Is this what 'victory' looks like? The fate of civilians and minorities in Sri Lanka

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Jubilation over the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the death of its leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, has gripped a majority of Sri Lankans both in that country and around the world.

Most of Sri Lanka celebrated the news of the defeat of the LTTE following three bloody decades, with lighting of firecrackers and sharing of “kiribath” (milk rice) which is traditionally prepared  on all joyous occasions. 

Fate of civilians lost in the celebrations

Certainly, destroying the LTTE as a conventional army comes as a relief for the many thousands who have suffered at their hands. Lost in the celebrations, though, is the fate of the civilians as well as an extension of sympathy towards those who have no news of their family and friends.

Until the end of last week, reports on military advances were always coupled with news of the civilians corralled within the area of fighting -- the so-called “Safe  Zone” in the northern part of the island nation.

Trapped like hunted animals were at least 50,000 civilians of Tamil origin, confined to a five-square kilometer stretch of coconut palms and beach. Reports of dead and wounded were widely believed to have been released by Tamil doctors from a makeshift hospital in Vellamullivaikkal.

Though a Safe Zone had been declared neither party respected its boundaries. The hapless civilians were used as human shields by the LTTE to slow down the advance of the government forces. There are now reports that the three doctors have been detained, though the government denies the action.

The government meanwhile did not abide by its own declaration that its forces would not use the heavy weaponry in its arsenal and refrain from firing into the ‘Safe Zone.’ According to UN estimates at least 6400 civilians have paid with their lives in the last three months;  hapless victims of both the LTTE and government shelling. 

No 'Safe Zone': Brutality from both sides

The sheer brutality perpetrated on these victims by the LTTE who claim to be the sole representatives of the Tamils, and the government which states its aim is to free the country of terrorism and Tamils from the clutches of LTTE was stupifying to say the least. 

The weekend of May 9 saw the biggest carnage with reports of the dead and wounded varying from the hundreds to the thousands, while elsewhere in Sri Lanka, Vesak, the most sacred day for Buddhists was being observed.  The heavy fighting resulted in the International Committee of the Red Cross being forced to halt its work in the area.

Overseas, the large Tamil diaspora reacted with anger and frustration. Their demonstrations – some, lately, violent -- have shaken capitals in the West. The first such protests seemed to be devoid of a political agenda and was more a gathering of those fearful for the lives of family and friends.  Emboldened by the outpouring of concern, LTTE supporters hijacked the protests, with complete disregard to the safety of the protesters, bystanders and motorists, as was apparent in Toronto.

Counter protests staged by diaspora Sinhalese, under the guise of peace rallies, supported the government’s actions.

Perhaps to the disappointment of many a Tamil, Canada, which is home  to the largest number of Tamils outside Sri Lanka, seems to have adopted an aloofness to the situation. Except for issuing the usual statements calling on both parties to respect human lives, and increasing its humanitarian aid component to Sri Lanka, even defusing the agitation in Toronto on May 10 was left to the NDP and the Liberals.  The Harper government has made it clear it would not discuss the matter with those connected to the LTTE, an organization it has banned.

No dissent tolerated

Both the LTTE and the present regime of President Rajapakse have never accepted dissent or criticism kindly. Throughout its 30-year history, the Tamil Tigers have spared no one, be it politician, civilians of all ethnic communities and children. It earned worldwide condemnation for its use of under aged children to fight the war. 

They tolerated no dissent in their quest for a separate homeland and have assassinated and maimed even those who were once their supporters, such as Rajini Thiranagama who later opposed their violence.  She was gunned down in Jaffna while on her way home from work. Muslims residing in the northern peninsula were given 48 hours to flee their homes, while LTTE cadres marauded rural hamlets murdering Sinhala villagers.

Discrimination under guise of national security

The worst pogrom since the conflict intensified took place in 1983, when following the killing of 13 soldiers the Sinhalese south erupted in a frenzy of killing and attacking Tamils.  That saw droves of Tamils leaving Sri Lanka to settle elsewhere in the world.

Since the present government took power there has been a systemic erosion of goodwill between the two communities.  Under the guise of national security Tamils living or migrating to the south were forced to register with the police. Homes were constantly checked, Tamils arrested on suspicion and even unceremoniously bussed back to the border areas of the north. Aid workers remaining in the north were declared terrorists as were any moderates to opposed the government. Abductions, assaults and murder of dissenters became commonplace. The worst affected were journalists.

Little comfort for minorities in Sri Lanka after ‘victory’

Addressing the nation following the military victory, President Rajapakse has stated that there will now be no minorities.  Little comfort for the minorities though, since he remained silent when, not many months ago, his army Chief declared that though minorities may live in Sri Lanka they “cannot make any unnecessary demands.”  

The President has also often referred to a “ home grown” solution to the ethnic issue, though once again discussions on that have been going on for nearly three years. His call now to the Tamil diaspora to return may have had a better response had a genuine process to address their concerns been put into place while pursuing a military victory.

During the past six months with the military gaining ground with scant regard for the safety of the civilians in the north, the Tamil diaspora has been galvanized into action. It has spewed forth a generation of young Tamils, many whom have not set foot in Sri Lanka, determined to carry on the fight for a separate homeland.

The government of President Rajapakse, meanwhile, is now appealing to the international community, which until as late as last week it belittled and spurned, to bring in the financial aid so vital to rehabilitate the displaced and rebuild the nation.

Kshama Ranawana is a freelance writer, media ethics trainer and activist.

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