ERASING THE EELAM VICTORY Part 8
Posted on December 7th, 2019

KAMALIKA PIERIS

Voices of Peace” edited by Sarah Kabir, (2018) consists of a set of interviews with   members of the LTTE and the Sri Lanka armed forces taken together.  The book weaves together” the narratives of ten former LTTE cadres and ten SLM personnel who fought at the front line in the Eelam war.  

The purpose of the book is to see how front line fighters on the two sides viewed the Eelam War. The book was funded by Swiss Federal Dept of Foreign affairs, Expolanka, ONUR and private donors. A Tamil translation appears to have been issued simultaneously.

The author, Sarah Kabir has a BSc. in Social Policy from the University of Bristol, and a MSc. in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies from the London School of Economics.  She thereafter researched into   development and peace building.

Sarah has worked on research projects alongside researchers from the Universities of Sussex and Durham. She has also worked with various international and local organizations within the civil society sector and her work has appeared in various academic publications and research reports.

Her mentors, for this book  included two anthropologists,  who have done field work in Sri Lanka  R. Stirrat  and  Tom Widger  as well as Rajesh Venugopal, a  visiting fellow  at University of Colombo, fellow of the Centre for Poverty Analysis and an Advisor at Verite Research (Sri Lanka). Rajesh has researched on Sri Lanka. Sarah has thanked, inter alia, Vinya Ariyaratne of Sarvodaya and Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu of Centre for Poverty Analysis for their advice.

Sarah Kabir said that   she had been working in civil society for a long time. The narrative that we normally hear   or the narrative that we seem to keep talking about is that the military are perpetrators and they violated all the rules. I really strongly believed that,” she said. Her perception about the military made her more sympathetic towards the LTTE than the Sri Lanka army.

But when I went and met these people, it changed my opinion entirely about the military,” said Sarah, it made me realize that these people are human too, and I had kept painting them as this one entity over another, and now I’ve learnt better after listening to them (sic).”

Sarah was born in the midst of Sri Lanka’s lengthy civil war, reported the media. Her earliest childhood memories are interspersed with war effects. I was in a local school in Colombo,” she said. School was closed one day because a bomb had gone off.”Her school kept getting closed, and at the time, she didn’t understand why that happened. It didn’t hit me that so much atrocity was going on somewhere else,” she recalls, referring to it as a detachment.”

For this book, Sarah had interviewed 20 combatants, 10 former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and 10 members of the Sri Lankan Army (SLA). The book contains these interviews.  It is not storytelling, though it is described as such, and it has been backed by a questionnaire.   It is part of a much larger volume of primary research.

The respondents for this project have been supplied by various agencies. Some respondents were found by Sarvodaya, others by the Ministry of Defence, Seva Lanka also by friends, colleagues and journalists. They were of course, from the LTTE or the Sri Lanka armed forces. The LTTE segment included a representative from the Imran Pandian regiment, which provided personal security of Prabhakaran.

Researchers also looked for gender, age, years spent fighting, location in the war and position held during the war. So for both sides, we have storytellers with experiences ranging from just two years in the war to over twenty years, some recruited under the age of 18, those who followed orders and those who gave orders, said Sarah.  Not an easy thing to do with such a small sample.

‘Our paramount concern was to ensure the safety, confidentiality, anonymity and emotion well being of the storytellers’. So some were anonymous also aliases were used. The team has taken legal advice on where it was not safe to reveal real names and even aliases. In these cases the narratives were completely anonymised.

The interviewer took measures to make the story teller feel comfortable, eliminate the chances of the interviewer compelling or directing the answers. Their conversations were carried out in their homes or private spaces. They seem to have had group sessions too.

We used a very flexible and adaptable strategy and discussion during when conducting our field work, said Sarah. We spoke with each story teller between three and five times. We conducted over 100 conversations, including preliminary discussion with all 60 story tellers.’ Interviewers maintained their non-interventionist role and refrained from leading the stories in biased direction.

 The conversations were not carried out as interviews. They were informal interactions over a cup of tea or a meal. Some conversations lasted up to five hours. It takes time for a person to open up.  We built up friendships with most of the story tellers that continue to this day. The data is presented in their respondent own words. People tell their stories differently each time.  ‘They were continually constructing and reconstructing their narratives.’

