Law and Society Trust: More Adventures with the Truth - 12th March 2008

Law and Society Trust – More Adventures with the Truth  (2008) 
by Rajiva Wijesinha

From Peace in Sri Lanka - The Official Website of Sri Lankan Government's Secretariat for Co-Ordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP)

Human Rights should be a serious business, but the way in which some heavily funded NGOs approach it with regard to Sri Lanka suggests more a sense of theatre than genuine concern for people who suffer. The pattern has now become familiar, a comprehensive assault on the integrity of the government of Sri Lanka, delivered just in time for sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. This means every three months for the very rich, every six for those with less support.

The assaults are usually accompanied by some desultory criticism of the LTTE, immediately ‘balanced’ by a much more devastating attack on the government. In order to build up the statistics, the reporting period is extended backward, specifically to cover 2006, when bitter internecine warfare between the LTTE and former militants increased casualty figures. Though the situation improved in 2007, and particularly in the latter part of the year, since the catchword is a deteriorating situation, past problems have also got to be piled up.

This is accompanied by a catch all technique of criticism, in which anything nasty must be heaped on the shoulders of the government. Colombo’s Law and Society Trust, one of the NGO Network Neelan Tiruchelvam set up in the Kynsey Terrace Enclave, a Network that now seems to have forgotten how he was murdered by the LTTE, provides continuous examples of this trait. Six months ago it declared that six Sri Lankan officials, including military personnel, who had been killed by an LTTE attack, were amongst the disappeared. Another preposterous example of their reporting techniques, which they claimed involved eyewitness reports or those of close family, was the assertion that a Philippine national, sent to Singapore for medical treatment, had vanished.

This time they have decided to concentrate on persons in humanitarian service, ostensibly ‘to remember and pay tribute to all humanitarian actors who have made a supreme sacrifice to serve all Sri Lankans’. This would be heart-warming were it not for the timing of the exercise, six months after the last one, aimed clearly at the same audience in Geneva. Naturally, the figures are from 2006, with no recognition of the fact that, of the 44 killings, 28 were in the former year, while of the 23 disappearances, only 7 were in 2007. This distinction is not shown in the many colourful pi-charts they use to make their case.

They are also disingenuous, if not altogether fraudulent, in their description of the killing of the 17 aid workers in Mutur, which is the single incident that has allowed so much hype about Sri Lanka being so dangerous for aid workers. Their account ignores completely the fact that the aid workers were sent into a dangerous situation, in contravention of Clauses 14, 15 & 18 of 61/133 on UN regulations on Aid Workers. They also seem to have been completely misled in claiming that,

‘The thirteen males and four females killed—all Tamil except for one Muslim—were residents of Trincomalee and visited Mutur daily to carry out their duties as Water and Sanitation Technicians and Hygiene Promotion Agents on behalf of civilians affected by the war and the tsunami. As was customary for these aid workers, they would take the morning ferry from Trincomalee to Mutur and return home taking the evening ferry. Since the military adventures of the government forces and the LTTE came unannounced amounting to artillery bombardment and mortar attacks resulting in the rapid movement of the battleground from Maavil Aru towards Mutur town, the evening boat service was suspended resulting in the aid workers being trapped in Mutur.’

This is just plain vulgar in its revelation of total prejudice. Far from there being ‘military adventures of the government and the LTTE’ what happened was an unprovoked assault on Mutur by the LTTE, which had to be resisted if the whole of Trincomalee were not to become vulnerable to attack. The fight back was tough, but finally proved successful. Law and Society Trust may think this is an adventure, in what they doubtless see as a sort of cricket match, caring not a whit that they and their ilk continue to function because of the protection against terrorism they receive from the State within which they function.

It also flies in the face of all previous accounts of what happened at Mutur. The detailed analysis of the Jaffna University Teachers for Human Rights makes it clear that ACF took a deliberate decision, contrary to that of other NGOs, to keep staff overnight. To quote at length from their report,

‘Those sent to Mutur were normally sent in vehicles on Monday to stay over in Mutur until Friday when the vehicle would return. Those coming back in-between would use the ferry. Fighting between the LTTE and the Army was going on ten miles south of Mutur and there was fear that it could affect Mutur any time. The local staff members who were to go to Mutur on Monday 31st July did not want to go. We are told that two of them applied for leave and were turned down. About 5 food security workers were sent to Mutur on Monday. One supposes that instructions to go were routed through Colombo. Some who were sent expressed a wish that evening to get back.

… ACF was the first to send back staff to stay overnight and this surprised other INGOs. Despite the improved situation the fighting at Mavil Aru worried them.

