Pannalai Massacre - Nine Tamil civilians killed

Place: Pannalai | Courtesy: Collection
| Date: 19970129

On 29 Jan 1997, nine innocent Tamil civilians were killed in an explosion in the northern town of Pannalai (Karainagar).

The Sri Lankan media and the international newswire services (Reuters, AP and the AFP), promptly reported the incident as, "the LTTE exploded mines in a crowded area that killed nine civilians."

It has subsequently been shown that the army threw grenades at a group of civilians walking on the causeway, and then opened fire.

The Sri Lankan government consistently resorts to this kind of ‘propaganda exercises’. Mass murder of innocent people is committed just to score a propaganda point over the ‘enemy’ - the Tamils.

The massacre at the Kathankudy Mosque (1990), the Dehiwela train bombing (1996) etc. are flagrant examples of this sordid practice. The government quickly blames the LTTE, which ‘news bulletin’ is then published as ‘news’ by the press in Sri Lanka and the international newswire services.

This type of attacks are also ‘timed’ to coincide with certain government planned events.

It is noteworthy that the mosque massacre in Kathankudy occurred during the Defense Minister Ranjan Wijeratne's visit to the Moslem countries in the Middle-East, where he was seeking assistance for the war effort against the Tamils. The Dehiwela train bombing was just prior to a major army offensive, which was subsequently shown to have resulted in gross atrocities against the civilian Tamil population.

Clever and dirty, but it seems to work. No one questions the validity of these accusations, details are forgotten, and the memory lingers of the purported "LTTE connection" to mass murder.

This ‘dirty tricks’ campaign, however, doesn’t always work.

On 29 Jan., The Reuters, fed by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense, reported the following fabrication about the killings in Pannalai -

    "Mines planted by separatist Tamil guerrillas killed seven civilians and a soldier on a crowded road in northern Sri Lanka on Wednesday, the Defence Ministry said. The two mines exploded near a causeway linking Jaffna peninsula with the small island of Karaitivu, 320 km (200 miles) north of the capital Colombo, a ministry spokesman told Reuters. The mines blew up when the road was crowded with civilians, military officials in the area said."

Obviously, the Sri Lanka government thought that, with the rigid press censorship it employs, it could do anything - murder a few Tamil civilians, blame it on the Tigers, and have a propaganda victory. Wrong.

The news leaked out. The names of the victims along with information from witnesses were published by the LTTE news bulletin.

A Tamil daily Uthayan, in occupied Jaffna, also published the news (and incidentally, the editor was arrested by the army.)

And, to their credit, the Colombo based Tamil groups that routinely cooperate with the government (EPDP, PLOTE and EPRLF), also made a statement on 9 Feb, accusing the army of killing the 9 Tamils. According to these groups the "army personnel threw a grenade and directed automatic fire at a group of civilians walking towards the sea."

No one asked as to why the LTTE would do such a thing as blowing up the people they are supposed to protect.

From the LTTE point of view they couldn’t have chosen a worse time (even if they wanted to) to pull off a stunt like this - Robin Raphel, the US Assistant secretary of State and a team of British Diplomats were on the island. If the LTTE cares about its international image (judging from their actions they do seem to), would they have killed civilians for any reason at this time?

A Sinhala owned paper (Midweek Mirror, 19 Feb) in an article titled Terrorism, 'Raphel Impressed Indeed' (see below) said,

    "The LTTE, as we have seen, have proved themselves top class at propaganda and at doing the right thing at the right time as far as their international image goes. Accordingly, they could have been widely expected to behave like little white angels…"

But according to the Sri Lankan government and its army, they didn’t.

In this connection an article by Iqbal Athas (Sunday Times, 2 Feb 1997) titled "The United States and the North-East Conflict" is very revealing. It stated how the army top brass acted quickly to get publicity out of this mass murder.

    "Senior military officials were keen to get the message across to Major General Karunatilleke so he may convey it to his guests (the team of British Diplomats). The message was clear - Tiger guerrillas were targeting civilians... Maj. Gen. Karunatilleke bared the details to his hosts British Deputy High Commissioner Peter Gregory Hood, Dr. Andrew Hall, Research Analyst in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London and Nick Astbury, Second Secretary."

The Jan 29 massacre at Pannalai was not the only incident during the week. A van carrying Muslims was blown up with a land mine, killing 6, just the day before Robin Raphel arrived on the island. The LTTE was blamed for this both in the local as well as the international media.

Robin Raphel had during this visit insisted on visiting the notorious detention camps in Vavuniya. Of course, she had to be shown how bad these ‘Tiger terrorists’ are, at least to blunt the disgust she must have felt at the conditions in these detention camps.

One of the Tamil groups in Colombo has demanded a judicial inquiry into the Pannalai massacre, but given the serious consequences of such inquiry this is unlikely to happen.

