Sandwiched in between

Tamil Dissidents and Others in the Furnace of War & its Killings, January 1989-late 1990 via Ben Bavinck’s Diary

| by Michael Roberts

(October 25, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) As the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka escalated from July 1983 and the Tamil liberation struggle developed along several militant paths, Tamils throughout the island were placed in a difficult position. The focus here is on the sentiments of those identified in the census as “Sri Lanka Tamils” as distinct from “Indian Tamils” – wherever they resided in the island.1
But within this framework the emphasis is on those SLT who resided in the northern and eastern parts during the period extending from August 1988 to October 1992, the time spanned by the first volume in Ben Bavinck’s diaries. Note, here, that Bavinck was a fluent Tamil speaker and because of his long experience in the Jaffna Peninsula in the 1950s-70s he was, as Val Daniel suggests, a de facto Tamil in sentiment.2
However, he did not look Tamil. On several occasions he was treated as a foreign NGO person or even as “a foreign dignitary.” In the period of his diary, moreover, he was attached to the National Christian Council and was undertaking welfare and relief measures throughout the island. As such, he was able to intervene on behalf of people who were at the receiving end of the conflict. A good part of this work took him to the north on many occasions. Therefore his dairy extracts reveal the thinking of many of his friends, acquaintances and others in this region during the period of warfare between the Tigers and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (till late 1989) and, thereafter during the short interregnum of peace negotiations from January to April 1990 and, thirdly, the renewal of war between the LTTE and the government of Lanka (GoSL) from April 1990 onwards.
His information, therefore, is a voice of his times and conveys invaluable information. It should not be dismissed as “gossip,” though of course some of the reportage has to be treated cautiously as second-hand or third-hand reportage of events that Bavinck did not witness himself. These tales, clearly, must be sifted and evaluated in the light of other contemporaneous information.
Bavinck’s reportage of the feelings of specific individuals in the north as well as generalisations on the thinking of Tamils in northern localities is of the greatest importance. These evaluations, too, must be sifted and weighed. The degree to which they conveyed the sentiments of the generality of the population is always in question. How can you or I speak for “all the people” of any locality in which we dwell? Likewise, this caution applies to all the anecdotal reportage provided by Bavinck and his close acquaintances, invariably those linked to the Christian churches in relief operations.
But this is where the NCC work and his church connections make his reportage so invaluable. Among his closest friends were the members of the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR), a courageous body of personnel who had begun to take a critical line towards the campaigns of the LTTE while living in the Tamil heartland subject to the underground dominance of the Tigers in 1987-89 and their de facto authoritarian state from early 1990. I refer here to Rajani Thiranagama (before her assassination by the Tigers), Rajan Hoole, K. Sritharan and Daya Somasundaram.
Speaking broadly, one could say that Bavinck’s political thinking was broadly allied with this tiny body of Tamil dissidents and the circles they represented. What emerges from the diary is the sandwich situation these people were placed in, namely, (1) the crucible of war between the LTTE and the various state forces overseeing Tamil territory at different times; and (2) the turmoil in mind generated by the fact that that they were not diehard Tigers, nor Tiger followers nor passive people at the behest of state or de facto state power.
These, then, are relatively independent voices. They are also voices in turmoil. They are, vitally for any assessment of their testimony, voices in fluctuation because the circumstances imposed on them were fluctuating. That is to say, aside from turbulence of mind, this testimony records ambivalence and ambiguity in thought among the Tamil peoples of north and east. Indeed, at times it would seem that the people in Jaffna – that is, those circles Bavinck was encountering and reading — had sharp pendulum swings in their sentiments towards the LTTE.
It is this vortex that the diary extracts that have been assembled in this collection emphasise. One index of this turbulence was the cry of “insanity” that Bavinck inscribes every now and then in his diary. This could well serve as a touchstone for the story of so many people caught in the vortex of war in the 20th and 21st centuries. It can also serve as a critical comment on the powerful forces that subject Bavinck, Hoole and the Tamil peoples to these travails. What cries out from this testimony and record of daily lives is the cruelty exerted by all flanks of power.
