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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2584

Tamils in the War

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

"We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love…."

W B Yeats (The Stare’s Nest by My Window)

Last Sunday’s Island carried (with an editorial comment) the harrowing story of Maheswari, a Sri Lankan Tamil woman who was detained by the Kesbewa police for no other reason than her Tamil ethnicity. The tale is particularly disturbing because it demonstrates that some members of the Lankan Security Forces resort to a July 83 modus operandi to identify Tigers - buses were stopped and passengers were told to get down; while the non-Tamils were allowed to get on with their journey, every single Tamil was detained irrespective of whether they had valid identifications or not. Once a substantial number of such ‘suspects’ were accumulated, they were loaded into passing three- wheelers and sent to the police station some distance away, sans any guard whatsoever! Obviously the police did not seriously believe the ‘suspects’ to be LTTE but detained them nevertheless because they happened to be Tamil.

The problem is not so much that this incident happened. Even in the most tolerant land there will always be some misfits who think and act bigotedly. The problem is the sequel or the lack of it; the security personnel who acted in such an appalling manner are yet to be taken to task by higher authorities. So far no one has investigated what happened that day; so far no one has apologised to Maheswari and others who were detained unfairly and probably illegally. This absence of an official reaction indicates that such incidents are neither rare nor frowned upon by the powers that be.

If this is the way a segment of the Security Forces conduct themselves in Colombo and its environs, how must they be behaving in the war zone, where there are no cameras or newspapers to record their deeds and anyone who objects can be arrested with impunity, because the people are Tamil and unarmed and the Armed Forces are mostly Sinhalese? If this is the way Sri Lankan Tamils are treated by their state and their government, can they be expected to feel very Sri Lankan? How can they be blamed if they feel that a country which treats them so unjustly and so humiliatingly cannot be their own country? Practices of this sort do not serve the Lankan cause of unity but the Tiger cause of division.

A war for Sri Lanka cannot be a war of Sinhalese against Tamils or a war of Buddhists against non-Buddhists. The racial war is already here given the beliefs and stances of the LTTE and the Rajapakse administration. If the JHU has its way it will become a religious war as well (in the eyes of Sinhala hardliners a real Sinhalese cannot be anything other than Buddhist), as the speech by Minister Champika Ranawaka at an August 5th seminar (‘Rathu Magada? Bodu Magada? The Red Way or the Buddhist Way?) demonstrates yet again: “Warning of an imminent destruction of the Sinhala civilization, policymaker of the JHU Patali Champika Ranawaka has called for a struggle on the footsteps of King Dutugemunu to safeguard Buddhism. “Today, Tamil chauvinists are questioning as to how Buddhists could wage war. It is only the Buddhists who had not committed a single murder to promote their religion. But, no one should be allowed to test our patience and fish in the troubled waters,” he said. The vision of Buddhism will be no more if we lose the power of the state, the JHU policymaker said” (Lanka Dissent).

Like the Arecanut

Recently, the website, Tamilweek, carried an image which was symbolic of the plight of tens of thousands of civilian Tamils rendered homeless and defenceless by the war. The picture is of a family of refugees moving away from the war zone in a fruitless search for a safe haven; an elderly man, a teenage girl, a glimpse of a woman, a young child, with the expressionless faces of the hopeless, sitting atop their pitiful belongings, holding their brown mongrel dog. The tragedy of these people should not be ignored because they are Sri Lankan citizens. If the Lankan regime and the state ignore the agony of these innocents, it will give outside entities, from Tamilnadu to Washington, from Delhi to Brussels, a good enough reason to interfere in the country’s affairs.

The latest case in point is the recent remarks by India’s National Security Advisor MK Narayanan. It is not pleasant to be lectured to by an outsider; when that outsider is the regional superpower it is even more galling. But this fact should not blind us to the substance of Mr. Narayanan’s statement. The identity of the messenger should not make us reject the message itself, because the message is timely, as borne out by the experiences of Ms. Maheswari and innumerable other Tamils who are being treated like enemy aliens in their own country: “The (Sri Lankan Army) has made a lot of progress in the last few weeks. But even if they win the battle I am not sure they will win the war. I think they haven’t got the Tamil population on their side….. What we are telling them is get the Tamils on your side with greater devolution of power. … What the Sri Lankans are not factoring is the great deal of sullenness in the Tamil man. There are accusations of profiling even in Colombo”” (INAS – 12.8.2008; emphasis mine).

