Peace Brigades Internationals (PBI) field-workers returned to Trincomalee District in March, nearly four months after our 'exploratory' journey. Our conclusions from the previous trip had suggested various important areas of work that simply would not be done without PBI support. However, contacts had also expressed very clearly that the project would need to make a firm commitment to Trincomalee before any NGOs or activists would begin petitioning for international monitoring or accompaniment. With team-size about to increase to five in April and six by the end of May, we could finally make such a commitment. The purpose of last month's trip was primarily to lay the foundations for a much more regular presence in Trincomalee, and to more clearly identify the needs of the NGO community.
Massacre at Kumarapuram
The dominant theme in all of our discussions was the recent massacre at Kumarapuram, in southern Trincomalee district. As we reported last month, on the 11th of February, men in military uniforms entered the village shouting "Demala kattiya maranuwa" (death to the Tamils). They killed at least 24 civilians, including 7 children under the age of 12, and wounded 26 more. Villagers who survived the attack were initially very willing to identify the men involved as members of the Sri Lankan Army attached to various nearby camps. According to Mr. Thangathurai, MP for the area, the soldiers carried out the attack in retaliation after two of their comrades were ambushed by cadres of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). A report by the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) further indicates that the divisional army commander may have actually ordered the massacre, having allegedly told his troops, "kudu karanda" (make it dust).
While originally denying any security forces' involvement in this incident, the government was quick to condemn the massacre and launch a full military inquiry. Sri Lankan activists promptly complained that the local population would not willingly speak to army investigators. However, the official committee of inquiry was able to gather enough evidence to recommend that soldiers from the camps involved be produced in court for an identification parade, and that anyone identified should be subject to the full penalties allowed by civil law. In early March, eight soldiers were identified in court and placed under remand. Two weeks later, on 27 March, the suspects were again produced in the Muttur court as required by law. At the suggestion of lawyers from the Movement for Inter Racial Justice and Equality, PBI team-members attended court on the 27th to observe the proceedings.
There are varying assessments of the government's response to the Kumarapuram incident, with most contacts indicating some degree of dissatisfaction. Everyone is clearly pleased with the immediacy of the government's response to the massacre, and that those who actually took part in the killings will be produced in a civilian court. However, many are disappointed that the soldiers who stood guard or even watched the massacre will likely go free, and that the commander who allegedly ordered the attack will simply be transferred to a different area, if he is 'punished' at all.
Local sources also complain that cases against some of the eight who were identified from the lineup may eventually fail as witnesses lose the necessary confidence to continue involvement in the proceedings. Area residents noted the increased army presence throughout Muttur town on the day of the identification parade, as well as two weeks later when the accused appeared in court. This included an armored personnel carrier almost immediately outside the courthouse. Whether or not it was intended to do so, the unusual army presence reportedly led some potential witnesses to remain quiet at the line-up, and may drive some to withdraw their testimony. Area contacts suggest that security precautions for the accused and for high-ranking security forces personnel involved in the case must be more carefully balanced against the security needs of the witnesses.
The Kumarapuram incident has had ramifications both for PBI work in the Trincomalee area and for the efforts of many local and national organizations. Although this massacre highlighted the crisis situation developing in the East, the UTHR report suggests that activists would have noticed the clear deterioration of the human rights situation in conflict areas long ago if they had watched more carefully.
The report goes on to point to a long series of smaller incidents that had taken place in the area prior to the massacre, all of which had received little if any attention. Lack of effective response to the previous abuses may have been one of the many ground conditions that allowed the latest atrocity to take place. Strong immediate reaction to even small, apparently random incidents may help to diminish the risk of major abuses taking place in the future. Many now realize that national and international organizations must provide a greater level of support for civilians and NGOs in the East.
Organized Human Rights Monitoring
In order to do all of this, national organizations recognize the need to establish more direct lines of communication with groups in the conflict areas to facilitate the rapid reporting of incidents on an ongoing basis. Most of our contacts in Trincomalee also see the need for a more organized human rights monitoring effort in the district. Unfortunately, almost no one expressed willingness to be directly involved in gathering reports or communicating the information to Colombo, let alone in actually taking the responsibility to launch such an effort. A wide range of concerns were raised, most notably security issues and the lack of consistent support from outside of the district.
The Peace Brigades team realizes that, if such a monitoring committee is to be formed, both national and international organizations must be involved from the start, offering support if not guidance. We have clearly expressed our willingness to support this effort in any way allowed by our mandate and our resources.
Outside Presence in Border Areas
Another impact of the Kumarapuram incident was the stronger call for a regular international presence in Trinco district, especially in outstations to the south along the Batticaloa border. A handful of international development agencies work and travel throughout the district, but there are a number of places to which they simply do not go. Due to the difficulties associated with visits to 'uncleared' or border areas, both national and international groups are hesitant to begin new projects in places where regular fighting is a distinct possibility. As a result, villagers from these areas are isolated from simple outside contact. When crisis situations develop, they have no way to communicate their difficulties, and they thus become fairly easy targets of abuse from all sides. Local NGO field-workers believe that a regular international presence in the border villages could markedly improve the situation and ease tensions. Team members have received a request to visit Kumarapuram with a local activist on our next trip to Trincomalee. He believes that the village will remain at risk for quite some time, and that our occasional presence will decrease the possibility of future incidents.
Petitions for accompaniment on visits to 'high risk areas' would also help to improve villagers' access to information, supplies, and medical services, all of which have been restricted due to the war. For Trincomalee based NGOs, international accompaniment is nothing new. Due to security risks and regular harassment, several Sri Lankan organizations have stopped traveling alone to the border areas. Instead, local organizations regularly travel together with international groups when they do work in nearby villages. However, the international NGOs do not work in every village that needs attention.
A handful of local activists have asked for PBI escorts on our next trip to Trinco so that they may renew contact with some places that have had very little attention, some of which haven't been visited regularly for years. The NGOs hope that our accompaniment may help to ease future access to these areas and lay the foundations for them to once again travel on their own.
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