Terrorism, Raphel impressed indeed

[A tongue-in-cheek commentary about the January Massacre in Pannalai]

By Genghis Khan

Prior to the PA government coming to power in late 1994, the United States of America, as well as some others of the international community were seen, if not to actually support the LTTE, to at least sympathise with them or lend them an attentive ear. But since the PA started governing Sri Lanka, it has become increasingly manifest that the USA has gradually turned cold towards the Tigers.

It may be that American research has discovered something about the LTTE that has been found to be repugnant. Or perhaps the Madison Avenue style entry of the PA with its high flaunted projection of wanting peace, convinced the Yanks that the Tigers had been virtually pulling the wool over their eyes! Or maybe the debonair persuasiveness of the PA Foreign Minister has accomplished a characteristic Simon Templer touch. Or perhaps the New York, Oklahoma, the Olympics and California bombings did it!

Whatever it was, the United States has evidently given serious thought to considering the possibility of the LTTE as terrorists who may have taken up arms for no other reason, than to terrorise Sri Lanka. So probably, tucked away and forever locked in some American limbo, may be the records of the numerous armed attacks on Tamils and their property since 1956; the denial of employment and higher education opportunities to the minorities in 1956 and 1972; the training and probably arming of the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups by India, so that they could fight for Tamil rights!

The decision in the United States seems to be that the Tigers could be terrorists, and so let us prove it! To prove such a thing however, it would have to be shown that LTTE actions are predominantly terrorist ones. The Central Bank bombing may be said to have almost hit the nails into the LTTE coffin because all that the world, which is otherwise busy, looks at is the effect and not the causes!

Yet however the USA, because of her highly democratic traditions - highlighted in Clinton’s State of the Union Address - has not slammed the wooden mallet on the table top and pronounced the LTTE as terrorists. She has looked for further proof of LTTE terrorism, and in all probability may have assigned Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian affairs, Robin Raphel, to keep a keen eye for such proof during her four-day visit here, end January.

The LTTE, as we have seen, have proved themselves top class at propaganda and at doing the right thing at the right time as far as their international image goes. Accordingly, they could have been widely expected to behave like little white angels, while Robin Raphel did her rounds in Sri Lanka. Amazingly however, the Tigers did not seem to have behaved as expected and thus, may have impressed Raphel that they were indeed terrorists!

The day prior to Robin Raphel’s visit, the LTTE were reported to have exploded a landmine under a van carrying Muslim civilians in the Polonnaruwa area. The timing of the Tigers seem to have been canny if not anything else, because it could have provided Raphel with a sound example of LTTE terrorist activity, for her to report upon. In fact, one morning daily even made it easier for Robin Raphel to word her report, by stating that, Six Muslims observing Ramazan Fast, including two children were blown up when the LTTE terrorists resumed attacks on unarmed civilians.

It may be doubtful that Raphel herself could have improved on that description to drive home the point that the Tigers were indeed terrorists!

On the heels of that incident, the Tigers were said to have exploded Claymore mines at the Ponnalai causeway, killing nine civilians. Perhaps they may have wished to make doubly certain that Robin Raphel had made good note of their terrorism! One media story reported: According to army sources the time the blasts had occurred was the time most people use the causeway. The Army say that the LTTE are getting more and more unpopular in the north as they continue attacks on innocent civilians. These attacks have been on the increase during the last few days.

There again, Raphel may have got much of the substance for her report from that news story! In addition to those print media reports on those two blasts, the victims were projected on TV. Perhaps the LTTE who seemed to be hell-bent on impressing Raphel that they were terrorists, may have considered that TV exposure as a bonus, because on some previous occasions, when civilians had together with soldiers, been victims of Tiger blasts in the peninsula, they had not been shown on TV.

The twisted limbs, broken necks and such like that were projected on TV, may have convinced even the greatest of cynics that the LTTE were terrorists.

But that was not all! While Raphel continued with her four-day visit to this isle which boasts of its ability to provide paradise, the Tigers evidently decided to illustrate to her the potential they possessed to cause another heavy blast in Colombo, and so left a package of explosives and detonating kit, together with some small arms ammunition in a bus at the Colombo bus terminal.

Those explosives were screened on TV more than once. Raphel may therefore have had much evidence to assist the USA to proclaim the LTTE as terrorists.

Amazingly though, immediately Robin Raphel left Sri Lanka, the LTTE launched two separate attacks, in characteristic guerilla manner, on military camps in the north and east, killing many troops!

In all probability it may have taken the LTTE a few days to plan, organise and launch those two attacks, and may even have begun planning them the day that Robin Raphel arrived in this country.

But what which is so confusing and mind boggling, is why the LTTE tried so emphatically to impress upon Robin Raphel that they were terrorists, and at the same time, planned to launch those two attacks on the troops and not on civilians, to evidently emphasise that they were indeed guerillas and freedom fighters!

However, as there seems to be no rationale that we mortals could find in all that, maybe we should leave it in the lap of the gods who are bound to have a proper perception of those incidents during Robin Raphel’s visit.

Emphasis added

Courtesy: Midweek Mirror (19th Feb 1997)