Issue 5 - Article 3

Feedback (June 1996); Member’s Contribution – Banned, Restricted or Sensitive: Working with the Military in Sri Lanka

June 8, 1996
Humanitarian Practice Network; Koenraad van Brabant

RRN Questionnaire
Thank you for responding

With the RRN in its third year of operation and in anticipation of new funding sources for our second three year phase (Phase II) beginning in October 1996, the RRN team felt it was an appropriate moment to gauge members’ views of the RRN, in terms of publication content, style and how well we reach our primary objectives.

We will be undertaking a more thorough analysis of members’ responses over the summer and will report more fully in the September/October issue of the Newsletter. To date, we have received nearly 50 completed forms from our Anglophone membership and 3 from the Francophone membership (due to its later mailing date). This represents well over 15% of members, which, according to commercial polling organisations, is more than acceptable for use as a representative sample of your views. But a few more wouldn’t hurt!

Thank you to those of you who have taken the trouble to return your completed questionnaire – the overall response has been remarkably positive and has imbued the RRN team with great enthusiasm to keep going. However, if you would still like your views known and haven’t yet completed and returned the form, it is not too late! If you need a further copy of the questionnaire please contact Nathalie Shellard here at ODI.

In response to our request in the September 1995 Newsletter for feedback on members’ experiences of working with the military, Koenraad van Brabant, one of the first RRN contributors (see Network Paper 4 on The Political Economy of Relief and Rehabilitation in the Somali Region 5, Eastern Ethiopia) offers here a brief first-hand account of his experiences in Sri Lanka. The article looks at the difficulties facing humanitarian agencies caught in the midst of a civil war where relief operations, and hence agency personnel, are regarded with suspicion and their neutrality repeatedly called into question. Although written in December 1995, much of the experience still holds true. A brief update of the political situation is given at the end of the article.

Member’s Contribution

Banned, Restricted or Sensitive: Working with the Military in Sri Lanka
by Koenraad van Brabant

In July 1995, the Sri Lankan Government forces launched a first offensive on the Jaffna peninsula in an attempt to regain the initiative in ongoing hostilities between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The offensive, followed by a series of smaller ones, was aimed at changing the theatre of war from the East to the North. The second major offensive started in early October and was successfully sustained. In December 1995, at the time of writing, street fighting was taking place in Jaffna town which was poised to fall (and has since fallen) into Government hands. There followed an exodus of as many as 400,000 Tamils from the North to the eastern part of the Jaffna peninsula, still under LTTE control, and increasingly South of the Jaffna lagoon into the LTTE- controlled agricultural area known as the Vanni region.


Until November 1995, ICRC, the UN and a number of mostly international NGOs (INGOs), had found it extremely difficult to provide material relief assistance beyond stocks prepositioned in the LTTE-controlled areas in the North. The main reason was the interpretation by the military on the ground of restrictions on certain items, some of which were the obvious object of security considerations such as explosives, remote control devices, telescopes, binoculars, barbed wire and wirecutters, penlight batteries (to make detonators), cement (to build bunkers) or urea-fertilizer (urea can be used to make explosives). In practice, however, agencies found that every possible relief item had become the object of scrutiny by lower-ranking officers at crossing points from Government to LTTE-controlled areas in the North. Such items included towels, aluminium cooking utensils, plastic sheeting, woven mats, clothes, and buckets. Although not officially restricted, there were always bureaucratic and/or logistical problems why such items could not be allowed through or only in insignificantly small quantities.

Rather more worrying was that increasingly, even the Commissioner General of Essential Services (CGES) was having problems getting supplies of food, kerosene and medicine approved by the military on the ground.

This de facto control over supplies to the North was facilitated by the existence of only two routes: by ICRC escorted ship from Trincomalee (Government held) to Point Pedro (LTTE held) on the Jaffna peninsula, and by road at the crossing point north of Vavuniya town, where the two front lines meet. Despite following the procedure required to obtain permits for carrying ‘restricted’ items – application to the CGES, and ultimate approval from the Ministry of Defence in Colombo – agencies presenting stamped and approved ‘supplies requests’ were by no means guaranteed that the Army and Navy would actually allow the goods to pass.

The situation was compounded by the imposition of ‘local restrictions’, the official status of which is unclear and of which agencies would not normally be notified. Whereas the official list of restricted items would be ‘gazetted’ as official Government policy, ‘local restrictions’ were issued by the Ministry of Defence which retains ultimate authority over any relief assistance. Additional items subject to such local restrictions included bicycles and their spare parts, empty gunny and polythene bags, tinned fish, cheese and fruit, small packets of biscuits, and boxes of matches, all of which could presumably be used by LTTE guerilla fighters. In summer 1995, the restrictions on urea-based fertilizer were extended to other ‘straight’ fertilizers, notably ammonium sulphate, potassium and phosphate-based. The consequence was a significant decrease in land cultivated in the agricultural Vanni region, and in expected yield, at a time when over 150,000 displaced had already sought refuge in this region and more were expected.

Other ‘sensitive’ items restricted by the military included: coconut and vegetable oil (mixed with kerosene and on which all vehicles and motorbikes in the North function), soap (reportedly because of the glycerine it contains), blank stationary (because the LTTE prints propaganda on it), and Oral Rehydration Salts, due to their potassium content).

