Facebook icon
Twitter icon
e-mail icon

Bitter lessons, learnt well

The people of Jaffna this week quietly marked the tenth anniversary of the ‘Exodus’, one of the lowest points of their nation’s decades-long struggle against the Sri Lankan state. On October 30, 1995, the entire population of Jaffna town fled advancing Sri Lankan government troops to other areas held by the Liberation Tigers. This week they remembered the exhausting, panic-stricken, monsoon-soaked trek, the Sri Lankan shelling and strafing and the miserable overcrowded refuges they reached, first in Chavacachcheri and, for many, later in Kilinochchi.

They will also remember, with bitter disappointment, the shockingly muted response of the international community to one of the most significant mass displacements of the conflict. They also recall that the crisis was not unheralded. Sri Lanka’s military had already inflicted heavy civilian casualties in the months preceding the assault on Jaffna. International humanitarian groups, including UN agencies and the ICRC were acutely aware of the massacres at Navaly and Nagerkoil as well as the many deaths elsewhere on the peninsula.

The scale of the destruction being wreaked on the Tamil region by Sri Lanka’s newly modernized and overwhelmingly Sinhala military was certainly no secret. On the eve of the exodus, for example, The Times of London reported: “Many civilians have been killed by government shelling and bombing, which has hit residential areas of the town. There is panic among the 600,000 Tamils on the Jaffna peninsula. The greatest humanitarian crisis of the war is in the making.” Not only should this awareness have caused alarm amongst the international community, it should have invoked an effort towards alleviating, if not preventing, the impending humanitarian crisis.

If a conviction the war is in fact winnable takes hold, there is no guarantee the international community will not simply ‘revert to type’

Operation Riviresa in 1995 was a central plank of Colombo’s strategy for breaking the back of the Tamil liberation struggle. Advised by an array of foreign militaries, Sri Lanka massed its might for a devastating blow against Jaffna, the Tamil cultural capital – and the heart of the LTTE’s de-facto state. The intent was to compel the Tigers to concentrate their fighters in the town’s defence and then wipe them out, as the late analyst Dhameratnam Sivaram pointed out in March 1996.

But it couldn’t have escaped Sri Lanka’s allies that the plan required the focusing of overwhelming firepower on what also happened to be largest concentration of Tamils in the island. It was almost certain that thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of the half million people trapped in the town could perish in the impending maelstrom.

Jaffna’s residents are no strangers to the fury of a full-blown military offensive. Exactly eight years earlier, it was the Indian military which stormed the town, killing deliberately and indiscriminately, brutality symbolized by the massacre at Jaffna hospital on October 21. The stoic silence of the international community as tens of thousands of Sinhalese troops bore down on the town thus spoke volumes, confirming that implicit international sanction had been given to Sri Lanka to bring the ethnic conflict to an end through a quick, albeit bloody, military effort.

If commonsense didn’t suggest that a humanitarian crisis and heavy bloodshed would ensue, then certainly recent history from other ethnic conflict zones ought to have. A year earlier, the Rwandan state and the Hutu majority had turned on its Tutsi minority with devastating results. In Europe, Serbian military forces had graphically demonstrated the consequences to civilians of ethnically driven war using modern weaponry. The bloody repercussions for the residents of Sarajevo and Sebrenica would have been fresh in the memories of the international diplomatic community.

The Sri Lankan military’s human rights record was equally abysmal, with a history of massacres and ethnic cleansing operations in the country’s eastern districts and, before that, in the south, against its own community. Whether Jaffna fell quickly or came under protracted siege, enormous suffering and bloodshed was inevitable.

Several international governments did provide much aid – not to the refugees who fled, but to the Army-occupied town

In an effort to stem any international criticism that might ensue, the military censored coverage of the offensive and its aftermath. But this did not prevent the news from getting out. The Times of London, no less, reported on October 31: “Tamil civilians in Jaffna are evidently terrified by the advancing of the soldiers and are looking to the Tigers to save them from what they are convinced will be a massacre.”

That very day the town’s half million people fled across Navatkuli bridge into the Thenmaradchchi sector to the east whilst the Liberation Tigers fought desperately to keep the Sri Lankan military from reaching the narrow crossing.

That the international community was well aware of the extent of the crisis was amply demonstrated by swift expressions of “deep concern” by the United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali who called for “humanitarian assistance on a significant scale to minimize the suffering.” Some prominent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) tried to mobilize help, albeit timidly: “Relief workers are so afraid of making the [Sri Lankan] government angry, they refuse to photograph or shoot video of the refugees suffering and smuggle the pictures out to reporters,” the Toronto Star reported.

In any case, protests on humanitarian grounds were given short shrift by Colombo: “We do not intend to permit any outside agencies, including the UN...to carry out independent operations,” Foreign Minister Laksham Kadiragamar bluntly said. He also expressed displeasure at the comments by Mr. Boutros-Ghali, whom he accused of exaggerating the situation.

There is no doubt that months later, after the capture of Jaffna, several international governments did provide much aid – but not to the refugees who had fled to LTTE controlled areas in southern Jaffna and the Vanni. Instead, international aid was dispatched to the Army-occupied town. The message was simple: come back to the government and get this help or stay with the Tigers and suffer. International aid was thus seen as an integral part of Sri Lanka’s counter-insurgency strategy.

