If YOU had not known about your next door neighbour….

In Sri Lanka,

the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared the final defeat of the LTTE and the “mission accomplished” in defeating “terrorism” on 19th May, 2009.

This conflict in Sri Lanka (SL) was on going since independence in 1948, first as democratic protests and campaigns led by the Federal Party of late S.J.V. Chelvanayagam that could not gain much from the Sinhala leadership(s) in government. It thus paved the way for armed militancy. The armed conflict erupted between Tamil militancy – LTTE, PLOTE, TELO, EROS, ENDLF, EPRLF plus a few other armed groups and the SL State, from around 1983. Armed militant groups, fought for a “Separate” Tamil State, called “Tamil Eelam”.

All these groups were trained, armed and funded by the Indian government in the early 1980’s, when the Congress government of Indira Gandhi was cultivating a geopolitical animosity against the UNP government of President J.R. Jayawardne.

Towards late 1980’s, the LTTE emerged as the most powerful of the armed groups, having created a “martyrdom” for sacrificial deaths for the cause of “Eelam”, with Black Tiger cadres ready for suicide.

During this period India intervened in many ways and got both parties to the conflict to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict. In 1985, Romesh Bandari arranged for “Thimpu Talks” that was stalled after 02 sessions. But Thimpu provided an opportunity to all Tamil groups and the moderate TULF to formulate the now famous “Thimpu Principles”. It has 04 conditions that define the Right of Self Determination of the SL Tamils, the SL Tamil Nation and the Tamil Homeland concept. The fourth is now irrelevant after all Indian origin Tamils were given SL citizenship.

In 1987 July, when Rajiv Gandhi got SL President JRJ to sign the Indo-SL accord, it was the LTTE that took a dissident stand. Although it agreed to enter the mainstream, the LTTE was never comfortable the way the accord was churned out without any prior dialogue or discussion with the fighting groups and in the cold manner the then divided SL government leadership was trying to enforce the Indo-SL accord.

The war that eventually erupted between the IPKF and the LTTE, decided the shape of many things to come.

  • The LTTE turned out as the most formidable and the only armed organization that stood for a continued armed struggle to establish a Tamil Eelam
  • Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 by the LTTE and that changed the approach (with a vengeance) of the Indian administration in solving the SL Tamil problem
  • The LTTE came into the wrath of the International Community, being banned as a “Terrorist” organization, both in India and in other countries
  • All other groups gradually fractured with internal squabbles and fell into the fold of the SL government, working in tandem with the SL State as para-military operatives.
  • It paved the way for Sinhala nationalism to find a more extreme platform, with the LTTE defined as a “terrorist” organization fighting for a separate State and the Sinhala majority defined as the rightful heir to an undivided country.

Meanwhile, the LTTE gained many military victories against the SL security forces from 1991, when it first turned its guns against President Premadasa’s regime, after negotiations with the regime failed to have a constructive “interim solution”. With President Kumaratunge, in 1995 the much expected negotiations fizzled out in 03 months with Kumaratunge not giving it the seriousness it deserved and her Deputy Defense Minister Ratwatte (her maternal uncle) throwing spanners to scuttle the weak attempt at negotiations.

In 2002 February 22, when the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) was signed between PM Ranil Wickramasinghe’s UNP government and the LTTE, the Norwegian government was facilitating the process. They helped arrange international support to push through negotiations with financial support for interim relief and reconstruction as “peace dividends”.

Pakistan, China and Russia were never a part of it, but India which was invited to play a lead role, declined. It refused to sit with a banned (LTTE) organization at the 2002 Brussels Aid Forum. India even refused to participate as an “observer” when lobbied for their presence at this very important forum that was to discuss how the SL peace process could be strengthened with monetary assistance. Instead, India flirted openly with the JVP in Colombo during this period and it is more openly discussed in Colombo that India financially assisted the JVP with its protests against the CFA and devolution of powers.

Anti CFA campaigns thus gained momentum and ferocity, while the Wickramasinghe government fumbled with the negotiations, leaving the peace process stalled from 2003 April. Yet the CFA continued with Scandinavian countries monitoring the CFA. President Kumaratunge finally dissolved the Wickramasinghe government in 2004 February and parliamentary elections were held in April 2004.

