Transcript- Hiranthi Wijemanne

Posted on August 12, 2010

12 August

Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne


Wijemanne : My observations and comments are based on my own personal experiences working particularly in the areas of child rights and children both in terms of my involvement working with an international organization and I continued with my work subsequently even though I left the international organization. I like to start by saying that I worked as Chairperson of the National Child Protection Authority also as a member of Task Force on Security Council Resolution 1612 which relates to children  affected by the conflict and was especially involved with the rehabilitation of child combatants which also included numerous visits to all the conflict affected areas and also what was called the un-cleared areas in Kilinochchi during the whole CFA process  because of course that occurred when I was a member of UNICEF. So I will focus on key issues related to the points that the Commission has made and in which the Commission is  interested in. 

Under the first item, which is facts and circumstances that led to the failure of the CFA which was operationalised in 2002 February and the sequence of events that followed subsequently after 19th May 2009, one issue I really want to flag and highlight is the fact that nearly all ceasefires and peace processes around the world, quite a lot if it in Africa, one of the most important aspect of which is included in the peace process is the demobilization and the release of child soldiers. All international organizations involved in peace processes generally include it because it is a very fundamental child right requirement. Now for various reasons and I think it is a matter of great regret that the since the international community was very much involved in the brokering and also the Norwegians, that this was  not included in the CFA and I am not quite sure what the reasons were. Now between 1982 and 2002 we did not have a data base on child combatants but estimates indicated that out of the 14,000 roughly LTTE cadres  60 % to 70% were children under the age of 18 because they were the people who have forcibly being abducted and recruited for terrorism purposes. Then in 2002 UNICEF established a data base and from 2002 up to date the total number is in the region of 6900.  So when you think about it, it may not represent the total number. A large number of Tamil children what I would think was a failure have been recruited and trained in battle and some have died, some are maimed, psychologically affected, those were actually the children I have actually worked with over the last 3 or 4 years and heard their stories and I think that is something very serious but it has happened. Of course, fortunately, in 2006 the government issued a special gazette on such children and they were given rehabilitation facilities and after one year all of them were released and in May actually the final batch was released back to their families and community.

 The second point I like to make is again my own observation participating in the aftermath of the CFA and also about the donor and international community who flocked to Kilinochchi to develop programmes that there were to a large extent an over eagerness I would say of the UN and donors after the CFA to do projects and in the process a lot of unfortunate things happened. For example,  this of course has been documented 1 million dollars were given actually to the TRO for the rehabilitation of child soldiers. Although organizations like the National Child Protection Authority protested vehemently because since they were involved with the LTTE and  since the LTTE was involved in the recruitment of children and it is a fundamental principle that you do not give money to a group that is involved in abusing children. But for various reasons it happened and three centers were identified for children to come in, one in Trincomalee, one in Kilinochchi and one in Batticaloa. The Kilinochchi centre was set up and about 12 children came in October that year and by December they had run away so maybe they were really not child combatants, and the centers in Trincomalee and Batticaloa never functioned and we are really not sure what happened with the money. This is just one example I knew in terms of the donors. Then of course later on the government took over the rehabilitation and I can say that that’s where the government structure came in. Now, unfortunately,  I also felt at that time that there was no equity and the whole process of the CFA and aftermath and that the projects and the funding were very much oriented towards what donors and external people wanted not the government structures and the systems. Now for example when I used to go to Kilinochchi for meetings to discuss things there were armed LTTE cadres walking around in the vicinity of the meeting and it did not portray peace and I remember there was a picture of Prabarkaran with the whole of the North carved out. These things may be symbolic but they portrayed the thinking of the LTTE that were they really interested in peace for development of their areas or was it a cosmetic exercise I do not know but this picture and also it was very sad and my observation as a medical person that all the cadres I saw were well nourished, dressed well tall I could even see their height and weight and when you glance through the window at the ordinary people of Kilinochchi to whom the aid should be going but obviously they were not the eneficiaries of whatever aid that came through the people. In fact when I talked to some of the girls that participated in rehabilitation, for example one girl had been recruited in Kilinochchi to the Police. She said she was paid an initial starting salary of Rs.10,000/- a month including three good meals so is this the funding, did it go to the people or to the armed groups? The monitoring of this aspect, I would say is very questionable.

