|June 25, 2002||atimes.com|
Tigers dogged by human rights concerns
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK - While the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have convinced the world that they are keen to talk peace with the Sri Lankan government in Thailand, they have hardly been convincing on another front: grappling with their Achilles heel - human rights.
So much so that Colombo finds itself in a position that would have been hardly imaginable two decades ago, during the early years of Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict - to take up the case of human rights of Tamil civilians allegedly violated by the Tigers in the country's north and east.
Those who have placed the Sri Lankan government in this ironic position are Tamils living in the island's northern and eastern provinces, the region that the Tigers hope to control through a future interim administration, and international donors. "The government is under pressure from civil society groups," says a senior government official of the lobbying going on to secure commitments on human rights from the LTTE.
"Tamils who are still fearful of the LTTE's ways and donors [want] to include a strong human rights component into the interim council arrangement," the official adds. "Without it not much donor money will come forward for rehabilitation and reconstruction work."
Such thinking, in fact, is reflected by other observers of the ground reality in the country's north and east. "The central concern of those living in the north and northeast is that their human rights will be bartered away by the government in negotiations with the LTTE in a post-conflict settlement," states a recent independent study, "From Putty to Stone: Human Rights Programming in Sri Lanka".
And currently, the global human-rights lobby Amnesty International (AI) is in Sri Lanka on a two-week mission to raise the profile of such concerns. "The current ceasefire and imminent peace talks offer both sides a real opportunity to put human rights squarely on the agenda," states Ingrid Massage, AI's Sri Lanka researcher, in a note explaining AI's mission.
The end of June will mark four months since the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers signed an agreement formally declaring a ceasefire. This has been the longest pause in the conflict between the Tamil rebels and the government troops that has, since the early 1980s, resulted in over 60,000 deaths. Under the current agreement, the Tigers have been given the license to pursue their political programs in Sri Lanka's northeast, the region the LTTE has been battling over to create a separate state of Tamil Eelam for the predominant number of Tamils living in the area.
But while the Tigers march ahead to present themselves as the "legitimate" leaders of Sri Lanka's Tamils, they are leaving a trail that affirms a scant regard for the human rights of their kin, the Tamil civilians. Human-rights groups have identified the most glaring: extortion, kidnap for ransom, forced recruitment of child soldiers and hostility towards Tamil holding an opposing view.
By far the most scathing criticism has come from the University Teachers for Human Rights - Jaffna (UTHR), a highly respected body of Tamil academics that documents rights abuse in Sri Lanka. "Hundreds of young people have been removed by the LTTE from areas under its control and now it is mainly a mopping up operation in pockets that have resisted or escaped," the UTHR declares in its latest report, "Towards Totalitarian Peace: The Human Rights Dilemma", released in early May. The youngest child conscripted was 11 years old.
"Abductions and extortion have in fact increased," the report adds. "In Batticaloa [a town in eastern Sri Lanka], the LTTE walked into banks demanding customers' accounts that are confidential. Frightened bank employees obliged without protest," it says. The Tigers have always maintained a tight control on life in the areas they controlled during the separatist struggle. Those they have deemed enemies or political threats have been killed, including members of other Tamil militant groups, Tamil parliamentarians and human rights activists.
For Rajan Hoole of UTHR, the irony that the Sri Lankan government finds itself in today - pressing the case for human rights in the area that the Tigers roam - has much to do with what the Tamil struggle has become. "The struggle has degenerated to a point where it has no ideals and vision," he asserts. "The people have no say in it. It has now become a struggle all about the security of the leader [the LTTE's Velupillai Prabhakaran] and a few people around him."
But can the LTTE overcome the human-rights charges against it? Not for long, says an international aid worker in Sri Lanka, because the Tigers cannot expect to acquire legitimacy without having gone through a process of "redemption".
"If they want to play a key role in the administration of the north and east," he asserts, "they have to be ready to discuss the modalities of a shift from a totalitarian approach to a rights-based and democratic approach."
Yet the question remains whether Colombo will raise these concerns when talks finally begin in Thailand. For on the one hand, the government has been consistently willing to downplay or ignore complaints against the Tigers; on the other, it is determined to keep the LTTE within the current peace process.
And the other significant reason: the Sri Lankan government has still to address its own baggage of human-rights concerns, including impunity, disappearances and the lack of military accountability. Equally troubling for the government is how to deal with the continuing presence of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), a law that gives the state extensive power to arrest and detain people arbitrarily.
The rigorous application of the PTA in the early 1980s - resulting in torture of innocent civilians - was key to the groundswell of support that the LTTE enjoyed among Tamil people in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.
(Inter Press Service)
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