UNP was defeated on the issue of peace negotiations and the new UPFA government in power had a large JVP representation of 39 MPs to begin with, 03 holding ministerial portfolios. The JVP parted ways in June 2005, when President Kumaratunge decided to set up an interim administration – P-TOMS – for relief and rehabilitation in the war affected areas including LTTE representation. A FR petition to the SC by the JVP denied the interim measure being implemented.

Evolution of the Rajapaksa phenomenon,

begins around this time. Sinhala sentiments were raised high and the anti-UNP, pro Sinhala elements were in search of a Sinhala leader to represent them as their presidential candidate at the forthcoming elections in 2005 November.

Being one of the most senior leaders yet remaining in the SLFP, hailing from a Sinhala Buddhist family from the Sinhala South, with a populist image even among the traditional “left”, Mahinda Rajapaksa was by then the PM in the UPFA government. He thus became the natural choice for the candidacy, as the “Common Candidate” of the Sinhala forces.

The election campaign of Rajapaksa for presidency in 2005 brought together, the most racist Sinhala groups and elements ever onto a single platform, since independence. It was totally against devolution of power and stood firm for a “Unitary State”. All the slogans, arguments, explanations doled out in the campaign and criticism of the CFA meant it was for a “Sinhala majority rule”. Beneath the anti-devolution, anti-cease fire, pro-Unitary State campaign, the anti-Tamil sentiments were therefore inevitable.

The LTTE, unable to assess their own position in a world that had accepted a “global war against terror” faulted politically in deciding to allow Rajapaksa to win the presidential elections, against the UNP candidate Wickramasinghe. LTTE’s decision to boycott the elections left around 700,000 voters out of polls (only 1.2% voted), in the Jaffna peninsula alone. Rajapaksa won the elections by a very narrow margin of 186,000 votes and was sworn in as President on 19 November, 2005.

This provided an enormous shift towards Sinhala dominance in SL politics, in every way. Sinhala nationalism in its extreme form gaining political power was poised to defeat armed Tamil nationalism represented by the LTTE that controlled a part of its territory in the North and establish a Unitary Sinhala State. The strategy was pre-determined as a politico military offensive.

Eelam war IV and post conflict SL,

has thus become an important topic, not only in SL, but with its neighbours and among the International Community.

This war against the LTTE, was not one that was undertaken in an ad hoc manner. It had a laid out “politico-military strategy”, ably contributed to by many extreme factions within SL and from neighbouring States with their own vested interests.

Within SL,

The Sinhala extremists politically demanded an end to Tamil separatists and thus the LTTE. The JVP became a concerted public campaigner for that.

The JHU which represents a more “trader” based, middle class Sinhala Buddhist extremism was working with the higher levels in the military and the Sinhala academic/professional forum to politically lobby for an all out war.

Karuna Amman and his para military cadres were willing supporters in providing information and logistics, especially in the East and in Colombo. So were Douglas Devananda and his EPDP cadres. Other splinter groups like the PLOTE, the EPRLF – Varatharajah faction, were also curry leaves in the larger pot of military offensives.

All of them together provided the human resources and the armed muscle to bolster social support, create a social mood that accepted war as the most certain solution against Tamil separatist terrorism. This was carried out with political campaigns and through extra-judicial, ruthless counter offensive work

Outside SL,

a new foreign alliance was lobbied and brought together with ease. China, Pakistan, Russia and Iran became willing allies in the war. They were countries that had their own records of HR violations and they were alternatives to the developed Western collective of countries which is commonly called the “international community”.

For the Rajapaksa regime, having this new foreign alliance had the advantage of

  • not having a Tamil Diaspora in those countries to bring pressure.
  • never being questioned of HR violations
  • getting project funding for different “development” work
  • getting military aid without conditions laid

Apart from them, there were 02 other countries which played a major role in helping the Rajapaksa regime to win the war. Known as the “2 I’s” within the Colombo grapevine,

  1. Israel – provided planning and training on strategic military offensives
  2. India – provided the most important satellite intelligence, radar and technicians and also “further training” for higher officers in the military.

These 02 silent allies were also not questioning HR violations and thus were no bother to the military programme of the Rajapaksa government.

In the context of “global war against terror” where all countries and international organizations did not oppose the military offensive against the LTTE, though some voiced their concerns on continued HR violations with impunity and civilian casualties, this Rajapaksa regime was extremely fortunate in having such support for its military project, in the absence of any other political programme to offer to the people in terms of socio economic development.

