Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Post-War, Reconciliation, Vavuniya

Reconciliation through ‘Rehabilitation’ & ‘Reintegration’ of Ex-LTTE members in Sri Lanka: Separating Fact from Fiction

Photo courtesy Northern Provincial Council

‘They should learn that there is a better world beyond waging war’- Gotabaya Rajapakse[1]

Once in a while you may have seen local media reports about persons referred to as former combatants or members of the LTTE. These reports were probably either based entirely on content sourced from a state official or written by apparatchiks. Or you might have read one of several interviews given by the Commissioner-General of Rehabilitation (CGR), the self-styled patriarch/paternal figure Brigadier Ranasinghe. If you are an ardent follower of the reports, musings and creative pieces on the Ministry of Defence (MOD) website, you might have noted regular updates on the progress of the rehabilitation programme of supposed ex-combatants along with colourful descriptions of the ways in which the programme is laying the foundation for reconciliation and a united (and of course unitary) Sri Lanka. On the other hand, international human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) have found that rather than being a progressive and positive force for reconciliation as posited by the government, the ‘rehabilitation’ process instead constitutes collective punishment and arbitrary detention and therefore violates both international and national law. In contrast, veteran Tamil journalist DBS Jeyaraj, thought to be one of the foremost voices articulating the concerns of the Tamils, in one of the few articles by a Sri Lankan journalist on the issue, has stated that ‘While the Rajapakse regime is to be faulted for not effectively and efficiently addressing the political causes of the conflict it must also be acknowledged that the government is attempting to in various ways to rectify and resolve some of the consequences of this conflict’[2] thereby more or less voicing support for the entire process. In the cacophony created by these multiple voices, how does one differentiate fact from fiction?

Gratitude: An integral component of reconciliation?

While the Sinhala and English media have almost always reported about alleged former members of the LTTE only when the government has wished to publicise the issue, international media has kept the issue alive by critically questioning the basis of the administrative detention of currently, around 8,000 persons. The articles in the local press and those by Sri Lankan journalists, including Jeyaraj, adopt a general tone of gratitude towards the government, particularly the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) for everything ranging from sparing the lives of the LTTE cadres (Jeyaraj) to the manner in which these persons are being given access to vocational training and other services. For instance, an individual named Nadarajasivam commenting on Jeyaraj’s article on his website states that ‘My niece tells me that her eight month stay was a good thing in her life. She calls the Brigadier a man like god (kadavul pole)’[3]. Instead of asserting the rights of these individuals, including their right not to be arbitrarily detained, right to legal representation and right to information about the length of stay at the centres, the dominant discourse supports the government approach which treats these persons as sub-citizens, persons with limited or no legal rights, whilst the supra citizens amongst us, persons with limitless rights and powers, make decisions on their behalf, apparently for their own good.  This mirrors the paternalistic form of repressive governance based on patronage that is practiced by the current regime, which maintains control by rewarding servility, loyalty and gratitude. If on the other hand one demands accountability of those in positions of power, as one is inclined to do in a democracy, it is cast as a crime against national interest and sovereignty.

Who are these ex-LTTE members and why are they being detained?

Initially persons with alleged links to the LTTE were referred to by the government as ‘surrendees’. Did these persons actually surrender or were they taken away by force or forced to turn themselves in? Patrick Cammaert, the Special Envoy of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, in the report of his visit to Sri Lanka in December 2009 mentions that the government broadcast announcements in the IDP camps instructing everyone who had spent even five minutes with the LTTE to surrender.[4] Hence, many people surrendered or handed over their sons and daughters to the SLA. The majority of these persons had been forcibly recruited, particularly during the last stages of the war with many having spent perhaps only a few hours as combatants with the LTTE. A large portion of these individuals were not combatants but were employed by the LTTE in their non military structures, a fact also stated by DBS Jeyaraj- he says ‘A large number belonged to non – combative sections of the LTTE like the Police force, political, propaganda, media and administrative cells, the banking, immigration, taxation, prisons sectors etc. There were also some from the fighting divisions’.[5] The story of a woman named Sangeetha that is quoted in an article on the Ministry of Defence website clearly reveals the profile and circumstances of recruitment and surrender of one such surrendee. Describing her life Sangeetha says ‘I studied at Wallipuram primary school and stayed at the school hostel. LTTE forcibly recruited us for the outfit and I served at LTTE’s medical corps for four months. Luckily, I was able to escape the outfit and managed to return to my home. Following, the defeat of the LTTE organization I surrendered myself to the security forces’.[6] Considering that she did not take part in hostilities and had left the LTTE before the last stages of the war one deduces that the reason for her surrender was fear of being subjected to punitive measures by the state. Since she had not committed a crime nor provided support to the LTTE’s war effort in any way, why was she being rehabilitated?

