Helping hand

Published : Mar 13, 2009 00:00 IST

in Colombo

IT is customary for the President of India to address a joint sitting of Parliament in its first session every year. The address is a summary of government policies on domestic and international issues. The Year 2009 address of President Pratibha Patil, made on February 12, revealed a significant change in Indias stand vis-a-vis the ongoing war in Sri Lanka. However, it did not get the attention it deserved.

It read: We are concerned at the plight of civilians internally displaced in Sri Lanka on account of escalation of the military conflict. We continue to support a negotiated political settlement in Sri Lanka within the framework of an undivided Sri Lanka acceptable to all the communities, including the Tamil community. I would appeal to the Government of Sri Lanka and to the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] to return to the negotiating table. This can be achieved if, simultaneously, the Government of Sri Lanka suspends its military operations and the LTTE declares its willingness to lay down arms and to begin talks with the government.

The contention that the goal of returning to the negotiating table could be achieved if the Sri Lanka military suspended its military operations and the LTTE demonstrated a willingness to lay down arms was a totally new element in the Indian governments approach to the developments in the island nation even if it did not amount to a policy shift. As if to emphasise that the paragraph on Sri Lanka in the Presidents address was not a bureaucratic bungle or mere rhetoric, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram went one step further to assert, at a public meeting in Chennai on February 15, that India would pressure the Sri Lankan government to stop the war if the LTTE declared its willingness to lay down arms and come to the negotiating table.

Addressing a public meeting organised by the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee in the city, he said he did not expect the LTTE to lay down arms straight away but that a mere declaration of willingness would be sufficient for the Indian government to arrange talks with the Sri Lankan government. He made it a point to address the LTTE chief as Thambi Prabakaran (brother Prabakaran) and backed his plea to lay down arms with the contention that no armed group has succeeded in its fight for a separate country in recent times.

No army will come forward to hold talks with a militant group. If India cannot hold talks with the armed separatist groups in Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Manipur, it also cannot claim moral rights to tell another sovereign nation to hold talks with an armed group, he told the gathering. Of course, he made it clear that the LTTE was not the sole representative of Sri Lankan Tamils and that the rebel group, which had eliminated all Tamil leaders in the island and thrown the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord into the dustbin, was responsible for the present situation, particularly the plight of the thousands of innocent civilians trapped in the war zone. And yet he, on behalf of the Government of India, made the extraordinary offer of facilitating talks between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government at a mere signal of surrender of arms by the former. The Indian governments position as articulated by the President and the Home Minister is in stark contrast to the January 27/28 statement of External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who had made an unscheduled visit to Colombo for urgent consultations on the emerging situation on the war front in the particular context of the trapped citizens.

In his statement, made after his talks with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Pranab Mukherjee noted:

I stressed that military victories offer a political opportunity to restore life to normalcy in the Northern Province and throughout Sri Lanka, after 23 years of conflict. The President assured me that this was his intent. For our part, I expressed our readiness to participate in the reconstruction of northern Sri Lanka so as to help it overcome the ravages of war and also to lay the economic and political foundations of a strong peace in which all communities feel comfortable. H.E. President Rajapaksa assured me that it was his intention to move as quickly as possible to implement the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution, which, you would recall, followed the India-Sri Lanka agreement of 1987. In fact, he would explore the possibility of going further and improving upon those devolution proposals.

We also reviewed the humanitarian situation as a result of the conflict. The Sri Lankan government has reassured that they would respect the safe zones and minimise the effects of conflict on Tamil civilians. As you know, India has extended its relief supplies to civilians caught up in the zone of conflict and intends to continue doing so.

It is evident from the statement that while India was seriously concerned about the safety of the stranded civilians, the emphasis was on a post-war or post-LTTE scenario. The underlining assumption was that the war against the Tigers had reached a decisive stage and it would be a matter of time before the military took complete control of the territory in the north. India did not make any offer to the LTTE to help facilitate a dialogue between the Government of Sri Lanka and the rebel outfit if the latter demonstrated a readiness to give up arms. The million-dollar question is what led to the change in the attitude of the Government of India.

The answer perhaps lies in the deteriorating humanitarian situation on the ground and the brazen manner in which the remaining LTTE cadre, under orders from their leaders, are holding on to the last bit of territory with hundreds of thousands of civilians as a shield. The military says the LTTE is confined to an area less than 140 square kilometres. The battle for every inch of the remaining hideouts of the Tigers is fraught with serious consequences on account of the civilians trapped there.

The government and United Nations agencies differ on the number of civilians caught in the war zone. As per government estimates, their number could be anywhere from 75,000 to 80,000. However, U.N. agencies believe the number could be as high as 2,00,000. In any case, the number of civilians is quite large. What is worse is the state of the stranded civilians. According to accounts gathered by U.N. agencies and the military from civilians who managed to escape from LTTE-held territory, there are large-scale killings, injuries, torture, forcible recruitment, and serious shortages of food and medicines there.

