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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2904

People and the War

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

They relate that once, during a hunting exhibition, they were preparing for Nushirwan the Just some game, as roast meat. There was no salt; and they dispatched a slave to a village to bring some. Nushirwan said, "Pay for the salt you take, in order that it may not become a custom, and the village be ruined." They said, "What harm will this little quantity do?" He replied, "The origin of injustice in the world was at first small, and everyone that came added to it, until it reached this magnitude." Sa’di Shirazi (The Gulistan)

In wars those who tell the unvarnished truth usually end up being castigated by both sides. In the Lankan conflict that has been the fate of organisations such as the University Teachers for Human Rights, the Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch. All three has a record of exposing abuses against the civilian population in the conflict zone, irrespective of the identity of the perpetrators. They took the lead in appraising the world of human rights violations by the LTTE during the years of the ceasefire. For doing so they incurred the wrath of the LTTE and were branded ‘anti-peace’ by the peaceniks. Once the Fourth Eelam War commenced, human rights violations became generalised; both the Tigers and the Lankan state acted with an absolute belief in their own infallibility and in their inalienable right to total impunity. Organisations such as the UTHR, HRW and the AI thus became anathemas to both sides of the conflict.

In its latest report the HRW exposes the inhuman practices of the LTTE vis-à-vis the civilian Tamils trapped in the conflict zone. The report draws particular attention to the LTTE’s horrendous child conscription. As should be obvious now, the Tigers are determined not to give up the struggle. In fact the triumphalist rhetoric of the government and its allies seems to have enhanced rather than diminished the LTTE’s will to resist. And it is the civilian Tamils who have been compelled to bear the brunt of the burden of this extremist resistance. For the Tigers are determined to fight to the last Tamil man, woman and child, literally. And the government seems to regard any Tamil in the Tiger area as fair game. Even the weather has turned against these hapless people. For them life has become an unleavened misery, a relentless and unequal struggle to eke a tenuous and a meagre existence in a nightmarish terrain.

Myopic Extremism

The HRW has been unsparing of the Tigers in its latest report: “The LTTE has brutally and systematically abused the Tamil population on who behalf they claim to fight and that the LTTE bears a heavy responsibility for the desperate plight of the civilians in the Vanni” (Human Rights Watch Report: Trapped and Mistreated: LTTE Abuses Against Civilians in the Vanni – December 2008). Had the Rajapakse administration been a little less indifferent to the plight of these people, if it responded with a little more sympathy and generosity to their suffering, winning them over would have been an easy task indeed. Unfortunately the administration tried to match the Tigers in ‘toughness’, baldly refusing to make any concession for the sake of the civilians in the conflict zone. The best case in point is its generalised expulsion of all NGOs working in the Tiger controlled areas.

Arguably some of these organisations were soft on the Tigers. The wise course of action would have been to make a distinction between those who were soft on the LTTE and those who were not and ask only the former to leave. In its extremism the regime made no distinction whatsoever and asked every single organisation to leave. Not only has this expulsion increased the jeopardy of the civilians; it has also prevented news about Tiger depredations getting out. As the HRW points out it was the information provided by some of the NGO workers in the conflict zone which made its damningly anti-Tiger report possible. "Humanitarian agencies reporting in the Vanni prior to the September 2008 expulsion documented a number of cases where LTTE cadres went to villages and IDP locations and organised rallies specifically targeted at the 15 to 17 year olds, urging them to volunteer for the LTTE and join the battle. The staff of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) active in the education sector in the Vanni also documented several cases where the LTTE went to address students aged between 14 and 17 at their schools, urging them to join the LTTE…. LTTE officials also have threatened affected families not to report child recruitment cases to UN and humanitarian agencies" (ibid). With those workers expelled by Gotabhaya Rajapakse's dictat, that important and credible source of information has dried up. Now the Tigers can engage in their abuses to their hearts’ content, without having to bother about exposure.

The report highlighting Tiger abuses could not have come at a better time for the Lankan side, given the real possibility of a shift in the US policy vis-à-vis the LTTE under Obama administration. But this fact does not make the HRW a Rajapakse stooge as some pro-Tiger elements claim, anymore than the organisation's pervious criticism of the Lankan side makes it a Tiger stooge. It is not credible to laud the HRW when it criticises the LTTE and castigate it when it criticises the Lankan side. Such reactions are based on 'our side can do no wrong' belief and nothing can be more wrong than that arrogation of infallibility in any human endeavour.

