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Sri Lanka has a singular window of opportunity in its campaign of national resistance against Tiger terrorism. That window is provided by the upcoming SAARC summit in April, which will be chaired by India.
SAARC summits have played their part as significant nodal points of the interrelationship between Colombo, Delhi, Chennai (then Madras) and Jaffna (as it were). Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi arranged for proximity talks between President Jayewardene and Velupillai Prabhakaran at the SAARC summit in Bangalore in November 1986. Prabhakaran was flown by helicopter to the venue, while India officials shuttled between the Sri Lankan side and the Tiger leader. Of course the entire exercise ended in failure.
What was significant was the behavior of India. As Prof Urmila Phadnis, the doyenne of Indian scholarship on Sri Lanka and Indo-Lankan relations pointed out, this was a sharp departure from previous policy which had recognised all the Tamil groups. For the first time, Delhi accorded primacy to Prabhakaran and the LTTE! What made it worse was that it took place mere months after the LTTE had massacred India’s most favoured Tamil group, the TELO, accusing it of being a stooge of India! This was followed in a little over half a year, by India’s intrusion into Sri Lankan airspace, to abort Operation Liberation. Rajiv Gandhi took those decisions due to pressure from Tamil Nadu, and paid with his life.
In the early 1990s Sri Lanka assumed the chairmanship of SAARC. India’s hostility to President Premadasa was as irrational as to exceed its animus towards Prabhakaran who had murdered Rajiv only the previous year. It attempted to sabotage it by staying away. However, the rest of South Asia solidarised with Sri Lanka and participated, thereby rebuffing regional hegemonism.
While India’s assumption of the SAARC chairmanship this April is by no means a positive factor for Sri Lanka given the increasing raucousness of Tamil Nadu, India is on the other hand, unlikely to risk provoking a Sri Lankan riposte against it in Delhi itself, on the occasion of the summit.
India takes over the leadership of the region at a time it is exceedingly well placed internationally and it may be conceded, historically. However, its international prestige and profile is not entirely symmetrical with the perceptions of it in the neighborhood. It is India’s interest not to permit her old regional profile to damage the new one it is striving to project; a new one in keeping with her global prestige.
India will not wish Sri Lanka to form a countervailing bloc with the region’s smaller nations, perhaps even spearheading a denunciation of Delhi’s duplicity and de-stabilization, hypocrisy and hegemonism.
Furthermore, India cannot take a hard line on terrorism, as she will at the SAARC summit, and simultaneously take steps helpful to Tiger terrorism – steps which prevent Sri Lanka from eradicating suicide bombing separatists.
India and the USA are asking (in the case of the former, pressurizing) Sri Lanka to do precisely what they criticize Pakistan of doing: going soft on terrorism; not cracking down on it militarily.
Sri Lanka is being criticized by India and sotto voce by the West, for doing precisely what they urge Pakistan to do: wage a sustained military campaign against terrorism on its soil.
To round off the ironies, India is being governed by domestic, i.e. regional compulsions in its policy towards Tamil terrorism, while rejecting the argument that Pakistan is just as or even more constrained or compelled by the socio-cultural and political realities of its own peripheral regions.
Sri Lanka’s Stance
Sri Lanka simply must use the SAARC summit to make its case against the LTTE which must include mention of its suicide bombing of two former SAARC chairpersons, Rajiv Gandhi and Ranasinghe Premadasa. The latter was SAARC chairman when he was assassinated.
President Rajapakse must raise the slogans of the indivisibility of the defence of democracy against terrorism and canvass a compact of collective security. Sri Lanka must seek a SAARC strategy and a practical programme for the suppression of separatism, terrorism, political assassination and suicide bombing.
We can do this adopting one of four stances: in alliance with all states, in alliance with Delhi, while remaining silent on India or while criticizing India. That choice is ours but is contingent on India’s conduct towards us in the run-up to the SAARC summit in April.
