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SBS talk to an Australian doctor who reflects on the LTTE

February 14, 2009

Amid what the Sri Lankan military says is the final stage of an operation to eliminate the LTTE, Dr Whitehall outlined his views to SBS

Click here to be taken to the interview.

John Whitehall: I was involved in the Tsunami relief and I had long service leave, I volunteered to go back as a pediatrician to work anywhere. I was originally going to work in Batticaloa, but the organisation received a request for a pediatrician to teach what were described as medical students in Killinochchi. So it didn’t make any difference to me, and I went to Killinochchi. And, as it turns out, the students, there were 32 of them, comprised the medical wing of the Tamil Tigers. ‘Medical practitioners’ is a strange name for them. They have infact been running surgical units in the various clashes. They have been looking after people with cholera and all sorts of other diseases. So they are very experienced people. To finish their medical degree, they needed a course on pediatrics. So, I came an extended that two weeks for three months and we did some research projects and other things.

Question: So what sort of qualifications? Do you mean Sri Lankan qualifications?

John Whitehall: Well in 1992, Prabaharan realised that they were very vulnerable without their own doctors. Until that stage they were sending casualties in fishing boats across to Tamil Nadu where they had sympathisers and they were using the teaching hospital in Jaffna, and they thought they would probably loose access to that, as they did. So in ‘92, he decided they needed their own medical wing and indeed the commanders were asked to identify people who would make good doctors from the ranks of the [LTTE] army. And a number of these had finished college degrees, but infact some of them hadn’t even finished their high school. So they started with 75 students and they began a course, a curriculum in parallel with the curriculum in the established medical school in Jaffna. It ran for about two years and then with the clashes increasing at various stages then, the students were assigned to what became field hospitals as the whole of the medical apparatus of the Tigers matured, and when the war would settle down, they got on with their theoretical studies and other things. So, I happened upon them many years after they had first started. And I just happened to fill that hiatus of formal pediatric teaching. Now they call themselves the Medical College of Tamil Eelam and of course it is not recognised by the government in Colombo.

Question: Do you think that the qualifications are equivalent?

John Whitehall: Oh yes. Yes in many ways. These people had reached the stage of doing end-to-end arterial anastomosis under torchlight with essentially imperfect anesthesia during bombardment from artillery, with the shrapnel hitting their compound. Now that is quite sophisticate surgery under those circumstances. The whole medical apparatus developed from essentially a bandage approach to their casualties, trying to keep them alive by putting them onto a boat and taking them to Tamil Nadu, to a really sophisticated four-stage series of handling of casualties, from when somebody is hit – passed back 50 or 70 meters to people behind and then to a third stage hospital and then to a fourth stage hospital. In the midst of this they developed battle field blood transfusions which the Sri Lankan army does not have even now and the reconstructive surgery and the whole thing is a really fascinating story. This is not a little group of guerrillas wandering around in the jungle. This was a very sophisticated medical apparatus that kept many many people alive who would have otherwise died. And they are doing that right now. I have no doubts about it.

Question: What was the organisation that you dealt with that actually got you across the line into the Tiger controlled areas?

John Whitehall: Yeah, well, I’m not going to tell you that because 3 to 5 Tamils every day of every week disappear in white vans, never to be seen again. The human rights abuses by the government in Colombo ought to be known by Australians but they are not, and I have no wish to tell you who I was associated with because of the extremely serious risks to their life. Even, even more Tamils these days, I hear reliably that even more Tamils are being rounded up in Colombo and other places and are suffering all kinds of abuses. It is a very very dreadful situation.

Question: But you are still in touch with people in the Tiger-controlled areas at this stage?

John Whitehall: No, indirectly I only hear. Until Killinochchi fell they were able to send out, you know, they could use satellite phones and it was not difficult to talk to people. But now, with their moving back and taking refuge in the jungles, I don’t think anyone has much contact with them. I certainly don’t.

Questions: When you went into the Tiger controlled areas, you must have been aware that they were listed by the United Nations and others as a terrorist group. What did you feel about that?

John Whitehall: Well, at that stage there was a ceasefire which had started in 2002 and I was with a recognised international aid organisation, and I was going to teach medical students in inverted commas how to look after sick children. It wasn’t until I was with them for two or three weeks that I learnt of who they were. And I made a studied decision as indeed I have discussed with the Federal Police in this country, I made a decision to stay because I was teaching them how to look after sick children.