The run up to the final conflict

therefore allowed the Rajapaksa regime to,

  • start dismantling the media, first in the North – it was just a month after Rajapaksa was sworn in as President, when the first attack on “Eelamurasu” news paper office in Jaffna was attacked by unidentified armed men on 23 December, 2005 and thereafter continued with Uthayan, Eelanadu, Valampuri coming under attack.
  • begin its attack on Colombo based media, through threats, abductions and torture, killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, attacks on media institutes, to coerce the media in towing the line of the government on all issues and most importantly, support its war against LTTE. The result is that 11 journalists had been killed, 21 abducted and some tortured, while over 37 journalists have fled the country to save their lives. SL is ranked now as the fourth most dangerous country for journalists to work in.
  • let loose a terror campaign in Colombo and other parts through unidentified armed gangs, para military groups and some times even using underworld thugs which resulted in mass abductions, extra judicial killings, involuntary disappearances and even very heavy extortions. The “white van” syndrome came to stay.

All such “State terror” was used to silence all dialogue, dissent and opposition to the government, in the name of fighting “terrorism”. State terror in the name of fighting “terrorism” was used to cover up all plundering of national wealth by a “cabal” that emerged to be part of the ruling regime.

Fighting against “terrorism” became an easy “password” even in the UN Assembly, where Rajapaksa said, his fight against “one of the most ruthless terrorist groups in the world” is to honour the responsibility of eradicating terrorism from this world.

Thus continued the run up to the war, that saw the Constitution too being violated, when as President, Rajapaksa appointed his own Police, Human Rights and Public Service Commissions, against the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.

It also saw President Rajapaksa violating the 13th Amendment to the Constitution by gazetting the de-merger of the North-East province, using the SC ruling on it, based on the FR petition filed by the JVP. The methodology of “merger or de-merger” of the two provinces are defined in the Indo – SL Accord, which is a bi-lateral agreement between the 02 States, still in force. India too ignored its violation as it was more interested in seeing the Rajapaksa government winning the war.

The war thus left a human carnage of,

  • at least 217,000 Tamil civilians left displaced and caged behind barbed wire in Vavuniya and Mannar as IDP’s with uncertain fates. This does not include other IDP’s already forgotten in the East from SL government’s military offensive in late 2007 – 2008 to clear the East of LTTE. Some of them had been forcibly settled in areas that still have no infrastructure for human life. The total would therefore go beyond 300,000 at the minimum.
  • over 12, 000 civilians killed, numbers disputed and claimed to be around 20,000 by international agencies and the media since the final stage of the war from April, 2009 in the Wanni alone. All other civilians who were killed before from 2006 June since the Marvil-aru / Muttur clashes and the war in the East, should double the number.
  • another 13,000 is disputed as missing since their surrender according to UN figures and is suspected by foreign media agencies as those youth taken away from camps by para military groups and security forces, suspected as LTTE cadres.

From the combatants – SL security forces have said they lost 6,200 of its combatants while the LTTE numbers are computed at 17,000 cadres.

While no SA neighbour stood out to say there is a human tragedy being enacted in the Wanni, all international humanitarian and democratic / human rights organizations and agencies from the UNHCR, ICRC, HRW, AI, RSF, IFJ to the international media had time and again accepted there is a catastrophe in the making and reported on this human tragedy, while it was being unfolded and there after. UN Sec.Gen Ban Ki moon, the UN Commissioner General for HR Navi Pillai, British Foreign Minister David Milliband, US Secretary for State, Hilary Clinton are among international persona who have accepted that a human tragedy had been acted out in the Wanni.

Yet, what is not accounted for and would never be accounted for is the human tragedy of the not so loudly talked of,

Children – who have lost parents. Some have lost both and some, have lost the father, the only bread winner in the family. They don’t come from the urban affluent. They come from the underprivileged rural poor. Thousands have been deprived of education for many months and for over many years they have been without proper schools and adequate teachers, due to the war.

Young widows – many thousands who have lost their husbands at a very young age. Most widows of soldiers are teenagers or in their early twenties. Some have infants. They have run into horrifying tragedies in their widowed life, as single parents in rural, backward areas.

