The Jaffna people's dilemma
[TamilNet, Thursday, 11 September 1997, 00:00 GMT]
The city of Jaffna has had some foreign visitors recently. A team from Amnesty International and the United Nations special rapporteur on extra judicial, summary or arbitrary executions spent a few days in the city separately. The human rights officials were intent on assessing local conditions for themselves. However, the brevity of their visits and the pervasive presence of their hosts, the Sri Lankan military, ensured that the picture presented to them was to the Sri Lankan government's liking.
The Tamil cultural capital, Jaffna was captured by the predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lankan army in early 1996. Since then, the human rights situation on the Jaffna peninsula has deteriorated considerably, with disappearances, rapes and torture occurring regularly.
Amnesty estimated at least 700 Tamils 'disappeared' in SLA custody in 1996. AI also says that security forces resort to 'disappearances' in reprisals for attacks carried out by the LTTE. The rape of Tamil females by Sri Lankan soldiers is widespread, and even small children have been abused by the Sri Lankan troops. The mass arrest and torture of detainees is routine.
Having visited the isolated Jaffna peninsula, the opinion expressed by the officials was that the human rights situation was 'improving'. Their opinion was based on the fewer reports of violations received from Tamil civilians and positive sentiment expressed by some.
However, the officials may not have anticipated how the Jaffna residents' circumstances dictate their publicly voiced sentiment.
Visitors such as the Amnesty International and UN teams fly in from Colombo and stay for a brief period before returning to the own countries. The people of Jaffna however, have to go on living amongst the Sri Lankan troops and are reluctant to speak to foreign officials for several reasons.
The Sri Lankan government has completely isolated Jaffna from external contact, except through the Sri Lankan military. For over two years, the international press and other observers have been banned from visiting the area. The ban is not expected to be lifted in the foreseeable future.
Many residents fear that speaking to visitors about the atrocities committed by Sri Lankan troops will put their lives at risk. One resident told us "The Sinhalese [soldiers] will be here long after these people have gone. If we speak out, we'll be gone long before the foreigners return."
The relatives of the disappeared have the hardest dilemma. One couple told us "Our son was arrested by the army a few weeks ago. We have not seen him since and the army denies he is in custody. We were afraid that if the soldiers had not already killed him, then they would surely do so if we spoke to them [Amnesty]".
Whilst the Amnesty and UN officials were in Jaffna, Sri Lankan troops increased their presence in the peninsula, setting up new checkpoints and launching more patrols and sweeps. The intended message was unmistakable.
In some cases, Sri Lankan soldiers manning checkpoints mocked Tamil civilians over the presence of human rights officials. At one checkpoint, several Sri Lankan soldiers took turns at body-searching a teenage Tamil girl, whilst making lewd comments to her. "They laughed at us and said that we should go and tell the foreigners" said her father. "They said they would be given the list of people who complain.".
The idea is not inconceivable to some residents. Many are convinced that the human rights officials are working with the Sri Lankan government. "Why would the army bring them here?" asked one woman. "If they want to know what's happening, why don't they live amongst us for a few months and see?"
Whilst the permanent presence of an effective human rights organisation, over which the Sri Lankan military has no influence or control would be better suited to recording human rights violations committed against Jaffna's residents, it is the area's isolation that allows atrocities to continue with impunity.
The overriding local sentiment is that unless the international community can freely visit their city and observe occurrences in it, Jaffna's residents are simply not prepared to speak out against the human rights violations, particularly when the Sri Lankan troops responsible continue to operate there.