There is every possibility that the Government of Australia will ban the Tigers. The Sri Lanka government is lobbying Canberra using the usual cocktail of issues – child soldiers, constraints imposed by the LTTE on movement of Tamil civilians and the attacks on civilian targets.
The Tamil lobby in Australia is countering these allegations by presenting the horrendous human rights record of the Sri Lankan government, thereby claiming that adequate attention has not being paid by the international community to the suffering of the Tamils; that the Tigers perform an important function by the Tamil people; a proscription by the Australian government would only exacerbate tensions between communities in Sri Lanka.
Though there is no certainty as to who will win this contest, it clarifies issues (if they needed clarification at all). Moves by Australia towards imposing this ban come at a time when Tamils in Sri Lanka are confronted by government- and paramilitary-inspired atrocities. Extra-judicial killing, disappearances, arrests and extortion both in the Northeast and Colombo have reached an explosive point.
However, Tamils have no recourse to justice because the rule of law is near absent, while the legal system is undermined by security-related legislation such as emergency regulations and the PTA.
Worse, the lack of political will among the governing core of the country – President Mahinda Rajapakse and his advisors – has resurrected the political environment of the early 1990s under President R. Premadasa, of absolute impunity enjoyed by those working for the president and his cohorts (and not necessarily the government), to do as they please.
Meanwhile, the Vaharai operation is seen by the government and sections of the international community that gave it tacit support despite paying lip-service to “human rights violations,” as a successful military move in dislodging the LTTE.
What is interesting though is, strictly speaking, the military component of the confrontation was minimal. Though there were skirmishes and ground engagements by infantry, most of fighting was confined to artillery duels and aerial bombardment by the SLAF.
What was more important was the privation the Tamil population of Vaharai – both the IDPs fleeing from the Trincomalee District and residents of the area – was subjected to. Though aerial bombardment was used to hit civilian targets, including the environs of Vaharai Hospital and a school in Kathiraveli, it is not a tactic unknown in the 20-year-old war in Sri Lanka.
What was new was the government’s willingness to starve a civilian population to its knees, deprive it of medicine, fuel and access, while the international community turned a blind eye to these atrocities. In other words, starvation of the civilian population was made an accepted counterinsurgency tactic in the war in Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, the use of Tamil civilians as human shields by the LTTE, which the government deplores as a human rights violation wherever it campaigns, is now being practiced by the government. Forcible relocation is underway to designated areas in the Trincomalee District, of Tamils that fled from Trincomalee to Vaharai and then to Batticaloa.
About 4000 Tamils are earmarked to be resettled in the Kiliveddi area in Trincomalee. It is important to note that most of these people are not from Kiliveddi but Muttur. Obviously it cannot be difficult to resettle them in Muttur because the Muslim families displaced from there have been allowed to return to their homes.
Tamils of course are not being permitted to return because they are deemed a security threat in Muttur that borders the high security zone (HSZ) by the coast of Sampoor.
These Tamil families expressed deep reservation about going to Kiliveddi but significant numbers have been relocated – that is forcibly. The army arrived at the welfare centres IDPs were staying in Trincomalee town and threatened them with arrest if they did not consent to be relocated. As the government allocated site for relocation was not ready, the forced returnees were first sent to a school in Kiliveddi. Now these hapless people have been pressurised to leave the school for temporary shelters the UNHCR are putting up (they issued a position paper declaring these returns as forced returns).
Tamils feel disturbed because the Kiliveddy area is highly populated with little room or opportunities for new settlers, and worse, near the HSZ surrounding the Kallar and Somapura camps. Their fears are well founded: they are forced to resettle in Kiliveddi precisely because they have to protect these camps. This group of civilians, numbering over one thousand, will form a human wall around the camps and act as a civilian shield to the military contingent stationed there. The moment the LTTE shells the area, the government will allege the Tigers are attacking Tamil civilians.
All this only goes to show that Canberra is considering proscription of the LTTE at a time when the Tamil population is engaged in a desperate struggle for survival under the murderous regime in Colombo.
If the past is taken as a guide, the result of banning the Tigers has been skewed. It has caused dismay among Tamil civilians by what they perceive is a lack of sensitivity on the part of the international community to their woes, while it exasperates the LTTE, because it dents its political legitimacy.
But governments in Colombo have regarded LTTE proscriptions as an imprimatur to pursue the military option to settle the ethnic problem.
The international community’s stock reply has been that bans are against the LTTE, not the Tamils. This argument sucks because the roots of the ethnic war in Sri Lanka, is not that of the Sinhala-dominated state against the LTTE; it is the Sinhala-dominated state against the Tamil people.
The LTTE (and other militant organisations) emerged because the state was not fulfilling its function of protecting its population (or a section of it) but was actively targeting it.
