Isai Priya in the ‘Commemorating Month’ Of November.

The military crushing of the LTTE by the state forces of Sri Lanka came to a climax in May 2009 in extremely controversial circumstances. The execution of surrendering and captive prisoners of war, the torture, rape and killing of women held in military custody and forced disappearances of persons added to an already extending list of controversial conduct by the government during the closing months of the war (January to May 2009) which included indiscriminate shelling by the troops and the barring of food supplies, medical expertise and medicines to the combat zone. In May 18th 2009, the then-President declared the LTTE completely defeated. However, even in the post-war aftermath people who were now apparently under the ‘protective custody’ of the military continued to disappear. Allegations of women being raped singly and in groups emerged from the cordoned off ‘rehabilitation camps’ first, as rumour; and then with corroboration.

60919_L_sri-lankaWhile in the South the government took more efforts than necessary to celebrate the war victory and encourage the building of numerous memorials in post-war North commemoration of the dead was made taboo. In fact, the state troops took measures to bulldoze all signs and semiotics of the LTTE’s presence from the Northern landscape. Statues and commemorative constructs were proclaimed illegal and pulled down. The LTTE’s Maarveer memorial burial sites were bulldozed and replaced by the setting up of army camps on those lands. Until the November of 2008, the LTTE considered the 26th of November as a day of remembrance – a day where their slain and self-sacrificing cadre were commemorated. Whether one believed in the LTTE or not, this provided an opportunity for the family members of the dead – of those who may have died for different reasons – to commemorate their personal loss and to come to terms with their grief. In post-war years this opportunity is lost to the North.

One of the grave mistakes made by the Sri Lankan government and the Sinhala-majority South was the denial and shirking of responsibility that the final phases of the war was a tragedy and a mistake. What the government-sanctioned military unleashed on the North in May 2009 and the months that postdate the war victory is the experiment they ruthlessly used on the Sinhala-South in 1989 and 1990 in the crushing of the JVP. The tripartite modus operandi used under Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne back then was to ‘search, interrogate and destroy’. The same strategy has been blindly used modifying it to suit battlefield conditions with scant regard for the overseeing eyes of the global community and other independent observers. The short-sighted, introvert policy of those who authenticated the events that have since 2009 left the Sri Lankan government having to live the life of the cat who defecated on a rock could not have viewed beyond their own tribal instincts. Even to this day, the arrogance of denial and the audacity not to claim responsibility for the loss of over 40,000 lives that could have been minimized continues to baffle me.

Among the hitherto unknown and undocumented number of persons killed or violated in custody, a name and a face that caught the global spotlight was that of Isai Priya alias Shoba. Isai Priya’s unenviable position in the global headlines however was as a mutilated corpse who shows signs of being tortured, raped and summarily executed. Coincidentally, hers was a name that was known to the world for her dead body to be identified. These women who were sexually abused and killed in cold blood have all faced the same fate – there is no gradation or exception in them. The perpetrators of these crimes – with or without evidence – are the military and their overseers who were present in these sites at that time. However, the first reaction of the military was one of denial. In spite of leaked footage from the battle zone – footage which were later used by media such as Channel 4 in documenting the atrocities which they charged as crimes against humanity – the Sri Lankan military and members of the then-government have insisted these footage were fabrications. Then MP, Rajiva Wijesinha even suggested that summary executions of prisoners of war, as caught on VGA cameras, were ‘staged’ and ‘theatrical’.

Footage on Isai Priya first discloses how she is being ‘rescued’ from the edge of what appears to be a lagoon by the Sri Lankan military. At this point, she is half-clad and appears to be in visible shock. An army solider walks in her direction with a plain white cloth and helps her to cover her top half. Then, she is walked inland from the lagoon and voices from the background shout that it is ‘Prabha’s daughter’, to which Isai Priya faintly replies ‘I am not her’. By the reference ‘Prabha’s daughter’ it can be insinuated that the military thought Isai Priya to be Dwaraka, the daughter of LTTE leader Prabhakaran. In subsequent footage, Isai Priya is seen dead with her hands tied to the back, the lower part of her garment removed. The white cloth which was initially given to her is seen smeared with blood. In a third sequence of footage Isai Priya appears shot at close range and with a gash across her face. Beside her, there are other female bodies in varying stages of nakedness and bearing signs of gross abuse.

Earlier, the Defence Ministry website had publicized a Lt. Colonel Isai Priya who was killed in the final stages of battle in May, 2009. Whether this is a genuine error or a wilful attempt to mislead the world (while taking refuge in the shell of denial) is best known to the authors of this update. When the footage of Isai Priya first surfaces it is 2012 – almost three years after the death. To the average Southerner in Sri Lanka, the little biographical information available on Isai Priya is courtesy of sources such as Wikipedia and other depositories. She is said to have been born in Delft Island in 1982, making her 27 at the point of her death. Her family had been displaced in 1995 during the Operation Riviresa under the Chandrika Kumaratunga government. She had had her education at Vembadi Girls’ School and been active in the LTTE’s media division as a news anchor and announcer. She had been married to an LTTE cadre in 2007 and her infant child is believed to have died closer to the end of the war.

isaipriya1In Thamalini Jeyakumaran’s Oru Koorvailin Nizhalil there is a reference to Isai Priya and her husband that helps us narrow down the point of the husband’s death to a day. In her supposed autobiography, Thamalini gives us the date of May 18th as her moment of surrender. Even as she prepares herself to leave the ‘LTTE end’ of battle and join a posse of people who were about to ‘cross over’, she meets Isai Priya’s husband from whom she asks after Isai Priya. He replies saying that she was somewhere in the vicinity. If Thamalini’s narration is to be believed then even on the 18th of May both Isai Priya’s husband and the infant child were well and alive. It can be assumed that the leaked footage featured in the Channel 4 film is probably no more than 48 hours following this exchange Thamalini records. In 2014, South Indian filmmaker K. Ganeshan directs a movie titled Porkalathil Oru Poo which is based on Isai Priya’s life. The film was banned in India.

In November 2017, eight years and a half years after the Sri Lankan’s military’s victory over the LTTE, there is much still left to reflect on in terms of addressing the emotions and the insecurities of the ordinary people. Even as this is written, the extremist and extremely ignorant communities in the South – being brain-massaged by militarist zealots, opportunistic politicians and leftover relics of the military – still deny that the North was wronged, and still insist that the North and East should not be given powers to determine their own destinies. These are people who have no dignity or respect for others, who have no knack to learn from mistakes – and from such people we cannot expect much. Between 2013 and now, some positives have been set in place in the North – such as the setting up of the Northern Provincial Council – but, there is much infrastructural and cultural development for which the central government has to meaningfully pave the way. Lands and property that have been taken away from the people under various pretexts over the past 30-odd years have to be returned. The military presence has to be reduced and the normalcy of a civil society expediently restored. More so – the North should be given the ethical and spiritual right to mourn, commemorate and to come to terms with their grief. In an ideal world, all the bulldozed memorial graves and the pulled down monuments have to be restored. But, if the government has misgivings of going to that extent they should at least provide suitable alternatives for the community. On top of all – and this might be the hardest, yet, for the majoritarian-Sinhala South – the responsibility and the acknowledgement of the ‘final assault’ has to be accepted and its guilt has to be publicly documented. Until that is done, there will be no reconciliation.