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Another Time of Need

Frustrated by determined Tamil Tiger resistance on the three northern battlefronts, the Sri Lankan military has intensified its efforts to break into the Vanni. The confident boasts of the military leadership and President Mahinda Rajapakse's right wing administration have given way to expectation management. As some Southern commentators have begun daring to point out, for all the tough talk, there are few tangible gains to show. Meanwhile, the absurd LTTE casualty figures dispensed daily by the military have begun raising laughable arithmetical contradictions for the government. In short, having hitched its political survival firmly to a warhorse, the Colombo administration is now under serious pressure. As in the past, this inevitably heralds intensified suffering for the Tamil people.

Contrary to the government’s claims, the military has been making determined, if fruitless, efforts for many months to capture the Mannar region amongst others. There have been gains, but compared to what had been expected (and promised), these have been negligible; indeed, one military operation in Mannar in the late nineties took much greater territory in just a week that the present offensive has in eight months - but then, the LTTE, preparing for more strategically important moves, withdrew without resistance that time. Reports suggest that the fighting across the northern fronts is collectively many times more intense than during the ill-fated Operation Jaya Sikirui of the 'War for Peace' era. Of course, the Sri Lankan military has been significantly strengthened by the international community during the Norwegian peace process. The LTTE has also not been idle.

The indiscriminate bombardments being directed for several months towards LTTE-held parts of Mannar have intensified in recent weeks to the extent one of the major prizes of the onslaught, the Madhu church complex, is gradually being turned to rubble. The decision last week by the Mannar Diocese to relocate the revered statue of 'Our Lady of Madhu' came as it become clear that the Rajapa-kse administration, now desperate for territorial gains, has decided the destruction of the Church was a price worth paying. The only reason there haven't been heavy casualties amongst the thousands who had sought shelter around the long-functioning sanctuary is because they had moved out over the past two months.

However, just like previous Sri Lankan governments faced with Tamil defiance, the Rajapakse administration will intensify its punitive attacks and measures against the Vanni population. The embargo on food and medicine will be tightened further and civilian centers will be targeted more heavily. Last week health workers in Kilinochchi reported growing malnourishment amongst young children. For almost two years, Tamil villages, schools and refugee camps have been targeted by Sri Lankan airstrikes and artillery. Buses and, especially, ambulances, have been targeted by Sri Lankan commandos. These murderous tactics will also intensify. In the meantime, despite the plethora of d harsh reports by international human rights groups and some Western governments, human rights abuses will worsen.

The point here is that, despite the rhetoric of human rights and so on, there will be no concrete international action to restrain the state. And all the 'Security Sector Reform' that donors fund will not change the majoritarian ethos of the Sinhala state. Nor will there be any serious international effort to alleviate the suffering of the Tamil population. International NGOs will of course continue to operate, but their actions are already woefully inadequate for the needs of the hour. As the recent history of the Eastern province demonstrated, as the conflict intensifies we can expect a scaling down, rather than an increase, in international relief. This is partly self-interest, partly subordination to strategic imperatives of donors and partly disruption by the Sri Lankan state. The systematic harassment of aid agencies by the Rajapakse administration is an integral part of the military campaign which seeks to induce war weariness amongst the Tamil people as much as destroying the LTTE's fighting capacity. So are the crackdowns on Tamil NGOs by some foreign governments.

Amid shrinking international commitment to humanitarian norms when it comes to the Tamils, the Tamil people must tend to their own needs. The Diaspora has long been the mainstay of relief efforts for the people of the Northern warzones and - more than the international community - was central to the rebuilding of the Tamil areas during the peace process. The Diaspora has been selflessly generous at times of crisis, out of proportion to its economic base. It needs to step forward yet again.