Since then, the state’s targeting of Tamils has declined or grown depending on the strength of Tamil armed militancy to withstand government forces. Today, it is the military balance – fear by the government and the Sinhala population of a backlash – that has kept the state from turning the screws tighter on the Tamils.
If the Sinhala-dominated governing elite were inherently fair and was not reacting to the military capabilities of the Tigers, how come that every significant peace process has followed a major military onslaught by the Tigers (barring the Indo-Lanka Accord that was externally imposed)? In 1989-1990 it followed the LTTE’s capture of the Northeast once the IPKF withdrew; 1994-1995 after debacles at Pooneryan and the ill-fated Operation Yal Devi; in 2002 at the wake of a string of defeats that began with capture of the Wanni, overrunning of the Elephant Pass camp and attack on the SLAF’s Katunayake base.
Proscription of the LTTE by different countries and regional organisations has been imposed with the fell purpose of de-legitimising the Tigers by questioning their political credentials and demonising them as a mere terrorist outfit.
If after doing all that the international community can guarantee the security of the Tamil people or pressurise the Sri Lankan state to do so, it might be acceptable. But lack of commitment to such standards is quite evident in that the state cannot even ensure humane treatment to Tamil refugees in camps in the government-controlled areas!
The line is therefore very clear: the target is the LTTE, but if we cannot get the Tigers through military engagement we will destroy the civilian population by starving and killing it slowly, while of course paying lip-service to humanitarian law, human rights standards and other piffle international diplomacy employs.
All this goes to show that Canberra, like other members of the international community, is not acting in the interests of conflict transformation. Its actions are partly due to domestic political pressures upon the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard.
But the more important reason is that Australia has treaty ties with the US, which places great burden on the Australian government to be in consonance with the foreign policy of the world sole superpower.
While positions of certain western powers have hardened, there is a perceptible change in India’s stand on the Sri Lankan question. Ever since the CFA was mooted, paving the way for increasing international involvement, India tried to play a lone hand in Sri Lankan affairs. Seeing the Indian Ocean as its backyard it remained largely aloof from being part of the co-chairs who symbolise western power projection into Sri Lankan affairs.
But of late, New Delhi’s stance seems to be wavering. On the one hand it appears to understand that Colombo’s chauvinistic Sinhala-led political leadership and the anti-LTTE Tamil groups such as the EPDP, the Karuna faction and TULF leader V. Anandasangari are finding it difficult to deliver a lasting political solution to the Tamil question: which means bringing a weakened Tiger to the table to accept sharing power with Colombo.
At the same time, the presence of refugees in Tamil Nadu is putting pressure on Tamil political parties in India – both in the state assembly as well as those propping up the union government in New Delhi – to restrain the Sri Lanka government’s killing spree.
India’s interest in cooperating with the West is augmented by Colombo’s dalliance with Islamabad and Beijing to buy military hardware, which is something New Delhi is reluctant to sell Sri Lanka due to pressure by Tamil Nadu.
It appears that the present scenario will remain for the next six months or so, during which time the international community and India will, very probably, try out a combination of the following strategies.
First, see that sufficient military pressure is brought to contain the Tigers within the Wanni. This is the motive behind the government carrying out a war of attrition on the LTTE areas: shelling Kumburupiddy, upping military engagements in Vavuniya and carrying out operations in Thoppigala. If liberally supplied with hardware Colombo is confident of keeping the LTTE quiet. In the mean time pressure will be brought on the Tigers internationally by proscriptions and undermining their worldwide network in other ways.
Second, misery will continue to be heaped on the Tamils through systematic human rights abuse, starvation and military attacks on civilians. This will reduce the population to its knees, create disenchantment between it and the LTTE and bring about a situation where any glimmer of hope would be welcome.
Third, a glimmer of hope for the Tamils will be kept alive by the political package crafted by the All Party Conference. Though Minister Tissa Vithana has been pretending the APC is an ‘independent’ exercise, Tamils know it is a Sinhala government-driven initiative with marginal input from the Muslims and the Tamil EPDP. The experts group of the APC is, in the name of ‘southern consensus,’ putting together a watered down version of devolution and trying to sell it to the Tamils. If the UNP too takes part in the exercise it could be seen as an initiative of the Sinhala ruling class, but the UNP remains aloof. However, regardless of whether it has UNP support or not, the political package will be presented to the Tamils as a fait accompli. And needless to say, it is unlikely to be the basis of which negotiations could begin.
Therefore, as of now, the Sri Lanka government and the international community have driven the Tamils to the wall by pushing a military solution. What is dangled as a political way out (devolution package) is a joke. This has only forced the Tamils to look at precisely the solution that the international community does not want them to – that the LTTE brakes out of the shackles of containment to reconfigure the present politico-military balance and then talk to a Sinhala leadership, hopefully a reconstituted one.