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University Teachers for Human Rights

Since Rajani's death in 1989, University Teachers for Human Rights has continued her work of documenting human-rights abuses. Learn more about the current situation in Sri Lanka in this interview with members of the organization.

Dr. K. Sritharan and Dr. Rajan Hoole are members of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) [UTHR(J)], an independent human-rights watchdog group in Sri Lanka, and and coauthors of The Broken Palmyra. Dr. Hoole is also the author of Sri Lanka, The Arrogance of Power: Myths, Decadence and Murder.

The responses below reflect the shared views of Dr. Sritharan and Dr. Hoole, except as noted.

POV: How has the mission of UTHR(J) changed since the group's founding in 1988?

Dr. Sritharan and Dr. Hoole: From the outset, the mission of UTHR(J) has been to challenge the terror, both external and internal, that engulfed the Tamil community by working to make the perpetrators accountable, and to create space for humanizing the social and political spheres relating to the life of our community. That mission has not changed, but the sad reality is that UTHR(J)'s activism has not so far succeeded in opening up space in the community and empowering people and their institutions to actively challenge the propagators of human-rights violations.

Our initiative to open up space was cruelly cut short by the assassination of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama in September 1989. Rajani's assassination was also a calculated warning to those who tried to continue the work in the university. Despite the blow, the UTHR(J)'s work was continued by a wide spectrum of young dissidents who dared to defy the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers). This too became impossible when in early 1990 the LTTE began mass arrests of actual and potential dissidents, thousands of whom perished in its camps after sadistic torture.

Although our mission as stated above has not changed, we continued to respond to the changing situation, using whatever support and alliances of like-minded persons and groups we had at that time. Immediately after the LTTE resumed war with the Sri Lankan state in 1990 following the grave provocation of massacring hundreds of Sinhalese and Muslim policemen who had been disarmed, the east saw calculated state-instigated massacres of Tamil civilians and the LTTE deliberately massacring Muslims in their villages to exacerbate Tamil insecurity with an eye to recruitment and propaganda. At this time an NGO (non-governmental organization) based in the Sinhalese South helped us to move into the troubled areas and document the tragedy.

In 1995, with Chandrika Kumaratunge as the new president, there was a real peace initiative involving the Sinhalese people as has not been seen since. A number of groups in the South were mobilized to support the initiative and we participated in discussions with several of them. But the LTTE not unexpectedly returned to war, leading to a military stalemate by 1998.

One of our principal positions has always been that peace and dignity for all people could be secured only through a process that emphasizes democracy and human rights and, moreover, helps us to come to terms with past violations by all parties.

POV: What impact does the murder of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama have on the group's work? Does it deter some people from contributing to the group's documentary efforts? Does it serve as an inspiration for your work?

Dr. Sritharan: The killing of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama reinforced the fear that engulfed the community from the mid-eighties after the LTTE decimated all the other alternative organized politico-military organizations and banned all independent civil-society activism. The Tamil community in Jaffna was atomized. It grew powerless to assert itself, except as a manifestation of the LTTE's political manipulation. People internalized their fear and learned to survive without any ability to influence the situation. Almost the entire middle class, anyone with the means and connections to do so, migrated to the West and Australia.

The LTTE killed Dr. Rajani Thiranagama to send a message that no alternative opinion would be tolerated. Fear began to creep in even as those who valued Rajani's work and her mission decided her killing should not be permitted to enable the LTTE to stifle the emerging public spirit. With support from various activists around the world and from the South, the university commemorated her memory in Jaffna 60 days after her assassination, but the pressure on the university community mounted.

In essence, the killing of Rajani halted the open activity of the UTHR(J) in Jaffna University and documentation of violations became much more difficult in the north. But that UTHR(J) continued to function with the support of individuals from various walks of life, showing that there remained a determined alternative view point in the Tamil community and that terror cannot destroy the human sprit.

Today, dissidents are increasingly gathering their courage and coming forward to challenge the LTTE's undemocratic claim to "sole representation." People have begun to question the direction of the Tamil nationalist struggle as well as the Sinhalese extremist view which equates the Tamils and LTTE and thus rejects any need for a political solution. I hope we have helped encourage them to speak out.