The ICRC note on ‘Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities under International Humanitarian Law’[7] recognizes that ‘As with State parties to armed conflicts, non-State parties comprise both fighting forces and supportive segments of the civilian population, such as political and humanitarian wings. The term organized armed group, however, refers exclusively to the armed or military wing of a non-State party: its armed forces in a functional sense.’ It goes on to state that ‘Individuals who continuously accompany or support an organized armed group, but whose function does not involve direct participation in hostilities, are not members of that group within the meaning of IHL. Instead, they remain civilians assuming support functions, similar to private contractors and civilian employees accompanying State armed forces’. Within this framework those who were part of non-combat divisions and did not directly participate in hostilities would not be considered combatants under international humanitarian law. Considering that people living in the Vanni would have been forced to have contact with the LTTE, it is not surprising that most would have been in the employ of the group. Many who were forcibly recruited would also have suffered trauma due to being forcibly recruited and living for weeks under constant artillery attacks and air raids. The CGR himself has mentioned that ‘Initially these rehabilitees looked at us with fear. They had continuous epileptic attacks and cried in fear.’[8] In this context, should persons who performed no combat functions be arbitrarily detained and ‘rehabilitated’?  Shouldn’t they instead be allowed to live freely with their families in their communities and be provided with support to deal with the trauma they’ve suffered and rebuild their lives?

There is no publicly available information about the process the government utilized to determine eligibility for rehabilitation. We do not know who made this decision nor the criteria used to make the determination. Was it only the Secretary Ministry of Defence who had the power to make the decision? Based on news articles one can safely assume that it was indeed the Secretary, MOD and the President who control the fates of the alleged LTTE cadres. For instance, it was reported that ‘President Mahinda Rajapakse as well as Secretary Ministry of Defence Gotabaya Rajapakse have given clear instructions that each and every ex-LTTE combatant should be physically, mentally and spiritually rehabilitated before he or she is reintegrated into civil society as peaceful and useful citizens who could work towards the development of the country’.[9] To this effect, ‘The Sri Lankan government under direction and supervision of Secretary Defence Mr. Gotabaya Rajapakse designed a comprehensive programme to rehabilitate those ex-combatants at the Rehabilitation Centres established in Jaffna and Vavuniya’[10]. This points to the lack of institutional processes and confirms that only two individuals possess the power to make decisions about the lives of thousands of persons, which they do without consultation or transparency. For instance, we find out from Jeyaraj’s piece that ‘Instead of subjecting these people to legal proceedings a blanket amnesty was declared’.[11] Yet the amnesty was not gazetted and there is no legal record of it. What then is the legal status of the amnesty? If a blanket amnesty was declared how is it that persons who were sent for rehabilitation are still being identified for prosecution?

Children who were victimized by the LTTE through forced recruitment were re-victimized by the state following the end of the war. The story of John, once again found in an article on the MOD website illustrates the plight of these supposed child combatants who the government decided had to be separated from the rest of society and rehabilitated. John was forcibly recruited by the LTTE in April 2009 at Puthumathalan. When his family tried to prevent the LTTE from taking him away they shot his father and ran their vehicle over him while he was still alive.[12] According to the story John still harbours deep anger towards his father’s killers. Yet, the government found John to be a threat and decided that he had to be detained and rehabilitated. The CGR, who sees these children as ‘victims or victims of Prabakaran’ has stated that ‘We always tell them that they are children of Sri Lanka and they are victims. The children are taking this in a nice way’[13].  Leaving aside the fact that reinforcing victimhood can be disempowering for persons whose rights have been violated, one wonders why, even after acknowledging the violence to which these children were subjected by the LTTE, the government continued to violate their rights by detaining them.