This book  has  a jumble of objectives. Here they are. Firstly, the book aims for multiple truths and narratives of the conflict, to really try to understand what drove them to arms and what their ideologies were.” It is a discovery of what we do not yet know about the conflict and post conflict situation. Only those who were there can tell the people  what actually happened.

Secondly, we are told that this book gives a unique insight into the storytellers own understandings of the causes of war, why they fought and why the other side fought. They even take responsibility for why the other side needed to fight or defend themselves.

Thirdly, the book blends both sides to blur the lines between the LTTE and SLM, rather than entrench divisions.’ The intention,” Sarah explains, was to make the readers think, ‘Oh, he could be LTTE or he could be military. You couldn’t even tell the difference at times.”

 The book implores its readers to embark on a journey and engage with the story tellers not simply as LTTE or SLM but rather as men and women they can relate to. It aims to change the lives of the storytellers and readers and also contribute to peace building  and the reconciliation process.

The book is clearly an agenda driven project, with the outrageous objective of equating the Sri Lanka armed forces and LTTE .That may be a first for any country. The Eelam Wars were outright civil wars.  It was the State versus the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. At no stage were the two combatants  equal. They were definitely not after the same objective either.

 Thanks to the Eelam wars,  the  Sri Lanka army  developed into an internationally admired ,well trained, professional army. The LTTE, on the other hand, was reading manuals on how to fight as the fight ended at Nanthikadal. Sri Lanka army fought on for 29 years without comment. It  was declared to be a demented, unmanageable force only  because it won the war.

QUOTATIONS

I had to discard the original list  of quotations selected for this  essay. I found that some of the statements made in the book, regarding the Sri Lanka armed forces, would infuriate readers if they were broadcast outside the book. They seem to be safe and snug inside the book,

Here are some other quotations. 

SET  NO 1 .

I had no choice but to join the LTTE, we were very poor.  For the poor joining the LTTE was the only way.  We  had been poor for generations .Those who failed the O level joined the LTTE. I saw the LTTE cadres going round in their vehicle and I joined them.   The LTTE would spot  us on the  road and speak to us about issues that the people face.   In camp, instead of military training they taught us about Sri Lanka  political issues and about Tamils being deprived of their rights (p 36,38,50)

 SET 2

I joined the LTTE in 1988.  Multiple shells dropped on my neighborhood, a family was killed. I found the infant’s finger and the mother’s arm. That day six boys joined the LTTE. (p45)

There were lots of deaths in the village [due to the army]. In 1984 about 130 were killed and their bodies were found in a well. Houses were burnt and infants were victims too. Usually the attack happened at night when people were sleeping.  They would arrest youths and shoot anyone who tried to run away.  Those who were arrested were then taken to camps. They would burn tyres so we could see the smoke. Those arrested did not return. (p44)

Seeing these people being killed in my own village I joined the LTTE. It wasn’t just one incident. I witnessed many such incidents through the years from Grade three to ten. LTTE offered us the safest place, I felt comfortable with the LTTE. It was only after joining that we learned that the LTTE wanted a separate territory and we had to fight against the Sri Lanka Army. It was only after the war started [that we] found it was a difficult path and not one to follow. (p44)

 One LTTE member recalled that his school principal took them to a trip to a beach, (unspecified). Two Sri Lanka navy boats arrived and had a physical fight with the principal, the children ran away. Next we learned that the principal had been killed. (p36)

SET 3

I joined the LTTE because we were being attacked. We wanted to get our rights back. I felt we needed a solution for our people. ( p 53)

We weren’t forced to join LTTE. We wanted to  join. (p203) We weren’t paid a salary but depending on our circumstances the political division would look after our families if a cadre was very poor. If his parent’s house hadn’t a roof they buy the material and fix it. But they never gave us cash in hand. After five years a LTTE could marry and then they were given an allowance. (p74)

We chose the LTTE .We wanted to die for a cause. We weren’t afraid. (p 92 )  LTTE  was highly disciplined. We were a secretive organization and only knew each other’s  LTTE  aliases. (p 63) I didn’t regret joining the LTTE. I made a lot of other female friends so we didn’t feel the need to go back to our families. It was fun. (p53).

