"If we had the honesty and the moral courage, we would not let a day pass without hearing the cries of the victims."
Noam Chomsky (The Chomsky Reader)
President Mahinda Rajapakse has declared that Killinochchi will be taken by the end of the year. In the last couple of weeks the Tigers have begun to resist the Lankan offensive in earnest. It is not in the nature of the LTTE to surrender; further retreat is becoming increasingly impossible, geographically, politically and militarily. Therefore the Tigers are likely to continue with their resistance until either Vellupillai Pirapaharan is dead (most likely by his own hand; he will not allow himself to be taken prisoner) or a new stalemate is achieved. In such a war what will be the fate of civilian Tamils, caught between a brutal terror outfit and a ruthless administration?
The LTTE has stepped up its attempts to conscript more civilian Tamils to serve as cannon fodder in the coming battles; it is also preventing civilian Tamils from fleeing into the relative safety of government controlled areas, so that they can function as human shields. Corpses of Tamil men women and children, killed by aerial bombing and artillery fire, will be an important politico-propaganda weapon in the Tiger arsenal. The LTTE needs civilian causalities in substantial numbers to create a groundswell of opinion in Tamilnadu, which in turn will impact on Delhi, especially in an election year.
That the LTTE is not concerned about the safety and wellbeing of the Tamils is an axiomatic truth, borne out by its conduct, past and present. This fact, by itself, may not have been catastrophic, if the Rajapakse administration did not retrogress to the pre-Accord practice of treating Tamils as enemy aliens. Today Tamil civilians are caught in a vicious and inescapable trap; the LTTE is deliberately placing them in danger while the Lankan government is indifferent to their fate. The civilian Tamils, especially the ones in the war zone, have no representatives or protectors. In this war they are the real victims; they will be losers, irrespective of which way the war ends.
Another Expulsion Drive?
Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse is not only the President’s brother (in an administration which seems to place an unnatural premium on family connections); he is also the military czar of the Rajapakse administration, the man who is directing the war effort. Therefore his public pronouncements, especially on matters of national security, must be taken extremely seriously.
Some time back Mr. Rajapakse tried to expel North-Eastern Tamils from Colombo lodges citing security concerns. This unconstitutional, anti-democratic and anti-civilisational act was widely denounced, nationally and internationally. The massive adverse reaction, together with a Supreme Court order, caused a halt to the expulsion drive. In a recent interview Gotabhaya Rajapakse resurrected his old idea, arguing that such ‘human control measures’ are necessary, indeed unavoidable, in the current context: "An alarming situation has been observed by the Security Forces as a large number of people have come to the Colombo Police Division in August alone without any valid reason… In August 6,950 people have come to the Colombo Police Division and are temporarily living in lodges, houses and various other places. This is not normal. This is an abnormal thing. It causes a lot of problems. Among other things it causes a lot of security risks. I prefer most of these people who had come from other areas to Colombo and suburbs and who are staying here without any valid reason to go back to their areas because it is an immense problem for the Security Forces to provide security. The LTTE mingles with these people to infiltrate these areas….. We must be prepared for this. That is why we are doing human control measures. People criticise us for fundamental rights violations when we do these things" (Daily News – 13.9.2008).
The inference is obvious; Mr. Rajapakse wants all non-Colombo Tamils to leave Colombo. His remarks are probably in the nature of a trial balloon, to see whether the winds are favourable for a new expulsion drive. Constitutionally the government has no right to prevent the free movement of Lankan citizens within their own country. Any attempt to impede the free movement of Tamils will be unjust and discriminatory, according to national and international laws. It would provide the LTTE with a powerful politico-propaganda weapon and exacerbate our international isolation. Remarkably Gotabhaya Rajapakse is undaunted by the adverse consequences of what he disingenuously calls ‘human control measures’. Despite the failure of the first attempt he obviously he wants to give it another go. If a report in the website, Lanka Dissent is correct, the second expulsion drive has already begun with a group of Tamils from the North ordered to get out of Colombo within 24 hours. Perhaps this time the attempt will be made piecemeal instead of en masse, thereby lessening its shock effect and propaganda value. No consideration of justice or fair play will stop Mr. Rajapakse since he is obviously convinced he is doing the right thing; he can be stopped only by another storm of protests (nationally and internationally) and the intervention of the judiciary.
That, then, is the crux of the matter. If the administration is not acting as ruthlessly towards civilian Tamils as its Sinhala hardline wing demands, it is because of the fear of repercussions. If not for that factor, the regime would have acted far more harshly towards civilian Tamils. The reason is obvious. As far as the administration is concerned most Tamils are real or a potential Tigers, simply because all Tigers are Tamils. Such an attitude provides the psychological basis for collective punishment, the penalising of an entire community because some of its members are criminals or terrorists.
