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Sri Lanka: A Tragedy Foretold

by Rohini Hensman, 13 May 2009

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Once a forest fire is raging, putting it out is difficult, and an enormous amount of destruction is inevitable. The same is true of the war in Sri Lanka. Even over the past fifteen years, there were several chances to prevent this tragedy, but only a tiny minority of those who are now grieving over the dead and injured were arguing then that a failure to take these chances would lead to a bloodbath.

The LTTE and its supporters in the Tamil diaspora

For example, LTTE supporters among the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora have been shouting themselves hoarse, demanding that the international community intervene to save Tamil civilians in the war zone from the government of Sri Lanka. They fail to mention important information conveyed by survivors who have escaped: that the LTTE forcibly kept civilians in the war zone, shooting them if they tried to escape; that it deliberately placed its heavy weaponry close to civilian installations and fired at government forces, thus using Tamil civilians as human shields; that it was conscripting up to five people from a family, including children as young as eleven years old, to work as slave labor and to be sent into combat; that it threatened to wipe out the families of these conscripts if they surrendered; and that many of the fatalities and loss of limbs of those trying to escape were the result of land mines laid by the LTTE.

Moreover, today’s predicament is the consequence of actions of the LTTE leadership over the past fifteen years. When Chandrika Kumaratunga came to power in 1994, the whole country was ready for a change in the constitution which would guarantee equal rights to minorities, and substantial devolution of power to the provinces that would have allowed the Tamil-speaking majority in the North-East a large degree of self-government. Neelan Thiruchelvam, an internationally renowned scholar and member of the TULF, played a critical role in authoring the political package. Instead of grasping the chance to redress Tamil grievances, the LTTE restarted the war after a brief ceasefire, and in 1999 assassinated Thiruchelvam.

The 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) offered another chance; despite the global ‘war on terror’, the LTTE enjoyed international legitimacy, and when its negotiator Anton Balasingham and government negotiator G.L.Pieris agreed to consider a federal solution, many thought the end of the war was in sight. But that chance too was thrown away by Prabakaran. In 2004, he proceeded to threaten his Eastern Commander Karuna with annihilation when the latter criticised his policies. Prabakaran failed to liquidate Karuna but massacred a large number of Eastern cadres, and the consequent defection of the LTTE’s Eastern forces played a key role in its defeat. The assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in August 2005 – in effect, a declaration of war – resulted in rapidly waning international sympathy for the LTTE. Later that year, an LTTE-enforced boycott of the presidential elections in the area it controlled resulted in a victory for Mahinda Rajapakse. Then a series of LTTE attacks on the security forces resulted in a resumption of hostilities.

Every single one of these actions contributed to the current tragedy in the Vanni, but we did not see the pro-LTTE diaspora protesting against them. Given all the information about war crimes perpetrated by the LTTE and its major role in the carnage, one would expect the demonstrators, if they have genuine concern for the civilian victims of the war, to urge the LTTE to release all civilians and conscripts so that they can escape from the fighting. Instead, they have been flying the LTTE flag, while David Poopalapillai, spokesman of the Canadian Tamil Congress, alleged the UN was assisting in the genocide of Tamils when it accused the LTTE of holding Tamils against their will! In effect, LTTE supporters in the diaspora have been supporting the oppressors of Tamils, and thus contributing to the slaughter.

The Government and its supporters in the Sri Lankan Diaspora

The pro-government diaspora has been equally ghoulish. The government proclaims that it is (a) trying to free civilians held hostage by the LTTE, and (b) fighting a war against terrorists. The priority, clearly, is the latter, as suggested by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s preference for the Beslan model, in which the lives of hundreds of hostages (including children) were sacrificed in the interests of killing the terrorists. Stories told by escaped civilians suggest that this is indeed the model that is being followed by the government. They describe being bombarded with heavy artillery by government forces, leading to massive casualties; and the majority of these traumatised people have been imprisoned in internment camps where they are separated from loved ones, facilities are abysmal, and allegations that women have been raped and killed cannot be discounted in the absence of independent reports from the camps. All this confirms that the priority is a military victory over the LTTE, and the sacrifice of the lives, limbs, liberty and dignity of thousands of civilians is considered an acceptable price to pay. These allegations do not have the familiar ring of LTTE propaganda, and government attempts to portray them as such fall rather flat after its claim that there were only 70,000 civilians in the LTTE-controlled area was followed by the exodus of over 170,000 civilians from the very same area!

