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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2784

Winning the Hearts and Minds of Tamil Civilians Caught up in the War? Need for a Change in Strategy and Approach

Dr. Siri Gamage, Australia

My previous article focusing on the need for safeguarding the safety, security and welfare of Tamil civilians caught up in the war in the north of Sri Lanka drew a range of critical comments and a written reply from Mr. H.M.Liyanage (see Asian Tribune 2008-10-27). Mr. Liyanage draws ‘his own conclusions’ about what I wrote, then criticises me on the basis of such conclusions. Readers need to note that his assertions are incorrect and they are not mine.

For example he says, ‘At this point in time too there was enormous pressure brought upon the Government by the likes of Dr. Gamage asking the Security Forces to unconditionally halt the military operations’. Where did I say this in my article (2008.10.25)? It would be very difficult for Mr. Liyanage to point this out.

His claims about why the civilians are not coming to the government controlled areas, i.e. due to LTTE factor only, is also not born out by the Special Report issued by the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) in October 2008 This report provides a range of reasons for the civilian reluctance to come to government-controlled areas in addition to the LTTE factor. The issue of displaced civilians in the war-affected areas is much more complex and it cannot be fully grasped by reducing it to the LTTE factor alone.

In my article, I did not suggest foreign powers to invade ‘sovereign’ Lanka. I did not support the LTTE for its activities either. Words I used such as ‘enforce their will’ have been taken out of context and Mr. Liyanage makes various accusations and put labels on me as well. Such exercise is quite unwarranted if he truly believes in the freedom of expression as a democratic right.

I was also dismayed to note the anger, hatred, and animosity expressed by other commentators in the comments columns. Commentators about my article opted to play the man rather than the ball! This is abhorrent, to say the least. I can understand how emotions are running high at this time about the war, and the existing intolerance of any views that are deemed to be not in conformity with the mainstream views held by a lot of Sinhalese countrymen and women.

If the comments as appeared in The Asian Tribune corresponding to my previous article reflect the mindset of the mainstream thinking among the Sinhalese population, what hope could there be for any 'intercultural existence' for the people of Lanka? The qualities displayed in the reported comments are the very qualities that lord Buddha and other religious leaders have endeavoured to curb in the human mind and suggest peaceful solutions.

There seems to be a strong reluctance on the part of displaced civilians to come to the no conflict zones announced by the government and/or government controlled areas. The October 2008 report by the University Teachers for Human Rights –Jaffna articulates the dilemmas and challenges facing recently displaced Tamil civilians compelling them Not to come to the zones or areas under government control. One of these reasons is the anticipated reprisals from the government side if they do so. The report says:

Apart from the LTTE stopping them, there are other pressing reasons why families are reluctant to flee from the Vanni. Many of their children have been conscripted and are either dead or serving on the battle lines. As far as the government is concerned they are marked, irrespective of the fact that their children were forcibly removed. Once in the government-controlled area, they would be photographed, confined to camps and paraded before masked informants, often persons from their own area who know their family history. - (UTHR (J)-31 2008: 7)

Under these circumstances, what should be the strategy to entice these displaced civilians to come forward to the government controlled areas or no-conflict zones?

Given there is a reluctance of displaced civilians to come to the no-conflict zones that the government has announced or government controlled areas, it makes every sense for the government to involve a third party like the UN as monitors. This is a suggestion made in the above-mentioned report also. If there is UN officials working as monitors in these facilities it can establish a degree of credibility among the displaced and entice them to move to government controlled areas/zones. Furthermore, the living conditions of the displaced civilians can become tolerable, and the fear of any potential reprisals from those associated with government security forces can be minimised.

We may recall that in the aftermath of the 1971 insurrection several University hostels were used by the government to rehabilitate those who were taken into custody. There was a process in place to screen the inmates, identify the hardcore suspects and separate them from other groups. Family members were allowed to visit, bring food and clothes, reading materials. Inmates were provided with facilities to sit for government and university exams. Some access to the media was also allowed. These kinds of measures convinced the parents, family members and friends that the government was treating the inmates according to the law of the land. I am not saying that there weren’t controversial issues during that period also. But by and large, the country’s name was not tarnished as one that does not care about the human and civil rights of its people, especially the young suspects. Even prisoners of war have certain rights.

Similar approach is necessary for those who are suspected of involvement with the LTTE also. There are many young and middle-aged people in custody already from the North and East (The latest Human Rights Report by the University Teachers of Jaffna provide further information about their predicament also). An approach based on fair treatment of those in custody as well as civilians who are displaced must be an essential part of the on going war-related activities. Unless several safety zones (heavens) are established with the active supervision of relevant UN agencies as well as the material and moral support of well-meaning countries for the displaced, and rehabilitation camps established for the suspected LTTE cadres taken into custody, the government will attract more substantial criticism from local and international sources in coming months. The whole point of my article was to highlight the need for the international community to press for this sort of change in approach toward displaced civilians who are unwilling to come to the no-conflict zones/government controlled areas.

Capturing land, rivers, towns and villages by the military alone is not going to be the ‘be all - end all’ solution to a complex question like the one at hand. As the security forces intensify their attacks and more and more civilians become displaced, strategies like the one described above to win the hearts and minds of civilians need to be evolved with the involvement of third parties. Significant disruptions that are happening to civilian life should not be allowed to be seen as an ‘attempt to destroy the heart and soul and collective existence of Tamil people in the north’. In the absence of more humane strategies and facilities, the world tends to view displaced civilians as war-destitute, thus drawing the sympathies for the displaced and criticism toward the government.

