Mullivaikkal: Memories Live On

Nirmanusam Balasundaram, Independent Journalist and Human Rights Defender

In January 2006, then United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Jeffrey Lunstead, stated at a gathering at the American Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka:

“We want peace. We support peace. And we will stand with the people of Sri Lanka who desire peace. If the LTTE chooses to abandon peace, however, we want it to be clear, they will face a stronger, more capable and more determined Sri Lankan military. We want the cost of a return to war to be high.”

Two years later, in January 2008, the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) unilaterally abrogated the Cease Fire Agreement it had signed with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) six years earlier.

In the period that followed, from January 2006 to January 2008, an undeclared war which included a shadow war, psychological warfare and a relatively low intensity armed conflict was carried out by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) and the LTTE against each other. However, it was civilians more than the warring parties who were severely affected. Among them the deliberate attack in November 2006 by the SLAF on Tamil civilians in Vaharai, remains an incident that is particularly appalling. Schools and hospitals could not elude the SLAF’s indiscriminate attacks and consequently many Tamil civilians were killed.

As the conflict escalated, the GoSL imposed an economic embargo on Tamil areas resulting in thousands of Tamils being severely affected by starvation. There was an alarming shortage of medical supplies creating a serious health impact on the already suffering Tamil population. This unfolding tragedy did not receive the international scrutiny it deserved. Instead it was Sri Lanka’s ‘messiah’ message which was widely circulated. As a result, a humanitarian crisis continued in silence and the GoSL was emboldened by the international community’s inaction.

As a journalist working on the island, I closely monitored the situation in Vaharai during the attacks and was deeply disturbed by the death and devastation. The 2006 bombing remains imprinted in my memory. As a constant observer of the political and military developments in the North and East of the island, I took the Vaharai humanitarian catastrophe as a stern warning.

Despite being concerned about covering the conflict, as the war against journalists and human rights activists in Sri Lanka was escalating, the tragedy and trauma of the people in Vaharai triggered me to write two relevant and important analyses in Tamil for ‘Sunday Thinakkural’ in March 2007. I could not remain silent.

In one column I focused on the importance of establishing ‘Zones of Peace’ – in other words ‘No Fire Zones’. I analysed past successful as well as failed ‘Zones of Peace’, not only in Sri Lanka, but also in other parts of the world. The article also highlighted the importance of establishing those zones before it was too late.

In the other column, I concentrated on the international community’s responsibility to act based on Early Warning System in order to prevent civilians causalities. I wrote both those columns, a year before the Tamil genocide took place in Mullivaaikaal.

In addition to those articles I also prepared situation updates on human rights, humanitarian, political and military developments and shared these with external stakeholders. It was a very risky task, particularly as I was based in Colombo at the time, constantly under the scope of the Sri Lankan state. Even a small leak of my work could have brought a grave threat to my life. However, I felt a moral responsibility and was determined to continue my efforts in collaboration with concerned actors. I believed that every contribution, however small, would play a role in preventing the genocidal military campaign against the Tamil people and assist somehow in protecting Tamil civilians in the war zones.

Regrettably, many of my efforts went in vain. Furthermore, many of my friends and colleagues who were mainly attached in the field of journalism, human rights or humanitarian affairs were targeted as a consequence of their opposition to Sri Lanka’s military offensive, and were killed, disappeared or forced to flee into exile.

A mere two weeks after the GoSL’s expulsion of international humanitarian organisations, including the United Nations (UN), from the war-affected regions in the North I was compelled to leave Sri Lanka. However, my activism did not stop but rather grew stronger, like that of my colleagues in exile. The new passage created new avenues to continue my struggle.

Another January, this time a year later in 2009, I was in a discussion with a renowned journalist in Germany. We planned an initiative to break the GoSL’s ban on independent international media in the hope that it could save the war-affected Tamil people in the North. This journalist had planned to travel into Iraq, but after our discussion he showed willingness to reschedule his Iraq mission and travel to the war zone in the island of Sri Lanka to report from there. As independent international journalists were banned from entering the North-East we discussed all potential avenues including some riskier options. We tried. But unfortunately, after several attempts in another bid to save the thousands of lives, this time through live reporting of ground realities, we were unsuccessful.

Whilst I continued to read news about the ‘Killing Fields’ in the island caused by deliberate attacks by the SLAF on their self-declared ‘No Fire Zone’, I took part in demonstrations in Germany, France and Switzerland with a hope that at least these rallies and calls for a ceasefire may stir some action that may save some lives.

Although my hopes were dashed, again I endured with persistence to continue in the struggle.

On 17th and 18th of May 2009, I was with the thousands of Tamil Diaspora who were protesting in front of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. Towards the evening of the 17th, despite their physical presence at the rallies, emotionally and mentally almost everyone had lost hope. It seemed they had given up the fight that they believed would save their loved ones in their homeland. Gradually, I reached out and started to engage with the frustrated demonstrators that evening. As a reflection of my intuition, I told the people whom I conversed with that the end of war was not the end of our longstanding struggle. A new chapter would be opened. No one was supportive of my statement. The pain was too much. Rather, almost all of them said, “Everything is over”. For them, there was no future left.

I had interacted with many Tamils that week, from dawn till dusk and often through the night. I had read almost all articles relevant to Tamil affairs and watched news reports without fail, but none carried a positive message or one of resilience that could have given hope to create new future. However, I could not give up.

It was on that evening that I was set to embark on yet another journey that would allow me to forge my path in the struggle for justice and accountability for our people. After one last look at the famous three-legged chair in front of the UNHRC – the same spot where just weeks earlier a British Tamil man had self immolated in protest- my Norwegian friend who had accompanied me at the demonstrations on both days, and I left to meet a Swiss friend of ours. This meeting was planned just before the Christmas past without any of us knowing then how it would impact on the Tamil struggle for justice.

While many Tamils around the world were paralysed with shock and grief, I began on another journey. The destruction of my nation did not demoralise my fighting spirit. The painful experiences and sufferings I had endured led the way to consolidate my commitment and determination.

Days later, on the 23rd of May 2009, I was on a train from Basel to Budapest to attend a study session titled ‘Genocide: Catalysts and Consequences’. Since then I have persisted in my advocacy, through various forums, for the Tamil struggle. I’ve attended conferences, written academic papers and pursued accountability in various forums around the world, in an effort to obtain justice for our people.

And yet, though some achievements, successes and positive outcomes have been harvested in the last 10 years through our collective action, the Tamil nation’s quest for justice is yet to be achieved. Our people in both the diaspora, scattered around the world, and in the homeland have bravely continued their struggle for freedom and justice.

Though it was Sri Lanka that abandoned the peace, it was the Tamil people who paid a high price, including nearly 150,000 of our brethren being unaccounted for. Sri Lanka continues to deny justice for the Tamil people while destroying any prospects for genuine reconciliation. And still the international community’s inaction and failures continue to date. Not a single party has stood genuinely with the Tamil people in their struggle for justice nor has any brought war criminals to justice through a criminal accountability process.

A decade on from the international failure to prevent the massacres, we must look beyond them. The Tamil people cannot simply depend and place hope on statements or a show of sympathy.  Many Tamil and progressive Sinhala activists and journalists have felt that though they could neither prevent the war nor protect the people, through their activism they could at least continue the struggle to deliver justice for the victims and survivors of the Mullivaaikaal genocide.

What we need now is firm and determined action. It is action that speaks louder than hollow calls that continuously paint us as victims. The challenges determined our paths. The enemies determined our destination. But our future is in our hands.