 The other thing again during some of these meetings it was very clear that although the peace process was to give up separatism and look at devolution and power sharing that did not really get manifested in some of the discussions. So that was another area that I observed. Another important point is that during this period I also did some consultancy working for SCOPP specifically on child issues. Now there I met some monitors who were working for the SLMM and to my mind and I asked them for their academic background most of them were teachers and nurses and not to be derogatory about them but they were people of that kind of background. I asked them what their training was and the group I met at that time Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha was the head of SCOPP, they said they had a 2 day training. Now to do the kind of work they were supposed to do I really do not think a 2 day training for people who have never being to areas like this nor participated in monitoring of this nature plus did not know the language was sufficient. Maybe they were good people but really I just wandered about the training.  Then I also questioned the monitors because reporting of violations was going on how did you report on violations because you did not know the language?  They were very open and said we don’t know the language but we have field assistants. So I said who are these field assistants they were people who had lived in those areas for a long time so I really wondered about the qualifications of these field assistants people perhaps who were under pressure or perhaps LTTE I do not know. No one had checked their credentials, their capacity, their training and their ability because monitoring is supposed to be something which is fair and just and it must have credibility and so this was another issue.

 Then of course the other huge issue which I think the Chairman himself is aware of,  which unfortunately I had to go through during the period of the NCPA, is as you know one of the issues the NCPA is concerned is about foreign pedophiles. So while I was the Chairperson we got a report via email about a British pedophile who had slipped in from the UK and had been in prisons for 9 years in Britain and had been released. The British authorities should have informed us but they didn’t and he had come across to Sri Lanka. He had contacted a lady in Negombo who had two boys and he was proceeding to Mannar with the two boys obviously victims and this lady, and why Mannar I do not know but he was going to Mannar, and so the NCPA Police team contacted me and said that they need to follow this person and catch him because actually they have to obtain video evidence to proceed with the case. I knew the situation in un-cleared areas which you cannot go without permission so I told them please do not proceed to those areas without permission because you can have problems with the LTTE. Unfortunately, I do not want to criticize them because they were functioning in the cause of duty  to protect children. But, on the other hand I think they put themselves in jeopardy. They did go to Mannar and they collected some video evidence footage of this particular foreigner with the children and when they were sleeping that night three of them were captured by the LTTE. They had been given approval to go ahead with this as the NCPA used to work a lot with Don Bosco and actually they were given permission by the Bishop of Mannar and also some other Priests from Bosco who said they would give protection but for various reasons it did not happen and they were captured and taken to a jail in Kilinochchi and they had to go through a Kangaroo Court of sorts I would say  and they also gave me a first hand view as to how the Courts operate in Kilinochchi and we desperately tried to get them out.

Again this particular incident to me demonstrated the impotence and the weakness of the whole monitoring system and their lack of capacity to do something when there is an issue. I used to contact Mr. Haukland who was the Head of SLMM that time saying look these people are not intelligence they were not working for the Ministry of Defence and that they were working for the NCPA and they were interested in catching a pedophile which is in their duty but I am afraid the response I got several times from the SLMM was that we are a post box doctor, you send us a letter we will give the letter to Tamilchelvam and that is all he can do. To me it seemed a very weak situation where in a sense  maybe they were totally helpless and even on a law and order situation  and even on a child rights issues you know leave adults aside this was a child issue and then all three policemen who went in the cause of children and we had a lot of problems to get them released and I think the third one was released after one year and he went through a lot of trauma and even though I had a lot of contact with UNICEF at that time and even the international community were unable to provide any pressure to get these people released. So this all pervading thing is that in spite of the CFA violations took place and no one seemed able to do anything so I think that that was one set of experiences that I went through during the CFA.