Such a heartfelt cry cannot be accepted uncritically as the only story. In each instance, we can examine its premises as well as the premises governing the actions of those forces that are being criticised by this anguished SHOUT.
Nevertheless, the voices of the dissident Bavinck and the others who speak through him in the course of everyday activities and their day-to-day responses remain an invaluable set of data for the era. This is down-to-earth testimony. Written more or less daily, the data brings out the immediacy of the moment as well as the complexities of the ground situation amidst daily life. This is truly riveting material. Absorb it carefully. 
– Michael Roberts.
5th January 1989
Today I had a long conversation with Rajani Thiranagama..… At the beginning of 1988, a group called University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) was formed. Until that time nobody had dared to say anything against the Tigers except Rajan Hoole, another lecturer. But now people became more audacious. They also more and more had to intercede for Jaffna students, who had been arrested. All this had led to the founding of UTHR (J). UTHR (J) continues to collect facts about violations of human rights and to issue reports. Those are sent to the unions of the national universities. Now a book has been published by four members of the UTHR (J) i.e. by Rajani herself, Rajan Hoole, K. Sritharan and Daya Somasunderam. It deals with the war in 1987 and is called “The Broken Palmyrah”.
Afterwards I also met Rajan Hoole, who explained that the leading thought behind the founding of the UTHR (J) was the feeling that there was nobody to oppose the principle “Might is right!”, not even the churches. The churches thought that the only possible approach was through silent diplomacy. Rajan thought that if the LTTE had had respect for the churches they would have listened.
15th May 1989, Jaffna
With my American mission-secretary, Rev. Eric Gass, I again went to Jaffna, where of course we met the leaders of the Jaffna Diocese of the CSI. We also met Rajan Hoole of the UTHR (J). They have brought out their second report, which is far more explicitly critical of the Tigers than their first report was. An article in the Lanka Guardian some time ago asked the question: “Who in Jaffna is speaking out against the overwhelming violence from all sides? There is now an answer to this question: the UTHR (J). It would be so good if they could find more support in Jaffna society from prominent persons and also from the church
22nd September 1989, Colombo
… After coming home from the [Rehabilitation Committee] meeting, there was a phone call from my friend Rev. Premarajah, with the shattering news that Rajani Thiranagama was shot dead in Jaffna yesterday. It seems she was on her way home from the university where she teaches. She had just returned from England. A tremendously courageous woman. Her death must be a terrible blow for UTHR (J). I must go there as soon as possible.
1st October 1989, Jaffna
On Sunday morning I cycled from Vaddukoddai to Jaffna, to visit the Rajasingam family, the parents and sisters of Rajani. My old colleague Rajasingam was very downcast, and he wondered whether Rajani had not been too audacious. But he felt that this urge to stand up for justice and human rights came from deep down in her being. He asked me to speak at the meeting in the university in her memory the next day. He mentioned that I had been her teacher, and that my stories about the Second World War and about resistance to the Nazis had influenced her.
I also talked to Rajan Hoole. He was practically sure that “the striped animals” had done this, but didn’t want to speak about this at this time, so as not to disturb the ceremonies in commemoration of Rajani. He told me that Rajani had been shot from behind as she was cycling home from the university, by someone on a bicycle.
2nd October 1989, Jaffna
In the morning, I finished preparing my speech and proceeded to the university. There we heard that the procession through the town, in the morning, had been attended by 3000 people, including the vice chancellor of the university, Prof. Thurairajah. The Kailasapathy Auditorium was also filled completely when the meeting started under the chairmanship of the vice chancellor. There were 12 speakers. I spoke about that sentence from the Gospel, which says that unless a grain of wheat falls
into the ground and dies, it will not bear fruit. Self-sacrifice as a vocation, which only the best among us dare to accept.
