Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sri Lanka: No mercy for civilians trapped in the war?

As Sri Lank mulls the end of the war with the Tamil Tigers, the fate of the civilians, numbering about 250,000, trapped in the rebel-held 330 square km slice of jungle in Mullaitivu, is uncertain. There is mounting fears that they will perish along with the LTTE cadre in the cross fire between the army and the rebels. The army has accused the Tigers of using the civilians as “human shields”. On its part, the Sri Lankan government has said it cannot give any guarantee to the safety of the civilians in the LTTE-held areas.

There has been rising pressure from the international community, including India on both sides of the conflict to provide safe passage to the civilians. On 27 January 2009, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee dashed off to Colombo to express concern about the safety of the Tamil civilians. Prior to leaving for Colombo, Mr Mukherjee made one thing clear: India has no sympathy for the LTTE.

This support from India has certainly provided more courage to the Sri Lankan government to ruthlessly crush the Tigers.

On the night of 29 January 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared a 48-hour ceasefire to allow civilians “safe passage” but only over 100 civilians, including 16 children and 38 women, had fled from LTTE-held area during ceasefire period.

The international community is demanding that the LTTE releases all civilians. But it will be foolish on the part of the Tigers who know that if the civilians are gone, the world won’t pay any heed to the war and the army will immediately crush them.

The army has already captured Mullaittivu, the last urban sprawl held by the Tigers. On 25 January 2009, Sri Lankan army chief, Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka declared that the 25-year-old civil war was “95% over”.

Humanitarian crisis

There is a humanitarian crisis. On the night of 1 February 2009, a hospital was hit by shells killing nine civilians and injured at least 20 others in a rebel-held area in Puthukkudiyiruppu town under Mullaitivu district. Neither the army nor the rebels has taken any responsibility for the hospital attack.

According to the United Nations about 230,000 people have been displaced due to intensified fighting in the Wanni region. And, an estimated 250,000 civilians have been trapped without food and medicines; they are traumatized and under continuous shelling attacks.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the only international humanitarian agency allowed to work on the ground in Wanni region. It has said that hundreds of patients needed emergency treatment and evacuation from the LTTE-held zone.

No criticism, please!

The government has made it clear that it won’t tolerate any kind of criticism of the war. It is determined to finish off the Tigers. On 1 February 2009, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa warned to chase off from the country any one who tried to criticize the government actions. He has particularly pointed out the German and Swiss ambassadors and news agencies CNN, Al-Jazeera and the BBC as behaving irresponsibly and trying to sensationalize civilian hardships. Earlier, on 8 January 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunga (52), editor-in-chief of Sunday Leader and virulent critic of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, was killed in an execution-style attack by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles at Attidiya in Colombo. This forced many journalists and media outlets to impose self-censorship.

The great Indian dilemma

Big Brother of South Asia, India is at dilemma as to what should be its policy vis-à-vis Sri Lanka’s ongoing war. It does not want to be seen as supporters of LTTE, which has been banned in India and several other countries like the US, the UK and Australia. India’s official stand is that terrorism cannot be justified under any circumstances. So, India has said it has “no sympathy” for the LTTE.

But the war in an election year (the general election in India is just two months away) has caused furor in the ruling United Progressive Alliance even as its ally DMK, the ruling party of Tamil Nadu, has mounted up pressure for India’s intervention to stop the war in Sri Lanka. The feelings of Tamils of TN are important as the state sends 39 Members of Parliament (MPs) to the Lok Sabha.

Also, there is spill over effects. In the event of humanitarian disasters or government repression, Tamils will try to flee the country to take shelter in Tamil Nadu.

End of Tigers means no end to the Tamil conflict

So, the war will be won – no matter how.

But mere military victory won’t resolve the Tamil problem as long as the government fails to win the hearts and minds of the Tamil minority. The Tamil conflict will not end with the end of the Tigers. It is important to know that it was not the LTTE which created the Tamil problem but the anti-minority policies of the government which created the LTTE.

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