Political Violence in Sri Lanka Spreads Jeopardizes Tsunami Reconstruction

Sri Lanka Democracy Forum

The climate of violence and fear in Eastern Sri Lanka continues to deepen, exacerbating the trauma of tsunami survivors and impeding reconstruction efforts. Political killings are escalating at a time when immediate and urgent reconstruction is required. At the same time the LTTE is engaging in violent provocations of the Sri Lankan security forces, actions that appear aimed at a resumption of war. The LTTE’s attack on a naval vessel near Trincomalee on April 5 was deemed by the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to be the most serious ceasefire violation to date. Three days later a Sri Lankan Army soldier was killed by a group of gunmen in Muttur. The situation demands immediate action by an international community willing to acknowledge that reconstruction, human security and democratic principles are indivisible. War will devastate the country, and destroy any gains made in the post-tsunami reconstruction effort. SLDF reiterates its call on the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to declare an immediate, long-term moratorium on fighting as an urgent first step towards augmenting and ensuring a much violated Cease-fire Agreement. We urge the international community to press for this measure immediately.

The east is a strategic place, a testing ground for the success of cooperative reconstruction and peace building strategies, a place where it has been widely agreed there should be a united effort by all parties concerned to rebuild people’s lives, their homes and the communities they live in. And yet, amidst the talk of reconstruction and joint mechanisms the daily grind of killings holds Tamil and Muslim people of the east hostage to a vengeful gun culture. The indisputable fact of the rising number of political killings flies in the face of all efforts toward collaboration and the very principle of reconstruction, more so the restoration of democracy which is so desperately needed.

At the root of the violence in the east is the LTTE’s ongoing struggle to regain political and military control after Karuna’s rebellion last year, and to secure its hold on economic resources related to reconstruction. Although both the LTTE and Karuna’s forces have carried out violent attacks on perceived opponents, most of the victims during the first week of April have been persons not related to the Karuna faction, including supporters and former members of political parties that challenge the LTTE’s claim to “sole representation of Tamils”. Three separate violent attacks on the LTTE’s opponents occurred on April 5 alone. In the afternoon of April 5, suspected LTTE death squads shot and critically wounded a former EPDP member, Arumugam Ambikaipahan, age 22. He was shot at close range in a movie theatre in Batticaloa and was admitted to Batticaloa Hospital for treatment. Two hours later, the LTTE shot and killed 49-year-old Amarasingam Ragavan, a former member of EPDP as he was cycling in the eastern town of Akkaraipattu. That evening an unidentified attacker threw a grenade at the EPDP office in Karaithivu.

There are indications now that the political violence that has plagued the east is spreading to the north. In Vavuniya on April 8, EPDP member Sivakumar was hospitalized with gunshot wounds after he and a colleague were attacked by suspected LTTE gunmen on a motorcycle; concerns have also been expressed for the safety of the LTTE’s democratic opponents in Jaffna, where LTTE has increased surveillance efforts.

LTTE Repeating Intimidation Tactics

This is not the first time that the LTTE has gone on a killing spree while simultaneously demanding administrative powers. In April 2003, the LTTE pulled out of the peace talks, demanding the creation of an interim administration under its control. At the same time it launched a campaign of political killings against its perceived opponents in the Tamil community. In fact, the LTTE pulled out of the peace talks just in time to avoid discussing an agreement on human rights with the government at the next round of talks. Its campaign of killings continued even as the international community pledged 4.5 billion dollars in development and reconstruction aid to Sri Lanka at the Tokyo Donor Conference in June 2003, with conditions linking aid to progress on the peace process and human rights. A joint statement by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in August 2003, raised concerns about the violence stating: “At least 22 people with links to Tamil political parties opposed to the LTTE have been killed in politically motivated attacks… All available evidence points to a systematic campaign by the LTTE to silence opposition voices.”

Since then LTTE death squads have killed scores of non-combatant Tamils either belonging or suspected by the LTTE of belonging to unarmed Tamil groups -- a flagrant violation of the ceasefire. The Government of Sri Lanka has consistently failed to investigate killings by the LTTE. It established its one and only commission of inquiry into recent violence in the east when LTTE political leader Kaushalyan was killed, and the focus of that investigation is solely on the killing of LTTE members.

The LTTE’s current campaign of political killings after the tsunami is frighteningly similar to the killings of 2003, as is the context. Some members of the Muslim community in eastern Sri Lanka also have fallen victims to LTTE gunmen. While the LTTE is demanding a joint mechanism for tsunami reconstruction to enable it to receive international aid, it continues to kill suspected opponents, including those involved in rehabilitation efforts and those affected by the tsunami. The civilian population of eastern Sri Lanka, which suffered the worst in the tsunami disaster are gripped with a widespread sense of fear due to the ongoing campaign of politically targeted assassinations which occur almost daily.

