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Monday, February 16, 2009

Sri Lanka Murder Mystery

Forewarning of the perils of overkill

Prof. Noam Chomsky has been one of the icons of the peace movement in the United States since the days of the Vietnam War. He was recently interviewed for his views on Sri Lanka, which is being put forward as a possible international model of military solution in cases of protracted conflict. The government.s victory last month at Kilinochchi, where it took over the LTTE.s administrative capital and followed this up with other crucial victories, such as Elephant Pass and Mullaitivu in early February, brought in many international journalists to report on the military battles. But now there is a noticeable shift in the international coverage of Sri Lanka, away from military lessons to a focus on the escalating humanitarian crisis.

Drawing on his long years of study and reflection on conflict processes in the world, including those in which the United States was involved, Prof. Chomsky said that .It is clear that there is a problem of Tamil rights. Now that the military aspect of the conflict seems to be coming to an end, what would be necessary, humane and best for everyone is to arrive at some kind of political solution that gives recognition to the valid claims to some form of autonomy or self-determination within the Sri Lankan state.. While the military battles continue in the north, the remaining territory under the control of the LTTE has shrunk still further, and attention will shift to the post-conflict plans that the government has.

Commenting on the fate of the tens of thousands of people who fought with or supported the LTTE over the past three decades, Prof. Chomsky also said, .The general presumption should be that there will be a form of amnesty. It is probably not a bad idea to establish some kind of Truth Commission, without punitive powers, but with investigative powers. This could bring to light atrocities and crimes committed on all sides, as a step towards reconciliation and living together.. This statement takes on importance in the context of the stories that are filtering through word of mouth and through the internet of horrific conditions in the battle zones of the Wanni, and even in the welfare camps set up by the government.

There appears to be growing international concern about the humanitarian situation in the country. The UN Secretary General has said that Sri Lanka.s humanitarian crisis is an under reported one. The British government recently appointed a special envoy to Sri Lanka to address this crisis, which was rejected by the Sri Lankan government on the grounds that it was a unilateral action. But it shows the degree of concern amongst countries that have long been supportive of Sri Lanka.s development. In view of these pressures the government needs to reconsider its apparent policy of eliminating the last Tiger by military means even as the humanitarian cost of this strategy mounts.

Two insights

The two insights of Prof. Chomsky highlighted above are central to a peaceful future in Sri Lanka and need to be on the top of the list of priorities of Sri Lankan political discourse, including the parliamentary debate between the government and opposition. On the positive side the pursuit of a political solution continues to be on the top of the agenda of a section of the government through the All Party Representatives Conference headed by government minister Prof. Tissa Vitarana. The APRC has a dedicated group of Parliamentarians drawn from several political parties which have met 105 times over the past two years, with most meetings lasting between 3 to 4 hours as reported by Prof. Vitarana himself.

On the negative side, however, the deliberations of the APRC are yet to yield a credible outcome despite interim reports that have had much that is positive in them. The problem appears to be that the real decision makers within the government have so far shown little if any interest in making the proceedings of the APRC acceptable to the ethnic minorities. In particular, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who established the APRC, needs to give the process his political backing. The government.s decisive victory at the two provincial council elections held over the weekend show that its political strength is very high, with President Rajapakse being its main focus. Perhaps when the time is deemed to be ripe, he will make the necessary effort to give his personal leadership to the APRC process.

There is also no indication that, at this time, the government is interested in any form of amnesty for the rebel fighters of the LTTE through a negotiated settlement with them in which they lay down arms. The government.s current position is to demand an unconditional surrender. As there is no indication that the LTTE is willing to concede defeat in such a manner, what has been transpiring on the ground is a ruthless battle in which no effort is being spared to win, not even if hapless civilians are caught up in the fighting. They have been fired on, even in hospitals, and families have been separated and made vulnerable to abuse. In its bid to weed out LTTE cadre, and who may be amongst the people, the government is engaged in a screening process under military control.

However, recent pronouncements by government spokespersons indicate that there could be rethinking on their part. Government spokespersons appear to be more responsive to international criticism of the lack of checks and balances in the screening and detention processes. Until recently the government has been reluctant to permit international agencies, even reputed humanitarian ones, from entering into the areas where civilians from the LTTE-controlled areas cross over into government controlled territory. Presumably the reason for this was concern that procedures for screening will be judged as not meeting international standards. It had also been reported that welfare centres which house the civilians have restricted entry for non-governmental humanitarian workers.

Positive change

Inevitably in the absence of independent monitors in the battle zones, both sides can find it easy to blame the other for the latest atrocity and try to get away with it. Partisan interpretations of what is happening on the ground are exacerbating tensions and hatreds between the ethnic communities. The clearest manifestations of ethnic polarisation are in internet communications being exchanged by those who live abroad, and who do not have to face the direct consequences of their opinions. On the other hand, within Sri Lanka, dissenting voices that seek to give priority to civilian concerns are intimidated in their public comments or totally silenced by the impunity that exists. The end result is that hapless civilians suffer and the voice of conscience is stilled.

Nonetheless, the latest statements by government spokespersons refer to a healthy relationship between government administrators, military, local NGOs, and international NGOs. This would be the ideal situation where sentiments about a good working relatonship are mutually shared. A mutually agreed working relationship based on international standards is the only positive foundation for post-war reconstruction and reconciliation.

A few days ago, I received a telephone call from a colleague in the peace movement, who is a Catholic nun. She told me that several of the nuns in her convent were Tamil, and they had lost family members in the Wanni region, where the last battles are now being fought. She asked me if there was anything I could do. When my silence spoke louder than words, she asked me to at least listen to what they had to say. Another nun came on the line, her voice virtually inaudible, saying between sobs, .They are all gone.. It had been just confirmed that most of her family had been killed, including her parents. This is the plight of a section of Sri Lanka.s people today.

In recent days the international media has been spotlighting the stories of civilians who have been able to leave the LTTE-controlled areas. One media report was of a Catholic nun shot and injured for attempting to leave along with civilians. The main reason that the LTTE was banned internationally as a terrorist organization was its disregard for human life and for human rights. At the present time the government is strong in its military victories over the LTTE. But these triumphs are coming at the cost of even the most basic of human rights of large numbers of innocent Tamil people. The perils of overkill that doomed the LTTE must forewarn the government which was mandated to look after the interests of all sections of the Sri Lankan people.

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