It seems no one bothers about “them” in Sri Lanka. No lawyer or rights groups in the country dare to talk of “their” basic rights. Do they deserve to be abandoned or “disappeared”?
Alleged former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE — popularly known as the Tamil Tigers), an armed group that fought for an independent state for the Tamil ethnic minority, have become indefinite “prisoners of war” ever since the LTTE was militarily defeated by the Sri Lankan state in May 2009.
Tens of thousands known or suspected LTTE cadres were captured or surrendered during the last stage of war. The fate of some is unknown, while others have been located in various detention centres thanks to the desperate efforts of their families.
However, some family members, such as the 32-year-old Buddima, are too poor to afford the transport to visit those detained very often.
Buddima’s husband has been detained in Boosa camp in Galle in the south of the island. Having started to “resettle” in her war-ravaged hometown in the largely Tamil north, she has made just a few visits over the past eight months.
“Whenever I visited, I was also interrogated”, she told me. “My husband was an aid worker for Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation.
“He was a paid staff member, never was a combatant.”
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During the last days of war, the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) repeatedly announced at the Omanthai checkpoint — the main checkpoint near the war zone — that anyone involved in LTTE for even a day should surrender.
Rangithan, a 43-year-old mother, said: “They said once the name of the person surrendering was registered, the surrendee would be immediately freed, or at most kept in detention for three months.”
On this basis, Rangithan told me she pressured her 25-year-old son to surrender, as many other mothers did. However, her son remains in detention after a year-and-a-half without being charged or facing trial.
None of those who surrendered were released after three months.
“My son was conscripted by the LTTE in April 2007, but he fled the LTTE the next year”, the grieving mother said. “I hid him inside a bunker for two years.”
There are said to be a dozen “surrendee camps” in northern Sri Lanka. But the number of these camps, their locations the number of prisoners varies depending on who you ask.
The state-owned Daily News recently quoted the minister of rehabilitation and prison reform, D E W Gunesekara, saying 5819 out of 11,696 detainees has been released as of October 23. This figure doesn’t include 800 alleged LTTE members who were to be charged
SLA brigadier Sudantha Ranasinghe, who has been in charge of the camps since February, told me in a phone interview: “It’s not a ‘detention centre’, but a ‘rehabilitation centre’. You yourself come over here and observe it.
“Having spent time together for more than a year, ex-combatants and the army are in a friendly mood.”
Asked about allegations of torture and beatings, the brigadier replied: “I don’t like those words you are mentioning. The words do not exist in my vocabulary.”
However, former detainees tell a different story.
Jeya, a 39-year-old former detainee, told me: “A day in the camp starts by singing national anthem in Sinhalese — the language of Sinhala ethnic majority. There’s a boy who had to kneel down under the scorching sun all day because he didn’t sing it properly.
“There’s another boy who got kicked because he coughed while the anthem played.”
Only Sinhalese was spoken in the camps, which most Tamil detainees couldn’t understand, he said. “In December, a boy who didn’t move promptly when the army said ‘disperse’ was kicked down. He couldn’t understand that word in Sinhalese.
“That was one of many cases.”
Jeya, who is disabled in one leg, was released in April, when disabled prisoners and women detainees with children were the first batch of detainees to be let out.
Just before his release, Jeya said 107 detainees were taken to a nearby school compound, out of which six disabled detainees were taken by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) to an unknown place.
There are reports some detainees were transferred to the Boosa camp by the TID. However, it is difficult to trace as there is no formal registration process for LTTE suspects overseen by an independent agency, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Given the Sri Lankan dark history of “disappearing” thousands of opponents, there is a legitimate fear some LTTE suspects have been disappeared.
Various rights groups have released videos that appear to show Tamil prisoners being shot by the SLA at point-blank range or tortured to death.
Jeya told me of an incident that stokes such fears: “One day, the army said three detainees ran away the previous night. We had to believe whatever the army said.
“But the camp’s surrounded with twofold fences and heavily guarded by armed soldiers. We were told if anyone tried to run away, soldiers would shoot immediately.”
Jeya denied he was a former LTTE member. He was one of many detainees transferred from Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp to the so-called rehabilitaion centres.
When Jeya’s family was about to be released from an IDP camp in August, the army held him back. He was interrogated about 15 times until being taken to a “rehabilitation centre” in November.
