|Penned in The Sunday Island of August 2005, after the killing of Lakshman Kadirgamar. Used a pen name because of security threat, since I was travelling frequently to LTTE-controlled areas. Also used a pen name to protect my sources.|
The way of the Tigers
In September 2002, when our self-styled truce was still in the first rosy months of its questionable life, a scared Tamil man from Jaffna sought me out at my private residence in Colombo.
I’m restrained from naming him, from describing him or even revealing his profession because the LTTE would kill him. What I can say is that he was a respectable citizen without affiliation to any political party or group. A man who loved his country and his people but quaked with fear at what the future held for both.
Nervously, he settled into a chair and started speaking. He had nasty purple bruises and congealing cuts on his body and face. Just weeks before, he had been snatched from his home by the LTTE and beaten mercilessly for no other offence than publicly expressing an opinion dissimilar to that of the Tigers.
“I didn’t know whom to confide in,” he confessed, quietly. “I can’t trust the Tamils. I used to be able to trust the Sinhalese. But I can’t anymore. They may sneak to the LTTE.
“I hope you won’t betray me.”
The LTTE was choking Jaffna, he lamented. They had entered the city for “political” reasons but were slowly controlling every aspect of civilian life. They were dictators, he claimed. Views contradicting their own were not tolerated. A word out of place would result in severe punishment. The Tigers had a death grip on government officials. Everyone had to toe their line. In the meantime, each family in Jaffna had been surveyed, with details of their income and property meticulously recorded. No business venture — not even a roaming salesman — was free from LTTE extortion. Or “taxes”, as they preferred to call it.
“The LTTE is about money and money is about the LTTE,” he said. “They only want money. Please expose them. We have no hope.” This was 2002. Long before direct negotiations broke down and well in advance of Karuna’s defection.
The tragedy of this story is that I’m not making it up. I almost wish I were.
I’m no Sinhala nationalist. I’m not even remotely racist. I endorse that Tamil people have serious concerns that must be addressed. I don’t want the poor man’s son to die fighting my battle. When the cease-fire agreement was signed and face-to-face talks commenced, I joined many others in rejoicing that our beleaguered, sad nation had been given a second chance. I had faith in the LTTE and the involvement of a third party facilitator.
I was wrong. The cease-fire indisputably cut off direct combat but by no means was the war over. A more complex conflict had begun — one that the government is now handsomely losing at the hands of a terrorist organisation that is unashamedly pampered by an international community and a rich, well-fed, opulent, Colombo-based NGO mafia who evidently don’t care about Tamil people.
Humouring the LTTE — and not protecting the lives of ordinary civilians — has been the main thrust of this peace process. Any advantages the Tamil people receive are crumbs off the LTTE table. The Tamil community is suffering the worst casualties in this battle. First, they were victimised by the state and the military; now the Tiger is feeding on its own young.
More than 98 per cent of civilians killed by the LTTE during the past three years have been Tamil.
Returning from Jaffna on a civilian flight, one day, I started chatting to the passenger seated next to me. The middle-aged Tamil man was pleasant and friendly, speaking English with a slight foreign accent. He lived in Canada, he said, and was a businessman. “I came to Jaffna after years to see my home town,” he said. “There’s a lot of destruction. I’m sad.”
He had visited Jaffna also to explore whether there were investment opportunities there. He wasn’t happy with what he saw and was returning home. One factor that had strongly discouraged him was LTTE taxation. “I don’t want to pay double taxes,” he said. “And the LTTE taxes are quite high.”
Although prohibited under the cease-fire agreement, the LTTE started extorting money quite early in the truce. In fact, they even published a list of official taxes. Jaffna boutiques started factoring these charges into their receipts and it is now accepted that every businessman must contribute a portion of their profits to the organisation.
The opening of the A9 road was a boon to the LTTE. Fees were slapped on practically everything. Tamil expatriates were liable to especially heavy payments. The cash kept rolling in, unhindered by the state or the international community. This component of the cease-fire was — and is — completely ignored.
I remember speaking to a Norwegian diplomat about the issue of extortion. I recall being particularly surprised at the nonchalance with which he treated it. “Surely you understand that the LTTE needs money?” he asked me. “They have their administrative systems to fund, their cadres to feed.” If that were so, why insert a dud clause into the cease-fire agreement?
One of the most attractive features of the truce deal was that it temporarily broke down tensions between the Sinhala and Tamil community. The two sides started reaching out to each other across ethnic divides. Ordinary Sinhala people flocked to Jaffna on sightseeing tours and pilgrimages. Tamil people started visiting relatives and doing their own tours of the south. They started speaking each other’s languages. After years of war, Jaffna assumed almost a festive air. Roving merchants started selling their wares in the north. Trinkets and little luxuries from the south were snapped up fast. It wasn’t unusual to find traders from Galle, Kandy or Colombo standing on a Jaffna street corner and canvassing business.
