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Sri Lankan Tamils Wounds Are Not Healed, Another Prabhakaran Will Rise

Sri Lankan Tamils Wounds Are Not Healed, Another Prabhakaran Will Rise

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Published by Veeramani Mani

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Published by: Veeramani Mani on Mar 19, 2013
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Beware the Wounded tigers
conflict in Sri Lanka ended in 2009 at Puttamattallan, a beautiful stretch of beach in thenortheast. It left a community destroyed and a country further fractured. The three-decade conflictbetween successive governments and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) climaxed, trappingthousands of Tamil civilians between the Indian Ocean to the north and the Sri Lankan Army in all other directions. Within these bounds they were held captive by the LTTE, who were trying their best to prompta humanitarian crisis to compel the international community to intervene. The international communitystayed away, but the LTTE did succeed in inducing a humanitarian calamity.This was a battle that had been building momentum since independence in 1948 after the colonial Britishleft the island and the majority Sinhalese community took over the reins. With a revival of Buddhistnationalism, the Sinhala Only Act was passed in 1956, changing the official language from English toSinhala and alienating the Tamil minority from the civil services. The standardisation policies of the 1970sdisenfranchised Tamil youth from attending universities. A number of riots targeting Tamils in the 1970sand ’80s fuelled the fire for Tamil militancy to grow in the north and east in the ’70s. The Tamil youth feltalienated from the government and universities, believed that their cultural homeland of Jaffna wasoccupied by a xenophobic government and army that harassed them and violently squashed civilmovements against the State, and finally took to arms under many militancy movements. The LTTEdominated and emerged in 1976 as the sole outfit representing the Tamil struggle for an independentState, Tamil Eelam, led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, a charismatic youth from Jaffna. A continued battle was waged between the LTTE and successive governments from the 1970s. Therewere periods of ceasefire, periods of fierce battle in the north and east, periods of bombs and suicideattacks in the capital, Colombo, and around the country, and periods of external intervention such as theIndian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) between 1987-90 and the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreementbetween 2002-08. A new style of conflict took effect from 2007, and in the post- 9/11 climate, the democratically elected SriLankan government could wave the ‘War on Terrorflag and the world would turn a blind eye to humanrights abuses and alleged war crimes. The world wanted the LTTE finished — it would be one ‘terrorist’group done and dealt with. The LTTE had grown significantly through the Norwegian-brokered ceasefirefrom 2002 and had recently acquired an air fleet of nine Cessna planes that were conducting crudeattacks on Colombo. The South Asian countries were naturally unsettled by a rebel group with air power,no matter how rudimentary.The power of Sinhala nationalist and President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had been elected in November 2005, was bolstered by financial and military backing from China. With intelligence being fed to thegovernment from the newly defected commander of the LTTE Eastern Wing, Colonel Karuna, the stagewas set for a new form of counter-insurgency to wipe out the LTTE.The government waged a war in the eastern districts to destroy the small but significant pockets of LTTE-administered areas. This counter-insurgency went smoothly — in military terms — and wasfinished within a year, causing the displacement of more than 1.5 lakh civilians. The rebels’ grip wassignificantly weakened with Karuna’s defection, and the army rapidly and remorselessly finished the job.Civilians fled their homes in the jungle interiors of Ampara and Batticaloa districts and were cared for atInternally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps run by the UN and NGOs. At the time, this seemed like ahumanitarian disaster, and it was, but it was nothing compared to what was about to happen in the north. As the army enjoyed the victory over the LTTE in the east, the stage was being set for the far larger,more complicated and more dangerous job of destroying the LTTE stronghold in the Vanni, locatedsouth of Jaffna.
had been held by the LTTE since the 1990s and was functioning almost as an independentState. Since the LTTE’s creation in the mid-70s, they had built a vast international organisation thatincluded channels to collect money throughout the 1 million strong Tamil diaspora across more than 35countries. They had built solid connections throughout the international underworld of gun-running andweapons trade and had a flotilla of ships (registered mainly in Panama) that could transport arms fromaround the world to their headquarters in the Vanni. The LTTE had influential people in the financial worldwho could reinvest the money collected from the diaspora into property, stocks and shares, and gather more funds. The group was not just limited to the jungles of the Vanni, they were an organisation with aninfrastructure of which many corporate giants would be jealous.Tamil civilians in the Vanni were living under the iron grip of the LTTE. With almost every family having anactive member or martyr in the Vanni, the people were, voluntarily or not, embedded into the movementand the ideology of the LTTE. Unlike the army, the LTTE honoured their martyrs lavishly. Vast, military-likegraveyards were scattered across the Vanni, but these headstones were adorned with garlands of flowers and family members sat and wept next to their fallen loved ones. The tears that fell on theheadstones were a mix of grief and loss but also of pride and admiration for the sacrifice they had madeto help realise the dream of Tamil Eelam. Every November, MartyrsDay was celebrated and almost thewhole population of the Vanni would flock to the graveyards, listen to the broadcasted live speech byPrabhakaran and then wail and scream next to their fallen loved ones. The ceremonies were cult-like andentrenched in Tamil history and mythology of martyrdom and sacrifice.Generations had grown up in Jaffna and the Vanni knowing only the rule of the LTTE and lived under anincredibly welloiled propaganda machine. The Tamil diaspora was also deluged with propaganda; theLTTE media wing constantly fed the world with images and footage of well-shot and edited battlevictories. But the suffering and harassment of the community at the hands of the government and thearmy continued. The diaspora responded by stepping up funding to the movement, and lobbyinggovernments around the world to support the struggle for independence. This model continued to workand develop until 9/11. In the post-9/11 