April is the Crucial Month
All this adds up to a priceless opportunity for Sri Lanka. We must make as much military headway on the ground as is possible, by the April summit.
At the least, the East must be won, and a democratic political process (which, given the conditions cannot but be an exercise in ‘low intensity democracy’) completed which installs Karuna in control of the province.
At best, it can include gains on the Northern front, but must avoid unimaginative operations, as well publicized and easily predictable as they are ill-designed and rehearsed for! Given the difficulty of fighting the Tigers on their monoethnic home turf (unlike in the East where we enjoy a safe – Sinhala – rear area), and given Karuna’s excellent record at Elephant Pass, it would be imprudent not to include him in the planning of operations outside the Eastern theatre, anticipating and war-gaming Prabhakaran’s moves, and even securing inputs in giving the extra training to our forces necessary for fighting on Prabhakaran’s Northern and eventually Kilinochchi-Mullaitivu battle grounds.
To capitalize on the opportunity presented by the constraints imposed on India’s behavior until the SAARC summit is done, Sri Lanka must fast track the acquisition, induction and deployment of the new equipment she has ordered or has earmarked for purchase. Certainly, defence expenditure is placing a heavy strain on the budget but it is better to suffer a one-time only surge in expenditure and get the job done, than to keep the problem dangling for another decade or more due to under-expenditure on military equipment.
The pressure on the economy can be relieved by obtaining cheap oil. There are three potential sources of cheap oil, all of which are accessible to Sri Lanka, given the centre-left, nationalist political complexion of the Rajapakse presidency: Russia, Iran and Venezuela. What it would take is a personal outreach by the President followed by a high level delegation led by Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake. (Military deals must also be striven for, which means that the Def Secy should be part of the delegation).
Sri Lanka has no choice but to invest in building up a first rate military in terms of manpower, training, fire-power, mobility and command-control-communication-computers (C4).We must swiftly build up our armed forces to a level that guarantees military preponderance over the LTTE, capable of deploying overwhelming force against it.
During this campaign and thereafter, Sri Lanka must maintain a military strong enough to inflict unacceptable levels of casualties in asymmetric conflict, upon anyone likely to engage in cross-border incursion. Only a credible deterrent capacity will allow us to preserve our sovereignty in an increasingly dangerous sub-regional context, given India’s permissive attitude to Tamil Nadu extremism which is the rear area of Eelam Tamil terrorism.
If Sri Lanka is to capitalize on the opportunity provided by the upcoming SAARC summit, it must also complete the search for a political solution to Tamil ethnic grievances. The de-merger of the North and East must be balanced off by enhanced devolution made possible by the redistribution of powers in the concurrent list. The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce has welcomed the ‘majority report’ of the Experts’ panel, pointing out that any misgivings could be addressed by placing more safeguards. That report, the UNP’s proposals to the APRC and the Tissa Vitharana proposals (barring the suggestion of the abolition of the presidential system and reversion to a purely parliamentary model, a step which would weaken the state), provide three strong planks for a reform platform.
President Rajapakse must not go to Delhi empty handed. When he addresses the SAARC summit he must not only have an irreversible, strategic military victory under his belt, he must also be able to credibly display to his fellow heads of state, enlightened new legislation implemented by Sri Lanka which can accommodate aggrieved Tamil and Muslim identity. If – but only if - he does so, he will be able to neutralize plots against Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, combat Tamil Nadu propaganda, project a favorable image before a hostile Indian media, isolate the Tigers and rally the support of the region, locking India – as SAARC chairman - into the regional consensus.
The horror that is unfolding in Sri Lanka becomes possible because of the silence that surrounds it. There is almost no reporting in the mainstream Indian media - or indeed in the international press - about what is happening there. Why this should be so is a matter of serious concern.