Unfortunately, this didn’t last long. The visitors dried up and so did the merchants, not necessarily simultaneously. The latter had long been complaining that there were too many taxes to pay. It wasn’t worth the trouble. Meanwhile, the LTTE started controlling profitable businesses, becoming middlemen for all sorts of transactions. In addition to choking people, they started choking the economy.
Muslim returnees to Jaffna once told me that the Tigers were preventing them from resuming their lucrative scrap iron business. “They have realised that it was good money so they are preventing us from going out and collecting scrap iron,” a businessman said. “They’re doing it themselves. It’s the same with everything else. They are middlemen for fish, vegetables…. Even big companies have to either make a heavy down payment or share their profits.” The LTTE also started controlling market prices, instructing businessmen to sell their goods at certain rates.
Civilians had no escape from the LTTE. From the very instant Tigers started “political activity” in Jaffna, ordinary people have been under tight control. They have also been manipulated handsomely to suit the LTTE’s needs. The Tigers have even used school children in their protests, using them to provoke the military and placing them in grave danger. Over and over, the organisation has confirmed that civilian life is expendable.
Unfortunately, civilians were not happy under army control either. Past experiences had left them extremely bitter and rightly so. Any attempts by the military to change its image were challenged by the LTTE, which was leading efforts to distance the civilian populace from state forces.
This wouldn’t be so bad had the Tiger alternative been any better. But it isn’t.
I once visited the Jaffna political office of the LTTE for an interview with area chief, Ilamparathy. Outside, seated on rows of chairs, were rows of civilians. Sari-clad women and men in sarongs. What were they waiting for?
“They are unhappy with the military and the Sri Lanka police,” claimed Ilamparathy, speaking through a translator. “They are waiting to lodge complaints with the LTTE. Some people have land disputes. Some people want to report about the army and police. They want the military to leave High Security Zones.”
Outside, I asked a civilian why he had visited the office. “I was called here to provide details of my family and income,” he said.
The LTTE were registering people, taking down information ranging from the extent of property they owned to the number of family members abroad. The data was to be used for extortion purposes.
Little, if any, of the LTTE’s own vast treasury is used to fund social welfare. The Tigers keep hoarding and hoarding, while expecting the donor community and government to dole out more and more. I remember meeting a feeble, aged man on the road to Kilinochchi. He was so poor that he cried when he spoke of his hunger. His wife, equally gnarled and emaciated, wept too. His children and grandchildren were nearby, in a shack that an NGO dog wouldn’t live in. Some were drying fish in the sun.
“The government doesn’t care for us,” the old man said, tears running down his cheek. “Neither does the LTTE.” Frankly, that’s the truth.
Repression of free speech
But why repeat all this? These are home truths. Stuff that the international community –and the NGOs that feed off them — prefer to blank out.
Most dangerous is the repression of free speech in all parts of the north and east. The basic tenet of democracy is free speech. Before anything else, one must be able to think and declare one’s opinion. One must be at liberty to support whatever party that most echoes one’s ideology. The LTTE has never — and will never — allow this. How does the international community respond? They collude, at the cost of those Tamil civilians they claim to support.
I once spoke to a government official in Jaffna about the LTTE. He claimed stiltedly that they were “very nice”. Even when they ordered him around, they did so “nicely”. He started parroting propaganda, as everyone does in Jaffna. I couldn’t get one spontaneous comment out of him.
Until I tried reverse psychology. “Fine, if you don’t care about the LTTE’s behaviour, why should we?” I said, dismissively. He stopped short, a look of concern on his face. “It’s not that we don’t care…,” he said, and bit his tongue.
Nobody can talk. Those who don’t agree with the LTTE are, plain and simple, killed. Civilians who aren’t brainwashed into believing that Prabhakaran is God are terrorised into accepting it. I have seen adults and children pledging allegiance to him, hands in air, Hitler style. One such ceremony was witnessed at a Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) orphanage in Kilinochchi, where I learnt it was a daily routine. Doesn’t this scare the international community? Doesn’t it hark of grimmer times?
Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar is just one corpse in a pile of growing bodies. The killings started before Karuna defected, although Tiger propaganda machines claim it was after. In fact, the first military intelligence officer to be assassinated in 2002 was killed even before the cease-fire was signed. Lance Corporal Clarice alias Gadaffi was murdered on 9 February 2002.
One of the first known army informants to be felled was V. Vithiyaratne (alias Vithiya alias Nithi), killed on 20 January 2002. As for members of alternate political parties, the first to be killed in 2002 was Selliah Kandiah of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front. He was murdered on 19 July 2002.
The list only grows longer. Now, we’ve lost count.
Making a mockery of democracy
The LTTE are not democratising. They are not showing the slightest inclination to do so. To openly say this is not to talk war — but to speak sense. To support a peace process, a man need not be blind, deaf and mute.
The UN this week learnt a lesson. A group of 60 people forced their way into the UN compounds in Kilinochchi and hauled down UN flags that were flying at half-mast as a sign of respect for Kadirgamar. The Tigers are now confident enough to tread on UN soil and violate their property. They do so without fear of sanctions. Just as they mass-recruit children and violate the human rights of their own people.
Be warned. The time to act is now.