Now the second point you have made is Lessons Learnt that this will not recur. I am afraid I have to say this because looking at the event as I said because I have been involved and have been involved with children affected by the conflict since 1983. I also worked for 3 months in the camps in Colombo in terms of incidents that took place in 1983 so know what they went through. I also worked in most of the border villages in both Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and I did mobile clinics, immunization campaigns at that time. I have been to Jaffna during the un-cleared time and I also worked in the IDPs which I can tell you were enormous 850,000 at one time we had both in Anuradhpaura as well as in Vavuniya Polonnaruwa area.  So actually looking at that period and at that time one very very  significant difference between that period 1983 to 2002 and 2002 onwards there was no international presence. There were no base offices or INGOs or NGOs or anyone but I worked with the government institutions in all these areas and I can tell you that I have the highest praise for all the people I worked with in places like Jaffna, Vavunia, Mannar, Trincomalee who were constantly under LTTE pressure but they served the people of those areas. My approach at that time was that it is our duty to work with them as most of them have lived for generations in those areas. In fact I went to Jaffna in the 90son two occasions as maternal mortality was high. It was un-cleared so I just had to be dropped in Palaly and be picked up by the Health Ministry people and go to the hospital. I mean it was amazing what the people that remained there did and to me that was the right way of doing it. In fact in 1990 we ran a polio vaccination campaign and we are able to get days of tranquility   of peace with both the LTTE and the government and people went and gave the polio vaccination and during the height of the war Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to eradicate polio working with the local people, the government structure and of course we did work with the local NGO’s like Rotary. Rotary did an enormous job, so I feel that working with local people and local structures, people who understand, people who were living there and that was something and a very important lesson that I learnt because I see the difference when all these outsiders walked in people were very confused. 

Second thing I must say is that looking at the entire period nothing actually worked to stop child recruitment and the violations till the war ended on 19 May 2009. All the efforts, in fact I know UNICEF representatives came, Olara Utunu came, Carol Bellamy and a whole host of people including Alan Rock went to Kilinochchi and promises were made and lots of commitments were made. These people who came for 2 days and 3 days and told them ‘don’t recruit children’ and ‘don’t do these child rights violations’ but all I can tell you is that after the 19 May 2009 no children have recruited and will be recruited and that is something we need to accept and I think elimination of terrorism and violence is important. The other lessons that I learnt looking  at both scenarios over the years is although I know that the international community and the donors feel that civil society that should do everything, NGOs should do everything, I am afraid that NGOs and civil society are not the right antidote or the right alternative to a state that does  not work. You cannot say that the Ministry does not do it so someone else does should do it and get some group to come and set up a parallel service. Sri Lanka is a country which has in spite of the war we have achieved the millennium development goals.  We have continued with our health and education in spite of all the problems. I have been in Kilinochchi Central School during the height of the problem and the school functioned, uniforms were sent, school books were sent, teachers’ salaries were paid, there may have been problems in some of the smaller schools. I have been to Jaffna hospital at the height of the problem, there are problems but the system functioned.

Sri Lanka is a country which has systems and we have given free health education uninterrupted in spite of all the problems with resources to our people whether they are in Jaffna or whether they are living in an un-cleared area in Mullaitivu or Kilinochchi or in Colombo and that is the system that I feel should be strengthened; not setting up parallel systems here and there with people who might suddenly go off and then the community is left high and dry.  So I think that is important. I also feel that under the devolution that took place under the 13th amendment there was an issue that I feel that capacity building of some of the institutions at local level had not taken place so there were certain gaps in services because I think devolution is good but it must go hand in hand with capacity building of the people, the structures, the systems to who you are devolving power, this I came across a lot in my work. The other thing is that I mentioned about IDPs at that time but of course now we have a different set of IDPs and also I have visited the IDPs and I am very happy that we have come down to 30,150 so that is a great accomplishment.

