Western media ignores Sri Lankan State terror - Australian doctor

ABC Conversation Hour
August 2007

Audio (ram)

Queensland Pediatrician and Director of Townsville Hospital's Neonatal Unit, Dr John Whitehall, talking with Richard Fidler of ABC radio in the program "Conversation hour" early this week, said that in Tamil eelam there "is tremendous commitment from a population of only three million people [for separation]. You can't get 17000 people to take up arms and fight to death unless their hearts are in their cause," and added that "What I have come to be aware [is] you can't understand the situation in Colombo if you only focus on the terror which is coming from one side, and you don't mention the state terror, the terror inflicted by Colombo state."

ABC: Dr. John Whitehall, you spent some time were in Sri Lanka. Sri lanka is still considered a pathetic paradise; a paradise in crisis. What was your introduction to that country?
Dr. Whitehall: We were looking to go for holidays for six months and looking for a place to take post graduate students to some place where there is malaria. I teach a course called Tropical Pediatrics at James Cook university and I thought it will be a good experience for Australians to watch a malaria infected child and learn from the experience.

We were looking for such a place and we decided to go to Sri Lanka because a young lady doctor trained here had asked us to visit the country. So we decided to go there and shortly after our visit, Tsunami struck the island. So I told her in order to do some thing to face the situation, we should form an ad hoc committee and then we decided to meet at the University of Colombo and ask about the needs of the affected people.

We went public to raise funds and with the extraordinary phenomenon of generosity of Australian people just flowed out. It was really moving .We got so much money that by Jan.01 2005; we had bought a truck load of high quality antibiotics. We then formed a number of teams of medical students to work in various parts of the island and I accompanied these teams. So much money came from North Queensland alone that we were able to buy five really good quality ventilators for children, an oxygen enricher and a number of surgical instruments and other things.

Then we decided to visit certain selected hospitals to install these equipments. As part of our trip we did not go to North East, the traditional historic lands of Tamils but we were able to travel up to Kilinochchi, the administrative centre of North East Tamil land and then to Jaffna. We installed these equipments in the hospitals in those two places. I was quite appalled by the state of this big hospital in Jaffna. There were mosquitoes breeding every where.

Then I went to see around the area and was initially struck by the similarity with Vietnam when we moved from the Sri Lankan side into Tamil side. I was able to see a number of isolated forts made out of coconut forts surrounded by barbed wires. When we came to the border it was a long military field with mines fields. When we crossed the border and when we really hit north, I could not see any Tigers but that of course was a military illusion. Though Sri Lanka in general was a poor country, yet I found that the towns in Tamil are were strikingly worse off than the Sinhala areas.

Meanwhile, I was about to work in the Eastern part of the island with a British charity group, when they received a request from another organization if a pediatrician could come to Kilinochchi to teach pediatrics to a group of medical students who had missed a semester about the diseases of children. I did not really care where I worked and I was quite happy to go there.

When I arrived there I met a group of students in their mid thirties and there were 32 of them, I walked into a room with corrugated roof and with the monsoon rain falling on the roof and some times we had to shout to each others to be heard. I tried to work out something to teach them what they did not know.

After a week went by I wanted to see how they examine patients. So I asked a man to volunteer to remove his shirt and asked a lady how to show me the technique to examine the patient's chest. It was at this time I saw from the corner of my eye a great hole in the back of the man's chest. And while the lady was stretching her arm to use the stethoscope, I saw a stitches on her arm and I asked her what happened. So they all started to laugh. They responded saying that they were all shot. I asked them who among them had not been shot. Except less than a third of them, all others raised their hands saying that they all had received battle injury. In fact they asked me if I didn't notice that three of them had lost their legs, and they wiggled their fake feet at me.

After a week or so, I began to realize there was something different about this group. I gradually found out they were the medical wing of the Tamil Tigers.

ABC: You are referring to the Tamil tigers, the organization waging war of independence against the central government of Sri Lanka?

Dr. Whitehall: Yes. This was one of the groups formed in response to what they say of the systematic political and practical racism by the government in Colombo after gaining independence in 1948 and has been demonstrated by a number of nasty riots and killings.

This group was formed in the eighties when there were numerous National Liberation groups in various countries around the world. Several groups were formed in Sri Lanka and one of them is Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which we know as Tigers.

These students had been selected in this extraordinary medical experiment because until 1992, the casualties were taken across to India in fishing boats or they were taken to the hospital in Jaffna. They then saw that they may lose these facilities since the war was continuing. They then decided to form their own Medical wing and started teaching a parallel course similar to that of the proper curriculum of Medical college of University of Jaffna. In the mean time, when the war broke out they were all seconded to field hospitals or to address public health issues like cholera epidemic or to handle natural disaster such as Tsunami.

Because of the cease fire in 2002, these students were trying to catch up what they missed in theoretical study. It was my fortune that I just happened to be there when they were looking around for a pediatrician to teach them pediatrics. So I stayed there for three months and not the originally planned two week period.

