The Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers may be waging their final battle but the suffering of the civilians worsens.
The Sri Lankan government's two-year long strategy of a “military solution” has led it to a situation where it has more or less cornered the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the Wanni region in the northern part of the country. But the tactics of an “all out” military operation and the LTTE’s own strategy of using the population of Wanni as cover has resulted in a terrible humanitarian situation for the Tamils in the region, a human crisis that the rest of the world, let along neighbouring India, cannot ignore.
The people of Wanni, caught in the vortex of this “final battle”, have been forced into moving from one war-affected zone to another, even as the Sri Lankan government has turned out aid agencies from the area. At the same time, the LTTE’s desperate tactics has resulted in numerous civilian deaths and the internal displacement of more than 200,000 people according to United Nations agencies. The Sri Lankan government's defence is that the situation is unavoidable and that the Tamil people have no option but to suffer until the LTTE is defeated. Yet, this “military” argument ignores the fact that the Sri Lankan government has been showing no great concern for the hundreds and thousands now on the verge of starvation. Earlier this week UN convoys of food had to turn back because neither side was willing to temporarily end the fighting to allow relief to reach civilians.
It is against this background that the near-entire polity of Tamil Nadu has pressed the government of India to take a strong stance against the government of Sri Lanka's military operations in the Wanni. The threat of the members of Tamil Nadu to resign from Parliament should not be interpreted as merely a chauvinist response to the fact that the LTTE is on the verge of a military defeat. The LTTE has been isolated internationally for its many acts of indiscriminate violence and its failure to be serious about a peaceful settlement, but the Sri Lankan government for its own part has shown its chauvinist face in the events following the end of a lame-duck ceasefire two years ago. For all its rhetoric of building an inclusive Sri Lanka after defeating the LTTE, the Lankan government today hardly pays even lip service to the idea of a multi-ethnic society. The ruling political class openly talks of a “Sinhala” country and the military, given a free hand by the government, has been making unacceptable political statements about the minorities having no right to an equal status. The government, in a mood of triumphalism, has shown an increasingly intolerant face: it has prevented media access to the war-affected areas, sent humanitarian agencies out of the Wanni and rejected all international criticism of military excesses.
Ever since the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, with the repeated incidents of violence perpetrated by the LTTE and its rejection of a democratic solution to the ethnic crisis, support for this self-styled Tamil representative organisation has waned among political party actors in Tamil Nadu, but for some fringe elements. India's foreign policy toward Sri Lanka, after the disastrous Indian Peace Keeping Force effort, has also been one of non-intervention, something that has been gradually accepted by the mainstream sections of the Tamil Nadu polity as well. Yet it is not surprising that the Tamil Nadu polity has felt a need to express its strong anger against the Sri Lankan action in the Wanni. The current humanitarian crisis in the north of Sri Lanka could well worsen. That would mean a spurt of refugees to India and an even greater expression in Tamil Nadu about the need for the Indian government to intervene, a course of action that is fraught with great danger.
This suggests that the Indian government must, along with other international actors, compel the Sri Lankan government that steps have to be taken to address the humanitarian concerns of the people of Wanni. The silence of India and the rest of the world so far has been interpreted by the Sri Lankan government that it can implement its military solution without any fear of international reprimand and condemnation. There must be a commitment by the Lankan government to enter into a ceasefire with the LTTE which would allow humanitarian aid agencies to provide relief to the beleaguered. The greatest hitch to such a course of action would remain the LTTE's determination to keep the battlefront in the heart of the areas inhabited by civilians. But a besieged LTTE can be pressured by the international community and the global Tamil diaspora to think first of the survival of the hundreds of thousands of Tamils that it claims to represent.
The Sri Lankan government is wrong to assume that the defeat of the LTTE will end the “ethnic problem” as it sees it. The war weary people in the many Tamil speaking areas of the nation may passively accept a final confrontation between the government and the LTTE, but that does not translate into an acceptance of Sri Lanka as primarily a “Sinhala nation”, as the army commander recently claimed. It has been clear for longer than the 25-year-long civil war that a permanent solution can only be one that provides genuine devolution of federal power in an inclusive manner to the Tamils and other ethnic minorities. If this as not happened so far the blame lies as much on the Sri Lankan government and its Sinhala chauvinist supporters as on the intransigence of the LTTE.
Upcoming editorial for Economic and Political Weekly