Youth – who are permanently maimed in thousands. They are not those with skills and education to find alternate employment. Jobs in the military have been their only opportunity in a declining and plundered economy.

The war against “terrorism”

has also provided the Rajapaksa regime a necessity to install a politico-military regime under its presidency, where the parliament as the legislature has been devalued, with decisions taken elsewhere.

–             Parliament has turned out to be an assembly that sits every month to pass the motion extending emergency rule

–             Parliament has never had a serious discussion on the war situation, officially listed in its agenda, or in the order paper

–             Parliament has never been allowed the opportunity to discuss measures such as “enforcement of compulsory registration of residents” in the Western Province, compulsory registration of persons with the area police station, when on temporary visits, that effected the civil life in non – conflict areas

–             Parliament has never been discussing policy stands as to how the IDP camps should be administered

–             Parliament has never been allowed a debate on sanctions laid on humanitarian and aid agencies working with IDP’s.

On the other hand, the ruling regime with the defense establishment had taken over the right to decide any and every thing that matters in political and civil life.

–             All day to day traffic arrangements in main cities including Colombo are decided by the defense establishment and not by the traffic Police.

–             What has to be reported in the media is being decided and notified to the media by the defense establishment, while there is no law for such curbing

–             Banning entry of foreign journalists and other persons to the country are dictated on the preferences of the defense establishment and not by immigration authorities independently

SL though under an elected presidency and an elected government has thus come to stay with a very repressive, politico-military regime that runs the country. While the elected representative bodies exist without much functional power, actual governance has come under a “Terror” State. With the “war against terror” given a very “Sinhala patriotic” interpretation, the top defense authorities have been allowed the privilege of making public statements on political issues, thus making them a decisive factor in decision making. A fact that would remain and would be politically campaigned for, to be maintained.

This leaves, two, very serious questions.

  • What would the future hold for Sri Lanka ?
  • What would the “lessons learnt” be, for South Asian neighbours ?

For the first question the answer is,

unless there is a concerted, relentless effort by all democratic and human rights groups, both within and without the country in working towards re-establishing democratic space,

  1. to gain access to IDP camps in order to de-militarise their daily administration
  2. gain media freedom and thereby the right for freedom of expression and right to information
  3. for social activists and democratic movements to engage in dialogue and discussion independently and without suppression

the “road map of recovery” the SL government would draw up for this regime’s survival, would not allow any space for democracy and therefore for any discussion on how the relief and rehabilitation of the devastated Wanni should be planed and executed.

There is now a Sinhala extremist hardcore with the regime that can push the regime further towards “centralizing” the State on their Sinhala ideology. Their approach is tied with the military reading of the future, which the Army Commander has reiterated in terms of further strengthening the army and recruiting another 100,000 soldiers. The approach needs many thousands of soldiers recruited to,

01.  resettle the IDP’s in the Wanni along side Sinhala colonies – this would effectively change the demographic pattern that was there in the pre-conflict period. This is promoted as an answer to completely defeat the concept of a “Tamil Homeland” in the North-East

02.  provide security for the newly settled Sinhala colonies and to run a military administration in the areas where the Tamil IDP’s are resettled – the Army Commander has already said he would establish military camps (complexes ?) in Mannar, Killinochchi and Mullaitivu in the Wanni.

For the second question the answer could be,

for SA governments and States that are already faced with the problem of curtailing “terrorist” activity, the SL model of “answering terrorism” provides a “proven” solution. Pakistan has already said, they were very much with SL in “winning the war”. The Delhi administration has joined other lesser credible countries in supporting the SL regime at the UNHRC and also pledged a sum of US $ 300 million to the SL government for post-conflict relief and rehabilitation. They are with the SL government and thus with its “winning military model”.

All these countries, with what ever shades and facades they still maintain as democracies, only exist with a “procedural” democracy and are not “functional” democracies. Therefore it would be inevitable that they choose the “proven solution” of SL as their way of defeating “terrorism”.

It is therefore relevant to ask one self,

“What if the Central government decides to adopt all the ruthless, repressive covert and overt operations used in SL, in finally eliminating armed activity in the Kashmir valley, or in the North-Eastern provinces ? What if it happens ?”

This perhaps is the lesson to learn and for the democratic and human rights groups, to find answers for.

“Getting to know your neighbour right, is getting to know your own existence”

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