No end in sight

Published : Feb 23, 2007 00:00 IST

Humanitarian assistance groups predict more suffering for civilians caught in the conflict between the army and the LTTE.

B. MURALIDHAR REDDY In Galle and Colombo

A HUMANITARIAN crisis of gigantic proportions looms in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. As the battle between the country's military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) intensifies with each passing day, the worst affected are the ordinary citizens.

According to the estimates of the United Nations agencies engaged in the island-nation, nearly 213,000 people have been displaced since the fighting escalated in April last year. With the new `refugees', the total number of displaced persons is over half a million. Apart from 315,000 people who were displaced during the earlier stages in the conflict, about 200,000 tsunami victims are still without permanent shelters. Besides, thousands of citizens have left the country in search of a new life.

The two and a half decades of conflict have taken a toll of over 70,000 lives.

The government may have reasons to be pleased with its latest military triumphs in the east, but no one within or outside the island-nation is celebrating. The gulf between the thinking of the government and the rest of the world came out in the open at the Sri Lanka Development Forum held on January 29 and 30 at the historic and popular tourism destination of Galle.

At the assembly of influential representatives of most of the donor countries of Sri Lanka, there were no takers for the passionate plea by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to separate terrorism from "a conflict in a complex multicultural society with many income and regional disparities". There was unanimity among the speakers that conflict resolution had to be the top priority and that development without peace was a myth.

The donors made a telling point that the conflict had cost the economy between 2 and 3 percentage points annually since the war began in 1983, and insisted that the President's 10-year plan to lift 4 million rural people out of poverty was directly linked to peace.

The anguish of the international community was best reflected in a couple of speeches. U.S. Ambassador Robert Blake was blunt in his comments: "No amount of development assistance by the United States or any other government can have any lasting impact...without finding a permanent solution to the conflict which has plagued Sri Lanka." The World Bank's Vice-President for South Asia, Praful Patel, said: "There is no way to politely skirt this issue. As a major development partner to Sri Lanka, the World Bank would be failing if we did not place the conflict front and centre in our deliberations." He said 2006 had not been a good year at all for the families of more than 3,500 Sri Lankans killed and an additional 200,000 displaced. He said it would be a waste of time to discuss development without recognising conflict as the largest obstacle.

The cold statistics, cited by the government and the donor countries at Galle, do not provide adequate insight into the travails of ordinary people caught in the crossfire. A report on the ground situation in the troubled east and north, prepared, ironically, by the Sri Lanka Bilateral Donor Group (BDG), vividly captures their trauma.

The January 6 report, initially meant to be a restricted document, became public under peculiar circumstances. On January 23, Sri Lanka Defence spokesman and Minister Keheliya Rambukwella referred to the unpublicised document to buttress his argument on how insensitive the LTTE was towards Tamil citizens and how even the BDG was incensed with the Tigers' attitude.

Representatives of the BDG made it a point to issue a statement on the Minister's comments that set the record straight. The briefing, it said, was partial, covering only one element of the BDG report. "There is, therefore, a risk that the public might get a misleading picture of the overall balance and contents of the report. To avoid that and in the interest of transparency and clarity, the participants to these Bilateral Donor Group missions have decided to put a summary of the report in the public domain. The Bilateral Donor Group comprises all the main bilateral aid donors to Sri Lanka," it said.

The report is an indictment of the government and the LTTE. More important, it paints a stark picture of the conditions prevailing in the north and the east. It is the outcome of tours undertaken by BDG monitoring missions in Amparai, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Mannar, Vavuniya and Jaffna districts during the last months of 2006.

Military confrontation between the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) and the LTTE has increased in all districts visited by the monitoring missions, the report says. "In the eastern districts it was reported that the military actions of the Karuna faction have become a major destabilising factor. The missions were informed of a steady increase this year of extra-judicial killings, abductions and disappearances."

Abductions, mainly of boys and men, were attributed by local stakeholders to both the LTTE and the Karuna faction (and the People Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam and the Eelam People's Democratic Party factions in Jaffna), the report notes. "Especially worrying was the report of children being kidnapped from internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps in Batticaloa. Local observers in the eastern districts believe the Sri Lanka Armed Forces and the Karuna faction are collaborating in their campaigns against the LTTE. This was, however, consistently denied by the government representatives interviewed by the missions."

A special security concern, it goes on to say, is the report that the parties to the conflict might be using civilians and civilian installations as shields, an apprehension that is also hampering humanitarian efforts in the affected districts. For instance, the civilian population in Vaharai (since captured by the military), including IDPs, is generally believed to have been used by the LTTE as a human shield against SLAF and Karuna operations.

In the same way, the SLAF and the Karuna camps tend to be located in the middle of urban or otherwise populous areas, bringing military activity dangerously close to IDP camps and civilian areas. "Human rights observers reported that they are not aware of any serious attempt by the legal system to investigate abductions or other crimes committed against civilians. They point at a collapse of rule of law in the area, with full impunity as an automatic result."

