Children of Srinagar, Kashmir
Children of Srinagar, Kashmir
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  Rajan Hoole
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Conscription, compromise
and international falure
Rajan Hoole

The UNP — the party which unleashed communal violence against the Tamils in 1977 and 1983 and then brought in repression supported by the US and UK, and designed by the Israeli Mossad, with homicidal demographic transformation, to avoid giving the Tamils any rights — learnt nothing and repented nothing. The LTTE’s agenda remained unchanged from its absolutist aims, as was evident to all but the wilfully blind. The UNP government’s aim was disingenuously simple: Talk peace and get some foreign capital into the South. If this lasts till the presidential election, fine. If it collapses in a mess earlier, there would be a stink at India’s doorstep, and India would have to deal with it. There was nothing about justice and correcting past wrongs. The Sri Lankan government’s cynical attitude towards the Tamil people and Tamil children was amply evident in March 2002, when protests mounted against the LTTE’s accelerated conscription of children. The defence minister denied publicly that the LTTE was conscripting children. Yet a few days later, the US ambassador charged the LTTE with child conscription!

The West, for which the UNP was the preferred party, was more than willing to indulge the Sri Lankan government by sending us a host of peacemakers experimenting with their quack remedies. When the issues of the LTTE’s child conscription and systematic elimination of political opponents conflicted with their pet theories, even where peacemakers acknowledged these as a problem, they were dismissed as irrelevant to the main issue. Their rationale can be summarised as, ‘When in the jungle [among us Third World barbarians], act according to the law of the jungle.’ In practice, this meant ‘Might is Right’. So pander to the Tiger, satiate its gluttony and let it sleep.

Two bizarre features of this kind of peace are revealing. To open negotiations for a political settlement, which is what the Tamil people want, all that was needed was a ceasefire and a separation of forces. The memorandum of understanding drafted by Norway and signed without being shown to the Sri Lankan president, allowed the LTTE access to the government-controlled areas under the pretext of ‘political work’. Were the Norwegians so ignorant as not to know that in practice, this meant giving the LTTE a free hand to conscript children in government-controlled areas and to systematically target political opponents?

The semi-official Norwegian response is along these lines: ‘Peace needs a process. You now have a process that both sides have agreed to. Following it through is your only chance for peace. If not, you fight a war, and can you afford one?’ The UNICEF’s evasive reasoning on its programme for demobilisation of child soldiers is similarly structured.

Over many years, the LTTE’s only responses to protests by international agencies against child recruitment have been empty denials and promises. Despite the pledge made in the MoU of February 2002 to respect international law, its conscription in the East continued at a rapid pace until January 2003 and then slowed down, but did not cease. In the meantime, it got what it wanted, well over 5,000 conscripts, many of them children. During the same period, to offset criticism, it released in several lists the names of about 400 children who it claimed have returned to their homes. A UN official said a few months ago that they traced 70 persons on the lists and all of them were unfit for combat. In a further exercise, the LTTE signed an agreement with the UNICEF to release ‘underage recruits’ through transit centres, jointly run by UNICEF and the LTTE front organisation Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO).

Questions were raised: Why not release the children to their parents immediately? Why an enforced three months in transit centres in the LTTE-controlled area and, in practice, under the control and supervision of the LTTE? Why should children taken from the government-controlled area be ‘rehabilitated’ in the LTTE-controlled area, and not in vocational centres and religious homes in the government-controlled area to which their parents have access? What is the guarantee that the LTTE will not take them back?

In fact, even now, young children are being conscripted. The demand that each family in Batticaloa should give a child is being repeated. Parents of children who escaped are being arrested and taken to the LTTE’s forced labour camps. What’s more, the man in charge of UNICEF’s partner organisation TRO in Batticaloa is Reggie, who as military commander in north Batticaloa has a record of mass child conscription, murder and extortion.

UNICEF director in Sri Lanka, Ted Chaiban, explained on television (August 18, 2003) that this is a process they had arrived at over several months of negotiation: either you get your child back this way or you don’t get your child back at all. He avoided the word compromise, which other UNICEF officials have used in private. On assurances that the LTTE will not take back children from their homes, Chaiban said that each child would have regular visits from government child-probation officers. It is however widely known that government officers in the northeast, even in government-controlled areas, now take instructions from the LTTE.

Those who know the LTTE understand that this UNICEF-aided process gives it further opportunity to release trained spies and assassins into the government-controlled area. The LTTE has absolutely no qualms about using anyone or any means.

This is further indication of how, by turning a blind eye to political and ground realities, the international community has lent complicity to advancing the LTTE’s totalitarian agenda. One could understand an individual living in a rural village accepting a range of compromises when dealing with the LTTE. Norway and the UNICEF here represent the international community, which stands for international law that the LTTE has acknowledged and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which are both in theory binding on even the most powerful of States. Instead, what we have in Sri Lanka is the international community grovelling and scraping before a group that is in open contempt of all law, and then telling us, the people, "This is the best we can offer you. Take it or leave it." So we are left with no choice but to ‘compromise’ with murder, abduction, child conscription and extortion as part of this process. What have we left to call peace?

It was always clear that pandering to the LTTE, instead of building democracy within the Tamil community and responsible communal relations, would be disastrous. Of late, the LTTE has been increasingly targeting Muslims and playing up anti-Muslim feelings, adding to the insecurity of Tamils. Using this insecurity, in the Mutur area, the LTTE has compelled a large number of Tamil children, aged 13 and up, to undergo compulsory military training.


Tamil children in Sri Lanka have been scarred by these events and deprived of crucial aspects of their childhood in many different ways. We averred at the outset that their rehabilitation involves, primarily, restoring that lost sense of community. By needlessly compromising on human rights and universal norms in dealing with the LTTE, the international community has been driven to acknowledge its powerlessness. However, its potential power is far greater and the LTTE knows it. Unless it challenges the LTTE and enables the people to recapture that moral community with its wholeness, all is lost.

There has always been a struggle among the Tamil people to preserve the moral community and many have paid dearly for it. External circumstances have been against us and those who stood up to preserve life and public standards have been the first victims. Norway and the international agencies had the opportunity and the obligation to identify sections of the society that could advance choice and freedom for the people and give priority to their well-being. Instead, they have disregarded them.

Worst of all, the LTTE was given a carte blanche to wipe out members of opposition groups that preserved the prospect of democracy. The LTTE’s murders of politicians like T. Subathiran during the ‘peace process’ dealt body blows to real peace. Recently, leading LTTE theoretician Thirunavukkarasu said at the University of Jaffna: "The hour of destiny awaits an accident. Any accident may trigger off war. In that event the Sinhalese State will bear sole responsibility. The Indian Ocean would then be transformed to a gravy of blood. Let not Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinhghe dilly-dally, using the opposition as an excuse. We have Millar and Thileepan [as monumental examples of suicide]. They are not expended explosives. From time to time, groups from nooks and corners of our movement will emerge as potent incendiary matter. You intellectuals must explain this to the Sinhalese intellectuals, politicians and people. This is not a simple phenomenon. I can say that one day this land will split. The Sinhalese government must accept responsibility for it".

We must urgently restore the sense of community and not compromise on human rights in order to save Tamil children from this fate portended for them by the LTTE.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3

Rajan Hoole is an active member of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna). Author of ‘Sri Lanka, The Arrogance of Power: Myths, Decadence and Murder’, and co-author of ‘The Broken Palmyra’, which details the Tamil community’s experience of the armed forces and the LTTE, he lives in Jaffna. The reports of the UTHR(J) are at