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Democracy Wins Big In Sri Lanka: Time for a new start

The people of Sri Lanka have made the cause of democracy proud by handing a humiliating defeat to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, ending 10 years of authoritarian rule. Mr Rajapaksa called an early election, and lost to his former health minister Maithripala Sirisena-despite his last-minute attempts to rope Bollywood stars into his campaign and desperate appeals to vote for the "known devil".

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Rights - Sri Lanka: India Can Help End Civilian Killings

Inter Press Service, 27 February 2009

by Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, Feb 27 (IPS) - As Sri Lanka’s armed forces battle the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in their last stronghold, the island country’s influential neighbour, India, is weighing diplomatic options to goad President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government to save civilians trapped in the war zone.

The number of civilians is estimated to be as high as 200,000 to 250,000. Many have been displaced by the war five or even 12 times over. Currently, according to the best estimates, 25 to 35 people are being killed every day.

India’s ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is under pressure from its constituents from the southern state of Tamil Nadu to go beyond verbal exhortations to Colombo to stop civilian killings, help evacuate the large numbers of stranded people by creating safe corridors, and "meet their humanitarian needs for relief materials, medicines and medical care".

They want New Delhi to demand that Colombo declare a ceasefire, and reach badly needed relief to the trapped civilians.

Recently, India’s ethnic-Tamil parties threatened to resign en masse from the UPA, prompting Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee to visit Colombo. New Delhi has repeatedly asked the Sri Lankan government to ensure the safety of Tamil civilians in the war zone.

However, the UPA government is keen to ensure that the LTTE is decisively defeated in the war. The group is banned in India for terrorist activities, including the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

The Indian government is also reluctant to get embroiled too deeply in the Sri Lankan crisis, having burnt its fingers by intervening in Sri Lanka by sending in the Indian Peace- Keeping Force in 1987. This was a disaster, which failed to accomplish the objective of disarming the Tigers. The IPKF quit the island in ignominy in 1990.

India has joined the European Union, the International Committee of the Red Cross and human rights organisations in demanding an end to the civilian killings, and a political settlement of the Tamil question. The EU has also asked the LTTE to lay down arms and renounce violence.

But unlike the EU, New Delhi balks at calling for an immediate ceasefire. India continues to provide military assistance to the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF), including radar surveillance, logistical support, armaments and helicopters.

"It is most unfortunate that the Sri Lankan government has exploited the absence of effective pressure from India to prosecute the war regardless of its human consequences," says Anuradha Chenoy, a professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University here.

The Colombo government has said that if the LTTE heeds the EU’s call to lay down arms, the need for "immediate ceasefire" to protect stranded civilians would not arise.

Meanwhile, the battle is taking an unacceptable toll of Tamil civilian lives. According to the international civil liberties group, Human Rights Watch, 2,000 Tamils have been killed and 5,000 wounded since the fall of Kilinocchhi, the LTTE’s administrative centre, in January.

Both sides are targeting civilians—the SLAF through indiscriminate bombing and shelling, and the LTTE by firing on them to prevent them from fleeing to safety. "This constitutes a complete violation of the laws of war and of international humanitarian law, which grant immunity to civilians," says Chenoy.

The SLAF is keen to finish the war and declare victory before Sri Lanka’s New Year in April. This is likely to lead to a sharp increase in casualties among the more than 200,000 civilians trapped in the war zone, a 100-sq km strip.

Argue V. Suresh and D. Nagasaila of the People’s Union of Civil Liberies in Tamil Nadu: "As if to cover this up in advance, the SLAF is deliberately playing down the number of civilians originally living in the zone to 70,000. The Rajapakse government claims that half of them have already fled, although the actual number may be only a few hundred."

They add: "In the coming days, Colombo may declare that all the civilians have escaped, leaving only the LTTE there. The SLAF can then legitimately launch a no-holds-barred final offensive, including firebombing, ostensibly to finish the LTTE. This is liable to lead to mass slaughter or a holocaust."

As if to ensure India's continuing support to the military operations and stave off its pressure for a political settlement, Sri Lankan army chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka recently highlighted the "threat" that the air wing of the LTTE poses to India.

Referring to last week’s attack by two LTTE aircraft on Colombo, the general warned that the Tigers’ planes could penetrate 150-170 km inside Indian territory. "This greatly exaggerates the threat," says Chenoy.

The Lankan humanitarian crisis is deepening by the day. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW): "The Sri Lankan government has indicated that the ethnic Tamil population trapped in the war zone can be presumed to be siding with the LTTE and treated as combatants, effectively sanctioning unlawful attacks."

