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Sri Lanka: Who is Responsible for the Slaughter of Civilians in the Vanni?

by Rohini Hensman, 8 April 2009

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With the military defeat of the LTTE imminent, the terrible plight of civilians in the Vanni has attracted worldwide concern and sympathy, and rightly so. While the circumstances are completely different, the civilian death toll in the Vanni over the past few months (over 2700) is already triple the number of civilians killed in the Gaza massacre of December-January, and is still mounting. The thousands who suffer serious injuries are further victimised by the delay or lack of medical attention, which means, for example, that injuries to limbs which could have been saved with prompt treatment, instead result in gangrene and amputations. Even those who have not lost lives, limbs or loved ones, have lost their homes and livelihoods, and live in appalling conditions which could well claim more lives through disease or even starvation.

Meanwhile, the LTTE and Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) trade charges, each accusing the other of being responsible for the slaughter. What truth is there in their respective allegations?

The LTTE

The LTTE and its supporters, especially in Tamil Nadu but also elsewhere, cry ‘Genocide!’ and accuse the government of being solely responsible for the carnage. They do not mention the appalling war crimes committed by the LTTE, which have been documented by several international and Sri Lankan human rights groups. The most obvious is their use of Tamil civilians as a human shield from behind which they can engage in offensive firing, and their shooting of those who try to escape. This means that the Tamil civilians over whom the LTTE sheds crocodile tears are effectively prisoners or hostages whom it deliberately keeps in the line of fire so that it can hide behind them. The relationship between Tamils and Tigers is the very opposite of what it claims: far from defending Tamils, the LTTE leaders are using Tamils for their physical and political survival, a violation defined as a war crime.

But it is doing worse. All the official reports mention forcible conscription of civilians, including children. This, too, is a war crime. Unofficial reports say that these unfortunate youngsters are not even being provided with cyanide capsules, because some have committed suicide rather than go into combat. It must be kept in mind that large numbers of the LTTE casualties actually consist of these frightened and ill-trained conscripts, who never chose to bear arms. Their presence in the LTTE forces also means that their families, who might otherwise flee, remain in LTTE territory because they do not want to abandon their children. Planting a suicide bomber among fleeing civilians was a cynical move, ensuring that all civilians would thenceforth be regarded as suspects.

Most cynical of all, refugees who have escaped report that the LTTE deliberately fires from areas where civilians have taken shelter, for example from the vicinity of hospitals and schools and from safe areas, knowing that government forces will respond by shelling. The fighters then vamoose, leaving the civilians to take all the casualties This is worse even than using civilians as a shield: this constitutes using civilian lives as propaganda, deliberately getting them killed in order to justify the allegation of genocide. The LTTE massacre of Sinhalese civilians in Inginiyagala on February 21 was probably also an attempt to provoke violent reprisals against Tamils. The suicide attack on Muslims celebrating the Milad festival at the Jumma Mosque in Akuressa on March 10 recalled the LTTE’s massacres and ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the past. Those who hurl charges of genocide and war crimes against the government alone are guilty of whitewashing the LTTE and covering up some of the most heinous war crimes being committed in the recent phase of fighting.

The LTTE leadership is undoubtedly in a tight spot, but they still have the option of behaving honourably. The most honourable and humane thing they could do now is to negotiate a surrender monitored by international organisations, which will ensure that the civilians are rehabilitated and their fighters receive humane treatment as prisoners of war. Or, if they insist on fighting to the finish, they could release all the civilians and conscripts, so that only those who wish to stay with them are subjected to the final assault. They will not, of course, do either of these things, because they have no concern whatsoever for the welfare of Tamils.

The Government

When evaluating the conduct of the government and the course of action open to it, it is important to keep in mind these actions of the LTTE. One of the demands, for example, has been for a ceasefire and peace talks with the LTTE. But Rajan Hoole and K.Sritharan of the award-winning University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) report that Sri Lankan Tamils are wary of any peace talks that will give oxygen to the LTTE. This is not surprising if we look at the way in which the LTTE has treated the Tamils subjected to its rule. If Tamils who have suffered under the LTTE are anxious that it should not be rescued at this point, it is hardly surprising that Muslims who have been subjected to massacres and ethnic cleansing, and Sinhalese who never know when the next terrorist attack will strike them, cannot wait to see the last of it. In these circumstances, it would be unrealistic to expect the government to go back to anything like the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002, which allowed the LTTE to arm itself for Eelam War IV. Such a course of action would also be undesirable, simply preparing the way for renewed bloodshed in the future.