A serious blow came in early November 1995, when two Catholic Tamil priests were arrested in Vavuniya for carrying banned copper wire and motorcycle spare parts. As they were also carrying over £10,000 in cash, cash too became identified as a ‘sensitive item’. The national press then started a campaign all but accusing NGOs and the Catholic Church of financing the LTTE. Since then, though there is no official policy in this regard, agencies must justify requests to the Ministry of Defence to carry cash to LTTE controlled areas. Without cash, it is impossible to keep projects and relief assistance operating, given that banks are no longer functioning.

UN/NGO approaches to the Ministry of Defence, even up to the level of the Secretary of State for Defence, did not lead to any noticeable changes. For example, in previous years, the Ministry of Defence had advised humanitarian agencies, for their own security, to have radios, and by the end of last year several had base and mobile stations in LTTE-controlled areas. Yet throughout 1995, no requests from INGOs or the UN for additional radios were approved, even for those agencies already in possession of radios. Similarly, the Ministry of Defence refused the ICRC the necessary approval to increase the surgical capacity of the Jaffna Teaching Hospital and in Trincomalee hospital by deploying expatriates.

This extremely cautious approach by the Government clearly had some justification. There is no doubt that the LTTE broke the cessation of hostilities agreement and withdrew from the peace talks. Nor is there any question that the fighting capability of the LTTE and its terrorist attacks in Colombo justify very tight security measures by the Government or that the displacement of the Jaffna population plays a part in the military and political strategy of the LTTE. The proclaimed purpose of the Government offensive is to liberate the Tamils from the grip of the LTTE so that peace can be restored and a political solution to the problem negotiated.

Humanitarian agencies are thus operating in a complex emergency situation where they have to tread very carefully through a political minefield. The difficulty of keeping humanitarian and political and military objectives separate was illustrated in November 1995 by the vicious press attacks on NGOs working in the North. Although the Government intervened to pacify the press, a climate of suspicion has since grown up towards NGOs, whose impartiality is now questioned.

But some progress, at least for international NGOs, has been made. Fortunately, the concern expressed by Boutros-Boutros Ghali in early November over a potential humanitarian crisis, while provoking much anger in the Government, broke the deadlock in the movement of relief supplies that had characterised previous months. On Presidential orders, the Government has since mounted a relief operation and is open to offers of assistance from the UN and NGOs. Moreover, the appointment of a ‘Coordinating Focal Point’ to facilitate and oversee implementation, was a great step forward. Although many items remain banned, ‘restricted’ or ‘sensitive’, there has been a marked improvement in the cooperation of the military both in Colombo and on the ground.

More importantly, in the Eastern districts of the country there are no clearly demarcated transit points between Government and LTTE controlled areas. However, in order to concentrate its forces in the North, the government has withdrawn most of its troops to the major urban centres and along the main roads, and much of the hinterland has again come under LTTE control. Humanitarian agencies are therefore subject to less tight regulation of movement of staff and supplies than in the North, though they inform the local military in advance. Although national NGOs working in LTTE-controlled areas are kept under much closer surveillance than their international counterparts, by and large, relations with the military are as good as can be expected, (although it still does not provide valuable information about mined areas or other security issues).

The challenge for humanitarian agency personnel on the ground is to develop good personal contacts, a difficult task when key military can be rotated every six months. Relationships become particularly problematic when humanitarian agency staff observe that the military, contrary to official policy, impose unnecessary restrictions and conditions on people – notably Tamils living in LTTE-controlled areas – coming to claim their Government entitlements. More worrying is the decisive role taken by the military in the East in organising the resettlement of displaced people, often against their wishes. Such action contrasts directly with Government guidelines that insist on voluntary resettlement. More sensitive still are those cases where humanitarian agencies witness, or are told of alleged human rights abuses. Although a ‘Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Involuntary Removal and Disappearances of Certain Persons’ was set up to investigate such complaints all over the country, including in the East, individuals allegedly involved in past human rights abuses, often committed on Government orders, now hold senior rank in the police and military. It is particularly difficult to bring such people to task at a time when a war is being fought, and when the support of the United National Party, (in power at the time of many of the human rights abuses, and now in opposition), is needed for the acceptance of the ‘devolution package’, itself hoped to provide a political solution to the ethnic conflict.

Officially, there is no history of army intervention in national politics in Sri Lanka. Unofficially, however, it is clear that the military have their own view of how the current war should be fought and automatically assume that the LTTE will siphon off any relief assistance that goes to the population in its areas. At the same time, the Government is intent on winning the hearts and minds of the Tamil civilians, aware that a ‘military solution’ to the grievances of the Tamil minority would exclude any durable political solution. The dilemmas for combining the military necessities with the humanitarian and political objectives are huge. Unfortunately, a key test of reconciliation in Sri Lanka, the proportional representation of the minorities in the Sinhala-dominated forces and the use of both national languages in the forces, are not even being talked about.

The territory gained during the Government’ s offensive in the Jaffna area in December remains in Government hands, and more significantly perhaps for the Tamil Tigers, many of the civilians from Jaffna town who fled to Tiger held territory are now returning to their homes. Although it may not be as many as the Government quoted 250,000, many are indeed returning. This willingness to exchange Tamil administration for that of the Government marks a significant victory for the Government and President Kumaratunga’s attempt to find a political solution to the war . However , it would be foolish to underestimate the continued military threat posed by the Tamil Tigers or their considerable ability to continue to wage guerilla warfare for a long time to come.


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