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Who Is Responsible For The Slaughter Of Civilians In The Vanni?: Rohini Hensman

April 7, 2009

guest post by ROHINI HENSMAN

With the military defeat of the LTTE imminent, the terrible plight of civilians in the Vanni has attracted worldwide concern and sympathy, and rightly so. While the circumstances are completely different, the civilian death toll in the Vanni over the past few months (over 2700) is already triple the number of civilians killed in the Gaza massacre of December-January, and is still mounting. The thousands who suffer serious injuries are further victimised by the delay or lack of medical attention, which means, for example, that injuries to limbs which could have been saved with prompt treatment, instead result in gangrene and amputations. Even those who have not lost lives, limbs or loved ones, have lost their homes and livelihoods, and live in appalling conditions which could well claim more lives through disease or even starvation.

Meanwhile, the LTTE and Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) trade charges, each accusing the other of being responsible for the slaughter. What truth is there in their respective allegations?

The LTTE

The LTTE and its supporters, especially in Tamil Nadu but also elsewhere, cry ‘Genocide!’ and accuse the government of being solely responsible for the carnage. They do not mention the appalling war crimes committed by the LTTE, which have been documented by several international and Sri Lankan human rights groups. The most obvious is their use of Tamil civilians as a human shield from behind which they can engage in offensive firing, and their shooting of those who try to escape. This means that the Tamil civilians over whom the LTTE sheds crocodile tears are effectively prisoners or hostages whom it deliberately keeps in the line of fire so that it can hide behind them. The relationship between Tamils and Tigers is the very opposite of what it claims: far from defending Tamils, the LTTE leaders are using Tamils for their physical and political survival, a violation defined as a war crime.

But it is doing worse. All the official reports mention forcible conscription of civilians, including children. This, too, is a war crime. Unofficial reports say that these unfortunate youngsters are not even being provided with cyanide capsules, because some have committed suicide rather than go into combat. It must be kept in mind that large numbers of the LTTE casualties actually consist of these frightened and ill-trained conscripts, who never chose to bear arms. Their presence in the LTTE forces also means that their families, who might otherwise flee, remain in LTTE territory because they do not want to abandon their children. Planting a suicide bomber among fleeing civilians was a cynical move, ensuring that all civilians would thenceforth be regarded as suspects.

Most cynical of all, refugees who have escaped report that the LTTE deliberately fires from areas where civilians have taken shelter, for example from the vicinity of hospitals and schools and from safe areas, knowing that government forces will respond by shelling. The fighters then vamoose, leaving the civilians to take all the casualties This is worse even than using civilians as a shield: this constitutes using civilian lives as propaganda, deliberately getting them killed in order to justify the allegation of genocide. The LTTE massacre of Sinhalese civilians in Inginiyagala on February 21 was probably also an attempt to provoke violent reprisals against Tamils. The suicide attack on Muslims celebrating the Milad festival at the Jumma Mosque in Akuressa on March 10 recalled the LTTE’s massacres and ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the past. Those who hurl charges of genocide and war crimes against the government alone are guilty of whitewashing the LTTE and covering up some of the most heinous war crimes being committed in the recent phase of fighting.

The LTTE leadership is undoubtedly in a tight spot, but they still have the option of behaving honourably. The most honourable and humane thing they could do now is to negotiate a surrender monitored by international organisations, which will ensure that the civilians are rehabilitated and their fighters receive humane treatment as prisoners of war. Or, if they insist on fighting to the finish, they could release all the civilians and conscripts, so that only those who wish to stay with them are subjected to the final assault. They will not, of course, do either of these things, because they have no concern whatsoever for the welfare of Tamils.

The Government

When evaluating the conduct of the government and the course of action open to it, it is important to keep in mind these actions of the LTTE. One of the demands, for example, has been for a ceasefire and peace talks with the LTTE. But Rajan Hoole and K.Sritharan of the award-winning University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) report that Sri Lankan Tamils are wary of any peace talks that will give oxygen to the LTTE. This is not surprising if we look at the way in which the LTTE has treated the Tamils subjected to its rule. If Tamils who have suffered under the LTTE are anxious that it should not be rescued at this point, it is hardly surprising that Muslims who have been subjected to massacres and ethnic cleansing, and Sinhalese who never know when the next terrorist attack will strike them, cannot wait to see the last of it. In these circumstances, it would be unrealistic to expect the government to go back to anything like the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002, which allowed the LTTE to arm itself for Eelam War IV. Such a course of action would also be undesirable, simply preparing the way for renewed bloodshed in the future.

However, this doesn’t mean that the GOSL is as free of blame as it and its supporters claim. Observers are surprised that there has not been a mutiny or split in the ranks of the LTTE which would end the war, and one probable reason this has not happened so far is that the government has gone out of its way to support LTTE propaganda. Earlier, it sabotaged the APRC process when it had already arrived at a political solution which could have been fine-tuned to suit the democratic majority in all communities, thus reinforcing the LTTE’s message that Tamils will never get justice in a united Sri Lanka. This message was further reinforced when leading members of the armed forces and government, Sarath Fonseka and Champika Ranawaka, proclaimed that Sri Lanka belonged to the Sinhalese, and minorities would have to put up with less than equal rights, thus further assisting the LTTE’s recruitment drives. Yet more support was provided to LTTE propaganda by earlier government proposals to keep IDPs in camps for up to three years, fuelling suspicions that their original habitats would be occupied by Sinhalese, and that the war was being used as a cover for ethnic cleansing.

