Thursday, October 04, 2007

The army thinks it can win. It is wrong

FROM the line of dusty travellers leaving the Tamil Tigers' heartland in northern Sri Lanka, young men are strikingly absent. The people trudging out of rebel territory, across a strip of scrubby ground dotted with bundles of barbed wire and gun-slung soldiers, say securing exit passes from the rebels has become increasingly tough. For the young, it is all but impossible. As far as the Tigers are concerned, they are potential fighters.

The rebels want to keep the young and fit in their stronghold, a mini-state run with thuggish ruthlessness. Since 1983, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have fought for an independent “homeland” in the east and north for the island's Tamil minority. In July the Sri Lankan army declared it had cleared the eastern part for the first time in 14 years. Now its sights are on the north. In his heavily fortified headquarters in the capital Colombo, the army chief, General Sarath Fonseka, says he expects to chase the Tigers from the north in a year, “maybe less”.

This is more than a commander's bravado. After the army's triumph in the east, subsequent victories suggest the Tigers' strength is diminished. In early September the army cleared an area just south of their heartland, capturing a Tiger naval base purportedly used to receive smuggled weapons. Days later it sank three ships it said were ferrying light aircraft and a bullet-proof car for the Tigers' chieftain, Velupillai Prabhakaran. In eastern Sri Lanka some Tamils express surprise, and sometimes disenchantment, that the Tigers' roar has been more muffled of late.

If the army did win the north while holding the east it would constitute a huge and unprecedented victory. Its last big push into the area, in the late 1990s, ended with hundreds of dead soldiers and a humiliating retreat. In the east, which has a mixed population of Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims, the rebels' hold was patchy and the army was helped by the defection in 2004 of the Tigers' commander in the region, known as Colonel Karuna. The Tigers hold the Tamil north in a much tighter grip. And the army has fewer soldiers than it would like for its northern campaign, because it is busy securing the east.

Days after the government celebrated its latest victories in the eastern port town of Trincomalee last month, suspected Tigers bombed a bus in the area, killing the driver and wounding several passengers. Though such incidents in the east have decreased, they suggest that the Tigers remain a force to be reckoned with. In the north, on the margins of their fief, there are areas where it is unclear quite who is in control: the army or the rebels.

Even a northern victory, momentous as it would be, would not bring an end to Sri Lanka's conflict. That will not come without a political solution, giving some measure of autonomy to the island's Tamils who have suffered discrimination from the Sinhalese majority more or less since independence.

A cross-party group of politicians has made some progress on this front, agreeing that the island should be devolved at the provincial level—an improvement on an earlier government proposal for district-level devolution. But last month the defence minister, Gotabhaya Rajapakse (brother of the president, Mahinda Rajapakse), made it clear where the government's priorities lay. A political solution, he said, would be impossible without first crushing the Tigers. This dashed any faint hope that the ceasefire agreement the government and the Tigers signed in 2002, and which is still notionally in force, might yet be revived.

In the east, meanwhile, the government has an opportunity to show Tamils they are better-off under the government than they were under the rebels. But its commitment to this goal is questionable. In a Trincomalee town hall with views of the glittering Indian Ocean, more than 80 families sleep on a concrete floor amid battered cardboard boxes of possessions. They have lived here for more than a year, since they were shelled out of their homes in nearby Sampur, a former Tiger stronghold; thousands more of their fellow townspeople languish in camps outside the town. Though few of them seem to know it, they are unlikely to return home: Sampur has been turned into a no-go high-security zone for the army.

The government faces other challenges if it is to pull off victory in the north. People in Colombo, for whom the war is a rather distant affair, may not have heard any bombs lately. But they complain about rocketing inflation, and political support for President Rajapakse's government is ebbing. Dogged by allegations of incompetence and corruption, it is expected to be further weakened when it presents its budget in November. In last year's, military expenses surged by 44%. Another big rise will increase pressure to show that all this spending is achieving something.


Iceland offers unqualified apology to Sri Lanka for its diplomat’s unauthorized meeting with Tigers

The Government of Iceland has tendered an unqualified written apology to the Government of Sri Lanka for the unauthorized meeting of Bjarni Vestmann, Minister Counsellor of the Foreign Ministry of Iceland, with representatives of the LTTE, according to a press release issued by the Embassy of Sri Lanka in Washington.

The apology was tendered after Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, who is currently on an official visit to Washington DC, took up the issue with his counterpart Mrs. Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, Minister for Foreign Affairs and External Trade of Iceland on Wednesday morning. The Minister strongly protested the action of Vestmann, and requested his immediate recall.

