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Home > Human Rights > Sri Lanka’s Final Offensive and India’s Deafening Silence

Sri Lanka’s Final Offensive and India’s Deafening Silence

by Tapan Bose, 18 February 2009

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Mail Today, 18 February 2009

India is a silent bystander in Sri Lankan tragedy

According to a British newspaper, Sri Lankan "officials have confirmed they will establish several ’welfare villages’ to house the estimated 200,000 Tamils displaced from their homes by the Sri Lankan army’s ’final offensive’ against the LTTE’s stronghold on the north." According to the report, the villages will be based in Vavuniya and Mannar districts and will be compulsory holding centres for all civilians fleeing the fighting.

The Tamils arriving in these ’villages’ will be screened for terrorist connections and then held under armed guard, with only those with relatives inside the camp allowed to come and go. Mr. Rajiva Wijesinha, Disaster Management and Human Rights Secretary, confirmed that those in the so- called ’ welfare villages’ would be forcibly detained so they can be investigated for Tiger connections.

Bruce Fein, a former associate deputy attorney general under President Reagan, has submitted a 1,000 page indictment against Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary and Mr Sarath Fonseka, the Sri Lankan Army Chief to US Attorney General Eric H. Holder under the Genocide Accountability Act of 2007. Mr Rajapaksa and Mr Fonseka who hold dual US and Sri Lankan citizenship, have been held responsible for ’physically destroying Tamils in whole or in substantial part through more than 3,800 extrajudicial killings or disappearances; the infliction of serious bodily injury on tens of thousands; the creation of punishing conditions of life, including starvation, withholding medicines and hospital care, humanitarian aid embargoes, bombing and artillery shelling of schools, hospitals, churches, temples; and the displacement of more than 1.3 million civilians into camps, which were then bombed and shelled’. Mr. Fein wants the two Sri Lankans to be investigated and prosecuted in the United States.

Ruthless

On February 9, while addressing a press conference on the situation in Sri Lanka in Geneva, Ms Margaret Sekaggya, UN Special Rapporteur of Human Rights Defenders said, "A climate of fear and intimidation reigns over those defending human rights, especially over journalists and lawyers. The safety of defenders has worsened considerably over the past year, most significantly following denunciation of human rights abuses committed by parties to the conflict, of corruption by state officials and of impunity. Serious and fatal aggression against journalists and the media is now a common occurrence as witnessed in the killing of the journalist Lasantha Wickremetunga and recent attacks on major media outlets." About ten UN experts, in a signed statement released at the press conference on February 9, have said, "The conflict ( in the North) deflects attention from the impunity which has been allowed to go unabated throughout Sri Lanka. The fear of reprisals against victims and witnesses, together with lack of effective investigations and prosecutions, has led to a circle of impunity that must be broken." The experts said that they continue to receive disturbing reports of torture, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances throughout the country.

A Sri Lankan politician who wishes to remain anonymous, told me on phone last Sunday evening that Mr Rajapakse was commited to maintaining a " unitary state" and had rejected any devolution of power to Tamil representatives in the north and east. He felt that the creation of these ’ welfare villages’, and government attempts to stop independent coverage or monitoring of the humanitarian crisis in the north would only drive moderate Tamils into the arms of extremism - just as it was on the point of defeating the LTTE. A few Western diplomats that I was able to speak to expressed the fear that Mr Rajapakse’s repression would give a new lease of life to the seemingly defeated rebel army and encourage it to launch a terrorist insurgency throughout the whole of Sri Lanka instead of its current conventional war in the north.

Former Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mr Mangala Samaraweera, who masterminded Mr Rajapaksa’s presidential election victory, but later fell out with him over his human rights record, said his government had turned a blind eye to extra- judicial killings and that his own life had been threatened by those close to the president.

The latter’s decision to silence Tamil and other dissident voices was a "terrible mistake" which would drive even moderate Tamils into the arms of the LTTE. " At the moment everyone in Sri Lanka is living in a state of absolute fear," he said. " It’s a conspiracy to crush any Tamil voice, destroy the LTTE and strengthen the structure of the unitary state. But it is a mistake. We have to look beyond the unitary state towards Indianstyle federalism," he said.

Organised

For about a quarter of a century, since movement for Tamil Eelam transformed into an armed struggle following the massacre of Sri Lankan Tamils in 1983, the conflict in Sri Lanka was called the ’ ethnic war’ by Colombo- based Sinhala parties and ’ liberation war’ by the Sri Lankan Tamils. In 2006, after the collapse of the Norwegian brokered third ’ ceasefire’, the government of President Rajapakse, declared that it had launched a ’ war on terror’ and would not stop till the terrorists- the LTTE- were completely wiped out, After the withdrawal of the IPKF in 1990, New Delhi had virtually disengaged from the Tamil issue, though it kept insisting that it was for a political settlement. In 2006, the Rajapakse government initiated a step-by-step programme of dismantling the arrangements for political autonomy for the Tamils set up under the Indo- Sri Lanka Peace Accord of 1987. Through a well orchestrated political campaign it mustered the support of the judiciary to annul the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution which had brought about the merger of the northern and eastern provinces in recognition of majority status for Tamils in this region.

In 2006, President Rajapakse had appointed an All Party Representative Committee( APRC) to develop a consensus plan for devolution and power sharing between Colombo and the Tamil majority in the north. He appointed a 17 member Experts Committee.

A majority of 11 members submitted a report recommending substantive reorganisation of the state and extensive devolution of power.

Despite his solemn promise to act on the majority report, the President sat over APRC’s recommendations for two years. Finally in 2008, the President unilaterally imposed his own proposal on the Chairperson of the APRC. This was a watered down version of what was envisaged under the Indo- Sri Lanka Peace Accord.

Assault

President Rajapakse had caught New Delhi on the wrong foot. Having remained silent during the period when Rajapakse government was going about dismantling the arrangements for Tamil autonomy created under the Indo- Sri Lanka Peace Accord, it had no option but to extend support to the sham proposals of the President as a ’ welcome first step’. New Delhi also agreed to give the Colombo Government a free hand in its dealing with LTTE. Almost all Sri Lankan Tamils, irrespective of their political affiliation, believe that the government of India endorsed President Rajapakse’s all out war against the LTTE and the Tamils in the north. News reports of Indian supply of lethal weapons, military transports and radars as well as military trainers and advisers have appeared in both Sri Lankan and Indian media. The real truth about Indian support to Colombo’s military assault on the north may never be known; however all indications emanating from New Delhi’s South Block indicated that New Delhi was eagerly awaiting the announcement of a ’decisive victory’ by the Sri Lankan government.

One can appreciate the feeling of unease in South Block and North Block, particularly as it is unable to publicly speak about its covert support to Rajapakse government’s ’war on LTTE’ for internal political constraints.

Pity, India, the big brother of South Asia, has come out a mere side player in this ’first decisive victory’ by the forces of the State against ’ terrorists’ in an age of the global ’ war on terror’.

The writer is Secretary General of South Asia Forum for Human Rights