Government armed forces have responded to LTTE fire by shelling civilian concentrations, including safe areas and hospitals, killing and injuring thousands. Those who escape to government-controlled territory are kept in internment camps surrounded by barbed wire, prevented even from visiting injured family members in hospital or attending the funerals of loved ones. Recently senior citizens were released, but others remain prisoners. Reports of disappearances from these camps, coming on top of thousands of disappearances in the last few years, make this incarceration all the more fearsome. Not only would this prospect make civilians think twice before fleeing LTTE territory, it would also make LTTE conscripts think that surrender means death, and so they might as well die fighting.

All these policies of the government and its armed forces not only result in massive civilian casualties, they also prolong the fighting. Alongside concern for civilians, we should also spare a thought for combatants on both sides, who are being expended by their respective leaderships as though ther lives have no value, whereas a different strategy could ensure that a whole generation of young people is not killed and disabled. Moreover, the government’s strategy makes a peaceful outcome almost impossible. Even when the LTTE is defeated militarily, it – or another guerrilla group – is likely to rise up in the future to carry out terrorist attacks and restart the war, just as the Taliban has staged a comeback in Afghanistan. So what is the alternative?

A Different Strategy

An alternative strategy would consist of the following: (1) Stop shelling safe areas and civilian targets within LTTE-controlled territory; this only results in propaganda gains for the LTTE. (2) Ensure adequate food, water and medicine supplies to civilians both inside LTTE territory and outside, making sure, however, that no arms or ammunition get through to the LTTE. (3) Ask the UN or ICRC to monitor the screening and registration of IDPs entering the camps so that an independent record is available, and disappearances cannot take place so easily. If LTTE suspects are separated out, they, along with LTTE cadre who surrender, should be kept in prisoner-of-war camps whose inmates are also registered with the UN or ICRC, and treated in accordance with international law. (4) If there is no evidence that IDPs are LTTE operatives, they should be given identity cards and allowed to move freely. These measures will encourage civilians to escape the LTTE if they can, and LTTE conscripts to surrender with some confidence that they will be treated humanely.

Simultaneously, the APRC proposal for constitutional change drafted by Tissa Vitharana on the basis of the Majority and Minority Reports of the Panel of Experts needs to be adopted by the government, which should also provide a solemn pledge that transfer of population (defined in international law as a crime against humanity) will not take place: all IDPs and refugees who wish to return to their original homes will be assisted to do so. This will not be easy, especially in the case of Muslim IDPs who have been languishing in camps for over eighteen years, but it must be done as part of a political solution to the crisis.

Is a political solution an immediate priority in the closing stages of this battle in the Vanni? Yes, it certainly is! If the ruling SLFP had not repeatedly sabotaged the APRC process from mid-2007 onwards, the war might have ended months ago, and thousands of lives might have been saved. It is now too late to save those who have been killed, but it is still possible to save lives and limbs that would be lost if a just political solution is not achieved. A purely military victory will merely push the war underground, and ensure that it will re-emerge as guerrilla and terrorist strikes in future. A constitution which is acceptable to democratic elements in all communities is the only way to end the war once and for all. If the current political leaders in the two major parties are reluctant to implement a just and democratic settlement, then the people of Sri Lanka must either push them into doing so, or dump them and create a new leadership.

As for international actors who wish to help civilians in the Vanni, they would do well to acquaint themselves first with the situation on the ground. Accusations of ‘genocide’ against the government, for example, do more harm than good. As an anxious Tamil in Sri Lanka put it, ‘When I hear Indians talking about genocide in Sri Lanka, I shudder, because I know it will merely make things worse for the trapped civilians. It is like crying ‘Wolf!’ If we cry ‘Genocide!’ when it is not occurring, who will believe us and come to our aid if it really occurs? No one!’ Those who are really concerned about the appalling situation of people in the Vanni should not only demand of the government that they implement the measures listed above, but should also demand that the LTTE release the civilians and conscripts they are holding hostage. Otherwise they would merely be adding fuel to the fire that is consuming thousands of lives.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin Shimmin permalink
    April 9, 2009 12:10 AM

    Thank you for a thoughtful and desperately needed report on what is truly happening in likely the worst and saddest war on the planet. It is very frustrating and depressing that virtually no-one here in Canada is wanting to speak the truth. It feels as if the community here in Toronto is more disconnected than ever from the people who are actually living through the horror in Sri Lanka…

  2. April 14, 2009 6:22 PM

    “One of the demands, for example, has been for a ceasefire and peace talks with the LTTE. But Rajan Hoole and K.Sritharan of the award-winning University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) report that Sri Lankan Tamils are wary of any peace talks that will give oxygen to the LTTE.”

    Just to clarify should there then be no ceasefire? Even if one is to agree with Hensman that the destruction of the LTTE is in the interest of peace in Sri Lanka – at what cost? Is it that we can sacrifice a few thousand lives because it is in the long term interest of achieving peace? More on this later but to remain on the question of a ceasefire let’s look at Hensman’s alternative:

    “Stop shelling safe areas and civilian targets within LTTE-controlled territory; this only results in propaganda gains for the LTTE.”

    For any even layman observer of the history of the war in Sri Lanka or for that matter any civil war it is an obvious fact that you cannot do this. Distinguishing civilian targets from rebel targets is impossible especially now in the No fire Zone which is heavily congested. So how do we save the people? If the LTTE will never release the people what should be the option? Still go ahead and finish off the LTTE (and in the process a few thousand people) because its good for peace?

    Is it possible at all to argue for a ceasefire without being then associated with the LTTE? The fear of such association should it prevent us from calling for a ceasefire? I am not sure of how one handles the LTTE. It is not easy. But their destruction at any cost is not an option for me.