Without adequate protection of human rights, any reconstruction efforts are bound to fail. On 4th April 2005, Thiyagarajah Kailainathan a Vocational Training Centre Director and a dedicated civil servant in the field of vocational training over the last two decades, was shot and killed during the lunch break at Batticaloa Technical College in eastern Sri Lanka. Kailainathan, a man with no political affiliation, was conducting recruitment interviews to select students for a vocational education program conducted by a government Ministry responsible for development and reconstruction in the north and east. The Ministry’s role in eastern Sri Lanka is a sensitive issue for the LTTE, as it is headed by Minister Douglas Devananda, leader of the EPDP and himself the target of a failed assassination attempt by an LTTE suicide bomber in July 2004. Moreover, vocational training is not only a critical component of post-tsunami reconstruction, but is also central in the rehabilitation of former child soldiers, which the LTTE continues to use -- since the tsunami, UNICEF has accused the LTTE of recruiting 106 children, some out of relief camps.

Responding to Kailainathan’s murder, the Sri Lankan government has said that the killing of government officials presented “a clear danger to the functioning of Government Institutions in the North and the East. It added that “the perpetrators … threaten the peace process and do not uphold the values of a democratic society permitting a pluralism of views and respect of the human rights of all citizens,” and vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice. It remains to be seen if the government will follow through, but its track record in such matters is not good.

The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission has been reluctant to examine the majority of violent attacks by the LTTE against its opponents, claiming that these are criminal acts that fall outside its purview. But the killing of a government official got its attention. According to a press report, SLMM Spokeswoman Helen Olafsdottir expressed concern over “continuing lawlessness” in the East and called Kailainathan’s killing “a serious matter” that the SLMM was investigating. She claimed that the SLMM was also examining other killings (more than thirty have been reported since January), but suggested that some could involve “personal disputes.” This approach by the SLMM to the many obvious violations of the ceasefire is tantamount to abdicating its one and only duty, to monitor and prevent such violations.


The only way to stop the violence is with concrete action. We believe that the international donor community, which has expressed its commitment to human rights on so many occasions, has a special role to play here. Statements issued in the past by foreign diplomats and governments criticizing the killings, but imposing few conditions on its operation have had little impact on the LTTE. The international community should use its considerable leverage over both the government and the LTTE to push for an immediate halt to the LTTE’s killings and other forms of human rights abuses.

The government must be pressured to deploy its law and order agencies to prevent killings taking place in areas under its control, to carry out rigorous investigations, and take effective action to bring the perpetrators to justice. Turning a blind eye to the LTTE’s violence in the interest of preserving the possibility of peace talks has not worked.

As far as the LTTE is concerned, the international community should apply appropriate sanctions, such as those recommended by the UN Secretary General to end the LTTE’s recruitment of child soldiers. These include: the imposition of travel restrictions on LTTE leaders; their exclusion from governance structures and amnesty provisions; the imposition of arms embargoes, a ban on military assistance, and restriction on the flow of financial resources.

An international investigation of all killings since the ceasefire came into effect is another measure the international community should take. As a first step the Sri Lankan government should appoint a commission with international human rights experts for such an investigation, with an eye to a longer-term international monitoring presence once modalities are worked out.

The Sri Lanka Donor Co-chairs, as well as the governments of the UK and Canada (where large numbers of Sri Lankan expatriates live and serve as political and financial bases for the LTTE) should support these measures, and provide the needed experts. And although words will never be an adequate substitute for concrete action, the LTTE and the government should also be pressed to enter into a binding accord on human rights, to be monitored and overseen for its compliance by independent international human rights monitors.

Sri Lanka Democracy Forum

Sri Lanka Democracy Forum is a community that shares a commitment to a democratic and pluralistic vision of Sri Lanka. We recognize that in addition to the loss of lives, the costs of war also entailed the erosion of democracy, the demobilization of pluralistic and independent social movements, and the further victimization of marginalized communities. In that context, we believe that movement towards a just and sustainable peace must be accompanied by the reconstruction of a democratic community that protects and promotes social justice, and the individual and collective rights and freedoms of all communities in Sri Lanka. We are in solidarity with, and have a commitment to support the efforts of marginalized communities to address past injustices, whether such injustice was based on the suppression of dissent, economic disempowerment, and/or on ethnic, gender or caste discrimination at the national or regional level. Among other efforts, we seek to proactively support grass roots movements that seek to expand and revitalize conditions for a vibrant, pluralistic and independent civil society that nurtures freedom of conscience, diverse political affiliations and an independent media. Thus, we believe that the terrain for engagement is not merely macro-political policy, but also economic decision-making, cultural production, and diverse local struggles furthering democratization in all spheres of life.

The Sri Lanka Democracy Forum had its inaugural meeting in Toronto, Canada in 2002.

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