3rd October 1989, Return to Colombo
After these very emotional few days in Jaffna, again back to Colombo with Sumathy, Rajani’s younger sister.
18th January 1990, Jaffna
Despite a few clashes, Jaffna is generally quiet and relaxed. The EPRLF boys have decreased very much in numbers. Indian soldiers are still there but not very active. It is a time of waiting for the things which are coming. Some are waiting with a degree of enthusiasm for the coming of the Tigers, others are apprehensive.
2nd March 1990, Colombo
Yesterday at Trinco, Varatharaja Perumal, the chief minister of the North-East Provincial Council, made a unilateral declaration of the establishment of Tamil Eelam. Against the background of the imminent departure of the Indians it seemed a rash and not very meaningful act.
I had another discussion with Sritharan, who deplored the fact that the churches in Jaffna had spoken up so little in order to correct the militants. The Roman Catholic Church had several times addressed the government and its forces, but about the ‘boys’ they, like the Protestants, had been silent. He also thought the EPRLF had failed badly. The Declaration of Independence was just a stunt coming at a time when the attention should not be diverted from what the LTTE was going to do. Had the LTTE really become democratic? They look very strong, but since nobody openly dares to express oneself, it is not clear how much support there really is for the Tigers.
Most people are relieved that the situation is as normal as it is, but underneath there is anxiety about the future because it is not clear what the Tigers really want. How much freedom of expression will they allow? What is the government going to do? People feel that they must be prepared for a long period, during which, they will have to keep their mouths shut.
10th May 1990, Colombo
Now the LTTE have decided that they will protect all army and police personnel in the north when they go on leave, down to Vavuniya. This makes it abundantly clear who is the boss in the north. The levying of tax by the Tigers is continuing on salaries, goods and transport. Rich traders are threatened and made to pay millions of rupees. The common people in Jaffna don’t bother too much about this. They will gladly pay a little more if this means that there will be quiet and order, so that they can go about on the streets even at night. I was surprised however, when I heard even a good friend of mine talk in this way to some Indian visitors: “Now you must come and have a look at how quiet things are! How much things have changed!”
Doesn’t he perceive how, behind this mask of orderly quiet, total intolerance of others, complete militarisation and increasingly far-reaching controls are being implemented? For example, the control of the press in Jaffna is total.
Frightening also is that new Tiger recruits are all little boys of about 10- to 12-years-old. The Tigers cannot get the older school boys to join anymore. But these little chaps pose a danger because of their blind allegiance to the Leader and their immature moral values. Everybody who is independent and maintains certain principles is therefore at great risk. We must do everything possible to strengthen the solidarity between groups which fight for human rights.
21st May 1990, Jaffna
Together with Eric Gass, my American mission secretary, I went to Jaffna by plane. … Here it became clear that, in a time span of only one month, the situation in Jaffna had changed radically. There was now a general feeling that we were heading for a conflict. Some of our friends expected this even within one week. Apparently these feelings of impending confrontation are fed by the propaganda of the Tigers, who in the last few weeks, stress continually that the government cannot be trusted, that it does not implement its promises, that the army is constantly reinforcing itself, that the
EPRLF now operates under the protection of the government, and so on. It is therefore likely that a new round in the conflict is imminent.
One hears now more critical sounds about the ‘striped animals’. Their taxation is felt to be a real burden because by now this touches practically all aspects of life, and thus touches the common people. The collection of tax on salaries happens at the offices of the employers. The Tigers know everything about the financial position of the people, because they have their agents in the different banks.
