Colombo’s recent detention of and apparently coerced recantation by several Tamil doctors who had reported high civilian casualties is a potent example of the Colombo government’s determination to rewrite the final days of the war.
The question of the Sri Lankan government’s treatment of the detained ethnic-Tamil doctors, who served in the war zone in the north until almost the very end, has gone far beyond the fact of the doctors themselves, of their individual actions or sympathies. The fact that, while in government custody on 8 July, these men recanted what they had previously told the media while still in the war zone regarding the conditions faced by civilians, and that they went on to make new claims acutely at variance with basic fact, raises some timely questions regarding the recently concluded war.
What are the real casualties that the government is intent on suppressing? One does recognise that getting the people out of the grip of a force totally callous about civilian life was not going to be easy. And the purely military strategy, which did not take adequate account of the interests of the people, was guided by xenophobia and allowed the international community no role in protecting civilians, distorted every issue. Shelling civilians is criminal. But civilians trapped in the war zone later admitted that shelling by the army sometimes helped them – sending the LTTE cadres scurrying into their bunkers, giving civilians an opportunity to escape from them. All the while, though, the cadres’ orders were to shoot escapees.
The government’s unlawful refusal to accept a surrender of LTTE cadres forced them into a desperate plight. Further, the government announced on the afternoon of 17 May that all the civilians had left the area under LTTE control, and that the president would make a victory speech two days later. There were in fact more than 30,000 terrified civilians remaining in the last bit of territory. On the night of the 17th, LTTE cadres, facing their last hours, shelled civilian positions. The next morning the army moved in for the final kill, without making allowances for the civilian presence. Earthmoving equipment was later brought in to dispose of myriad corpses. Yet little is known about the last 11 days of the war, and one is left to judge from the testimonies of the doctors and civilians who fled the zone from 15 May onwards.
The truth circus
During those last days, information provided by three government doctors in particular – Thurairaja Varatharajah (the Vanni regional health director), V Shanmugarajah (a medical superintendent) and T Sathiyamoorthy – were heavily relied upon by the international media and agencies. They reported not only on the dead and injured that came within their purview as the fighting raged, but also on shortages of infant food, drugs and medicines, and their deteriorating ability to treat the casualties. For instance, Dr Shanmugarajah told the media that two overnight artillery barrages on 9 and 10 May had resulted in 430 civilians, including 106 children, either being brought to hospital for burial or dying after admission; at that time, Dr Shanmugarajah’s clinic had an additional 1100 injured with which to deal. Dr Varatharajah likewise reported that a mortar shell had hit the admissions ward of the makeshift hospital on 12 May, killing 49 people.
Even before the war had ended, the Health Ministry had begun accusing the three doctors of lying, ostensibly to bring the government into disrepute. Ministry officials threatened to sack them through means of dubious legality, and blindly rejected reports of the horrendous realities in which the doctors were working. Yet in general, what the doctors said about the conditions faced by civilians has been well corroborated. The doctors came out of the LTTE zone on 15 May, with the first group of civilians to leave the area, when a round of third-party negotiations had purportedly reached an understanding on the LTTE’s surrender. The doctors were promptly arrested, though there appears to be no real evidence of criminal misconduct. After about 54 days of detention, the doctors were produced before the press on 8 July, rehearsed and looking healthy – not in court but rather at the Defence Ministry. They were accompanied not by lawyers but by ministry handlers, one of whom seemed to reprimand one of the doctors for stating that he was a prisoner, pointing out that he was looking quite well.
At the Defence Ministry event, the doctors explained that the LTTE had forced them to lie about casualties, and that only around 750 civilians had actually been killed. This was in stark contrast to the 7,000 or more given unofficially by the UN and the 10,000 estimated by the diplomatic community. Dr Varatharajah also said that only 600 to 650 civilians had been injured from January to 15 April. During that same period, however, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reports having transported, by sea, nearly 5000 injured. In fact, there was another piece of sleight-of-hand taking place at the press conference, as well. Altogether there were actually five arrested doctors, though the other two, Sivapalan and Illancheliyan, had hardly spoken to the media from the Vanni. Yet placing the former, who worked for an LTTE-run facility, alongside the government doctors who spoke to the media pre-judged the government doctors as LTTE mouthpieces.
It thus appeared that the government was playing a bizarre game, using the doctors to knock down casualty figures to unbelievably low levels. This game of hiding the truth is also closely tied to the continued detention of 300,000 displaced individuals, who are being held behind barbed wire and as yet are unable to speak with outsiders about their harrowing experiences in the war zone – experiences with both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army. This perpetuation of the state’s denial of accountability reinforces the oppression of minorities, and ensures the destruction of any semblance of the rule of law. Today, the government has a duty before the world, the people of Sri Lanka and the Tamils in particular to agree to a process of impartial assessment that would make the truth public as to the bombing and shelling in the LTTE held areas during the spring of 2009. The state has never allowed an impartial assessment of truth in violence against minorities in Sri Lanka, ever since the first communal violence in 1956. The truth and corrective measures based on this could do much to heal some of the scars of war.
