–Jehan Perera

When two foes that are determined to destroy each other and to resist each other by military means are at war, one side cannot be expected to give heed to the unilateral  pronouncements of the other side. This is especially the case with the LTTE, which has a long track record of putting their struggle above everything else. At the present time the existence of the LTTE as an organization is being threatened on the ground. It has lost nearly all the territory it once controlled, its armories are falling into
government hands, and members of its top leadership have been seriously injured in the most recent rounds of fighting. In these straitened circumstances, it is to be expected that the LTTE will use every means at their disposal to prolong their survival. This includes using civilians as a human shield. On the other hand, the government appears determined to pursue its strategy of defeating the LTTE completely and as soon as possible even if the cost is high to its own soldiers and to the civilian population. The government is aware that international conditions are currently favourable to its military campaign. The Congress-led government in India has been supportive of the war effort to a greater extent than any previous Indian government, due perhaps to the influence of the slain former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s widow being at the helm of affairs in that country. So far the Indian government has been able to deflate pressures from Tamil Nadu state to put a stop to the Sri Lankan government’s military campaign.

The other great influence on Sri Lanka and the world, the United States, continues to adhere to the Bush Administration’s policy of the war against terrorism. But this policy might be at its tail end with the election of President Barack Obama. Already President Obama has given an inkling of the possible shift in US foreign policy by saying that the Palestinians should be provided with a solution they accept, rather than one that is imposed on them by others. Therefore the Sri Lankan government would be aware that with elections looming in India, and President Obama making policy changes in the US, the present favourable climate to war as a solution might soon change. It is therefore in the government’s interests to accelerate the war effort to defeat the LTTE without permitting other considerations to slow it down.


In this context, it is tragic but to be expected that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s pronouncement of a 48 hour period of safe passage to the trapped civilians of the north elapsed without any major movement of people. Only a few hundreds seem to have made, or been able to make, use of this opportunity. The rest either did not feel able to, or were prevented from leaving by the LTTE. Several humanitarian organizations, including UN agencies, working in the conflict zones have issued a statement in the grave humanitarian crisis. They have said that “The LTTE continues to prevent civilians from leaving areas under its control, denying the right to seek safety in other parts of the country…We call upon the LTTE to allow full freedom of movement to all civilians, and to allow safe passage for those wishing to leave the conflict area.”

It is reported that the LTTE has placed its artillery at the perimeters of the area that the government has designated as a safety zone. The civilians will fear to move from wherever they are in a situation where artillery duels continue. This has prompted the humanitarian organizations to call on “the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to accord priority to ensuring the safety and security of all civilians. The humanitarian community calls on the Government and the LTTE to respect the 32 square km “safe zone”, within the Vanni, announced by the Government.” Tragically even hospitals within the safety zone have been shelled with each side blaming the other. The likely scenario in the days and weeks ahead is a continuation of the full scale effort by the government to enter into the remaining LTTE-held territory and take it over. The price paid by Tamil civilians will be incidental to the main goal of defeating the LTTE. This will not bode well for future peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The worst fears of the Tamil people that they are not considered citizens with equal rights to life, property and freedom will be borne out in the last battle to be fought unless the priorities of the government and LTTE change even at this  last minute.


The trapped population is said to be anywhere between 200,000 to 400,000, with the government giving the lesser figure, and Tamil and humanitarian sources giving the higher one. Whether it is the higher figure or the lower one, it is still a very large number. They are akin to a people held hostage. The presence of these civilians in the last territory controlled by the LTTE will necessarily slow down the progress of the Sri Lankan military which will be constrained in its ability to use its superior firepower. On the other hand, by not permitting the civilians to leave, the LTTE is clearly in violation of international law. In effect, they are holding the people hostage, where the hostage-takers put forward their conditions for the release of the hostages. In these circumstances securing the safety of the trapped civilians is a priority requires a negotiated movement of people under the auspices of internationally recognized organizations, such as the ICRC. Consequently,several local and international organizations including some foreign governments have called for the declaration of a humanitarian truce for a temporary period to facilitate the movement of the trapped civilians. Those who issue such calls do so at the risk of being labeled as LTTE supporters, a very grave danger that can lead to death threats and to being declared persona non grata in this time of heightened nationalist sentiment.

However, the option of a negotiated solution to the humanitarian crisis needs to be considered. Even in other situations of hostage taking, such as hostages being taken in passenger aircraft or schools, the first option is generally to negotiate. A humanitarian truce can lay the ground for mutual dialogue and confidence, save the lives of the internally displaced civilians and reduce the social and psychological pressures that will otherwise occur in the long run. But the difficulties in promoting this idea cannot be underestimated. The experience of the past, in which periods of negotiation and ceasefire were utilized by the LTTE to rearm and reposition itself is a lesson that most people in Sri Lanka remember with both anger and dismay. The risk of being misunderstood has to be borne by those who uphold humanitarian values as a priority.


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