How are alleged ex-LTTE members being rehabilitated?

Although Brigadier Ranasinghe has spoken publicly about the rehabilitation programme, to date it is not known whether the programme is being conducted according to a pre-determined plan or if decisions related to the alleged ex-combatants are made in an ad-hoc, arbitrary manner at the behest of the President and the Secretary MOD. In August 2009 the Ministry of Human Rights and Disaster Management commenced the development of a National Action Plan for the Re-integration of Ex-combatants with the financial support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Since the document was officially launched in October 2009 there has been no mention of it and it is evident the government is not implementing its programmes according to the National Action Plan. In the absence of a rehabilitation and reintegration plan, how does the CGR determine the kind of training required to meet the needs of these persons?  What kind of vocational training are these persons being provided?

According to the MOD website and the CGR, these persons are being given training in carpentry, masonry, welding works, electrical works[14] and bulldozer operation. Given that discrimination and disempowerment were the main causes of the ethnic conflict, training these persons, who are already socially, economically and legally marginalised, in blue collar industries with limited scope for upward social mobility, particularly within a society that gives little respect to certain kinds of labour, seems like a strategy that aims to ensure they remain in their ‘place’ in society; a strategy that will sow the seeds for future social conflict. There are also concerns that some programmes further violate the rights of these persons. Jeyaraj in his article describes on-the-job training that women are being given at garment factories in the South. ‘The girls are given free food and lodging and also paid 12 – 15,000 rupees per month as allowance. This money is actually a saving for them. There are plans to open new garment factories in Kilinochchi to absorb these girls later.’[15] It is not clear whether this training is part of their rehabilitation and if so whether they were able to choose to work in the factories as opposed to undergoing other training programmes available at the centre. Moreover, if they are working in the factories as part of their rehabilitation, what is their legal status since they haven’t been convicted of a crime? Does that mean these women are engaging in forced labour?

Since these persons have witnessed and experienced violence in extreme forms they are no doubt in need of psychological counseling and support. Yet, based on the remarks of those involved in the rehabilitation process it appears the state has no expertise or ability to provide this. Instead, the forms of therapy to which they have access seem to consist of whatever the CGR and whoever else is involved in the process think constitutes counseling/therapy/psychological assistance. As part of this ‘home grown concept’[16] Brigadier Ranasinghe says they had to ‘do lots of religious and spiritual activities to control their fear. Meditation and music helped us bring them back to normal’[17]. He goes on to state that they have undergone ‘mental fitness training as well’[18]. Whilst one does not dispute the value of some of these activities if implemented by trained professionals, in the absence of a transparent and comprehensive plan and monitoring by experts, are we to assume these programmes were formulated and implemented by the Brigadier who has no demonstrable expertise in the area? In which case, how can the government state with confidence that the programmes adhere to international standards and address the needs of the persons at these centres?

In addition to being deprived of their basic rights the surrendees are also exposed to possible future stigmatization and/or violence and harassment by being used by the state as show pieces to publicize the positive nature of the rehabilitation process. Even though the kindly Brigadier has reiterated many times that the ‘need of the hour is to create a situation where the society is ready to accept them- children and also the adults- as normal citizens’[19], large ceremonies are held on the occasion of each release followed by the dissemination of photographs of these persons, with little regard for the privacy or physical security of these persons.

Rehabilitation = interrogation?

While Brigadier Ranasinghe waxes eloquently about the benefits of the rehabilitation programme and calls upon the diaspora to support this initiative, as recently as 7 September 2010, Deputy Economic Development Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena referring to the surrendees told the BBC that “The detainees (emphasis mine) are providing us with information about others who are still at large. The authorities need to keep them for longer to extract more information about the rebel activities and people involved”[20] acknowledging the real reason for the detention of these persons- interrogation not rehabilitation. While no one would deny the right of the state to interrogate persons suspected of committing terrorist offences, it is not an excuse to disregard due process and detain a large number of persons for long, indeterminate periods without access to legal representation. Also, resorting to the ‘other more powerful countries are doing the same’ argument, which is equivalent to ‘the dog ate my homework’ excuse, only exhibits the weak legal and moral position of the government.