world, separatist movements that used suicide bombers, childsoldiers and targeted civilian areas were seen in a different light. The conflict suddenly became black andwhite as the War on Terror grew and the LTTE became proscribed as a terrorist movement around theworld.The civilians in the Vanni lived a subsistence life. It was the poorest and least developed district in SriLanka. The families were small-scale fishermen, paddy farmers and cattle herders. There was little or noindustry to speak of and a large percentage of the population lived off aid handouts from the UN andNGOs and subsidised income from family members within the international diaspora. Life was hard andalmost everyone had been affected by prolonged war, being repeatedly displaced and living in camps fosometime. But it was a well-knit community and it was peaceful. Children walked hand-in-hand to schoolalong sandy tracks through the jungle. The schools were often temporary structures and were pock-marked with bullet holes from previous battles, but they functioned well and gave good education.Women and men worked together in the fields and on the beaches fishing and leading a superficiallyidyllic life, which one can still see played out in parts of rural Tamil Nadu.The LTTE practised a strong feminist ideology, partly to further attract women to the movement. Theyabolished the dowry system and women were free to work and secure to move around, even after dark. Although separated in training practices and barracks, women did exactly the same training and foughtside by side their male counterparts. Many women who had lost their families through the war or sufferedsexual violence at the hands of the army or the IPKF in the 1990s voluntarily signed up for the infamousBlack Tiger regiment (the suicide teams). These women were strong, focussed and determined butdeeply psychologically disturbed and vengeful. Many female Black Tigers had lost everything to theenemy and were therefore perfect suicide bombers.
battles in the east were being waged, in late 2007, a new front opened in the Forward DefenceLines between government-held Jaffna and the LTTE-held Vanni. For months afterwards, a constantbarrage of artillery shells was launched back and forth between the army and the LTTE, neither sidemaking any advances but flexing muscles continually. The civilian settlements in the affected areas alongthe coast were displaced and they once again lived under trees and in temporary shelters. As the conflict
in the east drew to a close with a decisive victory for the army, the focus shifted to the Vanni.The army began a prolonged pincer movement from the southeast, southwest and northern borders othe Vanni. A continuous barrage of artillery and air strikes fell into the rural villages along the borders.Villagers fled en masse, moving closer and closer to the centre of the Vanni: Kilinochchi, the LTTEadministrative capital. Schools closed, farmers abandoned their fields and cattle, and families packed uptheir belongings and fled the shelling, a few kilometres at a time. But the shelling caught up with themtime and again. By the time the 2 lakh people got close to Kilinochchi in September 2008, they haddisplaced multiple times. They were tired and disoriented but continued to have complete faith that thiswas just another conflict between the LTTE and the army and it would soon be over and they wouldreturn home.The government ordered the UN and NGOs to leave the Vanni in September 2008, stating that they couldno longer guarantee their security. The UN and the international community put minimal pressure on thegovernment and removed themselves from the Vanni. Tamil civilians came and pleaded outside the UNcompounds not to leave. They understood that without an international witness, atrocities would occur,but they didn’t realise to what extent.This was the beginning of a new form of counter-insurgency: remove humanitarian aid and human rightsmonitoring, do not allow any journalist (apart from government journalists) into the battle theatre, regardall pleas for help and images from the battlefield that leak out as terrorist propaganda. With that stageset, the government spent the next six months destroying the Vanni, the LTTE and the civilians.Flying the flag of a ‘rescue mission’ from the clutches of terrorism, the government told the internationalcommunity that there were zero civilian casualties. They underplayed the number of civilians trapped inthe battle zone by ludicrous proportions, refusing to allow humanitarian assistance, food and medicinesinto the Vanni. They set up No-Fire Zones (NFZs) where the civilians could supposedly congregatesafely as they fought the LTTE. However, the NFZs became the target of the majority of the attacks.Hospitals that were set up in the zones were targeted, food distribution lines in the NFZs were shelledand the number of civilian casualties and dead piled up on a mammoth scale.The UN and the international community knew what was happening — the war was being monitored bysatellites. But this wasn’t Libya with oil reserves and strategic influence. This was just Sri Lanka withcoconuts and nice beaches. Statements circulated within the diplomatic communities stated how terriblethe situation was but a terrible consensus held firm — that the job of finishing the Tigers should becompleted, that ‘collateral damage’ was inevitable and this should all be over quickly. The Sri Lankangovernment blatantly lied to the heads of missions with manipulated numbers of civilians within the battlezone and the number of casualties. On 18 May 2009, the war finished with the death of the LTTEleadership who were gunned down whilst surrendering to the army and the trapped civilians finally fledacross the lagoon into the hands of the armyThose last gory days saw so much blood spilt on a once-pristine piece of coastline. The army dealt withthe LTTE in the jungles and away from the UN, human rights monitors and the international media.Female combatants were raped and murdered. Male combatants were tortured and killed. Two years later,images taken by the army as trophy videos and photographs began to emerge — again brushed off bythe government merely as LTTE-manipulated images and propaganda.The exhausted, traumatised and fragmented Tamil community was housed in Manik Farm, which becamethe world’s largest IDP camp overnight. Again, the UN and international organisations were not allowedfull access to the camps and further atrocities, sexual violence and disappearances were commonplace. A victorious Rajapaksa had huge billboards of himself installed all over the country, especially in thenorth, around Manik Farm: the saviour of Sri Lanka, the destroyer of terrorism, a model of counter-insurgency for the world to admire. And the world did admire the operation with the UN congratulating thegovernment on a successful end to a terrorist group.The Tamil civilians who survived were held for nearly a year in appalling conditions. Many paid off SriLankan soldiers or the police who facilitated their escape to Colombo, Chennai, Europe or Canada —

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