The representatives found varying degrees of access to humanitarian asistance in the six districts visited. In general, the areas controlled by the government are accessible for implementing agencies, but bureaucratic constraints, political pressures and ethnic tensions impede free movement.

The areas controlled by the LTTE are accessible for the U.N. agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), but access is limited and subject to lengthy government procedures of approval.

LTTE-controlled areas are generally restricted for international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), as indicated in the work permits issued by the Ministry of Defence, allowing access only to government-controlled areas. As an exception, the Defence Ministry recently approved a select number of INGOs to resume their work in LTTE-controlled areas.

The representatives also found that there were restrictions on the entry of certain goods into LTTE-controlled areas. Not only are fuel, cement and iron bars restricted (beyond the agreed levels in the Ceasefire Agreement), but also tents and plastic sheets, with obvious implications for humanitarian operations.

There are no formal restrictions on food, but factors such as insufficient transport capacity, fuel shortage and low levels of local food production mean that food consumption is currently below the required levels (60 per cent in Batticaloa).

The situation of IDPs in Jaffna, Vaharai (Batticaloa) and Eechilampatu (Trincomalee) was reported to be the most severe, mainly owing to the lack of access for humanitarian supplies and services. The situation in the Jaffna peninsula is of particular concern, where the government-controlled areas have also been cut off since the suspension of commercial flights and the closure of A9, the main road to the Jaffna peninsula, in mid-August.

"As a result, the representatives found the population in a state of near-complete isolation, dependent on only a very fragile humanitarian relief supply chain. The government is transporting basic food commodities [rice, flour, sugar, dhal] via sea, but this has become more difficult with the onset of the monsoon rains. The representatives were informed that the flow is insufficient to meet the basic nutrition needs and that the majority of the population is food insecure. The health system is also suffering from supply distribution bottlenecks of essential medicines, limiting surgery and treatment of severe cases," the report says.

A report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled "Complicit in Crime: State Collusion in Abductions and Child Recruitment by the Karuna Group", released on January 24, echoes the findings of the BDG on the plight of children and the overall sense of insecurity.

"With the complicity or wilful blindness of the Sri Lankan government, the Karuna group has abducted and forcibly recruited hundreds of children in eastern Sri Lanka," the HRW says. This report corroborates similar findings by U.N. Special Representative Allan Rock in November. The government had dismissed Allan Rock's report as being motivated and launched a campaign attacking him.

In its 100-page report, the HRW documents a pattern of abductions and forced recruitment by the Karuna group over the past year. With case studies, maps and photographs, it shows how cadre loyal to Karuna operate with impunity in government-controlled areas, abducting boys and young men, training them in camps, and deploying them for combat.

"After years of condemning child recruitment by the Tigers, the government is now complicit in the same crimes," said Jo Becker, child rights advocate at HRW, who has written extensively about the Tigers. "The government's collusion in child abductions by the Karuna group highlights its hypocrisy."

On February 3, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a Sri Lanka-based independent think-tank, forecast bleak prospects for the island-nation in 2007. The 65-page report, titled "War, Peace and Governance in Sri Lanka", makes a sad reading. It says:

"The situation in Sri Lanka into 2007 is very likely to be one of protracted conflict, oscillating levels of political stability and growing authoritarianism. The GOSL [Government of Sri Lanka] will persist in the project of regime consolidation with initiatives to revitalise the peace process being of a secondary and instrumental importance.

"However, it is likely that any proposals presented by the GOSL will be either rejected by the LTTE who will refuse to negotiate from weakness or alternatively suffer the same fate as the August 2000 constitutional proposals which were never presented to the LTTE officially and looked upon by them as designed for the sole purpose of undercutting their bases of popular support."

The report says that the President, riding high on military successes in the east and with the Opposition in disarray, might opt for a general election in the first half of 2007. It adds that a delay in availing himself of the opportunity to capitalise on the prospects for electoral advantage could be very disadvantageous and result in an exacerbation of populist and authoritarian tendencies in response to extra parliamentary dissent and criticism.

The report says that in the north and the east, the LTTE will be faced with the challenge of demonstrating sustained and feasible resistance to the armed forces of the Sri Lankan state and of maintaining congruence between its organisational interests and those of the civilians of the north and the east. Regaining the initiative in setting the course of peace or war will be its priority and, accordingly, capitalising on the over-confidence and over-reach of the security forces to this end.

"Whilst 2006 was a miserable year for civilians caught up in armed conflict, there is little prospect of 2007 offering them a decisive and irreversible alleviation of their situation. Political actors on the other hand could find, yet again, that there is no permanent balance of power in their favour outside of a genuine commitment to and demonstrable capability for, conflict transformation through a political settlement," the CPA says.

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