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Who Is Responsible for the Tragedy in the Vanni?

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's inhumane methods and the government of Sri Lanka's indiscriminate use of force are responsible for the continuing slaughter in the Vanni region. With the LTTE facing imminent defeat, the renunciation of a purely military solution by the government is an alternative strategy that should help end the ongoing tragedy of loss of lives and limbs. A political solution, on the lines outlined here, in the closing days of the war is of the highest priority. The government of Sri Lanka should know that a purely military victory will merely push the war underground, and ensure that it will re-emerge as guerrilla and terrorist strikes in the near future.


Who Is Responsible for the Tragedy in the Vanni?

Rohini Hensman

between the Tamils and the Tigers is the very opposite of what it claims: far from d efending Tamils, the LTTE leaders are using Tamils for their physical and political survival, a violation defined as a war crime.

But it is doing worse. All the official reports mention forcible conscription of civil-

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s inhumane methods and the government of Sri Lanka’s indiscriminate use of force are responsible for the continuing slaughter in the Vanni region. With the LTTE facing imminent defeat, the renunciation of a purely military solution by the government is an alternative strategy that should help end the ongoing tragedy of loss of lives and limbs. A political solution, on the lines outlined here, in the closing days of the war is of the highest priority. The government of Sri Lanka should know that a purely military victory will merely push the war underground, and ensure that it will re-emerge as guerrilla and terrorist strikes in the near future.

Rohini Hensman (rohinihensman@yahoo. is an independent researcher and writer.

Economic & Political Weekly

april 11, 2009

ith the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) imminent, the terrible plight of civilians in the Vanni has attracted worldwide concern and sympathy, and rightly so. While the circumstances are completely different, the civilian death toll in the Vanni over the past few months (over 2,700) is already triple the number of civilians killed in the Gaza massacre of December-January, and is still mounting. The thousands who suffer serious injuries are further victimised by the delay or lack of medical attention, which means, for example, that injuries to limbs which could have been saved with prompt treatment, instead result in gangrene and amputations. Even those who have not lost lives, limbs or loved ones, have lost their homes and livelihoods, and live in appalling conditions which could well claim more lives through disease or even starvation.

Meanwhile, the LTTE and the government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) trade charges, each accusing the other of being responsible for the slaughter. What truth is there in their respective allegations?


The LTTE and its supporters, especially in Tamil Nadu, but also elsewhere, cry “Genocide!” and accuse the government of being solely responsible for the carnage. They do not mention the appalling war crimes committed by the LTTE, which have been documented by several international and Sri Lankan human rights groups. The most obvious is their use of Tamil civilians as a human shield from behind which they can engage in offensive firing, and their shooting of those who try to escape. This means that the Tamil civilians over whom the LTTE sheds crocodile tears are effectively prisoners or hostages whom it deliberately keeps in the line of fire so that it can hide behind them. The relationship

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ians, including children. This, too, is a war crime. Unofficial reports say that these unfortunate youngsters are not even being provided with cyanide capsules, because some have committed suicide rather than go into combat. It must be kept in mind that large numbers of the LTTE casualties actually consist of these frightened and illtrained conscripts, who never chose to bear arms. Their presence in the LTTE forces also means that their families, who might otherwise flee, remain in LTTE territory because they do not want to abandon their children. Planting a suicide bomber among fleeing civilians was a c ynical move, ensuring that all civilians would thenceforth be regarded as s uspects.

Most cynical of all, refugees who have escaped report that the LTTE deliberately fires from areas where civilians have taken shelter, for example, from the vicinity of hospitals and schools and from safe areas, knowing that government forces will r espond by shelling. The fighters then v amoose, leaving the civilians to take all the casualties. This is even worse than u sing civilians as a shield: this constitutes using civilian lives as propaganda, deliberately getting them killed in order to justify the allegation of genocide. The LTTE massacre of Sinhalese civilians in Inginiyagala on 21 February this year was probably also an attempt to provoke violent reprisals against Tamils. The suicide attack on Muslims celebrating the Milad festival at the Jumma Mosque in Akuressa on 10 March recalled the LTTE’s massacres and ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the past. Those who hurl charges of genocide and war crimes against the government alone are guilty of whitewashing the LTTE and covering up some of the most heinous war crimes being committed in the recent phase of fighting.

