Asia-Pacific

Sri Lanka: War and Repression Continue

Sri Lankan security forces check identity papers of bus passengers in Colombo as part of stepped up security amid fears of more rebel attacks. (Photo: Sanka Vidanagama / AFP-Getty Images)

The Sri Lankan Army (S.L.A.) has met strong resistance in its attempts to seize areas of the island country that are controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (L.T.T.E.). The L.T.T.E. are fighting for an independent state in the predominantly Tamil inhabited north and east of Sri Lanka.

The L.T.T.E. fought a full-scale war for independence between 1983 and 2001. A ceasefire agreement was signed between the L.T.T.E. and the Sri Lankan government in February 2002, but the S.L.A. violated its provisions, resulting in renewed fighting over the past 18 months.

Beginning on Dec. 8, the S.L.A. launched an offensive aimed at capturing the town of Vakarai, the principal stronghold of the L.T.T.E. in the east. Vakarai fell to the advancing S.L.A. troops on Jan. 19.

Since then, the S.L.A. has been trying to capture L.T.T.E.-controlled Vavuniya and Mannar districts in the north of the island. L.T.T.E. resistance has been strong, and the L.T.T.E. has launched counter-attacks into government-controlled areas.

Since late March, the L.T.T.E. has used light aircraft to carry out bombing raids against a Sri Lankan Air Force base and oil installations near Colombo, and on an S.L.A. base in the northern Jaffna peninsula.

These L.T.T.E. counter-attacks have led to a moderation of the triumphalist rhetoric of the S.L.A. top brass. On Jan. 4, the S.L.A. chief, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, declared, "After eradicating the Tigers from the east, [the S.L.A.'s] full strength will be used to rescue the north."

On May 28, he told select foreign journalists, "In five to six months we will completely mop up the L.T.T.E. in the east," but added, "We have no plan to take the north. Our plan in the north is to weaken the L.T.T.E. militarily so that we are able to maintain our positions there."

The May 28 Delhi Hindustan Times reported that Fonseka said, "We are convinced that there should be a political solution [to the conflict]."

Similarly, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse has backtracked from his earlier pledge to "annihilate" the L.T.T.E., and now talks of "containing" them.

This change of rhetoric, however, does not mean that Colombo has fundamentally changed its policy toward the Tamil Eelam issue. It is still seeking a military solution, and still denies the right of people of Tamil Eelam to national self-determination.

The tactics of the government forces range from aerial bombardment of Tamil towns and villages to the kidnapping and murder of Tamils believed to be sympathetic to the L.T.T.E. The murders are carried out by the S.L.A., police, and pro-government paramilitary groups.

For example, two Tamil workers for Sri Lanka Red Cross who had come to Colombo for a training program were taken away on June 1 for "questioning" by men claiming to be police. Their bodies were later found 95 kilometers away.

Meanwhile, investigations into last year's murder of 17 aid workers for the French N.G.O. Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger) have stalled. The workers, most of whom were Tamils, are widely believed to have been murdered by the government's security forces.

Repression against Tamils has intensified, not only in the Tamil areas of the north and east, but also in Colombo, where many Tamils have fled to escape the fighting in the north and east and to find jobs.

It is the decades-long history of discrimination and oppression by governments drawing their support from the island's Sinhala majority that has led many Tamils to seek their own separate state in the Tamil areas of northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

As Indian journalist M. R. Narayan Swamy observed in a June 9 commentary posted by the Indo-Asian News Service: "For too long it has been claimed by Sri Lanka's ruling elite that there cannot be a concept of 'Tamil homeland' because more Tamils now live outside of the war zone that is the northeastern province, which was once overwhelmingly Tamil …

"On Thursday [June 7], the Sri Lanka police's high-handed action seemed to prove that the 'Tamil homeland' does exist and it does constitute precisely that region the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (L.T.T.E.) wants to secede.

"Citing security reasons, some 500 Tamils staying in the many small lodges in Colombo's predominantly Tamil areas were ordered to pack up their bags—never mind why they were in the city—and get into buses that took them to Vavuniya in Sri Lanka's north and Batticaloa in the east.

"Vavuniya and Batticaloa are among the major towns in the island's northeast, which the Tamils describe as the 'Tamil homeland.'"

The evictions were ordered by Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse. Human rights organizations, peace groups, and Tamil-based and left parties held a demonstration to protest against the expulsions on June 8.

Following a decision by the country's Supreme Court to order a halt to the evictions, on June 13 Rajapakse denounced foreign governments for condemning the evictions.

"This is discrimination and bullying by the international community," he told Reuters and the BBC, adding: "I'm talking about terrorists. Anything is fair. When the U.S. does operations, they say covert operations. When something is done in Sri Lanka, they call it abductions. This is playing with the words."

Despite occasional criticisms of Colombo's most blatant human rights abuses against Tamils, both Washington and the European Union governments continue to supply weapons and training to the S.L.A. and the Sri Lankan police, the very forces that carry out these human rights abuses. They justify this by claiming that Colombo is waging a war against "terrorists."

Last year, the European Union followed Washington's lead in banning the L.T.T.E. as a "terrorist" organization.

Colombo has also been supported in its war against the Tamil people by some Third World governments, including India, China, and Pakistan, with each seeking to use their arms shipments to the S.L.A. to gain influence for itself within the Sri Lankan government.

On May 31, Mayankote Narayanan, India's national security advisor, issued a media release in which he said: "It is high time that Sri Lanka understood that India is the big power in the region and [Sri Lanka] ought to refrain from going to Pakistan or China for weapons, as we are prepared to accommodate them within the framework of our foreign policy."

But it is Washington that has been particularly important in encouraging Colombo to follow the path of war rather than seeking a negotiated settlement.

Last November, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns said that Washington was "not neutral" in the conflict between Colombo and Sri Lanka's Tamils: "We support the government. We believe the government has a right to try to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country."

Writing in the May 23 London Tamil Guardian, Gajan Raj observed that Washington "failed to restrain the Sri Lankan state's belligerence and instead tolerated and encouraged it. Whilst making the odd statement that there was 'no military solution to conflict', the U.S. provided increased military and financial assistance to the state even when Colombo was stepping up military violence in breach of the ceasefire agreement."

Furthermore, an editorial in the May 23 Tamil Guardian noted, "as long as there is Sinhala oppression, there will be Tamil resistance. The current U.S.-led approach, which ignores this basic truth, will not bring peace to Sri Lanka."

From Green Left Weekly.

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