As Sri Lanka’s armed forces battle the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in their last stronghold, the island country’s influential neighbour, India, is weighing diplomatic options to goad President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government to save civilians trapped in the war zone.
The number of civilians is estimated to be as high as 200,000 to 250,000. Many have been displaced by the war five or even 12 times over. Currently, according to the best estimates, 25 to 35 people are being killed every day.
India’s ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is under pressure from its constituents from the southern state of Tamil Nadu to go beyond verbal exhortations to Colombo to stop civilian killings, help evacuate the large numbers of stranded people by creating safe corridors, and 'meet their humanitarian needs for relief materials, medicines and medical care'.
They want New Delhi to demand that Colombo declare a ceasefire, and reach badly needed relief to the trapped civilians.
Recently, India’s ethnic-Tamil parties threatened to resign en masse from the UPA, prompting Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee to visit Colombo. New Delhi has repeatedly asked the Sri Lankan government to ensure the safety of Tamil civilians in the war zone.
However, the UPA government is keen to ensure that the LTTE is decisively defeated in the war. The group is banned in India for terrorist activities, including the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
The Indian government is also reluctant to get embroiled too deeply in the Sri Lankan crisis, having burnt its fingers by intervening in Sri Lanka by sending in the Indian Peace-Keeping Force in 1987. This was a disaster, which failed to accomplish the objective of disarming the Tigers. The IPKF quit the island in ignominy in 1990.
India has joined the European Union, the International Committee of the Red Cross and human rights organisations in demanding an end to the civilian killings, and a political settlement of the Tamil question. The EU has also asked the LTTE to lay down arms and renounce violence.
But unlike the EU, New Delhi balks at calling for an immediate ceasefire. India continues to provide military assistance to the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF), including radar surveillance, logistical support, armaments and helicopters.
'It is most unfortunate that the Sri Lankan government has exploited the absence of effective pressure from India to prosecute the war regardless of its human consequences,' says Anuradha Chenoy, a professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University here.
The Colombo government has said that if the LTTE heeds the EU’s call to lay down arms, the need for 'immediate ceasefire' to protect stranded civilians would not arise.
Meanwhile, the battle is taking an unacceptable toll of Tamil civilian lives. According to the international civil liberties group, Human Rights Watch, 2,000 Tamils have been killed and 5,000 wounded since the fall of Kilinocchhi, the LTTE’s administrative centre, in January.
Both sides are targeting civilians -- the SLAF through indiscriminate bombing and shelling, and the LTTE by firing on them to prevent them from fleeing to safety. 'This constitutes a complete violation of the laws of war and of international humanitarian law, which grant immunity to civilians,' says Chenoy.
The SLAF is keen to finish the war and declare victory before Sri Lanka’s New Year in April. This is likely to lead to a sharp increase in casualties among the more than 200,000 civilians trapped in the war zone, a 100-sq km strip.
Argue V. Suresh and D. Nagasaila of the People’s Union of Civil Liberies in Tamil Nadu: 'As if to cover this up in advance, the SLAF is deliberately playing down the number of civilians originally living in the zone to 70,000. The Rajapakse government claims that half of them have already fled, although the actual number may be only a few hundred.'
They add: 'In the coming days, Colombo may declare that all the civilians have escaped, leaving only the LTTE there. The SLAF can then legitimately launch a no-holds-barred final offensive, including firebombing, ostensibly to finish the LTTE. This is liable to lead to mass slaughter or a holocaust.'
As if to ensure India's continuing support to the military operations and stave off its pressure for a political settlement, Sri Lankan army chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka recently highlighted the 'threat' that the air wing of the LTTE poses to India.
Referring to last week’s attack by two LTTE aircraft on Colombo, the general warned that the Tigers’ planes could penetrate 150-170 km inside Indian territory. 'This greatly exaggerates the threat,' says Chenoy.
The Lankan humanitarian crisis is deepening by the day. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW): 'The Sri Lankan government has indicated that the ethnic Tamil population trapped in the war zone can be presumed to be siding with the LTTE and treated as combatants, effectively sanctioning unlawful attacks.'
