With the LTTE and tens of thousands of civilians penned into an area of around 17 square km, the plight of civilians in the northern area of Sri Lanka known as the Vanni has attracted worldwide concern and sympathy, and it could not have been any other way. While the circumstances are completely different, the civilian death toll in the Vanni over the past few months is already at least triple the number of civilians killed in the Gaza massacre of December-January, and still mounting. Meanwhile, the thousands who suffer serious injuries are further victimised by the delay in medical attention or its outright lack; this means, for instance, that injuries to limbs that could have been saved with prompt treatment are instead resulting in gangrene and amputations. Even those who have not lost lives, limbs or loved ones have lost their homes and livelihoods, and live in appalling conditions that could well claim more lives through disease or even starvation. All the while, the LTTE and government of Sri Lanka trade charges, each accusing the other of responsibility for the slaughter. What truth is there in their respective allegations?
Let us start with the LTTE, whose leaders and supporters, especially in Tamil Nadu but also elsewhere, cry Genocide! and accuse the Colombo government of being solely responsible for the carnage. They do not mention the appalling war crimes committed by the rebels, which have been documented by international and Sri Lankan human-rights groups. The most obvious is their use of Tamil civilians as human shields, from behind which they can engage in offensive firing, even shooting those who try to escape. The civilians whom the LTTE claims to represent are effectively being held prisoner or hostage, and deliberately kept in the line of fire to provide cover. The relationship between Tamil civilians and the Tigers is the very opposite of what the latter claims: far from defending the Tamils, the LTTE leaders are using the civilians for their physical and political survival, a violation that is specifically defined as a war crime.
But the LTTE is also doing worse. All official reports on the situation mention continued forcible conscription of civilians, including children. This too is a war crime. Unofficial reports say that these youngsters are no longer being provided with cyanide capsules, due to the fact that some had earlier used these to commit suicide rather than go into combat. It must be kept in mind that large numbers of LTTE casualties actually consist of these frightened and ill-trained young conscripts, who never chose to bear arms. Their presence in the Tigers’ forces also means that their families, who might otherwise flee, remain in rebel-held territory, not wanting to abandon their children. Planting a suicide bomber among fleeing civilians was a cynical move, ensuring that all civilians would thenceforth be regarded as suspects.
Most chilling of all, refugees who have escaped report that the LTTE has deliberately fired from areas in which civilians had taken shelter – for instance, from the vicinity of hospitals and schools – knowing that government forces would respond by shelling. The fighters would then scatter, leaving the civilians as victims to the fire. As a strategy, this is even worse than using civilians as shields: this constitutes using civilian lives as propaganda tools, deliberately getting them killed in order to justify the allegation of genocide. The LTTE massacres of Sinhalese civilians in Inginiyagala, on 21 February, and Buttala, on 13 April, were probably also attempts to provoke violent reprisals against Tamil civilians. In addition, the 10 March suicide attack on Muslims celebrating the Milad festival at the Jumma Mosque in Akuressa recalled the LTTE’s massacres and ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the past. Those who hurl charges of genocide and war crimes against the Colombo government alone are guilty of whitewashing the LTTE, and are complicit in covering up the rebels’ heinous war crimes during the most recent phase of fighting.
The LTTE leadership is undoubtedly in a tight spot, but it still has the option of behaving honourably. At this point, the most honourable and humane thing that Tiger leaders could do would be to negotiate a surrender, monitored by international organisations, which would ensure that civilians are rehabilitated and that LTTE fighters receive humane treatment as prisoners of war. Or, if they insist on fighting to the finish, they could release all civilians and conscripts, so that only those who truly want to continue fighting can take on the final assault. The rebel leaders will not, of course, do either of these things, because they have no concern whatsoever for the welfare of Tamils.
When evaluating the conduct of the Colombo government and the course of action open to it, it is important to keep in mind these actions by the LTTE. One of the demands, for example, has been for a ceasefire and peace talks with the LTTE. But Rajan Hoole and K Sritharan, of the reputed University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), report that Sri Lankan Tamils are wary of any form of peace talks that would give oxygen to the LTTE. This is not surprising if we look at the way in which the LTTE has treated the Tamils subjected to its rule over the past two decades. If Tamils who have suffered under the LTTE are anxious that it should not be rescued at this point, it is hardly surprising that Muslims who have been subjected to massacres and ethnic cleansing, and Sinhalese who never know when the next terrorist attack will strike, cannot wait to see the last of it. In these circumstances, it would be unrealistic to expect the government to go back to anything like the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002, which allowed the LTTE to arm itself for Eelam War IV. Such a course of action would also be undesirable, simply paving the way for renewed bloodshed in the future.
However, this does not mean that the government is free of blame, as it and its supporters claim. Observers are surprised that there has not been a mutiny or split in the ranks of the LTTE that would end the war. One probable reason that this has not happened thus far is that the government has gone out of its way to behave in accordance with LTTE propaganda. The Mahinda Rajapakse-convened All Party Representative Committee (APRC) process was sabotaged by no less than the president and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), when it had already arrived at a political solution that could have been fine-tuned to suit the democratic majority in all communities. This suggests that the whole process had been nothing more than a public relations exercise. Such an act only reinforced the LTTE’s message that Tamils will never receive justice in a united Sri Lanka.
