Why a Tiger tilt?

Yesterday’s reports of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s telephone conversation with President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the situation in the Wanni where the LTTE is making its last stand is a fine example of the spin that is part of politics, be it in the United States, Sri Lanka, India or wherever. All players put the best possible face on whatever they say, or quote others as saying, and we need to carefully analyze statements made by interested parties before arriving at our own conclusions. Yesterday’s Daily News, for instance, headlined its front page story saying that Clinton had told Rajapaksa that Sri Lanka is on the ``verge of defeating terrorism.’’ But according to the text released by the State Department’s spokesman, there is no such reference.

That, of course, does not mean that Clinton did not tell Rajapaksa what was attributed to her in the Daily News. She may well have done that and the State Department may have preferred not to mention that in the statement that was released for public consumption. Whether defeating the LTTE in the Wanni, depriving what is perhaps the world’s most brutal terrorist organizations of extensive territory it had long held and its conventional military capability, means that we are on the verge of ``defeating terrorism’’ remains to be seen. The LTTE is very likely to retain some residual terrorist capacity even after its back is broken and that’s something we will have to live with. But it is now very clear that the Tigers, in their death throes in the last sliver of land they hold thanks to their civilian shield, have been reduced to their worst ever situation in the long war that has wracked this once green pleasant land for over 25 years. For that the country’s security forces led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, richly deserve the gratitude of the whole nation, cutting across divisions of politics, race and religion. The president did not cave in to the pressure mounted from the world outside as his predecessors may well have done. Hopefully the finish is closer than many think.

The phone call that Clinton initiated on Friday was very similar to India’s most recent intercessions at the behest of elements in Tamil Nadu. Let us not forget that it was only last Thursday that a group of 38 Congressmen wrote to Clinton and to Dr. Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN saying, that Sri Lanka is on `Red Alert’ for genocide. Admitting that ``some would dispute the legal definitions of genocide,’’ the Congressmen told the senior Obama administration officials that ``there is no doubt that ethnic- based violence is widespread in Sri Lanka, and that Tamil noncombatants are deliberately victimized by the Sri Lankan government policies.’’ That of course is a load of rubbish. The truth is that the final stage of the war against a fanatical separatist terrorist group is now being fought in the Wanni. Untold misery, no doubt, has been heaped on civilians held there against their will by the LTTE. Clinton and Rice are too well aware that the Tigers are holding the civilians at gunpoint in the theatre of war as their last resort. The Secretary admitted as much when she, in her formal release, condemned the LTTE ``who are reported to be holding civilians as human shields, and to have shot at civilians leaving LTTE areas of control.’’ Please note the spot of dung (``reported to be holding’’) in the pot of milk.

The Tamil Diaspora has been one of the LTTE’s strongest supports in the long years of fighting. Tens of thousands of them live in North America and have used their political muscle to influence Members of Congress in favour of the LTTE. It is not politic for a U.S. Secretary of State, particularly Clinton who may be harbouring ambitions of becoming the first woman President of her country, to ignore powerful Congressional lobbies. Hence Friday’s phone call when the skilled diplomat said her piece somewhat differently from the Congressmen. Nevertheless she did say that there is increasing loss of life in the government designated safe zone in the Wanni and that the army should not fire into the civilian areas of the conflict zone.

The army certainly does not wish to kill civilians and that is why the LTTE is holding them. But for that factor the fighting would now have been over. Why did Clinton not ask the LTTE to lay down its arms and surrender if the civilians are her primary concern? She is quick to ask the government not to fire into civilian areas where the LTTE’s leaders, heavy armour, suicide cadres like the one who killed 15 innocents near a mosque at Akuressa the other day, are holed out. While we cannot and will not condone the death of civilians in the fighting, Clinton more than most others will know all about ``collateral damage’’ and its unavoidability; and must therefore train her guns more at the LTTE than the Sri Lanka government. Her statement, no doubt, was a delicate balancing act but the tilt seemed to be in favour of the LTTE which wants the military heat off itself so that it might live to fight another day. Given the tremendous price the army, particularly, and the rest of the security forces have paid throughout the war and specially in these last stages, that is a luxury Sri Lanka cannot afford. Those committed to stamping out global terrorism must not allow themselves to be manipulated by the many strings that Prabhakaran yet pulls through bleeding hearts and the influential Diaspora.

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