The civilians in the Vanni

The fate of the civilians trapped in the Vanni is a matter of serious concern. These concerns relate not only to their physical safety but also to humanitarian issues concerning food, clothing and shelter. In this regard the physical counts of the numbers of civilians cited are significantly different.

For instance, the latest report of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) (UTHR-J) states: "At the last reckoning the food going into the Wanni to feed an estimated 430,000 people was 750-800 tonnes, while the actual requirement was 1500 tonnes"(Special Report No. 31, October 31, 2008). The UTHR-J Report does not state the basis or the sources for their 430,000 estimate. What it does state in essence is that if this estimate is not excessive, "the government and the agencies open themselves to the charge of starving the people". On the other hand, the figure quoted by Amnesty International was 300,000 and by BBC was 500,000. Following this, a report issued by the Human Rights Ministry states: "…the net figure of displaced persons (displaced after April 2006) for the Districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu is jointly estimated by UNCHR and Government agencies to be 207,000 (estimated numbers as at end-September announced in November)" (Daily News, November 22, 2008).

It thus appears that agencies quote figures to fit their particular agendas; the common theme being to discredit the Government and Sri Lanka. The larger the number, the easier it is to charge the Government "of starving the people". Since the actual number of civilians (207,000) is half the number quoted by the UTHR-J (430,000) the quantities of food currently sent to the Vanni (750-800 tonnes) correspond with what is required. Therefore, no accusations "of starving the people" could be leveled at the Government.

If the quantities of food sent are less than what is required, the Government would be guilty of starving the people ONLY if all the civilians trapped in the Vanni qualify as "civilians", meaning that they are NOT associated with the LTTE. They would then be NON-COMBATANTS. This however is not the case, since most of these people have undergone military training. Consequently, they have become a vital component of the fighting capabilities of the LTTE, which clearly makes them COMBATANTS. The Government is therefore not obliged to feed these persons who are equipped to engage in armed combat. The fact that the Sri Lankan Government goes to great lengths to feed them despite these ‘civilians’ being a vital component of the LTTE’s military organization, is unique and speaks for its commitment to humanitarian obligations



The uniformed LTTE cadres in the Vanni are clearly part of its military formation. Civilians who have undergone military training, but are not in uniform, are still part of the LTTE’s militia. Other civilians assist the LTTE in the conduct of its military operations. Thus, all such civilians should be classified as combatants as opposed to non-combatants who have civil and political rights. Consequently, combatants who voluntarily or involuntarily become associated with the activities of the LTTE militia stand to lose their civil and political rights. It is vital that this distinction between non-combatants and combatants is not only appreciated but also that every effort be made by the International Community and aid agencies to pressure the LTTE to release any non-combatants so that they are free to seek sanctuary in Government controlled areas.

This distinction is vital because the ongoing military operation is an armed conflict in every sense of the word. As such, each category carries with it recognized rights and privileges. This distinction is made with special clarity in The British Manual of Military Law. This document states: "Both classes (soldiers and civilians) have distinct privileges, duties, and disabilities…an individual must definitely choose to belong to one class or the other, and shall not be permitted to enjoy the privileges of both…; in particular…an individual [shall] not be allowed to kill or wound members of the army of the opposed nation and subsequently, if captured or in danger of life, pretend to be a peaceful citizen"( quoted from "Just and Unjust Wars, Walzer, 2006, p. 179).

Thus, all civilians in the Vanni are either combatants or non-combatants. It is not possible to establish how many of the 207,000 trapped in the Vanni qualify as non—combatants. However, what needs to be recognized is that most of them find themselves trapped by the LTTE to fight to the end. The Strategy Page website states: "…all adult Tamils are now subject to involuntary military service. Most of these fighters barely know how to operate their weapons, but the LTTE has found a way to make them useful even if they are killed. If some of these fighters are hit by an air strike or artillery, their weapons are taken away, and pictures taken to show civilians killed by Sri Lankan military". The bulk of the civilians in the Vanni belong to this category-they are LTTE’s combatants.


