THE dramatic appearance of five Tamil doctors, charged by the Sri Lankan military with aiding the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the last phase of the war and spreading false information, on the afternoon of June 8 before a packed hall of international and local mediapersons at the National Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) came on the day The Hindu published the last part of President Mahinda Rajapaksas interview.
In the interview, Rajapaksa had said: I told them to organise a press conference. Let the doctors come and say what they have to say. In a two-hour news conference, the doctors admitted that they passed on wrong information on civilian casualties to the media at the behest of the LTTE.
True, several questions have been raised on the propriety of parading the doctors inside the conference room of a publicity wing of the government. But their disclosures brought to light the sordid methods used by the Tigers in the last days of the war to show the government and the Sri Lankan military in a poor light.
Significantly, the doctors and their families all emerged unscathed from the war zone despite all the talk of genocide.
Of the five, Satyamoorthy, Varatharajan and Illanchelliyan were government doctors while Sivapalan and Shanmugraja were part of the LTTE medical team.
The doctors surrendered in the middle of May. Since then, they have been under investigation for their links with the LTTE. Clean-shaven and healthy, they looked bewildered at the press conference as they answered questions in English and Tamil, with the person who introduced them acting at times as translator. Their refrain was: The LTTE forced us to give figures [statistics of dead civilians]. Figures were exaggerated due to LTTE pressure. We were in LTTE-controlled area. We had to do what the LTTE told us.
Dr. Varatharajan, who was quoted extensively in the last phase of the war by a section of the international media, said that between 350 and 400 civilians were killed in the fighting between April 15 and May 15. The war was declared over on May 18.
He said the doctors were working under a lot of pressure and their lives were at risk. If we had not been there, the casualty figures couldnt have been this. With heavy risk, we worked for the civilians, he said. Another 350 to 400 civilians were killed during the period between January and middle of April, he said.
The final civilian death toll the doctors gave from the war zone on May 13 was 530 for the week preceding. They had mentioned exploding shells, lack of medicine and the number of wounded piling up. On July 8, the blame shifted to the LTTE for cornering medical supplies and shooting civilians trying to escape.
When asked about their current condition, one doctor first said they were in a better prison than the LTTE prison but quickly changed the description to protective custody. We are kept in an office the rooms are big, compared to the battle zone.
When asked what if they changed their story again later, Dr. Varatharajan said: Now, we are free from any pressure. We can tell the truth.B. Muralidhar Reddy