The fourth issue the Commission raised was methodology whereby restitution to persons affected by the events and their dependents and their heirs could be effected. All I would like say is to just make a point and it may not be possible to look at all communities being affected. I think all communities whether it happened before the CFA or after the CFA there are so many people affected because of this terrorism- there have been religious institutions, religious people but mostly the community. I would  like to focus on poor people in the village areas whether it is in Vavuniya, Mannar, Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa. Wherever the majority I would like to state without fear did not have the chance to go abroad and become the diaspora.  We always think that everyone went and they are now the diaspora but I have met so many out there in the villages who have lost family members at one time when LTTE was training their cadres and how they trained was they used the villages for target practice. They used to come in the night because it was very dark and then they put a torch onto the thatched roof and when the villages come running out you know, that’s how they practiced.  Those families are still living there.  There is one girl I remember, a nine year old girl, she lost her mother, father, grandfather, two brothers everyone in the family except one family member who was a midwife who was doing night duty.  She was in the hospital for about 6 months because she was so severely wounded. This is just one example and it may not be possible to get information on all these people but I think in terms of looking at the whole issue of being inclusive and getting everyone in and I think that is also a way of bringing our people together.

One thing I remember we did in the 80s,- we got people from different communities who had suffered together just the fact to know that we all went through it and I think that also creates bonds rather than taking different ethnic groups separately.  The other thing in terms of reconciliation and other famous I would say home gown solutions promoting a Sri Lanka identity is resolution of the language issue. I don’t want even to say it because we have been saying it for so long and nothing much has happened but I think we should do that. I think that equitable development is very important because those are some of the key factors which were at the roots of the terrorism issue and we need to accept that it was deprivation, marginalization, poverty of youth that created this so we need to keep things. Capacity building of all these areas which have suffered, I think this is very important particularly in the Northern area, Eastern area and even in the North Central province. I am afraid with a large army presence, the deprivation, there are lot of issues that have come up even in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa. I think all those areas need some special support and I think that now we have the opportunity to do it and I hope we will be able to do it. I am sorry I took so long and I hope to conclude on that and I thought this is what I have to say which is based on my own experience and I would be happy to answer any questions.


Q & A

C.R. de Silva :            Thank you Dr. Wijemanne for taking  time to come and make representations to the Commission. I have just two questions. You did refer to the fact that the CFA was silent on the question of child rights and indeed on human rights in general.

 Wijemanna: Yes. Silva: Even if that was so would you think that would it have been feasible given of course the LTTE attitudes for foreign donors to link the disbursement of funds to improvement for instance in the areas in child rights. Say progress relasing children, was that feasible given the conditions that prevailed? The second question is in the role of NGOS and civil society. What you said was that civil society and NGOs should be permitted to set up a parallel system. Now would you accept that while the state has the primary right and duty to protect its citizens would not the NGOs and civil society have a subsidiary role under the overall coordination of the state to supplement the efforts of the state provided that there is a appropriate regulatory framework and there is proper monitoring?

Wijemanne. I will answer the second question first. As long as NGOs and INGOs were in close contact with government institutions in tandem as it were, in transparency in the way they function and certainly there are areas in which the government is unable to provide. I mean there are a lot of areas related to children which they would not have services. There are certain special areas in which NGOS certainly do a marvelous job, a very service oriented job. It is more rather than a full monitoring, highlighting abuses. They actually provided service which benefited children so I agree with you on that but whatever they do must be in conformity with the policies of the government, so that I certainly agree.

On the first point about the recruitment, what I feel is the international community UN and various other organizations they do put certain criteria before they give assistance.  Well we are going through that at the moment. They might say you have to do either the ICCPR or either do this convention well or the 21 conventions in the human rights convention have to be covered and unless you do this  we are not going to give you assistance and actually that is now a common practice.  It is very curious that only on this issue that they thought they will displease the LTTE or I do not know what the reason was, they were unable to negotiate it but I think that they did have the capacity, they did have the power because they were the people that came forward, they were the people who had the most number of negotiations and discussions with them so I don’t know because if they were going to give up gradually terrorism and violence then why do they need to recruit children? Then in that case, come into that agreement, agree on that issue and maybe they needed cadres because they still had to protect themselves but not to abduct and recruit children. So I think they could have and may be they bowed down to pressure of the LTTE. Maybe  they were eager to keep them engaged, they  did not want to break the dialogue  of engagement but I would say it was a missed opportunity to have benefitted the children in the North and East because I have personally heard stores of the terrible tragedies they have undergone. Of course many have died, I mean the ones we meet are the ones who have remained alive, post traumatic stress disorders and all sorts of problem could have been prevented at least in 2002.  1983 to 2002 we did not have a mechanism to do that we did not even have a data base but here, I would say, a missed opportunity. So that’s my view on that.