Question: How come you were talking to the Federal Police about it?

John Whitehall: Under the new terrorist laws what the definition of recklesslesly supporting a terrorist organisation has been raised and the police came after a very misleading article in the Australian, where it was alleged that I was supporting the LTTE as an orgnisation, which I have not done. I was questioned on my activities. And I do not apologise for them. I taught theses people how to resuscitate and how to teach sick children and that is a pediatrician’s duty.

Question: Do you feel under any continuing pressure at all because you have been associated with the LTTE?

John Whitehall: No, I don’t. I think people understand that position. But let’s take this a little bit further. I mean the definition of terrorist. I have never denied that there is evidence the LTTE has used terror. I have never denied that and I have never said that this was an acceptable thing. What I have said in a number of articles and interviews over these last couple of years is that it must be seen in the context of the State terror which has been and is being inflicted on the government in Colombo. All we hear about from the media and I don’t know why that is so, is the activities of the LTTE. We do not hear of the bombing of schools. One of the schools near where I worked and it was known to be a school – 65 girls or there abouts were killed a year or two back. The Deaf and Blind School where I did work and for which I raised money here and we bought solar heating – several of those deaf and blind children have been killed. The hospital near there with the unpronounceable name – Puthukudiyirruppu or something – my Tamil is rather weak. That has been bombed five times and most of the patients were killed in the last bombing. And this is a place everyone knows is a hospital, it has got red crosses on the roof or it did have, and it was flattened. And we don’t hear of these things and I have accused and I do accuse the government in Colombo of using outrageous use of terror and activities against civilians. And therefore what is terrorism? It caused me to ask this question. But what I’d do under these circumstances? And I asked the various doctors who I had contact with – Why did you join the LTTE? Why did you join this? And they almost to a man and a women – half of them were women – they said, “Well, the LTTE was the only organisation that was actually doing something. Others were talking but the LTTE was putting up and armed resistance”. “What did you want?” I asked. “What are your aims?” They wanted autonomy for the Tamil people and at least protection – the very least protection against the depredations of the government. Now we in Australia in the past have thought quite highly of certain organisations who had been doing that, such as the African National Congress, which we in those days called National Liberation Movement. I frankly see very little difference between…and the ANC did terrible things. I mean, they burnt people alive and bombed people – which was not good. But I don’t see any difference in reality between the ANC for example. Or if you want to take the analogy even further, the Viet Cong who were struggling for national independence or liberation. I think it gives a better understanding of the motivation of the Tamils when you talk of it as national liberation movement and just don’t dismiss it a terrorist organisation. Now let me say one more time, they have used terror and I don’t agree with that at all.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. sujan permalink
    February 15, 2009 10:06 am

    really good

  2. February 15, 2009 12:58 pm

    There is the United Nations for all those countries big and small,democratic and pseudo-democratic(they hold elections but do not have freedoms),totalitarian and dictatorships. The main concern of these nations is to perpetuate their regimes by compromising with each other.
    The minorities in several countries have no say,not free to express themselves, and if they dare to do so are oppressed,in some cases brutally.The fellow nations who also mmay have minority problems dare not raise a finger. The Human Rights Council members are themselves guilty of H.R.violations.
    Only salvation for the Oppressed Minorities of all counties is to set up a “United Council of The Minorities of the World”. SBS could help in this endeavour. Thanks. Subra

  3. February 19, 2009 7:21 am

    Dear SBS, I congratulate the refreshing and unbiased interviewing of Dr. Whitehall. Dr whitehall’s comments and reflections point to the deep human sufefring as well as the aspirations of the Tamils to live peacefully with dignity afforded to all human beings of this world.
    Sadly, these reflections from a humanitarian who worked on the ground nor the current clamaity of the Tamil civilians who are killed daily by Sri Lanka army in the name of “War on Terror” has fallen on deaf ears by the so-called civilised powers of the world, including the UN. Worse, the reckless bombing by SLA and the gross violation of HR is encouraged and assisted by the countries such as India for purely selfish reasons of regional hegomony.
    As the Tamils world over unite and express their support by peaceful protests and in a few cases through self immolation, the callousness with which the killings are viewed by other countries is not only disturbing, but is sure to create many more Rwandas in the name of political strategy. A world gone mad indeed!


  1. Sri Lankan Crisis Statement - Week 2 of our campaign « Australian Tamils ‘Fast unto Action’ to call for a Ceasefire in Sri Lanka

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