TORTURE: ASIAN AND GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES | AUGUST 2012
VOLUME 01 NUMBER 03
by RAMU MANIVANNAN
Sri Lanka has, among other records as a security state, fought wars continuously against its own people since independence. The ‘dirty wars’ against the radical Sinhala outfits in 1971 and 1987-89 and the undeclared policy of war against ethnic Tamils in the name of counter-terrorism for over three decades are two faces of the same security regime operating within the democratic framework controlled by the Sinhala elites. Thousands of youth have disappeared in the last forty years. The Sri Lankan State, the armed forces, and the senior leaders of the government, for over three decades, are also privy to a crime of committing torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and genocide against their own people. Beginning from the disenfranchisement and dislocation of the plantation Tamils, there have been several waves of displacement of Tamils, both of indigenous and Indian origin, in Sri Lanka. There is nothing so clearly perceived and experienced as injustice by the Tamils in Sri Lanka. It is traumatic to be a Tamil in Sri Lanka. What is ‘political’ about their cause and struggle has survived several traumatic experiences for the people and continues to beseech for a political solution to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.
It is not difficult to recognize that Tamils in Sri Lanka have long been subjected to trauma at both personal and collective levels. The family tree has been forcefully rooted out and dislocated, and in several instances destroyed beyond recognition. The collective trauma of society could be experienced in the deathly silence of the markets, temples, street corner shops, and other public places. The consequences of this daily practice are not only traumatic for the common people but constitutes as central element of the psychological warfare waged by the Sri Lankan State and its authorities against the Tamil population. Civil society has been subdued beyond recognition. People do not dare to look Sri Lankan soldiers in the eye and speak with heads bent down. The hospitals are the final memories of the dead and those who survive suffer from a notion of living death. The hospitals in the North are filled with cries and memories of the dead. Children draw paintings of tanks, helicopters, aircrafts and soldiers manning the street posts. The destruction of civil infrastructure, including roads, water tanks, public buildings, schools, fishing restraints’ for the Tamils, the loss of agricultural lands, the vast areas of land under the custody of the armed forces, and the military occupation of civilian homes are realities that cannot escape the attention of even a stranger to the north. The ethnic war in Sri Lanka has brought psychosocial problems for individuals and families. In addition, it has had a devastating effect on Tamil society; we can speak of a collective trauma. It has caused regression of all development, destroying social capital, structures, and institutions. It has also resulted in changes, for the worse, of fundamental social processes like socialization, social norms, and social networks. Women have been the worst victims of the war, through their internment in the camps and during the resettlement process. There are large numbers of female headed families within the Tamil community in the North and East of Sri Lanka. The male component to the family tree has been uprooted by the long years of civil war, continued detention, and disappearances of Tamil youth. There is a generation of Tamil children growing up in isolation, without the presence and protection of a father, brother, uncle or nephew. There are additional protection concerns as many female headed families (mostly women and children) are returning to areas patrolled by large numbers of Sri Lankan police and military. There are large numbers of female headed households in Sri Lankan Sinhala families too, but Tamil women have suffered the most during this period. At the end of the war, the Tamil women found themselves in isolated areas patrolled by large number of Sri Lankan Police and Military. There are 49,000 young widows in the East and 40,000 young widows in the North. As an impact of the war, there are 89,000 widows in the North and East of Sri Lanka. They are all under 40 years of age and are forced to stay alone without any protection of a family. There is no physical or financial security for them. They have often been assaulted by soldiers in the name of security searches and through inordinate entries into their homes, which have neither doors nor electricity. The Asian Human Rights Commission had earlier observed that, “the Sri Lankan security forces are using systematic rape and murder of Tamil women to subjugate the Tamil population…Impunity continues to reign as rape is used as a weapon of war in Sri Lanka.” There is credible evidence to this concern about the violence committed by the security forces in Sri Lanka against Tamil women and is available in the reports of the World Organisation Against Torture, Asian Human Rights Commission, British Refugee Council on Rape, Amnesty Reports on Rape, Committee to Protect Journalists, United Nations Commission on Human Rights and several non-governmental organizations in Europe, North America, and Asia. We may quote here the 30th September 2009 speech to the United Nations by the Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton when she observed that women are used as a “weapon of war”. Though the State Department had issued a clarification that, “in the most recent phase of conflict, from 2006 to 2009…we have not received reports that rape and sexual abuse were used as tools of war, as they clearly have in other conflict areas around the world.” The U.S. State Department Clarification did acknowledge that there is a well documented history of sexual abuse by security forces in earlier phases of the 30 year long civil war. Rape and sexual assault have long been used as weapons of war against the Tamil population. Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, Dublin had observed that, “sexual abuse and the rape of women by government troops was yet another atrocity repeated throughout the civil war by government military in destroyed villages and in the “welfare villages”. This practice, which is in violation of the Rome Statute as a crime against humanity, led to tragedies such as abortions and suicide on the part of victims, unable to live with family shame and mental trauma. This policy of targeting also applied to Tamils living outside the conflict zone. Apart from mass deportations, selective terror campaigns were carried out by means of abductions, assassinations, arbitrary arrests, detention, sexual assault and torture.” The heavy presence of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces in the North and East of Sri Lanka continues to be a harrowing experience for the Tamil women and traumatic for the children.