Adds HRW: The SLAF have 'repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled areas crowded with displaced persons', including government-declared 'safe zones' and 'the remaining hospitals in the region.'
The SLAF is herding civilians into internment camps, masquerading as 'welfare villages'. 'The displaced persons, including entire families, detained in these barbed-wire camps are denied their liberty and freedom of movement,' says HRW. 'The plight of the region's civilians has been made worse by the government's decision in September 2008 to order most humanitarian agencies out'.
The government has thrown a blanket of censorship over the war zone. It has failed to bring in enough food, medical supplies, and other relief and has only allowed a minimal role for the United Nations. Continued fighting, lack of oversight, and manipulation of the delivery of aid 'have all contributed to the continuing humanitarian crisis,' says HRW.
While it wages an open war in the North, the Sri Lankan government has launched a dirty war in the Sinhalese-dominated South. Critics of the government are harassed, taken into illegal confinement, and 'disappeared', or like 'The Sunday Leader' editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, gunned down.
On its part, the LTTE has proved ruthless towards the Tamils. With each battlefield defeat, it treats civilians with greater brutality.
According to a district official quoted by the Reuters news agency: 'When people occupy particular places, the LTTE sends shells from that area, and then the army also targets the same area.'
The LTTE also subjects civilians, including children, to forced recruitment and deadly labour on the battlefield and has few compunctions in shooting those trying to flee.
The LTTE has a long history of assassinating all those who disagree with it. Its victims include Rajiv Gandhi, progressive Sri Lankan Tamil intellectuals, and its own dissidents. It is probably the most murderous and pathologically militarised group in South Asia.
Says the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, a group that has a pluralistic vision of Sri Lanka: 'An entire generation of youth has been decimated by the war effort on both sides. The LTTE has sacrificed vast numbers of Tamil youth, many of who were forcibly recruited for a war they did not choose.
It adds: 'And the government of Sri Lanka has lured thousands of Sinhala youth from economically marginalised villages to fight its so-called ‘patriotic war’, concealing the high casualties that have been suffered by their families.'
The LTTE cynically capitalised on the plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamils after the infamous Colombo pogrom of July 1983, in which 2,000 Tamils were killed by state-sponsored mobs. The world’s bloodiest civil war has since raged in Sri Lanka.
Until recently, the LTTE was a formidable military force, but had a poor political strategy. In 2005, it played a key role in bringing President Mahinda Rajapakse to power by forcing the Tamils to boycott the election, thus strengthening the forces of Sinhala chauvinism.
The SLDF holds that a ceasefire must give high priority to saving the lives of the trapped civilians: ' why the LTTE is good faith commitment to a ceasefire may be suspect, a pause in the exchange of fire... will be useful for saving the trapped civilian population.''
Moreover, the SLDF wants any cessation of hostilities to be be coupled with pressure on the LTTE to permit United Nations agencies to enter LTTE-controlled areas so that they can ascertain the requirements of relief supplies and medical care.
Argues Achin Vanaik, a political science professor at Delhi University: 'India bears a special responsibility in respect of Sri Lanka. It looms as a giant neighbour with a large Tamil population, and has a history of intervention in Sri Lanka.'
He adds: 'At stake today is the very survival of the Tamils as a political community. India has to play a proactive role here. It must launch a diplomatic campaign to insist that the Colombo government stop attacking civilians, declare a ceasefire under international monitors, create safe corridors, and permit relief delivery.'
The challenge for India is to persuade Colombo to implement the promised devolution and merger of the North and the East within a federal structure, while resisting the temptation to install violent anti-LTTE and pro-government Tamil parties like People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam in power in the North, as it has done in the East.
Says Ahilan Kadirgamar, an SLDF spokesperson: 'The Indian government and the international community should call on the government of Sri Lanka to come out with political proposals that go beyond the 13th constitutional Amendment enacted in 1987 (which promises provincial councils), and effect extensive devolution of power and a non-unitary state structure, along with power-sharing at the centre through a bicameral legislature.'
© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service
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