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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2558

Triumphalist Hype and Reality

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“The Sri Lanka armed forces and the LTTE appear to be engaged in a perverse competition to demonstrate the greatest disregard for the civilian population”. Human Rights Watch (War on the Displaced: Sri Lankan Army and LTTE Abuses against Civilians in the Vanni – 19.2.2009)

Friday’s Black Air Tiger attack did little harm to life and property but much damage to the government’s reputation. It also proved the LTTE’s determination to fight on, with whatever means possible, notwithstanding its conclusive defeat in the conventional phase of the war. If an organisation, which is supposedly in terminal stages, can mount an operation which involves air forays into a highly fortified city hundreds of kilometres away, then its ability to wage a guerrilla war, on the land and the sea, should not be discounted.

As a guerrilla outfit without a specified geographic area under its control, the LTTE’s survival and success would depend largely on its capacity to exacerbate the politico-psychological gap between the civilian populace and the Lankan state/armed forces. As a nascent state, the LTTE could exist without a substantial degree of popular support, obtaining through the use of force what they could not get freely and voluntarily. But as a guerrilla entity it will not be able to survive without genuine popular backing. Since the LTTE is unlikely to change for the better so long as Vellupillai Pirapaharan is alive, the decisive role will belong to the Lankan actor. It would depend on the capacity of the Lankan state to win over the Tamil people, to make them feel a part of Sri Lanka, to give them hope about a Sri Lanka future. It would depend on the regime’s capacity to satisfy the just concerns of the international community in general and the parochial fears of Tamilnadu in particular. If the state and the regime succeed, the Tigers, as a guerrilla organisation, can be made to shrivel by eroding the political and psychological space available to them. But if the state and the regime fail, that failure will sow the dragon teeth of violent separatism, again.

Collective Punishment?

According to the Human Rights Watch, civilian casualties for the three week period from January 20th to Feb 13th 2009 are a massive 1,123 dead and 4,027 injured. Many of these lives could have been saved if the LTTE did not detain hundreds of thousands of civilians forcibly. Still the Tigers’ characteristic barbarism cannot justify the sins of omission and commission of a democratic government. And the bombing and shelling of the remaining Tiger territory in complete indifference to the impact on the entrapped civilians is not winning it any hearts and minds outside of the Sinhala south.

Perhaps the regime’s tough guy act, its manifest disregard for the safety of civilian Tamils, its deafening silence on devolution would help it to win Sinhala votes; but in the North and the East and internationally, these avoidable – and indeed inexcusable - errors are making the Tigers look slightly less obnoxious, in the eyes of those who are destined to play a decisive role in the future of both Sri Lanka and the LTTE.

The Tigers are neither liberators nor protectors of the Tamil people. In the hour of his twilight, the Sun God is acting quintessentially, as the latest Human Rights Watch report records. The report details how the LTTE is forcibly holding the civilian populace, using them as cannon fodder, conscripting them as soldiers, terrorising them into forced labour. It records many instances of LTTE firing at civilians trying to flee into government controlled territory: "In several cases the LTTE deliberately attacked civilians in an effort to prevent them from fleeing" (War on the Displaced: Sri Lankan Army and LTTE Abuses against Civilians in the Vanni – 19.2.2009).

The barbarity of the LTTE towards fellow Tamils has created a window of opportunity for the Lankan state to win over that alienated community. Unfortunately the government, blinkered by its Sinhala supremacist vision, is failing to make use of this. Despite its rhetoric, there is nothing humanitarian about the Lankan offensive either. The HRW report confirms the harm done to the trapped civilians from the indiscriminate bombing and shelling by Lankan Forces. It details the attacks on hospitals and 'safe zones'. It also documents the manner in which the displaced civilians are treated; they are incarcerated in "military controlled barbed wire camps…denied (of) their liberty and freedom of movement" (Ibid). Even family visits are generally disallowed and even those with relatives and friends willing to accommodate them are forced to live in camps, which are open prisons devoid of most of the basic facilities. As the HRW points out, quoting a relief worker in the area, "If people knew that there was the ICRC or other international agency waiting for them on the other side thousands, virtually all of them, would have run for safety, even if it meant breaking through LTTE cordons. But risking your life to end up in government detention – not many are willing to do this" (Ibid).

A ceasefire with the LTTE at this (or any other) time would be a monumental mistake, given the nature of the Tiger. Equally unacceptable is the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the war zone. The LTTE, by forcibly detaining civilians in the war zone, played a pivotal role in the creation of this humanitarian crisis but the Lankan state cannot use the Tigers’ conduct to absolve itself from its democratic and civilisational responsibilities. The LTTE always sought to erase the distinction between itself and the Tamils, to make the two coequal, to make the Tamils complicit in all its crimes. This aim was particularly evident throughout the Fourth Eelam War. That, for example, is why the LTTE created the illusion of Makkal Padai – the non-existent peoples’ forces which claimed responsibility for every Tiger attack on the Lankan Police, Army and Navy in late 2005 and early 2006. Similarly, the LTTE’s purpose in this final phase of the war is to compel the Lankan Forces to kill and maim as many non-combatant Tamils as possible.

*A government that inflicts collective punishment on a part of the populace should not expect support or loyalty from those people. The regime is doing the Tigers’ work for them – creating the conditions necessary for the continuation of the conflict, breeding future members and supporters of the LTTE.

