Nerves on test

Published : Apr 24, 2009 00:00 IST

in Colombo

FOR the Sri Lankan government, the final phase of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is proving to be tougher, trickier and nastier than anticipated. None had thought the Tigers would last long after the fall of their main garrison town, Mullaithivu, on January 25. But 10 weeks later, they are still fighting, much to the agony of the civilians trapped in the war zone, and the rest of the world.

The presence of a large number of civilians in the war zone is one of the main reasons for the prolonged war. Estimates of their number vary from 70,000 to 150,000. Besides, it reflects the bravado of the Tigers, which has meant unimaginable consequences for the hapless citizens caught in the crossfire. According to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, between January and March more than 57,394 civilians, including women, children and the elderly, had fled the LTTE area to the safety of government-held areas.

The LTTE is now boxed into an area of one and a half square kilometres in addition to the 20 sq km demarcated as no-fire zone (NFZ) by the government. It is a precarious situation as the military believes that the Tigers are not only hiding among the civilians in the safe zone but have also set up gun positions in the NFZ.

The consequences of the delay in the complete defeat of the Tigers as a conventional force are felt in different quarters in and outside Sri Lanka. The immediate victims are the trapped civilians, whose unending plight is pricking the conscience of the world community, particularly the Tamil diaspora. A section of political parties in Tamil Nadu are attempting to make political capital out of the miseries of the people in Sri Lankas war theatre.

The concerns, and pulls and pressures at various levels have had an impact on Colombo from time to time. In an obvious bid to address these concerns, President Mahinda Rajapaksa convened a meeting of all Tamil and Muslim parties on March 26.

The invitees to the interactive session included the representatives of the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA). However, the TNA boycotted the meeting, citing the humanitarian crisis triggered by the war as reason. In a letter sent to Rajapaksa hours before the meeting, it maintained that utmost priority must be given to the resolution of the humanitarian crisis before it assumed catastrophic proportions and that such action was necessary for any political discussions to be purposeful and meaningful. Since you have hitherto consistently followed a policy of ignoring the TNA in regard to all political issues in the north-east, we are glad that you now wish to engage in discussions with us, recognising, even though belatedly, that we represent the Tamil people. We will extend our cooperation to any credible political process that seeks to evolve an adequate, acceptable and durable political solution to the Tamil question. We would strongly urge that you take necessary steps to address forthwith the grave humanitarian crisis pertaining to the displaced Tamil civilian population, the letter said.

The invitation was a first of its kind by the President to the TNA after the abrogation of the Norwegian-brokered 2002 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) in January 2008 and the imposition of a ban on the Tigers in January this year. Ironically, the TNAs stand is in contrast to the LTTEs repeated assertions in recent months about its willingness for unconditional talks with the government. Signs of differences among pro-LTTE outfits over the ongoing war recently had given rise to speculation that a section of the TNA might respond to the presidential invitation.

In the second week of March, Vinodharadhalingam, a Member of Parliament of the TNA, had surprised everyone with his comments in support of the governments efforts towards the welfare of the displaced in areas that had come under military control in recent weeks. He told Parliament that he had visited the Kadiragamapuram welfare camp and had seen the manner in which the government was taking care of the displaced persons. His absence at the presidential meeting showed that the TNA had either won him back into its fold or had silenced him effectively.

The Presidential Secretariat came down heavily on the TNA for having stayed away from the meeting. It rebutted point by point the issues raised by the TNA and said that the outfits call to halt armed operations was singularly unfortunate since it would result in manipulating the plight of civilians trapped by the LTTE in the tiny sliver of land, in the north. We note that no allocation of responsibility upon the LTTE, for the entrapment and confinement of these innocent civilians, is made by the TNA. This appears to the government to be a startling omission, it said.

The TNAs letter, it said, was a cheap attempt to promote separatism, glorify the LTTEs acts of terrorism and disseminate propaganda that was inimical to the interests of the Sri Lankan state and its people.

The statement said that when civilians had been repeatedly positioned by the LTTE at locations in which they were at greater risk, the TNA remained silent. When the LTTE placed its artillery in a corner of the original no-fire zone adjacent to the A35 highway and fired into the zone and at the armed forces from these locations, the TNA did not utter a word of condemnation.

The TNA letter and the governments response have served no purpose by way of either lessening the miseries of the civilians trapped in the war zone or taking forward the quest for a political consensus on a solution to the ethnic conflict. And, the conduct of the TNA mirrored the behaviour of the Tigers on the battleground and here too ordinary citizens were the victims.

There are also worries about the governments tendency to dub everyone who differs with its perspective of the ground realities in the north as pro-Tiger. Instead of focussing its attention exclusively on fighting the Tigers with minimum possible collateral damage to the civilians, the Rajapaksa regime is frittering away its energies in unwarranted verbal wars against its detractors.

The latest spat between the government and the United Nations best illustrates the point. On March 13, Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, dropped a bombshell. In a statement she said: Certain actions being undertaken by the Sri Lankan military and by the LTTE may constitute violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. We need to know more about what is going on, but we know enough to be sure that the situation is absolutely desperate. The world today is ever sensitive about such acts that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The statement bemoaned that despite the governments designation of safe or no-fire zones for civilians, repeated shelling had continued inside those zones and other areas holding civilians. Of course, the statement did not indicate as to who was responsible for the shelling. Quoting the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), it said that a range of credible sources had indicated that since January 20, more than 2,800 civilians may have been killed and more than 7,000 injured, many of them inside the no-fire zones. The casualties are believed to include hundreds of children.

