|The most civilized counter-terrorism offensive in the world|
|Tuesday, 02 December 2008|
The last few weeks have seen a great burst of criticism of the Sri Lankan government, orchestrated by the LTTE and its surrogates in East and West, led in the West by the usual suspects. The main thrust of this criticism is to hold the Government back in the current offensive it is conducting against the LTTE.
What amounts to the Western auxiliary force of the LTTE launched a two pronged attack in the last couple of weeks. Human Rights Watch, which is notorious for raising issues about its favoured victims whenever it needs to draw attention away from the abuses of those by whose largesse it lives, concentrated this time on the East. In doing so, it gave the game away completely, for it managed to deal with problems without once suggesting that the LTTE might be responsible for some of them.
If not for the context, this might even have been entertaining. The Government is well aware that the situation in the East has got worse in the last month or so, and has had elsewhere to face local anti-government forces being almost triumphalist about what they see as an LTTE resurgence. These critics seemed almost delighted that the Government claim to have cleared the East was being falsified by a spate of attacks, by what seem to have been sleeping LTTE cadres, on TMVP forces.
All this is worrying, but it is precisely because the Government knew the potential of the LTTE that it stood fast against the demands of these triumphalists that the TMVP be disarmed. The Government was not going to allow a repeat of what happened in the period immediately after the Ceasefire Agreement when what were termed paramilitaries (i.e. all Tamils apart from the LTTE) were disarmed, only to be decimated by the Tigers. At the same time, it made it clear that weapons should be used only for defensive purposes, and should not be seen in public, leading it may be remembered to the famous claim by the critical groupies who wanted the election in the East cancelled that ‘Though weapons are currently only visible in Batticaloa in the hands of the military, there is a deep, widely held conviction that armed groups have not permanently disarmed but only put their weapons out of sight for the moment’. Precisely.
LTTE despair and the potential for escalating violence
Unfortunately, though for some time the threat from the LTTE seemed under control, it has emerged again, which is why the Government had to engage in a thorough search operation this week. The explanation for this resurgence is not clear, but it may well have something to do with the desperation the LTTE feels about the situation in the North. Only desperation can explain its murder of a doctor, since previously the LTTE had not disrupted the free medical services that the Government has continued to supply to all its citizens, including those in areas under LTTE control.
Apart from the basic need to provide security, another reason the Government must act swiftly to control this latest outbreak is the reactions to which it must give rise. Earlier, in responding to HRW’s last glossy publication on Sri Lanka, a volume that made the usual claim about Sri Lanka being the worst (or second worst or third worst or whatever) place in the world for disappearances in 2006 and 2007, I pointed out that the previous year they had claimed that we were the worst in the world for 2006. As it happened, their glossy publication, with 97 or so full colour illustrations, had only 3 examples of incidents over the previous 12 months.
This was proof of the fact that the situation had got better in 2007. But 2006 we knew was bad, which was why indeed we sought to engage with the UN Special Rapporteur on the subject. One reason was that, given the brutal treatment meted out to other Tamil groups in the period between 2002 and 2005, these groups reacted forcefully when the LTTE was weakened. This was understandable, though not to be condoned, and the Government deserves full credit for improving the situation. However, if the LTTE seems to be presenting a serious threat again, there will be reactions based on fear and suspicion. It is precisely to stop these that the Government must act now to bring back the confidence that it had managed to instil in the previous year and a half.
Ignoring LTTE violence
Human Rights Watch, however, works in a vacuum, and this time even the lip service it paid previously to noting LTTE excesses is lacking. Its latest release assumes that everything is the responsibility of the TMVP, backed it suggests by the Government, even though it does record that there are clashes between two groups within the TMVP. There is no mention at all of TMVP victims of LTTE terrorism.
But this is par for the course. All the critics who shouted about the election conveniently forgot that the only candidates who were murdered were from the TMVP. Such myopia is of course convenient, reminiscent of the self-appointed expert on Sri Lankan elections in the European Commission who claimed that he had good information to the effect that elections in the East would be flawed. While not revealing his sources, he asserted that the European Union monitors had declared that the elections in 2004 were flawed – what he ignored was that it was precisely those who had benefited from those flaws (and the murder of supporters of the TMVP who had popular support) who were raising the most strident objections against this year’s elections.
Amnesty, with HRW reinforcements, attacks Government in the North
But people believe what they want to believe. Thus Amnesty International, in attacking on the Northern flank, reinforced now by a recruit from HRW, called Sam Zafiri (to replace Yolanda Foster, whose ties to known LTTE sympathizers such as Peter Bowling were too conspicuous), decided to enlist additional troops in the form of a gentleman called Benjamin Dix, who seems to have grown far too fond of the LTTE during a long stint in this country. First he had worked for a couple of years as Manager of Solidar’s Tsunami Education Project, and then, doubtless with suitable references, had moved to UNOPS. Sent back in September, he had ignored his obligations and run round Geneva with the normally much more discreet Amnesty Representative there, doing show and tell performances to what Amnesty hopes are European diplomats avid to censure Sri Lanka. Thankfully, the UN here has called a halt to all that, but the damage has been done, with Amnesty now joining the ranks of those who seem to believe a little bit of impropriety does not matter so long as you achieve your goals.
