ASIA: by Dr John WhitehallNews Weekly
Sri Lanka at the brink
, March 15, 2008
There is still no let-up in the Sri Lankan government's war against the country's Tamil ethnic minority, reports Dr John Whitehall.On January 16, 2008, the Sri Lankan government terminated a nominal ceasefire agreement it signed almost six years ago, under international supervision, with the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Instead, it is now preparing to pursue a military solution to its problem with ethnic Tamils. And it can now do so relatively free of international scrutiny, especially since a Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), that has observed the former ceasefire (and its many breaches), has been obliged to pack up and leave the disputed Tamil traditional homelands in Sri Lanka's north-east.
In recent months, the Sri Lankan government itself has regularly violated the ceasefire agreement it had committed to uphold.War declared
According to Dr Kinglsey Swampillai, bishop of the Batticalao-Trincomallee diocese, government troops have engaged in almost daily skirmishes with Tamils. Its aircraft have bombed civilian population areas, destroying schools and hospitals and killing innocent people. Over 150,000 Tamils have fled to refugee camps.
The LTTE has predictably retaliated - thereby further violating the ceasefire - by using makeshift planes to strike, with surgical precision, government fuel dumps and aircraft supplies in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, thereby undermining the government's prestige.
In the first eight months of 2007, an estimated 1,212 Tamils were murdered or disappeared, according to the Sri Lanka-based Law and Society Trust, which reports that Tamils to have been "overwhelmingly affected".
Of these victims, 23 were aid and church workers, eight worked with the media, and 68 were children. Most of the abuses occurred in Jaffna, the historic capital of the Tamil region, which is now "occupied" by over 50,000 Sri Lankan troops. Many of the reported abuses have occurred within "high security zones" under the control of those troops.
The International Crisis Group has accused "the army" (of Sri Lanka) of being "engaged in a deliberate policy of extra-judicial killings and abductions of Tamils considered part of LTTE's civilian support network", but also of "often victimising civilians with no connection to the LTTE".
Before the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission was forced to leave Sri Lanka's Tamil region, it declared: "The security forces of Sri Lanka are widely and consistently deemed responsible" for the execution of 17 aid workers of the French-based Action Against Hunger. Fifteen had been shot in the head and two in the back; all were wearing shirts bearing the agency's name.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have reported the mass arrest of more than 1,000 Tamils in December 2007, of whom more than 400 men and 50 women were imprisoned in "a facility that is reportedly overcrowded, lacking proper sanitation facilities and adequate drinking water".
Not surprisingly, the Sri Lankan government has tried to suppress publication of its excesses - and, given the Western media's lack of interest in the matter, it appears to have largely succeeded. Its intimidation of the media has earned it 156th place in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, just ahead of Somalia.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Sri Lankan National Human Rights Commission, because of "government encroachment on its independence", was relegated to "observer" status in December 2007 by the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.
The Sri Lankan body's status was downgraded because of concerns regarding the manner of the appointment of its commissioners and because of doubts that it was "balanced, objective and non-political, particularly with regard to the discontinuation of follow-up to 2,000 cases of disappearances...". The commission's lack of independence was believed to have "reduced it to a mute witness of rising human rights abuses...".
The LTTE in its turn, according to Human Rights Watch, has also failed "obligations under international humanitarian law, including customary law relating to methods and means of warfare, and to take all feasible measures to protect civilians from harm". The LTTE is believed responsible for a succession of explosions that have killed civilians, including women and children in the south of the country.
With the supposed ceasefire being violated in this way, it is not surprising that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, on the eve of the ceasefire's abrogation, reminded both the Sri Lankan government and the rebel LTTE of their obligations under international law.
In perhaps the understatement of the year, as the government prepares to go to war and the LTTE prepares to fight for its life, the UN High Commissioner has predicted: "An intensification of hostilities will likely have a devastating effect on the human rights of many Sri Lankans from all communities." She has further warned that violations of human rights by any party, "including by those in positions of command", could entail "individual criminal responsibility...".
In response, the Sri Lankan government has dismissed Ms Arbour's threat of legal sanctions as "pathetically unenforceable" - which is a realistic enough assessment. It has moreover rejected her warnings as "thinly-veiled... threats" which are "attempting to undermine the morale of its military, deter its military campaigns and save separatist terrorism from elimination".
The battle-lines are drawn and the dogs of war appear about to be unleashed. On the government side is a coalition of conflicting forces that have nonetheless formed to prosecute the war, including the Marxist-Leninist People's Party which opposes Tamil autonomy because Lenin declared communist rule must be central; the fundamental Buddhists who believe they have a religious duty to evict foreign devils; Sinhalese nationalist parliamentarians; and those who profit from war.
On the side of the LTTE would be much of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka's north-east who are fighting for their survival from the perceived threat of genocide.
The claim that the Tigers do not represent the Tamils is easily countered when you consider the staggering loss of over 17,000 lives of young people who have died in its ranks. This ferocity of resistance and sacrifice could not be imposed.
The Norwegian head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), Major-General Lars Johan Sølvberg, in his final statement before his mission withdrew on January 16, declared with apparent passion: "The SLMM is absolutely convinced that this complex conflict cannot be solved by military means." But the government appears to disagree.
For the sake of suppressing regional autonomy for the Tamils, the Sri Lankan government risks plunging its country into even greater misery.
The government could, if it chose, bomb the Tamil north-east with impunity. But the Tigers are well entrenched, and it is the civilians who will suffer greatly.
Young Sri Lankan troops will inevitably suffer severe casualties should they approach the Tamils' fortified positions. But worse will follow for the Sinhalese population of the south if the Tigers are forced from those lairs to take the war to Colombo. As Israel is determined to fight to survive, so will the Tamil nation.
To prevent further bloodshed, the West should use its strength to broker some form of federal accommodation for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority before it is too late.