|Civilians caught in Sri Lanka's
By Sreeram Chaulia
COLOMBO - Fighting between government troops and the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) intensified in
northern Sri Lanka this week, displacing thousands more
civilians and prompting the government to order all
non-governmental organizations to vacate the besieged rebel
stronghold of Wanni.
According to reports on Wednesday, government fighter jets
pounded the LTTE command center inside the rebel-held
Kilinochchi region and carried out at least four other
bombing raids in retaliation for the LTTE's pre-dawn attack
on Tuesday that devastated a key military complex and left
25 people dead.
In recent weeks there has been intense media focus on the
offensive, with different versions of the battle and the
gains. On Monday, official state reports claimed that the
Sri Lankan army had surrounded the headquarters of
Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE's reclusive leader. But, as
reported by Inter Press Service and rebel Internet sites
such as Lankawin.com and TamilNet.com, there is a different
picture of the conflict. Independent reports are hard to
What is clear is that offensives since April-May have
displaced tens of thousands of civilians. Amnesty
International (AI), in an August 19 statement, said the Sri
Lankan military and the LTTE place thousands of civilian
lives at risk with each day the fighting continues.
According to AI, there is no safe haven for the families
trying to escape the shelling by Sri Lankan forces as they
push towards Kilinochchi.
The Sri Lankan army's alleged tactic of forcibly displacing
Tamil civilians by firing heavy artillery and aerial bombs
has generated a mass of fleeing humanity with many
sheltering under trees and in the Wanni's jungles. The
LTTE's order to stay put and offer "resistance" to the
advancing army has left civilians facing certain death.
Still, the Sri Lankan state is hardly a paragon of virtue.
With the objective of luring Tamil civilians into "cleared
areas" (territory retaken from LTTE control by the state),
the government is setting up reception centers in Vavuniya
district. These camps are strictly policed and offer very
limited freedom of mobility for inmates. Since civilian
escapees from Wanni are all suspected of loyalties to the
LTTE, the camps are subject to screening and "weeding out"
operations by security forces. One informed international
aid official likened them to Nazi concentration camps.
While the plight of civilians in the north has been
receiving attention due to the statements of the United
Nations, a grinding low-intensity campaign against civilians
rages on in the east. Since the districts of Trincomalee,
Batticaloa and Amparai were "cleared" by the Sri Lankan army
in the past two years, harassment of civilians has
increased. The more the army is in control of an area, the
less secure it feels about its newly conquered terrain.
In one instance, the farming village of Ichalampattu in
Trincomalee district is now surrounded by army posts and its
residents face unimaginable hurdles to liberty and
livelihood. The ramping up of military installations and
infrastructure across eastern Sri Lanka evokes mortal fear
among Tamil civilians, whose lives have been shattered by
intimidation, extortion, torture and disappearances. The
guns and personnel carriers that have been inserted into the
area are protecting the army and its affiliates from a
resurgence of the LTTE, rather than enhancing a sense of
safety for locals.
Promises and provincial councils
A new feature on the political landscape of eastern Sri
Lanka - after it was "cleared" by the army - is the creation
of a new layer of government through elections to provincial
A leader of the state-abetted breakaway faction of the LTTE,
the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulihal (TMVP), is in the saddle
of the provincial chief minister's office. The council
mechanism is being trumpeted by the Sri Lankan state as the
first step towards the devolution of power for the
Tamil-speaking people. At a recent South Asian summit in
Colombo, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa publicly
"promised" India that he was intent on carrying the council
experiment forward and implementing the constitution's 13th
amendment provisions for autonomy of the North and East.
Actual happenings on the ground in the East, however, leave
little doubt that the councils have boomeranged on their
supposed beneficiaries. While greater self-governance to
Tamil-speaking people in the North and East is theoretically
the only solution to Sri Lanka's 25-year-long internal war,
its implementation is a sham beneath which the deep-rooted
anxieties of the state vis-a-vis ethnic minorities limit the
scope of devolution.
A crucial example of the mistrust that the state holds
towards allowing Tamil-speaking people a chance to run their
own affairs is the lame-duck condition of the new chief
minister's office in the East. It has been saddled with five
ministries, but the Sri Lankan army still calls most of the
shots in administration. The victory of the TMVP in the
provincial council elections in May this year was tainted by
gross irregularities committed with the army's assistance.
The moniker of "puppet" is permanently associated with the
TMVP in the eyes of ordinary Tamil people, making a mockery
of genuine autonomy.
The TMVP's "warlordism", wherein Trincomalee, Batticaloa and
Amparai are carved up among commanders for exploitation and
abuse of civilians, has added dread to people's minds.
Sexual violence against Tamil women by the TMVP's cadres is
a new dimension to the scarred memories of local people. As
if the LTTE's abductions of children for conscription were
not sufficient, the TMVP is manipulating its
state-designated legitimacy to carry out its own forcible
enlistment of civilians with impunity. The TMVP hails from
the same militaristic tradition as the LTTE and is proving
no better in assuring an accountable and humane government.
Veil of propaganda
While the realities in the North and East augur badly for
civilians, a surreal veil of propaganda has enveloped
coverage of the war in the Sinhalese South. State
persecution of media personnel, peace activists and
academics has reached alarming proportions in order to
preserve a sanitized picture of events in the North and
A fist-pumping Sinhalese chauvinist narrative is
monopolizing news space and airwaves. According to press
coverage, Tamil civilians are happy to be rid of the LTTE's
terror and are appreciating the provincial councils' work.
The war in the North is being presented as a march of
endless victories for the brave soldiers who are said to be
annihilating the LTTE forever.
State propagandists like the head of the Peace Secretariat,
Rajiva Wijesinghe, have launched a drive to convince the
Sinhalese public that the army is conducting a "clean war"
with maximum deference to the rights of Tamil civilians.
Claims of successful separation of enemy combatants from
non-combatants, as the army penetrates the Wanni, are
"laughable" to eyewitnesses.
Yet, the Rajapaksa government has managed to muster a
Sinhalese consensus that the war must be "fought to the
finish" and that the LTTE will be "wiped out" before the end
of the year. As long as the lid on war weariness among the
Sinhalese people is tightly maintained, the state has the
political license to pursue military solutions.
Internationally, the Rajapaksa government has realigned with
forces that are less bothered by the human costs of war. It
is a remarkable sight in Colombo to behold giant billboards
of Rajapaksa shaking hands with the Chinese President Hu
Jintao, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Pakistani
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. Rajapaksa's "devil may
care" defiance of international calls for political
solutions is a product of the presence of these sympathetic
leaders whose military and diplomatic backing has enabled
the army to outgun the LTTE.
As the experience of the East illustrates, a possible final
defeat of the LTTE in the North is unlikely to bring a peace
dividend as long as institutional biases persist in the Sri
Lankan polity. International actors, who calculate narrow
self-interests and chant the sovereignty mantra to give the
Rajapaksa government a blank check, bear partial
responsibility for the unfolding catastrophe.
The policy of the regional superpower, India, remains
largely motivated by the need to counter China's strategic
encroachments in Sri Lanka. New Delhi is afraid that its
advocacy for civilian rights in the North and East will
drive Colombo deeper into Beijing's embrace. Like India's
mealy-mouthed policy towards restoring democracy in Myanmar,
its compromised attitude towards Sri Lanka's deadly war is
compounding a human tragedy that shows no end in sight.
Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international
affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship in Syracuse,
New York. He has just completed a month-long tour of Sri
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