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A Tamil Sri Lankan Tragedy

Wish Sri Lanka returns to peace. The war has been too costly for the island nation - too many innocent people killed. All in the name of power and control.

Vallipunam: A Sri Lankan Tragedy

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

"The Sinhalese polity had two choices. One is to treat the Tamils as a fifth column to be degraded and marginalised by a mixture of violence, attrition and deceit. The second is to trust them, take the plunge into federalism and build up a relationship of amity." The UTHR (Ketheeswaran Loganathan and the Tamil dissidents’ dilemma – 15.8.2006)

The Tigers say that the Vallipunam air raid targeted an orphanage hosting a leadership and first aid training workshop for school girls of Mullaitivu and Killinochchi. The government contends that it was a LTTE training camp for child soldiers. Either way we can be sure that the young participants did not have much of a choice about their presence in Vallipunam at 7 am on 14th August 2006. If the LTTE is correct, the participants would have been ordered to attend the ‘workshop’ with no excuses tolerated; something the Tigers have been doing to schoolchildren throughout the peace process, with nary a protest from Wickremesinghe, Bandaranaike or Rajapakse regimes.

If the government is correct, these were children conscripted by the Tigers. One way or the other, the girls who perished in Vallipunam was not guilty of any crime; their only crime was to be Tamil children, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their deaths symbolise not only the brutality of the conflict but also the hypocrisy of both the LTTE and the regime in their dealings with Tamil people. Neither the LTTE, the self-declared liberator of the Tamils, nor the Lankan state, which claims the Tamils as its citizens, cares about the basic rights of the Tamils, including the right to life. The Tigers want Tamil corpses and the government has no compunction about providing them.

In December 2001 the newly elected Wickremesinghe administration declared a ceasefire. The Tigers responded positively. But the guns did not fall silent in the North and the East. During the peace process the Tigers carried out a concerted campaign to wipe out their Tamil opponents and to cow the Tamil civilians into submission. This was made possible by a MoU which paid scant heed to the basic human rights of the North Eastern Tamils and enslaved the Tamil people to the Tigers. The South and the international community wanted peace at any cost and were not about to let the rights of the Tamils to stand in the way of achieving this overarching goal by appeasing the Tigers.

Now the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. The right of impunity which was bestowed on the Tigers under the ceasefire is in danger of being transferred to the Lankan Forces in the Fourth Eelam War. The execution style killing of five students in Trincomalee in April, together with a number of other incidents in which civilians became the target of counter-violence by the Lankan Forces, is indicative of this disturbing possibility. Obviously the regime does not understand the vampiric nature of the Tiger and that it feeds on the blood of the Tamil people, especially children. The Vallipunam raid which caused the deaths of scores of young Tamil girls is not only an act of immorality which demeans the Lankan state; it is also a rare propaganda coup for the Tigers which they, with their customary skill, are using to the maximum. Ultimately this atrocity will benefit neither Sri Lanka nor its security but the LTTE and the project of Tiger Eelam. The fact that the Tamil Nadu state assembly roundly and unanimously condemned an action by the Lankan state is indicative of the bonanza the Tigers received from the Lankan Air Force, literally out of the blues.

The Tragedy of the Child Soldier

The MoU sacrificed the North Eastern Tamils to the appeasement needs of the Sinhalese and the fascistic designs of the Tigers. Its biggest victims were Tamil children. Child conscription was one of the main preoccupations of the Tigers during the last ceasefire. Using the opportunities afforded by the MoU, which did not contain any clauses safeguarding Tamil children from conscription, the LTTE ventured unhindered into government controlled areas (in the memorable words of Father Harry Miller 'like an ogre periodically descending from a mountain') and took away Tamil children from schools and homes. The regime, the SLMM and the Southern society turned a blind eye to this outrage while the Tamil Diaspora (with its own children safely in schools and universities) justified and celebrated it. The peaceniks ignored this abomination in the name of peace while the patriots did not care because it was Tamil kids. The only ones who cared were a handful of individuals (like Father Miller and Prof. Harendra Silva of National Child Protection Authority) and organisations (such as the UTHR, the Human Rights Watch and the Amnesty International). When the AI raised the issue of child conscription in early 2002, Defence Minister Tilak Marapone in an interview with the BBC, dismissed the reports as 'unconfirmed gossip' of which the Government had no evidence. (UTHR – Special Report No. 14 – 20th July 2002). The rest of the South (including those patriots who are raring to defeat the Tigers over the corpses of Tamil children) maintained a deafening silence.

Not only did the government not try to stop child proscription; it also permitted the Tigers to give orders to government officials even in the cleared areas. The LTTE, for instance, was permitted to demand the attendance of school children at their various functions and programmes. When parents and the teachers protested, the state did not come to their aid. When the Tigers intimidated or murdered those who protested (including two school principles in Jaffna) the culprits were allowed to get away scot-free. All in the name of peace. It took the untiring efforts of a handful of Tamil and international organisations, notably the UTHR, the Human Rights Watch and the AI, and the late Lakshman Kadirgamar to bring the crime of child conscription to the attention of the international community. The EU and the Canadian ban on the LTTE was in part a result of the efforts of these individuals and organisations, all of them non-Sinhala.