The LTTE leadership is undoubtedly in a tight spot, but they still have the option of behaving honourably. The most honourable and humane thing they could do now


is to negotiate a surrender monitored by international organisations, which will ensure that the civilians are rehabilitated and their fighters receive humane treatment as prisoners of war. Or, if they insist on fighting to the finish, they could release all the civilians and conscripts, so that only those who wish to stay with them are subjected to the final assault. They will not, of course, do either of these things, because they have no concern whatsoever for the welfare of Tamils.

The Government

When evaluating the conduct of the government and the course of action open to it, it is important to keep in mind these a ctions of the LTTE. One of the demands, for example, has been for a ceasefire and peace talks with the LTTE. But Rajan Hoole and K Sritharan of the award-winning University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) report that Sri Lankan Tamils are wary of any peace talks that will give oxygen to the LTTE. This is not surprising if we look at the way in which the LTTE has treated the Tamils subject to its rule. If Tamils who have suffered under the LTTE are anxious that it should not be rescued at this point, it is hardly surprising that Muslims who have been subjected to massacres and ethnic cleansing, and Sinhalese who never know when the next terrorist attack will strike them, cannot wait to see the last of it. In these circumstances, it would be unrealistic to expect the government to go back to anything like the ceasefire agreement of 2002, which allowed the LTTE to arm itself for Eelam War IV. Such a course of action would also be undesirable, simply preparing the way for renewed bloodshed in the future.

However, this does not mean that the GOSL is as free of blame as it and its supporters claim. Observers are surprised that there has not been a mutiny or split in the ranks of the LTTE which would end the war, and one probable reason this has not happened so far is that the government has gone out of its way to support LTTE propaganda. Earlier, it sabotaged the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) process when it had already arrived at a political solution which could have been fine-tuned to suit the democratic majority in all communities, thus reinforcing the LTTE’s message that Tamils will never get justice in a united Sri Lanka. This message was further reinforced when leading members of the armed forces and government, Sarath Fonseka and Champika Ranawaka, proclaimed that Sri Lanka belonged to the Sinhalese, and minorities would have to put up with less than equal rights, thus further assisting the LTTE’s recruitment drives. Yet, more support was provided to LTTE propaganda by earlier government proposals to keep internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camps for up to three years, fuelling suspicions that their original habitats would be occupied by Sinhalese, and that the war was being used as a cover for ethnic cleansing.

Government armed forces have responded to LTTE fire by shelling civilian concentrations, including safe areas and hospitals, killing and injuring thousands. Those who escape to government- controlled territory


Young Scholars’ Programme 15 to 27 June 2009

Young scholars in the field of Humanities and Social Sciences (and exceptionally others) interested in Human Development research and teaching are invited to participate in a Young Scholars’ Programme (YSP) for capacity development. This is the fifth in the YSP series conducted bi-annually at IGIDR since 2007. The Programme is supported by UNDP and Planning Commission and hopes to build capacity in the broad area of human development. Those who finish their master’s degree (M.A., M.Sc. or M.Phil.) this year or have done so in the preceding three years may apply. Recently appointed college lecturers are also encouraged to apply. We expect to select about 35-40 participants from all over India.

The Programme will consist of lectures by IGIDR and guest Faculty on a range of topics, discussion groups and individual research, for which library, internet and other advanced facilities will be provided. Participants will be expected to give at the conclusion of the Programme a short presentation along with a 2000 word essay on a relevant topic of their choice.

Those selected will be given full boarding and lodging in twin-sharing AC suites at IGIDR, and Rs.3000 for out of pocket expenses. Three-tier AC travel (including Tatkal charges where necessary) will be reimbursed. Accommodation may also be available before/after the programme in case of travel exigencies. They should arrive latest by 14 June, and not leave before 27 June (evening) at conclusion of the programme.

Selection will be on the basis of CV and a half page note on your motivation (why you wish to participate). These should be sent by email to: latest by 26 April 2009. Selected candidates will be intimated in the week commencing 5 May and short-listed candidates offered places as vacancies arise.

april 11, 2009 vol xliv no 15

Economic & Political Weekly


are kept in internment camps surrounded by barbed wire, prevented even from visiting injured family members in hospital or attending the funerals of loved ones. Recently senior citizens were released, but others remain prisoners. Reports of disappearances from these camps, coming on top of thousands of disappearances in the last few years, make this incarceration all the more fearsome. Not only would this prospect make civilians think twice before fleeing LTTE territory, it would also make LTTE conscripts think that surrender means death, and so they might as well die fighting.

