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Home > General > Sri Lanka: The Price of Truth-Telling, The Price of Lying . . (...)

Sri Lanka: The Price of Truth-Telling, The Price of Lying . . .

by Rohini Hensman, 2 September 2008

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(October 2007)

Last week, Rajan Hoole of University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) accepted the Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders on behalf of UTHR(J), his colleague K.Sritharan, and himself.

Many of us who had been following their writings from 1987 onwards were overjoyed when the Martin Ennals Foundation finally gave them the recognition they so richly deserve. Like a compass, their reports have provided direction to seekers of justice and peace in Sri Lanka’s political wilderness. They have been able to play this role because of their single-minded dedication to discovering and publicising the truth. They have not been content to report the atrocities perpetrated by the Sri Lanka state security forces, but have also taken up violations by the IPKF and associated groups, the LTTE, and other armed Tamil groups. Nor did they stop at criticising abuses against Tamils, but protested equally strongly against abuses directed at Muslims and Sinhalese.

Members of the group have paid a heavy price for telling the truth. In September 1989, founder-member Rajani Thiranagama was killed by the LTTE, which also incarcerated thousands of Tamil dissidents in underground prisons, torturing and killing many. Other leaders were forced to flee Jaffna, leaving their homes and jobs, and go underground to escape a similar fate. They continue to live like this, without permanent homes, their children facing an uncertain future, unable to do the one thing they would most like to do: return home to Jaffna. And yet they continue with their work, providing both information and analysis which is critically important to anyone seeking a just peace in Sri Lanka.

In the period following the signing of the 2002 CFA, UTHR(J) reports tended to concentrate on human rights violations by the LTTE, who, as usual, used the ceasefire to hunt and kill their critics and opponents, and to continue conscripting children. They also criticised those who supported this so-called peace process uncritically, including the Norwegian mediators. In a bulletin entitled ‘In the Name of “Peace”: Terror Stalks the North-East,’ released on 1 February 2002, they berated ‘the liberal camp, the peace lobby, church and civil society groups in Colombo. Along with their Tamil colleagues, they have largely ceased to question crimes by the LTTE, particularly against its own people. In the belief that they should do nothing to rock the peace boat, they are propelling it towards another disaster. They carry on as though it is the LTTE’s right to indulge at pleasure in political killings, conscription and recruitment of children. This is reflected in the huge silences and distortions in their statements made as peace and election monitoring groups. By purposefully ignoring the fascist controls that are shot through the whole fabric of Tamil society, they find no difficulty in detecting near hundred percent Tamil support for the LTTE as their sole representatives and sole arbiter in any peace process. Any active opposition to the LTTE within Tamil society that continues at heavy cost is regarded by them as a nuisance, rather than an essential pre-requisite for a return to sanity.’

It is largely thanks to UTHR(J) and other dissident Tamils that many international human rights organisations and governments stopped viewing the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, and started documenting their human rights abuses. Chandrika Kumaratunga’s public admission of injustices against Tamils, signifying a commitment to ending those injustices, along with Lakshman Kadirgamar’s trenchant criticisms of the LTTE, helped to secure bans on it in many countries. The fortunes of the LTTE were clearly on the wane.

Before the war broke out again, UTHR(J) remained critical of the LTTE’s ‘orgy of killing’ (bulletin dated 1 November 2005), and after the outbreak of war they still documented LTTE atrocities, clearly blaming the LTTE for the resumption of hostilities. Yet the overall balance gradually shifted towards atrocities by state security forces: for example, the cold-blooded murder of five students in Trincomalee on 2 January 2006 and terrorisation of their families and witnesses to prevent them from testifying; the Allaipiddy massacre of eight civilians, including two infants, on 12 May; the gruesome sexual assault and murder of a couple and their two small children in Vankalai on 9 June; the execution-style killing of 17 Action Contre Faim humanitarian workers on 5 August; and the massacre of eight Muslim labourers and two others in Pottuvil on 17 September.

