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    South Asia
     Sep 11, 2008

Civilians caught in Sri Lanka's 'clean war'
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 come by.

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.

Fleeing humanity
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 councils.

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 East.

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 Lanka.

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