Sri Lanka's Dirty War: the Home Guards

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 06 August 1997, 23:59 GMT]
Last week a Tamil Tiger squad ambushed a group of armed 'Home Guards' killing five gunmen. While the term 'Home Guard' might have connotations of defensive forces mobilised to protect homelands against foreign invaders, Sri Lanka's home guards are a key component of the government's invasion of the Tamil homelands. However, when they die in combat against the LTTE, these paramilitaries often turn into 'innocent civilians'.

The home guards operate primarily on the borders of the Tamil territories. Unfettered by the rules of war and backed by the Sri Lankan army, these gunmen are the vanguard of Sinhala colonisation. While most home guards are Sinhalese, there are some Muslim units (formed as part of a government strategy to split the Tamil and Muslim communities).

The home guards are drawn primarily from the Sinhalese villages established in Tamil territory 'taken' by the Sri Lankan army. Typically, local Tamils are terrorised into leaving, and Sinhalese settled in their place.

Sinhala Colonisation As many of the settlers are criminals rejected by their communities in the Sinhala south, they have a ready propensity for brutality and as a result are loathed and feared by the local Tamil population.

An Amnesty International report says "In the areas of the north and east controlled by government forces, there were reports of arbitrary arrests, torture, "disappearances" and extrajudicial executions, several of which were attributed to groups working alongside the regular security forces, such as Home Guards ....".

The report also says "These so-called Home Guards are given a short training in the use of weapons. They function mostly under the authority of the local police, although in some areas they work alongside the army. Their functions are supposed to be purely defensive, but Amnesty International has received reports of human rights violations committed by them."

The guards operate with local army and police units, going out on patrols against the LTTE and manning sentry points. They also expand the colonised areas by carrying out panic-inducing attacks on nearby Tamil villages.

However, with no military training to speak of, they are no match for the LTTE's well trained and highly motivated troops. In addition, the Sri Lankan military is wary of arming the home guards too heavily, given their predominantly criminal backgrounds and their tendency to lose weapons in combat.

The Sri Lankan army's aged weapons are typically issued to the guards. The gunmen killed by the Tigers last week were armed with two semi-automatic SLR's, a .303 bolt action rifle and a pair of shotguns, all but useless against the Tigers' assault rifles.

Undisciplined and badly trained, the guards often take severe casualties in combat against the Tigers. Whenever Sinhalese troops or guards are killed in combat, wherever possible the Tigers capture their weapons. However, whilst the deaths of regular troops in combat are not highlighted, the deaths of home guards receive widespread coverage.

Usually, the dead are described as 'innocent civilians'. By way of explanation, they are typically said to have been out 'farming' or 'gathering firewood' when the Tigers are said to have 'murdered' them. The Sinhalese press carry these claims with enthusiasm, thereby generating much publicity, reinforcing the Sinhalese claim that the Tigers are 'terrorists'.

There have been instances where battles between Tigers and Home Guards have taken place in the vicinity of the guards' villages, with innocent civilians getting caught in the cross fire.

The Sinhalese colonies are typically located next to the local Sri Lankan army camp or police station, which are inevitably attacked by LTTE units. The home guards often attempt to support the soldiers or policemen by opening fire on the attacking Tigers from bunkers in the periphery of the nearby Sinhalese villages, thereby inviting retaliatory Tamil fire.

One LTTE officer told us "The Sri Lankan army often rely on these colonies as the first line of defence. When we attack the army or police, the village bunkers are positioned to cover approach routes to the camp. And the only way through is to take these out first."

He blames the Sri Lankan army for the deaths of civilians. "They (the army) know we can't get to the camps without going through the villages' bunkers first. They encourage these people to stay there with promises of protection, while in reality, they hope we will not run the risk of civilian deaths and negative publicity."

Amnesty International has criticised the Tigers for what it has described as 'attacks on Sinhalese villages'. The Tigers say that armed settlers are a menace to the local Tamil population and are an inherent part of the Sri Lankan military and as such are legitimate targets. The Tigers say that before the Sri Lankan government brings in the press and human rights workers to see the victims, the village's defences are dismantled.

The LTTE says that they have not attacked Sinhalese or other civilian hamlets on the basis of ethnicity. With regards to several villages that have been attacked by armed groups, the LTTE maintain that the army is orchestrating the attacks to smear the Tigers internationally.

"These villagers are of no consequence to the Sri Lankan military. They exterminated 60,000 of their own (Sinhalese) people during the JVP days - do you think they will think twice about using these people as a publicity weapon against us?".

He points out that these attacks on Sinhalese civilians often occur in the run up to a major Sri Lankan offensive, thereby detracting international concern from the widespread suffering inflicted on the Tamil population.

On being asked who the Tamil speaking gunmen blamed for the killings might be, the LTTE officer pointed out that several Tamil groups opposed to the LTTE are working with the army, a claim confirmed by Amnesty International.

In their report, Amnesty said "All branches of the security forces as well as Muslim and Sinhalese home guards and armed cadres of Tamil groups opposed to the LTTE were cited by survivors and witnesses as responsible for human rights violations."

The Tigers say they will continue to resist attacks on Tamil villages. "Those who attack the Tamil people are legitimate targets - irrespective of whether they wear a uniform or not".

The Sri Lankan government has forbidden the press from visiting the Tamil homelands, thereby maintaining the censorship necessary for the orchestration of publicity exercises. The Colombo based Sinhalese press is able to contribute to the government's smear campaign against the LTTE for the same reason.


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