Tigers in the long grass


While some say the end is in sight for Sri Lanka’s civil war, Alex Court argues that diplomatic pressure and change are still needed to stem the atrocious humanitarian situation.

AS REPORTS of over 400 deaths of Tamil Tiger rebels emerge from Sri Lanka, they are easily believed. Asia’s longest running civil war continues to rage in the North East of the island off southern India between the The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government’s army, both accused of violating human rights.

Probably the worst aspect of this war is the zone between the two armies, where the United Nations says 170,000 innocent civilians are trapped. The charity, Care International, has reported on their website that civilians who try to leave are unable to do so, and many of those attempting to fl ee are being prevented by the LTTE.”

tamiltigersLTTE was established in 1975, with the demand for a separate state for the ethic Tamil minority. Tamils notably expressed this view post British colonial rule in 1948 saying the majority Sinhalese community denied Tamils employment and educational opportunities.

While both these groups live in territorial Sri Lanka, they speak different languages and follow different religions. Civil war fi rst broke out in 1983 as the opposing viewpoints came to a head, and in 1993 Sri Lanka’s president, Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated. Fighting continued and the Tamil Tigers claimed the Northern town of Kilinochchi as their capital, which eventually ran its own courts, prisons, and tax system.

Peace seemed imminent when a ceasefi re was signed in February 2002 creating hope amongst the global community. Yet this lasted just three years; the end illustrated by the assignation in August 2005 of the foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar – an ethnic Tamil opposed to a separate state for the minority. While peace talks were restarted in 2006 they failed only months later.

Since then, government forces have held a much tougher stance after the election of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. His hard-line policies rule out Tamil autonomy and greater military funding has resulted in government forces gaining ground against the rebels. The government’s campaign was also buoyed by the defection of the Tigers’ military commander, Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan.

“This group have been blamed for murdering journalists and considering critics of their actions immediately to be sympathetic of the rebel cause”

Ceasefire agreements were officially terminated in early 2008 and since then fighting has been fi erce.

Towards the end of 2008 Sri Lanka urged civilians living in rebel-held areas to fl ee to government-controlled territory and on 2 January 2009 Sri Lankan forces captured the Tamil de facto capital.

While this didn’t mean the end of the war, it pushed rebels deep into thejungle, a return to their guerilla roots, and more civilians were caught in the crossfire.

As casualty numbers soar, aid organisations and the international community call for a ceasefi re so as civilians could be evacuated and the injured hospitalised.

The Sri Lankan foreign ministry have refused, saying any interruption to the fi ghting “would just present a chance for the terrorists to regroup and rearm,” initiating due criticism.

In February this year The Red Cross evacuated 240 sick and wounded people by boat from the north-east war zone and the military accused rebels of killing 19 fl eeing civilians.

In this dangerous ‘no fi re zone’, civilians are fl anked by armies on both sides and risk death when trying to escape. At the same time they are doomed to die eventually if they don’t venture to a safer zone. Many sick and dying are unable to attempt a journey and help is desperately needed. Aid groups have been barred from working here since September 2008 and many aid workers who were trapped have died.

As the war continues to rage and innocent civilians continue to die, it’s diffi cult to say who is to blame. Most countries consider the Tamil Tigers to be a terrorist organisation because of their suicide bomb attacks, and defected rebels say leadership has lost site of the initial objective. Eyewitness reports of the firing at people who have tried to fl ee also exist, and their reported use of civilians as human shields is unforgivable, as are accusations of the use of child soldiers.

Rajapaksa’s government’s, however, has also used brutal tactics. This group have been blamed for murdering journalists and considering critics of their action immediately to be sympathetic of the rebel cause. Sri Lankan military command has shelled civilian areas and reports claim civilians fl eeing the war zone have been detained.

While international pressure for a ceasefi re needs to continue, the main concern has to be on applying diplomatic pressure to both sides to allow civilians to leave the buffer area unharmed.

The war zone needs to become just that, rather than a place where innocent people are forced to live in constant fear of death.