Foreign Minister Gísladóttir emphatically stated that the Government of Iceland had not authorized Vestmann to make any contact with the LTTE, which he has done much to their disappointment

The Iceland Foreign Minister noted the close relations between Sri Lanka and Iceland and hoped for the continuation of this relationship.

According to Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry sources, Vestmann had not gone through the proper channels. A spokesperson said that his visit was not approved by the Foreign Ministry.

The Sri Lankan Peace Secretariat too reacted sharply to the unauthorized visit of Vestmann to the Tigers Political and Administrative headquarters in Killinochchi. In reply to a question as to how Vestmann slipped passed the checkpoints, the Peace Secretariat has said that vehicles of established agencies like SLMM are not checked. But it has recommended to the Ministry of Defence that in future all vehicles and individuals traveling in them should be checked closely.

The Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) headed by the Norwegians is now washing their hands off saying that the presence of S.P. Tamilselvan, the political head of head of the LTTE, was coincidental and the report that formal discussions took place was incorrect. At the last minute SLMM backed off from taking Vestmann to the Peace Secretariat. SLMM told the Peace Secretariat that they had informed the Foreign Ministry about the incident and expressed their regrets.


Iceland apologises to Sri Lanka

Iceland has apologised to the Sri Lankan government for the unauthorised meeting of one of its diplomats with rebels in the north of the island.

Sri Lanka had called for the expulsion the diplomat, Bjarni Vestmann.

Foreigners and journalists are not allowed to enter territory held by the Tamil Tigers without permission.

The Sri Lankan foreign ministry said that the diplomat had managed to get a ride with truce monitors of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission.

It said it had lodged a protest with the mission for transporting the diplomat.


Sri Lanka calls for expulsion of Icelandic diplomat

Sri Lanka on Tuesday called for the expulsion of an Icelandic diplomat who made a clandestine visit to the Tamil Tiger-held north of the island.

Sri Lanka's foreign ministry said it asked Reykjavik to recall Bjarni Vestmann, a minister-counsellor at Iceland's foreign ministry, after he entered the country on a tourist visa and went to the north to meet with rebels.

"The (Sri Lankan foreign) minister strongly protested the action of Mr. Vestmann and requested his immediate recall," a ministry statement said.

Foreigners and journalists are not allowed to enter territory held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) without government permission.

The diplomat, however, had managed to get a ride with Scandinavian truce monitors, the ministry said.

It said it had also lodged a protest with the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) for transporting the diplomat.

There was no immediate comment from the SLMM or Vestmann.

The Tamil Tigers had on Tuesday posted a picture of Vestmann calling on the LTTE's political wing leader S. P. Thamilselvan at the guerrillas' political headquarters in Kilinochchi.

The SLMM is on the island to monitor a Norwegian-brokered truce agreed to in February 2002. The ceasefire has since collapsed.


Senseless death of Sri Lankan Good Samaritan

'Our dearest Fr Packiaranjith has been killed in a claymore mine attack; the Diocese of Mannar is in deep sorrow.' The news from a friend in northern Sri Lanka was shocking, but not surprising. As a local coordinator for the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Mannar District, Fr Nicholaspillai Packiaranjith lived and worked in a contested territory in Sri Lanka's long-running civil war.

The 40-year-old priest was killed on 26 September, when his van was blown up by a mine in rebel-held territory as he was delivering aid to displaced people and orphans. Typically, the army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) blamed each other for the blast. We are unlikely to discover the truth, because both cynically use war casualties to bolster their propaganda.

More than 10,000 people attended the funeral of Fr Packiaranjith on 29 September. In a press statement, the Bishop of Mannar, Rayappu Joseph, said Fr Packiaranjith served with 'exemplary dedication' and was 'deeply committed to the poor and the marginalised', which made his murder all the more heinous.

Apart from being a priest who gave his life for his people, Fr Packiaranjith represents the victims of Sri Lanka's civil war, which has raged intermittently for over 25 years, claiming at least 70,000 lives. The LTTE wants autonomy in the north-east for the minority Tamils, whose grievances date back to post-Independence days, when they bore the brunt of mob violence and of discriminatory laws and policies imposed by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.

The war shows no signs of abating. The Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, also the President's brother, recently announced the government's intention to defeat the LTTE '100 per cent' before negotiating a political solution to the so-called 'ethnic problem'. Rajapaksa later went back on his word and claimed to want to reach agreement with the LTTE, but the writing on the wall is clear.

The ceasefire signed in 2002 is no longer worth the paper it is written on. Fierce fighting rages anew. The defection in 2004 of a senior LTTE leader from the east, Karuna, has fuelled the conflict. Both the LTTE and the Karuna faction are indulging in forced recruitment, extending this even to children. Thousands of people have been displaced, and at least 4,000 have been killed since late 2005 when the peace process started to come apart. Over 1,000 have 'disappeared'. There is scepticism about official inquiries set up to investigate well-known cases, like the disappearance of Fr Jim Brown, a priest from Jaffna, on 20 August 2006.