This is not to say that there have been no instances of humanitarianism on the part of armed force personnel; indeed, the army commander who gave his own food to famished refugees sounds much more humane than members of the pro-government diaspora like Michael Roberts, who puts the Vanni civilians in quotes (i.e. ‘civilians’), suggesting that these hundreds of thousands of people are not really civilians at all, and the government would be justified in treating them as enemy combatants! Like LTTE supporters, apologists for the government fail to look back at actions of the current regime which contributed to this bloodbath. For example, all military experts agree that the loss of Karuna and his Eastern force was a key turning-point leading to the defeat of the LTTE. There would surely have been many more defections if the political solution worked out in the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) by Tissa Vitharana, mainly on the basis of the Majority Report of the Panel of Experts, had been accepted by the government in 2007. Only hard-core Prabakaran loyalists would have wanted to continue fighting for a totalitarian Tamil state if they had the option of freedom, equality and dignity in a united Sri Lanka. The political decimation of the LTTE would have shortened the war and saved many thousands of lives, including those of Sinhalese soldiers. But the President and the SLFP sabotaged the political process, making a bloody military showdown inevitable, while members of the Left who colluded with the Rajapakse regime in sabotaging the process also share responsibility for the carnage. Like Prabakaran, the Rajapakse regime has responded to criticism by killing its critics, as in the case of Lasantha Wickrematunge, and this has compromised its capacity to serve the interests of the democratic majority in Sri Lanka.

Foreign Actors

As for foreign actors, politicians of Tamil Nadu deserve special mention for their readiness to sacrifice the welfare of Sri Lankan Tamils in order to boost their electoral fortunes. Like members of the pro-LTTE diaspora, they never once used their political clout to deter the LTTE from carrying out even its most egregious human rights violations, such as the systematic annihiliation of Tamil critics, forcible conscription of Tamil children, or attacks on Muslims. Nor did they urge the LTTE to take the various chances of peace with justice offered to it. Instead, they allowed the LTTE to wreck all such opportunities and behave in a dictatorial fashion which has earned it the hatred of Tamils forced to live under its jackboot. Today, they want to impose the LTTE’s fascist vision of Eelam on the people of Sri Lanka’s North and East, who have already been through such unspeakable suffering. Could there be any greater betrayal of the Tamils of Sri Lanka?

By comparison, the Congress Party comes through as having more sympathy for the suffering civilians, yet the fixation of its politicians on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, introduced as a consequence of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, betrays a disconnect from developments in Sri Lanka since that time, not all of which have been negative. One of the many reasons why the 13th Amendment failed was that it did not devolve enough power to the North-East which has a Tamil-speaking majority; it also left intact the dictatorial Executive Presidency. Since then, political packages worked on by Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim experts have been crafted, and these offer more genuine devolution of power to the provinces as well as more democracy to all the people of Sri Lanka. Unless the government of India keeps abreast of political developments in Sri Lanka, it will not be able to play the positive role it could otherwise play.

The chorus of Western governments calling for a ceasefire suffers from their failure to make any suggestion whatsoever as to how a ceasefire could be used to extricate the civilians held hostage by the LTTE. During the 2002 ceasefire, the Norwegian mediators and Nordic Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission allowed the LTTE to tighten its hold on the populace in its power, kill off Tamil peacemakers, conscript children, and arm itself to the teeth, thus aiding the outbreak of Eelam War IV which is ending in such tragedy; and they did so with the full backing of other Western powers. If a human rights agreement with UN monitoring had been put in place at the beginning – and it could have been done with government consent, since the vast majority of human rights violations were being committed by the LTTE – the avalanche of war crimes when the fighting resumed would not have occurred. Yet Tamil dissidents pleading for such an agreement were ignored by the West, and regarded as ‘spoilers’ by the Norwegian government. Furthermore, if it was to play a positive role, the ceasefire should have been used to negotiate a political settlement, yet this was made impossible by the exclusion of representatives of Muslims, non-LTTE Tamils, and others from the negotiations. If a new ceasefire were to have the same effect, it would be worse than useless. And if Western governments had not discredited themselves by ignoring the LTTE’s blatant human rights violations during the previous ceasefire, they would have had more influence now.

Others too have contributed to the current disaster; among them: Ranil Wickremasinghe and the UNP, who sabotaged a political solution in 2000; some members of the Left who supported the LTTE’s struggle for Eelam in the name of ‘self-determination’ of Tamils (as though being deprived of freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to vote, and having children torn from school and their parents to be turned into cannon fodder constitutes ‘self-determination’!); NGOs and Sinhalese liberals who turned a blind eye to the LTTE’s human rights violations during the 2002 peace process, itself premised on an affirmation of Tamil nationalism, regardless of warnings by Tamil dissidents that this would lead to a backlash of Sinhala nationalism and government violations of human rights; and, in general, all those who acquiesced in the LTTE’s totalitarianism and the downward slide into state totalitarianism.

The APRC crafted a viable political solution to the conflict in Sri Lanka two years ago. All those who wish to bring to an end the ongoing tragedy should be working not only for humane treatment of displaced civilians and their right to freedom of movement and to return to their original homes, but also for a political solution which has already been worked out in Sri Lanka, and would satisfy the democratic aspirations of citizens of all communities in all parts of the island.