Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Tragedy in the Vanni

Tragedy in the Vanni

The Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government push the Tamils of the Vanni to a fate worse than death.

Scores of dead civilians, many limbless survivors, starving and homeless people, makeshift hospitals that have been bombed and “human shields”. These are the images from the military confrontation between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the Vanni region in the north-east of the island. The Sri Lankan government’s campaign to destroy the LTTE has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe that was foretold when the military solution was initiated two years ago. The government, however, shows no let-up since it is sensing victory as the LTTE is now confined to a patch of 10 square kilometres adjoining the Indian Ocean. Until earlier this week, the Sri Lankan army was shelling and bombing the territory, while the LTTE used the civilian population as a shield against the military onslaught. Nearly 2,00,000 people have fled the area and are being kept in internment camps in shabby conditions while tens of thousands are hostages in the small area under LTTE control.

Both sides to the conflict, intractable in their military aims, have remained impervious to the human tragedy they have scripted. The LTTE refuses to give up and apart from issuing one unilateral ceasefire declaration earlier this week, which was rejected by the Lankan army, it continues to use the people it professes to fight for as fodder in its military resistance. Despite appeals from the international community, the Sri Lankan government too shows no indication of halting the military campaign to ensure safety of the civilians. The government has been emboldened by the euphoric support it has received from the Sinhala populace and from the Sinhala polity’s refusal to consider any course apart from military action to resolve the ethnic conflict.

The conflict now looms over the Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu as well. The Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has suddenly declared its support for an independent “Eelam” and in response, the Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (briefly) went on an “indefinite” hunger strike to demand cessation of hostilities in the island. Eelam, until now restricted to the fringe political sections of the state’s polity, has become an election issue. The government of India responded to the clamour in Tamil Nadu for intervention in Sri Lanka by sending its national security advisor and foreign secretary to Colombo and calling for a truce, but it is evident that the Indian response is not intended to go beyond tokenism. New Delhi perceives the conflict in Sri Lanka from a competitive geopolitical perspective as China is a big supplier of weapons and ammunition to the Sri Lankan government and Beijing is unwilling to pressure the Lankan government to stop its military campaign.

The efforts by the Sri Lankan government to paint the ethnic conflict as a “war on terror” have paid off because of the increasing global animus to all forms of “terror” since the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. There had been a crackdown on overt and covert material support to the LTTE in the various countries of the world hosting the Tamil diaspora and this has helped the Sri Lankan government isolate the rebel group and move to the verge of a military victory. The Sri Lankan government led by its president Mahinda Rajapaksa has managed to withstand criticism of its actions by promising a simultaneous political solution to the conflict involving other Tamil representatives, but this too is tokenism as no genuine effort towards a federal devolution seems to be in the offing. The tired tactic of co-option of a few ex-Tamil militants, and the adoption of draconian measures to curb any criticism of the government’s military approach in the media, civil society and the polity belie the promises made by Rajapaksa.

It is evident that a bloodbath is going to happen if the Lankan army continues on its course of wanting to obliterate the LTTE. Will a physically and emotionally traumatised Tamil citizenry really trust a government that promises an undefined political solution after its military victory? The current antipathy in the Sinhala polity towards a federal solution tells the Tamils what is in store after a Sri Lankan army victory. As for the LTTE, its strategy of dragging the remaining thousands of Tamil civilians in their area of control to mutilation and death is genocide of its own kind. It is evident that the LTTE top leadership will continue with its resistance because it fears trials for its past actions such as assassinations and indiscriminate attacks on civilian institutions. But if the LTTE wants to live up to its claim of acting on behalf of the Tamil people of the island, surrender is the only way to prevent more casualties in the Vanni. It would then be up to the international community to drive a just bargain for the Tamils if the Sri Lankan government fails to live up to its words.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

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