27th May 1990, Colombo
Sritharan was here. He was extremely sombre about the possibilities in Jaffna for any critical voices, including the UTHR (J). He blamed the Tigers for their refusal to give any room to other people. They don’t want to tolerate any power apart from them, not even a popular movement. The whole discussion at the moment is focused on the elections for the North-East Provincial Council, and connected with this, the laying down of arms by the Tigers. But, I am wondering, can the Tigers lay down their arms and remain Tigers? Aren’t the guns part of their very being? By abandoning the suicide cartridge round their necks, don’t they perform another kind of suicide?
[War between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE state resumes in June. Web editor ]
23rd June 1990, Colombo
The ceasefire has failed completely. Earlier, one heard theories that the Tiger leadership had lost
their control over the boys. But now the alternative theory is that people like Balasingam and Yogi had been lying all along during their talks with the government. This sounds more plausible.
This new round of fighting must have been planned much earlier. Maybe the fact that the government had started talking to the EPRLF triggered it. Maybe the Tigers realised that what with the population turning away from them more and more, they would not make it in the up-coming elections. Maybe the arrogance of power had blinded them, or was it the contrary, an act of despair, some kind of hara-kiri? But one thing is clear, namely their total contempt for the Tamil people, who once again are plunged into a swamp of strife and suffering by the LTTE’s irresponsible actions.
8th July 1990, Batticaloa
… In Urani, I briefly visited the CSI pastor, Earl Solomon, …I was back in Tiger-land. South of Kiran, several big buildings had been blown up by the Tigers, allegedly to prevent the army from ever using them. This is common practice with these ‘boys’! … Every night hundreds of people come to sleep
at the Ashram for security. In a conversation with Rev. Alfred, he vented his feelings of despair about the Tigers. He felt that they did not have any realisation that a people slowly build up their material resources. If one destroys all these, they have to start again from scratch. “We have been set back a 100 years,” he said.
24th July 1990, Pooneryn
At night we drove to the Sangupiddy pier on our motorbike. There, in pitch-black darkness, we hired a small fishing boat to take us to the opposite Kerativu jetty. From there we drove to Jaffna, which we reached at about 1.30 a.m. In Jaffna I met a large number of friends in different places.
Here I mention only my meeting with Fr. Jeyaseelan and Sritharan. They said that now the Tigers have adopted a very extreme attitude of fighting or death. There is no third alternative. Their attitude has been hardened by the government position of fighting till the bitter end. The Tigers were not very happy with a statement by the religious leaders in which violations of human rights on both sides were condemned. They told me that efforts are being made to form a citizens’ committee, but that will deal only with issues like food and medicines, and not with human rights violations. Human rights would be important if there could be ICRC observers stationed in all refugee camps so that recruitment of young children could be prevented. They underscored the absolute necessity for the government to come up with a proposal for a political settlement.
It was good to see both these concerned persons again. It was clear that they feel very threatened. Fr. Jeyaseelan now sleeps in the bishop’s house, while Sri has shaved off his beard. Jaffna is carrying on, even though all the schools have been closed.
Food isn’t a problem yet. The destruction is confined to the centre, in the area around the Fort. People are very much afraid of the air attacks which they anticipate. Everybody is building bunkers
or shelters. The railway has completely disappeared and both the rails and the sleepers have been taken by the Tigers for the building of their fortifications. People also dread army brutality, especially against the youths. How can pressure be exerted on the government so that it keeps the armed forces under control? This together with a proposal for a political settlement is essential
in finding a solution. Only then can the Tamils be weaned away from the Tigers.
7th September 1990,Batticaloa
… The town was slowly beginning to revive. On Saturday, the market was visited by hundreds of people. Some shops were open and there were more people on the streets. Army checkpointswere very accommodating. There circulated a rumour that the Tigers had threatened that they would enter the town again on Monday, 10th September. Everybody I talked to was terribly upset by this prospect. Would the quiet, which finally had been achieved, again be disturbed for no reason at all and would the army again, be provoked to attack civilians, which then again, could be effectively used in the Tiger propaganda? This feeling that the Tigers are totally irresponsible led one of my Tamil friends to the conclusion that for the Tamils there is actually no other course open but to turn their backs on the Tigers, and to stop adopting the ambiguous attitude of being extremely critical about the Tigers in conversations amongst themselves, but outwardly showing support for them, especially as a reaction to the cruel behaviour of the armed forces. “The people in Jaffna haven’t learnt this lesson as we have been forced to learn it here, namely that this ambiguous attitude can ultimately only lead to great misery and disaster,” he said, “The sooner they give up this attitude and turn away from the Tigers, the better. An alternative there isn’t!” Never before had I the experience of hearing a normal Tamil citizen analyse the plight of his people so radically.