The worsening situation and the serious danger it posed to the lives of thousands of innocent people made the Office of the U.N. Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka issue a public statement on the evening of February 16. It said that the latest reports had heightened the U.N.s concern about the welfare of the civilian population caught up in the fighting. While the designation of the new safe zone has provided some respite for the tens of thousands of civilians trapped for weeks by heavy fighting which has killed and injured many people, reports from yesterday indicate that there was some fighting inside the zone. This fighting led to the deaths and injury to yet more civilians. The United Nations calls for the Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE to refrain from fighting in areas of civilian concentration. It said that the LTTE continued to prevent people from leaving and that reports indicated that many people who tried to leave were shot at and sometimes killed.

There are indications that children as young as 14 are being recruited into the ranks of the LTTE. Fifteen U.N. staff and 75 of their dependents, 40 of whom are children, also remain trapped since the LTTE has prevented them from leaving too. Fifteen of these children have contracted respiratory diseases, a serious indicator that the trapped population is in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

The U.N. office said that it was especially concerned that one of its staff members was reportedly forcibly recruited into the LTTE; it has called on the LTTE to release him immediately and to desist from further recruitment of civilians and also to permit passage for people who wished to leave, especially women and children.

Tens of thousands of civilians remain in the Wanni Pocket including a large number of children. They are experiencing serious shortages of food, medicine and clean water, and as a result increasing numbers are becoming ill. Efforts to bring in more food and medicines have not yet been successful, and it is imperative that these needs be met, it said.

A day later, the office of the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) in Colombo said in a press statement: We have clear indications that the LTTE has intensified forcible recruitment of civilians and that children as young as 14 years old are now being targeted. These children are facing immediate danger and their lives are at great risk. Their recruitment is intolerable.

UNICEF had recorded more than 6,000 cases of children recruited by the LTTE from 2003 to the end of 2008. It also said that it was extremely alarmed by the high number of children being injured in the fighting. The main injuries to children have been burns, fractures and shrapnel and bullet wounds.

Hours after the UNICEF statement, the Tamil United Liberation Front leader V. Anandasangaree released a letter he had written to Rajapaksa, in which he urged the President to halt the military offensive for some time so as to minimise the danger to civilians. With great concern and deep sorrow, I wish to bring to your notice the disturbing manner in which the casualty rate among the innocent civilians trapped in Vanni has all of a sudden shot up during the past two to three weeks. This is disproportionate to what had been taking place since the forces moved into Vanni, the letter said.

As per the letter, the number of deaths during a period of two weeks from October 24 to November 9 was only eight and the number injured was 29. But the death toll in the second week of February was 288 and the number of injured 766. On February 14 alone, 55 people were believed to have been killed and 109 injured. It is indeed shocking and will also seriously affect the image of the Forces who had been helping the stranded and injured persons and those fleeing from the LTTE areas into cleared areas. I very strongly urge that the Forces be asked to restrain from any further aerial bombing and also to stop firing shells and [making] artillery attacks. The capture of the remaining areas could wait till all the trapped persons are brought out safely, while the war goes on, the letter urged.

It is against this backdrop that the new stance by India is to be viewed. The chief objective of New Delhi at the moment appears to be the safe release of the civilians caught in the crossfire. There is no indication that Colombo has consented to any proposal for talks with the LTTE. For several months now, the Sri Lankan President has been asking the Tigers to give up arms and join the democratic mainstream. At the same time, senior functionaries in his government have been maintaining that the LTTEs top leaders, against whom cases are pending, would be prosecuted under domestic laws.

One view in the diplomatic community is that the Indian offer is based on the assessment that several second-rung LTTE leaders and cadre are willing to surrender and seek amnesty. A categorical statement from an influential country such as India that such leaders and cadre can hope to be part of the democratic mainstream in an ideal situation should encourage them to revolt against the leadership. In fact, for several weeks now there has been speculation in the media and diplomatic circles of dissensions within the LTTE on the question of continuing the war. However, to date nothing concrete has materialised in terms of surrender by second/third-rung leaders and cadre.

There is no direct response yet from the Tigers to Indias offer. The pro-LTTE portal TamilNet, in a commentary, gave enough hints on the thinking of the LTTE leadership regarding the offer. It said Chidambarams call for the LTTE to surrender arms was not in keeping with international practices on conflict resolution, but an endorsement of the Sri Lankan governments hard-line position. The website quoted unnamed scholars of conflict and peace in support of the contention and pointed out that a number of successful peace processes, including those with the African National Congress in South Africa, the Irish Republican Army and Nepals Maoists, had proceeded without making the surrender of arms a precondition for talks.

The trapped LTTE leadership has not shown any signs of surrender or concern for the lives of the trapped citizens. The military and the Sri Lankan government believe that the Tigers are buying time by using the civilians as a human shield even as they contemplate options such as taking political asylum in another country or just disappearing from the island nation in disguise. As things stand, it is difficult to guess when and how the miseries of the thousands of civilians will end.

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