Palihakkara. Thank you very much Dr. Wijemanne, especially your knowledge and experience first as an international civil servant and second as the Child Protection Authority Chairperson and now as a citizen. It will certainly help us and you have given much substance to our work. Your observations to which my colleague has already referred to about the lacuna in the CFA, what you called a missed opportunity to get the LTTE, if not to desist from, but at least to go slow on child recruitment. The observation that you made I believe from your experience that despite all the international pressure child recruitment did not stop, had not even abated until 19 May 2009. This is a very sobering thought that whilst it helps us to study and analyze that part of our mandate it also brings out the problem of making peace with this kind of non- state players when they do not respond to any national or international measures. This question came up earlier also and we dealt with the human shield situation. My question actually to you is that given the fact that we are now looking for reconciliation efforts have you assessed the current child combatant rehabilitation programme that is underway and if not can it be improved upon? What are the short terms or medium term or what more can the government and the people and even civil society do to make it effective? I am looking at it from a point of our mandate to see all measures that would prevent recurrence of this kind of conflict, this kind of practices, I would say malpractices and in that context what are the specifics you could point to?

Wijemanne: I can tell you, you know my interaction with boys and girls of course and also women, you have to be very positive. To be honest with you when, I could not talk to some of them because I wish to could have spoken in Tamil but we were able to communicate. Really what they needed  was that they had undergone terrible trauma and hardship that even the very fact that they could be in what is called a safe environment and be treated with dignity given their self respect back, given their right to education, to vocational training, reunification with parents, parents had thought they had died because they had not seen them for so long, just that package of services to them within the rehabilitation of course some have been more traumatized than others as some had been involved suicide missions and things like that needed a little bit more support but you know just that little package of what we call basic services to interact in a sense Sinhalese have to know to know that they were not killers and murderers and people who were antagonistic  to them because that was the mindset with which they came. They explained to me in detail the whole training programme, which consist of a whole conditioning which was the type of a hatred conditioning which was done during the period of training. Any of us at the age of 15 had to go through this we too would have been like that so I don’t want to make any judgment on them.  I had a very good analysis from the two girls who escaped from. They explained as to how they had been put into lorries 500 students from five Schools, 100 students from each school A/L. They were brought and had to undergone training, brainwashing, the video and weapons training, but its amazing that we do not have enough psychologist, psychiatrist to do individual  therapy but more than individual therapy what they needed was the friendly attitude, the approach, the wanting to help, the reunification with parents, lot of these children, one primary thing they wanted was access back to schooling because education is held and given high priority in those areas and of course if they can get a job and start income. Those were the things that were very important and I think  which we need to expand. Some of the girls are still in contact with me on the telephone and one girl who had actually gone back to Vavuniya in fact she is getting married also and she is 21 and I was very happy as she came under witness and victim protection programme for 2 ½ years and she said she has been reunited with her boy friend in Kilinochchi and she is starting life. So it is possible, what I am saying is, but we also have to look at them as victims . They are all victims of a very unfortunate regimented hierarchal system where they had no power but they had to just follow certain commands. So I think as long as we cannot erase the past the experiences they have gone through will remain but we can certainly ameliorate their minds of what they have gone through and to do that we have to give them back normalcy by living with their families, been able to study as their education was interrupted, been able to earn a living if they have to do that, get accommodation and just the basics as it is not a very complicated thing that they are asking but I think that is  where the government should move in and I would say because I know Kilinochchi and Mulaitivu are still not in good condition after what they have gone through so we need to rebuild those areas because from what I could see the maximum amount of recruitment took place in uncleared areas because there was no monitoring or no method, no law enforcement, no place they could go and report to so those are the areas which we need to focus and rebuild. Of course Jaffna and Mannar are also areas we really need to focus and North Vavuniya.

