Of Tigers, Dragons, Turtles and Hens

While the heroic LTTE leaders are hiding behind women and children, dying many times before their death, their allies' diplomatic offensive against Sri Lanka continues. If not for Prabhakaran's hubris and thirst for blood which got the better of reason, perhaps the LTTE lobbyists with many a foreign 'dignitary' in their pocket would have succeeded in mustering even the UN support to take their heroes off the hook. Their problem is that not even a country like Norway, whose partiality to the LTTE stinks to high heavens, wants to sully its hands by openly supporting Prabhakaran.

Another attempt to move the UN Security Council against Sri Lanka has come a cropper with China aborting it. Russia shot down an earlier move. Of all countries, it is Costa Rica, Mexico and Austria that have suddenly become so concerned about the humanitarian situation in the Vanni, if their abortive campaign to have Sri Lanka debated at a Security Council meeting is any indication. They are said to be enjoying the US backing in their endeavour. (The penny dropped, eh?)

If the countries that have taken up the cudgels for Sri Lanka's IDPs are genuinely desirous of ameliorating the suffering of those hapless people, then their humanitarian concerns must be matched with deeds. But, how many of them have extended any tangible assistance to Sri Lanka's IDPs?

Countries giving humanitarian assistance behave like turtles and hens. Some of them provide a great deal of relief without making any noise like turtles that come out at night, lay hundreds of eggs each and leave silently. Others are being like hens that lay one egg each in daylight and let the entire world know about it. When the humanitarian hens help renovate a hospital ward, they make a huge noise and make sure they get publicity worth a new hospital!

Certainly, there is no gainsaying that it is not hunky dory at the welfare centres for the displaced. There are problems. But the government and the military are doing their damnedest to improve the war affected people's lot. Hands trained to handle weapons have taken to baking roti, boiling rice and caring for the sick and the aged. This, the frontline soldiers are doing while a war is raging. When one discusses the welfare of the war displaced, one must not lose sight of the fact that in spite of their difficulties they have been freed from the clutches of a ruthless terrorist group notorious for murder, child abduction and extortion. And their plight needs to be compared with that of their counterparts in other parts of the country.

In the city of Colombo, more than 50 per cent of people live in slums and shanties! Nearly one half of Sri Lankans languish in poverty and over 25 per cent schoolchildren are malnourished. And tens of thousands of Muslims who were driven out from the North by the LTTE are still living in appalling conditions in different parts of the country.

No argument is peddled that because others are suffering, the plight of the war displaced should not be taken for granted. Instead, the point being made is that the suffering of the Vanni people is not due to any deliberate move on the part of the State or discrimination: A genuine effort is being made to help them amidst the economic woes of the government and it is not advice or censure that Sri Lanka deserves from the international community at this juncture but some kind of assistance.

Those who make a hue and cry about a humanitarian catastrophe in the Vanni are either being naïve or supporting the LTTE's plan to open an escape route by aggravating the humanitarian situation in that part of the country. Let them be given an example of a humanitarian catastrophe so that they will know what it is like. In 1998, a UN survey revealed that the mortality rates among children below five years of age in southern Iraq had more than doubled compared to the previous decade, meaning 500,000 excess deaths of children had occurred by that year due to diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections as a result of sanctions imposed by the US etc. UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq (1997-98) Denis Halliday called sanctions 'genocide' and resigned in protest. His successor Hans von Sponeck followed suit in 2002 citing the same reasons. The UN World Food Programme Director in Iraq Jutta Burghardt also registered his protest by fully subscribing to Sponeck's position and tendering his resignation.

Worse, as we pointed out in these columns the other day, when CBS television in 1996 pointed out to the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that half a million children had died in Iraq and asked her whether the price was worth it, she had no qualms about saying: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it."

And the question is: What would the US do, if bin Laden and his cohorts were trapped in Puthukudiyiruppu?

Although the Vanni IDPs' situation certainly has to improve, it needs to be granted, we repeat, that the government is doing its best to look after them. Only a fool or an LTTE sympathiser will demand their immediate resettlement before demining is complete. Even a pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP S. Vino Noharathalingam has told Parliament, after a visit to a welfare village in the Vanni, that he commends the steps taken by the government to help the IDPs, .

No peaceful settlement is possible with the LTTE which has, as the EU parliament itself pointed out in 2006, rejected devolution of power at all the levels––provincial (Provincial Councils), regional (Regional Councils) and national (federalism as envisaged in the Oslo Declaration). Neutralising the LTTE militarily is a sine qua non for eliminating the causes of the conflict by political means. There is no other way!

A humanitarian catastrophe is not something that exists in the Vanni but something that the LTTE is striving to create to shock the world into pressuring Sri Lanka to halt her military campaign. What keeps the LTTE going is the hope that the international community may come to its rescue sooner or later.

The day Prabhakaran realises that he stands no chance of being rescued, he will take cyanide bringing the war to an end. Then only will the suffering of civilians in all parts of the country end once and for ever.

The sinking Tigers must be taken off the life-support system of hope.

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