Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranaike

President Chandrika Kumaratunga:
Words and Deeds

Thanjai Nalankilli

TAMIL TRIBUNE, October 1997 (ID. 1997-10-03)
Minor Update: September 1998
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1. Introduction

2. The Devolution Package

3. Arbitrary Arrests and Ransom Demands

4. Disappearances and Rapes

5. No one is punished

6. Tamil Refugees

7. Civilian Casualties of War


ICRC - International Committee of the Red Cross

LTTE - Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

STF - Special Task Force

UN - United Nations

UNHRC - United Nations Human Rights Commission

1. Introduction

When Ms. Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranaike assumed office as the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, and then as the President, she was hailed as a new kind of Sri Lankan leader - a leader, who, though hailing from the majority Sinhala community, will treat the minority Tamils impartially, and grant them their due political rights. Now, that she has been in office for three years, let us take stock and see if she has fulfilled the expectations and hopes many Tamils and many countries around the world placed on this young, charismatic leader.

If one were to score President Chandrika Kumaratunga by her words, and words alone, then, she is truly a different kind of Sri Lankan leader. She knows the right things to say. The world community has been watching with concern the bloodshed between the Sri Lankan Army and the Tamil fighters for years, knowing very well that the bloodshed will end only if the Sri Lankan government grants minority Tamils their legitimate rights and put an end to the human rights violations by security forces. The new president told them exactly what they very much wanted to hear. President Kumaratunga admitted past mistakes by successive governments and spoke of unprecedented levels of autonomy; she talked of far-reaching devolution of powers; she promised a "union of regions" as opposed to the present "unitary state", and an end to human rights abuses by security forces. The world community applauded her and hoped for an era of peace and prosperity in her rule.

What matters are not the words, but the deeds. How are her deeds measuring up against her words? Here are a few samples. [All the incidents and facts referred in this article are from Indian and western news reports. Nothing is from publications by resident or expatriate Eelam Tamils.]

2. The Devolution Package

This article is not a commentary on the devolution package. The focus here is on the sufferings of the Tamil population in President Kumaratunga's watch, in spite of her oratory of her concern for the Tamil people.

We will, however, in passing, mention that the far-reaching devolution of powers and the unprecedented levels of autonomy she promised in her early days in office have not materialized in the devolution package as it stands today (as of September 20, 1997). The legal draft put forth in 1996 was a watered down version of the package she released in 1995. Even the so called "moderate" Tamil leaders, who still support her, are dissatisfied with the devolution package as it stands now and have told the president that they cannot "sell" her devolution package to Tamil people.

3. Arbitrary Arrests and Ransom Demands

This writer does understand the need for security measures to prevent bombings and assassinations in a country torn by violent ethnic strife. However, security measures do not mean blanket permission to arrest, torture and murder civilians belonging to the minority (Tamil) community. Arrests should be limited to people against whom there are reasonable evidence. But in President Kumaratunga's rule there are arbitrary arrests, torture, murders and disposal of bodies. ( )

Police have also found an easy way to make money. Tamil civilians are arrested for no legitimate reason and then told that they will be released if they pay thousands of rupees (Sri Lankan currency) in ransom. The very fact that arrested Tamils are released on payment of money is clear and conclusive evidence that these arrests have nothing to do with security. These are not isolated events. They have occurred hundreds of times. These arrests and ransom demands have become a part of life for Tamils.

4. Disappearances and Rapes

Ever since the Sri Lankan army captured Jaffna from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), disappearances and rapes started again in Jaffna in large numbers. Tamils in the east under the army control for many years are all too familiar with it. The situation is serious enough for the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) to express concern. It is estimated that disappearances are in the order of 600 to 700 per year. According to the UN rapporteur Bacre Waly N'diege, Sri Lanka has the second highest rate of disappearances in the world (on top of the list is Iraq.)

Tamil life continues to be cheap in President Kumaratunga's rule, in spite of her repeated statements that the military is conducting a war against the LTTE, and not against Tamil civilians. Amnesty International reported that soldiers kill the Tamils instead of arresting them during cordon-and-search operations. Amnesty International has also documented soldiers killing civilians as reprisal for LTTE attacks against the army.

Soldiers and police raping Tamil women continue under President Kumaratunga's rule. International human rights agencies have raised concern about this crime also. Most rapes go unreported. According to a foreign reporter, rape victims seldom file complaint for fear of reprisal.

5. No One is Punished

Supporters of President Kumaratunga may argue that she does not know of these incidents. These are not a few isolated incidents. Many incidences are documented by international agencies. Instead of taking note of these reports and making an effort to end the human rights violations, the Sri Lankan government often accuses these agencies of being biased towards the LTTE. For example, when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported the bombing of a Jaffna church by Sri Lankan Air Force, instead of taking effective measures to prevent bombing civilian targets, the Sri Lankan government accused the ICRC of leaning towards the LTTE.

Even when top Tamil politicians who support her bring specific incidents of abuse to President Kumaratunga's attention, no action is taken. This emboldens the army and police and the abuses continue. Here are two examples.

A man named Sallappa Perinparajah from the Kanguveli village in Trincomalee District in the east sent a message to President Kumaratunga that he feared for his life from a certain army officer. No action was taken. Three weeks later his dead body was found on a road near the village.

A Tamil member of the parliament who supports President Kumaratunga personally brought to her attention that the army was harassing villagers in his constituency. No action was taken. On February 11, 1996, soldiers went house to house in one of the villages (Kumarapuram) in the area and killed 24 people including a three-year old child. Had not many of the villagers ran away and hid in the fields as soldiers entered the village, the casualties would have been much higher. First the army said that it was not the army but some unidentified group wearing army-type uniforms. Then, confronted with overwhelming evidence, the army said that it was the work of about a dozen soldiers. It conducted an internal inquiry headed by a major-general. To our knowledge, no one was punished.

