Politics

Prey

By

VEERASINGHAM ANANDASANGAREE’S campaign headquarters is a bunker. Heavily armed soldiers and coils of concertina wire surround the one-story compound on a side street in Jaffna, the largest town on the peninsula of the same name in northern Sri Lanka. The unused metal detector and bullet-riddled, sheet-iron doors give visitors pause. But Sangaree, as Anandasangaree is known, at 71 years old and a member of Sri Lanka’s parliament since 1971, remains determined. A Tamil politician of the old school, he has bulldog jowls, a dapper moustache, and a smoldering fire in the belly. The two telephones in his windowless office ring incessantly.

This is not a scene of power, however, but of powerlessness. On the wall behind him are large photos of party leaders. The ornate Tamil script is beautiful, but the dates tell the real story: All these men are dead, assassination victims. And Sangaree doesn’t want to join them. “I have not left. the compound to do any campaigning,” Sangaree told me two days before the April 2 elections. “I have not met with a single voter.” He described threats and violence against his supporters that made it impossible for them to canvass voters or hold public rallies. He held up a badly dented, large, white megaphone. “I won’t have any party agents at the polling stations. It’s too dangerous for them.” He sighed dejectedly. “They are animals, if you ask me.”

The “animals” preventing him and other politicians from campaigning in Jaffna are the Tamil Tigers, officially known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). For two decades, the Tigers waged a brutal war for independence from Sri Lanka, which is majority ethnic Sinhalesea war that resulted in numerous atrocities and cost some 65,000 lives. In February 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers signed a cease-fire that has brought a welcome respite from the fighting. Young soldiers stopped dying, land mines started being cleared, and humanitarian assistance began to reach the worst of the island nation’s war torn areas.

For two years, finalizing the peace has been the main issue in Sri Lankan politics. Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe made the peace agreement the centerpiece of his government. And Norway, as primary peace mediator and leader of the five-nation Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), which oversees compliance with the cease-fire, has devoted considerable political capital toward reaching a final settlement. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan government, and foreign donor states, have made no real effort to hold the Tigers accountable for grave human rights abuses and the absence of democracy in Tamil areas. So, for people like Sangaree, “peace” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

UNDER THE CEASE-FIRE, the Tigers retain formal control of most of the northern and eastern third of the country, which is inhabited predominantly by the largely Hindu Tamils. Excluded from these areas is much of the Jaffna peninsula, including Jaffna town. Although it’s been eight years since the Sri Lankan army recaptured Jaffna from the Tigers in bitter fighting, the pockmarked remains of bombed buildings belie the town’s return to normality. The restoration of government control is just as illusory: Real power lies with the Tigers. In classic Mafia style, the Tigers maintain a system of extortion, known as the “Tiger Tax,” against local businesses, travelers heading south, and truckers. Since the cease-fire, the Tigers have killed more than two dozen opposition Tamil politicians and party workers, as well as other critics. And they’ve made sure local government officials do nothing to stop them. When asked about the highly publicized assassination of respected Jaffna politician Thambirajah Subathiran ten months earlier, a senior police official conceded no progress had been made in the case-despite leads implicating a local Tiger leader. Indeed, not a single person has been prosecuted for any of these killings. Police are well aware that after the Tigers broke a 13-month cease-fire in 1990, their forces attacked and overran dozens of police stations, and killed some 600 officers.

Buoyed by the cease-fire, the Tigers this year plunged headfirst into the electoral process to obtain seats in the national parliament. And their intimidation tactics have proved effective. The Tigers endorsed a proxy party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), an amalgam of Tamil parties. Sangaree himself ran successfully on the TNA party list in 2001. But, a year ago, he openly rejected the Tigers’ claim that they are the “sole representatives” of Sri Lankan Tamils. The Tigers forced him out of his own party, and he soon found himself the target of death threats. When elections were called in February, he bravely decided to run as an independent. The Tigers responded similarly after their eastern commander, known as Karuna, split off with some 6,000 fighters in early March. Karuna rallied some support among eastern Tamils and sought (unsuccessfully) an independent cease-fire with the government. But days later a university professor close to Karuna was ambushed and wounded. Three days before the elections, the one eastern TNA candidate who had openly pledged support for Karuna was shot and killed.

In the war-devastated Vanni, the Tiger-run region south of the Jaffna peninsula, there is considerable support for the TNA. But, because the Tigers do not permit Sangaree or other non-TNA parties to campaign there, there is little opportunity to change minds. In Jaffna, many Tamils who oppose the Tigers’ brutal methods nonetheless accept that they are the only game in town. The bishop of Jaffna, the influential leader of the area’s significant Catholic minority, recently told a group of visitors, “People want to send a message that the Tamils are united vis-à-vis the [Sinhalese majority] south. So the opposition [non-TNA parties] are viewed as traitors and have little support.” Indeed, the only news most Tamils receive about the opposition comes from a local Tamil press that routinely runs blatantly false news stories maligning the non-TNA parties. In March, when an independent Tamil radio station began broadcasting from London, the Tigers denounced its reporters as “traitors” and its journalists received death threats.

