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Double standards on the TRO

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The abduction two weeks ago by suspected paramilitaries of ten Tamil aid workers in the Northeast is further evidence of the state of affairs in the Northeast. Over the past two months, attacks on civilians have become standard practice for the Sri Lankan armed forces in retaliation for militant attacks. Violence against reporters seen as inimical to the state and its military apparatus has already been commonplace. The recent escalation to include aid workers amongst potential targets will further detract from the limited assistance the conflict- and tsunami-battered people of the Northeast presently receives.

The press and aid agencies compose a large segment of the institutions which indirectly promote the collective welfare and security of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka. Many of the journalists murdered in recent years were openly critical of the military and its shadowy the paramilitaries and the violence these forces unleash on civilians. Their outspoken criticism was amongst the handful of non-violent avenues of resistance to military violence against the island’s minority communities.

The Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) is the single largest humanitarian organisation operating in the Northeast. It has single-mindedly pursued its objective of improving the lot of the residents of the sprawling region regardless of their ethnicity or religion. Over a quarter of the region’s population presently reside in refugee camps and a substantial portion of those who have struggled to restore some semblance of normality to their lives, particularly after the December 2004 tsunami, suffer from ongoing restrictions on their livelihood by the armed forces

In the absence of international aid – blocked by the Colombo regime - the TRO has been a beacon of hope for the destitute. The organisation has provided shelters for the displaced, homes for those orphaned by the conflict or the tsunami and health clinics in a region deliberately neglected by the state. International aid organisations working alongside the TRO attest to its incorruptible standards, unlike those of the state’s institutions.

Nevertheless, the TRO has been inspected locally and internationally, following accusations by the state that it is a front for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Many of the TRO’s international offices have been raided following such allegations by the local Sri Lankan consulate, which after investigation, have been proven false. The TRO is consistently slandered and attacked in the Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-owned press - and in some cases by irresponsible international media agencies operating out of Colombo. Sri Lanka’s foreign minister in a recent visit to the US again called for the organisation to be banned.

Perhaps it is due to these frequent witch-hunts against the TRO has ensured that its accounts and operations are conducted to a higher benchmark than its peers. The TRO was, for example, one of the few NGOs to publish audited financial statements for the first 6 months after the tsunami. It consistently delivers annual independently-audited accounts available to its donors and any other interested parties, which accounts for every penny received and spent.

The TRO’s effectiveness has meanwhile been hailed by many local and international media, international NGOs, visiting dignitaries (including Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan), foreign governments, the UN, and even by the government of Sri Lanka itself - former President Chandrika Kumaratunga saluted the TRO’s work in the post-tsunami construction of temporary Shelters at a ceremony on 22 August, 2005 during which she presented the organization with a plaque.

Despite its proven track record, the violence unleashed against the organisation in recent times has escalated from attacks on its reputation to grenades thrown at its offices and, now, the abduction and, probably, murder of its staff. The Sri Lankan state, which the Tamils have consistently argued is institutionally racist, has - unsurprisingly - failed to respond adequately to the recent violence against the TRO, fobbing these off as stage-managed by the LTTE. In a farcical twist, the police even arrested those TRO volunteers who, having been released by the paramilitaries, had sought to report the abductions. The TRO staff were detained overnight and attempts were reportedly made to forcefully coerce out of them a statement retracting their accusations of being abducted.

Having routinely endured treatment such as that meted out to the TRO volunteers at Batticaloa police station, ordinary Tamils are further convinced that Sri Lanka’s state institutions are so structurally chauvinistic as to be irredeemable (the Supreme Court’s intervention last year to prevent tsunami aid from being shared with the LTTE-held parts of the Northeast is another example).

More importantly, however, any hopes amongst the Tamils that the international community would intervene in their interests have again been dashed. Like its response to the sabotaging of last year’s tsunami deal by the Sinhala extremists, the international community has remained noticeably muted on the TRO abductions. At a time when wide-scale condemnation might have ensured the swift return of the missing aid workers, the international community chose to remain pointedly silent. Aside from a request by the US for a state investigation, there has been no official criticism. And no one actually expects an investigation of any worth, given Sri Lanka’s poor record and the identity of the suspected perpetrators of the abductions - indeed no state sponsored investigation into abuse by its security forces has resulted in a single successful conviction during the history of the ethnic conflict.

The international community’s decision to remain silent on the abductions is also perplexing from a wider perspective. One of the key advantages of peace, it is often stated, is that the displaced and impoverished residents of the Northeast will be able to receive assistance and rehabilitate their lives, easing the frustration that reportedly fuels violence.

But surely organisations such as the TRO are central to these efforts? The abductions will undoubtedly impede its ability to function. TRO volunteers will not be able to travel freely and potential volunteers will be put off joining as not only is the charity now a target, the international community is deeming it a legitimate one. (The related question, this raises, is what effect the ensuing Tamil sentiment will have on LTTE recruitment).

The Sri Lankan state’s position in this matter is unsurprising. The TRO’s activities in times of war have undermined Sri Lanka’s strategic objectives of inflicting war-weariness and in times of peace have embarrassed the state’s failure to provide for those in the Northeast. Its consistent provision of shelters, schools and medical assistance to those regardless of their cultural background has stood in sharp contrast to the state’s chauvinist institutions. The consistent attacks by the Sinhala nationalist and the Sinhala-dominated state on the organisation’s credentials and personnel are based solely on its Tamil roots.

Similar attacks on aid workers elsewhere in the world are usually unreservedly condemned and prompt robust calls for action. However, the international community appears to have once again opted instead to bolster the Sri Lankan state by withholding condemnation. The fear of riling the southern hawks at this fragile stage of the peace process has outweighed the risk to the lives of the TRO’s volunteers and the wider impact on the charity’s ability to serve the residents of the Northeast, indeed for development in the region.

The TRO will form the cornerstone of any potential non-violent solution the ethnic conflict. Its efficient structures, committed volunteers and transparent mechanisms promise that it will be the most successful vehicle for the rehabilitation of the Northeast. Allowing Sinhala hard liners and paramilitary organisations to attack the TRO is not only a short-term threat to stability but severely undermines the potential for the long-term redevelopment and rehabilitation. The consequent implications for the peace process are inescapable.

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