Sri Lanka's Turmoil Far From Over

By Rajan Philips | 2009-07-01 12:00:00

Sri Lanka's thirty year long, low intensity war ended over the middle weekend in May (16-17) in a crescendo of violence and far flung controversy. There are two, perhaps more, conflicting tales of the climactic ending of the war. The government of Sri Lanka has credited itself with achieving a rare total victory for a lawful government anywhere in the world against the menace of terrorism. Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese broke into euphoric celebrations at the news that their soldiers had defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and eliminated its entire leadership.

On the other side of the island's ethnic divide, the end of the war, rather the manner of its ending, cast a pall of "stunned emptiness" (to borrow Doug Saunders' apt description) on the minority Tamils, including even those who do not support separatism and abhor the LTTE's methods. The Tamil diaspora, which has been staging street protests against the war in Toronto, Ottawa, New York, London and other Western cities, is finding it difficult to accept the end of the militaristic LTTE and the death of its intransigent leader, V. Prabaharan. The more immediate concern of the Tamil diaspora is the plight of the Tamil civilians caught in the war - thousands of them were killed and about 300,000 survivors including 30,000 disabled are interned in camps under appalling conditions.

The extent of the humanitarian tragedy caused by the war is now a matter of controversy. There have been allegations of gross human rights violations by both the LTTE and the government forces. The LTTE was accused of force-marching civilians, using them as human shields as it retreated in the face of superior government firepower. The Sri Lankan government in turn is accused of using disproportionate force in the last stages of the war, when a number of Western governments, including those of the US, Britain, and Canada, called for a ceasefire to evacuate the civilians from the fighting areas. The Sri Lankan government dismissed the calls for ceasefire as throwing a lifeline to the beleaguered LTTE, but under mounting pressure with direct calls from Gordon Brown and Hillary Clinton to the Sri Lankan president, his government, on April 27, announced that it was stopping the use of heavy weapons to minimize civilian casualties.

War without witnesses

Despite this announcement, according to Western media and human rights organizations, government forces continued shelling into the narrow peninsular areas where the civilians were trapped, killing many and injuring more. The UN had estimated less than 7,000 civilian casualties from January to April in 2009. A shocking new figure of 20,000 deaths has been suggested by The Times, the British newspaper, based on its own sources and limited investigation. Thousands reportedly died in the final stages of fighting. The French Le Monde has gone further and accused the UN of a cover up by suppressing information and providing underestimates of casualties in an attempt to please the Sri Lankan government authorities and avoid being ordered out of the country.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has categorically rejected the allegation that the UN deliberately underestimated the number of civilian casualties, but admitted that, whatever the number, it was unacceptably high. The British newspaper has not backed down, and has followed up its earlier breaking news with the claim that Ban Ki-Moon has used the figure of 20,000 in his private talks with Sri Lankan officials in Colombo. The Times is insistent that the Secretary General must say publicly what he has said privately in Colombo and that the UN must investigate to "demonstrate a decent respect for the opinions of mankind."

Suggesting that the estimate of 20,000 casualties might be on the high side, John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, has admitted that the many estimates floating around are reason enough for an investigation to find out what went on in this war without witnesses.

Throughout the war the Sri Lankan government barred all media and other agencies from the battlefronts and allowed only the presence of the International Red Cross, which under its charter is not permitted to be a witness or give evidence before war tribunals or post-war inquiries. The continuing reluctance to allow in outsiders, even after the war is over, has led to allegations that the government is destroying evidence. The absence of witnesses would also encourage further violations of human rights in the ongoing screening of the 300,000 interned people to find LTTE suspects.

For its part, the Sri Lankan government is vigorously rejecting all allegations of disproportionate force, civilian casualties and human rights violations as baseless and as efforts by Western governments and agencies to placate the vociferous Tamil diaspora that is hell-bent on tarnishing the good name of Sri Lanka in the international community.

The government and its supporters have gone further and fanned patriotic frenzy in Sri Lanka targeting the West and challenging the very notion of an "international community." There is no such animal, according to them, for the world is divided between Global South and Global North; Sri Lanka would keep its solidarity with the Global South while the Tamil diaspora could have its Eelam (the separate Tamil state that the LTTE fought for) in the Global North.

Geneva Victory

A virtual North-South division was played out in a special session of the 47-member UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva immediately after the war. Seventeen members (Argentina, Canada, Chile, Mauritius, Mexico, South Korea, Uruguay, and ten EU countries) introduced a resolution calling for an investigation of human rights violations by both the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE. The Sri Lankan delegation launched a spirited counterattack by presenting a second resolution that amounted to self-congratulation for defeating terrorism and insistence on international financial assistance for post-war reconstruction.

The Sri Lankan resolution prevailed with the support of 29 mostly Afro-Asian countries including Brazil, China, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia and South Africa. Opposing the Sri Lankan resolution were twelve countries from the original seventeen who brought in the first resolution, while six members abstained from voting. The efforts of soft-power countries like Argentina, Czech Republic, Chile, Mauritius, Mexico and Switzerland, some of them recovering from their own histories of human rights abuses, to amend the second resolution to allow UN investigation of human rights abuses were procedurally rejected.

