Andrew Wander & M.R. Narayan Swamy / Al Jazeera – 2010-05-21 01:25:07
Fighting Impunity in Sri Lanka
Andrew Wander / Al Jazeera
(May 18, 2010) — A year has passed since Sri Lanka declared victory in its long, bloody civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The island nation might be formally united for the first time in decades, but the brutal methods used to win the conflict have cast a shadow over Sri Lanka’s new found peace.
A year after the guns fell silent in northern Sri Lanka, human rights groups have issued their strongest call yet for a full and independent inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by both sides during the final months of the conflict.
Evidence of major abuses collected by the International Crisis Group (ICG) and Amnesty International makes for grim reading, with Sri Lankan government forces accused of intentionally shelling civilians, bombing hospitals and food distribution points, and opening fire in declared no-fire zones in its efforts to stamp out the Tamil insurgency.
The human rights groups say that abuses were committed by both sides, but with most of the LTTE leadership dead, it is the Sri Lankan government that has come under most scrutiny for what observers say were clear violations of the laws of war in its final, bloody crackdown on the rebels.
“Evidence gathered by the International Crisis Group suggests that these months saw tens of thousands of Tamil civilian men, women, children and the elderly killed, countless more wounded, and hundreds of thousands deprived of adequate food and medical care, resulting in more deaths,” the ICG report says.
“Starting in late January , the government and security forces encouraged hundreds of thousands of civilians to move into ever smaller government-declared no-fire zones and then subjected them to repeated and increasingly intense artillery and mortar barrages and other fire.”
The organisation has also uncovered reports of hospitals crammed with wounded civilians coming under fire. “The security forces shelled hospitals and makeshift medical centres — many overflowing with the wounded and sick — on multiple occasions even though they knew of their precise locations,” the report says.
The Sri Lankan government had no comment on the allegations when contacted by Al Jazeera, but in the past officials have refused to countenance any investigation into the alleged war crimes, claiming to have run a “zero-casualty policy” during the final months of the conflict and insisting that there is no need for an inquiry. The comments of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s defence secretary, have been typical of the government’s response to allegations that it did anything wrong during the war.
“Whether it is the United Nations or any other country, we are not – I am not – allowing any investigations in this country,” he said in February. “Nothing wrong happened in this country. Take it from me.” But a compelling counter-narrative of the conflict has emerged that contradicts official version of events and places partial responsibility for the civilian suffering in Sri Lanka on the international community.
“Much of the international community turned a blind eye to the violations when they were happening. Many countries welcomed the LTTE’s defeat regardless of the cost of the immense civilian suffering and acute challenge to the laws of war,” the ICG says.
Amnesty International has also been heavily critical of the international community’s response to the conflict.
“The UN never revealed what it knew about the final days of conflict, acknowledged the scale of the abuse that took place or pushed for accountability,” says Madhu Malhotra, the group’s deputy director for the Asia-Pacific region. Both groups believe that a failure to act undermines the credibility of the international laws governing conflict.
“The scale of civilian deaths and suffering demands a response,” says Louise Arbour, the ICG president. “Future generations will demand to know what happened, and future peace in Sri Lanka requires some measure of justice.”
The idea that crimes would go unpunished in Sri Lanka could have encouraged abuses, the groups warn. “At the end of the war, atrocities against civilians and enemy combatants appeared to be fueled by a sense that there would be no real international consequences for violating the law,” Malhotra says. But the stakes of future inaction could be even higher.
“A number of countries are considering ‘the Sri Lankan option’ — unrestrained military action, refusal to negotiate, disregard for humanitarian issues, keeping out international observers including the press and humanitarian workers — as a way to deal with insurgencies,” the report says. “There must be a concerted effort to investigate alleged war crimes by both sides and prosecute those responsible.”
Camps for Displaced Tamils under Scrutiny
Al Jazeera has been given first access by the Sri Lankan government to a camp in Vavuniya housing refugees from the ongoing war with Tamil Tiger separatists. The government says the “welfare villages” meet international standards, but rights groups say they are in fact detention centres. Al Jazeera’s David Hawkins reports.
‘High Cost’ of Victory over Tigers
M.R. Narayan Swamy / Al Jazeera
(February 22, 2009) — It will be tempting to assume that the audacious air raid on Colombo by the Tamil Tigers signals the start of a dramatic revival of Sri Lanka’s deadly separatist group after a string of losses. But the bombing, in the centre of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city, which killed two people and wounded another 50, will not derail the military’s relentless and ruthless push into rebel territory.
With just 100sq km of mostly rugged terrain still under its control, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) can expect only bleaker times as weeks and months roll by.
How all this happened is a remarkable story.
Seven years ago, the LTTE was on top, having scored spectacular military victories that forced Colombo to seek out a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire with the Tigers. That was in February 2002, when Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE founder and leader, was the undeclared king of Sri Lanka’s north and east.
