A Fight Without Good Guys

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Civilian stories from the conflict zone on the north-east coast of Sri Lanka are finally beginning to emerge.

As the Tamil Tigers lose territory and are pushed into less than 100 square kilometres, they’ve taken tens of thousands of civilians with them. The UN and humanitarian organisations estimate that around 250,000 people are trapped in the battle-zone; the Sri Lankan Government figures oscillate between 100,000 and 120,000. In the midst of battle it’s impossible to verify the numbers, not only because of the fighting but because access is restricted for both journalists and humanitarian organisations.

A brutal endgame is underway in Sri Lanka. Government forces are close to inflicting a major and perhaps final military defeat on the Tigers, after formally abandoning the 2002 ceasefire about a year ago. The renewed campaign has been spearheaded by current President Mahinda Rajapakse, who won the 2005 election in an alliance with pro-war political parties and has thrown everything into the conflict. The Tigers (or LTTE by their acronym) have accused Government forces of shelling civilians indiscriminately.

Yet diplomatic sources and organisations such as Human Rights Watch report that the Tigers are keeping civilians against their will, and firing artillery close by, putting them in direct danger. In sheer desperation, more and more civilians are braving the deadly no man’s land between the two forces and fleeing the fighting. The Sri Lankan newspaper the Sunday Leader estimates that at least 22,000 people fled the Tigers’ area of control between 5 and 11 February as the battle advanced. The separatists lost their administrative centre of Kilinochchi last month, and they are cornered in their last remaining area of territory.

Many civilians tell of leaving their friends and family dead in the jungle, with the New York Times reporting that the Tigers shot and killed people as they fled and that others were injured by Government fire. Faced with imminent comprehensive defeat, the Tigers have revealed what has long been clear to many observers: although they receive significant and often zealous support from some segments of the Tamil population, their own military survival supersedes any concerns for civilian welfare. They exert control by force and fear.

There are no real good guys in this fight. The Sri Lankan Government has vowed to fulfill its duty of care to civilians in the battle zone. Yet the safety zones established for those fleeing the fighting have suffered repeated and deadly artillery bombardment. As desperate civilians finally make it across the frontlines, they risk being held in "resettlement camps" for up to three years and are vulnerable to abuse, according to a recent Amnesty International report on the Sri Lankan Government’s plans.

The Government says that secure camps are essential, and points to the fact that Tiger cadres are almost certainly infiltrating groups of internally displaced people, a claim borne out by a suicide bomber who exploded herself at a checkpoint on 9 February, killing 30 people including 10 civilians

To avert a catastrophe, international governments and advocates have urged remedies ranging from a ceasefire to increased access for aid. Yet as Australian-based commentator Michael Roberts points out on the Sri Lankan website Groundviews, urgent though these calls for humanitarian intervention are, it’s hard to imagine they’ll gain much traction given overriding military imperatives.

The LTTE’s brutality towards its supposed constituents is nothing new. They have been condemned by organisations like Human Rights Watch for forcibly recruiting one member of each family in their areas of control to fight as combatants — and their history of using child soldiers is well documented. Over the years the Tigers have assassinated numerous moderate Tamil politicians and human rights campaigners who challenge their political views, and have either broken previous ceasefires unilaterally, or used skirmishes and individual killings to provoke the Government to break them. Their organisational commitment to the military route has long reduced the possibility for a political settlement to be reached in good faith.

It’s hard to imagine the Tigers as party to an ongoing peaceful solution to Sri Lanka’s war. Sadly, it’s also hard to imagine the current Government upholding the rights and safety of Tamil civilians in the event of victory. The highest number of disappearances anywhere in the world in 2006 and 2007 was recorded in Sri Lanka with Tamil community members the main target.

Crackdowns in the name of security rely in large part on racial profiling, creating a climate of widespread fear. Whole neighbourhoods have been rounded up. As I’ve written previously for newmatilda.com, multiple assassinations and other attacks on the media have taken place with total impunity, and several journalists, media freedom, and human rights campaigners have fled the country.

The Government routinely dismisses concerns over rights violations, accusing those who criticise of being traitors to the nation. The head of the army, General Fonseka, is already on record saying that Sri Lanka "belongs to" the majority Sinhalese population, and that minorities must not "demand undue things".

Such precedents should dampen any optimism that the end of the war will equal a straightforward end to conflict in Sri Lanka. Perhaps the most ominous example of what may be in store lies in the east of the country, where the army defeated the Tigers two years ago. The military relied heavily for this win on a local breakaway faction of the LTTE which has since renamed itself the TMVP. Ex-LTTE commanders and fighters fed the military vital intelligence and information, and took part in battles that routed the Tigers from their last piece of eastern territory in July 2007. Peace and development were promised to the long-suffering civilians of the province.

Yet the TMVP split in a series of bloody skirmishes between its original commander, Karuna, and his deputy Pilliyan, both suspected of human rights abuses before and after the split. Pilliyan is now head of the east’s Provincial Council, a position he won on a joint ticket with the country’s ruling party.

Karuna, after an eventful sojourn to the UK — where he was arrested for visa violations (but not for suspected crimes against humanity) — is now a member of the Sri Lankan parliament. Both men retain power and a political platform even as tensions between them build, and the security forces close to them are implicated in abuses. Through a series of convoluted events, the regime has supported both sides — and as the Sunday Leader has reported, civilians, once again, are the victims.

This is classic divide and rule, which puts civilian safety on the back-burner in favour of political deals. While the conditions may be different in the north, the example of the east shows that any hopes northern civilians might have for a safe, secure, and just regime after a possible LTTE-defeat are unlikely to be met.

And the challenges in the north will be significantly larger. The Tigers have thousands of cadres, who have the training and motivation to continue guerrilla campaigns even if their organisation in its current form is broken. For the Government, this may not be a political disadvantage. The regime has risen to power on a war agenda, through which it has mobilised significant popular support. Opponents, particularly in the media, have been murdered or silenced, and few believe the regime is not directly or indirectly involved; the continued impunity for a staggering range of attacks lends credence to this belief.

The Government may be committed to victory for its own political interests, but as its policies inside and outside the war zone show, that doesn’t mean it is committed to peace, or a democracy that guarantees its own citizens’ rights.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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