Post-war Sri Lanka’s Thought Police: The Rehabilitation of Ex-Combatants and the Denigration of Tamil Identity
Image courtesy The Hindu
[Editors note: Read Part 2 of this series here, with PDFs of parts A-C of the questionnaire]
The defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May of 2009 brought a new dimension to the ethnic conflict that has engulfed Sri Lanka since its independence in 1948. During the final phase of the war, thousands of LTTE combatants surrendered to the military and were held in high security holding places. They were investigated by various units of the security establishment of Sri Lanka. Subsequently, the Military Intelligence Unit, Criminal Investigation Unit and the Terrorist Investigation Unit moved them to various Protective Accommodation Rehabilitation Centres (PARCs) situated in Jaffna, Polonnaruwa and Vavuniya to be “rehabilitated.” Apparently, all ex-combatants are required to answer a number of questions, either orally or in writing, before being released. The Social Architects (TSA) has obtained a copy of this questionnaire. Its content is telling.
The government’s use of the questionnaire was inconsistent. In some places, military personnel interviewed ex-combatants, either individually or in groups. However, in Vavuniya ex-combatants were required to sit and write their answers individually. In Polonnaruwa, ex-combatants have reported that they were questioned individually. The most consistent aspect of this process was the fact that the same lengthy document (containing the same invasive, insensitive, poorly worded, grammatically incorrect and confusing questions) was used at each official PARC.
Based on TSA interviews conducted in Batticaloa and the Vanni this month, all ex-combatants had to answer this questionnaire in some fashion. This was one of the last exercises that ex-combatants took part in before being released. Afterwards, they were released by the Ministry of Prison Reform and Rehabilitation. During that time, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) gave an identity card to each of the ex-combatants, denoting that those individuals had been rehabilitated.
Many ex-combatants thought that, by refusing to answer the questionnaire (or by providing answers which government officials deemed unsatisfactory), they might be held in PARCs indefinitely. Left in a precarious position, many ex-combatants decided to fill out the questionnaire; some figured it was their only way out. In addition, some ex-combatants feared that if they even provided a couple answers which government officials did not like, they would be subject to intensive monitoring, further arrests, intimidation, or worse upon their release.
Ex-combatants have been forced to answer questions which were not only difficult to understand, these were probing queries that would invariably upset men and women who were already in a very fragile state of mind.
Content of the Questionnaire
The questionnaire starts with individual information about ex-combatants. To identify the detainees, the specific serial number which was assigned to each of them at their respective PARCs was used. (The ex-combatants are not asked to state their names). Ex-combatants are also asked for their age, the length of time that they have been detained, their marital status, the number of children they have, their most recent job before coming to the PARC, their educational background and their place of birth. In this section, there are eleven questions. Interestingly, the word “Protective Accommodation Rehabilitation Centre” is not used in the questionnaire. Rather, State actors have chosen to use the word “Institution” instead.
A total of 155 questions have been divided into various parts (from A to K) in this extensive document. The questions asked would be mentally excruciating for any Tamil to answer in post-war Sri Lanka, especially an ex-combatant. The document is loaded with indirect references to the government of Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan State. Most questions are largely unrelated to mental health and/or rehabilitation. The fact that ex-combatants are being forced to respond to such queries under duress is immoral and hugely detrimental to the reconciliation process. For the respondents, it is a document that produces far more questions, uncertainties and apprehensions than it does useful answers.
For example, the eleventh question in Part A asks ex-combatants to assess the following statement: “Those who elect Tamil Members of Parliament are LTTE supporters.”
The nature of this question should entangle respondents in a state of mental confusion and uncertainty. Aside from its accusatory and simplistic nature, the question itself is difficult to answer considering the diverse group of Tamil parliamentarians holding office today. Certainly, Mr. R. Sampanthan, the leader of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK, aka the Federal Party) and another elected official like the Jaffna district parliamentarian, holding the ministerial portfolio of Traditional Industries and Small Enterprise Development, Douglas Devananda do not espouse identical ideas and tenets. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) are not ideological equals either; no two parties are. Based on the abovementioned statement, the government’s logical deduction is that any Tamil parliamentarian is a supporter of the LTTE.
That said, since the war ended, no Tamil parliamentarian has included “support for the LTTE” as an electoral campaign strategy. Nor are public statements made in support of the LTTE; the question itself is misleading and conflates ethnicity with extremism. Most importantly, the question is inherently unfair and a distortion of reality. How would a single ex-combatant be able to surmise what the intention of all those who vote for Tamil parliamentarians actually are? Must differentiated responses, disagreement (of any kind) and tolerance for the views of others continue to be anathema to Sri Lankan State officials?
Questions which are embedded with such sweeping generalizations serve no purpose, other than to frighten, confuse, intimidate, psychologically torment or brainwash the respondent. Furthermore, the thirty-third question of Part A asks the following: “those who don’t exhibit strength are slaves.” What could possibly be the “right” answer to a question of this nature? What is the purpose of such a question? Again, many convoluted questions of a similar nature appear in this disturbing government document.
Seemingly, if a former LTTE member has even a strand of ideology, even a glimmer of independent or assertive thinking; he/she runs the risk of protracted detainment. Clearly, this lengthy questionnaire has been prepared to probe the psyches of ex-LTTE cadres, to upset these men and women, and to subsequently denigrate Tamil identity. Again, the document is not only offensive, but is rife with grammatical errors and inordinately complex questions that are either unclear or misleading.
These questions are so intrusive that they would undoubtedly affect an ex-combatant’s state of mind. The government appears to be testing people’s ideological aspirations. This entire process is worrisome and begs numerous questions such as the following: “Was the release of ex-combatants contingent upon the way that those individuals completed this questionnaire?” Another additional question might be: “Does military surveillance of “rehabilitated” ex-combatants vary depending on how each individual responded to this questionnaire?” And, distressingly, the government’s sloppily written, incoherent and largely irrelevant questionnaire demonstrates its apathetic attitude towards its own language policy.
The government of Sri Lanka claims that its rehabilitation program for ex-combatants is more than sufficient and that those who have been rehabilitated are now free to live normal lives. Unfortunately, those assertions are, at best, dubious. It is not even clear that the psychosocial counseling provided by the government is adequate. Evidently, the government views any sort of rights-based philosophy as incompatible with the rehabilitation process. Besides, ex-combatants continue to be harassed, threatened and intimidated even after they have been released, making an already tenuous situation even worse.
The production and use of such a questionnaire shows that something more sinister lies behind the government’s rehabilitation program, its policy as it relates to ex-combatants and, more generally, its disappointing approach towards national reconciliation. Further analysis about this questionnaire and the implications of this process will continue in the coming weeks.
 TSA will eventually publish the entire questionnaire in both Tamil and English.