But the reality of Tiger terror really hits home when you leave the politicians and speak with its everyday victims. A rural couple from one of Jaffna’s islands, parents of four, was visibly nervous but willing to tell their story to me. At eleven the previous night, ten men had appeared at their home and demanded they step outside. The husband described how they questioned him about his volunteer work for an opposition party: “They grabbed me by the throat and pushed me into a coconut tree. I felt something stick in my ears. Maybe it was gun barrels, but I couldn’t see for sure. One of the men hit me hard in the stomach with a flashlight and said that, if they saw me at the polling station acting as a party agent, the next day I’d be shot.” His wife finished the account: “They said, ’We are LTTE, so be careful.’ “Her fear seemed overcome by a sense of helplessness: “If something happens to my husband and me when we go home, what will happen to our children?”

Then, on polling day in the north and east, the Tigers resorted to large-scale vote manipulation. At a polling station on the Jaffna peninsula, I watched as some 40,000 enthusiastic voters scampered three miles past minefields under a blazing sun to cast their ballots. Random conversations left little doubt they were voting en masse for the TNA. So it was all the more astonishing to witness in the Tiger zone a systematic effort to rig the vote, complete with young men distributing thick stacks of unused polling cards.

THE ELECTION FIASCO in the north and east is the culmination of a failed effort at appeasing the Tigers. According to longtime Tamil human rights activist Rajan Hoole, former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s “whole [peace] program was based on avoiding war and using foreign donor funds to firmly establish his control in the south. Never in his career did he show any regard for human rights.” The Norwegian-led cease-fire-monitoring mission has been ineffectual in addressing Tiger atrocities, failing to put the necessary resources, expertise, or political will into seriously investigating the killings. After a spate of reputed Tiger killings last year, SLMM spokeswoman Agnes Bragadottir said it was beyond their mandate to investigate them: “The SLMM should not be drawn into internal politics. This is not a monitoring issue for us, this is a criminal case.” And SLMM Deputy Head Hagrup Haukland told Reuters in February, “In 2003 alone we have seen the killing of 30 to 40 local leaders and Tamil politicians who are against the LTTE. But that is a case for the police. We have approached the Tigers about this, but they deny that they are behind the killings.”

By downplaying Tiger atrocities, the SLMM has abrogated protecting the human rights of the Tamil population. Hoole believes the SLMM has been “mainly interested in preventing war in the short term and has constantly veered toward exonerating the Tamil Tigers for accusations of violations. The SLMM sees it as the surest way of maintaining the status quo.” When Karuna broke off from the Tigers in March, the SLMM pulled out its monitors from the east, claiming they no longer had a role since Karuna’s forces were not bound by the cease-fire agreement. But, as the Tigers maneuvered their forces against Karuna in clear violation of the ceasefire, the international monitors were conspicuously silent.

OVERALL, IN THE Sri Lankan election, President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s opposition alliance grabbed nearly half the parliamentary seats and quickly formed a coalition government. This was bad news for the Tigers, who hoped to play kingmaker by keeping Wickremesinghe’s party in power. Instead, they unleashed their full fury against Karuna: A week after the elections, the northern Tigers launched a multi-pronged assault against Karuna’s forces, quickly routing them. While rumors surfaced of massacres of Karuna’s surrendered soldiers, the SLMM met with the Tigers once more and announced, “We are back on track again.”

Throughout the long civil war, the military and political strategy of the Tamil Tigers remained constant: eliminate anyone deemed an obstacle to complete victory. Many in Sri Lanka hoped the demands of making peace would change that. But, instead of permitting pluralistic elements to emerge during the electoral campaign, the Tigers have sent the message that the same rules still apply.

Back on the Jaffna peninsula, the TNA took eight of the nine parliamentary seats. Sangaree fared poorly in the polls. He is filing protests against Tiger vote-rigging, but there is little chance he’ll succeed in overturning the outcome. Perhaps the waning of Sangaree’s political life will add years to his biological one. But, in the unyielding and unforgiving world of the Tamil Tigers, he shouldn’t let his guard down. Not for a moment.

James Ross, the senior legal adviser for Human Rights Watch, has followed human rights issues in Sri Lanka since 1994.

This article originally appeared in the May 3, 2004, issue of the magazine.

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