ABC: The Central government of Sri Lanka has been staging gruesome and brutal attacks on the Tamil people of the North. At the same time, the Tamil Tigers organization is known as a terrorist group in nearly thirty countries, involved in suicide bombings and also engaged in recruitment of child soldiers. Did you know about these at that time?

Dr. Whitehall: Yes, I know they are being described as a terrorist organization. I know more about them. I know the accusation about child soldiers. However, I did not see any evidence of child soldiers. But I saw a list of those dead and found that many of them were less than 16 years old .I imagined them to be like Viet Cong, to come out from the bush and take control.

That was a mistake because they run a de facto state. They run Law courts, Health department, Transport, Taxation. They run a very visible de facto state, with head quarters at Kilinochchi. They don't run away .They say they have as much right for this territory as much Sinhalese have rights for their part of the island, because past records say so.

ABC: So you were in Kilinochchi. So it was slowly apparent to you that you were in the capitol of Tamil area felt you were in the capitol of the de facto state.

Dr. Whitehall: I went out and saw myself how they were running their Health department, social welfare and orphanages. I saw how they run a school for Blind and Deaf. I was very happy about this. so they do run a de facto state. You may argue that they are running it undemocratically, and it may probably be true and needs some improvement.

I don't think it is right to say that they are they are imposing their will on the people, as is said by Colombo. There have been more than 17,000 deaths of soldiers in their military wing. I have been to many of these cemeteries. That is tremendous commitment from a population of only three million people. You can't get 17000 people to take up arms and fight to death unless their hearts are in their cause.

They have a Heroes day and the grief was almost unbearable. The afternoon sun setting like a great ball of burning gold was disappearing under the palm fronds now silhouetted. There were two or three thousand graves and the dead were of the ages of my children. Their families were packed around the graves. They say they have not died but their spirit lives on for Tamil Eelam - the home land for Tamil people. They bring flowers and food and put them on the grave. Then as the sun goes down, they light candles that flicker around in the dark.

There was silence except for hushed crying. There is no catharsis. We have Salvation Army bands or hymns to bring our ceremonies to an end. They stayed till dark and then quietly walked away realizing that it was not over and there were more sacrifices to be made. I don't think I understood the commitment of the Tamil people for this sense of freedom until that evening.

It was hard to bear.

ABC: In any civil war both sides engage in despicable acts. Don't you think you felt caught into the politics of this conflict in some degree?

Dr. Whitehall: I have already mentioned in several articles that Tigers have well exceeded the bounds of conventional warfare and the Geneva Convention... They have blown things up inflicted terror. What I have come to be aware [is] you can't understand the situation in Colombo if you only focus on the terror which is coming from one side, and you don't mention the state terror, the terror inflicted by Colombo state.

It doesn't come out in the media here- bombing of a school where 61 girls died. Killing of people, forced refugee status etc. Human rights groups have said that at least 5,000 Tamils have disappeared in the last six months and many of them have later turned up dead with torture marks.

The Chilean dictator Pinochet, whom we all revile, might have only 300 victims to his credit in those years. Using the same kinds of torture, the same kind of white vans to pick people terror is being inflicted upon Tamils. While we revile Pinochet, we don t even seem talk about the terror inflicted by Colombo

ABC: Would it not be wise if they(Tigers) change tactics ditch the terror tactic and gather much international support?

Dr. Whitehall: If you look at who has been inflicting terror on whom, it has been Colombo that has been bombing Tamil areas using fancy Jets. It is true Tigers have taken the war to Sinhala territory on two occasions. If they are pushed for survival they may take down the island with them . We should get involved it is our duty to prevent Sri Lanka from sinking. In order for that to happen, we should argue for some kind of federal sharing of power.

ABC: What about the heading in an Israeli and newspaper about you which said Doctor supports Separatists implying that you were supporting the Tigers

Dr. Whitehall: I do not support separatism but I support Federalism, Federal state within a unified state .I have responded to the article by means of an electronic letter. I pinpointed that complex political issues will be reduced to misleading slogans. I said that I do not support the Tigers because they have exceeded the limits of Geneva Convention of orthodox warfare but you should not see them only people doing that.

That article also stated my actions will put me on the side of the anti-terrorism law.

Meanwhile, after I returned to Australia. One day two gentlemen were at my door step .They took out their badges, identified themselves as member of the counter terrorism group. They talked with me, read me my rights. I was a bit nervous because 'recklessly supporting a terrorist group' has not been defined. I thought, this could turn out to be one of those defining moments in my career.

They left saying, 'You may or may not hear from the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) and I still haven't heard from them.

ABC: Is there any chance that any money collected for Tsunami relief reached the Tigers ?

Dr. Whitehall: None of the Tsunami relief money went to the Tigers, not even one dollar and I can attest to it.

John's experiences abroad do help him appreciate home. "With increasing intensity when I return to Australia these days I think. we just don't know how fortunate we are. It's chaos out there - ruthless, merciless in most parts of the world. We're really, really fortunate to live in this country."

There are other forces of terror at work, state terror, persecution and human rights abuses against the Tamils that has been going on for decades and which we never hear about, and which governments, like that in Australia, seem to ignore."