Voice of caution

Print edition : September 21, 2007

The report of the University Teachers for Human Rights highlights the fragility of the military gains and warns of dangers ahead.

in Colombo

A Tamil girl injured by a claymore mine explosion, at a hospital in Mannar in northern Sri Lanka.-REUTERS

A Tamil girl

IT would not be an exaggeration to suggest that no single organisation, within or outside Sri Lanka, has shown the kind of courage that the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), or UTHR(J), has displayed, since its birth in 1988, in documenting the various aspects of the island nations nearly three-decade-old war. The miseries that innocent people suffer and the stifling of human rights by state and non-state actors figure prominently in its latest report. The 26th Special Report of UTHR(J) is a must-read for everyone who is interested in the ethnic conflict and the grief it has caused to millions for over two decades. The escalation of hostilities between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government forces since July last year and the claims by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government about the liberation of the East form the backdrop of the report. It estimates that the current phase of the conflict has cost over 5,000 lives and displaced more than 300,000 people in the East and the North.

The meticulously researched report titled Can the East be won through Human Culling? demolishes several myths about the supposed gains flowing out of the so-called liberation of the East. The report brings to the fore the fragile character of the military gains and warns of the serious dangers ahead if the government and all other stakeholders fail to initiate immediate steps to instil trust and confidence among people of all ethnicities and religions in the liberated province.

The report has been in the public domain since August 3 and is replete with concrete examples of things gone horribly wrong in the execution of Operation Liberation East. Not a single fact or assessment made in it has been contested. The title of the report exposes the fundamental flaw in the governments strategy. Capture of territory does not mean that the hearts of the people have been won over. But territorial gains seem to enjoy priority in the Rajapaksa governments scheme of things.

The governments excessive focus on control of the region through military superiority has relegated to the background the people and their aspirations, though not by design. This, coupled with hasty steps such as the designation of some of the captured areas as high security zones (HSZs) and the forcible resettlement of their inhabitants, has sown seeds of suspicion about the governments motives. The exercise is largely perceived as one designed to change the ethno-demographic status of at least parts of the region. Such a perception threatens to undermine the military gains and make the situation worse than it was before the eastern bases of the LTTE were run over.

The UTHR(J) report has made a strong case against the next phase of the governments agenda for the East the holding of elections to the local bodies. It has cited the disastrous consequences that followed similar adventures by previous regimes. As things stand, says the report, the conditions required for a free and fair democratic exercise just do not exist. By holding elections, the government can showcase the exercise before the international community as a great leap forward in its quest for the resolution of the conflict. But there would be little gain for the people as fundamental issues remain unresolved. The UTHR(J) feels that an election now would be a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.

The opening line in the introductory chapter of the report, which summarises various complex problems thrown up by the government strategy, reads: If the two contending nationalisms celebrating recurrently their fleeting moments of military glory have proved anything in 25 years, it is that they have nothing to offer except unending futility and misery. The crux of the report is that those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it, and the Rajapaksa government is averse to even looking back, leave alone learning from history.

The report suggests a way out for the government. It states: Were the government to put forward a credible political solution to address Tamil and Muslim aspirations and then work towards democratisation and economic development in the East, it could provide a new opening towards rebuilding Tamil society. This, however, would require a shift in the political direction of the state and the military establishment in particular, which has been all too comfortable during the last two years in mirroring the project of the LTTE to decimate Tamil democratic politics and the Tamil and Muslim communities in the East.

Among the disturbing trends that the report cites is the concept of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), some in areas wrested from the LTTE (such as Sampur) and some in areas under government control (such as Muttur). The UTHR(J) is convinced that the concept of SEZs, where factories are considered a safer bet than sons of the soil from the national security perspective, is an ideological journey back to 1983.

LTTE cadre patrol a highway that connects Jaffna to the rest of Sri Lanka, in the LTTE-controlled town of Mankulam. A May 2006 photograph.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

LTTE cadre patrol

Two chapters in the report have been devoted to the Supreme Court verdict of October last year, which led to the de-merger of the North and the East, and what it implies for some of the remaining vital linkages to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 and for the psyche of the Tamil community.