Adds HRW: The SLAF have "repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled areas crowded with displaced persons", including government-declared "safe zones" and "the remaining hospitals in the region."

The SLAF is herding civilians into internment camps, masquerading as "welfare villages". "The displaced persons, including entire families, detained in these… barbed-wire camps are denied their liberty and freedom of movement," says HRW. "The plight of the region's civilians has been made worse by the government's decision in September 2008 to order most humanitarian agencies out…".

The government has thrown a blanket of censorship over the war zone. It has failed to bring in enough food, medical supplies, and other relief and has only allowed a minimal role for the United Nations. Continued fighting, lack of oversight, and manipulation of the delivery of aid "have all contributed to the continuing humanitarian crisis," says HRW.

While it wages an open war in the North, the Sri Lankan government has launched a dirty war in the Sinhalese-dominated South. Critics of the government are harassed, taken into illegal confinement, and "disappeared", or like "The Sunday Leader" editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, gunned down.

On its part, the LTTE has proved ruthless towards the Tamils. With each battlefield defeat, it treats civilians with greater brutality.

According to a district official quoted by the Reuters news agency: "When people occupy particular places, the LTTE sends shells from that area, and then the army also targets the same area."

The LTTE also subjects civilians, including children, to forced recruitment and deadly labour on the battlefield and has few compunctions in shooting those trying to flee.

The LTTE has a long history of assassinating all those who disagree with it. Its victims include Rajiv Gandhi, progressive Sri Lankan Tamil intellectuals, and its own dissidents. It is probably the most murderous and pathologically militarised group in South Asia.

Says the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, a group that has a pluralistic vision of Sri Lanka: "An entire generation of youth has been decimated by the war effort on both sides. The LTTE has sacrificed vast numbers of Tamil youth, many of who were forcibly recruited for a war they did not choose.

It adds: "And the government of Sri Lanka has lured thousands of Sinhala youth from economically marginalised villages to fight its so-called ‘patriotic war’, concealing the high casualties that have been suffered by their families."

The LTTE cynically capitalised on the plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamils after the infamous Colombo pogrom of July 1983, in which 2,000 Tamils were killed by state-sponsored mobs. The world’s bloodiest civil war has since raged in Sri Lanka.

Until recently, the LTTE was a formidable military force, but had a poor political strategy. In 2005, it played a key role in bringing President Mahinda Rajapakse to power by forcing the Tamils to boycott the election, thus strengthening the forces of Sinhala chauvinism.

The SLDF holds that a ceasefire must give high priority to saving the lives of the trapped civilians: " why the LTTE is good faith commitment to a ceasefire may be suspect, a pause in the exchange of fire... will be useful for saving the trapped civilian population.''

Moreover, the SLDF wants any cessation of hostilities to be be coupled with pressure on the LTTE to permit United Nations agencies to enter LTTE-controlled areas so that they can ascertain the requirements of relief supplies and medical care.

Argues Achin Vanaik, a political science professor at Delhi University: "India bears a special responsibility in respect of Sri Lanka. It looms as a giant neighbour with a large Tamil population, and has a history of intervention in Sri Lanka."

He adds: "At stake today is the very survival of the Tamils as a political community. India has to play a proactive role here. It must launch a diplomatic campaign to insist that the Colombo government stop attacking civilians, declare a ceasefire under international monitors, create safe corridors, and permit relief delivery."

The challenge for India is to persuade Colombo to implement the promised devolution and merger of the North and the East within a federal structure, while resisting the temptation to install violent anti-LTTE and pro-government Tamil parties like People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam in power in the North, as it has done in the East.

Says Ahilan Kadirgamar, an SLDF spokesperson: "The Indian government and the international community should call on the government of Sri Lanka to come out with political proposals that go beyond the 13th constitutional Amendment enacted in 1987 (which promises provincial councils), and effect extensive devolution of power and a non- unitary state structure, along with power-sharing at the centre through a bicameral legislature."


Neelan Tiruchelvam: A Voice for Peace

The article first appeared in the August 1999 issue of Tribune, India.

The assassination of Neelan Tiruchelvam, the towering Sri Lankan public intellectual, is a serious blow to the cause of democracy, peace, federalism, and ethnic reconciliation — not just in that country but in all of South Asia. The method of killing used - typical of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam, with a suicide bomber hurling himself at Tiruchelvam's car — points to the logical course that obsessive rabid, ethno-nationalism is bound to take in this region. It highlights the LTTE's menace to Sri Lanka and India. No other group in South Asia has better deserved the appellation "Pol Potist". There are lessons for us Indians in Tiruchelvam's assassination and in New Delhi's response to it.