The Sri Lankan government in Colombo, including President Mahinda Rajapakse, celebrated the diplomatic victory in Geneva as much as they celebrated the military victory over the LTTE. It was interpreted as a victory for Sri Lanka's sovereignty and a defeat of Western interference in the internal affairs of a small country on the pretext of protecting human rights. Sri Lankan ideologues have used Russia's characterization of its suppression of the Chechnyan uprising (seen by them as part of the global war on terror) as the example to follow, and NATO's liberation of Kosovo as the precedent to avoid. The Sri Lankan government has accomplished that and more.

It started the military offensive calling it part of the global war on terrorism. It became the war to liberate Tamil civilians who were being used as human shield by the LTTE. Finally, it became the expression of Sri Lanka's sovereignty against external interference, a rejection of the nascent UN principle: Responsibility to Protect, which Canada and Australia helped establish. Writing in the Sri Lankan papers after his Geneva victory, Sri Lanka's Ambassador in Geneva opined that unlike Kosovo, Sri Lanka was the "wrong country, wrong time, wrong continent" for Western interference.

The present government's disparagement of the West and its apparent disrespect for the UN is in stark contrast to Sri Lanka's positions twenty years ago when the fight with the LTTE began in earnest. In the late 1980s India was seen to be the main outside supporter of the Sri Lankan Tamils. A number of Indian government agencies both at the central and the Tamil Nadu state level supported Tamil militant groups -- primarily the LTTE -- in their mobilization activities, using Tamil Nadu as base. In 1987, the Indian government forced its Sri Lankan counterpart to abruptly stop its military offensive in the Jaffna Peninsula. To countervail India's pressure tactics, the Sri Lankan government pleaded for Western involvement and even for a UN presence on the Island. How the tables have been turned in 2009!

Nor did the present government under President Rajapakse start out with a decidedly anti-Western agenda. It went through the motions of the peace process under the 2002 Norway-facilitated ceasefire agreement with the LTTE. But when the LTTE persisted with settling scores on the battleground rather than resolving issues at the negotiating table, the Rajapakse government responded with "unlimited war" against the LTTE. All previous government military campaigns, including the involvement of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in 1988-90, had been limited, aimed at weakening the LTTE and forcing it into a political solution. The military objective this time was to obliterate the LTTE, regardless of the collateral impacts on the civilian population.

Here the government of Sri Lanka found India's backing tentative and also encountered resistance from the West. So it turned to China and Pakistan for weapons and to Iran and Libya for cash. Reportedly, China also sold arms to the LTTE through third party dealers, while Britain did not stop its weapons supply to the Sri Lankan government while protesting about the prosecution of the war. The US supplies to Sri Lanka were stopped in 2007, while Pakistan, which has been receiving huge amounts of American money to fight the Taliban, was busy in Sri Lanka helping the Sri Lankan army fight the LTTE. According to Pakistani media, but denied by the Sri Lankan government, Pakistani officers provided logistical advice in Colombo and Pakistani pilots carried out aerial sorties against the LTTE.

Ominous turn

For the Sri Lankan government, the war euphoria and anti-West rhetoric have detracted attention from its mismanagement of the economy, allegations of corruption, administrative collapse and targeted attacks on journalists and anti-war critics. Without the banning of the LTTE as a terrorist organization by India and the Western governments and the resulting crackdown on its international operations, the LTTE might not have been weakened. What the Indian and Western governments, while not opposing the war against the LTTE, apparently wanted from the Sri Lankan government was to minimize the impacts on civilians and the promise of a political solution after the war.

Sri Lanka ignored such pleas and is now asserting its independence from international busybodies. Moreover, it is less generous in addressing the Tamil political problem. The president's speeches after the war offer little hope for constitutional changes to devolve power to the Tamils in the northern and eastern provinces of the country. The hardliners in the government are arguing that these provinces no longer need special treatment because more Tamils are now living outside these provinces - in the south of Sri Lanka and in the diaspora. Of course, most of them left their places of birth because of the fighting, and eventually would like to return to their property and their roots.

The Sri Lankan President has declared that there are no minorities in Sri Lanka and that all Sri Lankans have equal rights to live anywhere they want. The only distinction would be, he has ominously stated, between those who love their motherland and those who don't. The latter disqualification targets the Sinhalese critics of the government more than the remaining Tamil dissidents.

Culture of Impunity

Particularly vulnerable are journalists, media agencies, and human rights NGOs. The threats against them appear to have increased dramatically after the war. Such threats and their execution are not necessarily the work of state operators but are carried out by the government's political supporters. They require no specific instructions but are encouraged by the prevailing culture of impunity and the government's Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, even though the LTTE is no longer militarily active. These notorious regulations are used against all Sri Lankans who politically disagree with the government, not just the Tamils.

Rajan Philips is a Canadian citizen of Sri Lankan Tamil origin. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2009

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2009, page 21. Some rights reserved.

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