As the military operations in Mullaitivu gather accelerated pace, the condition of displaced civilians in the district is, very understandably, becoming an issue of great concern. Incoming authentic reports indicate shrinking physical space and increasing hardships for these hapless persons, literally and figuratively caught in the cross-fire.
The plight of the Tamil civilians in operational areas has, of course, been exploited by some local and Tamil Nadu-based political forces for the extraction of mainly short-term political gain but there is no denying that there is a considerable humanitarian crisis in the areas of combat which cannot be soft-pedalled. We would not be exaggerating the proportions of the crisis at hand when we say that the majority of these civilians are faced with a most painful dilemma. On the one hand is the dreaded LTTE diktat which compels them to remain in their homesteads and be the now familiar human shield in the face of the advancing security forces. On the other hand, if they take their lives into their hands and make so bold as to flee, they would either be killed by the LTTE, as has reportedly happened to scores of such displaced, or surrender to a most hazardous existence, characterized by aimless wandering in dangerous combat areas where life and limb is at stake, increasing physical hardships with serious health implications, shelterlessness and starvation, to mention a few such hazards.
The state has done right by calling on these civilians to travel to government-controlled areas in the North for the purpose of ensuring their well being. As could be seen, the government is also bent on meeting the needs of these persons when they reach Vavuniya, for instance. But getting to state safe havens is proving the gruelling challenge for the displaced. The question is; would they be fortunate enough to make it in the face of the multiplying dangers to their vulnerable lives?
The LTTE is a non-state actor in this conflict although it is a principal party to it. In view of the fact that it is a terror group operating outside the framework of the law, it would not consider itself as under obligation to scrupulously adhere to local or International Law. Past experience proves that it is well nigh futile to expect lawful conduct from the LTTE. Accordingly, it would be utterly meaningless to call for accountability by the LTTE. This is the reason why tough law and order measures need to be used to neutralize the LTTE.
However, the state is a qualitatively different entity which operates within a prescribed legal framework. In terms of the legal and moral norms governing it, the state is obliged to ensure the legitimate interests of its citizens wherever they may be. Thus, the state is obliged to stretch itself to the maximum to ensure the well being of the displaced of the North. This task should be considered as important as the current military operations against the LTTE. We need to dwell on some of these seemingly self-evident truths because there is a possibility of some jingoistic but important sections of the state and their backers in the larger society forgetting them in their excitement over developments in the battle field. Need we say that the state needs to continuously engage in a ‘heart and minds’ battle too in the North-East?
At this critical juncture in the military operations in the North and amid the attendant euphoria, it is quite likely that fundamental truths or home truths would be forgotten or shrugged off by the sections just mentioned. Paying scant regard to the well being of the refugees, the displaced and other affected civilians of the North would be tantamount to leaving them at the mercy of the LTTE. A neglected civilian populace would easily fall for the LTTE’s anti-state propaganda and prove highly amenable to the LTTE’s recruitment efforts. In other words, the military effort would come to naught lf the civilian populace does not receive adequate state protection and care. This is why the local body politic needs to respond empathetically to the condition of the displaced and other affected sections. Simple-mindedness in these situations could prove fatal and local political history since 1983 bears ample testimony to this truth. The state should not only attend to the material needs of the affected civilians but ensure that they are fully integrated into the larger society, before their disaffections give rise to a fresh round of discontent and restlessness.
In this country where ‘Nation-building’ ministries are numerous it should not prove difficult to rehabilitate and integrate the war-affected. In fact, the current situation is an ideal opportunity for our polity to re-visit and reexamine the concept of nation-building. As we see it, nation-building has to do more with integrating all sections of our people into a united and equal collectivity, than anything else. How could we best ensure national unity and solidarity than by making equal rights for all the cornerstone of our polity?
We hope the issues surrounding our displaced would prompt a re-think on questions connected with nation-building besides bringing relief to the affected sections. Besides, we would like to draw the attention of those currently succumbing to an euphoric state that no less a person than President Rajapaksa is on record that a political solution is imperative to the National Question.
The most immediate area of concern for the state is to ensure safe passage to state havens for those fleeing the fighting in Mullaitivu. This problem needs to be resolved by ensuring that the military effort is carried out with utmost sensitivity to the security of civilians. The need is great to abide by, at all times, international humanitarian law. Any form of dialogue with the LTTE on these issues is, of course, not possible but the intervention of respected organizations, such as the ICRC, could be sought to ensure that the security and well being of the displaced and other sections are ensured by the sides to the conflict.
The point also needs to be borne in mind that these tasks just cannot wait for another day. International sympathy usually gravitates towards civilian groups which are seen as negatively affected by state policies and actions. In degree to the proportion to which this happens, states could be regarded as having lost wars, however much worthy these causes are made out to be. Accordingly, if the Sri Lankan state wants the world on its side in this conflict it should sooner rather later ensure the well being of affected population groups.