Gothapaya Rajapakse talking to
Another beautiful but troubled island nation, Sri Lanka, devastated by
the tsunami but already hugely damaged by the stop-go civil war
between the government and the rebel Tamil Tigers, a brutal conflict
that's left more than 60,000 dead. In recent years, a fragile cease-fire
put a clamp on what had been open hostility. But now, in what was
already a complex conflict, a new, third force has emerged. Dubbed
the 'paramilitaries', they're accused of attacking the Tamil Tigers as a
proxy force for the government. The government denies this,
countering that the so-called paramilitaries are a fiction concocted by
Tiger propagandists. So what's the real story? Here's Dateline's Aaron
Lewis. And a warning that some sequences in Aaron's report could
upset some out there.
REPORTER: Aaron Lewis
Priya is 19 years old and already a widow. Today not even her
secluded garden is safe from the violence that is ripping through
eastern Sri Lanka. In February, six armed assassins came here
looking for her husband.
PRIYA, (Translation): Then they entered the house and grabbed him
by the arm, I held onto his arm. While I was holding on to him, they
didn't ask anything or say anything, they just took us outside then they
took us to the gate. There were three of us and there were six of them.
They told me to fetch some water, as I was bringing the water a gun
was fired. I held him, and then he died in my arms.
Priya's husband was once a Tamil Tiger soldier. The Tigers, one of
the world's best-trained and best-resourced guerilla armies, are now
being targeted for assassination by shadowy paramilitary groups.
These dangerous new paramilitaries are being formed by Tamils who
have split from the Tigers. There are rumours that these new rebels
are being supported by the Sri Lankan Government and used as a
clandestine army to fight against the Tigers.
A fragile cease-fire has held in Sri Lanka since 2002 but paramilitary
attacks like the one on Priya's husband are now threatening to destroy
any hope for peace on the island.
After more than two decades of brutal civil conflict, the 2002 cease-fire
divided Sri Lanka into major zones of control - with the Sinhalese-
dominated Sri Lankan Government holding the south and the Tamil
Tigers controlling parts of the north and east.
This February, the Tamil Tigers, or the LTTE as they are also known,
and the Sri Lankan Government, met in Geneva for the first time in
years to talk peace. But it was the problem with the paramilitaries that
topped the agenda.
ANTON BALASINGHAM, NEGOTIATOR, TAMIL TIGERS: These acts
of violence can only be characterized as a form of shadow war, or I
would call it a subversive war, where the paramilitaries and the LTTE
were killing each other and in some cases the government security
forces were colluding with the armed Tamil groups.
Charged with overseeing the cease-fire, this Scandinavian-operated
monitoring mission is concerned that these new paramilitaries may
derail the entire peace process.
HELEN OLAFSDOTTIR, SRI LANKAN MONITORING MISSION: When
they created the cease-fire agreement, they didn't foresee this
scenario. What people thought was that we were going to be stopping
the two forces from engagement, not assassination-style, all go, lots of
actors, lots of parties, third elements.
Since December, hundreds of people have been killed in escalating
I've come to Sri Lanka to meet with the major players on all sides of
this conflict. S.P. Tamilchelvan is the head of the political wing of the
S.P. TAMILCHELVAN: The army had all these atrocities carried out by
these armed groups. That has been our experience, Therefore we
have to highlight these issues and find a solution or else we won’t be
able to continue our peace efforts.
In principle, the government has agreed to crack down on
paramilitaries operating in their zones of control but, in practice, the
Secretary of Defence doesn't even believe that these armed groups
GOTABHAYA RAJAPASKA, SRI LANKAN SECRETARY OF
DEFENCE: If a responsible group or person says, OK, there are still,
there are groups - at least show us where they are, what area, who
told you, give us some clues as to what to look into. Because we have
tried and we are successful to prevent these groups operating in
REPORTER: Do you believe that there are armed groups operating in
GOTABHAYA RAJAPASKA: No, no definitely not. Definitely not.
For the cease-fire monitors, these denials are making an already
difficult situation worse.
HELEN OLAFSDOTTIR: If we talk about the armed elements, we don't
call them paramilitaries because we don't actually have solid proof that
they have been logistically helped by the army, or... ..but we know that
Whether they're called paramilitaries or not, these groups are not hard
to find. I've come to the divided town of Batticaloa, in eastern Sri
Lanka, to try to make contact with the largest of these armed elements
- known as the Karuna Group.
The Karuna Group has chosen Batticaloa as the headquarters for its
new political wing, calling itself the TMVP. After more than a week of
discreet inquiries, I'm able to meet with the head of the Karuna
Group's political wing, a man calling himself Pradeeb. This is the first
time he's given a television interview.
PRADEEB, HEAD OF KARUNA GROUP, (Translation): We have a
military wing, political wing, intelligence unit, and also a financial unit.
All the necessary sections exist. Most of the people belong to the
military wing. Some people are specially selected for covert warfare.