The civilians in the Vanni afford several advantages to the LTTE. Maintaining them is not an issue because the Government provides all basic necessities. Their presence is not only a resource base for military purposes but it also enables the LTTE to exploit the rights of non-combatants when it suits them. For instance, insufficiency of food could be exploited as being attempts at genocide, and lack of adequate shelter could be exploited as being violations of humanitarian norms. Taken separately or together, any of these issues are used by LTTE’s supporters in Tamil Nadu and/or in the Tamil diaspora to pressure Delhi and/or the International Community to pressure the Sri Lankan Government to halt its military offensive claiming the ostensible purpose of protecting civilians.

These civilians who represent 10% of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka are all that is left of the political capital (assets) of the LTTE. The charge brought against the Sri Lankan Government is that these civilians are deliberately targeted because their presence is an impediment to achieving its military objectives. However, if the government deliberately targeted these civilians, the natural tendency would be for them to seek the protection of the LTTE. Therefore, targeting civilians would clearly be counterproductive to the interests of the Government’s military objectives, since the whole idea is to wean civilians away from the LTTE based on the Mao’s concept of ‘draining the pond’. The Government strategy would be to do everything in its power to win them over to Government controlled areas (NOT drive them into the arms of the LTTE), so that the military would be free to carry out the offensive without being stymied by the presence of civilians. Therefore, the charge that the Government is committing genocide against the Tamil people is baseless and defies all logic.

The LTTE has no problem jeopardizing the interests of its political capital, i.e., the civilians, presumably because it operates on the premise of General Sherman’s edict that ‘war is hell’. Therefore, anything goes because winning is everything. The attitude that it is the end that matters and not the means has enabled the LTTE to commit terrorist acts on the political capital of the Sri Lankan state - the innocent Sri Lankan nation. Terrorism intends to spread fear among the innocent and to use this fear to pressure governments to grant the concessions sought by the terrorist. In the case of Sri Lanka this strategy worked until the present Government came to power and resolved to defeat terrorism and terrorists resolutely. The purposeful manner in which aggression of the LTTE was met with aggression has concretized the resolve of the Sri Lankan nation despite attempts by the LTTE to demoralize the public through terrorist acts. The present mood is that however destructive terrorist acts may be, the policy of defeating the LTTE would not change. Under the present circumstances, the LTTE’s policy of instilling fear through acts of terror is a failed policy.


The civilians in the Vanni represent what is left of the political capital (assets) of the LTTE. The Sri Lankan nation is the political capital of the current democratically elected Government. While the LTTE is free to attack the political capital of the Government in the hope of instilling fear through acts of terrorism, it is not in the self interest of the Government to deliberately target the political capital of the LTTE as charged by the International Community because such actions would drive the political capital of the LTTE to support it. This is the irony of conflicts within states.

The goal of creating a separate state through armed conflict for whatever reason has implications that are quite different to that of seeking political arrangements within an existing or a modified state structure. In the case of an armed conflict, it matters little what strategies are deployed if the objective is to live cut off and separated from what was. On the other hand, if the initial objective fails and the next best involves living within an existing/modified state, the strategies adopted matter. For instance, terrorism that targets the innocent is a flawed tactic because the prospect of eventual reconciliation becomes a trying process for the victimized innocents. On the other hand, if the strategies adopted targeted only the Governments in power and their representatives, the LTTE would not have alienated the Sri Lankan nation. The lesson is that terrorism as a tactic strains efforts at reconciliation if the original objective of separation fails.

During the US Presidential debates a notion was expressed that all terrorists should not be lumped together because of their separate motivations. The point of view presented herein challenges this notion and maintains that whatever the motive, the means matter. Therefore, however lofty the motives, terrorizing the innocent as a tactic is unacceptable. As long as the International Community refuses to acknowledge this proposition the long war of terrorism would continue.

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