It also appears that those who agree to cooperate with the state are allowed to leave or are treated better than the majority. Jeyaraj says that there are ‘an unknown number of LTTE surrendees or captured prisoners from the Wanni who have been co-opted into the security apparatus. These persons are being used by the intelligence services to provide information about LTTE structures and personnel particularly the intelligence network in the island’[21]. Considering the pressure they must be under it is quite likely that these persons would not be averse to pointing out other supposed ex-LTTE members merely to receive better treatment. What then is the plight of the person who really has no information to provide? By virtue of his or her silence will s/he be viewed as uncooperative and detained for a longer period? Is rehabilitation merely an euphemism for interrogation?

Moving forward: Constructing identities and collective memories

The deprivation of liberty of thousands of persons without adherence to due process elicited no concern or outrage amongst the local population. While this could be due to a general acceptance that those suspected of being members of the LTTE are not entitled to even basic legal safeguards that are due to every citizen, it is also illustrative of increased internalisation and acceptance by the people of the destruction by the executive of institutional processes and checks and balances. Just as the people have continued to accept Presidential interference in every sphere (ranging from the President instructing banks to reduce interest rates[22] to directing the tribunal trying former General Sarath Fonseka to continue without the defence witness[23] and overruling the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Mahinda Balasuriya and instructing the CID to take over investigations of an assault on an official of the Inland Revenue Department[24]) they have also accepted the undemocratic manner in which decisions about the liberty of thousands of persons are being made in an arbitrary and non-transparent manner by two individuals.

Arguments have been put forward that dealing with historical injustice sometimes also requires one to forget the past and move forward by forging common identities. While this argument might have some merit, it should be stressed that providing redress to historical injustice requires an acknowledgment of the past. Part of the process of forgetting also involves the creation of a shared/collective memory. The reality is that often this should be described as the ruling memory which is constructed by the victors or those in the more powerful position as opposed to a shared memory that is constructed collectively, which is hard to achieve under conditions of inequality. Particularly communities that have experienced collective violence or intractable armed conflict and feel that their grievances have not been addressed will not be able to perceive themselves as part of the so-called ‘common/shared’ identity. In this instance, it appears the alleged LTTE cadres are being told that if they ‘forget’ and construct an identity that fits within the contours of the broader collective identity laid out by the state they too could be a part of the ‘better world’ to which the Secretary Defence alludes.

[1] ‘Defence Secretary tells rehabilitated youth: Get involved in development programs’, Daily News, 12 June 2010.

[2] 30 July 2010, at

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mission report of the visit of Major General (ret.) Patrick Cammaert, Special Envoy of the Special Representative for Children & Armed Conflict to Sri Lanka 5-11 December 2009 at

[5] Jeyaraj (July 2010).

[6] ‘Special education programmes for ex-combatants’, 26 August 2010 at

[7] International Review of the Red Cross, Volume 90, No. 872, December 2008.

[8] Shanika Sriyananda, ‘Businessmen, Tamil diaspora should help rehabilitation’, Sunday Observer, 28 February 2010.

[9] ‘Jobs for ex-LTTE cadres’, 7 September 2010 at

[10] ‘Special education programmes for ex-combatants’, 26 August 2010 at

[11] Jeyaraj (July 2010)

[12] ‘Ex-child soldiers step into fashionable world’, 29 November 2009 at

[13] Sriyananda (2010).

[14] ’60 ex-LTTE combatants receive industrial based vocational training in Kalutara’, 27 August 2010,

[15] Jeyaraj (July 2010).

[16] Saman Kariyawasam, ‘Giving them back their childhood’, The Sunday Times, 16 May 2010.

[17] Sriyananda (2010)

[18] Dasun Edirisinghe, ‘Cohabiting ex-Tigers to be put in shackles’, The Island, 18 May 2010.

[19] Sriyananda (2010).

[20] Samantha Perera, ‘ICJ report accuses Sri Lankan government of violating rights’, 7 September 2010 at

[21] Jeyaraj (July 2010)

[22] ‘Reduce interest rates, orders President’, Daily Mirror, 28 October 2009.

[23] MR orders to continue without defence witness’, Daily Mirror, 15 September 2010.

[24] ‘President raps police chief, CID takes over’, Sunday Times, 12 September 2010.