-Dr. Abdul Ruff Colachal
Time is fast running out for Srilankan regime to prove to the world that its military-police apparatus had not committed war crimes against the minority Tamil community a part of its military campaign to weaken Tamil movement for equity.
The Sirisena government had – directly and through the USA- approached the UN when it announced the possibility of appointing a war crime tribunal to try the war criminals of Sri Lanka pleading to give up that and Lankan government itself would investigate the war crimes and submit a report to UN. But till now Sirisena has failed to keep his word given to UN and USA.
A United Nations expert Pablo de Greiff warned that Sri Lanka must speed up its long-stalled investigation into war crimes by troops or risk action by the international community, Pablo de Greiff, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion of justice and reparation, said Sri Lanka had been slow to deliver on its promise of justice for atrocities during the island’s bloody 37-year civil war.
De Greiff criticised a public assurance given to troops that committed serious crimes by Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, who along with the former dictator Rajapakse is making strenuous efforts to save the Singhalese military criminals and not to get them punished by International Courts for their excessive war crimes, that he would not allow “war heroes” to be prosecuted for alleged atrocities.
Greiff said allegations of war crimes leveled last month against Sri Lanka’s then-ambassador to Brazil, who was a general during the war era, underscored the risks faced by senior military officers past and present. “As the recent case presented in Brazil against a former member of the armed forces demonstrates, accountability will be sought either here or abroad,” de Greiff said in Colombo on Monday.
The case in Brazil against retired general Jagath Jayasuriya was just the “tip of the iceberg,” de Greiff said. He said Sri Lanka could expect similar efforts by foreign jurisdictions until it had taken steps to ensure a credible investigation of its own. Jayasuriya left Brazil two days after the International Truth and Justice Project, a South Africa-based rights group, filed a case against the former general.
De Greiff said the government’s pledge to pay reparations and prevent future atrocities was no substitute for accountability for past injustices. He urged it to adopt a timeline for achieving this and encouraged closer interaction with the UN human rights chief’s office.
Defeat of LTTE and not Tamils
Sri Lankan forces that still claim to be entirely innocent and committed no crimes had defeated Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009 after a brutal guerrilla war which claimed the lives of at least 100,000 people. The military was accused of massacring up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians in their no-holds-barred offensive.
Sri Lanka’s former Rajapaksha regime, responsible for the crimes committed against humanity in the name of “war on terror” refused even to acknowledge the civilian toll of its wartime campaign, drawing censure from the international community.
Sirisena’s government came to power in January 2015 promising justice for war victims, but his government has been accused of dithering ever since. Sirisena, unlike his predecessor Mahinda Rajapakse, in order possibly to fool the world, agreed to investigate war crimes but has yet to take the necessary steps to do so.he said so as a part of his “reconciliation move” with the Tamil minority community serving the Singhalese for centuries. The British Empire had taken these Tamils from the then Madras state to work in tea estates in Lanka to increase productivity and profits. Once independent, the Sinhalese majority community began targeting the Tamils denying them even basic rights. Perpetual persecution of Tamils by the Singhalese government gave birth to LTTE to defend the Tamils.
Britain refused to step in to save the Tamils when the Singhalese majority and their government began attacking Tamils and threw them out of work, thereby making them starve. LTTE began demanding more human rights for Tamils. This led to conflict.
Sri Lanka must know there is no escape from punishment for the crimes it committed against the minority community. Colombo must wake up from sound sleep dreaming about the crimes it committed to winning a war against the hapless minority community and institute an impartial investigation. Meanwhile, UN itself must investigate the war crimes on its own and punish the guilty without any sympathy.
Sri Lankan state crimes
The civil war that began in 1983 between Sri Lanka’s largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers), a separatist insurgent force from the predominantly Hindu Tamil minority, saw atrocities carried out by both sides, and forced over 100,000 Tamils to seek refuge in India.
The exodus was meant to come to an end in 2009 when government forces conclusively defeated the Tigers which ended the civil war. But ongoing human rights abuses against Tamils means there’s still a flow of desperate people prepared to take the huge risks necessary to find sanctuary in India.
After the end of a three-decade-long civil war, some Tamils are still suffering human rights abuses at the hands of the government – desperate to find an escape route. The fishermen of Rameswaram provide a lifeline for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees by smuggling them to safety in India. Some of the boats were involved in transporting Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, and many of those working the boats were Tamils themselves who had come to India through similar means.
A fisherman’s life anywhere in the world is a tough one. But the fishermen of Rameswaram live a particularly precarious existence. The boats are forced to play a sometimes deadly game of cat and mouse with the Sri Lankan navy, who often seize fishing boats they accuse of transporting refugees. The navy sometimes fires on fishing boats it deems encroaching on Sri Lankan waters, and over 730 fishermen have been killed in the last 30 years.