This approach is evident in the way the regime is treating civilian Tamils holed up in Tiger controlled areas. The government has ordered the civilians to get out of Tiger controlled areas. Tigers are impeding the people of Vanni and Killinochchi from escaping into the relative safety of government controlled areas. According to the government the civilians want to get away but are being held back forcibly by the LTTE to be used as human shields and cannon fodder. Going by this argument civilian Tamils are still in Tiger controlled areas not out of choice but because they are being held captive by the LTTE. Is it then logical, let alone just, to use aerial bombardment and artillery fire in areas teeming with hapless men, women and children, many of whom are refugees from earlier battles? Is it not akin to punishing innocent people, simply because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?
The plight of the civilians in the war zone is not hard to imagine, especially in the current inclement weather. They live in fear of their lives and often lack even the basic minimum facilities. The UN and other humanitarian agencies played a considerable role in providing some of necessities to these people. For many (especially for the more vulnerable segments such as children and the elderly) this help may have meant the difference between life and death. Therefore, ordering these humanitarian agencies to get out of the Tiger controlled areas, without putting an alternative arrangement in place, is unintelligent at best and criminal at worst. After all these Tamils are Sri Lankans.
In the East there were relatively fewer Tiger controlled areas; these areas were also sparsely populated. Since the East was less important to the LTTE than the North there was no question of fighting to death in the East. Consequently the Tigers retreated into their Northern strongholds, enabling the people to escape to the relative safety of government controlled areas. Things are radically different in the North. The Tigers will not retreat, because they cannot afford to retreat politico-militarily and there is no space to retreat into geographically. Therefore the Northern war will be far more brutal and far more protracted than the war in the East. In such a context how can the basic needs of the civilians be looked after without the help of international humanitarian agencies? The fact that the government ordered all of these agencies to quit the Tiger controlled areas demonstrate either a lack of understanding of the issues involved or a total indifference to the fate of the civilians caught up in the war.
The government wants civilian Tamils in Tiger controlled areas to brave the wrath of the LTTE. What reason has the government given these people to believe that they will be treated with fairness if they do flee into government controlled territory? Gotabhaya Rajapakse says, "If some people have come from the East or any other place to Colombo and if they are staying here without any reason they should go back to their places. Of course those who had come from Wanni have come here as they are facing problems" (ibid). A regime that regards any Tamil as a potential Tiger is unlikely to treat refugees from Wanni and Killinochchi very differently. In fact they are more likely to be regarded with suspicion and treated with hostility, if not worse. After all they have lived in Tiger controlled areas for a long time. Most of them would have family members in the LTTE; they would have had to cooperate with the LTTE in hundreds of ways, over the years they lived under Tiger rule. Given this reality what will happen to these ordinary people if they heed the call of the government and flee into cleared areas? What guarantee is there that they will not be treated as enemy aliens, guilty until proven innocent?
Human beings have a natural aversion to leave their habitats of long duration and take a leap into the unknown, even in the face of danger and terror. If the regime really wants to persuade civilian Tamils to brave the wrath of the Tiger, a strong incentive must be provided. The best method would have been to set up a series of camps in safe and proximate locations under the auspices of the UN. Once these camps are provided with basic minimum facilities, the people in Tiger controlled areas could have been asked to leave, with a ready made incentive as encouragement. In such a context the people would know they would be relatively safe and cared for and that could have given them the necessary psychological strength to defy Tiger orders. True the Tigers would have misused some of these facilities, infiltrating them posing as refugees. But that is a risk that comes with the context, and therefore unavoidable. And it preferable to forcing all refugees into internment camps, just to weed out a few Tigers.
Instead of such humanitarian treatment all the Tamils got was an ultimatum, which landed on them in the form of a leaflet by the regime. It told them to get out or face the consequences – hardly the way to win hearts and minds. According to media reports civilians are fleeing deeper into Tiger controlled territory instead of fleeing out of it. The government has mishandled the entire issue. Heavy civilian casualties can well be the result of this bungling.
The war is not taking place in a political vacuum. The world and India will be watching. The spokesman for the Indian Defence Ministry has laid the parameters within which the war will have to be fought if Colombo wants to keep Delhi neutral: "We have already expressed our concern to the Lankan authorities. While taking action against the LTTE, steps should also be taken to protect the civilian Tamils in Sri Lanka and ensure their safety and security". It is a fair enough position and one that should have been embraced by Sri Lanka of its own volition. After all, if we believe in an undivided Sri Lanka, the civilians holed up in Tiger controlled areas are our citizens and it is the duty of the Lankan state and government to protect them. If the state and regime fail in that task, if they do not take that task seriously enough, that will justify not the cause of Lankan unity but the division of Sri Lanka into a Sinhala country and a Tamil country.