Sri Lanka has a very inspiring story to relate to the world about the transformation of a child combatant into a democratic political leader. Chief Minister of the Eastern Province S. Chandrakanthan, as Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said at a ministerial meeting in New York on Friday, cut his teeth on terrorism, when he was only a child like many other LTTE combatants who are fed on a diet of racial hatred and turned into killing machines through indoctrination. Abducted at the age 14 years by the LTTE and trained as a combatant, he kept on fighting for a macabre cause blindly, until he realised the futility of ethnic bloodletting in the name of liberation. He then joined forces with the disgruntled Eastern Province military commander of the LTTE Karuna Amman et al and decided to bite the bullet and break away.
Chandrakanthan has been rewarded for his wisdom and courage. While his erstwhile boss is showing the cornered Wanni Tigers a clean pair of heels in Kilinochchi, giving the lie to his claim of military prowess, Chandrakanthan is going great guns, rubbing shoulders with VIPs both here and abroad.
However, unfortunately, there are child soldiers languishing in the clutches of the Wanni Tigers and the military arm of Chandrakanthan's TMVP. Foreign Minister Bogollagama has said quoting UNICEF that the LTTE has recruited 6,273 children since 2002. Child soldiers, according to him, constitute more than one half of the LTTE! Ironically, 2002 was the year when the LTTE and the UNF government signed a much advertised ceasefire agreement, which, we were told, would help protect civilians! In April that year, at Prabhakaran's Kilinochchi press conference, LTTE spokesman Anton Balasingham denied having any child combatants in the LTTE's ranks in spite of the availability of UN reports at that time including those by Olara Otunu, naming and shaming the LTTE for enlisting children. Balasingham had the chutzpah to ask journalists to stay back a few days and see for themselves whether there were any child soldiers. The LTTE, he insisted, had only welfare centres for children!
In October 2003, UNICEF and the LTTE opened a joint rehabilitation centre for former child combatants. The LTTE, whose spokesman had denied having child soldiers, released 40 child combatants to be rehabilitated at that centre. But hours later, the LTTE abducted 23 children in the East. On Oct. 06, 2003 in an editorial comment, Captured to be released?, immediately after the grand opening of the UNICEF-LTTE transit home, we cautioned UNICEF to be wary of having a joint venture with the LTTE notorious for using international organisations to gain legitimacy for its cause.
It took only a few months for UNICEF to realise that the LTTE had taken it for a right royal ride. The UNICEF project, despite all its good intentions, came a cropper with the LTTE refusing to release anymore child soldiers. In January 2005, UNICEF Spokesman Geoffrey Keele lamented that he had information of forty child abductions by the LTTE in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster. "We had hoped," he said, "that with such a disaster the LTTE would have ended this practice." He, like all other international do-gooders, did not know the Tigers for what they really were.
Strangely, none of the civil society members who are weeping buckets for civilians have taken up the issue of child soldiers. Is it that children are not civilians, in their book? Or, is it that they don't want to make the fur fly on that issue and rub their feline friends the wrong way? It may also be that they are paid only to highlight human rights violations by the State.
Foreign Minister Bogollagama has said the TMVP is working with UNICEF and the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for children in armed conflict. The TMVP has, according to the Minister, so far released 39 children.
In 2006, TMVP leader Karuna Amman promised to release child combatants in his ranks. In fact, he was forced to make that pledge, as his outfit was also placed on the UN List of Shame for using child combatants. Karuna, as we pointed out in these columns in Dec. 2006, assured UNICEF that he would do the following: Issuance of a policy statement to all his commanders that child recruitment is not acceptable; educating his commanders on children's rights; release of children who may be found in his ranks and provision of free access to his camps for UNICEF. We had this to say editorially about his promise: "Never mind policy statements and training for his commanders, he [Karuna] must be told to release his child combatants forthwith, desist from recruiting minors and grant UNICEF access to his camps."
Now that former child soldier Chandrakanthan has become the Eastern Province Chief Minister, the TMVP can be easily pressured to release child combatants. Unlike Prabhakaran confined to an underground bunker, Chandrakanthan is exposed to the world outside. Local human rights groups and the international community are in a position to bring pressure to bear on the TMVP through him to release child combatants. The government is also duty bound to make its new coalition partner, the TMVP, let go of those unfortunate children.
The Foreign Minister has said, "The TMVP is working closely with the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation to help release the balance children in its ranks." Mere pledges won't do! The TMVP must be made to release its child soldiers immediately for rehabilitation. It is books, pens, dolls, bats and balls and not guns and bombs that children should be carrying. Prabhakaran's and Karuna's children are not carrying weapons, are they? They must be made to recognise the rights of other children as well.
Grown up men like Prabhakaran, Karuna and Chandrakanthan must be ashamed of hiding behind children for protection.
Will Karuna and Chief Minister Chandrakanthan prove they are different from Prabhakaran by releasing their child combatants?