    The other point that Tamil alternative political commentators have to consider is, if we agree that both the warring parties are equally brutal in the execution of their military agenda and that both parties’ political agendas are absolutist how can one party winning over the other in a war desirable? She’s definitely worried about the war crimes that the Govt is committing but minus that is the war acceptable then?

  3. Maxxa permalink
    April 14, 2009 8:05 PM

    Quote Acharya “If the LTTE will never release the people what should be the option? Still go ahead and finish off the LTTE (and in the process a few thousand people) because its good for peace?”

    They fact that the Arm struggle by the LTTE to win the rights for the Tamil people has not been successful for the last 30 years questions the legitimacy and success of the LTTE’s approach to the ethnic conflict. The LTTE has not been successful mainly due to the reason that there is no consistency and coherence in the demands (2002 Oslo) and various splits among the LTTE movement. Even if to agree the argument that the Arm struggle by the LTTE is a product of the political oppressions against the Tamil community by the past governments, then does it give the LTTE a right to use all the civilians in Vanni as a shield for their survival. The civilians trapped in the safe zones are like sandwiches since they get attacked by both the Gov and the LTTE. But It is quite obvious from past experience that an immediate cease fire request by the LTTE is not for the safety of the trapped civilians but to strengthen their military capabilities. This has been a repetition for the last two decades and an absolute wound. This wound needs to be cured in the interest of the long run. Thus this war prompted by the Arm struggle of the LTTE has boiled down to a very limited choices. It is very dangerous to let survival of an organization who claims that they stand for the rights and benefit of the Tamil community while and endangering and risking the lives of the same people. Is such an organization legitimate? Can a responsible government turn a blind eye to such a hypocrisy? Then what is the choice? the choice is in the interest of the long run. One will argue there will be no Tamil to benefit at the end of the humanitarian operation by the Gov. But this is factually inaccurate and not realistic. It is an exaggeration. Sure Gov needs to give more attention to the welfare and safety of the IDPs but this shall not be a reason to completely question the legitimacy of the IDP camps. So yeah up for a post LTTE solution

  4. Nivedita Menon permalink*
    April 14, 2009 8:27 PM

    Just wanted to come in here with a link to another thought-provoking discussion on Sri Lanka, between Ragavan (earlier interviewed in kafila by Ahilan) and Nirmala Rajasingam, both of whom had been active with the LTTE and now live in exile in London.
    The discussion is in lines, a blog that “emerged out of an interest in creating a space in the blogosphere for deliberation and dissent in engagement with political debates in Sri Lanka and the diaspora.”

  5. April 15, 2009 6:21 AM

    Maxxa,

    You missed my point by a mile. My question to Rohini was whether one could take up a position calling for a ceasefire independent of the LTTE. And my answer to that is yes. I am aware of why the LTTE is asking for a ceasefire. Sometimes positions that we take might inadvertently assist the interests of a party that we don’t like. But if we do believe in that position should we still resist from taking it?

    I repeat, for long term interests of ‘peace’ (understanding of which both yours and Rohini’s i contest) – to annihilate the LTTE – cannot be done at the cost at which it will come to the people (Rohini acknowledges this cost).

    You also do not tell me how in a devil v devil how the destruction of one devil is in the interest of justice and sustainable peace.

  6. Nirmala Rajasingam permalink
    April 15, 2009 8:25 AM

    “Is it possible at all to argue for a ceasefire without being then associated with the LTTE? The fear of such association should it prevent us from calling for a ceasefire? I am not sure of how one handles the LTTE. It is not easy. But their destruction at any cost is not an option for me.” Aacharya

    Could Aacharya explain why the destruction of the LTTE is not an option for him? Is it because in the course of the government prosecuting a continued war against the LTTE to destroy it, it would end up killing many civilians? Or is it for other reasons? Why is the continued existence of the LTTE desirable?

    I think the key is in Acharya’s own question:
    “If the LTTE will never release the people what should be the option?”

    That is the problem. Let us look at a couple of scenarios:

    1. If a temporary ceasefire for humanitarian reasons is announced the LTTE will not let the civilians go. That is what is happening now. The 100,000 people are their only chance of survival. The civilians are the forward defence lines , unarmed and totally exposed. We note that more people escape during hostilities than during the pauses, because when there is active fighting going on the LTTE finds it difficult to prevent the people from fleeing. This is the macabre irony of the situation.

    2. If there is a ceasefire and the LTTE is asked to come for talks they will still not let the civilians go out, as they need to hold territory and people under their control, to be able to go for talks to legitimate their claims. This bank of people is necessary for the LTTE as labour, as reproductive resources to provide man/woman power. They need to rebuild their fortifications and earth bunds; rebuild their army, and get fresh recruits. If they let go of these 100,000 civilians where will they go? Even during the Norwegian peace process when they controlled a large area of land and had a very advantageous ceasefire agreement civilians in the Vanni were in an open prison, having to get passes to go out for even funerals, urgent medical treatment; family members were held as guarantors till they returned. If there is a new ceasefire a desperate LTTE will be even worse than it was before the war.

    The government is opposed to the ceasefire as it believes that its military gains could be undone if the LTTE is given a respite. I am opposed to it for different reasons – as any ceasefire in which the LTTE is allowed to dictate terms, it would not be in the interests of the trapped civilians as it would want to hold them.