Tiruchelvam was a splendid example of the scholar-activist — Sri Lanka's best-known fighter for human rights, who dedicated his life to ending the ethnic crisis that 16 years ago took an especially vicious turn. He put the conciliation issue on the international plane as no one else did. A Tamil, he formed a unique bridge between the ethnic minorities and the Sinhalese majority. A constitutional lawyer, he was the architect of the boldest political devolution package South Asia has seen. An intellectual, he personified the highest level of refinement to be found among scholars in our part of the world. A political strategist, he combined theory with activist practice.

Tiruchelvam was the most powerful dynamo of pluralist, federalist and democratic ideas in Sri Lanka's peace process. It is this role, not his status as a (nominated) MP, nor his membership of the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front, that put him high on the LTTE's list of enemies. His dedication to peace, reason and conciliation was anathema to the Tigers.

They killed not just a political leader but a fount of creative ideas and original thinking. Tiruchelvam’s Sri Lanka project, based upon inclusion, sharing, protection for the minorities, and respect for universal rights, was the opposite of the monolithic, fear-based, ruthlessly regimented Eelam (Tamil homeland) that the LTTE wants.

It was, perhaps a coincidence that Tiruchelvam's killing happened during the anniversary of "Black July" the terrible anti-Tamil riots of 1983. There were intelligence reports that during this period the LTTE reportedly infiltrated suicide bombers ("Black Tigers", grotesquely revered in that group) into Colombo and into Tamil Nadu. Perhaps it wanted to send out a hostile message just before the impending introduction of the devolution package in parliament by President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

At any rate, the LTTE has again announced that it brooks no opposition; no political tendencies that question its monopoly claim to speak for all Tamils may flourish. Tiruchelvam was a "threat" to it not because he represented a rival mass base — which he did not — but because he stood for ideas it finds loathsome: Freedom and democracy, pluralism and secularism, consultation and negotiation.

Tiruchelvam straddled many spheres: political theory; conflict resolution; constitutional reform; parliamentary debate; activism and advocacy. He was at once at home in Sri Lanka and India, in seminars at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (of which he was co-director), and in parliament lobbying for the equality of opportunity. He was a committed modernist, and yet rooted in his own culture. His was a renaissance personality. He thought big. He radically reconceptualised Tamil politics. And yet he made it immediately relevant and accessible. His commitment to emancipatory ideas could be seen in all his work. He could argue spiritedly for minority rights while transcending the limitations of ethno-centrism. He could highlight both the particular (e.g. the plight of Tamils) and the general (universal freedom). His perspective was internationalist, unconstrained by the narrowness of vision or language, and contemptuous of ignorance and insularity.

He rose above the stereotypes of victimhood and oppression, which are recipes for a minority ghetto mentality. He refused to give legitimacy to revenge and retribution, even though he fully recognized the fact of minority oppression. He was not just a thinker, nor only a doer. He was that rarity among scholars: an institution-builder.

He set up the ICES (probably the most prestigious institution of its kind in South Asia), and the Law and Society Trust. He was also intimately involved in the Human Rights Task Force, the Official Languages Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Ombudsman. He pioneered independent citizens' monitoring of South Asian elections. He organized some of the most exciting conferences, seminars and talks ever held anywhere in South Asia.

Tiruchelvam created networks and structures of like-minded South Asians. When I last met him, in April, he was planning a publishing venture. Acutely aware that non-Sinhala publishing, in any developed sense of the term is virtually non-existent in Sri Lanka, he wanted to get the ICES to collaborate with an Indian publisher and set up an indigenous capability and market.

Tiruchelvam had immense personal charm. He was soft-spoken but without false modesty. He was not given to hyperbole or strong words. But he did not pull his punches when that was necessary. He was secure enough to admit to his faults — for example, his naïve early belief that the 1987 Indo-Lanka accord would work.

He was a committed friend of India. But many Indian reactions to his death do not appreciate this. In its official reaction, our Ministry of External Affairs, for instance, only described him as "a member of the Sri Lanka parliament, an eminent lawyer and distinguished leader of the TULF". This trivialized the man. A national daily reduced him to a mere mediator in the 1987 accord, who assisted G. Parthasarathy, the architect of India's disastrous Sri Lanka policy. This is a parody of the core truth about this remarkable intellectual.