For the past 14 years, University Teachers for Human Rights
has published scathing reports detailing human-rights abuses
in Sri Lanka. The reports include firsthand accounts of forced
recruitment of child soldiers by the Tamil Tigers.
the eyes of Rajan Hoole, a member of UTHR and a crusader for
human rights in Sri Lanka, documentation of abuses is vital
to reform efforts. Underscoring the dangers of such reporting,
Hoole must travel the country in disguise. Hoole and other members
of UTHR seek to leave a record of human stories that will inform
Sri Lanka's political future as it moves toward a mediated peace
process between the government and the LTTE.
In November of 2001, FRONTLINE/World's Joe Rubin met
with Rajan Hoole and filed this report.
civil war broke out in Sri Lanka in 1983, Rajan Hoole was a
mathematics professor and classical pianist living in the cosmopolitan
Tamil mecca of Jaffna in the north of the country. He stayed
clear of politics. But by the late 1980's, disturbed by reports
of massacres and other human-rights atrocities resulting from
the war, Hoole and three hundred other professors joined University
Teachers For Human Rights (UTHR) in Jaffna.
In 1991 UTHR's founder, Dr. Rajani Thirangama, was assassinated
in Jaffna by the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). The assassination had
a chilling effect on the human-rights organization, and its
numbers dwindled. But for Hoole, the murder of Thirangama had
the opposite impact. He was transformed from a shy, Oxford-educated
professor into a daring human-rights crusader for UTHR.
Over the past two decades, Hoole, who is himself a Tamil, has
at various times taken on the government, the Indian army, and
the Tamil Tigers, authoring dozens of blistering reports of
human-rights abuses in a conflict that has taken 64,000 lives.
While Hoole has many enemies in Sri Lanka, challenging the Tamil
Tigers is particularly daring. The Tigers have made a habit
of targeting fellow Tamils who criticize their often ruthless
tactics. UTHR estimates that more than 8,000 Tamils have been
killed by the Tigers.
Considering all this, the risks Rajan Hoole took in attacking
the Tigers human-rights record were remarkable.
I decided Hoole was someone I should try and meet, so I sent
out some feelers. One afternoon I got a call with the message,
"Rajan would be willing to meet you." An hour later, as the
sun set on another scorching day in Colombo, Hoole was knocking
on the door of my hotel room. I expected him to look nervously
over his shoulder. But he entered the room deliberately and
introduced himself. He's been taking deadly risks for a decade.
I'd spent the night before reading his latest report for UTHR
on the use of child soldiers by the Tamil Tigers. The report
alleges that child soldiers make up sixty percent of the Tigers'
Hoole told me, "if you give a child a gun and tell them to go
into a village and shoot someone, let's say a civilian the LTTE
(Tamil Tigers) wanted to get rid of, the child can actually
do that kind of thing very effectively. For them it's a game
of hide and seek."
Allegations of the rampant use of child soldiers by the Tigers
are nothing new. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers,
an international watchdog group, has for a decade singled out
the Tamil Tigers as one of the worst offenders when it comes
to using boys and girls, some as young as nine years old, as
foot soldiers. Hoole's
latest report breaks new ground by painting a disturbing picture
of forced conscription.
[the families] are being told," Hoole says, "is that if you
don't give a child to the LTTE, that you're a traitor and that
you don't deserve to live here. Your house and property will
be confiscated and you will be driven out of the LTTE area.
the parents are forced to give up a child, they are made to
go before television cameras and make a claim that they are
doing this entirely voluntarily. Usually when this happens,
the atmosphere in the home turns to that of a funeral. Broken
by the event, a number of [the parents] have committed suicide."
Because UTHR's field work in Sri Lanka is so dangerous, Hoole
travels the country in disguise, by bus and on the cheap, collecting
the stories of human-rights abuses first hand. "It's dangerous.
I have to take precautions all the time. I maintain a great
deal of uncertainty about my movements and where I stay. I have
a few friends who I depend on a lot. Besides that we are cut
off from the community," Hoole said.
While Hoole's life has all the daring drama of a political thriller,
friends say he maintains his equilibrium through routine. Every
morning before dawn, Hoole works out complicated math equations
to keep his mind fresh and calm.
lot of human-rights work around the world is a kind of prestige
job within the country, or written from comfortable desks somewhere
6,000 miles away," said Peter Rosenblum, associate director
of Harvard Law School's Human Rights Program. "With Rajan Hoole's
reports, the word that always comes to my mind is €intimacy.'
They give a sense of the genealogy of the conflict and include
a great deal of nuance, differentiating between those who are
working with the LTTE because they are under duress and have
no choice, and those who are enthusiastic participants."
is phenomenal," says Rosenblum. "They've suffered the indignities
put upon them by the Sinhalese majority, and at the same time
they've believed to such an extent in pluralism and human rights
that they were willing to risk their lives to take on their
so-called liberators. Every step they take they risk their lives."
Chance for Lasting Peace?
UTHR's work on child soldiers comes at a critical time in Sri
Lanka's peace process. The government and the Tamil Tigers are
about to sit down with Norwegian mediators and possibly hash
out a peace agreement that could bring the civil war to an end,
and put the Tamil Tigers in a position of legitimate power.
I wondered how Hoole, a Tamil, felt about the prospect of a
Tamil Tiger-led state. I asked him if the world should consider
the Tigers to be liberation fighters or terrorists.
problem with categorizing an organization as terrorists," he
answered, "is that you look for sensational acts of violence
on foreign soil. But the LTTE is more an organization that is
against ordinary human aspirations. They want to place the people
within a fascist polity, where there can't be any kind of independent
thought or dissent."
But despite all the human-rights abuses that UTHR has documented,
members of the group feel that the current peace process could
offer some hope. "I have a lot of doubts about the peace process,
especially if this is just about quick fixes, rather than creating
the conditions for lasting peace," said K. Sritharan, a longtime
if all parties -- the Norwegians, the LTTE and the government
-- make a commitment to civil society and plurality, then the
peace process could be a hopeful thing. Otherwise, if this is
just about taming the Tiger, peace with no real commitment to
human rights, then I'm afraid things will break down into a
bloody mess again soon."
relevant to this article:
For Human Rights (UTHR) in Jaffna
UTHR aims to document, humanize, and raise awareness of human
rights violations. The Web site includes the latest breaking
news briefings, bulletins and reports, as well as background
information on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and a history
of the organization's efforts.
Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers
The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers was formed in1998
by six international non-governmental organizations to prevent
people under the age of 18 from participating in hostile or
military activities. The organization is active in 40 countries,
in efforts to create greater awareness of the problem and lobby
for enforced international legal standards for the rights of
International - Child Soldiers in Sri Lanka
Amnesty International is a member organization of The Coalition
to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. This report on child soldiers
in Sri Lanka provides details on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam (LTTE) and their large-scale recruitment of children for