    These 100,000 people will never be released by the LTTE, ceasefire or no ceasefire. For the LTTE the civilians do not count for anything except as a resource. A blanket ceasefire solution is only helpful if we want to rescue the LTTE from its current defeat. If we want to save the civilians we have to think of something else.

    The government wants to press on with the war and destroy the LTTE militarily. but that will in the current circumstances result in massive civilian killings. The government cannot pursue this option. Any military objective of the government should be subordinate to that of civilian safety.

    Because of what has happened the LTTE has lost all credibility and legitimacy. Its sole strength lay in it being a mighty fighting force and now it has lost even that. All those who desire peace but with democracy, must emphatically state that there is no room for an organisation like the LTTE. All those who want to secure the future of these trapped civilians and the Tamil people should publicly denounce the LTTE, regardless of their views about the State. A powerful message should be sent to the SL government and the international community by Tamils that they are willing to ditch the LTTE but want the civilians to be saved. We have to make it clear that we understand that the military survival of the LTTE is irreconcilable with the objective of saving the civilians but that no military action should be taken to jeopardize civilian safety. There were reports in the press that the international community was to negotiate a deal in which the LTTE leadership could be offered a way out of its presumed political responsibilities to lead the Tamil people. If the LTTE meets the conditions then that could be one solution for the moment to save the civilians. There could be offers of amnesty for the cadres. This could save civilian lives more than any other option.

    I am opposed to any talks with the LTTE before it is willing to renounce the armed struggle,, without giving up the demand of secession and while holding onto the notion of sole representation. All of this is a must in the interests of the Vanni civilians. These are conditions essential to ensure the security of the Tamil people, much abused by the LTTE apart from the broader interests of democracy. What is unfortunate is that I do not believe that the LTTE is capable of acceding to these demands. Even if it agrees to these demands it then has to let go of the civilians as a good faith measure first.

    As for the correctness of the war, many of us from the Tamil dissenting community opposed the war when it first began and have consistently done so, including Hensman, if I remember correctly. This is a war of LTTE’s own choosing. It walked out of the Norwegian backed peace process barely a year after it began in a pique for not having been invited to the international donor conference. It refused to discuss substantive issues. It had a most advantageous ceasefire agreement through which it wreaked its revenge on Tamil dissent and ran its writ across the whole country through murder and assassination. In 2005 itself it began its attacks on the SL Army which was then confined to the barracks. These unprovoked attacks intent on teasing the SL Army to a war was capitalised on by Mahinda when he was elected and he mobilised the Sinhala Buddhist constituency behind him and went to war with the LTTE but then used that as an excuse to wage war on the Tamil people as well. The war that was courted by the LTTE has become its nemesis. This is a military contest between two extreme nationalist armies, and the vagaries of military success of either party is immaterial to us except in terms of their impact on the peoples of Sri Lanka.

    The bottom line here is that one has to be clear about where the future of the Tamil people lies – in cohabitation with other communities within a united Sri Lanka or in a tryst with death in the company of the LTTE. We have to develop a clear perspective on the fact that the LTTE’s continued presence and survival is inimical to civilian safety in the short term and the future of the Tamils in the long term. If we are for the former option then we can begin anew , to build a democratic struggle to challenge the Sri Lankan majoritarian state and its Sinhala Buddhist nationalist backers. We need to join forces with the other minority communities and with progressives in the South in a common effort to challenge the Sri Lankan State for peace democratisation and demilitarisation. We can begin to do this without having to watch over our shoulders that we will get shot at from behind by the LTTE. Tamil progressives and the Tamil people have to opt out of the exclusivist Tamil mindset that the LTTE has trapped us in.

  7. Niran Anketell permalink
    April 15, 2009 11:32 AM

    Nirmala Rajasingham’s argument that a ceasefire at this stage would be inimical to the interests of the civilians within the safe zone is perplexing, bewildering, and if she is to be understood to mean what she says, downright facetious. She argues that the LTTE will not allow people to come out, and thus the destruction of the LTTE is desirable. This is patent nonsense. Yes, the LTTE cannot be expected, brutal and cynical as they are to allow the civilians to come out, even during a ceasefire. But doesn’t she realise that a ceasefire will bring the number of daily dead from 70 to 0. Is this not a sufficient incentive to stop the fighting? The killings will not stop until the guns are silenced, and the guns will not be silenced unless there is a ceasefire. Pure and simple. No ceasefire = more killings, and yet she deigns to suggest that no ceasefire = better for the civilians, at a time when all the world is calling for a ceasefire from the UN to the EU to the White House.

    To be fair she seems to suggest that, (even if she doesn’t, it remains a popular view), that a ceasefire will only delay the inevitable. The war will resume again, and the LTTE will use the civilians as shields again. Again, this is possible, but isn’t it less inevitable than the certain prospect of increasing civilian deaths! Are we as certain that of 70 people being killed per day after the presumed resumption of the war after the presumed breakdown of the presumed ceaefire, as we are certain that in the next few days hundreds of civilians will lose their lives, and hundreds more will be injured?

    But perhaps I am not going to the root cause driving Rajasingham to her opposition of a ceasfire, that seems to me to be a sure way of saving lives in the now. And that root cause is her political agenda, the one that undergirds her opposition to the ceasefire, although such opposition is facetiously framed as one that is civilian friendly. But what is this political position.

    She articulates it best

    “I am opposed to any talks with the LTTE before it is willing to renounce the armed struggle, without giving up the demand of secession and while holding onto the notion of sole representation”, she announces.

