NEW YORK - The Sri Lankan government, which has come under heavy criticism for
the humanitarian crisis in the country's war zone, appears to have won the
25-year-old military conflict, but it is fighting a tough propaganda war
"It is a very stressful time here," says Sri Lanka's Foreign Secretary Palitha
Kohona, a former chief of the United Nations Treaty Section. Although the
military has scored unbelievable gains, he said, the last-ditch effort by the
rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was painful.
"The LTTE is trying to save its neck by surrounding itself with reluctant
civilians - 'lambs to the slaughter' - and throwing Kalashnikov-armed children
and old people against the army. People are getting killed. But not in the
numbers highlighted by
the LTTE propaganda machine," he said before both sides indicated an end to the
conflict at the weekend.
Sri Lankan troops on Monday fought to destroy the last toehold of the Tigers,
and recovered the bodies of top-ranked members. The military said it had found
the body of his son and heir-apparent, Charles Anthony, as well as those of
political wing head B Nadesan and spokesman Seevaratnam Puleedevan.
The last LTTE fighters are holed up in bunkers dug into less than half a square
kilometer on the Indian Ocean island's northeastern coast. President Mahinda
Rajapaksa declared a military victory on Saturday and the LTTE conceded defeat
A military spokesman said on Monday that LTTE head Velupillai Prabhakaran had
been shot dead by Sri Lankan special forces as he tried to stage a dramatic
breakout in an armor-plated van from the army encirclement.
The army is withholding an official announcement till a DNA test of the bodies
is conducted, they said, but the troops who pulled Prabhakaran's body from the
van identified it as that of the rebel leader.
During the past few weeks, LTTE supporters overseas have organized huge
demonstrations in Western Europe, Canada and the United States accusing the
government of war crimes.
Walter Kalin, the UN representative for the Human Rights of Displaced Persons,
said on Friday that at least 50,000 people were still trapped in the conflict
zone and they were "exposed to great danger and without access to sufficient
They were caught in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan military forces and
the LTTE, which was using them as human shields.
"The separatist LTTE is preventing civilians from leaving the area and placing
military installations close to them, while the government has been using heavy
weapons such as mortars in the conflict zone in recent days," Kalin said.
Asked whether United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon planned to respond
to the Sri Lankan invitation to visit the war zone, UN deputy spokesperson
Marie Okabe told reporters: "The secretary general is seriously concerned about
the well-being of the people on the ground, and he is seriously considering
such an invitation, if it's going to save lives on the ground."
The secretary general has sent his chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, to Sri Lanka
- the second time in less than four weeks - to assess the ground situation and
After a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council last Wednesday, the
council president, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin of Russia, issued a press
statement, approved by all 15 members, expressing "grave concern over the
worsening humanitarian crisis in north-east Sri Lanka".
Asked about the negative reports coming out of the war zone, Kohona told Inter
Press Service: "I am surprised that the international media and certain
national leaders, who do not seem to share the agony of Baghdad and the Swat
Valley, have swallowed the LTTE propaganda hook line and sinker."
"I have been assured from the highest levels that the Sri Lankan army does not
use heavy weapons and aerial bombs," he said. He also said the government had
"intercepted LTTE messages to the Tamil diaspora asking it to keep up the
propaganda blitz because liberal-minded Western countries will be forced to
"The diaspora which has invested much in the Eelam illusion [of a separate
state for the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka] will maintain the rage until the
end, and the hostages will be forced to pay the price with their lives - just
as other people's children were recruited to die in mosquito-infested jungles
while the diaspora wrote out checks every month to salvage its conscience and
placate the ghosts of 1983 [the year of ethnic riots in Sri Lanka]."
Asked about the proposal for a safe passage to the LTTE leadership to save
civilian lives, Kohona said: "A suggestion has been made that the families of
the leadership will be given safe passage, if they surrender."
Responding to widespread criticism that humanitarian organizations and the
international media are being shut out of the war zone, the government has
relented. According to Kohona, about 52 international organizations and
non-governmental organizations are operating in the camps housing internally
"I have been to the camps and hospitals three times," Kohona said, pointing out
that the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN High Commissioner
for Refugees are present at Omanthai, the screening center, when internally
displaced people arrive in government-controlled areas.
Trade partners consider pressure
The United States, joined by Britain, France and other European Union states,
are stepping up economic pressure on Sri Lanka to stop killing of civilians,
writes Nuwan Perera of Inter Press Service. The countries are planning on using
a proposed International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout package and trade
concessions as bargaining tools.
"I think the international community is putting economic pressure on the
government as nothing else has worked [in relation to international appeals to
stop fighting and avoid civilian casualties]," said Jehan Perera, political
commentator and executive director at the National Peace Council in Colombo.
Earlier last week, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French Foreign
Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters at the UN that the IMF's proposed
US$1.9 billion bailout package to shore up Sri Lanka's depleted foreign
exchange reserves was under review. They also referred to the "GSP+" tax
concessions for export products into the EU that Colombo has reapplied for -
these are also now under review.
On Wednesday, for the first time, US President Barack Obama joined the war of
words between Sri Lankan leaders and the world over the plight of thousands of
minority Tamil civilians trapped in a "no-fire" zone. Speaking to reporters at
the White House, he urged the government and the LTTE to take steps to avert a
"Without urgent action this humanitarian crisis could turn into a catastrophe,"
Miliband and Kouchner are among several leaders who have visited Colombo in
recent weeks to persuade Rajapaksa to consider humanitarian issues. Colombo has
rejected all calls.
On Thursday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Washington
that her government had "also raised questions about the IMF loan at this time.
We think that it is not an appropriate time to consider that [loan] until there
is a resolution of the conflict," she was quoted as saying.
Concern over the delay in approving the IMF standby facility, which is being
provided to many countries affected by the global crisis, is topmost on the
minds of Rajapaksa and central bank governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal.
When Rajapaksa met local and foreign bankers at a meeting on Tuesday, he was
reported to have said that even if the IMF loan doesn't come through, there are
other ways of tackling the foreign exchange crisis. Cabraal, who has been
leading the negotiations on the Sri Lanka side, told a meeting later the same
day that Sri Lanka was working on a back-up plan to boost foreign reserves in
addition to the IMF loan.
In the past, Cabraal has said that the IMF facility was the best way to tackle
the foreign exchange crisis - reserves fell to just six weeks of imports last
month against 12 weeks a year ago.
Efforts by the central bank to raise $500 million from the Sri Lanka diaspora
over the past year have not worked. Now the bank is working on currency swap
arrangements with other central banks in the region. A swap arrangement for
$200 million has been agreed with Malaysia's Central Bank.
Rajapaksa recently visited Libya and negotiations are also underway to secure a
$500 million loan from the North African country. The president has been
developing contacts with mostly non-Western powers - asking countries like
India, Iran, Jordan and Pakistan for financial support. He is currently in
Jordan attending an economic summit.
At Tuesday's meeting, Rajapaksa said the government was also able to secure a
year's postponement of an oil import bill. Last year Iran - a major supplier of
oil to Sri Lanka - granted a $1 billion loan to be set off against oil
Economists in Colombo however believe the IMF is unlikely to suspend the loan
request. "From what I gathered from Washington, the loan will come through -
maybe with some conditions," said a retired economist who has worked with the
international lending agency.
A senior official at the central bank, who declined to be named, also agreed
that the IMF was unlikely to be swayed by "political pressure".
"Once the war ends, the government will be [more] receptive to economic and
other issues raised by the international community," Perera said.