Sri Lanka has a history of failed peace talks. The high hopes of those wanting peace are frequently dashed. The island ranks second only to Iraq in the number of unsolved disappearances, a phenomenon fuelled by the notorious 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Commissions of inquiry set up by the former president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, ascertained that 26,000 people disappeared — others put the figure at close to 60,000 — and concluded that the armed forces were largely responsible.

The cases also included disappearances perpetrated in the suppression of an uprising among the Sinhalese in the late 1980s. But impunity is the name of the game in Sri Lanka. There is what the Asian Human Rights Commission aptly described a 'total collapse of the rule of law'. The armed forces and Tamil paramilitary groups literally get away with murder.

The LTTE is not accountable to anyone. It eliminates perceived detractors, uses terror tactics, and expects all Tamils to contribute to the never-ending liberation struggle. Apologists depict LTTE-held territory as a de facto state on a war footing and use this rationale to justify violations of human rights.

Nonetheless, the LTTE has been internationally accepted as the legitimate representative of the Tamils and remains a force to be reckoned with, despite recent military setbacks. The government strategy of talking peace and waging war is bound to fail and only serves to bring suffering.

For all their rhetoric, neither warring party has the welfare of civilians at heart. They fail to learn from the mistakes of history and instead repeat them, with the result that innocents like Fr Packiaranjith pay the price. Sri Lanka's people can only beg for peace and draw international attention to their plight, as Bishop Joseph did when Fr Packiaranjith was killed: 'Enough blood has flowed. We call on all men and women of goodwill to condemn this killing and to voice their strong condemnation of the ongoing senseless war.'


IPKF was victim of vile LTTE propaganda: Tamil rights activist

The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) which was deployed in Sri Lanka's troubled North and East between 1987 and 1990, was a victim of vile propaganda by the LTTE, an internationally acclaimed Sri Lankan Tamil human rights activist has said.

"We began our work in 1987 when the Indian Army took control of Jaffna. Apart from the callousness of an army, we saw that many instances of civilian tragedy were deliberately engineered by the LTTE for propaganda," said Dr Rajan Hoole, after receiving the Martin Ennals Award from the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva on Tuesday.

"Our early work discussed the thwarting of the India-Sri Lanka Agreement by both the LTTE and the (Sri Lankan) government and how the Indian Peace Keeping Force was pushed to strong military action by the LTTE's calculated provocations, resulting in many violations by the IPKF," Hoole said in his acceptance speech.

For two decades, Hoole and the fellow award winner K Sritharan, have been meticulously documenting human rights violations by all armed groups, including the government, in the Tamil-speaking Sri Lankan North East, at grave risk to their lives.

Provoked Lankan forces too

Referring to the post 1990 or post IPKF situation, Hoole said, "It fell to us to record the LTTE's cynicism in deliberately inviting reprisals against civilians, the terrible reprisal of the government forces, and the LTTE's ideologically directed violence against the Muslims including the ethnic cleansing of the entire Northern Muslim population and the mosque massacres in the East."

According to Hoole, the LTTE's "simple programme is to undermine any healthy development in the Sinhalese south for a political settlement, and by some foul act of violence, provoke the State's inherent harshness towards the Tamils."

Referring to the December 2005 Presidential elections in which the LTTE is said to have helped Sinhala hardliner Mahinda Rajapaksa to win, Hoole said, " It was in character for the LTTE to abet the election of a President with nationalist leanings and then deliberately provoke war. It saw this as the most promising way to a separate state."

Lankan government blamed

Hoole blamed the Sri Lankan government too for the continuance of the bloody conflict, the lack of democracy in the Tamil areas, and the continuing hold of the LTTE on the Tamil population. The state had not given the Tamils an alternative to the militancy and separatism of the LTTE but had only been concentrating on the military elimination of the LTTE, and trampling on the basic rights of the Tamils in the process, he pointed out.

"Democratic institutions are fracturing beyond a point of repair while the leaders are blinded by the arrogance of power. Their short term political interest helps the LTTE to thrust and hold the Tamil civilians in a regime of war, claiming with some logic that there is no alternative," Hoole said.

On the current political situation in Sri Lanka, he said that in the Sri Lankan government's war on terror, there was only a token acknowledgement of the need for a political settlement. That was merely a device to buy time and satisfy the world.

And in all this, he added, the LTTE had become a "pretext for crushing the Tamil people in the interest of a Sinhalese hegemonic state."