It is not in the nature of Vellupillai Pirapaharan to give up Eelam or to divert from the path of war; and this all or nothing maximalism makes his elimination a sine qua non for the resolution of the Lankan crisis. But a lasting peace will still be elusive if the political conditions which turned Vellupillai Pirapaharan from a boy who tortured birds into a leader of a terrible host remain unaddressed. Because, contrary to the cherished belief of many a Sinhalese, Mr. Pirapaharan was not a creation of India or the West (or the Church!). He was the offspring of 1956, of Sinhala Only and the anti-Tamil riots which stemmed from it, of the dismissive attitude of succeeding Lankan governments to peaceful protests by democratic Tamils, of the two broken promises, the B-C pact and the D-C pact, would be solutions which foundered on the implacable reefs of Sinhala maximalism.

President Rajapakse is on record expressing his lack of belief in the existence of an ethnic problem, repeatedly. This disbelief cannot be dismissed as a mere matter of semantics. If there is no ethnic problem, then a political solution based on devolution becomes not just meaningless and unnecessary but extremely undesirable – as dangerous as administering chemotherapy to a healthy man. This disbelief in the existence of the ethnic problem not only frees the government of the task of devolving power; it turns devolution into a false solution which the government must resist. Given this mindset, it is little wonder that Devolution is last on the government’s official list of priorities, after Demilitarisation, Democratisation and Development – a perfect formula for procrastination, ad infinitum.

The President has expressed a willingness to meet all the Tamil parties to discuss the situation in the North. That meeting may happen and Mr. Rajapakse may even make some obligatory references to a political solution to satisfy India. But anything more substantial is unlikely to materialise. That meeting will be as barren as the APRC, which is being kept on life support for exhibitory purposes. In fact, the government’s approach to the APRC is remarkably similar to its approach to the 17th Amendment.

Officially the government is for the 17th amendment. But in reality it uses allies such as the JHU to sabotage any consensus on the nominee from the small parties, thereby effectively preventing the appointment of the Constitutional Council. The 17th Amendment is not abrogated, but it is rendered meaningless; the same fate has befallen and will continue to befall the APRC. (A digression: In Sri Lanka, a change for the better may happen if the 17th Amendment becomes functional and the independent commissions are empowered. The government, for obvious reasons, do not want to see this happening (the President once castigated it as an attempt to take away his powers). For reasons less obvious, the Opposition (especially the UNP) is indifferent to its fate. If the Constitutional Council is not in place by the time the present Chief Justice retires - and is replaced by a less contentious figure - the 17th Amendment will be consigned to political oblivion).

As the results of the latest round of PC polls demonstrated, a majority of Sinhalese back the government but not a majority of the minorities. “A significant feature at Saturday’s Central and North Western Provincial Councils polls was the non election of a single Muslim candidate on the UPFA list in the four districts where the results were announced. Eight Muslims were elected on the UNP list in the Kandy and Kurunegala districts with one Tamil also elected from Kandy while the UPFA failed to get even a single Tamil candidate elected in the districts of Kurunegala, Matale and Kandy…. Meanwhile, the government which fielded 11 Tamil candidates in the Central Province got three elected in Nuwara-Eliya with all of them from the Ceylon Workers’ Congress, contesting under the UPFA’s betel symbol with five out of seven candidates elected on the UNP list in the same district being Tamils” (Daily Mirror – 17.2.2009).

This inability to win the backing of minority voters in a free and fair election can become a major handicap. Though the UPFA is bound to outperform the UNP at the next parliamentary election, its majority will be reduced substantially given the nature of the PR system. Its current majority is made up mainly of UNP defectors many of whom would loose their seats at the next poll. In the Presidential election Mahinda Rajapakse will have the advantage of running against Ranil Wickremesinghe; even then, without some minority votes, victory in the first round may not be possible. And despite the regime’s boasts of Sri Lanka having escaped the ravages of the global economic tsunami because of Mahinda Chinthana economics (the latest refrains come from Minister Champika Ranawaka and Governor, Central Bank, Ajith Nivad Cabral), the Lankan economy is in a perilous condition and the economic sufferings of the masses are on the way up. Consequently the government would need some extra help in winning national elections.

Confirmed Tiger incarceration of civilians. – forced recruitment and forced labour Government – bombing of safe zones and hospitals; refugees sent to A sensible programme – a humanitarian corridor; Tigers to let the civilians go; government to stop shelling. Displaced not be interned.

Innumerable examples have bee A survey among Afghans indicates support is plummeting for the Kabul government and the United States and European troops trying to bolster it against insurgents, according to a report yesterday. The decline is striking particularly in the last year, the poll shows, even as the Obama administration and NATO allies weigh moves to strengthen forces in the struggle with Taliban and other radical groups. President Barack Obama has assigned high priority to the conflict, and the administration is weighing whether to send another 30,000 US troops, almost doubling the 32,000 present.

Few Afghans felt encouraged by Obama's election, however: Two in 10 said they thought he would make things better for the Afghan people, and nearly as many said they thought he would make things worse. The rest either expected no change or were waiting to see. The poll commissioned by ABC News, the BBC and ARD German TV found that the number of Afghans who say their country is headed in the right direction has dropped to 40 percent, from 77 percent in 1995 when the survey was first conducted.

While 83 percent of Afghans expressed a favourable opinion of the United States in 2005, just 47 percent feel that way now. There was an 18 percent drop this year alone, according to polling results. Other negative findings include: 32 percent of Afghans credited the US with good performance, compared with 68 percent in 2005. 37 percent of Afghans said they supported US ally NATO in Afghanistan. 52 percent said they supported Afghan President Hamid Karzai and 49 percent said they backed his government. In 2005, support for Karzai was at 83 percent and for his government at 80 percent. 79 percent of Afghans said US and NATO air strikes were unacceptable, as the risk to civilians outweighs the value in fighting insurgents. Kuwait Times – 10.2.2009.

- Asian Tribune -

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