Sri Lanka’s assault on the Tamil Tiger rebels threatens the lives of 250,000 civilians caught up in the fighting, reports Sinead Walsh
The island of Sri Lanka was once known as Ceylon. It’s smaller than Ireland, but with over five times the population, and less than an eighth of the GDP. The average yearly temperature is 29 degrees Celsius, but the island is prone to cyclones and flooding, and is still recovering from the 2004 tsunami. It achieved independence from Britain in 1948, trailing India by a year, but unlike its bigger neighbour it failed to win a single medal at the Commonwealth Games between 1954 (when it won three) and 1994. It’s famous for producing most of the world’s tea, and infamous for giving the world its first ever suicide bombers. And it’s in the headlines again because of another outbreak of violence between the Sri Lankan government and the deceptively cutely named Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who are fighting tooth and claw to retain a grip on the northern part of the island, where they’ve been trying to create an independent republic by means of a civil war which celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary last July.
This is a war that has been going on for longer than most of us can remember. In fact, it began before most of us were even thought of, and maybe that’s why we so rarely think of it. For the thousands of Tamils and Sinhalese born into the conflict, the impact it has on everyday life means everything. We have the privilege of a historical view, which is good, because we need it. What happened, roughly, was this: during Ceylon’s stint as a British colony, English was the official language of the island. A disproportionate amount of schools were built in the north of the island, i.e. the part inhabited by the Tamils. And so a disproportionate amount of the Tamil minority held good, stable civil service jobs. In 1951, a party called the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, preaching nationalist slogans to the Sinhala majority, began its campaign to make Sinhalese the official state language. The “Sinhala Only” Act was passed in 1956, prompting a peaceful protest by Federal (Tamil) MPs. Government authorities failed to prevent this protest from being broken up by a nationalist mob. And there you have the beginnings of a politics of physical confrontation which has haunted Sri Lanka ever since.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) came onto the scene in 1976, the same year that the Tamil United Liberation Front voiced the first demand for a fully independent Tamil Eelam. On July 23, 1983, the Tamil Tigers ambushed a Sri Lankan military convoy, leaving 13 dead. This sparked a wave of brutal anti-Tamil riots in which hundreds of Tamils were murdered, and from then on Sri Lanka is widely considered to have been in a state of on-and-off civil war. On July 24, 2001, in an attack on the international airport, LTTE suicide bombers destroyed half the Sri Lankan Airlines fleet. Norway managed to broker a peace deal between the two sides in 2002, but tensions remained high, and lip-service stopped being paid to the ceasefire from August 2006 onwards.
By now, an estimated 230,000-300,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in the north of the island. The first reason it’s so hard to get an exact figure is that no one knows how many people may have been counted twice by officials, because so many of them have had to flee their homes – homes in this instance could mean a temporary shelter made from palm leafs – more than once in the time that the count has been going on. Natural disasters have played their part in this as well, forcing the relocation of upwards of 60,000 people in the aftermath of Cyclone Nisha, which hit the region last November, as ruthlessly as any military campaign. The second reason why reliable sources are hard to come by is the media blackout imposed in mid-2007 and a similar ban on humanitarian agencies since September 2008.
The UN and other international aid organizations didn’t waste time leaving the Vanni region when they received their marching orders from Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, younger brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. They still remember the executions of 17 Sri Lankan aid workers from the NGO Action Contre La Faim, who remained in the town of Mutur despite pressure to leave it in 2006. So too does Rajapaksa, and in his warning to the international aid community in the Vanni he said that these measures were being taken to avoid a repeat incident. The Red Cross has maintained its presence, some NGO workers remain as official government volunteers, and food convoys are reaching the region, but the government alone does not have the capacity to cope with the sheer numbers of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) on its hands.
The escalating IDP problem was matched by the government in March 2008, when a series of new camps were established for those fleeing from the shelling and bombing of the Vanni region. Any and every one leaving the Vanni is considered to be a “security threat” and detained in these camps, including even the most harmless civilians and children. On the one hand, this prevents Tamil Tiger fighters from entering the government controlled area. On the other, it prevents the extra-judicial killing, enforced disappearance and long-term detention which may face those who are caught escaping from the LTTE-controlled area without passing through one of the camps. “Passing through” is a little optimistic a term, however, seeing as how the vast majority of entrants since the opening of the camps remain there even now, under strict police supervision.
The alternative – in many cases a forced alternative – is to retreat into the jungles with the Tamil Tiger rebels, who have by now lost control of all the major towns in the Vanni. The LTTE has long-standing policy of forced recruitment in the region, and while it was once understood that each family would send one of its members to the rebel ranks, in the past year they have begun demanding two or more recruits per family. Although the problem of child soldiers has been reduced in recent years, the LTTE continue to stage rallies in towns and schools which are aimed at attracting the 14-17 age group. And in September of last year, the LTTE announced that for every person who attempted to flee recruitment, up to ten members of that person’s family would be used for forced labour on the front lines.
The Sri Lankan government likes to portray its handling of the Tamil Tigers as a “war on terror”, and given that this is the organization which gave Hamas and Al-Qaeda the idea of the suicide bomb, it’s perhaps surprising that the whole thing hasn’t sparked more of a propaganda war. You’ve got to admit that compared to other long-running conflicts on the Asian land mass, when it comes to Western media attention, Sri Lanka doesn’t get a look in. Maybe the press does not care about a terrorist movement that is not threatening to unleash Islamic jihad on the world at large. Maybe it just cannot take another round of genocide accusations and war crime intrigue after last month’s war on Gaza. Or maybe the Sri Lankan government’s ban on journalists in the Vanni region, which came into force well over a year ago, has simply been more effective than its Israeli equivalent was.
Perhaps it’s the casual way in which a newspaper editor could be shot dead while driving to work in the peaceful capital of Colombo on the morning of the eighth of January, having written in his final editorial “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me,” that puts people off. Maybe it’s just that the idea of a quarter of a million citizens caught in the crossfire in the Sri Lankan jungle is less appealing to us bloody-thirsty news junkies of the West than were the hundreds of souls who had to die in Gaza before we paid attention to the fate of Palestinians. Whatever it is, the world is turning a blind eye to the conflict in Sri Lanka, and hundreds of thousands of lives are left hanging in the balance.