From the little information that is filtering through, it looks as though the Sri Lankan government is using the propaganda of "the war on terror" as a fig leaf to dismantle any semblance of democracy in the country, and commit unspeakable crimes against the Tamil people. Working on the principle that every Tamil is a terrorist unless he or she can prove otherwise, civilian areas, hospitals and shelters are being bombed and turned into a war zone. Reliable estimates put the number of civilians trapped at over 200,000. The Sri Lankan army is advancing, armed with tanks and aircraft.
Meanwhile, there are official reports that several "welfare villages" have been established to house displaced Tamils in Vavuniya and Mannar districts. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, these villages "will be compulsory holding centres for all civilians fleeing the fighting". Is this a euphemism for concentration camps? Mangala Samaraveera, the former foreign minister, told the Telegraph: "A few months ago the government started registering all Tamils in Colombo on the grounds that they could be a security threat, but this could be exploited for other purposes, like the Nazis in the 1930s. They're basically going to label the whole civilian Tamil population as potential terrorists."
Given its stated objective of "wiping out" the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, this malevolent collapse of civilians and "terrorists" does seem to signal that the government of Sri Lanka is on the verge of committing what could end up being genocide. According to a UN estimate, several thousand people have already been killed. Thousands more are critically wounded. The few eyewitness reports that have come out are descriptions of a nightmare from hell.
What we are witnessing, or should we say what is happening, in Sri Lanka - and what is being so effectively hidden from public scrutiny - is a brazen, openly racist war. The impunity with which the Sri Lankan government is being able to commit these crimes actually unveils the deeply ingrained racist prejudice that is precisely what led to the marginalisation and alienation of the Tamils of Sri Lanka in the first place. That racism has a long history - of social ostracism, economic blockades, pogroms and torture. The brutal nature of the decades-long civil war, which started as a peaceful protest, has its roots in this.
Why the silence? In another interview Samaraveera says that "a free media is virtually non-existent in Sri Lanka today". He talks about death squads and "white van abductions", which have made society "freeze with fear". Voices of dissent, including several journalists, have been abducted and assassinated. The International Federation of Journalists accuses the Sri Lanka government of using a combination of anti-terrorism laws, disappearances and assassinations to silence journalists.
There are disturbing but unconfirmed reports that India is lending material and logistical support to the Sri Lankan government in these crimes against humanity. If the reports are true, it is outrageous. What of the governments of other countries? Pakistan? China? What are they doing to help or to harm the situation?
In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu the war in Sri Lanka has fuelled passions that have led to more than 10 people immolating themselves. The public anger and anguish, much of it genuine, some of it cynical political manipulation, has become an election issue.
It is extraordinary that this concern has not travelled to the rest of India. Why is there silence here? There are no "white van abductions" - at least not on this issue. Given the scale of what is happening in Sri Lanka, the silence is inexcusable. More so because of the Indian government's long history of irresponsible dabbling in the conflict, first taking one side and then the other. Several of us - including myself - who should have spoken out much earlier have not done so, simply because of a lack of information about the war.
So while the killing continues, while tens of thousands of people are being barricaded into concentration camps, while more than 200,000 face starvation, and a genocide waits to happen, there is dead silence from this great country.
It's a colossal humanitarian tragedy. The world must step in. Now. Before it's too late.
• Arundhati Roy is a writer and activist who won the Booker Prize for her novel, The God of Small Things
Police closed Westminster Bridge in London and attempted to contain thousands of Tamil protesters who surrounded parliament last night demanding an immediate ceasefire in Sri Lanka.
One man was rescued after jumping into the Thames. Four RNLI lifeboats were on standby in the river after reports that demonstrators had threatened to throw themselves off the bridge
Scotland Yard estimated that up to 3,000 people occupied streets around the Houses of Parliament. Westminster tube station was closed by police.
The demonstration was against the killings in northern Sri Lanka where government forces have encircled the remnants of the separatist Tamil Tigers and thousands of civilians. The demonstrators went ahead without permission.
Under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, it is an offence to stage an unauthorised demonstration within the vicinity of parliament. The government has said it is reviewing the law.
