Urgent treatment for misleading information
The following letter was sent to the British
Medical Journal in response to an article by a Dr. Shiamala
Suntharalingam, which provided much misleading information as to the
situation in the North.
The Editor. - British Medical Journal
I write with reference to the article entitled ‘Sri Lanka: health as
a weapon of war?’ by Shiamala Suntharalingam, which appeared recently in
your columns. Her article is replete with inaccuracies and misleading
preconceptions, so I would be grateful if you would allow me space to
refute her claims.
operating in the camps and IDP teachers are employed there
In her first paragraph, she declares that ‘Throughout the conflict
successive governments have used access to medicines as a weapon of war
against the Tamils who were living outside the military controlled areas
in the Tamil North East of the island’. She is referring here to the
areas that were controlled by the LTTE, which is a terrorist
organization banned in Britain as well as in over twenty other Western
The elected Sri Lankan Government in 2002 signed a Ceasefire
Agreement which was meant to ensure negotiations but the Tigers, as the
LTTE is commonly known, withdrew from negotiations in 2003.
Instead they used the foolhardy goodwill of the then Government to
strengthen their control of the areas in which, it will be noted, Dr.
Suttharalingam, doubtless idealistically, offered her services in 2003.
She would know that in fact medical services in those areas were
provided by the Government, which continued to maintain hospitals, pay
salaries of all those who worked in them, and supply medicines and
ancillary services throughout the entire period in which the Tigers
physically controlled those areas.
We did the same with education and all other social and other
services. Dr. Suntharalingam is therefore lying when she declares that
‘Since 2006 the Sri Lankan Government and its Armed Forces have
systematically blocked the provision of clean water, shelter, food, and
medicines by civil organizations as well as local and international
Non-Governmental organizations (NGOs)’.
This omits what we provided, but there was also plenty more as indeed
her next sentence proves when she says that ‘In 2008 all international
NGOs working in the northern region of Vanni, including Medicines Sans
Frontieres, were ordered out.’
That happened in September 2008, more than two years after the
doctor’s cut off date, but that too was because the Government could no
longer guarantee their safety following the explosion of a claymore mine
which damaged one of three vehicles of the Norwegian organization FORUT,
which had been delayed several hours at a Tiger checkpoint before being
permitted to proceed after dusk. Fortunately, in a practice we have
since discovered was quite common, the damaged vehicle had only one
driver travelling in it at the time.
It is certainly wrong of Dr. Suntharalingam to claim that ‘It became
a war without any witnesses’ since the ICRC continued to operate in the
area, while two UN agencies which had been invited to remain declined to
do so themselves, but went in at regular intervals for six months or so,
to convey food and medicine.
Dr. Suntharalingam is talking nonsense when she says that ‘Sri Lankan
authorities denied access to the North and East for long-term relief and
rehabilitation projects by NGOs’ after the tsunami, as can be seen from
the millions spent in those areas in the past five years.
However there is little to show for these monies, and audited
accounts are rarely available, leading to the inescapable conclusion
that those funds, like many others intended for the Tamil people
oppressed and conscripted by the LTTE were spent on the massive
stockpiles of weapons that were discovered even after several months in
which the Tigers used those weapons ruthlessly, including on those
Tamils who tried to flee from them.
It is wrong to say that ‘Almost 280,000 Tamil men, women, and
children surrendered to the Sri Lankan military’ since these people
arrived seeking refuge, having tried for months to flee the LTTE but
being prevented from doing so, as they have testified again and again to
the visitors who have spoken to them.
Even advocacy groups with no sympathy for the Government, such as the
Jaffna University Teachers for Human Rights, acknowledge that the Tigers
brutally held these people as hostages for months, driving them into
ever shrinking spaces to use them as and when needed.
When the good doctor declares that ‘The officials refer to these
people as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)’, she reveals her hand,
because that is what the world calls them, whereas terrorist
sympathizers, who evidently wish to revive the LTTE, believe they are
citizens of a mythical Eelam.
She is right in saying that those who have not yet been security
cleared are not allowed to leave, but they are certainly permitted to
communicate with the outside world, not only with the over 50 external
agencies operating in the camps but also with journalists and other
visitors, as well as through telephonic communication (which is how the
British health worker, erroneously described in despatches from the
front as a doctor, informed her family who finally stirred the British
High Commission into action on her behalf).
