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Home > National Interest vs People’s Interest > A Thought for the Civilians of Vanni in Sri Lanka

A Thought for the Civilians of Vanni in Sri Lanka

by Shanie, 28 September 2008

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The Island

A group of academics, across the ethnic and political divide, have issued a statement calling for an immediate ceasefire and for a negotiated political settlement. At this juncture, it is unlikely that this call will receive any favourable response from those in authority. Even many ordinary citizens, with access only to our media, believe that the defeat of the LTTE and the end of the war is just round the corner and there would then be peace. They would consider the call from the academics as being inappropriate and therefore to be summarily dismissed. The more nationalist-minded among them will accuse the academics of being supporters who want to throw a lifeline to the LTTE.

But such an accusation would be totally unfair. Many in the group are well known figures in our public life with equally well known credentials as opponents of the terror politics of the LTTE. They have been in the forefront of the struggle for the rights of the oppressed and marginalised in our country. Their stance has been a consistent one, not changing with the politics of the times. That is why their cry from the heart needs to be heard with respect.

There is no doubt that there are tens of thousands of internally displaced civilians in the Vanni who are undergoing immense hardships. These hardships are not of their own seeking. They are the innocent victims of the ongoing war and they are caught in the cross-fire. The LTTE wants them to remain in the Vanni while the Government authorities want them to move to Vavuniya. They have legitimate fears in following one side or the other in this conflict. Perhaps only those who have been trapped in a civil insurgency situation will understand how real these fears could be. But even those who remember the southern insurgencies of the seventies and eighties will recall the fear it generated among ordinary citizens trying to get about their ordinary business. To defy the conflicting calls of one of the parties to the conflict entailed enormous risks. It meant being accused as a sympathiser, or worse, as a supporter of the ‘other side’. We know that many civilians, uninvolved in the insurgency or in counter-insurgency, lost their lives or were incarcerated for that reason.

So we must feel for the internally displaced in the Vanni who are now faced with a similar dilemma. They have nowhere to turn to and they are being targeted by all sides. We need to spare a thought for these thousands who are being reduced to homeless migrants. That is why the call of the academics needs to be heard.

It is recognised that our security forces have a duty to protect the territorial integrity of the country, without involvement in any political imperatives. It is their duty to engage those who seek to subvert the rule of law and the authority of the state throughout the country. But it is also their duty to protect the civilians and mitigate the effects of counter-insurgency measures and the collateral damage caused thereby. It is a delicate task to balance these twin duties but the nature of the training and discipline of the security forces will help in this. They should also not be time-bound. Chances of abuse occur only when counter-insurgency operations are worked to a tight deadline. It is also necessary for the security forces to acknowledge that non-military persons can understand security imperatives and listen to concerns regarding the rights of civilians. The point this column wishes to stress is that the rights of the civilians can be protected in counter-insurgency operations if there are no political deadlines to be met. That is why the statement of the Army Commander that he has no deadlines to crush the insurgency, but crush he will, is to be welcomed.

Tackling the root causes

This is where wise political leadership comes in. While the security forces combat the insurgents on the military front, it is the duty of the political leadership to tackle the root political causes of the insurgency. Both major parties have over the past several decades have stated that these grievances are genuine and have pledged to address them. It is only the Sinhala chauvinists who refuse to acknowledge that the minorities have legitimate grievances. Political leaders in the past, particularly during the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga Presidency, have put forward various proposals to meet these grievances. All these proposals fell by the wayside because our political leaders did not act with responsibility. Political party interests superseded national interests.

President Mahinda Rajapakse has an opportunity now to heed the suggestion of the group of academics and present political proposals as his predecessor did. For this, he must change the political direction he has been following. President J R Jayewardene’s strategy of destroying his political opposition by extra-legal measures failed and exacerbated the crisis in our country. Let us not go down that road again. Peace cannot be established merely by defeating the LTTE militarily on the war front. Even if the lessons of counter-insurgency operations in other parts of the world are not recognised, we know from our own situation in the East that peace has not followed "liberation". As the Army Commander again rightly pointed out, the LTTE will continue to be active, engaging in guerrilla warfare. There is therefore no alternative to political action to address the root causes of the insurgency.

We have called upon President Rajapakse to change direction because we find no acknowledgement by him that he considers a deal to address minority grievances as being urgent. From past experience, we know that appointments of Commissions achieve very little. They serve as propaganda to state that issues are being addressed but are in fact excuses to not really address them. Any serious attempt to resolve this issue must come from a bipartisan approach involving the two major parties. President Rajapakse and Ranil Wickremesinghe can go down in history as statespersons who put country before party if they can work a political package to resolve this issue once and for all. They have the 2000 draft proposals before them to work on and to achieve a reasonable consensus. The minor parties need to be consulted but the hardliners on both sides may no doubt be unwilling to accept it. But these hardliners among all communities do so only at their peril. There is absolutely no doubt that the overwhelming majority of our people of all ethnic groups will accept a consensus proposal put forward by the two major parties. Such a proposal is the need of the hour: otherwise, we continue on the same slippery slope, whether or not the LTTE is pushed out of territory it controls and becomes a guerrilla force.

Human Rights as an issue

The issue of Human Rights has now become an area of concern throughout the world. That is why human rights have been incorporated by the European Union into its criteria for the grant of the GSP+ facility. But our concern for human rights must not just be to satisfy the international community or the EU. It must stem from our recognition that our people, irrespective of ethnicity, gender or religious and political persuasions, need to be treated with respect and dignity.

History has taught us that human rights can still be protected even during times of war or insurgency. To condone human rights abuses is to invite the non-observance of the rule of law on a widespread scale. It will create massive disgust among a people that cannot easily be erased.

Two weeks ago, this column quoted from a letter written by the late Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe to the then Government in 1973. We believe it is necessary to stress what the good Bishop said by re-quoting him: "When there is no vision among the leaders, the people remain apathetic and stagnant, When there is no self-sacrifice by those in power, the people grow cynical and rebellious under the burden of corruption. Where there is no mutual confidence, a People’s Government steadily deteriorates into a People’s Dictatorship. It is of advantage to those in power to remind themselves for whose benefit the people entrusted them with power."