Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sri Lankan Tigers take to the jungle

Sri Lanka is reaching an endgame in the conventional stage of the war between the central government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). After a campaign of several months, the Tigers were pushed out of their last remaining urban stronghold when the garrison town of Mullaitivu fell on Sunday. The loss of Mullaitivu was significant as it means the LTTE lost their use of heavy artillery and rebel forces retreated to the jungle after the fall of the town. But Colombo has not been able to bomb the idea of Tamil independence into submission. The cornered Tigers remain dangerous opponents and are likely to resort back to guerrilla tactics and asymmetric warfare.

Nonetheless, January has been a good month from the government’s perspective. The capture of the town of Kilinochchi followed by the fall of the Elephant Pass earlier this month were two devastating blows to the LTTE. The pass is the strategic causeway linking the northern Jaffna peninsula with the mainland. The BBC called its capture “arguably one of the military's greatest successes over the past two decades of war.”

Army chief Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka touted the official line that a victory for the army would mean that “the end of terrorism is near”. He also expressed confidence that “95% of the work” had been done in clearing the Tigers from the north of the island. But not only does his statement conveniently overlook his own side’s terrorism, it also fails to consider that the final five percent may not be as easy to win. Al Jazeera's Colombo correspondent Tony Birtley believes the Tigers will be familiar with the terrain having started out in the jungle 25 years ago. “It's going to be a much harder job to clear them out than it was out of Mullaitivu town,” he said today.

And on Monday, a Tigers’ spokesman B Nadesan told the BBC the rebels would fight on. The spokesman also denied local rumours that their chief military officer Velupillai Prabhakaran had fled the country. Nadesan explained that despite recent reverses the war will not be ending any time soon. “We took up arms to safeguard our people,” he said. “We need a guarantee of living with freedom and dignity and sovereignty... until that, we will not come to that point."

That point seems as far away as ever. Meanwhile there seems no end to the casualties coming out of this long and brutal war. At least 67 civilians have been killed in the latest fighting this week. 30 people were killed on Thursday when soldiers shelled a village and makeshift hospital. The village lies in a supposed "safe zone" demarcated by the military to allow civilians behind Tiger lines to take shelter and avoid getting caught in the crossfire. Another 37 civilians died in the fighting that took place on the road to Mullaitivu. Aid agencies say that another quarter of a million people are sandwiched between the two opposing armies.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon issued a press release today which expressed his fears for civilians caught in the crossfire. He called on the government and the LTTE to give priority to the protection of civilians and humanitarian aid workers in the area. He said both sides must ensure all people are treated in accordance with international humanitarian law. He called for respect of “no fire zones,” “safe areas,” and civilian infrastructure and also expressed concern about attacks on members of the media and urges all parties to demonstrate respect for the freedom of the press.

There have been three attacks on the media this month. The most well known media victim of the violence is the Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge who was murdered by unknown assailants three weeks ago. Wickrematunge was a harsh critic of the government’s push to destroy the Tamil rebel movement and said it was merely an excuse to cement the power of hardline Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is extremely likely that Rajapaksa authorised Wickrematunge’s death to remove an inconvenient voice of moderation. In his final, remarkable editorial published after his death, Wickrematunge issued a plague on both sides’ houses. He offered a third way that, in the end, is the only hope of peace in Sri Lanka:
Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united.

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