Thousands of Tamils are believed to have gone missing during the conflict’s bloody final phase. After the war’s end, journalists, activists, and government critics have been abducted by men in white vans in Colombo, the capital, and there are allegations that former Tamil rebels have been tortured in secret detention centers.
Of the 100,000 Tamils in India, 64,000 still live in refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, where they receive an allowance, food, and education but have no right to work. The Tamil are an ethnic group native to southern India, but Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka are still often looked down upon. Due to lack of proper documentation, they are barred from all but the most menial jobs in the shadow economy.
While the Indian government has been dragging its feet for years over granting full rights to Tamil refugees (even to those who have lived there for over 30 years), Mark and Elliott hope that, at the very least, their project represents the fishermen they discovered eking out a living in the shadows of Rameswaram with dignity.
Although the civil war between the government and the LTTE officially began in 1983 and ended in 2009, the ethnic conflict has a longer history. The Tamil Centre for Human Rights (TCHR) found that from 1956 to 2004, about 79,319 Tamil civilians were subjected to killings (54053) and enforced disappearances (25266) by Sri Lankan security forces, the state-backed Sinhalese mobs and the IPKF.
As it can be seen, Tamil civilians who were killed (35323) and disappeared (2483) by Sri Lankan forces, Sinhalese mobs and the IPKF from 1977 to 2004 totals 37,806. This leaves out pogroms before 1977 and massacres and disappearances after 2004. In the Inginiyakala massacre of 1956, 150 Tamils were killed. In the 1958 pogrom, more than 300 Tamils were killed. In the Tamil Research Conference massacre of 1974, 9 Tamils were killed. So in total, about 459 Tamils were killed from 1956 to 1974. All in all, 38,265 Tamil civilians were killed from 1956 to 2004. If that figure is added to post-2004 figures (514 + 1102 + 70,000), about 10, 9881 Tamils were mass murdered and forced to disappear by Sri Lankan state and the IPKF from 1956 to 2009.
According to figures published by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka in the middle of 2006, 419 persons had disappeared in the Jaffna peninsula since December 2005. According to a list published on 31 October 2007 by three NGOs, which specified it was not exhaustive, there were 540 cases of enforced disappearance from January to August 2007 … Again, in its 2008 annual report, WGEID stated it was “alarmed” by a large number of cases of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, noting it had transmitted 43 cases concerning people who had disappeared between February and October 2008 under its urgent procedure. In its report issued in 2012, WGEID cited renewed allegations that more than 500 persons had disappeared between January and August 2007, in Jaffna District, and around 100 persons were alleged to have disappeared between 2008 and 2009 in Mannar District.”
Hence from December 2005 to 2009, around 1102 (419 + 540 + 43 + 100) Tamils were subjected to enforced disappearance, all probably dead. The last phase of the war in 2009 saw an unprecedented scale of mass murder of Tamil civilians within a matter of several months.
The Amnesty International reported in 1998: “In 1995, 55 cases of “disappearances” were reported, particularly from the east of the country and from the capital, Colombo. In 1996, after the army regained control over the northern Jaffna peninsula from the LTTE, an estimated 600 “disappearances” were reported from that area of the country. During 1997, approximately 100 cases of “disappearances” were reported, mainly from Jaffna, Batticaloa, Mannar, and Kilinochchi.”
Hence from 1995 to 1997 about 755 (55 + 600 + 100) Tamils were subjected to enforced disappearances. Based on these reports, the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal reviewed that from June 1956 to June 2008, at least 10,617 Tamils died from 149 cases of state-sponsored pogroms, massacres, and bombings. These lists do not include IPKF atrocities.
Regarding enforced disappearances, the Amnesty International reported in 1994: “In the northeast, the number who have “disappeared” or been extrajudicially executed to date runs to thousands. From 1984 to mid-1987, Amnesty International documented over 680 “disappearances” in the custody of Sri Lankan security forces in the northeast. From mid-1987 to March 1990 the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was responsible for the security of the northeast under the terms of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. During this period, Amnesty International documented 43 “disappearances” there for which the IPKF were believed responsible. After the IPKF had withdrawn, armed conflict resumed in June 1990 between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the main armed Tamil group fighting to establish a separate Tamil state in the northeast of Sri Lanka. Within months, the reported number of extrajudicial executions and “disappearances” reached thousands. In Amparai District in the east, it was estimated that between June and October 1990 alone, some 3,000 Tamil people were killed or “disappeared.”
In another report covering the year 1990, the Amnesty International wrote that “In Batticaloa town alone over 1,200 people reportedly “disappeared” between June and October.” From these figures we can infer that from 1984 to 1990, around 4880 (680 + 3,000 + 1,200) Tamils were “disappeared” by the Sri Lankan government forces, if IPKF atrocities are excluded (although they were working for the Sri Lankan government’s interests, whether they had intended it or not. In total, about 87,354 (= 10,617 + 4880 + 755 + 1102 + 70,000) Tamil civilians were mass murdered and forced to disappear by Sri Lankan government forces and state-backed Sinhalese mobs from 1956 to 2009.