All these policies of the government and its armed forces not only result in massive civilian casualties, they also prolong the fighting. Alongside concern for civilians, we should also spare a thought for combatants on both sides, who are being expended by their respective leaderships as though their lives have no value, whereas a different strategy could ensure that a whole generation of young people is not killed and disabled. Moreover, the government’s strategy makes a peaceful outcome almost impossible. Even when the LTTE is defeated militarily, it – or another guerrilla group – is likely to rise up in the future to carry out terrorist attacks and restart the war, just as the Taliban has staged a comeback in A fghanistan. So what is the alternative?

A Different Strategy

An alternative strategy would consist of the following: (1) Stop shelling safe areas and civilian targets within LTTE-controlled territory; this only results in propaganda gains for the LTTE. (2) Ensure adequate food, water and medicine supplies to civilians both inside LTTE territory and outside, making sure, however, that no arms or ammunition get through to the LTTE. (3) Ask the United Nations (UN) or International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to monitor the screening and registration of IDPs entering the camps so that an independent record is available, and disappearances cannot take place so easily. If LTTE suspects are separated out, they, along with LTTE cadre who surrender, should be kept in prisoner-of-war camps whose inmates are also registered with the UN or the ICRC and treated in accordance with international law. (4) If there is no evidence that IDPs are

Economic & Political Weekly

april 11, 2009

LTTE operatives, they should be given identity cards and allowed to move freely. These measures will encourage civilians to escape the LTTE if they can, and LTTE conscripts to surrender with some confidence that they will be treated humanely.

Simultaneously, the APRC proposal for constitutional change drafted by Tissa Vitharana on the basis of the majority and minority reports of the Panel of Experts needs to be adopted by the government, which should also provide a solemn pledge that transfer of population (defined in i nternational law as a crime against humanity) will not take place: all IDPs and refugees who wish to return to their original homes will be assisted to do so. This will not be easy, especially in the case of M uslim IDPs who have been languishing in camps for over 18 years, but it must be done as part of a political solution to the crisis.

Is a political solution an immediate priority in the closing stages of this battle in the Vanni? Yes, it certainly is. If the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led government had not repeatedly sabotaged the APRC process from mid-2007 onwards, the war might have ended months ago, and thousands of lives might have been saved. It is now too late to save those who have been killed, but it is still possible to save lives and limbs that would be lost if a just political solution is not achieved. A purely military victory will merely push the war

UNCTAD-Ministry of Commerce-DFID Project on

“Strategies and Preparedness for Trade and Globalization in India”

Department of Economics, University of Allahabad

Application for Short term Visiting Fellowship in International Trade and WTO Issues

The department of economics, University of Allahabad as Nodal department for the UNCTAD (India) project for Trade Related Research Capacity Building in North India, invites application from research Scholars/Faculties working in Trade Theory, Policy, Modeling and related issues for a short period research assistance.

The Department has good research capacity and infrastructure including Trade related softwares. Interested candidate may apply to Prof. P.N. Mehrotra on, with brief C.V., work Plan and nature of research assistance/ software support required. Invited candidate will be paid

T.A. & D.A. with boarding and lodging facility [3 to 10 Days] as approved.

P.N. Mehrotra [Coordinator]

vol xliv no 15

underground, and ensure that it will reemerge as guerrilla and terrorist strikes in future. A constitution which is acceptable to democratic elements in all communities is the only way to end the war once and for all. If the current political leaders in the two major parties are reluctant to implement a just and democratic settlement, then the people of Sri Lanka must either push them into doing so, or dump them and create a new leadership.

As for international actors who wish to help civilians in the Vanni, they would do well to acquaint themselves first with the situation on the ground. Accusations of “genocide” against the government, for example, do more harm than good. As an anxious Tamil in Sri Lanka put it,

When I hear Indians talking about genocide in Sri Lanka, I shudder, because I know it will merely make things worse for the trapped civilians. It is like crying ‘Wolf!’ If we cry ‘Genocide!’ when it is not occurring, who will believe us and come to our aid if it really occurs? No one!

Those who are really concerned about the appalling situation of people in the Vanni should not only demand of the government that it implement the measures listed above, but should also demand that the LTTE release the civilians and conscripts they are holding hostage. O therwise they would merely be adding fuel to the fire that is consuming thousands of lives.

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