We believed in Prabhakaran and trusted him. He was the best leader in the world and was like a god to us. We had   genuine respect for him. He never drank or smoke or committed any wrong. When we joined we wanted to see Prabhakaran before we died . I will never forget the moment I did.  We did not have to salute him. He ate with us. He was known fondly as annai brother, (p 92 )

Our regiment, the Imran Pandian special regiment, was an important one and very close to the leader. It was the backbone of the LTTE. From the day we joined, we were with him. We grew up with him. We ate with him. (p 113)

During Prabhakaran’s  time law and order was perfect. Prabhakaran  instructed that Sunday be designated for house related work. There were elders homes and orphanages  set up during LTTE rule. Anyone found begging or destitute would be taken to these homes. Everyone was treated well there. You would    not want to leave once you went to these homes. (p 92)

There were no beggars. They were put into homes. There were home for elders, orphans, and destitute. There were no caste issues, no religious or status issues, everyone was equal.  No unemployment, LTTE even maintained agriculture, fish and coconut divisions.  Every  family was employed.  Rape was unheard of.  If   they robbed Prabhakaran punished the robbers.  There was a shortage of electricity, but LTTE looked after civilians properly. Better than government now.  (p 154)

During the war, safety wasn’t an issue. People knew how to protect themselves from the bombs.  We had security. We lived without fear and threats, we could safely send  children to nursery alone. Law and order was well balanced under LTTE.  During LTTE time you could go anywhere leaving your shop open and your cash outside. You could wear jewellery and go out. It was a very safe environment. ( p 153, 155)

SET 4

Our main focus was to ensure that the SLN  didn’t capture our ships and to efficiently clear the ships that come from overseas.  (p65)  Sometime if Sri Lanka army  soldiers were injured and  if we could not carry them, we would kill them.( p101)

When we joined the LTTE we were ready to die. We never thought we should lose. It is hard to bear sometimes. We could not bury Prabhakaran properly. We couldn’t believe we were destroyed we were so powerful. We believed the entire Tamil community was behind us.( p 59, 124,194)

LTTE deployed us soon after our training. What we faced since have  been bitter experiences I don’t ever want to relive them. (p93)  We lost everything because we had  got involved with the LTTE. Finally we got nothing out of the war.(p189)  Most think the Tamil people did not achieve anything through the war. As a former LTTE cadre we also think we didn’t achieve anything. There was no outcome, so there should not  be a war again.(p188)

SET 5

We were with the LTTE in this small area that they controlled but we thought it was a big area. We didn’t know much about the outside world, the real world. (p202)

Only after I was released that I learn of a place called Vavuniya, I only knew up to Omanthai before. Then I got my bike and went to Nuwara Eliya and Kandy and Anuradhapura. Only then I realize that we were living in such a small area under the LTTE  and there was so much more to explore.  Earlier we were living between three towns, unaware of how big Sri Lanka was and how much more there was to see. (p220)

SET 6

When I was young  I was told that Sri Lanka army  would shoot us  if they saw us. We were raised to fear the Sri Lanka army .  LTTE cadres were told as children, that Sri Lanka army  will shoot on sight. (p 202 ) We hadn’t met the Sri Lanka army  in person so most had a negative image of them. Most were not aware of what they even looked like.(p109)

I had never seen the Sri Lanka Army.  When we crossed the lagoon I was terrified they would shoot us if they saw us because that was what we were told. (p 91) I was very scared wondering what they would do to us. That is the first time I saw Sri Lanka army. They gave us medicine, water and biscuits.  Even while eating the biscuit I was scared. I was badly injured and they put me in a tractor. ( P 108)

Form our childhood days were raised to believe that if the Sri Lanka army  sees us they will shoot us.(p108). Until I met the Sri Lanka army during rehabilitation, I was scared. But then I realized that what we were told was not true. Now I am not scared anymore. (p 202 )

SET 7

My family and I turned ourselves in at Mullaitivu. We were not given any water. They thought there were only 10,000 of us but there were roughly 200,000 of us. (p103) I was in a Sri Lanka army  transport bus. my wife  [fell ill]. I told a soldier she needed a seat and he almost assaulted me. (p103)