The government has placed all its eggs in the war basket, creating an axiomatic connection between the victory over the LTTE and its own survival. Defeating the LTTE is necessary but it should not be attempted at the risk of causing irreparable damage to Sri Lanka’s future. The economic hardships imposed on the country, the neglect suffered by essential services and unintelligent governance – all done or defended in the name of the war – are undermining the health and education standards of the future generation, especially of children from poor/lower middle class families. Such damages cannot be redressed even if the war is won. Their effects will be felt for decades to come, if not more. They will undermine Sri Lanka’s capacity to hold its own in the murderously competitive international market, exacerbate national economic woes and undermine political stability, leaving us poorer and more fractious.
The damage caused to Sinhala-Tamil/Tamil-Sri Lanka relations by the regime’s one dimensional worldview is even more substantial and is likely to last longer. When a government is determined to win either an election or a war at any cost, the horrendous becomes unavoidable. This can be seen in the ongoing election campaign which is threatening to turn into another Referendum or another Wayamba. Similarly the regime’s desire to win the war at any cost can make it tolerant of the most appalling human rights abuses, especially since any victim can be passed off as a Tiger. If it happened to Ms. Maheswari in Kesbewa, it (or worse) can happen to those Tamil civilians caught like an arecanut between a barbaric LTTE and a brutal regime in the war zone.

The war is unavoidable because Vellupillai Pirapaharan cannot survive without it (he enabled a Rajapakse victory because he wanted a war). But the agony of the civilians caught up in that war needs to be acknowledged. Bombs and shells are rarely smart; the life of a refugee in a war zone is a life of extreme deprivation, extreme uncertainty and extreme fear. It is necessary to reach out to civilian Tamils in Tiger areas and offer them all possible help. Sadly this common human feeling, this basic kindness and decency is lacking in our attitude to the plight of civilian Tamils. The impression we convey, as a state and a society, is that we do not care. Is it then reasonable to expect loyalty from people so ignored and despised?

War as Vendetta

The constant bombing and shelling (however necessary it may be from a purely military point of view) is turning civilian life in Tiger controlled areas into a nightmare. “A resident of the Vanni told us, “You cannot imagine life there. It is unbearable, the constant fear of aerial attack. Everyone is mentally killed every day, women, children and infants. Some bombs are set to penetrate the soil and explode. You could then see a hole about 30 feet deep and the water spilling in as though a well had been dug. Some bombs are set to explode 15 feet above the ground. Usually about four bombs are dropped on the target area. Then nothing would be left standing in about two acres of land. It would simply be scorched earth. The third kind of bomb explodes on striking the ground. Its vibration, along with a heavy gust of wind could be felt in a radius of two miles. Most of the house windows would be shattered” (UTHR – 8.7.2008). If aerial bombing cannot be stopped or even reduced, the least the regime can do is to be sensitive to the suffering caused by these attacks to civilians, admit the possibility of mistakes and apologise unreservedly when such mistakes are made. This is a consideration these people have every right to expect, as human beings and as Sri Lankans.

Sadly the regime does the exact opposite. Last week shelling reportedly by Lankan Forces caused the death of a baby and injured the Mullaitivu Government Agent, Imelda Sukumar. Ms. Sukumar states that “shells fell all around her quarters and the hospital complex close to her quarters” (Tamilweek – 8.8.2008). The Army spokesman denied the charge, accusing the Tigers carrying out the attack to discredit the Army. Though the Tigers are capable of practicing such deception, the past conduct of the Lankan state does not invest its denial with much credibility either. This government has adopted the Tiger habit of denying any wrongdoing in the war. In consequence, any responsibility for human rights violations is never accepted. This assumption of infallibility is counterproductive because a simple apology will deprive the Tigers of propaganda weapons and save Sri Lanka from bad publicity. It is dangerous because it rules out the need for better conduct. If our bombs and shells are smart enough to target the Tigers and spare civilians, why act with extra caution to avoid civilian casualties?

Vellupillai Pirapaharan demands and thrives on human sacrifices. For him Tamil civilian deaths are not a deterrent but a necessity. Quite apart from moral-ethical factors, this is a good reason for Lankan forces to go the extra mile to avoid civilian casualties. Any failure to do so will only provide human material needed for the Tiger goal of endless war, a war sustained by hatred and revenge. As the UTHR reported, “Asked what people in the Vanni feel about LTTE terror attacks in the South, residents asked did not give a direct answer. It took the form: ‘When there is an attack in the South, the US and European nations rush to condemn it, but who says one word about the regular bombing and mental torture we are subject to?’ The civilians were at the same time scathing about the LTTE…. This is the reality behind which the LTTE is able to conscript even the stridently unwilling and turn them around, something that amazed neighbours who knew the conscript’s earlier negative attitude to the LTTE.” (ibid).

The Tigers are terrorists not because they want a separate state or because they are fighting a war against Sri Lanka. The Tigers are terrorists because of the methods they are using in furtherance of their cause. Counter-terrorism can degenerate into terrorism if terror tactics are resorted to. As the war against terrorism becomes a war of terror the moral difference between the terrorists and the anti-terrorists can diminish, de-legitimising the latter. As the Fourth Eelam War moves into Tiger territory this is a reality which needs to remain unforgotten. Because the civilians in those areas are not enemy aliens but Sri Lankans; treating them as Sri Lankans is a sine qua non for a Sri Lankan future in an undivided island.

- Asian Tribune -

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