The protesters accused the Sri Lankan army of using cluster bombs and killing 5,000 civilians in the past four months. Large numbers kept up the protest into the early hours. Witnesses said families, including children, set up tents and refused to be moved. "The police are not letting anyone through," one witness, Emma Gritt, said. "People are setting up tents. Police have blocked the bridge off."
A Scotland Yard spokeswoman said there had been no arrests. She confirmed Westminster Bridge had been closed. "There's loose containment," she said. "People can leave and join. Officers are negotiating to find out when it's going to end."
Hundreds of Tamil protesters are continuing their rally outside Parliament demanding the government acts to end war in Sri Lanka.
Minor scuffles broke out as police officers moved demonstrators, who had camped out overnight, off the road and into the centre of Parliament Square.
Rescue boats remain on standby amid fears demonstrators will jump en-masse from Westminster Bridge.
A man is in hospital after jumping into the Thames. No-one has been arrested.
Scenes from Parliament Square showed protesters boxed in by scores of police officers and police vehicles.
Some scuffles appeared to break out but until then police had described the atmosphere as peaceful.
A Metropolitan Police spokesman said the police were trying to minimise disruption to everybody else by moving the protesters off the roads and onto the green outside Parliament.
The BBC's Andy Moore said: "I saw women and children caught up in these scuffles and fights."
As the police moved in, one protester lifted a child on to his shoulders, he said.
The UN says 150,000 people are trapped in Sri Lanka's northern war zone while Tamils claim they are victims of human rights abuses.
Sri Lanka's government has rejected calls for a ceasefire with the Tamil Tiger rebel group, which wants independence.
These are people who have relatives and friends in Sri Lanka; people who have lost brothers and fathers and sisters Suren Surendiran British Tamils Forum In pictures: Tamils' London rally
The illegal protest has been going on outside the Palace of Westminster since 1600 BST (1500 GMT) on Monday. At its peak as many as 3,000 demonstrators had gathered in the shadow of Big Ben.
Police have closed Westminster Bridge and some surrounding roads causing major disruption to morning rush-hour traffic. Services at Westminster underground station have also been affected.
Participants failed to give notice of the demonstration and have been waving flags showing the emblem of the Tamil Tigers, which is banned in the UK as a terrorist organisation.
The BBC's Andy Moore said families had spent the night covered with sheets and blankets as children slept, despite the noise.
By about 0800 BST (0700 GMT), he said, it appeared protesters were beginning to leave, but shortly afterwards the police moved in.
Four RNLI lifeboats, supported by police and fire launches, remain at the scene after the Tamils had threatened to leap into the Thames.
Suren Surendiran, of the British Tamils Forum, said the protest had been led by students, but that people of all ages from across the UK had joined in.
"These are people who have relatives and friends in Sri Lanka; people who have lost brothers and fathers and sisters," he said.
"As British citizens, they want the UK government to act. Rather than just calling for a ceasefire, they should go to the UN security council to demand one."
Many of the protesters are carrying banners with slogans such as "Stop Sri Lanka's Genocide of Tamils", chanting or banging drums.
In recent weeks, the clashes between security forces and Tamil Tigers have intensified as the security forces enter what they say is a final push to defeat the rebels and end nearly three decades of conflict.
The United Nations says more than 2,800 civilians may have been killed and 7,000 others injured in the fighting in the north-east in the last two months. The Sri Lankan government disputes these figures.
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Tamil Protest London April 2009
'Starvation poised for worse killings than shelling' [TamilNet, Saturday, 18 April 2009, 17:42 GMT] While around 60 civilians killed Friday and Saturday by Sri Lanka Army (SLA) shelling, civilians have already started dying and many more thousands are at the verge of death due to starvation that is silently taking its toll within the so-called safety zone, TamilNet correspondent reported Saturday. The imminent victims are elderly, children and women. "Gruel has become the staple food to keep soul and body together for a vast majority of the civilians for weeks now. If there is no instant action, more starvation casualties can be expected in the next few days than the hitherto known total of casualties caused by shelling," warns TamilNet correspondent citing health and administrative officials staying inside the so-called safety zone.