POV: What has changed for Sri Lankans since the 2002 ceasefire agreement was signed? Recent reports suggest that violence continues while settlement negotiations have stalled. Is that the case?

Dr. Sritharan: The signing of the 2002 ceasefire agreement (CFA) stopped an all-out war and brought temporary respite for the people. But unfortunately the facilitators of the peace process and the government of the day failed to take into account the political dynamism in the South and the nature of the LTTE and its insidious control over the Tamil community.

The LTTE continued to annihilate the remaining alternative voices in the government-controlled areas and forced the so-called moderate elements of the Tamil political leadership to become servile to its agenda. Forced child recruitment was rampant during this period.

The international community and especially Norway failed to apply enough pressure on the LTTE to participate in the real negotiations and on the government to move toward finding a political frame to resolve the crisis.

The LTTE has continuously faced tensions between its desire to use the peace process to consolidate its power and its need to sustain its cadres as a combat-ready fighting force, willing to commit suicide to achieve its ultimate aim of eelam, a separate state. It has killed thousands of Tamils in the name achieving Tamil eelam: youths, intellectuals, moderate politicians, political leaders in the South, even a prime minister of India. It has brainwashed many girls and boys from marginalized subcommunities in a purposefully barren, closed environment, bombarding their thoughts with the notion that there is no alternative to eelam. It has sent them, without any inhibitions, on suicidal missions to kill individual politicians.

There is always the potential for the tension between these competing objectives to flare up into full-scale war. This has happened at least three times since 1987. These tensions came to the fore in an LTTE-instigated outpouring of war hysteria during the end of 2004, and just when the ceasefire seemed a lost cause, the tsunami struck the island on December 26 and the country was, for the moment, spared a return to war.

Dr. Hoole: The ceasefire gave people much-needed respite from full-scale war, gave opportunities for the removal of landmines, which were a proximate hazard to rural folk, and eased some restrictions on travel and trade. These were short-term gains constantly under threat from war preparations, especially by the LTTE, as evidenced from the massive conscription of children and constant targeted elimination of political opponents from the very start of the ceasefire. There was mounting fear in both the South and the north that the benefits of the ceasefire would be short-lived. Politically this was reflected in the Sinhalese voters who in 2001 voted for Ranil Wickremasinghe's UNP (United National Party) in the hope that the war would be brought to an end, expressing their disillusionment by shifting towards discredited Sinhalese nationalist positions at last November's presidential election. There are real fears about the LTTE among the Sinhalese — and also shared by many Tamils — and that is to do with the last part of your question.

Negotiations never really began after the ceasefire agreement was signed. The LTTE never in its entire history discussed a political settlement. It used a suicide bomber to kill the eminent constitutional lawyer Neelan Thiruchelvam, who worked with President Kumaratunge to craft a political settlement along federal lines. The so-called Oslo Agreement was announced in December 2002, and in it the UNP government and the LTTE agreed to seek a settlement along federal lines. Two months later the LTTE under pressure agreed to discuss a human-rights agreement as part of the peace process. Four months later, in June 2003, the LTTE had walked out of the talks. This is not to exonerate the governments from their crude calculations and their absence of concern for how the ceasefire was bought at the price of condemning Tamils helplessly to further child conscription and greater impunity. But I mainly want to point out that rather than act as leaders or representatives of the Tamil people, responsibly seeking a political settlement they dearly wanted, they used the ceasefire to tighten their hold as predators preying on the Tamil people.

POV: Has the ceasefire altered the focus of UTHR's work — for example, if ongoing violence has decreased, does the group focus on documenting past human rights violations?

Dr. Hoole: Yes, the violence has been in numbers less than what it was in full-scale war. The killings are in the hundreds rather than in the thousands. [But] these statistics are misleading. What is important is what is being built up behind the scenes — the hard-fought gains that are being thrown away. The LTTE's targeted killings have been aimed at eliminating people who stood up for democracy and democratic values in the Tamil community. What do the thousands of children conscripted by the LTTE represent if their intention is to abandon human bombs and seek a negotiated settlement that would restore dignity to the Tamil people? Recent killings are not in the nature of massacres by an armed group where the perpetrator is not in doubt. The killings have rather been extremely devious, made worse recently by the state's mobilizing and sponsoring killer groups to do their work behind the cover of the LTTE's killings.

