Sri Lanka: Paramilitary Politics

Maura R. O'Connor, for the Pulitzer Center

Republished at WorldFocus

DSCN1475 Driving through the narrow streets of towns in the east it begins to seem like every concrete surface, telephone pole, or fence is plastered with political posters or covered in spray painted acronyms: "TMVP," "SLFP," "UNP," "SLMC," "TURLF," "EROS," "UPFA," "TDNA," "TELO."

To an outsider, some of the graffiti is just cryptic code. No one except a local who lived through last May's volatile elections would know that the image of an apple followed by an "X" is the faded remnant of a political alliance between the Ealam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Ealam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), and the People's Liberation Organization for Tamil Ealam (PLOTE).

These last three political parties have also acted as paramilitary forces in the north and east of the country for decades.

PLOTE, for instance, split with the LTTE in the early 1980s and aligned itself with government security forces who gave them weapons, and helped to run counter-insurgency operations by identifying and targeting LTTE members and sympathizers within the Tamil community. By many accounts, their practices were horrendous, especially in the northern town of Vavuniya. Throughout the 1990s and until a few years ago, they were accused of running torture camps, committing abductions, and conscripting children, much like the LTTE forces they claimed to be an alternative to.

In 1998, for example, Amnesty International appealed to the Sri Lankan government to shut down PLOTE-run detention centers after the pitiable case of a young Tamil man by the name of Pararajasingham Kugathasan. Kugathasan had been held for nearly three months at a PLOTE compound called "Lucky House" in Vavuniya when one August morning he managed to escape to a nearby church. According to news reports, the shackled man threw himself at the feet of the priest in front of parishioners--evidence of torture all over his body--and pled for the priest to protect him. Several armed PLOTE cadres entered the church to retrieve him but the priest refused to hand him over.

Today, PLOTE has about 1,500 permanent cadres in the north and east. But the group fervently denies being a government paramilitary organization and instead argues that it is a pro-democratic, independent political party, which, as reported in Sri Lanka's government owned newspaper The Daily News, "entered mainstream politics over two decades ago and are presently involved in helping people overcome problems through accepted democratic norms."

These claims were made just last month following the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Sri Lanka's ongoing military operations in the north. At that time, Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch relayed reports that PLOTE cadres were being allowed into newly created IDP camps in Vavuniya. PLOTE denied this but their presence is the camps is considered an ill-kept secret by NGO workers there. Ostensibly, the group is trying to provide some sort of support to the war-afflicted (and future voters come election time) but suspicions that they continue to aid security forces by pointing fingers at alleged LTTE sympathizers persist.

I went to a PLOTE office a few days ago to meet with a member of their political wing. The only guns to be seen were those held by two government army soldiers who reclined in chairs within the perimeter of the compound. But inside, the group's violent history was on display in the form of walls covered by dozens of photographs of slain PLOTE leaders. Garlands of marigolds were carefully strung across some of the photographs and electric "candles" attached to the walls burned in silent memorial. Most of the men in the pictures had been killed by LTTE bombs or assassins bullets.


My conversation with the PLOTE member took on an unexpected turn within minutes. I had fully prepared myself to listen to extensive hyperbole about the political aims of the group, the many ways in which they were benefiting the community, and future plans to win the hearts and minds of the people in alliance with the Sri Lankan government. Instead, he laid out a picture of the current situation in the east that was so despairing I left an hour and a half later with an unshakeable sense of gloom.

He began by saying that things are "almost worse than they were before" when the LTTE controlled the east. Today, he said, there is a feeling of absolute censorship and fear among political leaders and community members and even local police who are terrified of crossing Eastern Province Chief Minister Pillayan's forces or his rival Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (alias: Karuna). Both Pillayan and Karuna were former LTTE members but split from the group in 2004 to create the government backed party called the TMVP.

"If we want to even travel somewhere, than the TMVP cadres will ask us, 'Why are you coming here?'" he said. "We will have the police with us and they ask the police also! 'Why are you coming here?' A lot of people are missing, it's still happening. Last week, a six-year-old child was kidnapped and murdered… Everyone knows it was TMVP. But those accused in the case were killed right away. These people were killed because if they are alive, a lot of people will be implicated if the inquiry went anywhere. This is the example of what is happening."

Did he think that Pillayan had genuinely given up his arms, as reported in the newspapers last month? "Officially, they say they have handed some weapons," he said. "But if you go to a camp anywhere, still they have weapons. There are all sorts of things going on. We cannot express ourselves openly because there is no security."

He went on to describe the widespread helplessness the community in the east is experiencing as they hear about thousands of fellow Tamils being killed from the current military operations in the north. "Our people are all tired, they are fed up," he said. "They need a peaceful life. Ok, you have to defeat terrorists. We accept that. We will help to defeat the LTTE. But people who are suffering wounds, people who are in camps in Vavuniya, we have to help them too. These people lived under LTTE because they didn't have any choice, if they didn't they wouldn't have survived."

Tamils in Sri Lanka today cannot truly live, he said, they can only try to survive. "We know anytime, anything can happen to us."

I asked him how many disappearances he believed had taken place in the east in recent years and he estimated 1,000 people had gone missing in the Trincomalee area alone since 2004. His own cousin went missing three years ago and he was never able to find him.

"Everywhere I asked they said they did not have him," he said. "This is just one example. I have 15 relations missing."