By Rajan Hoole
The pledge of government leaders not to leave the problem of terrorism to the next generation might have carried credibility, were the different components to a rational strategy in place. One should have been a federal settlement that would have left no doubt that the Tamils would enjoy equality, security and dignity as citizens of Lanka. Nothing approaching it has happened in 60 years of independence.
Instead the state’s ponderous defense apparatus has been bludgeoning away at the Tamils for 25 years. Another component of the strategy should have been human rights and humanitarian guarantees and there are none. Wars have become political shows, like a Roman Circus, for the Sinhalese electorate, run by politicians and aspiring politicians. They wear the mantle of tribal heroes and gloat over presumed body counts, presently of helpless boys and girls placed on the front under duress.
Timetables for taking Kilinochchi and triumphalism compensate for abysmal failures in the real business of governance to improve the lot of the common masses. It has become so acceptable that hundreds of thousands of people, especially Tamils, should remain refugees without hope, while the government does everything to sweep the issue under the carpet. Journalists have been intimidated to an extent where papers with a sense of integrity have cautiously to quote AI and HRW to inform their readers. The number of refugees is much greater than appears, as even those who survived the massacres in the Weli Oya land grabbing exercise of 1984 remain forgotten refugees. A new generation of refugees has grown up in India. In the East, the displacement of Tamils by violence that began in 1956 and 1958 became a flood in the 1980s.
While the government has been hectoring Muslim refugees from the North chased by the LTTE to return, it ignores the fact that what they want as reassurance is a political settlement to clear the air and not just an ambivalent military presence.
The immediate problem concerns 150 000 displaced in the Vanni. They represent the endemic problem of a generation of Tamil refugees, who have been displaced and resettled several times in the last 25 years and many of them half a dozen times in the last year. The LTTE conscripted many of their children and blocks their escape, and the government herds them like cattle by shelling, driving them deeper into LTTE territory. In two of a series of typical instances, on 25 October 2007 artillery shells fell in Periyamadu killing three displaced persons including a pregnant mother. On 8 August 2008 shells fired from Weli Oya fell inside the Mullaitivu hospital and environs killing an 18 month old and injuring many others. In both cases the Government issued denials, but our sources rule out the LTTE having fired the shells in either instance. The hospital also treats LTTE injured. The result is that people leave their homes and temporary shelters and are forced to move towards Kilinochchi. On the western side of Kilinochchi, missiles recently fell in Akkarayan and pushed more people towards Kilinochchi, as also in Puthukkudiyiruppu and Kumulamunai to the east killing and injuring people.
The frequency and increasing numbers involved in the displacement has meant that INGOs that sheltered them earlier are unable to cope. A temporary shelter for a family costs Rs. 30 000 to 50 000. Thousands are under trees in jungles, receiving rations, but with no income to buy extras and medicines, and no schooling for their children. In desperation mothers try to raise money by selling gold. Gold, which fetches Rs. 30 000 a sovereign outside is hard to sell even for Rs. 10 000 in the Vanni. Snakebite is common in their situation and 23 cases were recently admitted to Kilinochchi Hospital from around Akkarayan, Anaivilunthan and Vanneri. There is no record of those going to native physicians. People have moved so deep into the domain of wild animals that cases of fox-bite have been admitted to the same hospital. Normally, foxes in local experience avoid humans.
Adding to the misery of the people are frequent official intimations of their conscripted sons and daughters being killed on the war front. They do not have their home environment to mourn and expiate their grief. A list of 69 LTTE dead with details from a website for the first 15 days of July 2008 had 19 girls, and eight men from the auxiliary force, one apparently a Tamil displaced from the hill country in the 1970s. Twenty-five names were from the Jaffna district, very likely displaced in 1995, and four from the East. About 16 are listed as officers, two of them older looking from the auxiliary force.
Most of the dead look barely 18, betraying signs of recent conscription. This would also place the deaths among those sent to the front at the order of 1000 for this year, around 80% of them recent conscripts. This is a very rough estimate and some recent battles may have been very costly for both sides. One day, during the latter half of July ‘40 funerals were held in Jeyapuram (100 houses scheme) near Kilinochchi. It was traumatic for many people.
Displacement has also made conscription easy for the LTTE. Using its records the LTTE ‘plucks’ conscripts from refugee camps. At present it is applying pressure on families to hand over a second member, and even asking whole families to join. Former LTTEers who had left and raised young families have been ordered to rejoin. Two years earlier they rebuffed attempts to make them rejoin, protesting at the humiliating punishments inflicted on them when they wanted to leave.
A pro-LTTE website places their number at 5000. While there have already been many deaths and injuries from bombing and shelling. Judging by previous operations such as Operation Liberation in 1987 and the two operations to take Jaffna in 1995, these are likely to rise to several hundreds, as the army gets closer to Kilinochchi. The government would then be in a state of automatic denial. One might recall the killing of 120 civilians by bombing at the Navaly Church in July 1995. President Kumaratunga and her government went beyond denial to harass and villify those who confirmed the incident, which alienated many Tamils sympathetic to her inexorably.
The present government’s claim that it is opening escape routes for civilians cannot be taken seriously. Even those who managed to escape from the LTTE have been confined in a camp in Kallimoddai as virtual prisoners. The government has opened two more camps, at Jeevanagar and Sirukandal, all in the Murunkan area, which might just house 1000 in all. Further, the army having advanced far to the border of Kilinochchi District, the LTTE this week executed a series of guerrilla attacks behind army lines, inside the areas it recaptured. Attacks have been reported at Andankulam, Pandivirichchan and Illuppaikkadavai and it reportedly blasted a bridge at Kalliadi. Several army casualties were admitted to Vavuniya and Mannar Hospitals. The army advance will not be smooth as government propaganda claims.
Taking Kilinochchi and substituting flags through sheer force of manpower and firepower may be the least of the Government’s problems. In the past 25 years, the army has not been able to ensure stability for the civilians in any area it captured. The LTTE’s killings are one matter, but the government’s political task of giving confidence to the civilians never got off the ground.
Jaffna death squad
Given the intemperate noises the government has been making against INGOs, how would the army, which has been free with its death squads, handle this situation? Many in Jaffna forcibly trained by the LTTE during the ceasefire had been the target of death squads. The government has intelligent people who know this is not the way to deal with the ethnic problem or to handle the LTTE. governments have been happy to go on the offensive regardless of the civilians when they thought the LTTE was weak, get bogged down and then start talking about peace and a political settlement without ever understanding what makes the LTTE tick.
The sooner those in the government and the opposition stop playing games with the ethnic problem and ask themselves some pertinent questions, the better for us all. What would be the consequences of denying that there is an ethnic problem and further pursuing a homicidal strategy for which the state has neither the resources nor stamina, as the last 25 years have shown?
Is it morally or politically justifiable for a government to condemn a significant section of its people to the insecurity and deprivation of permanent refugees, because they are from a minority, while it blunders about endlessly in search of a Sinhalese peace?
[Photograph: World Refugee Day, June 20, 2008 - at an IDP welfare centre in Kilivetti, Eastern Province, Sri Lanka: pic: drs. sarajevo]