If I count from the TCHR’s report which puts the 1956–2004 figure at 79,319 (including IPKF atrocities) and adds post-2004 figures provided by other sources (79,319 + 514 + 1102 + 70,000) about 150,935 Tamil civilians died and disappeared at the hands of Sri Lankan and Indian government forces.
However, these figures are incomplete, as some are based on rough estimates, and many other atrocities went unreported or not included here. For example, economic embargo (1990–2002) imposed by the government on LTTE controlled areas which resulted in restriction of food and medical supplies had negative impacts on the local economy and health condition of the people and violated the international norms. This can be considered violence against civilians, although it’s not included in these figures.
According to a UN’s internal review report published in 2012, the estimates of the civilian casualties in 2009 run in the tens of thousands: “The Panel of Experts stated that “[a] number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths”. Some Government sources state the number was well below 10,000. Other sources have referred to credible information indicating that over 70,000 people are unaccounted for.
Colombo in denial mode
Sri Lankan Navy denies killing Indian fisherman K. Britjo. ‘No Navy personnel has the permission to shoot at poaching fishermen,’ Sri Lankan navy spokesperson said. Sri Lanka has assured India of cooperation in the investigation into the shooting of a Rameswaram-based fisherman K. Britjo.
A group of fishermen returned to the Rameswaram jetty with the body of 21-year-old fisherman K. Brijto, and pointed to an apparent bullet injury on his neck. Fishermen leaders based in Tamil Nadu said he was among the six fishermen on board a mechanized trawler that the “Sri Lankan Navy targeted.”
In 2011, a similar shooting incident claimed two Tamil fishermen’s lives at the Palk Bay. Tamil Nadu fishermen accused the Sri Lankan Navy of opening fire, which the navy denied.
The death of Britjo of Thangachimadam made the state, as well as central government, wake up face the Lankan challenge Saron is getting treatment at Ramanathapuram government hospital. I have ordered the district administration to offer high-class treatment to him,” Palaniswami said in a statement.
DMK president MK Stalin also condemned the killing of the fisherman and urged Centre to take strong action. “It’s high time the Central Government reacts strongly to this problem. The Central Government cannot be a mute spectator. It should take up this issue with Indian ambassador in Sri Lanka or the High Commission of Sri Lanka in India,” Stalin said.
India’s weak reaction
On June 27, 2017, the Tamil Nadu government expressed concern over the “alarming increase” in some “attacks” on Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy and sought the center’s intervention for release of 42 of them. Referring to a spate of “distressing” arrests of Indian fishermen from his state in the last few days, Chief Minister K Palaniswami said such apprehensions have a “demoralizing impact” on fishermen as well as the people of the state.
In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he raised the issue of arrest of 14 fishermen in two separate instances by the Lankan navy. “In spite of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) between India and Sri Lanka being sub-judice due to the ceding of Katchatheevu islet, the Sri Lankan Navy is continuing its marauding attacks on and abductions of our fishermen,” he said.
He recalled the state urging the Centre to use diplomatic measures to “prevail” upon Colombo “and reverse this trend.” “These instances, occurring on an everyday basis, in which our boats with innocent fishermen are being apprehended with impunity by the Sri Lankan Navy has a demoralizing impact not just on the fishermen, but also on people of Tamil Nadu,” he said in the letter.
The people of the state “strongly believe” that the fishermen have a genuine claim to the Palk Bay fishing grounds from where they “are being apprehended,” he added.
The Chief Minister also pointed out that Sri Lanka has not released any of the fishing boats apprehended since January 2015, adding, that this “inhumane strategy” was causing great loss of livelihood to the fishermen. “There was a wide expectation among the people of Tamil Nadu that the boats apprehended since 2015 would be released as an outcome of your meeting with the Sri Lankan prime minister in April,” Palaniswami said, referring to Modi’s meeting with Ranil Wickremesinghe in Delhi. “The alarming increase in the frequency of abductions by the Sri Lankan Navy is a matter of utmost concern for the (state) government and the people of Tamil Nadu. An immediate intervention at the highest level is sought to resolve this long-standing livelihood issue of our fishermen,” he said.
The Tamil Nadu government was taking “multifarious” steps to convert trawling boats to longliners and gillnetters in the shortest possible period, Mr. Palaniswami said, adding all transitions take time. “The Sri Lankan policy of abduction of boats in this transition period without respite only indicates its increasing intolerant attitude and the scant respect for the Indian diplomatic efforts,” he said. The Chief Minister urged PM Modi to take the matter up with the highest authorities in the Sri Lankan government and ensure the immediate release of a total of 42 fishermen and 141 boats.