Hangawatte. Dr. Wijemanne thank you for being here. Dr. Wijemanne I have a question, to learn from your assets as a Child expert. I understand that although social institutions including educational institutions functioned in the rest of the country at that time but did not function in those areas of the conflict because the government did not allow. So based on that I understand that there are now individuals in these areas who were children at that time but some of them are not only teenagers even young people 20 to 25 years old who have never had any education. I understand  that some of them are undergoing elementary school education under trees etc. for lack of school buildings. What would you recommend as to how they could be incorporated into the regular curriculum or should they be educated separately in terms of children.

Wijemanne:         Once a child has missed schooling it is very difficult to put them back into the regular system. Say a 14 year old does not want to be in a class with an 18 year old. So once they have missed regular schooling you have to look at non formal schooling and basically you have to look at 2 skills , literacy and numeracy. Its not so much content and doing ALs and OLs just focus on literacy and numeracy I think that is being done through the Ministry of Education but we need to expand that because without numeracy and literacy today you cannot function anywhere  in the world. And that is one thing. The second thing is vocational training and also to give them skills that they cannot get an income. They need to do a job that they can earn and get an income. So I think vocational training people have expanded in Vavuniya but I think those are areas which in fact we have to increase the opportunity and the third thing is job opportunities to people who necessarily do not have OLs and ALs. I remember some years ago in Jaffna they were trying to recruit for the immunization programme family health workers and they were looking for girls with 3 credits at the OLs and we could not find in Vavuniya and those areas where they missed schooling and I think fortunately a very wise decision was made by the Health Ministry not to bring that requirement but recruit these people to do the work so that at a point of time if they want to do their OLs or whatever it is they could get into the system. So I agree with you that the same criteria for recruitment for jobs cannot operate in those areas where children have missed schooling. But, non formal methods are available and those need to be expanded and most of all what young people want is a job and an income so that is something we have to look at.

Paranagama:      Should not these people be brought to other areas for training so that while training they would mix with other communities.

Wijemanne:     I will tell you my opinion about that.  You know there is a plus and a minus in it. The plus part is that the children who for example were in Vavuniya were very happy as they had access to their parents and family. You know for a child, thee most important thing is his or her parents and family which is a very very important and is also a cultural thing  because you are comfortable when you have access to your family so I would say to the extent possible it should be close to their own communities and also another reason is that we want the young people there to be there and build the future of the North and East. The peace dividend cannot be realized if we do not tap our people who are going to work, develop those areas so that those areas so that those areas come up in the future so I think it is better but give them also opportunity for example when they were in Ambepussa we took them by train to Kandy, took them to the garden, Pinnawela, the Zoo and Colombo was something amazing to them. That’s good and that’s a different type of exposure I am talking about but I think in terms of the future we should use the young people to build the future as we cannot do that with older people, we must encourage them, give them incentives to remain their to work and build the North and East so. So that is important. that the peace dividend can really be realized .

Hangawatte :    You mentioned earlier about the Ceasefire Agreements that are in place in several countries. When was the question of child soldiers included in any of these ceasefire agreements.

Wijemanne: I cant tell you as I did not do the research on it but I think in countries like Congo, Sierre Leon they did something which we have not necessarily done. Now I think some of those countries what they did was they de-mobbed as part of the ceasefire and brought them into the forces. That also was a strategy that they were used to handling firearms and fighting so certainly we should look into data on the Congo and also on Sierre Leon and some of those countries that was something that was built into. Actually the whole issue of child combatants in South Asia only operates in Sri Lanka and Nepal with the Maoist  but we have not had the kind of wars that Sudan, Somalaia, Congo and Sierre Leon, Luanda those places that children have been recruited but I am sure if we do a little research  we will find that they have built in the demobilization of child soldiers because it is considered a crime against humanity the recruitment of a child as a combatant and is considered as one of the worst forms of child abuse and exploitation .

C.R. de Silva:      Dr. Wijemanne, I must thank you for having come over here and made your presentation which was most useful and I am sure it is going to be beneficial to us in our deliberations, so thank you very much.

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