Sri Lanka's end game brings new woes
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - With territory under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam (LTTE) shrinking to about 200 square kilometers, the Sri Lankan
government is confident that the LTTE "will be defeated in a few days".
In his speech marking Sri Lanka's 61st independence day, President Mahinda
Rajapaksa said on Wednesday that Tamils living in "bondage under the ruthless
forces of terror" would be "liberated and given the equality and all the rights
that they are entitled to under the constitution".
Even as Rajapaksa was making grand promises on liberation for the island's
Tamils, shocking details emerged of just how the
government was going about "liberating" them - allegedly using cluster bombs on
civilians. According to a United Nations spokesperson, a hospital - the only
functional one in the rapidly shrinking area under LTTE control - in
Puthukkudiyiruppu was hit by cluster bombs killing 52 people and injuring over
80 others. The hospital was under relentless shelling for over 16 hours on
Tuesday and Wednesday.
"The use of cluster bombs in such circumstances could constitute a war crime,"
said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director. Colombo has
strongly denied using cluster bombs.
About 250,000 Tamil civilians are believed to be trapped in the small strip of
territory under the LTTE's control in the Mullaitivu jungles. As the end game
intensifies, the armed forces are focusing all their fire power here. The
government said the military campaign was in a "decisive stage", and that it
cannot be "be responsible for the safety and security of civilians still living
among LTTE terrorists".
Although the LTTE claims the Tamils are staying with them voluntarily, it is
likely that the latter have been coerced into doing so. The Tigers are expected
to use them as human shields as the troops close in. It is feared that tens of
thousands of civilians will die in the fighting in the coming weeks. The
government has called on Tamils in the war zone to cross over to the "safe
zones" it has set up. But neither the government nor the LTTE has hesitated to
target these so-called safe zones.
From the inception of the civil war 25 years ago, both the LTTE and the
government offered the beleaguered Tamil civilians the promise of liberating
them from the repression of the other. Yet neither has shown the slightest
concern for the safety or welfare of the Tamils. If the Tigers have used the
Tamil people repeatedly as human shields, the government has subjected them to
relentless aerial bombing for over two decades, even hitting orphanages and
schools. Both have been more concerned about liberating territory than people.
And in the war to liberate territory, it is the government that has come out
victorious. It has successfully wrested large swathes of territory from the
LTTE's control. In 2006, when the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire between the LTTE
and the government started fraying, the LTTE held 15,000 square kilometers of
territory, a little less than a quarter of the country. The government has
liberated almost 99% of that territory.
However, its record with regard to liberating Tamils from terror and violence
is rather poor. In July 2007, the LTTE was driven out of the last of its
strongholds in Eastern province. So has the situation for Tamils and other
communities there - the Sinhalese and Muslims - improved in the 18 months since
the east was "liberated" from LTTE control?
"Life is markedly better in some ways for all three communities in the east
after the defeat of the LTTE," an International Crisis Group report has said.
"The absence of war has allowed many to return to agricultural and economic
activities that had been abandoned. For Sinhalese and Muslim civilians, it
means freedom from fear of LTTE attacks and harassment. For Tamil civilians, it
means not just the absence of war and the return to something resembling a
normal life, but also freedom from LTTE abuses and repression. The government
has launched an ambitious development program with international financing and
some improvements in roads and infrastructure are already visible."
However, violence is increasing. "The Sri Lankan government says that the
'liberated' east is an example of democracy in action and a model for areas
recaptured from the LTTE," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights
Watch. "But killings and abductions are rife, and there is total impunity for
The killings and abductions in the east are said to be the work of armed
elements of the Tamil Makkal Vidulthalai Pulikal (TMVP), the political party
that was set up by Colonel Karuna, aka Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, who broke
away from the LTTE in 2004. There have been innumerable cases of local
civilians being tortured by TMVP elements and then strung up on lamp-posts.
Children are being forcibly recruited. And instead of the LTTE's "taxation" of
civilians, the TMVP simply extorts.
What is particularly worrying is that the TMVP has the Sri Lankan government's
backing. In a bid to establish control over the east, the government joined
hands with the TMVP in the Eastern Provincial Council election and won. And
since forming a government there, the TMVP and other paramilitaries close to
the government have been allowed to do as they wish.
"Instead of encouraging the TMVP to embrace democratic politics and shed its
LTTE practices, the government is determined to keep the TMVP as a paramilitary
group," Frederica Jansz observed in the Sri Lankan English weekly newspaper,
Sunday Leader. "It has been actively promoting violent groups and political
forces and alliances that are seeking to increase hostility among people."
Besides, the government has been moving aggressively to Sinhalese the east
through development projects that will bring in new Sinhalese settlers while
implementing environmental rules that will take away public land from use by
Tamils and Muslims and recover ancient Buddhist sites, points out the ICG
Government-sponsored colonization by sending Sinhalese to settle in
Tamil-dominated areas right from the 1940s has changed the demographic
composition of the east and has been one of the main grievances of the Tamils.
With the renewed settling of Sinhalese in the east, Tamil and Muslim
insecurities and suspicions are bound to increase again, unleashing a new round
of bloodletting in this province which has already begun.
This is life under liberation from LTTE rule for Tamils in the east. It is
little different from what it was when the Tigers ruled the area. And it is
this "liberation" model that Rajapaksa will replicate in the newly liberated
areas in the north.
It is not just people in the Eastern Province that are living under terror.
Life in Colombo, the capital, is hardly better. Tamils here have to endure
routine searches of their homes. Tamil youth are taken away by police for
questioning, never to return.
And Sinhalese, who criticize the government's approach to the ethnic conflict,
too are being targeted by the Rajapaksa government. At least 14 journalists and
Sri Lankans working for the media have been killed since 2006 and another 20
have fled the island after getting death threats, Amnesty International said.
Scores have been beaten up by "unidentified gunmen" or threatened. J S
Tissanayagam, a Tamil journalist, has been in custody for nearly a year.
Anybody who dares to question or differ with the Rajapaksa regime it seems will
not be spared. Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the president's brother,
warned Western diplomats, foreign journalists and aid groups that they would be
"chased" out of Sri Lanka if they appear to favor the LTTE.
Rajapaksa is no democrat. His promise of liberating Tamils is unconvincing. For
Sinhalese hardliners, this is a war about territory. For them and the
government, it is a military victory over the LTTE that matters most. Tamil
civilians, it seems, are trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in