Recently, the Indian government on Mar 7, 2017, expressed its concern to the Sri Lankan government over the killing of an Indian fisherman by the Sri Lankan Navy. “Government of India is deeply concerned at the killing of an Indian fisherman. Our High Commissioner to Sri Lanka has taken up the matter with the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka,” highly placed sources in the government told TOI. The source added that Sri Lankan Navy had promised a full and thorough investigation into the incident.
Meanwhile, protests erupted in Tamil Nadu’s Rameswaram after 22-year-old Britjo, a fisherman from Thangachimadam, was shot dead o, allegedly by the Sri Lankan Navy personnel while he was fishing in a mechanized boat at a short distance off Katchatheevu islet. Two more fishermen reportedly suffered injuries in the firing.
Hundreds of fishermen staged a demonstration at Thangachimadam, demanding the arrest of the Lankan navy men involved in the incident. The protesting fishermen also refused to accept Britjo’s body unless foreign minister Sushma Swaraj visits the island and assures them that such incidents will not happen in the future.
Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami announced Rs 5 lakh ex gratia for the victim’s family and Rs 1 lakh for the fishermen injured in the shooting. In a statement, the chief minister said the fishermen set out for fishing on Monday in a mechanized boat from Rameswaram fishing base. The Lankan Navy opened fire on the innocent fishermen, without any warning or provocation.
Observation: Will India act or will not?
The issue of Tamil Nadu fishermen allegedly poaching in Sri Lanka’s territorial waters has been an ongoing conflict, with Sri Lanka’s northern fishermen repeatedly raising concerns over their falling catch and the serious environmental damage caused by trawlers originating from India.
As of now, as many as 85 Indian fishermen charged with poaching are in Sri Lankan custody. A total of 146 trawlers seized by the Navy have also been held, officials said.
Sri Lanka continued to be arrogant and deals on criminal intent with Indian Tamil fishermen fishing at Katchatheevu as India still refuses to step in to set things right for the Indian fishermen making a livelihood at Katchatheevu- their traditional zone for ages. Occasionally, Indian High Commissioner in Colombo meets the Lankan President and other top officials requesting them, on behalf of Indian PM, to be good to Indian fishermen. But that is considered by Lankan regime as Indian weakness.
Meanwhile, in September PM Modi has picked a Tamilian Nirmala Sitaraman to hold the top slotted and heavily leaded Defence ministry of the government of India, obviously, signaling a new shift in Indian policy towards Sri Lanka.
Apparently, PM Modi’s choice of a Tamilian for the defense ministry talks a lot for Sri Lankan regime. Sri Lankan military knows if India decides to teach a lesson to Sri Lanka, it won’t take more than a couple of hours to deform that island nation.
One is not very sure what exactly the Indian government is planning in Sri Lanka to settle the fisherman issue. But if a brief attack is preferred by New Delhi and executed, then, it is quite likely that India would control not only Katchatheevu but also Sri Lanka. Then Lankans would cry loud pleading to India not to take Lanka but take away only Katchatheevu. Once India enters Srilanka, an Indian rule would be ensuring as the plight of Singhalese would be the same Tamils have faced all these years.
Ms. Niramal Sitharaman, who oversaw the commerce and trade portfolio as a junior minister, has joined five other women in India’s cabinet. The prestigious foreign affairs portfolio is also held by a woman, Sushma Swaraj. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi also acted as defense minister on two occasions between the mid-1970s and early 1980s. She was assassinated in 1984. Sitharaman’s appointment comes just days after India and China agreed to end a months-long military stand-off at a strategically important disputed area in the Himalayas. New Delhi said both sides agreed to withdraw troops from an area near the Indian border that is claimed by both China and India’s ally Bhutan.
The reshuffle has been cast as Modi laying the groundwork before national elections in 2019, where he is widely tipped to defeat a diminished opposition. His nationally ruling party also governs 18 of India’s 29 states, either directly or in alliance with regional parties.
In the appointment of a Tamilian as defense minister, Tamils expect a massive operation by the Indian government in Sri Lanka at least at Katchatheevu to restore the Indians their traditional rights to profess their profession of fish there. If Indian regime refuses any action against Sri Lanka on behalf of Indian fishermen community, that won’t be in the interests of India in the long term.
References: 1. Genocides of Tamils and Indo-Sri Lanka relations (Modern Diplomacy) http://moderndiplomacy.eu/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=2418:genocides-of-tamils-and-indo-sri-lanka-relations. 2. Katchatheevu should be brought back to Indian control to ensure safe fishing by Indians! March 16, 2017, Abdul Ruff, south Asia Journal–http://southasiajournal.net/katchatheevu-should-be-brought-back-to-indian-control-in-order-to-ensure-safe-fishing-by-indians/