These are Karuna Group soldiers with weapons that were captured
from the Tamil Tigers two years ago. There are now suggestions that
the Karuna Group has received more weapons and support from
either the Sri Lankan or the Indian government. Pradeeb denies this.
PRADEEB (Translation): It is alleged that the Indian government
provides funds, but as far as I know we have received neither military
nor financial assistance, from them so far. Nor was there any
assistance from the Sri Lankan Government or any other. No foreign
entity helped us. We rely on our own resources.
The government not only claims that it hasn't sponsored the Karuna
Group. In our interview, the Secretary of Defence refuses to accept
that the Karuna Group exists.
REPORTER: They're clearly the biggest threat to the peace at the
moment. So I'm just wondering what the government's doing.
GOTABHAYA RAJAPASKA: If, if, my understanding, I don't know...
You said you visited these camps. You think...
REPORTER: Yes, I did. They claim they have 1,500 cadres operating.
They claim they have a military wing...
GOTABHAYA RAJAPASKA: Did you see these people?
REPORTER: I did. I did. I saw...
GOTABHAYA RAJAPASKA: How many?
REPORTER: I saw around 30 people armed with rocket-propelled
grenade launchers, AK-47s, an enormous amount of small arms.
GOTABHAYA RAJAPASKA: See, this is the other issue - they claim
they are Karuna Group, and that is the other problem. They can take
you to an LTTE camp, and say, "Here, look, Karuna Group”.
The Karuna group is named after its leader, Colonel Karuna. Both the
colonel and all his men were once Tamil Tiger soldiers. Karuna was
the Tigers' eastern commander and a brilliant military strategist. His
military achievements earned him the title 'Amman', which can mean
priest, or god.
PRADEEB (Translation): Elephant Pass base was also captured under
Amman's leadership. Amman also repulsed the Jeyasikuruy military
operation. Karuna Amman repelled major attacks by the Sri Lankan
army and captured important military bases.
Two years ago Colonel Karuna led 6,000 Tamil Tiger soldiers in a
mutiny against the northern leadership based in Vanni. They took with
them all the weapons under their control. The colonel claimed that he
left the Tamil Tigers because Karuna's forces in the east took the
brunt of the casualties in the war with the government, but his men
were never promoted to leadership positions within the Tiger
hierarchy. In other words, Karuna's men were being used as cannon
This rare footage is the only television interview the colonel ever gave,
taken two years ago, at the time of the split.
COLONEL KARUNA, (Translation): We have promised the parents of
the recruits in this area that we are recruiting your children for war, but
we will never send them to Vanni. We have decided that we will
When Karuna defected, the Tigers were ruthless in attacking the
rebels. They chased them out of Tiger territory, into sanctuaries in
government zones. But even there they killed them if they could.
These men were Karuna soldiers caught by the Tigers in a safe house
Those who survived have now regrouped. After some negotiating, I'm
taken to the Karuna Group's training camp in the jungle outside of
Batticaloa. They admit they've engaged the Tigers in this area.
PRADEEB (Translation): When the Prabhakaran group attacked our
base, we repelled them and forced them to retreat, we followed their
retreating forces, entered their camps, and destroyed some of their
camps in Vaharai. We recently destroyed their bases in Kattumurivu,
These are the first images of the Karuna Group's camps, and the first
time any journalist has been allowed inside. As soon as I arrive, I can
see that, despite the government's denials, the Karuna Group's
military wing is clearly real.
At the camp, a group of soldiers is brought out to meet me. They claim
they've just escaped from the Tigers and surrendered today to the
Karuna Group. I know this is stage-managed, because I have already
received news that these same men had given themselves up two
days before. Not surprisingly, they all tell similar stories of abuse at the
hands of their old Tiger commanders.
SOLDIER, (Translation): I was staying in Madurankeni Kulum, in the
Vaheri area. I had been taken away by the Vanni Tigers while I was
working there, and I was told that I had been supplying food for
Amman's people. They chained me, stripped me and beat me, my leg
was disabled, my back and arm were broken during the beating. I had
to work for them but I couldn't carry a gun. I told them that but they
wouldn’t listen, they forced me to work, they tortured me.
The commander soon asks these soldiers to surrender their weapons
for the camera, and I politely record the 2-day-old scene being re-
S.P TAMILCHELVAN, (Translation): The Tigers have consistently
claimed that the Karuna Group operates from inside government
areas. They are always operating within the government-controlled
area. They are inside the army camps, and they operate from there.
On the way back from the Karuna Group's camp, I'm able to pay closer
attention to the landscape. Their camps are set up along the cease-
fire line - virtually in no-man's land. I'm later dropped off by the Karuna
Group commander a mere 100m from a Sri Lankan army checkpoint.
After explaining what I've seen to the Secretary of Defence, he admits
that the government can't easily disarm the Karuna Group at this time.