Schools are operating in the camps and IDP teachers are employed in
them. This was intended from the start, though structures have been slow
to get off the ground because of the vast numbers that came in and also
because UNICEF, which undertook the responsibility, was slower in
setting up areas for schools than we had anticipated.
She is quite wrong about claiming that the ‘official pronouncement is
that these people will be kept under these conditions for the next three
years or so’ since the Government plans to resettle them as soon as
possible, 80 per cent during this year, though of course removing the
mines the LTTE laid will take time and that exercise may not be fully
completed for a couple of years.
Thankfully, the doctor notes her source for the most shaky of her
claims, in saying that ‘Women have been separated from their families
and sexually abused, according to Britain’s Channel 4’. The Ministry of
Disaster Management and Human Rights, of which I am the Secretary, is in
charge of Protection, and we work on this with the UN and several NGOs.
None have suggested any rationale for the Channel 4 story, which was
telecast without any attempt to ask for Government comment.
Certainly, people had been separated from their families in many
instances by the time they came into the camps, but the Government is
reunifying them, and has succeeded in doing so with several thousands
With regard to sexual abuse, the incidents relate to problems amongst
IDPs, which have been brought to our attention, along with suggestions
for preventive action which has been taken. Dr. Suntharalingam may claim
that this is all she meant to convey, but if so she is not being honest,
since her source was clearly trying to suggest that Sri Lankan
servicemen were responsible. That there has been no trace of this was
certified by all protection partners.
The doctor is again talking nonsense in claiming that Tamil doctors
were refused access to the area, though she may indeed have heard such a
thing from her sources. The fact is that, for many years, Tamil speaking
doctors who were appointed to these areas were unwilling to serve, and
indeed they were at greater risk from the Tigers than their colleagues
in the Government Service, since they were branded as traitors if they
did not give full allegiance to the LTTE.
The Government has continued to post several doctors to the area, and
in particular those who speak Tamil, while others work on a voluntary
basis on programs organized by several NGOs. Though obviously there is a
massive need for medical services, these have been generally
satisfactory, and none of the epidemics predicted with such glee by the
Tigers and their supporters have occurred.
The UN Secretary General was in fact referring, through the word
‘appalling’ which the doctor leaps on joyfully’ not to the camps but to
the area in which the Tigers held thousands of hostages to fight their
The UN acknowledges that access has improved, after being subjected
to security safeguards following a couple of instances of abuse.
Meanwhile, MSF assure me that the quote the doctor uses from Severine
Ramon, coordinator for Medicines Sans Frontieres, was taken out of
context, a common practice in those who wish to denigrate Sri Lanka but
wish to throw the burden of this on others.
It should be noted that such techniques are sometimes successful in
adversely affecting relations between the Government and NGOs, to the
delight of characters such as Dr. Suntharalingam who evidently wants her
critique to prove true at some stage in the ideal future she imagines,
in which only the murderous Tigers are left in charge of these poor
It should be noted too that the Government doctors to whom she refers
are of course being questioned, as for instance the British did with P G
Wodehouse after the Second World War, in which he had been forced to say
things to satisfy his Nazi captors.
Whilst there is obvious need to check on whether they should be
prosecuted for providing material used by a murderous enemy, we can hope
that the defence used in the case of Wodehouse, that pressures had been
applied to which it would be unreasonable to expect resistance, will be
found applicable, and they can return to their generally admirable work.
Finally, Dr. Suntharalingam is obviously ignorant that the Government
has been working with the ILO on a framework for the rehabilitation of
those she describes as LTTE fighters, which includes several who were
The IDPs have told us horrific stories of how they strove to keep
their children hidden to prevent conscription, a practice in which sadly
several NGOs connived, only raising objections (and indeed attempting to
justify this pusillanimity) when the children of their employees were
being rounded up.
Dr. Suntharalingam is certainly welcome to contribute to the fund for
rehabilitation, and I hope she will choose to do this, instead of
encouraging the rump of the LTTE that still functions in several
European countries, and most prominently in Britain, to continue to
stockpile weapons in its effort to sacrifice yet another generation of
the poor amongst the Tamils for their dream of a puppet state they can
control from abroad.
Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha Secretary General, Secretariat for
Coordinating the Peace Process