We surrendered in 2009 but have got nothing that we were promised. At the point of  surrender they removed our clothes. we were not treated like humans. No food or water was given. When we surrendered we hoped they would take care of us according to internationalstandard. I surrendered as an LTTE . I was sent to prison.  My family was given a hut and food I’m not saying they were not looked after, but they faced a lot of  difficulties. (p106)

SET 8

Sri Lanka army completely disregarded IHL specially in prisons.  The way they use to hit us in prison.  One day I was  playing chess and a solider came and hammered the boy, then when I went out … to have a wash,  a soldier caught me and beat me. (p 111)

‘ it is the lower ranked officers who tend to be racist’ (p145)

When they arrested us we were taken to a school in Vavuniya. They kept 4000 cadres in this school. For a month all of us were tortured there. They would hit  us on the head as we stood in line. Suddenly, after a month a general from the police visited and gave an order. ‘These are former LTTE cadres who were trained and specialized in operating various weapons including artillery.  You have to treat them with humanity.’ After that we were treated fairly. (p 112 )

My fear was that I would be taken to Boosa. People say they tortured inmates there.(p110). Boosa was not as bad as the first prison. Boosa was over crowded, 8 in one cell.    No ventilation no light. But we got three rice meals a day. We were given plain tea at 6 am. I was then sent to Senapura  rehabilitation camp. There were a few racist officials there but most took care of us well. I cannot comment on others experiences, but my experience was good.(p112)

  In prison we were treated well, we were given an extra curry if we wanted it.  We could watch TV or play carom (p116)

SET 9

Rehabilitation was worse than prison, I was supposed to be trained in carpentry for six months but I was only trained for 60 days and they made me sign  the register saying 6 months training was completed. The program I found useful was the Sinhala lessons but they lasted only fir three months and for just one hour, I only learnt 80 words. (p 116)

In rehabilitation I was treated like a pet. Four officers from the Sri Lanka army  were like fathers to me. It was an interesting period. I feel  it was a very good chance given to me. They gave me counseling. A guru from India did the counseling. It was a very good programme. They also gave us vocational training and they treated us well. The officers were really good people. Most officers were retired school principals. They [gave] counseling, training and treated us well. The officers were really good people who were recruited into the programe by the government . even now I maintain a good friendship with them. (p 110)

I was kept in rehabilitation camp for two and half years, they treated us well. Soldiers were told not to hit us.  Rehabilitation was good. we got good opportunities in there. Some took their O levels. They found who had worked  for government officers during the LTTE time, in  post office, hospitals or as teachers and the government continued to pay their salaries. I studied Sinhala at camp. Only bad thing was the CID used to question us all the time. The CID, Terrorist Investigation Unit and other groups all interrogated us to ensure our stories were the same. (p110)

We were taken on a 7 day course to Colombo. we saw  Viharamaha Devi Park, Galle Face, Nelum Pokuna, also Kandy Nuwara Eliya . Even  if you have money you cannot see Parliament and Port as we did.  we did the city tour on a double Decker, I don’t know about the others, but I felt better after this trip.(p117)

The government should give Rs 5 lakhs per person after rehabilitation. They should invest in our children. (p153)

SET 10

One Tamil asked me, there are war monument to commemorate those the Sri Lanka army  considered heroes. What about the LTTE who sacrificed their lives. aren’t they heroes too. Every time they see these monuments they are reminded that they lost the war. (Ratnapriya.  p 237)

monuments like the toppled Kilinochchi water tank should not be there. Every time we go past we are reminded that we toppled it. Sinhala people come to see it like it’s a big thing. And when they see Tamil people they look at us in anger. We do they keep reminding us that we lost.  In one place they should have a memorial for both sides. we are heroes too. Both sides have heroes. (p237)

They shouldn’t call us former cadres now. They should treat us equally,

SET 11

During the war our army unit brought some displaced Tamil civilians to a kovil but the people at the Kovil did not to let them in because they were of a low caste. (p75) . There was a project to build 100 houses for the IDPs at Kankesanturai. Most of the IDPs were fishermen. The higher caste people did not want them and protested against the project. (p253)

Ratnapriya joint commanding officer of CSD HQ for Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu in 2012 said when interviewed’ I realized that they [Tamil population] have always needed a leader. (p144)