    Ok, that is what it is isn’t it. There is a logic here. The temporary ceasefire is opposed because it will inevitably break down. But is it not her position that a temporary ceasefire MUST and SHOULD break down, because a permanent ceasefire and peacetalks with the LTTE should not take place. So she doesn’t want unconditional peacetalks, and because she doesn’t and is aware that the LTTE will not meet her, and incidentally Rajapaskshe and JHU’s conditions, she sees no need for a brief interlude to the fighting she anticipates will happen anyway. This is not an unpopular view. The Southern polities clearest thinkers share this view. It is deeply thought out, and it stems from a political position that views unconditional talks with the LTTE as repulsive. This is unfortunate, that Nirmala Rajasingham can consider the lives of the civilians as a worthwhile sacrifice to the utilitarian political objectives she is committed to. It is also sheer hypocrisy, because that is what she, rightly , accuses the LTTE of doing.

  8. April 15, 2009 11:59 AM

    Nirmala, my stances have been that 1) I say ceasefire because it will stop people being killed. 2) I do not comment on the desirability of annihilating the LTTE in any of my comments but what i did ask why it would be better to have one devil annihilate the other.

    Nirmala my question is then are we prepared to make an ‘instrumentalist’ use of the State – A majoritarian state that is at the root of all these problems- to finish off the LTTE because the latter is bad.

    And then after the LTTE is done what is the the way forward?: Build a grand coalition with other minorities and the South? Yes this is important. But what would be the incentive for the other minority communities to join hands with the SL Tamil community? Cooperating with the Majoritarian state is how the leadership of the Muslim Community and the Up Country Tamils seem to think is the best operandi for them to achieve their goals. And who in the SL Tamil community is going to stand up to build this coalition? What does the experience of the formation of TULF where Thondaman and Ashraff were on board tell us about the scope for a grand coalition? Given that we see no indications that the majoritarian state is not going to let go its coercive tactics wont such an initiative be crushed in its budding stage? Nirmala makes it sound so simple. And i am confident that she knows that it is not simple.

    The discrediting of the armed struggle is painful. The fact that it was not conceived properly; that it was monopolised and delinked from the people; it lacked politics in it – should not discredit it as a response. It was the only response and the only plausible response that the Tamil people have and had. If not for armed struggle what are the other options? Go back to Parliamentary coalition politics? Or for a grass root movement? How is such a movement going to succeed within a heavily militarised society? Haven’t movements like this been crushed in the past by both violent actors. None of these suggestions are novel. (I am aware of Ahilan and Raghavan’s similar view points on this and the post on Lines to this effect. I am hoping to write regarding this on my blog in the near future)

    Finally then, while Nirmala is good at pointing out how the LTTE will not release people under any circumstance, she does not offer then what the option that will save the people would be.

    So my question remains for the sake of finishing off the LTTE are we then not to call for a ceasefire?

    As for my stance on the long term question i think the Tamil community is doomed. (i am very much typing this from within inside the country with family still in Jaffna). The South will not offer anything, they will deal with the Tamils’ political demands minimalistically. Will crush all dissenters and assimilation will continue.

    The LTTE has no doubt contributed to where the Tamils stand right now but the only option (if there is an option at all) is to see how the armed struggle can be brought back to its basics. This can only happen either 1) by starting all over again or 2) the LTTE changing course. Of course i am tired of deaths and hence even i am not happy with my suggestion and that’s why i say that there is nothing much to hope for. You can call me a defeatist.

  9. Deep permalink
    April 15, 2009 8:33 PM

    if i can correctly summarise what i have read – most of the comments here try to state (and dispute) that the ltte is the root of most problems. sure, this needs to be debated.. but the more important job at hand is to vociferously oppose the state’s military operations .. is it not ?

  10. Ahilan Kadirgamar permalink
    April 16, 2009 9:01 AM

    Many of the issues discussed here came up on an Asia Society panel that Alan Keenan and I were on today. You can watch that panel discussion at the following link:

    http://www.asiasociety.org/resources/090415_sri_lanka.html

    But since that program is quite long, let me also address a few points here.

    The political process and attempts now to find a political solution are obviously going to be very hard and may well take years. Tamil politics has been decimated by militarization and war, the State is partly responsible, but the LTTE has been systematic in eliminating most Tamils that refused to succumb to its sole-representative claim. It may well take another generation of Tamils within Sri Lanka (and I say within Sri Lanka because I believe the diaspora despite its financial muscle can not and should not claim to represent the Tamil people inside Sri Lanka). In the meantime, Tamils both inside and outside are going to have to work towards reconciliation with the other minorities and Sinhala progressives. It is not going to be easy, but there is no other option. To call for the continuation of the armed struggle and for that matter the LTTE’s politics – which has reduced the Tamil community to this state – is extremely irresponsible.

    On the issue of the civilians trapped in the Vanni, their safety and the alleviation of their suffering is of primary importance. It can be called ceasefire, cessation of hostilities, pause in military operations or a humanitarian ceasefire; if any of it would alleviate civilian suffering that should be called for. But if the intention is to alleviate civilian suffering there should be parallel calls on the LTTE to allow for free movement of civilians out of its control and also the surrender of the LTTE cadres as well as the LTTE leadership (particularly given that it can not survive the military onslaught without holding the civilians hostage). The international actors are capable of pressuring the Sri Lankan State by greater attention at the UN Security Council and through other mechanisms. But the leverage on the LTTE is limited, and the little pressure possible on the LTTE is from the Tamil diaspora and actors in Tamil Nadu, which are essentially its financial and political base, given little support for it from the Tamil people within Sri Lanka. And here the concern for civilians among the larger sections Tamil diaspora and actors in Tamil Nadu rings hollow as the mobilizations are unwilling to call for the free movement of civilians. Nor do I completely link the pressure on the State and the LTTE. Even if the LTTE refuses to address such concerns and even if the pro-LTTE sections of the Tamil diaspora or actors in Tamil Nadu are going to merely use civilian suffering to attempt to prop up and save the LTTE leadership, there should be continued pressure on the State to stop shelling and to stop its military offensive. Yes, a State has much greater responsibility towards its citizens and the Sri Lankan State should be called to account through concerted pressure.

