By Shivanthi Ranasinghe
Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara was with the Sri Lanka Navy for 35 years. In his long and distinguished career, he witnessed firsthand the ruthlessness of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Their ruthlessness towards their military or political opponents or their civilian targets does not need an introduction.
Yet, the life of civilians, especially Tamils, endured while living alongside the LTTE is an unexplored subject. The LTTE of course portrayed themselves in the international forum as freedom fighters committed to freeing their traditional homeland so the Tamil people can live with dignity and self-determination.
"Freedom fighters," Weerasekara exclaims, "don't kill their own people!"
Tamils living under LTTE rule
As a witness to the misery LTTE inflicted on the Tamil civilians living in the LTTE infested areas, Weerasekara is an authority on the subject. His thesis on "Child Soldiers of LTTE and International Obligations and Terrorism" has received much commendation.
"LTTE always harassed the Tamils in the North. They had their own kangaroo courts and things like that," he explains. "But things got worse for the civilians after the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was signed by the then Premier Ranil Wickremasinghe and the LTTE. I was the Northern Naval Commander and Sarath Fonseka was the Jaffna Commander at that time. During that period, the Jaffna people really suffered because of the freedom and recognition the LTTE got from the CFA. They had absolutely no sympathy for children or respect for women.
"Until the CFA, LTTE was not allowed to come into the Jaffna Peninsula. But the CFA allowed them to come openly and freely to engage in political activities. They however went to each and every family, and forcibly recruited at least one member into their organization. So, at a future date, those fighting for the Tamil Eelam are not just the LTTE, but the entire Tamil community."
According to Defence.lk, LTTE fighting cadre in 2002 was 14,000, but by 2006 it was 25,000.
"They openly abducted children," recalls Weerasekara, "and it was a common sight to see Tamil mothers coming to the Muhamalai checkpoint crying and peeping into each and every vehicle going to Kilinochchi to see if their child was in that vehicle. It was a pathetic situation.
"LTTE abducted children between the ages 8 to 12 to use as cannon fodder. That is, the periphery of an Army camp would be heavily mined and the boundaries are protected with coils of concertina wires - these are barbed wires with double-edged steel pikes. So they forced the children to run across the mined lands and that's how they 'diffused' the mines. Then, when the children got entangled in the concertina wires, they would simply step over their bodies to overcome that obstacle. I have seen at least 200-300 children who have got entangled like this in the wires.
LTTE and JVP
"Children were also forcibly taken from schools on protest marches and if the principal objected, the following day they'd kill him in the school premises itself. Similar things happened during JVP troubles also, but they existed only for about two years. LTTE on the other hand were terrorizing people for 30 years and they were so ruthless that JVP was like kindergarteners compared to the LTTE.
"They checked all the bank books and took 50 per cent of the money that had been deposited from abroad. All the businesses were expected to pay 'taxes.' I know a number of people who committed suicide because they couldn't pay up. For example, they would estimate a small boutique shop's daily earnings to be Rs 1, 000 and demand a daily 'tax' of Rs 500. Whether they actually earned Rs 1,000 a day or not didn't matter - that Rs 500 had to be paid. When the people couldn't pay, they preferred to face death than their extortionists, who were extremely ruthless."
While the world knows something of the parallel Courts, Police force and currency of the LTTE, very few know of their unique prison, which by all accounts, was a torture chamber to deal with all LTTE deemed as traitors.
Ruwan M. Jayatunga provides a graphic description of this prison, in the blogspot, boondionline. This was at a secret location at Devipuram, North of Sri Lanka. It was headed by Shanmugalingam Sivashankar, alias Pottu Amman, who earned the notoriety as the Heinrich Himmler of the LTTE.
LTTE child soldiers who were trained to torture manned the prison and they held absolute power over the adult prisoners who were regularly beaten viciously, humiliated and killed. It is estimated that over the years, more than 20,000 Tamil civilians perished at the hands of LTTE after "undergoing unspeakable horror."
Civil Defence Force
Perhaps the single most important service Weerasekara rendered to the country was to transform the ragtag Civil Defence Force (CDF) into a formidable fighting force. As detailed in Defence.lk, LTTE used to attack isolated villages at night and hack the villagers to death using small arms, swords, machetes, clubs and other handheld weapons. In the 'blooding' exercises, they spared none and even infants were butchered. It is estimated that over 1,950 civilians were thus, murdered and over 400 were injured.
As deploying the Army to protect the villages was impractical, cadres from the village itself were given a basic training. Its inadequacy was exposed by the Kebetigollewa massacre where a claymore mine blasted a bus carrying mostly pregnant women for their prenatal checkups. It prompted authorities to take more tangible measures. On the advice of the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed Weerasekara as the Director General of CDF.