However, this doesn’t mean that the GOSL is as free of blame as it and its supporters claim. Observers are surprised that there has not been a mutiny or split in the ranks of the LTTE which would end the war, and one probable reason this has not happened so far is that the government has gone out of its way to support LTTE propaganda. Earlier, it sabotaged the APRC process when it had already arrived at a political solution which could have been fine-tuned to suit the democratic majority in all communities, thus reinforcing the LTTE’s message that Tamils will never get justice in a united Sri Lanka. This message was further reinforced when leading members of the armed forces and government, Sarath Fonseka and Champika Ranawaka, proclaimed that Sri Lanka belonged to the Sinhalese, and minorities would have to put up with less than equal rights, thus further assisting the LTTE’s recruitment drives. Yet more support was provided to LTTE propaganda by earlier government proposals to keep IDPs in camps for up to three years, fuelling suspicions that their original habitats would be occupied by Sinhalese, and that the war was being used as a cover for ethnic cleansing.

Government armed forces have responded to LTTE fire by shelling civilian concentrations, including safe areas and hospitals, killing and injuring thousands. Those who escape to government-controlled territory are kept in internment camps surrounded by barbed wire, prevented even from visiting injured family members in hospital or attending the funerals of loved ones. Recently senior citizens were released, but others remain prisoners. Reports of disappearances from these camps, coming on top of thousands of disappearances in the last few years, make this incarceration all the more fearsome. Not only would this prospect make civilians think twice before fleeing LTTE territory, it would also make LTTE conscripts think that surrender means death, and so they might as well die fighting.

All these policies of the government and its armed forces not only result in massive civilian casualties, they also prolong the fighting. Alongside concern for civilians, we should also spare a thought for combatants on both sides, who are being expended by their respective leaderships as though ther lives have no value, whereas a different strategy could ensure that a whole generation of young people is not killed and disabled. Moreover, the government’s strategy makes a peaceful outcome almost impossible. Even when the LTTE is defeated militarily, it – or another guerrilla group – is likely to rise up in the future to carry out terrorist attacks and restart the war, just as the Taliban has staged a comeback in Afghanistan. So what is the alternative?

A Different Strategy

An alternative strategy would consist of the following: (1) Stop shelling safe areas and civilian targets within LTTE-controlled territory; this only results in propaganda gains for the LTTE. (2) Ensure adequate food, water and medicine supplies to civilians both inside LTTE territory and outside, making sure, however, that no arms or ammunition get through to the LTTE. (3) Ask the UN or ICRC to monitor the screening and registration of IDPs entering the camps so that an independent record is available, and disappearances cannot take place so easily. If LTTE suspects are separated out, they, along with LTTE cadre who surrender, should be kept in prisoner-of-war camps whose inmates are also registered with the UN or ICRC, and treated in accordance with international law. (4) If there is no evidence that IDPs are LTTE operatives, they should be given identity cards and allowed to move freely. These measures will encourage civilians to escape the LTTE if they can, and LTTE conscripts to surrender with some confidence that they will be treated humanely.

Simultaneously, the APRC proposal for constitutional change drafted by Tissa Vitharana on the basis of the Majority and Minority Reports of the Panel of Experts needs to be adopted by the government, which should also provide a solemn pledge that transfer of population (defined in international law as a crime against humanity) will not take place: all IDPs and refugees who wish to return to their original homes will be assisted to do so. This will not be easy, especially in the case of Muslim IDPs who have been languishing in camps for over eighteen years, but it must be done as part of a political solution to the crisis.

Is a political solution an immediate priority in the closing stages of this battle in the Vanni? Yes, it certainly is! If the ruling SLFP had not repeatedly sabotaged the APRC process from mid-2007 onwards, the war might have ended months ago, and thousands of lives might have been saved. It is now too late to save those who have been killed, but it is still possible to save lives and limbs that would be lost if a just political solution is not achieved. A purely military victory will merely push the war underground, and ensure that it will re-emerge as guerrilla and terrorist strikes in future. A constitution which is acceptable to democratic elements in all communities is the only way to end the war once and for all. If the current political leaders in the two major parties are reluctant to implement a just and democratic settlement, then the people of Sri Lanka must either push them into doing so, or dump them and create a new leadership.

As for international actors who wish to help civilians in the Vanni, they would do well to acquaint themselves first with the situation on the ground. Accusations of ‘genocide’ against the government, for example, do more harm than good. As an anxious Tamil in Sri Lanka put it, ‘When I hear Indians talking about genocide in Sri Lanka, I shudder, because I know it will merely make things worse for the trapped civilians. It is like crying ‘Wolf!’ If we cry ‘Genocide!’ when it is not occurring, who will believe us and come to our aid if it really occurs? No one!’ Those who are really concerned about the appalling situation of people in the Vanni should not only demand of the government that they implement the measures listed above, but should also demand that the LTTE release the civilians and conscripts they are holding hostage. Otherwise they would merely be adding fuel to the fire that is consuming thousands of lives.