This message was again underlined when two leading members of the armed forces and government – Commander of the Sri Lankan Army Sarath Fonseka and Environment Minister Champika Ranawaka – proclaimed that Sri Lanka belonged to the Sinhalese, and that minorities would have to put up with less than equal rights. Again, this only further assisted LTTE ‘recruitment’ drives. Yet more support was provided to LTTE propaganda by earlier government proposals to keep internally displaced persons in camps for up to three years, fuelling suspicions that their original habitats would be occupied by Sinhalese, and that the war was being used as a cover for ethnic cleansing.
Government armed forces have responded to LTTE fire by shelling civilian concentrations, including safe areas and hospitals, killing and injuring thousands. Those who escape to government-controlled territory are being kept in internment camps surrounded by barbed wire, prevented even from visiting injured family members in hospitals or attending the funerals of loved ones. Senior citizens were recently released, but others remain prisoners to this day. Reports of disappearances from these camps, coming on top of thousands of disappearances in the last few years, make such incarceration all the more fearsome. Not only would this prospect make civilians think twice before fleeing LTTE territory; it would also make LTTE conscripts think that surrender means death – they might as well die fighting.
Together, these government and military policies result not only in massive civilian casualties, they also prolong the fighting. Alongside concern for civilians, we should also spare a thought for combatants on both sides, who are being expended by their respective leaderships as though their lives have no value. At this point, a different strategy could ensure that a whole generation of young people is not killed and disabled, but the government strategy in fact makes a peaceful outcome almost impossible. Even when the LTTE is defeated militarily, it – or another guerrilla group – is likely to rise up in the future to carry out attacks on civilians and restart the war, just as the Taliban has staged a comeback in Afghanistan. So what is the alternative?
A humane strategy
An alternative strategy would consist of the following. First, the government must stop shelling of the No-Fire Zone, which only results in propaganda gains for the LTTE. The two-day truce over the Sinhala and Tamil New Year may not have resulted in any significant exodus of civilians, but it did show that casualties could be reduced dramatically without military gains by the LTTE. Virulent Sinhala nationalists are eager to close in for the kill, regardless of civilian casualties, but more intelligent government advisors cannot fail to see the advantages of a purely defensive posture on the part of government forces, which would make charges of genocide fall flat on their face.
Second, the government must ensure adequate food, water and medicine supplies to civilians, both inside LTTE territory and outside. At the same time, it must make sure that no arms or ammunition get through to the LTTE. Third, it should ask the United Nations or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to monitor the screening and registration of internally displaced persons entering the camps, so that an independent record is available and disappearances are prevented. If LTTE suspects are separated out, they, along with LTTE cadre who surrender, should be kept in prisoner-of-war camps with the inmates registered with the UN or ICRC, and treated in accordance with international law. Fourth, if there is no evidence that displaced citizens are LTTE operatives, they should be given identity cards and allowed to move about freely. These measures would encourage civilians to escape the LTTE if they can, and LTTE conscripts to surrender with some confidence of their security.
Simultaneously, the APRC proposal for constitutional change – drafted by Tissa Vitharana on the basis mainly of the so-called ‘Majority Report’ of the Panel of Experts but incorporating suggestions from the Minority Reports – needs to be adopted by the government. This would make it clear that the government is serious about a political solution that would protect the fundamental rights of both local and national minorities in all parts of the island, provide for meaningful devolution of power while ensuring the unity of the country, and abolish the dictatorial executive presidency. Colombo should also provide a solemn pledge that there shall be no forcible transfer of populations (defined in international law as a crime against humanity): all internally displaced persons and refugees who wish to return to their original homes will be assisted to do so. This will not be easy, especially in the case of displaced Muslims, many of whom have been languishing in camps for over 18 years. Nonetheless, it must be done as part of a political solution to the crisis.
Can a political solution be the immediate priority in the closing stages of this battle in the Vanni? Yes, it definitely must be. Let us recall that a key event leading to LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s imminent defeat was his threat to annihilate his eastern commander, Karuna, when the latter questioned the feasibility of the goal of Tamil Eelam. Today, with that goal looking more illusory by the hour, a solution offering Tamils peace with justice would surely trigger more defections. If the ruling SLFP had not repeatedly sabotaged the APRC process from mid-2007 onwards, the war might have ended months ago, and thousands of lives would have been saved. It is impossible to resurrect those who have been killed, but it is not too late to save lives that will be lost if a just political solution is not achieved. A purely military victory will merely push the war underground, and ensure that it will re-emerge as guerrilla warfare and strikes against civilians in the future. A constitution that is acceptable to democratic elements in all communities is the only way to end the war once and for all. If the present political leaders in the two major parties are reluctant to implement a just and democratic settlement, then the people of Sri Lanka must either push them into doing so, or dump them and help establish a new leadership.
As for international actors, if they genuinely wish to help civilians in the Vanni rather than helping the LTTE to hold them hostage, they would do well to acquaint themselves first with the situation on the ground. Accusations of ‘genocide’ against the government, for example, do more harm than good. As one anxious Tamil intellectual in Sri Lanka put it recently, “When I hear Indians talking about genocide in Sri Lanka, I shudder, because I know it will merely make things worse for the trapped civilians. It is like crying wolf. If we cry Genocide! when it is not occurring, who will believe us and come to our aid if it really happens? No one!” Those who are really concerned about the appalling situation of the people now stuck in the Vanni should not only demand of the Colombo government that it implements the measures listed above; they should also demand that the LTTE release the civilians and conscripts it is holding hostage. Otherwise, they will merely be adding fuel to the fire that is currently consuming thousands of lives.
~ Rohini Hensman is a researcher and writer active in the women’s liberation, trade union, human-rights and anti-war movements in India and Sri Lanka.