Meanwhile, early in the week beginning 31st July, there were warnings, from the Non-Violent Peace Force for one, that it was unsafe to send employees to Mutur. NVPF workers went to Mutur on Tuesday 1st August morning by ferry just to pack up and remove their equipment like computers, and returned by the 11.00 AM ferry. By 12.30 PM the shelling had started and the ferry service stopped. The ICRC too had pulled out leaving behind about two local staff in Mutur, who left with the people on the 4th.

As for ACF, we learn that WS had second thoughts about sending his staff to Mutur on 1st August, but was persuaded to send them by the fact that FS’s staff was already there the day before. ACF also had a coordinator, a local man, but he does not seem to have applied himself effectively in ensuring the security of the staff, or was it that those above him did not heed his advice? We do know that the families of the local staff who got stuck in Mutur were very worried by 2nd August.

When people assert things that are not the case, it is possible that this is due to sheer ignorance. When the mistake is trivial, as in assuming that all the workers at Mutur were in Water and Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion, and not Food Security as well, such an explanation will suffice. But the failure to note that ACF wanted to keep its workers overnight in Mutur, and indeed refused to evacuate them when all other aid workers were evacuated, smacks not of carelessness but of culpability.

To quote further from the UTHR Report –

’Very independently the following day, Thursday, in Mutur itself, a church official with the acting Divisional Secretary for Mutur, called on the ACF workers and strongly advised them in the interest of their safety to go to the Methodist or Roman Catholic churches where many Tamil refugees were staying. The ACF workers said that their head office had asked them to stay in the premises. The church official and DS also went the following, Friday, morning and gave the ACF workers the same advice. They likewise declined. The same morning, many of the Tamil refugees in the churches walked to Killiveddy along with the large number of Muslims.

During early afternoon the LTTE pulled out of the town area. At about 3.00 PM on Friday 4th August, after the LTTE had pulled out, a relative spoke to M. Narmathan, one of the ACF workers. This relative, a Samurdhi officer in Mutur, advised Narmathan to leave with another group of people leaving Mutur on foot through Killiveddy. Narmathan declined, telling him that their head office had asked them to remain in the office for transport that would be sent the next day. About this time, a Roman Catholic nun, who was also leaving Mutur, told another ACF worker Kodeeswaran very strongly that he should either go with them or stay with Father (the parish priest). The advice was declined for the same reason.’

Mutur was a tragedy, but it was a tragedy as much for the way in which seventeen people were sent to their deaths as for their killing. It is sad that, in the debate the incident has stirred up, there has been hardly any mention of the need to ensure that the relevant clauses of the UN Regulations are followed strictly, and of the fact that the care for the safety of local workers that is enjoined went by default.

But for LST certainly this does not matter, for its primary aim is to blame the government. Thus, the killing of six Sinhalese on April 1st 2007 is also suggested to have been the responsibility of the government, by pointing out how near the site of the killing was to an STF camp and quoting a news report that said STF troopers were responsible. Having then noted that the government said the LTTE was responsible, LST records the LTTE denial and its accusation against the Karuna group.

Even more bizarre is the ‘balanced’ approach to the killing of two HUDEC-Caritas workers who were killed along with five soldiers when the two vehicles in which these victims were traveling were caught in the blast of a claymore fixed to a bicycle. LST nobly notes that ‘Police do not know who was behind the attack at Mirusuvil, Jaffna along the A9 highway. An army spokesperson blamed the LTTE, while the LTTE denied responsibility and condemned the attack.’

This, in all seriousness it would seem, is an attempt to suggest that it is quite possible the army was responsible for setting off a claymore that killed five soldiers as well as two humanitarian workers. It is by gross manipulation such as this that the LST has its figure of 28 killed in 2006, all of which it subtly suggests could be the responsibility of the government. Of course clarity about this aspect does not take away from the tragedy of the deaths of the other 9 in 2006, the other 10 in 2007. But LST also ignores the fact that this was the time when finally the former Tamil militant groups were able to reassert themselves following the ruthless decimation of them that the LTTE had engaged in during its period of domination following the Ceasefire. That bitter struggle has eased now, following the full liberation of the East (though this means it is civilians in the Moneragala area who are suffering the depredations of the last vestiges of the Eastern branch of the LTTE).

Obviously the situation improved in 2007, and it is still better now. Of course there are problems which have to be dealt with, even as the government deals with terrorism, with reintroducing democracy in the East which was bereft of it for so long, with devolution – and with a wolfpack, to use Radhika Coomaraswamy’s term when her association with Rama Mani was questioned, of NGOs who will stick at nothing in their desire to denigrate the government. The government must be judged on all these counts by those to whom it is accountable, the people who voted it in. Sadly the NGOs are not accountable, their funding is not transparent, their agendas remain devious and destructive.

Rajiva Wijesinha

Secretary General

Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process