“For the first four or five times”, he said, “they heavily assaulted me. They said, ‘somebody said you are LTTE’. If I denied it, they said ‘you have to prove it’, and assaulted me again with a cricket bat.
“I have difficulty breathing because of those assaults. There were many like me.”
Such testimony contradicts official government statements. BBC Sinhala reported on June 15 2009 that then resettlement minister Risath Bathiudden said: “Only those who admit to be LTTE members were taken to detention camps.”
The minister said: “The relatives of those [LTTE] cadres are informed of their whereabouts.”
However, a detainee in the “Zone 4” IDP camp told me there were roundups of youths aged between 17 and 25 in the camp last year.
“First, they have taken boys and then days later, girls as well”, 21-year-old Rani said. “Some parents were crying out as the army took more than one child from one family.”
Another former detainee of a “rehabilitation centre” is 36-year-old Suganthy, who was fighting on the civil war’s last battlefield. “They interrogated me until the last moment I was released in April”, she said.
“Over 11 months’ of captivity, different interrogators asked me the same questions repeatedly. They didn’t believe my answers.”
This account is different from that Jaya’s, who said he wasn’t interrogated much in the rehabilitation centre, but was made to do hard labour.
After Suganthy lost one leg in a battle in mid 1990s,she did administrative work with the civil administration of Tamil Eelam — the Tamil state set up in the areas of the largely Tamil north and east liberated by the LTTE.
But she said she had to fight again when the Tamil state was close to collapse in early 2009 after its capital, Killinochchi, was overrun by the SLA.
“Just before the fall of Killinochchi, the director of Voice of Tiger — the radio station of the rebels — came to us disabled cadres. He said there’s an order that all cadres now fight.”
Suganthy was positioned in the second line along with other disabled LTTE cadres. The battle became extremely fierce from May 13. When the front line collapsed two days later, she retreated with an injured companion.
“There were piles of dead bodies and injured people. No distinction had been made between civilians and cadres. There were no places for the wounded. There were no more commands.
“The cadre in charge told me I’d better to move towards the government side.”
At Omanthai checkpoint on May 19, she was taken to a “rehabilitation centre” in Vavunya.
Even after her release, Suganthy has been intimidated by state intelligence forces. She has been visited at home and her family questioned about her whereabouts if she was out.
“I’ve got a new job thanks to my computer skills and experience of administrative work. But intelligence people told me I have to prove that I’m really working. I don’t feel I’m free”
The International Committee of Jurists (ICJ) published a report on September that said the detention centres may be “the largest mass administrative detention anywhere in the world”.
The ICJ noted the fact that “565 children associated with the LTTE were held in separate rehabilitation centres monitored freely by UNICEF and all released” as a positive development.
However, it criticised the Sri Lankan government’s “surrendee” and “rehabilitation” regime for failing to adhere to international law, and jeopardising the right to liberty, due process and a fair trial.
Ranasinghe rejected such criticism of the camps. He told me: “The international community and international journalists write what they want without evidence. The reality is different.”
Regarding the issue of ICRC access to the “rehabilitation centres”, the brigadier answered: “You have to ask a higher authority. I’m only working on the ground.”
ICRC has had no access to these centres or the IDP camps in Vavunya since July 2009. ICRC spokesperson in Colombo, Sarasi Wijeratne, told me the ICRC has access to some other detention centres, such as the Boosa camp and some police detention centres, “as we have visited them for many years”.
This is far from adequate monitoring of the treatment of LTTE suspects. The detention of LTTE suspects is a “don’t ask” issue in Sri Lanka — along with allegations the SLA committed war crimes.
However, the mass detention of LTTE suspects is a critical issue in the post-war period, where “reconciliation” is a word spoken by many. Before its defeat, the LTTE had a pervasive influence within the Tamil community. The mass detention of “suspects associated with the LTTE” can not but affect the Tamil community at large.
Thousands of people have been queuing at the government-appointed Lesson Learned and Reconciliation Commission, reportedly looking for missing family members who they believe are in army detention.
I asked Buddima, the wife of a detained aid worker, what was her family’s top priority in the post-war period. She simply replied: “My husband back.”
[The names of those spoken to for the article, asides from the ICRC spokesperson and the brigadier, have been changed.]