A family in Kilinochchi complained that a soldier wearing a white sarong stole one of their hens.  soldier denied it. To settle the matter I told the army base to give the family five hens, it was more than they lost, but the family did not want the hens, they wanted the soldier punished. (p253)

In 2002 I visited Kandy to get my prosthetic legs with the help of Handicap International. People would look at us with suspicious because we were Tamil. In Kandy there were only Sinhala TV channels and when I switched to a Tamil one the OIC scolded me. They were all very racist.  That day I felt we needed a country of our own. (p 69)

  SET 12

To win the war you need to capture ground. [For this we need infantry] Infantry soldiers were from poor families who needed money. They came from remote areas. Soldiers who joined because of poverty are the reason we won the war. (p201)

But there were some who joined because they wanted to fight for their country. One man we assigned to the kitchen went to the frontline. He was killed. Some monks gave up their robes and joined, (p201)

SET 13

Sri Lanka has forgotten what we did for our country. No one knows the reality, we saw with our own eyes. How     we carried them, gave them food and water, I know how we women soldiers helped the LTTE. We didn’t go home, we forgot our families and  helped them. (p205)

We saw with our own eyes how the male soldiers suffered to help those crossing over, they would carry the achchies. They worked tirelessly. They did good things. (p 206)

I would get so sad when I saw them crossing over with nothing but their land deeds and a few cloths held tightly to their bodies (p229).

Many refugees at Nanthikadal were women so we [women soldiers] had to be there.  We didn’t have toilets for them. There was excrement everywhere.  We gave them water and food. We would drink salt water and give them the good water. The water there is hard to drink. Our morning food would only come at noon. We would most often give it to the children. No one talks about these good things.  We also suffered a lot but we did not have any anger towards them. Even when we were trying to help them they still hit us. They had put oil in the wells and toppled the big water tank. When we gave them food they fought among themselves to eat the food. (p 105)

  SET 14

In my first battle, [we found that] the LTTE did not have bullet proof vests, and wore slippers. (p197)

You must apply ROE whenever possible, when we saw LTTE approaching we get a loudspeaker had announce in Tamil that we would not harm them if they surrendered. But they attacked or killed themselves anyway. Once we were attacked by a lone LTTE shooter, I asked him to surrender, we won’t kill him but when a solider approached him he threw a hand grenade.  We spoke to him again but he killed himself. (p 91)

Most of the time LTTE come to us claiming to be innocent and once we got close they blow themselves up. So we were always fearful of approaching them. (p62)

In 1993 I was in the east, we were clearing mines. I was Platoon commander at the time.  I found that the LTTE had been monitoring my movement and there were four land mines near where I usually sit.  On another occasion the LTTE attacked the tractor I was meant to go in, and then there was a mortar attack on a place I wanted to have a conference in.  (p 86)

  SET 15

I once killed on a Wesak poya day. We attacked two suicide crafts where 22 LTTE girls and 25 LTTE boys were killed. Killing people on Wesak poya day made me feel very guilty. I went to my monk to confess (P139)

I don’t like to have memorials or medals in my house because they represent killing. (p209)

From my experience I know we in the SLAF took a professional approach. (p100)

I was based in Katunayake from 1998 until the war ended in 2009 I have flown many times and dropped bombs. If certain factor aren’t in line with military objectives the operation is abandoned, e.g. if the target is in a civilian area. A long and comprehensive process involving many parties is followed when identifying targets and making a decision to attack. I have flown over targets and not bombed them. I was trained in IHL and know about proportionate force. We stuck to these rules. Personally I think that SLF was professional in how it conducted itself. We had a very comprehensive process we didn’t simply fly out and drop bombs.  It is our responsibility to communicate whether an operation is feasible, to HQ. (p66) 

I don’t wish to fight a war like that ever again. I know how difficult it was. But I am trained to fight and if asked to fight, tomorrow I will do so again. It is my job. (p187)

If the war starts again we will fight.  We saved our country. I have fought against an enemy who fought against my country.  If I have to fight again I will. (SLAF officer p106)

Ultimately we did not regret what we did in the war as it was a task we had to do (army  p135)      ( CONTINUED)

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