"I had just retired as Chief of Staff, Navy in 2006, when I was tasked to reorganize and reconstruct the CDF and train them fully. I increased their cadre from 19,500 to 41,500, increased their wages, gave them camouflaged uniforms, introduced them to the T-56, increased the four-man team into an eight-man team, trained them in night fighting, unarmed combat and boosted their morale by including them in the National Day Parade.
"After six or seven months I fully transformed them into a fighting force. After we organized ourselves like this, there was not a single incident. It came to a stage where we followed the LTTE who came to attack the villages and destroyed them.
"During the last phase of the war, somewhere in March-April 2009, the Army was short of people to protect the Main Supply Routes (MSR) and also the Forward Defence Lines (FDL). So they recruited within 24 hours 3,500 CDF personnel into the Army, which means that the CDF was as good as the Army personnel. Otherwise they wouldn't have recruited them into the Army. They were taken as soldiers and it was they who protected the FDL and the MSR as well as the villages.
"CDF not only tackled the deadly terrorist attacks on the isolated villagers, but also did much to uplift the living standards of the rural villagers. If London was bombed, no one abandons London. But when places like Kebetigollewa gets attacked, everyone leaves because they have no facilities.
"They don't have hospitals, roads, or functioning schools. That's why, apart from giving the villagers security, we also built the infrastructure. We became indispensable as we provided the facilities and uplifted their living standards by building proper wells, toilets and recruited graduates into Security Defence Force and put them to teach in schools that didn't have teachers. Though mostly Sinhala villagers were attacked by the LTTE, we provided to any area that needed assistance, whether they were Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim villagers."
He was thus one of the five commanders to be felicitated for militarily defeating the LTTE.
Damage done by the CFA
From the very beginning, Sri Lanka was inundated with foreign opinion on how to tackle the terrorist issue in the country. The international community and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) refused to accept the LTTE as terrorists and prevailed on the successive governments to explore a political solution.
"In the Vadamarachchi Operation," recalls Weerasekara, "we were about to destroy the LTTE. I saw the tears in General Kobbekaduwa's and General Wimalarathna's eyes when the Indian Forces violated our airspace and dropped dhal and intimidated the then government of J.R. Jayewardene to stop the war against the terrorists.
"A similar thing almost happened in 2009 when Foreign Ministers, Kouchner from France and Miliband from England, came personally to pressurize President Rajapaksa to stop the war. If he had given into that pressure, the terror on the civilians would have simply continued."
This is exactly what happened when the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) that took over from the Sri Lankan military to resolve terrorism in Sri Lanka failed in its task. The Norwegian brokered CFA too yielded the same failure.
"CFA gave LTTE provisions to victimize civilians," Weerasekara explains further, "but the overall damage it did to the national security was greater. They were able to strengthen socially, economically, politically and militarily. That made it hard for us to defeat them. How did they strengthen socially? They did so by demanding at least one family member from each family in the Jaffna Peninsula.
"Politically, they killed all their political opponents. Economically they extorted money. Their end-of-the-day collection from their various types of extortions along the A9 road alone was Rs 6 million. Just calculate Rs 6 million per day into three years to see the colossal amount of money they had collected during that time.
"Militarily, they brought all the weapons and communication equipment through customs in containers. These were never opened in Colombo, but in Killinochchhi. Then they also destroyed our intelligence unit."
Before the CFA, the civilian movement was severely restricted and there was a ban on fishing. However, those restrictions were removed with the CFA and once again, the Northern fishermen were able to resume their trade.
"Apart from the fishermen," says Weerasekara, "LTTE boats with weapons too moved up and down and also boats from Tamil Nadu smuggling people, drugs and arms. So the Navy had a terrible task protecting the seas. Whenever we apprehended them, they'd report to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) who'd find fault with us.
"SLMM was extremely biased and almost always ruled against us. I remember one incident where SLMM people, who boarded the boat, were first asked to jump overboard and the boat was then destroyed because it had weapons. But the SLMM did not take any appropriate action. The West was very lenient with the LTTE.
"Our stand is, peace or war, out at sea, the naval task remains and we'll continue to prohibit illicit entry of people or arms. That's why we destroyed 11 ships - even during peace times.
"Even during the war times, the government paid for all the administrative services in the North including their salaries, even in Kilinochchi that was controlled by the LTTE. Government also sent food and medicine to the civilians trapped in the areas. We were the only country to feed and treat the very enemy who fought with us because the LTTE took the food and medicines meant for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) and just gave them only half of it. There was nothing we could do about it. It was because of the government's efforts that no one starved to death."
Whatever the noble aspirations the architects of the CFA might have had, they too failed to understand the true nature and objective of the LTTE, despite the officially recorded 3,830 CFA violations by LTTE against the 351 by the Sri Lankan Army. Perhaps blind faith or overconfidence propelled them onwards without resorting to any course of correction and made them overlook the most glaring and blatant fact that the citizens of Sri Lanka were suffering.