Bindunuwewa reveals the dangers of unaccountable outside engagement. The camp itself and the overall rehabilitation system for ex-LTTE fighters were funded in part by international sources. International organizations and NGOs helped to train camp staff and lent other forms of support to the project of “rehabilitating” ex-LTTE combatants. They did so with full knowledge of the role played by the Bindunuwewa camp in the Sri Lankan government’s propaganda campaign to have the LTTE banned in western countries, and they lent their prestige to the program without insisting on basic safeguards—including protections for the lives of detainees.
After the massacre, representatives of western governments and international organizations expressed well-founded outrage, but apparently never considered their own role in the tragedy. After insisting that the government investigate the case and pursue prosecutions, attention to the legal case quickly waned. By the time the trial was underway, no one in any of the major diplomatic missions was following the case. Even so, the prosecution won five convictions (one reason may have been the chief justice’s appointment of a particularly tough judge, later assassinated, in the hope that the convictions of some low-level players would take international pressure off the government). But by the time the verdicts had been announced and the appeals process begun, only a few of the international players in Colombo even knew about the case.
That said, the principal responsibility for the massacres of course lies with the Sri Lankan state, and here, despite years of studying and living in Sri Lanka, I was in for an unexpected shock. Last August I attended one of the final Bindunuwewa appeals hearings. Held before a five-member bench of the supreme court, the justices—addressed by counsel as “your lordships” and adorned in dark red judicial robes and stiff white collars—had all the markings of decorum. At previous hearings earlier in the summer I had been disturbed by the apparent sympathy of most of the justices for the arguments of the lawyer for the second police officer convicted of murder. (The first had earlier been acquitted when the prosecution admitted that its evidence against him was insufficient.) But the final hearing was truly shocking. As the solicitor general repeatedly referred to the ways the Tamil inmates had been murdered—“beaten, stabbed, and some even roasted alive” he would say with a flourish—one of the justices began to mock his emphasis on the word “roasted.” This brought much laughter from the other justices and the defense lawyers, and even, most disturbingly, from the government lawyers themselves.
This conduct was only the most grotesque example of the judges’ utter disdain for the crimes under consideration and for the state’s responsibility to determine the truth. The proceedings were filled with bad jokes and undignified behavior, lacked any sense of gravity of the case, and indicated no awareness of the state’s obligation to protect the inmates whatever their political sympathies.
Sitting quietly and scribbling in my notebook, I felt overcome with the desire to pick up a gun and join the Tigers. I could only imagine how Sri Lankan Tamils would feel. But the only Tamil in the hearing room that day was my friend and sometime translator, who had lived virtually her entire life outside of Sri Lanka. Not one justice, not one lawyer, not one courtroom observer—as far as I could tell—was Tamil.
Bindunuwewa and the continuing legal and bureaucratic saga present powerful evidence of institutional discrimination against Tamils that persists even—perhaps especially—at the highest levels of the judiciary and the police. It offers all too compelling support for the LTTE line that the government will never offer a fair settlement of Tamil grievances. And it explains why LTTE’s arguments continue to have resonance with so many Sri Lankan Tamils, both inside and outside the country. Most sadly, perhaps, it represents just how little “reconciliation” or “mutual understanding” has been achieved over the three years of what Sri Lankans have come to call the period of “no war, no peace.”