Navi Pillay complained that even after the governments announcement on February 24 that heavy weapons would no longer be used in the no-fire zones, close to 500 people were reportedly killed and more than 1,000 injured in these zones. A great majority of these deaths have been caused by heavy weapons. Overall, since January 20, more than two-thirds of the reported deaths and injuries have occurred in the no-fire zones. According to U.N. estimates, a total of 150,000 to 180,000 civilians remain trapped in an ever-shrinking area of territory in the Wanni region.

The current level of civilian casualties is truly shocking, and there are legitimate fears that the loss of life may reach catastrophic levels, if the fighting continues in this way, the High Commissioner said. Very little attention is being focussed on this bitter conflict.

She accused the Tigers of continuing to hold civilians as human shields and of having shot at civilians trying to leave the area they control. They are also believed to have been forcibly recruiting civilians, including children, as soldiers. The brutal and inhuman treatment of civilians by the LTTE is utterly reprehensible, and should be examined to see if it constitutes war crimes, said Navi Pillay.

The statement said that there was very limited food, and key medical supplies, such as sutures, painkillers and antibiotics for treating victims, were virtually unavailable. This was the case even in the one makeshift medical facility still functioning. Navi Pillay called on both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to suspend hostilities immediately in order to allow the evacuation of the entire civilian population by land or sea and urged the Sri Lankan government to grant full access to the U.N. and other independent agencies and facilitate an accurate assessment of the human rights and humanitarian conditions in the conflict zone.

An enraged government rejected Navi Pillays charges as unsubstantiated, unverified and vague. Further, the government contended that the statement only reflected the propaganda of the LTTE and its agents and said that it had been made without any consultation with the government.

Mahinda Samarasinghe, Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights, told a news conference that the government was very disappointed and dismayed at the unprofessional nature of the statement from the OHCHR. He maintained that the figures of civilians killed and injured quoted in the statement were approximately the same as the numbers stated by the LTTEs propaganda arm, TamilNet, and put forward by LTTEs front organisations and persons at present lobbying on the sidelines of the current U.N. Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva.

The Minister contended that the Sri Lankan armed forces did not target civilians, emphasising that the humanitarian military operation now on in the north was to liberate the civilians from the armed threats and hold of the LTTE. Samarasinghe maintained that it was the LTTE that was holding civilians hostage, and there were confirmed reports of the LTTE attacking and killing civilians who attempted to flee the area under its armed control and enter the safe zones and other government-held areas.

The unsubstantiated statements from the OHCHR, he said, appeared to be aimed at slinging mud at and tarnishing the image of Sri Lanka, its government and the armed forces and assist in the propaganda of the LTTE, which is now on the verge of defeat.

Sri Lanka Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona claimed that hours after the U.N. statement, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a telephone conversation with President Rajapaksa, appreciated the assurance given by the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary that civilians would not be subject to attack in any form by the security forces. However, Colombos account of the telephone conversation between Rajapaksa and Hillary Clinton, initiated by the latter, differed from Washingtons. In a statement, the U.S. State Department said that Hillary Clinton called the Sri Lankan President to express the United States deep concern over the deteriorating conditions and increasing loss of life occurring in the government-designated safe zone in northern Sri Lanka.

The Secretary stated that the Sri Lanka Army should not fire into the civilian areas of the conflict zone. The Secretary offered immediate and post-conflict reconstruction assistance and she extended condolences to the victims of the March 10 bombing outside a mosque in southern Sri Lanka. She condemned the actions of the LTTE who are reported to be holding civilians as human shields and to have shot at civilians leaving LTTE areas of control. Secretary Clinton called on President Rajapaksa to devise a political solution to the ongoing conflict. She urged the President to give international humanitarian relief organisations full access to the conflict area and displaced persons camps, including screening centres, the State Department statement said.

However, a statement from the Sri Lanka Presidential Secretariat maintained that Hillary Clinton acknowledged that Sri Lanka was now on the verge of defeating terrorism, and that this presented a great opportunity to restore peace, leading to reconstruction and rehabilitation in the country. Speaking on current developments, Mrs. Clinton appreciated the assurances given by the Secretary of Defence that civilians would not be subjected to any attacks by the military, stating the U.S. looked forward to working with Sri Lanka once the current conflict ends.

Significantly, the U.N. statement and Hillary Clintons call came three days after a suspected suicide cadre of the LTTE attacked the Jumma mosque at Godapitiya in Akurassa in Matara district. Sixteen people were killed and 45 others, including a senior Minister, were injured. Though there is little doubt that it was an act of desperation by a completely cornered LTTE, it has surprised defence analysts that the Tigers could target a mosque deep in the south. The incident is a grim reminder of the potential of the LTTE to continue with its acts of mindless violence as a guerilla outfit.

The Tigers are bound to resort to more such suicide attacks as they lose control over the last remaining stretch of land mass and mingle with the civilians. It is indeed a Herculean task for the government to differentiate between the ordinary civilians and the Tigers in the guise of ordinary citizens. But the governments attitude of we alone know the best will not make the task easier. The government must come to grips with the harsh reality that there is a huge trust deficit between the military and the ordinary citizens in the north and the east.

The validity of apprehensions among the citizens vis-a-vis the government and the military might be questionable. The truth is that to bridge the trust gap the government will require all the help it can get. The credibility of the government would be enhanced if it is seen as being responsive to constructive criticism. It has to make a clean break from the tradition of looking for ghosts of conspiracy where none exist.

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