AS the 26-year war in Sri Lanka nears its end, every busybody in the world is urging the Sri Lankan government to stop. Spare the poor civilians trapped in the combat zone, declare a cease-fire, it’s time to negotiate, they all implore. Even the US government has now joined the chorus.
Last weekend, the White House said that it was “deeply concerned about the plight of innocent civilians caught up in the conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers and the mounting death toll.” It called on both sides to “stop fighting immediately and allow civilians to safely leave the combat zone”. The Tigers immediately declared a unilateral cease-fire, while the Sri Lankan government called it a “joke” and continued its final offensive. But the government is right.
More than 70 000 people have died in the Sri Lankan war. Some hundreds of civilians, or maybe even a few thousands, will be killed in this last battle, but that’s far fewer than would die if the war continued for years more. Every time the “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” were granted a cease-fire in the past, they used the breathing space to rearm, and then relaunched their struggle for independence. So no more cease-fires; just get it over with.
Besides, the civilians in the combat zone, all Tamils themselves, were not just “caught up in the conflict” between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. As the rebels lost control of most of northern Sri Lanka over the past two years, they forced tens of thousands of Tamil civilians from their homes and made them join the retreat. If the civilians tried to escape the ever-dwindling territory controlled by the Tigers, they were killed.
They are hostages, held prisoner in order to hinder the government’s use of heavy weapons against the Tigers’ defences. In a just universe, all the mealy-mouthed diplomatic formulas that omit that fundamental fact would earn eternal damnation for those who utter them.
Even when the Sri Lankan army managed to breach the Tigers’ defences last week and tens of thousands of the hostages escaped, the Tigers sent along suicide bombers among the streams of refugees to punish them for their “treachery”. Next to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, the Tamil Tigers are probably the worst bunch of ultra-nationalist extremists that Asia has seen in the past half-century.
They do, however, have an effective propaganda service, and command wide support among the large Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. Not all of this is voluntary: one Tamil-Canadian in Toronto explained to me how he always avoided filling stations run by Tamils in order to avoid being indentified and “taxed” by the Tigers, with unpleasant consequences for his relatives back in Sri Lanka if he failed to pay up.
However, since there are many more Tamils than other Sri Lankan immigrants in most Western countries, their governments tend to take the course of least resistance, which in the current context is to back the Tamil Tigers’ pleas for a cease-fire. Calling for a cease-fire always sounds good, and the Western governments don’t have to live with the consequences.
If the sanctimonious foreigners really wanted to make themselves useful, they would stop calling for a cease-fire and instead demand full civil rights for the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka after the war, including broad autonomy in the areas where they are the local majority. It was the brutal suppression of Tamil rights in the decades after independence, extending even to pogroms against Tamils by the majority Sinhalese population, that caused this war. It will eventually cause another if it is not ended.
The current Sri Lankan government is not the ideal vehicle for attaining this goal. The prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is a nasty piece of work, and his brother Gotabaya, the defence secretary, is even nastier. Together they have turned a once-flourishing democracy into a country where critics of the government often die violent but unexplained deaths.
If your goal is a tolerant, multi-ethnic Sri Lanka, you would not choose to start from here. But that is where Sri Lanka is, and so the choice is between evils.
The Tigers are a cancer that needs to be eliminated. The present government will probably then do almost everything wrong, alienating the defeated Tamils from the Sri Lankan state by repressive measures when it should be trying to reconcile them. But once the Tigers are gone, the raison d’etre of such a brutal regime vanishes. Sri Lanka’s democracy has had its flaws and failures over the years, but it has deep roots, and it is hard to imagine a regime like that of the Rajapaksas surviving for long in peacetime. Only war made that possible, and the war will soon be over.
So if the foreigners really want to make themselves useful, they should stop grand-standing about the civilians trapped in the Tigers’ remaining territory, which is now down to about 12 sq km.
Instead, they should push the Sri Lankan government to create a post-war dispensation that makes Tamils happy to be Sri Lankans.
As a start, all the Tamil civilians who have escaped from the Tigers should be freed from the detention camps where they are now being held within the next few weeks. Keeping them for the planned year or more is just vindictive.
Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.
World View with Gwynne Dyer