Between the devil and the deep sea

This article first appeared on the Op-ed page of the New Indian Express on April 15, 2009

IN recent US senate foreign relations committee hearings, testimony from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the previous US ambassador to Colombo among others was heard. It was a damning indictment on the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers for their rights abuses against the Tamil people. According to HRW, the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a large humanitarian disaster is in the making as the government prosecutes its war against the Tigers holed up in a small area with civilians in the Vanni. HRW has documented Tigers shooting at civilians trying to leave, even as the government bombs civilians in areas that the government itself declared safe areas. Recall 1987 when the Tigers used civilians as human shields and shelled the Indian Army from Jaffna Hospital and Kokkuvil Hindu College refugee camp - the ensuing carnage earned much sympathy for them.

Because of mistrust of the Tigers who have used previous ceasefires to regroup, the government seems to have been given a free hand by the international community to finish off the Tigers while making token calls to the Tigers to let the civilians go. The world seems tired of terrorists; no quarter is offered. Sadly it seems the calculation of world leaders that civilian loss is worth the defeat of the Tigers. As I write there are claims of huge holes being dug by government around Mullaitivu.

For what ominous purpose - to hide the planned genocide as claimed or more likely to hide the inevitable collateral civilian damage as the army moves in - no one knows.

But who are these Tigers whom the word has given up on? Who are the civilians caught in this death trap? The Tiger leadership has insisted on every Tamil household contributing one person to their forces - children have not been spared. As Tiger military fortunes waned, they insisted on two per household.

In December in a visit to the Vanni I heard personal testimony of a funeral in almost every household. Tiger recruiters had arrived at a house to fetch a young girl. As she cried aloud and clung to her mother, her clothes ripped off and she was carried away by the men in their van wearing only her lower underwear. A deaf man was recruited and naturally got badly injured and returned home - only to be taken away again before he had healed, as the Tigers got desperate. Community elders had myriad complaints - including of suicides by recruits with no stomach for a war they did not believe in.

As the Tigers lost ground and withdrew, they ordered all civilians to move with them. Nearly all did because of government murders of anyone suspected of Tiger involvement - for every family had a forced Tiger recruit. In the event, their fears are well founded; those who do dare the Tiger firing and cross over to government land are herded into barbed wire areas without access to relatives and those who appear suspicious to the government disappear from the camps with no one knowing where.

These are the people the world has given up on as Tigers. The world therefore cannot write off the people cornered with the Tigers. Lower LTTE cadre need to be treated sympathetically as people forced to wear the uniform of a terrorist organisation. The world that condemned the forced recruitment of children, now cannot give them up as terrorists deserving slaughter.

At this juncture friends of Tamils - and those who want a just world with rights - can only focus on the after events following the formal military rout of the LTTE as government forces are reportedly moving into the so-called safety zone that has been anything but safe for civilians. Going by the experience of the Lanka’s East following government take-over, the North soon will be subject to the same regime of rigged elections and cultural colonisation. As forced Tiger child-recruits are treated like hardened criminals following capture or counted among terrorists killed, resentment will grow. Those Tamils who see no way out except through cooperation with the government, will be devalued among Tamils as has happened to many who really do care for their people. And without addressing Tamil grievances, we would come full cycle with another guerrilla uprising - if not under Tiger leadership, then under another.

In a civil war, everyone compromises and we should respond with understanding rather than condemnation.

If the international community looks the other way as the people holed up are finished off, we will have no solution to the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka.

The Tamil National Alliance who were forced to accept the dictates of the Tigers and are described by many as Tiger proxies, also need to be viewed sympathetically. They surrendered only after the Tigers murdered many of their parliamentarians. For a Tamil in Sri Lanka the choice was between accepting Tiger overlordship and, being hunted by them, seeking army protection and thereby being viewed by fellow Tamils as part of the hated government.

When the Tigers threatened me with death, I fled because I could get a decent job abroad but lost my ability to serve my people. The Alliance parliamentarians compromised but have been able to serve Tamils as best as they can. They possess an automatic vote bank among the Tamils and can play a major role in getting Tamils back into the polity. Only Alliance leaders from pre-Tiger days can convince the Tamil public of any peace deal.

The international community, especially India and Sri Lanka’s donor group that includes the US, must intervene to ensure that the government of Sri Lanka is accountable to all its citizens through a wide spectrum of Tamil representatives, discounting no one.

This is the only way out.

(The writer is professor of engineering and science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Hartford, Connecticut.)

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