For Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, a particularly ticklish problem has arisen in the Tamil-majority Northern Province – the issue of the release of Tamils detained for their alleged participation in terrorism, notes P.K.Balachandran in South Asian Monitor.
Colombo, October 23: With three major national level elections to face in the coming three years, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena is under pressure from multiple sections of the Sri Lankan polity and society to deliver on his electoral promises.
Among them are the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists; the minority Tamils of the Northern and Eastern Provinces; the Muslims; and the Tamils of Indian Origin in Central Sri Lanka.
Each one of these sections has upped its ante to get the best of the bargain in the competition for power and resources.
While the Sinhala-Buddhist majority is opposed to the grant of any more autonomy to the Tamils than they enjoy under the moth eaten 13 th.Amendment forced on Sri Lanka by India in 1987, the Tamils are insisting on more devolution if not federalism as such.
The Muslims are wary of the bid by the Tamils to merge the Northern and Eastern Provinces to form a single, Tamil-dominated North-Eastern Province. They fear that if the East, where they are a third of the population, merges with the Tamil-majority North, their political clout would diminish greatly. They are fighting North-East merger tooth and nail. A North-East merger is anathema to the Sinhalese also as it would led to Tamil-Muslim consolidation.
The Indian Origin Tamils want more Pradheshiya Sabhas or local bodies in their areas in Central Sri Lanka and also electoral constituencies to be drawn in such a way that more of them will get elected to parliament than now.
But the going has been tough for them because, accommodating the Indian Origin Tamils would lead to dilution of Sinhalese power in Central Sri Lanka ,which is home to Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism.
Issue of Tamil Tiger Detainees
Amidst all this, a particularly ticklish problem has arisen in the Tamil-majority Northern Province – the issue of the release of Tamils detained for their alleged participation in the war and terrorism.
The Tamils consider the 100-odd still in jail as “political prisoners” while the State and the Sinhalese polity consider them Tamil Tiger “terrorists”, some of whom had committed grave crimes like killing 26 Sri Lankan soldier-prisoners (18 navy personnel and eight army men) in cold blood in the final stages of the 2006-2009 Eelam War IV.
If Sirisena releases them before the completion of the legal process, he would be accused of appeasing terrorists and their supporters both in Sri Lanka and overseas. On the other hand if he does not release them, he will be betraying the Tamils who had supported him almost 100% in the January 2015 Presidential election and enabled him to beat the Sinhalese-Buddhist-Nationalist incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sirisena is acutely aware that he would not be President but for the support of the Tamil and Muslim minorities.
It is because of this that Sirisena recently went to Jaffna and met agitators, mainly students, who were demanding the release of the prisoners. He plunged into the slogan shouting crowd unmindful of the security threat.
After pacifying the crowd, Sirisena met the representatives of the students and some of the members of the families of the detained. He told them that he would consult the Attorney General, the government’s top legal officer and the Justice Minister, and come back with a decision on October 25.
In the meanwhile, the politically volatile university students of Jaffna University had taken up the issue and were boycotting classes. .
But neither the families of the detainees nor the university students were satisfied with the answer of the President. They had heard this excuse before – the excuse of consulting the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General and going by their advise.
Experience said that the latter would advise against release on legal grounds while the Tamils want the prisoners to be released on political or compassionate grounds for the sake of post-war ethnic reconciliation and bringing to an end the grisly chapter of war.
Politics of Release
But Sirisena’ problem lies in the politics of the release. If he released the detainees, especially the three Tigers cadres who had massacred 26 government troops in custody, he would not be able to face the wrath of the Sinhala-nationalists who are quite formidable and becoming stronger by the day.
However, Sirisena could release most of the detainees and keep only the three alleged mass murderers who have to go through the judicial process. And he could agree to the demand of the three, that their case be transferred from Anuradhapura court (which is in a Sinhalese area) to the Vavuniya court in the Tamil-majority North.
The detainees had said that they would be safer in the North among Tamil prisoners. But the Tamil witnesses to their crime do not want to shift as they fear the wrath of the pro-Tiger Tamils there.
This has put the Attorney General is in a fix. He has to safeguard the witnesses to prove the case. He has to assure them of safety. The challenge is in convincing the witnesses who are scared stiff.
In the meanwhile, Jaffna University students decided to continue boycott of classes till October 25 and thereafter continue the agitation in other forms.
Prisoners On Fast
According to journalist D.B.S.Jeyaraj three Tamil men, 30-year-old Mathiyarasan Sulakshan; 40-yr-old Rasathurai Thiruvarul; and 28 year old Ganeshan Tharshan, who were detained at the Anuradhapura Prison in the massacre case, were all former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers as they are known the West.
All three had been indicted in the massacre case at the Vavuniya High Court. However, the Attorney-General suddenly transferred the case to the Anuradhapura High Court. The trio thereupon embarked on a hunger strike demanding that their case be transferred back to the Vavuniya High Court.
Their physical condition began deteriorating. On Sept. 29 Tharshan was taken to the prison hospital. Then on October 5 Mathiyarasan Sulakshan and Rasathurai Thiruvarul were warded there as well. On Oct. 9 all three were transferred to the Anuradhapura General Hospital as their health had deteriorated drastically, so much so that on October 15 they were transferred to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), Jeyaraj says.
Describing the context of the massacre of the government troops in custody, Jeyaraj says: “The rapid advances made by the 58 and 53 Divisions of the Sri Lankan army from different directions towards the Devipuram area in Puthukkudiyiruppu made the Vallipunam Tiger base quite vulnerable. The LTTE therefore decided to vacate Vallipunam and withdraw further. At this stage, the question of the Navy and Army prisoners loomed large. It was then that the dreaded LTTE intelligence chief Shanmugalingam Sivashanker alias Pottu Ammaan issued the order to execute the prisoners detained at Vallipunam.”
“Thus 26 prisoners comprising 18 Navy and 8 Army personnel were executed in cold blood in Vallipunam. Their bodies were dumped in a pit and set on fire. Later it was filled with sand. This had reportedly happened on January 16th 2009.”
The three men who had participated in the grisly proceedings, Thiruvarul, Sulakshan and Tharshan, surrendered to the army in May 2009. It is said that Sulakshan, Thiruvarul and Tharshan had tendered “confessions” to a magistrate while in custody.
In addition, three other ex-LTTE members with firsthand knowledge of the incident had agreed to become state witnesses. They are Sinnarasah Ganeshkumar, Aarumugam Jyotheeswaran, and Vanniyasingham Sujeevan.
All three are former members of the LTTE who were detained for some years after May 2009 and released after undergoing rehabilitation, Jeyaraj says.
It is the safety of these three which the State considers critical.
(The featured picture at the top shows a demonstration in Jaffna demanding release of all political prisoners)