An international diplomatic team including foreign minister David Miliband and his French and Swedish counterparts is to travel to Sri Lanka on Wednesday in an effort to secure at least a lull in the fierce fighting between government forces and the cornered Tamil Tigers.
A ceasefire declaration by the Tigers was yesterday rejected by the Sri Lanka government. It said fighting would continue until the rebels surrendered.
Miliband, working with France's Bernard Kouchner and Sweden's Carl Bildt, will attempt to address the danger to civilians trapped inside the conflict zone. Miliband said yesterday that he had "noted" the rebels' announcement of a unilateral ceasefire, adding: "I therefore urge the government of Sri Lanka to reinstate their own ceasefire, so that those civilians who remain trapped in the conflict zone can move to safety."
The government views the ceasefire as a "gimmick" and said fighting was continuing around the no-fire zone, where up to 150,000 civilians are believed to be trapped. The government disputes that figure. According to UN officials, there was no sign of the exodus of civilians from the no-fire zone that would be expected if the Tamil Tigers had stopped fighting.
Reports circulating among diplomats in the capital, Colombo, described a number of Sri Lankan air strikes yesterday on positions held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The Tamilnet website, which carries LTTE statements, claimed that air force fighter jets had bombed the area. A doctor in the no-fire zone, Thangamutha Sathiyamoorthy, said there had been nine air strikes on Mullivaikal area in the day, the first at 7.30am and the latest at 2.05pm.
Sathiyamoorthy said 154 civilians had been admitted to a temporary hospital at Mullivaikal with injuries sustained in air strikes, shelling and attacks by gunboats, and 15 had died. He said another 84 had been admitted yesterday and 14 had died. The government has accused Sathiyamoorthy of acting as a mouthpiece for the LTTE.
It is not possible to verify any of the reports because independent access to the area is denied by the government.
The ceasefire declaration came as Sri Lankan forces continued to close in on remaining rebels in a strip of coastline estimated to be no larger than 10 sq km. The military said 23 LTTE cadres had surrendered to advancing troops yesterday.
The LTTE said in a statement its unilateral offer came "in the face of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and in response to the calls made by the UN, EU, the governments of India and others".
Defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa described the offer as "a joke". He said: "They were not fighting with us, they were running from us. There is no need of a ceasefire. They must surrender. That is it." A military spokesman, Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, said the declaration would make no difference unless LTTE fighters laid down their weapons and allowed civilians to leave the area in which they were held. "When we come across the LTTE we will continue to engage them. As far as I am aware, the fighting continues," he said.
Nanayakkara said the LTTE took advantage of a previous ceasefire by the government: "They want to use a ceasefire to get some breathing space. We are not going to give in to the tricks of the LTTE."
A government spokesman dismissed the ceasefire as futile: "The endgame is very much on. This is just a gimmick."
UN officials reacted warily to the ceasefire declaration. "I don't think it means a lot unless it is agreed with the other party," one official said. Another described it as a "strategic ploy" to coincide with the arrival in Sri Lanka of the UN's top humanitarian official, John Holmes on Saturday hoping to persuade the government to open the war zone to aid groups, barred since fighting escalated in September. He was due to travel to Vavuniya today to inspect the camps where Tamil civilians have been interned after escaping the fighting.
The government said that close to 200,000 people were either in the camps it has set up outside the no-fire zone, or making their way from the combat area.
According to UN figures, at least 2,000 people died in the last month, although this figure does not include the latest fighting. On Friday, UN officials confirmed to the Guardian that the civilian death toll since 20 January was close to 6,500.
Yesterday, the LTTE denied a report in the Guardian that children as young as 12 were being given guns and forced to fight on the frontline. A UN spokesman, Gordon Weiss, had said those forcibly recruited included the 16-year-old daughter of a member of UN staff.
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