GOTABHAYA RAJAPASKA: What we are trying to do is bring peace,
in the entire process. Now, you think if there is an armed group, that
group will allow the government or any other group to disarm them?
Without fighting? Then you're bringing war again. Whether it's LTTE
or another group. We are trying to stop the war.
No-one has been able to prove that the government has aided
paramilitaries like the Karuna Group. But there is no question that
these parties have a common enemy in the Tamil Tigers.
S.P TAMILCHELVAN, (Translation): The government first claims that
they know nothing about these groups, then that they can't do
anything about them. Meanwhile, the paramilitaries attack the Tigers
every few days. All this has created suspicion in the minds of the Tamil
people that the government may abandon peaceful resolution and
return to war. This created fear among our people. In this fearful and
suspicious environment, we and our people are prepared to face the
war. That is a fact.
HELEN OLAFSDOTTIR: The situation is so fragile that it takes so little
to get it started up again. We don't need any big attacks now, because
it's so volatile. The danger here is that they might not actually want a
war, but this is escalating into a war.
Because of the dangerous uncertainty on the island, both parties have
resumed full-scale preparation for war. The Tigers are bringing
thousands of civilians to their capitol, Kilonochichi, for basic military
training. They are also expanding the secretive Sea Tigers, the Tiger
naval wing. More disturbingly, the Tamil Tiger high commander
Prabakaran has reportedly recruited 2,500 suicide soldiers like these,
known as the Black Tigers.
REPORTER: Are you worried that LTTE's military build-up is a sign
that they're not genuine?
GOTABHAYA RAJAPASKA: Yeah, it's worrying. I'm thinking - why do
they do this, if they're genuine?
REPORTER: The Sri Lankan armed forces are also engaged in
GOTABHAYA RAJAPASKA: Yes, we are a sovereign nation. This is
the point everyone misses, I think. We have to protect our sovereignty
and integrity. We are there to protect the country.
And while the government and the Tigers trade accusations, the
tension for the regular people in the streets of Batticaloa is rising
every day. Ilankovan has lived here most of his life and he has seen
war come and go. He runs a home for girls orphaned or severely
affected by the war. But living here is another legacy of Sri Lanka's
brutal conflict - child soldiers from the Tamil Tiger army.
K. ILANKOVAN, FOUNDER, KEEVA JOTHY HOME FOR GIRLS: You
may understand that there was a dispute in the east within the LTTE
and there was a split sort of thing, and about 4,000 child soldiers were
released. No organisation stepped forward to take care of the
children. They were scared - what is the situation? There are two split
groups, and where are we? Even international organisations didn't
help them much. They were scared.
There are 80 girls here and only if you look closely can you see the
battle scars that set apart the child soldiers from the orphans. These
girls are now being sent to regular schools, given therapy, and tutored
in art and sport. But Ilankovan is not naive as to the risks they all face.
In case of shelling, he's built a bunker to keep the girls safe. Ilankovan
shows us around the bomb shelter, describes sandbags, concrete
poured overtop, the well that has been built in the centre, and the
small temple erected in a corner.
Since war preparations have begun again, the Tamil Tigers have
returned to recruiting child soldiers. These girls are at high risk of
being forced back into military service because they have already
been trained and many have field experience.
K. ILANKOVAN: If war breaks out, there is great possibility in children
being conscripted. War cannot go on forever. The war will come to an
end. When war comes to an end, there will be thousands and
thousands of child soldiers coming back to a normal life stream. And
all these NGOs, and all these people, nobody is worried about this,
they are not prepared for this, they're getting prepared for a cyclone,
they're getting prepared for a tsunami, but they're not getting
prepared for the rehabilitation of child soldiers. We are doing it, we are
doing it in a very small way.
While for the time being these girls are relatively safe behind
Ilankovan's closed doors, outside, the last few days have seen a
series of attacks that have left more than 60 dead in the east.
Recent and repeated escalations of violence have made the cease-
fire agreement and the peace process itself almost irrelevant. The
Tamil Tigers have now pulled out of the negotiations with the Sri
Lankan Government which were scheduled for this week.
It's clear that while the paramilitaries like the Karuna Group continue to
attack, the Tamil Tigers they will not abandon their military build-up.
GOTABHAYA RAJAPASKA: Why is the LTTE dragging on, talking
unnecessary issues, bringing up unnecessary issues. We feel this is
just for them to train, reorganise, smuggle weapons inside.
S.P TAMILCHELVAN, (Translation): There is no ceasefire if violence
continues unabated, so if one side continues a shadow war by using
these armed groups, we can not maintain the ceasefire.
GOTABHAYA RAJAPASKA, Every party in this issue needs to be
genuine. If we are not genuine, then it's useless trying this whole
And while the Sri Lankan Government is either unwilling or unable to
remove the paramilitaries from this conflict, then a return to full-scale
war seems inevitable. [Courtesy:Special Broadcasting Service]
Apr 19th 8.30