  11. Deep permalink
    April 16, 2009 6:21 PM

    Mr. Kadirgamar, I agree with you regarding the requirement of internal political struggle within the Tamil community for better (or different) representation. However, the question remains whether those who object to the politics of LTTE should tacitly seek a militaristic help of the state for the regeneration of Tamil politics through the defeat of LTTE at the hands of the State. Also, it is not clear to whom should LTTE surrender – to the State or some other mechanism. It seems that the State is being conceded some space in order to obtain long term benefits.

    Regarding diaspora politics, that is a completely different dynamics and should be a contested domain for different views.

  12. Ahilan Kadirgamar permalink
    April 17, 2009 1:00 AM

    Rohini addresses the question of surrender in her article: “The LTTE leadership is undoubtedly in a tight spot, but they still have the option of behaving honourably. The most honourable and humane thing they could do now is to negotiate a surrender monitored by international organisations, which will ensure that the civilians are rehabilitated and their fighters receive humane treatment as prisoners of war. Or, if they insist on fighting to the finish, they could release all the civilians and conscripts, so that only those who wish to stay with them are subjected to the final assault. They will not, of course, do either of these things, because they have no concern whatsoever for the welfare of Tamils.”

    My article in Kafila titled, ‘Nationalisms, Militarization and the Politics of War in Sri Lanka’ written in September last year addresses some of the concerns in this discussion as well:

    http://kafila.org/2008/09/24/nationalisms-militarization-and-the-politics-of-war-in-sri-lanka-ahilan-kadirgamar/

  13. deqken permalink
    April 19, 2009 1:57 AM

    Well, a lot is being said about, what happened and why the LTTE was not successful in their military endevour. LTTE was not financially, emotionally or politically mature enough to take on the GOSL. (When Moses liberated the Jews from Egypt, he had God on his side). Who did the LTTE have? LTTE was not the best choice for the Tamils still living in Sri Lanka, but the only choice that was there. All other choices are residing abroad living a life of plenty. The other fact is that today, after all that has happened to the Tamil people, the only choice is a seperate piece of land, away from the sinhalese. Once, twice, thrice beaten and abused by the sinhalese………… should remind us Tamils that, there is no living in harmoney with the sinhalese. I think we should all focus our thoughts and intelligence into finding a place for the Tamils to live. In the absence of this we will live like the folks in Gaza. I mean not the guys and gals who are writing on these pages (includes me) but those Tamils who are living in Sri Lanka.

  14. Ponni permalink
    April 27, 2009 6:44 PM

    From Kusal Perera

    Shopping for peace and taking a terror State home

    “Little knowledge is far worse than total ignorance” says an old dictum. But “politics” is one subject any one could dabble in, with little knowledge. Every one has a right to form an opinion of his or hers on any political issue, what ever knowledge one has on the issue. It’s far worse than the “poet’s license” to tinker with words and lingo. This “political license” allows tinkering with the fate of whole societies.
    What more does Rohini Hensman do with her post in “Kafila” a blog site that implies it is a caravan of discourse? Her post titled ” Who Is Responsible For The Slaughter Of Civilians In The Vanni?” is a happy shopping spree for the Rajapaksa government in an attempt to indict the LTTE. She thus says, “The LTTE and its supporters, especially in Tamil Nadu but also elsewhere, cry ‘Genocide!’ and accuse the government of being solely responsible for the carnage.” Good thing is she accepts that there is a carnage taking place. That carnage is nothing else but a human carnage of Sri Lankan citizens. None of them are aliens on this soil.
    If there is mass killing in a country that claims to have a legitimate democratic government, it simply means the government is at fault. It means the government has not been able to solve the bloody conflict, inclusively and democratically. Its worse when that government uses aerial bombings, heavy artillery, internationally banned war heads and bombs against a minority of its own citizenry. That makes the carnage far worse to think of, despite the presence of a “terrorist” organisation.
    Rohini Hensman either does not know or has conveniently ignored the fundamental political fact that a “terrorist organization” as she calls the LTTE, can not be equated in any way to a legitimate, elected government. She also forgets that such a “terrorist” organization is not legally or constitutionally bound to any international forum or agency, like a nation State to ask them to abide by laws and accords. Not in any way. The worst is all armed organizations that are very conveniently labelled as “terrorist” organisations, forgetting their historical evolution out of heavily suppressed and continuously cheated democratic movements, is by itself a phenomenon that challenges the State and lives and works outside the Constitution.
    In contradiction to a “terrorist” organisation, a nation State with an elected government by its people does not have the freedom and liberty to do what an organisation labelled a “terrorist” organisation does. A nation State has a constitution and a legal system that provides the frame work within which it should act in any conflict. More over, a nation State like Sri Lanka, a member of the world community and signatory to many international humanitarian charters and covenants, to Geneva protocols, can not act irresponsible and brutal as a bandit group. This type of legitimate governments when elected on a promise to bring peace, democracy, good governance and accountability, does not even have a moral right to wage war against its own citizenry.
    “When evaluating the conduct of the government and the course of action open to it (meaning the govt.), it is important to keep in mind these actions (meaning crimes) of the LTTE.” says Hensman, in a very maternal advisory tone. Do keep them in mind, please. One should not allow the LTTE to go away without answering for their role in this carnage. But also remember, even all of it added together does not in any way relieve the government of its abounding responsibility and binding duty of safeguarding all its citizens. Therefore the issue of “responsibility” to act according to law, act according to and within democratic principles and values, is squarely and firmly with the government, before it falls on the LTTE.
    Another that exposes the mediocrity with which Hensman handles issues with is the “cease fire” issue. Such issues when abruptly and extremely flatly treated have dire political consequences in any conflict driven society. Cease fires have been very wrongly projected by the Sinhala extremists and the Colombo governments that shy off from taking responsibility for their own blunders. They are always used to coax Sinhala sentiments. Hensman too takes that same easy and simple path. “LTTE uses cease fire to regroup and arm itself for the next assault” is the most popular and unchallenged explanation. Stupidity in making such blank statements is that it does not say why a cease fire is worked out.
    All cease fires are worked out to gain a temporary peace and space to pursue a peaceful negotiated solution to the conflict. In conflicts that run into decades, especially when the conflict divides the nation on ethnic or religious lines, cease fires don’t simply hold out without serious and resilient efforts in confidence building, on either side of the divide. Here again the responsibility of actually opening up for confidence building falls on the shoulders of the government. A very clear case for study on how a cease fire survives a many decades old bloody and brutal conflict to allow negotiations for a democratic solution, is the one between the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African White government.

