Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Uncivil Victory

by David Watts, Asian Affairs, June 2009

Any moral questions for Colombo have paled over the past few weeks as they went for total victory over the Tamils at any cost. But the rest of the world must examine its conscience for allowing the slaughter to continue unabated while appeals for food and relief went unheeded...

For the rest the international reaction has been confined to words. Even the normally open-hearted Americans have offered nothing beyond a statement from President Barack Obama who warned of catastrophe. For the rest, the world has been notably silent except statements of the obvious that committed them to taking no action at all.

So the Tamils have been incandescent that their cause has gone by default.

 

UNTOLD SUFFERING: Terrified and hungry women and children bore the brunt of a brutal military assault

In its resolve to root out the Tiger terror, Colombo displayed an utter disregard for the plight of Tamil civilians trapped in the war zone.

Totalitarian governments have learned their lessons well: where you are involved in an unpopular conflict in which your opponents can be boxed into a defined stretch of territory where access and information flow can be controlled, where excessive force can be used with impunity — you have a free hand.

The point about war without witness — No independent international agencies and international media were given free access to the conflict area. Even the ICRC's operations were severely restricted by the government.

Look at Gaza, look at much of the American and British operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and then look at government operations in Sri Lanka as they tackled the rump of the Tamil Tiger fighting force confined in a small area of territory with hundreds of thousands of civilians.

To the government in Colombo it seems to make no odds that their 'enemies' were terrified and hungry women and children who were part and parcel of their nation, no matter the brutal record of the Tigers in opposing the central government. Any moral questions for Colombo have paled over the past few weeks as they went for total victory over the Tamils at any cost. But the rest of the world must examine its conscience for allowing the slaughter to continue unabated while appeals for food and relief went unheeded.

The statistics of Colombo's 'victory' in the civil war are mind boggling. Over the span of the confrontation since the war broke out more than 25 years ago over 70,000 people have been killed, some 30,000 of them over the past two years. But since January the struggle has intensified with over 8,000 people killed, thousands of them in the final week of the conflict with some 16,700 wounded. The number of people suffering from starvation and malnutrition remains unclear as does the long term effect of the conflict on the children and young people who have been caught up in it.

What seems certain is that while Colombo's victory may be a military one the Tigers are far from a spent force and the likelihood is a new generation of 'terrorists' and this time for real will be nurtured by their experience and emerge to begin the struggle anew.

The effects of the world's painful lack of interest in their plight has been on display across the world as local Tamil communities have come out to protest in force against what they see as the genocide against their own people at home.

Parliamentarians in London have had a 24-hour-a-day reminder of their plight: Parliament Square has been packed with protesters and placards reminding the former colonial power of its responsibilities.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown sent an emissary but it is emblematic of this sorry saga that he was then denied access to the very areas which were the most controversial: so much for post-imperial responsibility, influence and authority.

For the rest the international reaction has been confined to words. Even the normally open-hearted Americans have offered nothing beyond a statement from President Barack Obama who warned of catastrophe. For the rest, the world has been notably silent except statements of the obvious that committed them to taking no action at all.

So the Tamils have been incandescent that their cause has gone by default. Most spokesmen confine themselves to the current plight of civilians and for them there is plenty of blame to go around. They particularly focus on what they see as the failure of the Indian government to come forward in their hour of need.

'India has got a very big role to play as the regional power,' says Suren Surendiran, spokesman of the British Tamils Forum. 'India has got involved on many occasions in the past and they have come to the rescue of the Tamils. Back in 1972 when Mrs Bandaranaike was prime minister she had a good relationship with Indira Gandhi and in 1987 the Indian Air Force came into Sri Lankan airspace and dropped food.'

Suren gauges Delhi's real influence in the region and quotes its pivotal role in the establishment of Bangladesh as an example. But this time India has chosen to stay on the sidelines contenting itself with official statements and some rather bland ones at that. Despite the potentially pivotal role of Tamil Nadu in the recent elections this was all that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could muster on a campaign visit to Chennai: 'Our position is that we would certainly want Tamil people to get (a settlement) where they can lead a life with dignity and respect.' The prime minister went on to emphasise that any solution must come from within Sri Lanka itself in the form of a unified nation.

The government makes the rather hollow claim that it was Delhi's intervention which brought an end to combat operations. Strikingly there   was no condemnation of the Sri    Lankan government's continued use of heavy weapons on the civilian population, despite a commitment not to do so, nor even a suggestion of the humanitarian help which has been available so promptly in the past or, indeed, of a new move to help facilitate a settlement despite India's central involvement in the past in the search for  a solution.

'They clearly knew that they had got a tiny strip of land, packed with civilians, which was under the control of 50,000 troops,' said Suren. 'There was no reason to use heavy weapons because you've already got the territory.'

But Tamil sources believe that, even at that early stage, the government had begun deliberately under-estimating the number of civilians in the enclave because they had every intention of eliminating as many of them as possible.

The central government's estimate as low as 80,000 was in marked contrast to those of the UN and other International Agencies including their own Government Agent with a figure of 333,000 of which some 199,000 at first and a further 80,000 to 100,000 were in the process of escaping into so-called 'concentration camps.'

'So you can see what they are trying to achieve,' said Suren, 'they have been conducting a genocide. They have been giving all the signals — by saying that they are going into the no fire zone when they have clearly established that there is a large number of people there.'

Of equal concern was the way that the central government restricted food supplies. By the middle of May there had only been a limited number of vessels carrying food to the beleaguered civilians and even much of that had been denied onward transport by the military. Indeed only three ships carrying 25 metric tonnes of foods had got through carrying rice, sugar, oil and dal — no vegetables, no milk powder for the children and no special high-nutrition products usually shipped in relief supplies to such zones.

Tamil experts saw this as a deliberate ploy to put pressure on mothers to make them increasingly desperate as doctors were forced to carry out operations without the benefit of morphine, anaesthesia or antibiotics.

'Never mind people dying from heavy weapons attacks, people were dying of starvation; people were dying because treatable illnesses were not being treated; diseases continue to spread because there are no antibiotics and children continue to be at risk,' said the Tamil spokesman. Even nutritional powder for children could not be delivered because the military refused to clear the shipment. No surprises that Human Rights Watch has been calling the Sri Lanka no fire zone 'the most dangerous place in the world.

So the Sri Lankan government joins the international ranks of infamy of governments who have resorted to slaughtering their own people by indiscriminately bombing from the air: their companions in crime include the Soviet government; Indonesia in East Timor; Saddam Hussein's killing of the Kurds and now the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Defence Minister.

Sadly the international community now seems paralysed in the face of extremity: the 'never again' uttered in unison after the horrors of Rwanda and Bosnia proves to be no such thing. The more determined the aggressor, the less likely there is to be a response.

Perhaps they feel that the end of the military struggle 'tidies up' an age-old problem. That will very likely turn out to be only too far from the truth. It may well turn out to be just the beginning of a new chapter of the Tamil struggle for self-determination in Sri Lanka.