There is no question that Sri Lanka is a sovereign country, and its elected government should be the sole authority. However such sovereign rights claimed by governments do not exist in a vacuum. Government has obligations to the people in all parts of the country. Primary among these is the safeguarding of civilian security and safety. One may argue that due to the existence and activities of the LTTE –which has been proscribed as a terrorist organization by many countries – this is not possible, therefore, it is necessary to annihilate it first and then establish democratic governance in the north via an elected Provincial Council.

There is some validity to this argument. However, if in doing so large numbers of civilians get displaced, and make them suffer under miserable conditions, what is right about such action? One may also argue that these civilians, especially those who chose to go to LTTE held areas, are LTTE supporters and sympathisers.

Therefore they deserve such misery. Such arguments are very simplistic arguments based on hatred, animosity, anger and other mental defilements generated by years of conflict and its effects on people in the South and Sinhalese diaspora. It is time that we move beyond such negative attitudes and look for attitudes, actions, strategies and solutions that can build mutual confidence, reconciliation, trust and compassion among peoples-irrespective of what the LTTE does.

Among Sri Lanka’s leaders as well as the security forces there are well-meaning individuals who care about the victims of war, whether they be male, female, young, old, Tamil, Sinhala, or Muslim. However, in time of war there could also be individuals who prosecute unimaginable acts/hardships on the suspected wrong doers. Sometimes the latter can be innocent. During Sri Lanka’s previous conflicts in the South, such events and happenings came to light. Some writers have articulated these in vivid detail (For example, see Globalization, Terror & the Shaming of the Nation by Jani de Silva, Trafford Publishing, British Columbia published in 2005). Scrutiny of the war by the media, independent observers, etc. is important to prevent such incidents.

End does not justify the means. As a responsible citizen of the world, which is supposed to be different from a terrorist organization, government and its security forces have obligations to the citizens. This is why I argue that the establishment of ‘safe heavens’ for the displaced is a necessary strategy and step to be taken now. It can only bring more credibility to the government and those who support the war from the non-LTTE side –rather than an invitation for foreign countries to invade Sri Lanka. It may be the case that I did not make this clear enough in my first article leading to misinterpretations by others.

Ultimately though, significant political reform is necessary to resolve the Tamil issue and also the needs and aspirations of the people in the country as a whole. A political culture where dissent is tolerated, media rights, human rights, rule of law, democratic governance structures and organs that are operational to safeguard the rights of citizens, and a country where the unhindered movement is possible for anyone without fear are all necessary parts of such reform.

The structures in place for governance have to cater to the multiple needs, values, and aspirations of people from different ethnicities, cultures, identities. However, the national structures and processes should not only represent such diversity but also accommodate the needs and aspirations of diverse peoples. For this to happen in our lifetime there has to be an all embracing national identity as well as citizenship concept developed. They need to be given meaning by government instrumentalities, enduring national symbols and discourses.

There is no room for separatism in a small country like Sri Lanka. For the LTTE, it is not enough keep complaining about what is wrong with the system of governance led by Sinhala leaders. LTTE leaders must now be convinced that there is very little scope for establishing a separate nation called Eelam. At present there is very little international support for this agenda –except from some segments of the Tamil diaspora.

The advance of Sri Lankan security forces in recent months and years into the LTTE held territory is shrinking the so-called Tamil Homeland. Therefore the LTTE should come up with a political solution within a sovereign Sri Lanka to match the ground realities at hand. At least people will then have something to focus on in terms of political considerations, instead of continuous war talk, displacement and destruction of human life and property. If the LTTE does not come up with such political ideas, the only conclusion one can draw is that it is still (over) confident about its military strength and assumed parity of status.

If war is a means to an end, what is that end? At the least from the government side, one can imagine a Provincial Council like in the Eastern Province. Whether this will satisfy the Tamil population in the Northern Province is doubtful. If the government wins the war in totality then the emerging situation can be quite different. But wars can have ‘predictable’ as well as ‘unpredictable’ consequences as they drag on. Some of the latter can be pretty devastating, as we have seen from our history. . Political dialogue has the potential to resolve issues that cannot be resolved by war. Such dialogue requires the unconditional participation of warring sides. As the world is going through an economic and financial upheaval, and a leadership change in the US is in the offing, the impact of these events on Sri Lanka can be unpredictable –even without the war. It is time that the leaders on all sides take a deep breath and evolve a political culture and solution to the issues confronting the nation on an enduring basis from within and outside.

Instead of alienating the Tamil population further and further by the actions, angry and one-sided discourses, and other means, it is important for those in authority to find ways and means of reconciling with the affected population and its religious, cultural, business, political, educational, and civic leaders.

Handling the issue of temporary displacement of civilians in the best possible and humane manner –therefore- is a key component of such a broad-minded approach to resolving conflict. It has to be based on a more deeper approach that goes beyond simply ‘blaming the tigers’ alone. Tamil resistance has its roots in the way Sri Lankan polity functioned in the post-independence period. The LTTE is only the medium/vehicle of carrying forward such resistance. Even if the LTTE is tamed, as many seem to believe, root causes of Tamil resistance has to be addressed for Sri Lanka to have lasting peace. In short, one has to identify the tree from the woods in this task.

Looking at a complex issue such as the Tamil Question in terms of the LTTE prism only is a trap that many well meaning Sri Lankans have fallen into. It is necessary to think ‘beyond the box’ and see what needs to be done not only to protect civilian life, property, human rights etc. but also to understand the Other, in this case the displaced Tamil civilians, and their concerns – as a distinctive people with human dignity.

- Asian Tribune –

Also Read:

A reply to Dr Siri Gamage : Moral bankruptcy of international community in assuring civilian safety in the north of Sri Lanka

Moral Bankruptcy of the International Community in Assuring Civilian Safety in the North of Sri Lanka

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