A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) documents the appalling brutality of the Sinahala-nationalist Sri Lankan government when, in 2009, it carried out a “military solution” to a 26-year conflict with the Tamil population.
As it attemped to wipe out the Tamil nationalist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) it killed tens of thousands of Tamil people caught up in the conflict. Internationally, governments either supported this regional “war on terror”, or stood by while the Sri Lankan army shelled the general population.
While the offensive was going on Liam Fox (then Shadow Defence Secretary) visited Sri Lanka as a host of the government. But the ICG’s report also condemns the intentional shooting and use of force by the LTTE against their own people.
The ICG report follows the August 2009 screening by Channel 4 of a video of Sri Lankan forces executing Tamils; this month the channel’s news programme aired testimony from two former members of Sri Lanka’s military. Among other claims the officers said that LTTE members and their families were summarily executed after surrendering. It is to be hoped that all these new public revealations will trigger further accounting of what happened last year.
According to the ICG report the Sri Lankan government deliberately ignored the difference between LTTE-aligned combatants and civilians. All Tamils were regarded as terrorists. In other words there was a genocidal intent in military actions and the orders for that must have come from the top.
Now this “Sri Lankan option” is being discussed by other governments. In November 2009 Burma’s military dictator, Than Shwe, visited the island on a “fact-finding mission”. Could the Sri Lankans tell him anything about how to deal with ethnic groups in Burma? The Thai, Philippine, Indian and Bangladeshi governments are also getting interested.
Since 2005 Sri Lanka’s President has been Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was re-elected at the end of 2009. He has concentrated great chunks of state power in his own and his family’s hands. While paying cynical lipservice to the idea of a multi-ethnic Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa courts and fosters Sinahala nationalism. The concentration of power goes hand in hand with greater centralisation.
It is worth remembering what happened a year ago.
By January 2009 the LTTE were cornered in Vanni, a small portion of the Northern Province, surrounded by the far stronger Sri Lankan army. Also in the area were 300,000 civilians, most of whom had been displaced from areas previously held by the LTTE. The Tamil population were increasingly unhappy with the forced recruitment policies of the LTTE and near total ban on leaving Vanni. At that point the Sri Lankan government could have taken advantage of the weakness of the LTTE and negotiated a settlement. But they were never going to do that.
The government had decided to raze to the ground any possibility of the LTTE reasserting itself and of a future generation of Tamils being able to reorganise a fighting force. What did they do?
In September 2008 UN and international aid organisations were ordered to leave Vanni. Thereafter food, medical supplies and care were completely inadequate. But until 2009 the UN continued to run convoys of World Food Programme food into the area.
On 24 January 2009 a group of UN staff were shelled by government forces, where they had set up a distribution centre in a recently declared government “No Fire Zone”. This, despite civilians being told to evacuate to the area, and despite the UN staff having told the security forces where they were located. As the concentration of civilians had increased in the area, the shelling caused more deaths. The government denied targetting the “safe” zone, of course.
According to the ICG during the five months of the advance, the military intentionally and repeatedly shelled civilians, hospitals and humanitarian operations. UN agencies documented 7,000 deaths from January to April 2009. But many deaths were not documented. And the final three weeks of fighting saw thousands more killed.
In the same period over 280,000 Tamil people crossed over to government-held areas and were interned in emergency camps. Conditions in the camps were dire. Young men were interrogated, beaten and abused by the security forces. By April 2010 80,000 people were still in the camps.
The actions of the LTTE were also brutal. They refused to allow civilians to leave, shooting dead some who tried. But while the government condemned “human sheilding” it also pressed ahead into the territory with no inhibitions. They knew, even as they corralled civilians into the NFZs, that the LTTE would not allow them to leave. The government must have been, at some level, forcing civilians to further risk their own lives crossing LTTE fronts, in order to escape shelling and starvation.
Only when they could announce the LTTE’s leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran was dead did the Sri Lankan military stop their advance — on 18 May 2009.
The state has backed up its military campaign with censorship of critics. Journalists have been beaten and even killed. Solidarity with the Tamil and Sri Lankan opposition and working-class forces remains an urgent necessity.