17th September 1990, Colombo
…. More and more, I cannot escape the conclusion that the Tamils would be better off without the Tigers and that it is indeed desirable that the LTTE collapses. After that, one doesn’t know what the army will do and one also can’t be sure about what kind of political solution will be possible after that. But after the Tigers have purposely thrown away all the good opportunities of the last three years, the only conclusion possible is that to go on with the Tigers can only lead to the total destruction of the Tamils. Everything could have evolved so differently if the Tigers had not treated the Indians with contempt, attacked them and thrown the political solutions they offered, like the North East Provincial Council, into the wastepaper basket. Even now in Jaffna, there is this ambiguous support for ‘the boys’ and a total absence of moral judgement about their actions.
5th October 1990, To Jaffna
…. Here we touch on the relationship between the population and the Tigers. In my opinion this is still ambivalent. On the one hand there is a Tamil nationalistic sentiment which emerges and leads
to support for the Tigers. This was, for example, very evident when the Fort was evacuated by the army and then captured by the Tigers. Everybody was on the streets, celebrating and lighting crackers. But on the other hand, there are the frustrations about the pass system, about the theft by the Tigers of food from the Cooperative Stores, about the total control of the newspapers and of everything which has an independent identity, and about the arrests, disappearances and executions. I think this frustration is rather widespread, but it is in most cases only caused by people’s personally experienced inconvenience. But there are more and more people who think about the situation in a more principled way. Some hope that there will be a conversion of the Tigers, who now sometimes openly admit that they fight only for the Tamil soil, the land, and who don’t seem to care at all about the Tamil people. And this is coupled with glorification of the leader, adoration of violence and of dying a hero’s death. Is a conversion possible? There are some who feel that this is not possible, and
that the only way out lies in the destruction of the Tigers as a movement. To believe this despite the violence of the army and its atrocities, as for example recently again in Kayts or of the helicopters indiscriminately firing machine guns at civilian areas, is very difficult.
Why is it not possible for the Sri Lankan army to be concerned about the feelings of Tamils and in that way promote the opposition against the LTTE? Why this total indifference and contempt? Even in their own self-interest they could, through sympathetic and concerned behaviour, stimulate a revolt against the Tigers. But no, it is all so stupid, so cruel and so inhuman! The reactions of some friends and acquaintances show how much the frustration of the Tamils has been aggravated. One friend, with a responsible position, said “We Tamils have failed by remaining silent in the face of all the violence of the Tigers. Very soon we will be asked to render accounts.” Another friend told me that people are mortally afraid of a ceasefire, because that could result in the massacre of opponents, the way it happened in the past. Therefore a ceasefire should always be accompanied by international monitoring of the observance of human rights. He felt that it was better to swallow the bitter pill of conquest by the army. Then there may be some space. “With the Tigers it will be hopeless,” he said. Another person reacted with horror when I suggested that Eelam might be the only alternative left. Again someone else spoke with resignation about a future in which the little boys who are now being recruited by the Tigers will be the rulers. Boys who will not know mercy and who will not allow any alternative opinion. The evacuation of the Fort by the army has had a profound impact on such people. It seems as if a long period of uncertainty has started for them.
…..