In a further effort to force hundreds of thousands of Tamils out of LTTE held areas, Sri Lanka tightened its embargo on food, medicine and other vital supplies to LTTE-held regions. The international community, including the INGOs were, implicated in this movement-inducing strategy. They pushed aid into government-controlled parts of the Northeast whilst withholding it – citing official restrictions, of course – from LTTE-controlled areas.

In the meantime another predictable outcome was underway in Jaffna. Abductions, disappearances, torture, extra-judicial killings and rape were increasingly being reported from the Army’s ‘liberated’ zones. Any seasoned observer of Sri Lanka’s conflicts (i.e. in the north and in the south), as many members of the international community in fact were, would have anticipated this. But Sri Lanka’s ‘security’ was, as ever, prioritized over humanitarian principles.

The indifference of leading members of the international community, whom barely months earlier had condemned similar assaults on towns in the former-Yugoslavia, was a wake up call to the Tamils both in Northeastern Sri Lanka and the Diaspora.

But there was more to come. As the war continued in the subsequent years, hundreds of thousands remained displaced. Whilst the state imposed a famine on the Northeast, it received over US$ 11 billion of financial assistance from the United States and various international donors, including the World Bank. INGOs carried on with their developmental work in the south and Army-controlled parts of the north. President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s so-called ‘War for Peace’ received the full sanction of the international community.

The substantial financial, military and political backing Sri Lanka received from the international community during some of its most repressive years was a clear message that the strategic interests of international actors in the region had taken precedence over the welfare of the Tamil people. The common objective, it was clear, was to wipe out the Tamil challenge to the state once and for all, whatever it took.

But the ‘War for Peace’ failed. Instead, the LTTE got stronger, both militarily and politically amongst the Tamils. Even casual analysis of the conflict would discern a straightforward connection between the extraordinary suffering inflicted on the Tamil people, the complicity of the international community and the growth of the LTTE.

Matters came to a head at the turn of the century, when the LTTE struck back with a ferocious six-month campaign that drove the Sri Lankan military out of the Vanni. The battlefield reversals culminated in April 2000 with the fall of Colombo’s largest military base on the island at Elephant Pass.

The u-turn in international policy was just as dramatic. Within two years the international community would be backing an indefinite ceasefire and peace talks between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE. Moreover, future aid to the war-shattered state would now be conditional upon the progress of the negotiations. In the span of a decade the Sri Lankan state had suffered an ignominious demotion from impending victor in the ethnic conflict to negotiating parity with the LTTE.

This message, too, has not been lost on the Tamils. Military strength, it appears, has greater force in international calculations than humanitarian principles. Whilst Tamil appeals to the international community – to back their self-determination goal, for example – are couched in terms of the latter, the is little doubt that it is the former which is underpinning international backing for a peace process.

Which is why the international community’s extraordinary focus in the recent past on humanitarian standards has been received with considerable skepticism. The Tamils are also perplexed by the disparity in reaction to human rights abuses blamed on the LTTE and on the state.

The assassination of Foreign Minister Kadirgamar in August, for example, drew a strident response from the European Union which, blaming the LTTE, refused to meet with delegations from the organizations and, moreover, threatened punitive measures against the Diaspora. Yet, from 1995 (leaving aside the period before then), amid well documented human rights abuses, Sri Lanka’s envoys continued to be readily received across the Western world. Janaka Perera, one of the more brutal Sri Lanka generals was accepted as Ambassador to Australia, despite five hundred disappearances documented by Amnesty International as having occurred under his command.

Defendants of the Western policies towards Sri Lanka in 1995 and subsequent years would no doubt highlight the state’s sovereignty as a crucial impediment to foreign intervention. However, Colombo’s excessive reliance on foreign financial aid had rendered Sri Lanka’s sovereignty oxymoronic long ago. And the same sovereignty proved no bar when a peace process was unceremoniously imposed on Sri Lanka in 2000.

International humanitarian norms have come to have little force in Sri Lanka’s conflict today because they have been so blatantly ignored by so many key players for such a long time. Indeed, the day-to-day dynamics of Sri Lanka’s Northeast today reinforces this. Many of those displaced by Operation Riviresa over a decade ago are amongst the three quarters of a million yet to be resettled, even after four years of ‘peace.’ As in 1995, the international community has again demonstrated that plight of the Tamils is a lower priority than Sri Lanka’s ‘security’.

This stark inconsistency inevitably leads to the conclusion that the international community cynically wields human rights as a political stick to pursue its particular interests. This is not to say that human rights have no value. But they are demonstrably not an overriding principle even for their most vocal advocates.

From a Tamil perspective, the implications of this are that the welfare of the people of the Northeast can but continue to depend upon the LTTE maintaining its strategic parity with the state, measured best, perhaps, by the preparedness of international defence analysts to maintain that the war is not winnable. In the event a conviction the war is in fact winnable takes hold, there is no guarantee the international community will not simply ‘revert to type’, backing Sri Lanka again to crush the LTTE.

The international community’s conduct before, during and, for a long time, after the Jaffna exodus has significantly affected Tamil political thinking, quite separately from the LTTE’s. In order to engage Tamils in a constructive manner, the international community needs to regain credibility lost in recent times.

Meanwhile, the logic of self-reliance from which extraordinary efforts to promote the Tamil struggle have sprung since 1995 can be traced back to this betrayal of ideals. So can Tamil prioritizing of security over international norms. Meanwhile, the international community’s continuing unevenness when it comes to defending human rights principles in Sri Lanka only serves to reinforce the sense of their fragility.