This is a small sample of the thousands of civilians killed, but it highlights two characteristics: (a) the deliberate nature of the atrocities: there is no way these killings could be accidental; and (b) the fact that the victims are unarmed civilians, whose only crime is that they – like the Jews and gypsies exterminated by the Nazis – happen to belong to minority communities. Since terrorism is defined as ‘acts or threats of violence against unarmed civilians in pursuit of a political objective,’ these are acts of terrorism committed by state-linked forces. UTHR(J) also documented cases where child conscription by the Karuna forces was aided and abetted by government security forces. It supported the Presidential Commission of Enquiry into extrajuducial killings and disappearances (CoI), yet noted that the Chairman had a conflict of interest because he was involved in two of the cases under investigation, and concurred with the reservations of the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) observing the CoI, reiterating the need for UN monitoring of continuing human rights violations.

After the military supposedly ‘liberated’ the East from the LTTE, UTHR(J) reported that ‘The East is now under a total militarisation of the civil administration, by a military enjoying a 23-year-history of absolute impunity, killing thousands of Tamil civilians without anyone being punished. There are no democratic structures where the civilians have a credible voice, such as a political settlement with meaningful devolution would have provided. State-affiliated killer groups run loose picking out targets among Tamils with leadership qualities.’ It concluded, ‘Given the history of violence in the East over the last two and a half decades, the East more than any other region calls for a UN Human Rights Field Operation, to ensure independent and impartial monitoring, investigation and reporting on human rights abuses as well as to contribute towards the protection of civilians. If the government is serious about winning the confidence of the local populations, particularly the minority communities, a deterrent against abuses, as what international human rights monitoring offers, will also demonstrate the government’s commitment to protect civilians.’

The Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf!’

Is the government listening? As a child, I was told Aesop’s fable about the shepherd-boy who amused himself by crying ‘Wolf!’ when there was no wolf. At first the villagers came running to help him, but after he had laughed at them three or four times, decided not to respond in future. So when a wolf actually did come, no one came to help the boy when he cried ‘Wolf!’ and his flock was decimated. I also learned a poem about a girl called Matilda, who told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes. One day she called the fire brigade to come when there was no fire, and her aunt, with whom she was staying, had to pay them to go away after they had doused the house in water. The next time she was alone in the house, a fire did break out, but every time she shouted ‘Fire!’ the neighbours answered, ‘Little liar!’, and consequently, when her aunt returned, Matilda and the house were burned.

It is by means of stories like these that children learn the price to be paid for persistent lying: people may believe you once or twice, but then you lose their trust and they never believe you again, even on those rare occasions when you happen to be telling the truth. Apparently spokespersons of the government were never told these stories, since they lie compulsively about human rights violations in Sri Lanka, and still expect people, especially foreigners, to believe them. Yet most people are neither so ignorant nor so stupid. They may listen politely while government spokespeople say that everything is fine in the East, and the only human rights violations are by the LTTE, yet they are likely to be thinking that not a word of what is being said is true. All this is a bonanza for the LTTE. First, the security forces’ atrocities provide them with endless opportunities for propaganda; then the government cover-up allows them to dismiss everything said by the government – including legitimate charges against the LTTE – as untrue!

The government’s stock response to accusations of human rights violations is to vilify the accusers as ‘LTTE supporters’, or even ‘terrorists’. Yet nothing could be further from the truth so far as UTHR(J) activists are concerned. No one has sacrificed as much as they have in order to oppose the LTTE; so long as the LTTE remains, they can never go home or live in security. The record can be checked on their website, at www.uthr.org – their consistent and strong opposition to the LTTE is undeniable. And ‘terrorists’? That epithet is more applicable to those in the government who sponsor death squads than to activists of UTHR(J), whose commitment to non-violence and humanitarianism shines through all their reports. It is not they who support the LTTE, but elements in the government who constantly present the LTTE with propaganda material by committing human rights violations – and then discredit the government by lying about them.

So if the government wishes to avoid the fate of Matilda and the boy who cried ‘Wolf!’, it needs to clean up its act so far as human rights violations are concerned and invite UN human rights monitors to bear witness to its performance. The same monitors will also be able to testify to the gross abuses committed by the LTTE, thus strengthening the government’s credibility and discrediting the LTTE. As UTHR(J) puts it, ‘if the Government accepts an equitable political settlement and upholding human rights and the rule of law as the way forward, it and the country stand to benefit enormously from UN involvement, in the form of a Human Rights Field Operation that includes human rights monitoring, reporting and technical support to strengthen our institutions. UN monitoring could also be used to make it costly for the LTTE to continue with political killings and conscription by taking cover behind the State’s conduct.’

Will the government have the wisdom to accept this advice? Or will it continue to undermine itself and strengthen the Tigers politically?