Young Tamils have routinely been singled out as a group; especially the males because of their potential link with terrorist organizations. Female, on the other hand, as sexual objects, have been discriminated against by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and government agents in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The torture, killings and disappearances of young people are more common in the northern and eastern provinces. It may be appropriate to recall here the observations of the UN Special Rapporteur (UNSR) on Torture, Manfred Nowak, made in October 2007, following a visit, stating that, “torture is widely practiced in Sri Lanka.” Manfred Nowak singled out the Terrorist Investigative Department facility Boosa for possessing the “fullest manifestation” of torture methods. There were also widespread reports that several people have been summarily executed at various points during the screening process. There are several concerns about the nature and circumstances surrounding people detained under suspicion of ties with the LTTE. The people who were detained were also denied access to lawyers, their families, ICRC, or any other protection agency. The legal basis of the detention was both arbitrary and unclear. The extrajudicial killings of LTTE suspects, along with the practice of torture and enforced disappearances, have become part of the serious concerns of the detained. It is this large number of men and women, suspected for their links with the LTTE, who faced the greatest risk and became part of the silent majority who never arrived at the so called ‘welfare camps’ and disappeared soon after, if they did arrive. There is a persistent pattern of torture and other ill treatment of detainees, including individuals detained under the Emergency Regulations or the Prevention of Terrorism Act, on suspicion of links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, (LTTE) as well as individuals arrested in the course of civil policing, including criminal suspects as well as those wrongfully arrested at the behest of third parties engaged in personal disputes.
Tamil detainees are often held, arbitrarily, for prolonged periods without charge. Many are arrested and detained on suspicion of links to the LTTE, pending investigation and interrogation by Sri Lanka’s intelligence and security forces, or for what the Sri Lankan authorities have termed rehabilitation.
A senior journalist, J. Tissainayagam, was sentenced to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) contended that an article contributed by J. Tissainayagam to the North Eastern Herald brought disrepute to the government. He was also charged with violating the 2006 Emergency Regulations with regard to allegations of aiding and abetting terrorist organizations through raising money for the magazine. The detention of J. Tissainayagam was both illegal and arbitrary. It is difficult to imagine that a journalist can be sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment for a piece of writing that was interpreted as aiding and abetting terrorism. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) observed that, “AHRC is not surprised by this judgment because at the very inception of this case the AHRC pointed out that this is purely a political case, the first of its kind in which the accused, Mr. Tissainayagam’s guilt or innocence was not an issue but an opportunity to send a message to society on the changing circumstances of the country where freedom of expression does not matter at all. That was the real aim of this case. It is the sort of prosecution that could have happened under the regime of Joseph Stalin through the prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky.” The charge and the circumstances of Tissainayagam’s trail were applied by the Sri Lankan government as a message to the national media. The Sri Lankan government attributed the protest as a challenge to the national security and the regime until the US Government chose to intervene as the fear began to grip even the Sinhala national media. The Press Freedom Index (2008) of the Reporters Without Borders ranked Sri Lanka 165th out of 173 countries in the world. This was the lowest ranking of any elected democracy in the world. The International Federation of Journalists observed that Sri Lanka was one of the world’s most dreaded places for journalists. US President Barack Obama chose World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, 2009 to deliver the message that, “in every corner of the globe, there are journalists in jail or being actively harassed: from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, Burma to Uzbekistan, Cuba to Eritrea. Emblematic examples of this distressing reality are figures like J. S. Tissainayagam in Sri Lanka or Shi Tao and Hu Jia in China”. The Sri Lankan Government continues to castigate the independent news media as traitors whenever the excesses of the armed forces and the ruling authorities were questioned or exposed by the media. Torture and detention of Tamil and Sinhala journalists has gone unnoticed for a very long time in Sri Lanka and has come to be recognized only after May 2009, outside the human rights network. The deaths and disappearances of journalists and other media professionals in Sri Lanka was little known or spoken about until the gruesome murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga who dared to raise his voice against the Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksas. State terrorism in Sri Lanka has long been underlined by the criminalization of the politics and political elites. This had gradually resulted in the emergence of a rogue state without any guilt or responsibility, neither towards its own people nor the global community.
“Sri Lanka: A Bitter Peace,” International Crisis Group, 11 January 2010.
United States Department of State. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. 2008 Human Rights Report: Sri Lanka.
Amnesty International, Sri Lanka: Briefing to the UN Committee against Torture 2011, http://www2.ohchr.org/english/ bodies/cat/docs/ngos/AI_SriLanka47. pdf (October 2011).
Reporters Without Borders. Press Freedom Index 2011-2012, http://en.rsf.org/ press-freedom-index-2011-2012,1043. html
Handunneti, Dilrukshi. Media: Lanka’s deadly story, http://www.thesundayleader.lk/
20090503/spotlight.htm (May 3, 2009)