For its part, the international community is now in a quandary. The dishonest resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) of 27 May can only spur the government in its obstinacy and arrogance. The resolution completely exonerated the Colombo government for its actions in the conflict, implicitly blaming civilian deaths on the LTTE and declining to put any monitoring mechanism in place to ensure the government’s compliance with human rights and humanitarian norms (See Himal July 2009 commentary, “Repugnant fillip”). The Indian representative on the Council, Gopinathan Achamkulangare, even delivered a sharp reprimand to UN Commissioner for Human Rights Navanetham Pillay, for continuing to insist on the principle of accountability to international mechanisms.
But though Colombo crowed triumphantly over the resolution, there was enough dissent at the Council, including from Pillay herself, that the decision could come back up for a review. As such, the government is now trying to create facts on the ground – for instance, by forcing the Tamil doctors to recant, and making sure that the victims cannot speak out. The government is now working to curb the activities of the ICRC and other INGOs that have an interest in human rights and accountability. Inevitably, doing so only further injures the victims at just the time when the Tamil people have become cash cows for the state security forces and their paramilitaries. People are today being detained simply because some informant submitted their name; and often, there is immediately a sum named for their release.
Indeed, the government already had a history of working to subvert international oversight of its actions. One notable instance was the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), which was announced in November 2006. The Group was appointed under external pressure, including from India, and headed by the former Chief Justice of India, P N Bhawati, who was appointed by President Rajapakse himself. It soon became clear, however, that the Group’s work would not be smooth. Evidence was tampered with, witnesses were intimidated or driven out of the country, and at least one was killed – all with cooperation from the judiciary, including complicity from the office of the attorney-general. The group disbanded itself in disgust in April 2008.
Today, in the context of continued obfuscation, let us take a closer look at the possible truth behind the various figures currently being presented. We know that from 12 February until 7 May, the ICRC shipped nearly 14,000 patients and their caregivers from Mullaitivu, to be treated in Trincomalee and the Indian facility in Pulmoddai. We can estimate that this accounts for about 3500 dead, by taking an average of 50 percent of those ‘shipped’ to be injured patients. Of the total of 2434 persons shipped from Puthumattalan beach to Trincomalee from 11 February to 2 March 2009, there were 1669 patients, including 39 pregnant mothers and 1119 cases of injuries, making for 46 percent injured among those shipped. The proportion of the latter would have increased as the war intensified. We take the standard dead-to-injured ratio of 1:2. The latter consisted of people with bombing and shelling injuries caused by government attacks. Those who sustained gunshot injuries while escaping from the LTTE were among those treated in Vavuniya, where Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) treated more than 5000 injured. At the end of the war, 1400 injured were taken by the army to Padaviya Hospital. The injured transported by the ICRC, treated by the MSF at Vavuniya and by government doctors at Padaviya account for nearly 6700 dead, or about 5500 up to 7 May. (We take into account the MSF performing above 30 surgeries a day for several days from 16 May, soon after the LTTE allowed the civilians to leave.)
Importantly, these figures do not account for a large number who were injured during the last 11 days of fighting, when the ICRC was unable to collect them and when casualties were significantly heavier. Nor do they account for the unknown number of injured who died by the wayside or due to shortcomings in rescue and care. Once the last battle ended, a large number of dead were buried by the army using earthmovers. Taking into account the experiences of people who were present during the latter stages, we take a tentative estimate of 6000 dead for the last 11 days. Thus, the figures of 7000 deaths this year until 7 May and 6000 from then until 18 May – making a total of about 13,000 dead, the majority of whom were killed by government fire – are quite reasonable estimates, within the constraints of information collection.
Doctors in war
Whether in the past or present, the fact that some doctors in Sri Lanka’s conflict zone would sympathise with the insurgents was to be expected, as they were, after all, also part of that society. Yet the task of any good government is to seek reconciliation – not to torture such professionals, physically or otherwise, and use them as tools to advance its own lies. When detaining the Tamil doctors, it was important to determine in advance whether they were guilty of any offence or criminal misconduct. Yet no such case has been made.
For example, in charging Dr Sathiyamoorthy at the end of June, the Criminal Investigation Department claimed that, as medical director of the Kilinochchi hospital, he had sent drugs and other medical equipment, received from the government, to the LTTE; he was also accused of taking the drugs and medical equipment with him when he fled Kilinochchi, and to have treated injured LTTE cadres. Yet these are not viable charges: the LTTE needed no prompting to seize drugs and equipment. Meanwhile, Dr Varatharajan denied at the 8 July press conference his earlier report on the shelling of Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital on the night of 1 February, which was said to have killed nine patients in the paediatrics ward. In fact, escaping civilians corroborated that the army had fired back in response to LTTE firing an automatic into the sky from nearby.
