Presidential salvo

Print edition : January 16, 2009
in Colombo

A SRI LANKAN Tamil outside a refugee shelter in Batticaloa on March 9, 2008. Tens of thousands of Tamils who have fled areas under the control of the LTTE are detained in Army-run camps, says a Human Rights Watch report.-LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP

THE ultimatum issued to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the afternoon of December 22 was proof enough that the situation in battle-scarred Sri Lanka could get only worse as 2009 dawns. In a speech to a mixed gathering at the Presidential Palace, Rajapaksa asked the Tigers to allow people trapped in the war zone to cross into safe areas by January 1 or face a ban with all its consequences.

The ultimatum came amid pitched battles between the Sri Lankan forces and the Tigers and claims and counter-claims of high casualties on the other side by both parties. The intensity of the battles could be gauged from the fact that though on November 26 the military predicted the imminent fall of Kilinochchi, a month later the picture was still far from clear.

Implied in Rajapaksas message are two ideas. One, there are no signs of an early end to the two-and-a-halfyear-old Eelam War IV. Two, the government is determined to fight to the finish. There could be no other explanation for the threat of a ban now by the President against an outfit which has been engaged in an all-out war against the armed forces since July 2006.

No one was, in fact, surprised at Rajapaksas ultimatum. Many feel a ban on the Tigers is long overdue and has not been imposed by the government for a number of reasons. One of them is that it wants to appear reasonable in the eyes of the international community. A ban on the LTTE should logically have followed the governments abrogation, in the beginning of 2008, of the Norwegian-brokered 2002 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) on the grounds that the accord had become a farce.

The position of the government vis-a-vis the legal status of the LTTE has been incongruous for quite some time. Ironically, the LTTE is either banned or kept under watch in nearly 30 countries across the globe even as it remains a legal entity in the country where it is fighting a secessionist war against the state. Indeed, since the current phase of hostilities began about two and a half years ago, a debate has raged within the upper echelons of the Rajapaksa government on the pros and cons of a formal ban. The question was left hanging following the majority view that in practical terms a ban served little purpose.

While serving a notice on the LTTE either to let citizens in the areas under its control leave or face proscription, Rajapaksa charged the Tigers with holding innocent people as human shields against the advancing military. His assertion was corroborated by several accounts, including a December 23 report titled Besieged, displaced and detained by the Human Rights Watch (HRW). There are no precise numbers of the civilians trapped in the war zone of Wanni; estimates vary from 230,000 to 300,000.

The HRW has indicted the Tigers for the plight of the ordinary citizens caught in the fight between the government forces and the LTTE and emphasises the responsibility of the government to protect the interests of the people. As the LTTE has lost ground to advancing government forces, civilians have been squeezed into a shrinking conflict zone. The encroaching fighting has left many homeless, hungry, and sick, and placed their lives increasingly in danger, it notes.

In the name of security the government has compounded the plight of ordinary citizens by ordering the United Nations and international humanitarian agencies to leave the Wanni. The HRW report details the humanitarian crisis created by the governments sweeping restrictions on humanitarian agencies and its policy of detaining indefinitely in military-guarded camps virtually all civilians fleeing LTTE-controlled areas.

PRESIDENT MAHINDA RAJAPAKSA and Army chief Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka during the Sri Lanka Army Sinha Regiment Commemoration ceremony in Ambepussa on December 13, 2008.-LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP

The LTTE has forcibly blocked civilians in areas under its control from crossing into government-held territory, compelling them to move with retreating LTTE forces. As a result, only about a thousand civilians from the Wanni have managed to reach non-combat zones and most of these, including many families, have been detained in government camps. The LTTE also has continued to force civilians, including children, to join LTTE ranks and to carry out abusive forced labour, says the HRW report.

With humanitarian and civilian movement in and out of the Wanni restricted by both the Sri Lankan authorities and the LTTE, affected communities find it increasingly difficult to obtain desperately needed humanitarian assistance.

While conceding that officials have reason to vet new arrivals in order to ensure that LTTE fighters are not concealed among them, the HRW raises a matter of serious concern. According to its investigations, all those who cross into government-held areas, including entire families, are being detained by security forces indefinitely in camps with little prospect of joining their relatives or host-families elsewhere in Sri Lanka. This makes them particularly vulnerable to extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and other human rights abuses rampant in government-controlled territory. Forced to remain, and too fearful to flee, many are now also beyond the reach of the humanitarian agencies who seek to assist them. The government should immediately end the arbitrary detention of civilians seeking to flee the conflict, says the HRW.

The threat of proscribing the LTTE by the Rajapaksa government is to be assessed against this background. While asserting that he will not agree to any ceasefire that will strengthen the LTTE in any form, Rajapaksa has left no one in doubt that the road ahead is hard. Many evil forces will conspire to prevent the victory against terrorism, but we shall overcome them all. There will be many attempts to create division, crisis and unrest in the country, all of which are targeted at helping the cause of Tiger terror. Attempts will be made to create a negative public mood in the battle against terror. But we will face the biggest challenges and obstacles to make 2009 the Year of Heroic Victory against Terrorism, he said.

Rajapaksa also used the occasion to speak his mind on what is billed as an impending clash between the judiciary and the executive over a number of subjects in general and the pricing of petroleum products in particular. The recent order of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka asking the government not to impose more than a 100 per cent tax on petrol, and the reluctance of the government to comply with the order have led to fears of a clash between the judiciary and the executive. Questioning the rationale of the government in selling a litre of petrol at (Sri Lanka) Rs.122, the court had directed that the price be reduced to Rs.100. (The exchange rate for US dollar is Sri Lanka Rs.108).

In an indirect criticism of the court order, in the same speech in which he put the LTTE on notice, Rajapaksa noted that the government needed revenue to meet the demands of development and the costs of the military operations against terrorism. The needs of a mere 4 per cent of the people who use petrol for cars could not supersede the needs of more than 90 per cent of the people who travelled by bus and train, he argued.

Targeting the main opposition, the United National Party, he maintained that those who petitioned the courts on the price of petrol were the same people who campaigned abroad against the extension of the GST+ (goods and services tax) relief for the country. The issue of taxation and duties should not be looked at in isolation, but as a whole. Some people may today seek relief in court against the 300 per cent duty on cigarettes and arrack, the 450 per cent duty on whisky or the 500 per cent duty on imported luxury cars, he said.

Little wonder, the presidential ultimatum to the LTTE hardly generated any enthusiasm. The English daily The Island, in its editorial, expressed scepticism about it. It is only wishful thinking that [LTTE chief Velupillai] Prabakaran will stick to the Presidents deadline, it noted, adding that instead of setting deadlines for Prabakaran the President should be soliciting the help of India especially the State of Tamil Nadu other members of the international community, international non-governmental organisations, priests, et al, who are pressing for a ceasefire, to secure the release of the Wanni civilians.

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