Our work after the ceasefire has taken the form of a sort of rearguard action against the attitudes of Norway, the government and the peace lobbies, which held that the human-rights violations that had become part and parcel of the ceasefire should be tolerated or whitewashed in the name of peace.

More recently we have tried to throw light on the devious character of several killings in which the state was also involved. The work can be very tiring (see Special Report No. 20, available from our website). Our reports show that as the context arises, we can throw new light on past killings and violations. If we refuse to face up to it, history will threaten to repeat itself with a vengeance. We strongly believe that accountability for past violations is inescapable. Attempts to bury these in the name of peace would only result in a fake and fragile peace.

POV: What effect did the disastrous tsunami of December 2004 have on the situation? There were reports that the Tamil Tigers increased recruiting of child soldiers in the disaster's aftermath, and that the government used disaster relief to increase its authority over areas sympathetic to the rebels. What did UTHR learn?

As mentioned above, the war preparations by the LTTE were suddenly aborted by the tsunami disaster. Many hoped that the tragedy would lead to some change of heart and that this could be utilized to resolve the long-standing ethnic problem in the island nation. Rhetorically, then-president Kumaratunge and others expressed hope and articulated the sentiments of working together. But in reality the LTTE focused only on using that tragedy to promote its agenda. And the state, which was both characteristically inefficient and ethnically insensitive to the needs of the Tamil and Muslim communities again reinforced Tamil perceptions that they were aliens in the eyes of the state.

Then-president Chandrika Kumaratunge attempted to develop a mechanism to work with the LTTE in tsunami reconstruction, but that too eventually failed due to opposition from various elements in the south. The LTTE's past behavior and continuous violations of the CFA also hindered the Government's promotion of a joint post-tsunami mechanism, or "P-Toms," as it was known, since many people saw the initiative as another dangerously irreversible step in the appeasement policy towards the LTTE that was initiated by the 2002 ceasefire. On the other hand, the LTTE was able to make a strong case that southern political formations do not have the ability to deliver any worthwhile political settlement (even though the LTTE consistently shied away from discussing all attempts at a federal arrangement and would certainly refuse to discuss even a democratic arrangement for a separate state).

Yes, the LTTE resorted to child recruitment both before and after the tsunami, but it cannot be said that it increased after the tsunami. But perhaps it was better reported when there was more attention to areas of Sri Lanka where recruitment had long taken place.

A case cannot be made that the government used tsunami relief to extend its authority to any part of the northeast. Even where opportunities arose to appeal to the hearts of the Tamil people in government-controlled areas, the government showed itself incapable. It does not even seem interested in monitoring what is going on in the name of relief.

Three adjacent camps are run by three different NGOs. One of them is the TRO, the LTTE's front, and another is a reputed Nordic agency. Next to nothing has been achieved in making the people self-sufficient, lifting their spirits or enabling them to stand up for their rights. Their return to fishing has been hampered by restrictions resulting from a worsening security situation, their rations have been eased off, and they are paid for work done as assigned. Worst of all, nearly all the men were missing, and, as one lady complained, her sons, 21 and 14 years, among them.

The men and some children were forcibly taken away by the LTTE for military training supposedly for two weeks, but had not been seen for 18 days. Some escaped home after 10 days, but the LTTE came, captured them and took them back. Some of the bolder women complained that they were dependent on what the men were paid for work to feed their families, and when the LTTE took them away from their work it was not paying them anything. Moreover, if and when the LTTE starts a war, most of these refugees would be massacred by the security forces.

Though trained forcibly, the training at best would be meager and not useful to the people themselves in their defense against artillery fire or any such thing. They would be cannon fodder and would likely in the heat of the moment be regarded as combatants rather than civilians. This is the plight of a significant section of Tamil tsunami refugees today.