    Hensman and others like her, should study how the cease fire that was brokered in 1990 September between the “terrorist organisation” known as the ANC and the White apartheid government of De Klerk survived for 04 years. Nelson Mandela, who was incarcerated for nearly 28 years as a “terrorist” wrote a document titled “To Create a Climate of Understanding” outlining the ANC position on peace and reconciliation to President De Klerk on 12 December 1989, just one day before their first ever (though unofficial) meeting. In that Mandela said, “The whole approach of the Government to the question of negotiation with the ANC is totally unacceptable and requires to be drastically changed. No serious political organisation will ever talk peace when an aggressive war is being waged against it. No proud people will ever obey orders from those who have humiliated and dishonoured them for so long.” Yet initial negotiations, for Constitutional reforms to establish the first inclusive government dismantling the apartheid regime, got underway in 1990 May.

    They were never easy. They were never smooth and conflict free. “Within days of the signing of the Pretoria Minute (the cease fire agreement), South Africa descended into an orgy of violence, unprecedented even by its own woeful standards. Leaders on all sides bickered over the responsibility of the carnage, but did nothing to stop it. They would carry South Africa to the brink of destruction.” wrote Patti Waldmeir on page 151in the book “Anatomy of a Miracle”.

    In June 1992, in less than 02 years, after signing the peace accord, violence erupted. There were 04 reports of mass killings of ANC supporters. Indispensable leaders of the ANC like Chris Hani, the General Secretary of the ANC’s armed movement “Umkhonto we Sizwe” were gunned down in broad daylight. Mandela thus called off negotiations with De Klerk’s government. As Mandela writes in his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom” even after that De Klerk was prepared to continue talking and did have private contacts with Mandela. De Klerk’s Minister of Constitutional Affairs Roelof P. Meyer, worked behind stage to restart negotiations.

    There were civil society efforts that had emerged even before Mandela suspended the “Talks about Talks” as the negotiation process was termed, to support the limping peace process which was running into road blocs in its hard earned journey. Unlike here in SL where the Buddhist clergy and the business community play a very racist role in dividing the society, there in SA, this civil society was spearheaded by two strong pillars, the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and the Consultative Business Movement (CMB) that struggled to unite SA. South African Trade Unions and a whole range of interest groups and role players were brought in to the “Conference for a Democratic South Africa”, CODESA, constituted as the multi-party forum and then there was a strong mechanism in place for negotiations. It wasn’t all.

    Regional and local peace committees directly engaged people in conflict management on a grass roots level throughout the country. At their peak, there were 11 regional committees and over one hundred local peace committees, with an annual budget of almost $12 million which enabled the hiring of full time staff for regional offices.

    Although the peace committees were disbanded, in part because of lack of international support, in its next phase the peace process launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The cease fire there in SA was therefore worth holding on to. There was hope for peace and stability emerging.

    There is plenty in there for any one to learn about how cease fires become effective in a conflict riddled society. What people like Hensman do not know or do not want to know for convenience is that cease fires don’t have any meaning unless it is used for confidence building in society, among conflicting parties and towards achieving stability and peace. Cease fires don’t hold by themselves in empty space. During any cease fire that does not move positively, it requires the fighting group(s) to get ready for the next bloody conflict. Unfortunately in SL we have never seriously wanted to work through a cease fire to establish a genuine peace process. The much hoped for “peace process” in 1995 January under President Kumaratunge was a total mockery of any imaginable negotiation. She thought she could handle a very complex conflict with a group of politically irresponsible people who were her personal evening party buddies. There was this attitude of macho egoism “oh, we could handle them any way”.