Let us assume that the government is right and the Vallipunam was a Tiger training centre and the victims were child soldiers. Civilised states do not treat child criminals the same way they treat adult criminals. Children are punished but qualitatively less severely than adults; the assumption is that the degree of culpability is less precisely because they are children. The same principle should be applicable to child soldiers, particularly if, as we claim, these are conscripts, taken away by the Tigers against their wishes and cowed or brainwashed into obedience. True, in a fire-fight this principle is hard to apply; in a situation of combat it is not possible to wonder whether the enemy attacking you is a child or an adult. But this principle can and should apply in the case of predetermined air raids, especially in a theatre where fighting is not taking place. It is one thing to kill child soldiers when they are engaged in battle. It is quite another thing to deliberately target conscripted children in training camps (the same difference as attacking navy crafts on patrol and the targeting of the Pearl II cruiser which was carrying 700 troops on home leave, a difference we were quick to capitalise on, and rightly so). The first can be excused as a sad necessity of war; the second is an act of terror which makes a mockery of our entire campaign against child conscription.

An act of terror is an act of terror irrespective of the identity of its author. If an act of terror is committed by terrorists it is reprehensible, though not exactly remarkable; terrorists are terrorists precisely because terrorism is their modus operandi. However when a democratic state commits an act of terror, it is not only reprehensible but also a cause for serious concern because it can indicate the future trajectory of that state. Mistakes happen in wars; the Vallipunam raid which killed scores of young girls could have been a mistake; but the subsequent attempts to justify it, implying that any Tamil child forcibly given even a limited training by the Tigers is a legitimate target, even out of the battlefield, is a reason for concern. This 'justification' can be used by a segment of the state to target Tamil children indiscriminately, in the name of fighting the LTTE.

The Indian Factor

The Tigers are trying hard to woo India. This is obviously a strategic goal. The LTTE attack on the Pakistani High Commissioner (which the Tigers have not bothered to deny, as they usually do, in the case of high profile crimes with political implications) could be a part of this grand plan to win over or neutralise India, if not now, at least under a different, a more pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim administration. India suspects a Pakistani involvement in her own terrorist problem; the BJP has been very vocal about this suspicion. According to the BJP President Rajnath Singh "It is a known fact that Pakistan is at the centre of all terrorist activities. India should ask Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to dismantle it on its own, but if he finds it difficult then he should ask for India's help. But even if he fails to act then India should take the international community into confidence and dismantle the terrorist camps being run on the Pakistani soil" (The Hindu – 15.8.2006). It is possible, that the Tigers, by targeting a Pakistani diplomat, were sending a signal to India in general and the BJP in particular that they can be a willing and an able ally in India’s own battle against terrorism.

Incidents such as the Vallipunam killing are bonuses which will help the Tigers in this task of wooing India. Probably for the first time since the killing of Rajiv Gandhi, the Tamil Nadu state assembly has unanimously condemned an action of the Lankan government in the strongest possible terms. Describing the air raid as 'barbaric, uncivilised and inhuman' the state assembly observed a two minutes silence in honour of the victims. The Lankan government has given to the Tigers on a platter something they have tried hard, albeit unsuccessfully, to achieve – causing a change in the political and public opinion in Tamil Nadu against Sri Lanka (and thus for the LTTE). A few more incidents of the Vallipunam sort and we will push Tamilnadu to where it was during the First Eelam War; Delhi and the world will not take long to follow.

Whatever its military successes, Sri Lanka is not doing well in the 'war of perceptions'. And in winning the 'war of perceptions' superior fire-power can be a hindrance, as the fate of Israel demonstrates. When Israel commenced its all out war against the Hezbollah the Sinhala supremacists rejoiced, dreaming of emulating the Jewish state. They should take a good look at the results of that war – a vastly more popular and stronger Hezbollah, a direct result of Israel’s air war which did not discriminate against the armed enemy and the civilians; and a peace deal which is a politico-propaganda defeat to Israel. Hezbollah is emerging from the rubble of South Lebanon as heroes; Lebanon’s Christian Prime Minister has firmly refused to disarm the Shite group hailing them as the only organisation which stood up to Israel; and Sheik Hassan Nasrallah is the most popular leader in the Arab world today. That is what Israel’s indiscriminate warfare did for Hezbollah and did to the Jewish state. If we continue on our present course, if there are more Vallipunams, we will hand the Tigers a similar victory. There is nothing that helps the Tigers as much as the corpses of dead Tamil men, women and children, killed by the 'enemy'.

Vallipunam is a Tamil tragedy; it is also a Sri Lankan tragedy. It symbolises the plight of the North Eastern Tamil children – citizens of Sri Lanka, abandoned by the state, exploited by the Tigers and finally killed by the Armed Forces. The Tigers took away their right to childhood, with the tacit connivance of the Lankan state, which then proceeded to target them and justify that act by claiming that they were child conscripts. The Tigers and the regime both acted unjustly and cynically with brutal disregard for those young lives. The presence of those young Tamil girls in Vallipunam and their deaths demonstrate that the Tigers have no concern for the Tamils and the state and regime are Sri Lankan in name only.


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