The attitude of the Tigers to people with different points of view is implacable. The whole of society is being watched by a network, composed of confidential committees in the villages, called sittooravai. These committees report on anyone who expresses himself carelessly or acts suspiciously. Complete families have been arrested. The Tigers’ torture practice, reportedly, is terrible. Many detainees have been killed. I heard a story where a Tiger cadre read out a list of 200 victims, after which, he himself burst into tears.
All organisations are being watched and often brought under control. Even the ICRC must be careful. The churches too experience some pressure. Articles in the Tiger-controlled press recently deplored the fact that the churches do not support the LTTE enough. The Tigers also exert pressure on schools and are particularly interested in the lower grades, from one to seven. These kids can still be influenced. With the children above 12 years old, nothing much can be done. This week the leading schools in Jaffna are opening again.
The Tigers have built tremendous fortifications, with deep tunnels and trenches protected by concrete and rails. They use forced labour for this. Even now they feverishly keep digging. Their digging is not only restricted to sand. They are very much interested in money and therefore levy taxes. I heard that they even have requisitioned part of the collection at the Nallur Kandasamy temple. They also earn money by selling certain goods and services, as for example, van tickets to Vavuniya.….
During its withdrawal from Kayts, the army has again misbehaved badly, especially by indulging in robbery. Kayts seems to have been also badly damaged. Even though Jaffna has been shelled and bombarded for four months, during the siege of the Fort, the number of casualties has been remarkably low. The reason for this is most probably the fact that practically everyone has dug an air raid shelter. But the destruction is very great. The town around Main Street is destroyed up to 3rd
Cross Street and the area between Hospital Road and the Fort is also badly affected. The market and all the cinemas are badly damaged. The hospital though has not suffered too much. All over the centre there are also incidental hits by bombs or shells. Actually I only saw a few Tigers when I was in Jaffna. The days I was there they didn’t even have checkpoints. It was generally quiet when I was there, but the day that I left the helicopters started again. I heard one firing its machine gun while I was in Vaddukkoddai. I also heard that at Chavakachcheri a helicopter had fired a rocket at the market, killing 10 people and wounding another 10. A scandal! ….
14th October 1990, Colombo
When I was in Jaffna, I had heard that the Tigers were searching for my friend Sritharan and that they had gone and searched his house. Therefore, I didn’t meet him because he had gone into hiding. I did meet Fr. Jeyaseelan, who also must be careful and is therefore continuously on the move. On the last morning I was there, my friend Rajasingam came to tell me the good news that Sri had escaped in the great exodus of Saturday October 6th.
12th November 1990, Colombo
Having returned from the Netherlands I became immediately involved in a lot of work. The most important event during my absence was the insane action by the LTTE against the Muslim community in Jaffna,evicting all of them at two hours notice. They had to leave behind not only their houses and possessions, but also all valuables. Tiger girls body-searched the women. The Muslims staying in different villages in the Vanni were also told to leave. An indefensible act of ethnic cleansing.
13th December, 1990, to Jaffna
….. Bombardments and strafing by helicopters is much less common. Sometimes attacks are made on specific targets, as for instance on a little munitions factory in Vaddukkoddai, and on a school in Point Pedro. Both times the target was missed, but in Point Pedro one Methodist church member was killed. It is also easier to obtain passes to go to Colombo and one is allowed to travel by day through Sangupiddy. The schools are open again. One can see many children on bicycles in the streets.
Still, people are under a heavy strain. The ‘striped animals’ are everywhere. At every junction one can see life-size cut-outs of fallen Tiger heroes. Many lanes and streets have also been named after them. In Nallur they had announced that they would visit from door to door to collect a tax of Rs. 10,000 per household.
People must constantly watch their words. For example, it is dangerous to tell unknown people what one has heard on the Colombo radio. The papers too are completely controlled by the Tigers. The university is also under their control. Tigers can be seen there with their weapons. But classes are still being conducted. In schools, programs to celebrate Great Heroes Day have been conducted with the help of teachers.
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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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