Such shelling of hospitals was endemic to the situation in Jaffna 22 years ago. During early 1987, the LTTE fired at the army detachment in Jaffna Fort, and Jaffna Hospital there was hit multiple times, killing several patients. At that time, however, three things worked in the hospital’s favour. The doctors in Jaffna were in contact with the Indian High Commission in Colombo, which exerted pressure on the government to negotiate an arrangement with the LTTE to make the hospital area into a no-fire zone. And the Ministry of Teaching Hospitals remained sympathetic to the plight of the hospital, as did the Government Medical Officers’ Association. But while the doctors had a sympathetic ear among sections in Colombo, they had no communication channels by which to deal with the Indian Army in October 1987. By that time, the Indian High Commission was in a state of denial, and likely not in a position to instruct fresh reinforcements being rushed in with scanty intelligence, whose orders were to take Jaffna.
Even though things were bad for the government at one level, there was at that time a clearer division between the political and military arms of the state than exists today. Even when political leaders of the day espoused Sinhalese extremist ideology, they retained the ability to be pragmatic when dealing with humanitarian questions and peace. In terms of sending food and medicines to beleaguered areas, the attitude was to ignore the fact that some would be taken by the LTTE – considered acceptable at the time, if this was the only way relief could reach the people. There had long been a general acceptance that government officers in the conflict zone must try to work with all parties, and avoid confrontation. In 1987, the government doctors in Jaffna made public statements and spoke to the press when the hospital was shelled and patients suffered.
Yet today, it is the Defence Ministry that calls the shots, having virtually taken over the government. And if the legitimacy of that government rests on discrediting doctors, it is the dignity of the medical profession that must be sacrificed.
Permanent siege or accommodation
Indeed, the government does not appear to see the end of the war as the time for demilitarisation and political reconciliation, or to restore the badly battered rule of law (see accompanying story, “Discrediting peace”). A radically different approach is required from the Sinhalese polity.
To begin with, the camps for the displaced are today host to a large number of LTTE cadres who have been killers, and many more who were complicit in the killings. This is paralleled by the state’s killers: those who in the past were used in killings in the northeast are now being used in vicious attacks on dissent and the media in the south. These two groups remain deadlocked in each justifying the other’s existence – a situation that is inevitably affecting resettlement. If there is no change in the current dispensation, the displaced could be released one day, but only to go back to the old regime of murder and anarchy. This can be countered only if the state acknowledges that it is partly responsible for the genesis of the LTTE, and reforms its conduct in such a way that the Tamils begin to see how LTTE leaders hoodwinked the populace into supporting them.
Instead, leaders in the south appear bent on covering up their failings in an ideological project to re-enact an imagined past of Sinhalese hegemony. In addition to the targeting of journalists and Sinhalese citizens who speak out and act in accordance with their conscience, the need to control people (through extrajudicial violence and intimidation) is further evident in the superfluous militarisation of the civil administration of the east. In this, it is important to remember the Tamils displaced from Sampoor (in Trincomalee District) by government shelling in 2006, who have since been living miserably in some of the most inhospitable parts of Batticaloa, such as a cemetery in Kokkuvil. The government turned Sampoor into a high-security zone, and the Indian government agreed to build a coal-fired power plant in what was a prime agricultural area. The displaced, many of whom had been farmers, insisted on going back home, and refused to accept alternative settlement on tiny plots of land elsewhere.
Today, their wishes are far from being respected. Recently, the military civil administrator of Trincomalee District sent a military officer to Batticaloa to browbeat the Sampoor displaced into being resettled in a ‘transit camp’, where they would waste away in isolation, watched by the military, unable to find work as before and unable to protest. A similar problem now confronts many Tamils, whose homes were turned into high-security zones over the past quarter century. Ironically, permanent displacement is normally associated with dividing states where new nationalities are forced on people – not where, as in Lanka, the displaced remain vagrants for decades in the country where they are nominal citizens.
Colombo clearly had fears of letting the five Tamil doctors go free. But treating the doctors in this way is even more damaging than detaining the displaced. Irrespective of their former sympathies, almost all who came out of the war zone have been scathing about the LTTE. Dr Shanmugarajah told a friend that he was captured while attempting to flee, beaten and then watched by an armed LTTE guard as he carried out his duties. If the government’s object was to expose the LTTE rather than concoct fiction about war casualties, the sensible thing would have been to let the doctors speak freely. The possibility that the doctors could have been under LTTE pressure to lie was perhaps to be expected, though there is no evidence that they did lie while on duty. At the same time, the government coercing these individuals into being tools for its ends, holding them to public ridicule, has made them victims deserving of everyone’s sympathy. It has also done great harm to the ultimate cause of reconciliation.
~ Rajan Hoole is with the University Teachers for Human Rights, Jaffna.