POV: What kind of change is needed to move Sri Lanka forward? Is the current government's approach likely to produce results?

As we mentioned earlier, the peace process was initiated with many flaws. It left the government and the international community with the appeasement of the LTTE as the only option to avoid war, which barred any serious effort at a political settlement.

The current government came to power with the support of a hard-line, right-wing Sinhalese-nationalist organization, the JHU, and another radical but essentially Sinhalese-nationalistic organization with an eclectically left program. Both of them were opposed to any workable political settlement that would give he Tamil people the confidence to break out of the clutches of LTTE.

President Mahinda Rajapakse, who is a moderate and has the capacity to work towards a political settlement, continues to be chained by his commitment to a unitary state, which was [demanded] by the JHU as the price of its support. Moreover, he displays a lack of grasp of the political and institutional nature of the problem as well as of the LTTE's capacity to manipulate the process. His government has tried to show that they were not going to follow a simple appeasement strategy in peace negotiations with the LTTE, but on the other hand they have not illustrated any clear strategic approach that could give confidence to the Tamil people or neutralize the LTTE's provocations with timely proposals to force the LTTE to negotiate seriously to reach a political settlement.

The Sri Lankan security forces feel like sitting ducks and show signs of returning to old habits, taking out their anger on the Tamil civilians. A solid human rights monitoring mechanism needs to be hammered out to monitor the peace process. The government, the LTTE, its splinter group, the eastern wing, and all parties concerned should be asked to accept the human rights monitor's mandate and be accountable to it.

The government too needs to institute an internal mechanism to investigate violations by the security forces and show accountability. The normal courts have failed so far in bringing violators to justice, and have opened themselves to accusations of being used to whitewash crimes of the security forces. The supreme court's performance in the Bindunuwewa massacre, where investigators found that a senior politician and police officers connived in a mob massacre of Tamil inmates of a rehabilitation camp, left deep misgivings both locally and abroad (see our Special Report No.19 Part-I).

A long-advocated remedy is for the government to sign the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and adopt appropriate local legislation and for Sri Lankan courts to prosecute crimes under the ICC.

The government needs to come to an agreement with the Opposition UNP (United National Party), as both have verbally accepted devolution of power as a means to resolve the ethnic issue, define the broad minimum and maximum parameters and demand that the LTTE come for negotiations to resolve the substantive issues.

POV: Is there a role for outside parties to play in establishing lasting peace? What can regional or Western governments do? What about NGOs?

The whole peace process initiated by Norway has many weaknesses, and it is simply dragging on without a clear strategy to deal with a number of related issues: the LTTE's totalitarian outlook and agenda, its systemic terror to control the community, and the lack of political will in the southern political establishment to address the real issues faced by the Tamil community.

There is a real danger of the process acting as an eventual catalyst for a terrible war rather than helping the restoration of peace. This can be averted only if the international community focuses on pressuring the two parties to discuss substantive solutions. They must clearly show zero tolerance toward political killings and child recruitment on the LTTE's part and toward planned violations by the security establishment of the state.

In this respect, the international community should use their leverages to send a clear message to the expatriate Tamil community to play a constructive role in promoting a reasonable political solution that would usher in peace and dignity to the Tamil community rather than using the aura of victimhood to sustain a movement that is driving the Tamil community towards irrevocable tragedy.

Further, the international community should support financially the establishment of a meaningful human rights-monitoring mechanism whether UN- or regionally based. It has to engage with India to play a constructive role in promoting a political settlement and making both the LTTE and the state accountable.

NGO and other civil-society groups can develop strategic approaches to compel the state to be accountable, a matter of cardinal importance in today's worsening situation, and to induce the major parties to work toward a comprehensive political settlement and also to open up space in the Tamil community by being bold enough continually to challenge the atrocities of the LTTE.

Related Link:
The Broken Palmyra
The University Teachers for Human Rights website hosts the text of the book, written by Rajan Hoole, Daya Somasundaram, K. Sritharan and Rajani Thiranagama. The book presents an account of atrocities committed by the Indian and Sri Lankan armies in Jaffna during the 1980s.





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