International community (with the possible exception of Norway) does not oppose the Lankan war per se or the government’s right to defend itself against Tiger aggression. Their problem is with the extremism displayed by the government in pursuance of that inevitable war (especially the Rajapakses’ permissive attitude towards rights violations when they are committed by either the Lankan Forces or their Tamil allies) and the absence of a serious search for a political solution to the ethnic problem. The problem of the Tigers needs a military solution and the problems of the Tamils require a political solution; both must happen simultaneously and not sequentially because they are interdependent. Unfortunately this basic truth is incomprehensible to the government and its apologists who believe that a military solution alone can bring about a lasting peace. Consequently whenever anyone criticises the government for human rights abuses or the absence of a political solution, it is taken as an act of treachery, as an advocacy of appeasement.

Total intolerance of any sort of criticism is a hallmark of the LTTE, a characteristic which made the Tiger Way. Vellupillai Pirapaharan regarded any criticism of his words and deeds as an impediment to the realisation of the goal of Eelam, even when such criticism emanated from those who were committed to the same goal and were fighting for it. In the end, the Tiger, through its excesses became an impediment not just to the wellbeing of Tamils but even to the realisation of the Eelam objective itself. Criticising one’s own side for its mistakes early in the day is the best way to make sure that those stray incidents do not grow into a pattern, a tendency, a habit. When you do not draw the line, you not only end up by debasing yourself but also by antagonising friends and giving the enemy ammunition to be used against you.

In any situation there are impossible concessions as well as possible ones. The boorish manner in which the regime responded to the Bishops’ plea for a ceasefire is as unnecessary as it is counterproductive. A more conciliatory response (perhaps a 24 hour ceasefire limited to the Christmas Day) may have resulted in some military disadvantages but these would have paled into insignificance besides the far more considerable politico-propaganda advantages emanating from such concession. Now the world will remember that it was the Lankan government and not the LTTE which rejected the Bishops’ very humane plea for a Christmas ceasefire and this would help the attempts by Tiger sympathisers to depict the Lankan side as aggressors. When guns boom and bombs fall on Christmas Day, civilian Tamils living in fear of their lives would remember that their own government refused to concede them even a 24 hour respite from the horror that is war.

Short-sighted

The price of crude oil has fallen to a new low in the international market but in Sri Lanka the government is defying a Supreme Court order to reduce the local price of petrol. The regime’s apologists are arguing that the tax money from oil is needed to run and win the war. This from a government which granted Mihin Lanka Rs.1,100 million to wet lease an aircraft and is entertaining a proposal by the Presidential sibling Minister Chamal Rajapaakse to buy the Hotel Continental to house the administrative section of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority.

For the Rajapakse administration resurrecting the once failed Mihin Lanka is more important than buying essential drugs for the Cancer Hospital. For the first time in its existence the Cancer Hospital in Maharagama has set up a fund and are soliciting public contributions to buy essential cancer fighting drugs and injections. It is a well known fact that the under-funded public hospital system lacks the facilities needed to treat the thousands of injured soldiers. In such a context any minister who wants to buy a five star hotel is either insane or a traitorous. And this is precisely what Chamal Rajapakse wants to do according to a memorandum he presented to his brother’s cabinet. "The Continental Hotel situated at No. 48, Janadhipathi Mawatha, Colombo 01 is earmarked to be sold by the ownership. This is an ideal building, which could be converted as the Central Administrative Building of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority" (republished in The Sunday Leader – 14.12.2008). Minister Rajapakse is thus asking President Rajapakse’s cash strapped government to spend around Rs. 5 billion to buy a five star hotel with 250 rooms, 3 banquet halls, 3 restaurants, 1 swimming pool, large kitchen and a magnificent view of the harbour. If the Tigers set out to make the war unsustainable by bankrupting the government, they could not have come up with a better plan.

The regime does not want to reduce taxes on oil because it needs the money to maintain its riotous life style. If the regime reduces waste and corruption the people can be provided with some relief even in the midst of war (and let’s remember that those who benefit would include the families of dead, injured and serving soldiers).

The Rajapakses’ lack of interest in treading such a responsible path proves beyond doubt that they are as unconcerned about the wellbeing of the Southern people as they about the wellbeing of the Northern people. For the regime nothing matters more than its own wellbeing and its own survival. Any person, organisation or institution which acts as an impediment to this objective will be castigated as 'traitors'.

If the Supreme Court is called 'traitor' for reducing taxes on oil, what is Chamal Rajapakse who seeks to buy a five star hotel with 250 luxury rooms to house a government institution? In the first case the benefit will accrue to the people and thus the country. In the second case only a handful of politicians and their business friends will benefit. Those who condone the regime’s self-destructive brand of waste and corruption in the name of patriotism are being anti-national because they, by defending the indefensible, are helping the government to drive the county down a financial cliff. And when that calamity happens, its first casualty will be the war against the LTTE.

- Asian Tribune -

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