Many Tamils argue today that Prabhakaran, now 55, should have used the favourable times to graduate from a military leader to a politician, for the sake of the Tamil community. The safari suit that Prabhakaran traded for his military fatigues in order to address journalists in the northern town of Kilinochchi in April 2002 – his last press conference – gave an impression that he was ready to make a change.
But that did not happen — and with disastrous consequences.
As Colombo and the LTTE met around the world for six rounds of seemingly promising peace talks, Prabhakaran remained adamant that he would settle for nothing less than an independent state for the Tamils. This amounted to political hara-kiri.
Ever since he stepped into the world of militancy as a young man in the 1970s, opportunity and luck helped Prabhakaran gain stature. But by 2004, the good fortune appeared to be deserting him.
In March that year, Karuna, one of his closest lieutenants who commanded the entire eastern region of Sri Lanka for the LTTE, broke away with thousands of fighters to create a deep chasm in the otherwise regimented outfit.
Two months later, neighbouring India elected the Congress party, bringing to power the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, who Prabhakaran had widowed in 1991 when he ordered the suicide bombing of Rajiv Gandhi, her husband and former Indian prime minister.
No one realised then how the change in government in New Delhi would one day prove detrimental to the LTTE.
Prabhakaran refused to compromise, continued his use of assassinations to further his cause and moved to turn the LTTE territory in parts of the island’s northeast into a de-facto state.
This undid the peace process, isolated its broker Norway (which many Sinhalese said was biased towards the LTTE), weakened the government that had signed a peace deal with him and eventually turned many countries against the rebel leader.
In the process, the LTTE’s arguments about Colombo’s political insincerity, some of them valid, lost efficacy.
The cold-blooded killing of Lakshman Kadirgamar, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, in August 2005 by a LTTE sniper, was a turning point. Prabhakaran also told Tamils to boycott the presidential election in November 2005, thus ensuring the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has become the LTTE’s nemesis. Prabhakaran’s reasoning was that a Sinhalese hardliner would help widen the ethnic divide and further the separatist drive.
Even Tamils sympathetic to the LTTE admit that the boycott decision was his biggest political blunder after the Gandhi assassination. Within a month of Rajapaksa’s victory, Prabhakaran began provoking the military, which by then had teamed up with the breakaway LTTE leader Karuna.
In April 2006, a female LTTE suicide bomber almost blew up Sri Lanka’s army chief, Sarath Fonseka, leaving him badly wounded. He returned to his post with a vengeance. Within months, the LTTE tried to assassinate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother and the spearhead of Colombo’s war against the Tigers. He also survived. The end result was a hardened Sri Lanka, which decided to formally ditch the Norway-brokered peace process and go for the kill.
LTTE’s provocations sparked off a full-scale war in 2006 that the Tigers initially thought they would be able to win. But luck was no longer with the man who had chased the dream of an independent Tamil state from his teenage years. With crucial support from Karuna, the military won control of the entire eastern province in 2007 â€“ after more than a decade.
The military went on the offensive in the north in 2008, spectacularly capturing territory after territory the Tigers had lorded over for 10 years and shattered the myth of LTTE’s invincibility. By the end of the year, Prabhakaran was on the run.
But the LTTE is not finished. It is down, but not out. Not yet. Friday’s bombing of Colombo by the LTTE air wing â€“ it is the world’s only insurgent group with planes – only proves that the Tigers will never give up.
Prabhakaran still has hundreds of guerrilla fighters, although cornered in a mainly forested region of the northern Mullaitivu district. While many are perhaps as fanatical as their chief, there are a significant number of child recruits.
It is apparent that the LTTE will never be able to bounce back to its golden days when it lorded over a large swath of land, commanding a state within a state.
The military has made too many gains and seized massive quantities of arsenal, dealing crippling blows the LTTE will find it near impossible to recover from. The global crackdown on the Tigers has also aided Colombo. It is now classified as a “terror group” in about 30 countries. Even Norway has told the Tigers to sue for peace.
India, a key player in Sri Lanka, has gone to the extent of saying that LTTE has damaged the Tamil community and it should give up its weapons. The LTTE does not have much of a choice.
Street protests by a section of political parties in India’s Tamil Nadu state have not influenced New Delhi to lean on Colombo in support of a ceasefire, that most analysts feel would give breathing time to the gasping Tigers.
Sri Lanka is in no mood for any further talks with the LTTE and nor is it ready to halt its military onslaught. So the LTTE will fight on with all its might. In the process, the worst sufferers will be the mass of Tamil civilians still caught up in the war zone.
M.R. Narayan Swamy is Deputy Editor at IANS news agency based in New Delhi. He is the author of two books on the Tamil separatist fighting and writes regularly on Sri Lanka. The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.
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