    If one takes a very objective look on the 2002 cease fire that Rohini Hensman feels she has a right to ridicule, there was no promise in it after a few months lapsed. One, the Wickramasinghe government and his UNP were only interested in toying with it to market the “peace process” in their favour at the upcoming presidential elections. Two, Wickramasinghe took an agnostic stand with President Kumaratunge, thus leaving a wide gap between Executive Power and the Legislature that should have been brought together to negotiate a stable solution. The LTTE had to be shown that the Sinhala South is serious in working out a consensus. Three the JVP, the JHU and the SLFP led Opposition agitated against the cease fire and Norwegian facilitation labeling all of that as a step towards “Eelam”. Thus there was no attempt to reach the society to galvanise its support in favour of a “peace process”. In such a background, no interim measures were agreed upon to help restore rehabilitation and reconstruction in the North – East and the Tamil people in that part of the country saw no peace dividends coming their way.

    With no opportunity for rebuilding the war devastated land of the Tamil people and with growing political agitations against the “peace process” in a divided South and even the Norwegian facilitators being bullied, no fool heading an armed movement would wait with both arms folded. The 2002 cease fire that Hensman cites as one which allowed the “LTTE to arm itself for Eelam War IV” is thus a very ridiculous, contemptuous statement. It would not have ended in any other way, based on how the cease fire was treated by the SL government.

    Finally in conclusion, let it be clearly stressed here that this “war against terrorism” Hensman and her like are happy about, thinking they would now live without the Tiger terrorists, and is tacitly backed by the international community which leaves the human carnage in Wanni unfolding behind their statements and rhetoric, has only allowed for the total dismantling of all democratic structures in society, not only in the Wanni and North, but in every part of this island nation, Sri Lanka. It has allowed for the assembly of a politico-military regime that has left the legislature and the executive power at its mercy for political power and popularity. “War against terrorism” a slogan given life by former President Bush of the USA, gives legitimacy to turn States into rogue States with unquestionable terror power. Sri Lanka is currently enjoying that luxury. Thanks to persons like Rohini Hensman who take it as their duty to raise the banner against “terrorism” and allows the same banner to dress the nudity of a terror State.

    Kusal Perera

  15. ragavan permalink
    April 28, 2009 6:32 PM

    “Little knowledge is far worse than total ignorance”

    Hitherto the so called arm chair left or progressives outside the Tamil political field (especially those from the south of Sri Lanka) have played a destructive role with regard to minority issues in Sri Lanka. On the one hand the Sinhala nationalist forces continued to disseminate Sinhala nationalist ideology in Sri Lanka and to complement this the so called arm chair revolutionaries, with intellectual laziness, without taking into account of the complex nature and particularity of the political expressions, interests and practice surrounding the Tamil nationalist agenda, have simplified the issue as a ‘liberation struggle’ against an oppressive state. Both the Sinhala nationalist agenda and the arm chair left agenda are two sides of the same coin. The Sinhala nationalists propagate open racism, the arm chair left in the south are guilty of inverted racism. The motto is: Who are these to tell us what is right and wrong, we know the best. Perera’s comments stem from the same premises, in that a simplified logic of ‘state oppression’ vs ‘liberation’ contaminates the whole text.

    The armchair left is lazy to mobilise or actively engage with the people in the south and to disseminate a counter ideology against Sinhala nationalism. Instead, with their intellectual laziness, they support ‘Tamil right to self determination’ as it is the comfortable thing to do without actively engaging in any real politics.

    The Tamil people have suffered a lot not just because of the Sri Lankan state’s political agenda but also by the methods used by the LTTE including child recruitment, killing of dissenters, creating internal terror within the community and taxation. Their politics is not in any sense liberatory politics, as evident during the ceasefire, the LTTE behaved like a parasite. Wanni is the most economically disadvantaged area and the LTTE instead of empowering people, has exploited them economically and politically. their houses were taken by the LTTE. The NGO’s worked in their territories were asked to pay 50-70% of their investment to the LTTE. When you look at those IDP’s trapped between two warring parties, it is evident that the most vulnerable people were used and exploited by the LTTE for their own power.

    It is easy to think in terms of state oppression and national ‘freedom struggle’. But it is much more complex and one has to do the ground work properly. The internal terror the Tamils suffered is much worse than the external terror of the state.

  16. deqken permalink
    April 29, 2009 7:55 AM

    The internal terror the Tamils suffered is much worse than the external terror of the state.

    Is this a true Statement? Is their evidence to back this up? Did the Tigers (Internal Terror) keep the state terror at bay? Are the Tamils at the mercy of the full extent of the State Terror now that the internal terror has been wiped out?

    Gentlemen please, have we come a full circle?

  17. ragavan permalink
    April 30, 2009 3:05 PM

    external terror is relatively easy to confront where as internal terrror kills your soul and makes you like a zombie. Tamils have been physically killed by the state and no question about that . but they are already dead as the internal terror finished them off all long ago. if you read UTHR reports there is wealthy of evidence to confirm the internal terror of the LTTE.

    we need not have to compare both terrors as they have different dynamics and we need to fight against both

  18. Thomas permalink
    May 2, 2009 5:57 AM

    http://english.aljazeera.net/news/asia/2009/05/20095141557222873.html

    the intellectuals can fiddle, twiddle or wash their hands !

    • Rahul permalink
      July 27, 2009 11:54 AM

      “As long as the retaliation is proportionate, it is perfectly legitimate and what we did exactly was located these guns and retaliated against those guns,” he said.

      “I would challenge anybody to say that these shell holes were created once the civilians moved into the area and became occupied by civilians.”

  19. Rahul permalink
    July 27, 2009 8:49 AM

    Everything negative that has happened to the Tamils in the last several months has been self inflicted.

    http://bailaman.blogspot.com/2009/07/tamil-tigers-raised-12-million-year.html

    http://bailaman.blogspot.com/2009/05/satellite-images-of-sri-lanka-showing.html

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