The only way to put an end to the tortures, killings, rapes and unnecessary arrests is to make sure that the culprits are punished in a timely manner and commensurate with the crime. This has not happened in the three years of President Kumaratunga rule in spite of her stated concern for human rights. We hear her words but see no deeds! Words and deeds, they are not in tune.

Under mounting criticism from international human rights agencies about the disappearances of Tamil civilians in large numbers, President Kumaratunga announced the formation of citizens committees to monitor it. To our knowledge, no one has been punished under the aegis of these committees although the disappearances continue.

Even in the very few well-publicized incidences where charges were filed against the alleged culprits, nothing happens. What is the purpose of filing charges with lots of publicity if they are not followed through to a conclusion?

In 1995, the elite Special Task Force (STF) commandos picked up some Tamil youths in Colombo at random and took them to their headquarters. There the commandos applied a plastic tourniquet to the necks of these Tamil youths and steadily tightened them until they died. Their bodies were thrown into nearby rivers and lakes. Days later some of the bodies were found. (Incidentally, the tourniquet method of torture is officially approved by the Sri Lankan military.)

Under increasing criticism from international agencies about these and other disappearances and murders, some commandos were arrested and charged were filed against them. However the government prosecutors would not show up in court on trial dates. It happened again and again, and the judge took the case off the court roll. No one was punished. The accused are still with the STF. So much for justice to the Tamils in President Kumaratunga's rule.

(LATE NOTE (added in September 1998): After this article was originally published, in mid 1998, one case involving the particularly brutal rape-murder of a school girl and the murder of her mother and neighbor that received international attention and outcry was tried and four soldiers and one police constable were sentenced to death. They are still in prison. This the one and only conviction to our knowledge in spite of thousands of murders and hundreds of rapes.)

6. Tamil Refugees

Sri Lankan army's Jaffna offensive of 1995 and the successive offensives after that have caused tens of thousand of Tamils to flee their homes. The plight of these refugees is one of indescribable misery. Hunger is common. Medicine is very, very scarce. Mothers with small children were living in streets without any shelter. Young mothers were delivering babies in the streets. What did President Kumaratunga do? She would not allow even a single international relief agency to help the Tamil refugees. Her foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar said "we do not, at this particular moment, wish to permit outside agencies, including the United Nations, to run any independent relief work in the country." President Kumaratunga who often says that the war is against the LTTE and not against Tamil civilians owes an explanation to the world why she did not permit international relief agencies, including the United Nations, to help Tamil refugees at a time when they needed help the most. Why did President Kumaratunga refuse to allow relief agencies to help Tamil refugees in the time of their need? Why should Tamil mothers have to live with their small children in the streets without shelter in the sun and in the rain? These relief agencies were ready to build the necessary shelters for them. Why should young Tamil women have to give birth to their babies in the streets? These aid agencies were ready to provide shelter and medical care. Why? Is it to teach Tamils a lesson that if they demand their legitimate rights and resist Sinhalese oppression then they will have to give birth to their babies in the streets like animals and tend their young ones in open fields? President Kumaratunga owes an explanation.

There is more about President Kumaratunga government's callous attitude towards Tamil refugees. Some international relief agencies held a meeting in Humbantola to chalk out a plan to help Tamil refugees. A Sinhala mob broke up the meeting. Sri Lankan police did not give any protection. The agencies rescheduled the meeting in Ratmalana. This time the government itself would not allow the meeting saying that the agencies did not get the necessary permission to hold the meeting. First the President Kumaratunga government would not give protection to hold the scheduled meeting in Humbantola, then the government itself would not allow the rescheduled meeting at Ratmalana because they did not get a permission to hold the meeting. The Tamil refugees were suffering without food and shelter at this time. This episode, along with her foreign minister's statement that the government would not permit the agencies, including the United Nations, to do relief work among Tamil refugees, tells volumes about how much President Kumaratunga cares about the welfare of Tamil civilians.

7. Civilian Casualties of War

President Kumaratunga has unleashed one of the bloodiest military campaigns in the long war between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers. While she called it the "war for peace" and said that the war was against the LTTE and not against Tamil civilians, the way the military is conducting the war is causing inordinate amounts of civilian deaths. According to independent statistics published in August 1996, one-fifth of all the deaths during the past 13 years was during the first two years of President Chandrika Kumaratunga's rule. (But for the fact that most of the civilians fled the city as the Sri Lankan army approached Jaffna, the civilian toll during President Kumaratunga's rule would have been much higher.)

She seems to show no concern for the lives of Tamil civilians. In 1995, as the army was on the offensive to capture Jaffna, international relief agencies asked for a small safe zone where Tamil civilians could take refuge, safe from aerial bombings and mortar attacks from both warring parties. President Kumaratunga refused. If the war she was conducting was against the LTTE, and not against Tamil civilians, why didn't she agree to a safe zone?

President Kumaratunga's refusal refusal to agree to a safe zone for civilians, the heavy civilian casualties during her rule, her refusal to allow international relief agencies, including the United Nations, to help Tamil refugees, all taken together, they seem to show that President Kumaratunga is punishing Tamil civilians for resisting Sinhala domination and oppression all these years. It seems that she wants to teach Tamils a lesson never again to protest and resist Sinhala domination. She speaks otherwise but her deeds tell a different reality.

EDITOR'S NOTE: If President Kumaratunga or a spokesperson deputed by her would like to respond to the issues raised in this article, TAMIL TRIBUNE is willing to publish it in its entirety (maximum 10 times the length of this article).

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