According to most Sri Lanka watchers, an overwhelming majority of Tamils consider the merger of the North and the East a non-negotiable fundamental in their struggle non-violent and violent and legitimate and illegitimate of the last five decades for the attainment of their political, economic and cultural rights. The merger itself was to have been tested through a referendum a year after it took shape post the Indo-Lanka Accord, but the referendum could not be held for a variety of technical reasons.

Following the apex court verdict of October 2006, the Rajapaksa government could have ensured a re-merger of the North and the East through the parliamentary route but chose not to despite an offer of cooperation from the main Opposition party, the United National Party (UNP). The issue continues to be a major sore point notwithstanding the differing perspectives of Tamils of the North and the East.

Adding to the grouse of not only Tamils but also Muslims in the East is the forcible eviction of people from areas freshly demarcated as HSZs for military and economic reasons. The government intends to create SEZs in some of the HSZs.

Then comes the issue of the armed cadre of the Col. Karuna faction, which fought alongside the military in hunting down LTTE cadre. Karunas boys may have won praise from the government and the military, but they have antagonised the ordinary people through their rash behaviour and alleged acts of abduction, killing and forcible recruitment of children. A sizable section of Muslims in the region believe that Karunas boys are no better than the LTTE, in whose hands they suffered mass expulsion from the Jaffna peninsula in 1990.

There are feeble voices emanating from the governments side on the need to disarm Karunas boys to ensure a level playing field for all the forces seeking a political space in the new dawn of the East. However, there are serious doubts whether the government really wants to do that. The possibility of a re-emergence of the LTTE in the region is a factor that the military managers have taken into account when considering the pros and cons of disarming the group. Even assuming that the government is keen on disarming the boys, the question is whether the cadre will oblige. Since parting company with Prabakaran in 2004, Karuna has been nursing ambitions of being the sole representative of Tamils in the East. Already there are murmurs from his camp on the unfair expectations on power sharing.

The report details the plight of the displaced and the concerns relating to their resettlement. It dwells at length on the growing apprehensions in the minds of Tamils and Muslims about a possible Sinhalisation of the East.

According to the report, while humanitarian assistance should continue with the urgency it warrants, the situation in eastern Sri Lanka is not conducive to either holding of elections or the start of reconstruction efforts.

Sri Lankan soldiers patrol in the Vavuniya forest, on August 20.-REUTERS

Sri Lankan soldiers

It states: The LTTE uses celebrations of heroism to chain the disillusioned and unwilling into military ranks. In the binge of euphoria over the governments claims that it is winning the war and liberating the East, crucial military and political uncertainties are being swept under the carpet. People with longer memories see the futility of celebrating [the] taking [of] areas several times abandoned before, driving the countrys human rights record to a new nadir, cannibalising the economy for uncertain objectives and acting in blind defiance of the sensibilities of India and the international community.

Further, the report notes, the most formidable military task in the North remains untouched and the costly military failures there and the damage done to civilians and their property on account of regular bombing have been largely ignored. It says: Contempt for international law would in time undermine the Sri Lankan states sovereignty and legitimacy. Worst of all, the government has virtually abandoned any attempt to win over the minorities and make them feel [they are] equal partners in the nation-building enterprise.

The ruling SLFPs proposal before the APRC [All Party Representative Committee] tasked with finding a political settlement undermines any hope people had in the prospect of neutralising the LTTEs penchant for violence as its only weapon and attaining a durable peace. While the international community feels that the LTTE and its politics too are contributory to the predicament of the Tamil people, it is at the same time appalled by the manner in which the Sri Lankan state is squandering the opportunity provided by its crackdown on LTTE terror and extortion networks, it says.

The report bemoans that once again security is being equated with capturing areas and bringing them under Sinhalese hegemony. Against such delusions, the governments much vaunted winning of the East is going to be temporary, the Tamils and Muslims are going to feel further insecure and in turn Sinhalese living in the East would further be turned into unwilling pawns in a devastating ideological game.

The report concludes: Given the history of violence in the East over the last two and a half decades, the East more than any other region calls for a U.N. Human Rights field operation, to ensure independent and impartial monitoring, investigation and reporting on human rights abuses as well as to contribute towards the protection of civilians. If the government is serious about winning the confidence of the local populations, particularly the minority communities, a deterrent against abuses, as what international human rights monitoring offers, will also demonstrate the governments commitment to protect civilians.

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