With Sam Zafiri there with his HRW background, Amnesty too seems to have decided that sleight of hand is acceptable in the pursuit of what it doubtless thinks of as ideals. In his latest effusion, he claims that, in the areas under LTTE control (though he does grant that this is because the LTTE will not let them leave), nearly a quarter of a million people ‘are now living without adequate shelter; some in schools and administrative buildings, but tens of thousands more in open fields, under makeshift shelters built from rice sacks and reeds. Food supplies are short, sanitation is poor, and there is a real risk of disease. And the monsoon season is just about to kick in.’
This is just nonsense. The latest UNHCR figures, for the end of October, say that just 19,000 are in Welfare Centres or Temporary Accommodation, the rest are with friends or relatives. This includes those living in compounds, but that is a far cry from the open fields and shelters built of rice sacks and reeds. Zafiri has evidently lived too long away from the tropics to remember that cadjan, thatch made from palms rather than the bulrushes that the very Western word ‘reeds’ evokes, is common in villages throughout the country, and considered extremely effective as shelter.
Again, Zafiri claims that ‘the government is blocking aid workers from taking sufficient aid into the region…. the Indian government has promised food aid but it can't be distributed as the situation currently stands’. This is nonsense. The Government has ensured regular convoys, and has worked together with the Indian government and the ICRC about the generous supplies from India, which were ready to go last week. It was only inclement weather that delayed the convoy, but Mr Zafiri tries to create the impression that problems are insuperable. And when problems do not exist, he has to predict them, apparently unaware that the parrot cry ‘real risk of disease’ has been heard constantly – in particular in Amnesty statements - for the last few months, but has not become reality because of the excellence of the Sri Lankan Health Service.
Why all this deceit? What is his current goal? Most obviously it is to assert that the Government is not capable of looking after civilians in the North, and to claim that these poor civilians can only be properly cared for if foreign NGOs were there. It was no coincidence then that they called in Mr Dix for this purpose, since in Sri Lanka it was the Head of Solidar who was leading the charge in this regard. His claim was that they had to satisfy their donors that the civilians were benefiting from the aid that was being sent in, i.e. that the LTTE was not creaming it all off. But the assumption that, so as to justify what might be termed their own creaming off, the NGOs would do anything about this is patently nonsense, given that over the last several years there was no squeak from them about LTTE abuses, whether it was enforced recruitment, whether it was using much of the supplies the Government sent in, whether it was forcing people to dig bunkers, whether it was using NGO equipment to construct massive defensive fortifications. Characteristically, it seems that one of the documents Mr Dix was showing was an LTTE order to the poor suffering citizens to get in there and start digging.
There was no record of that in the Amnesty diatribes. Unlike HRW, Amnesty did pay its usual lip service to mentioning some LTTE misbehaviour, but the general thrust of its releases, and of its theatre in Geneva, was to precipitate a halt to the offensives now being conducted by the Sri Lankan forces. In short, Amnesty was doing in Europe what Vaiko had tried in India. Fortunately, India was not so gullible, and it is to be hoped that the European diplomats, besieged now by petitions to stop GSP+, to stop the offensive, to stop all aid, will also realize that providing a lifeline now to terror will make a mockery of all other efforts in this field.
Ignoring Sri Lanka’s positive achievements
For the fact is, Sri Lanka provides a remarkable example of a country that, faced a couple of years back with what seemed an intransigent and invulnerable terrorist force, has managed to destroy much of its capability. It has done this despite much pressure from those who saw appeasement and the handing over of a vast territory to an authoritarian regime as the only way out. It has developed its own strategy and, though it must be grateful to those who assisted in this regard, including several Western countries, it has had to face not just relentless criticism from political opponents but also financial and other support from international donors to such critics.
And none of this has been accompanied by praise for the extraordinary positive achievements of the Government in the course of the struggle. Nothing is said about the fact that it has continued to provide social services of a higher quality than most countries at similar economic levels have even to those of its citizens in areas under the control of terrorist forces. Nothing is said about the maintenance of public services throughout those areas, the continuing supply of food and other essentials for commerce, the provision of relief as requested in the event of any emergency. Nothing is said about the provision of massive amounts of free food for vastly inflated IDP figures.
The civilized conduct of operations
More remarkably, nothing is said about the scrupulous care with regard to civilians exercised by the armed forces in the course of operations. This is perhaps understandable. Given the extraordinarily high rate of civilian casualties in all other theatres of operation, whether it be Iraq or Afghanistan or Palestine now, whether it be Vietnam or Malaysia when communists were the enemy, whether it be Dresden or Hiroshima when all sorts of excuses were used to justify deliberate disproportionate targeting of civilians, it would be impossible for the usual suspects to draw attention to the extreme care exercised by the Sri Lankan forces. Instead it is left to agencies like Human Rights Watch to categorically assert, without any evidence, that Sri Lanka is fighting a dirty war with indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
No other country would have bothered about being so careful. No other country would so carefully monitor any allegation, in the websites of the enemy, about civilian casualties and seek explanations. But this has been worthwhile, for it is apparent that, even according to LTTE claims, civilian casualties have been minimal. What other air force could have launched 400 strikes, with allegations of civilian casualties being confined to under 20? Where else would an entire province have been liberated with not a single casualty in the course of operations – except in the Kathiravelli incident in which, even according to the HRW account, there were LTTE cadres moving around with weapons, and bunkers, which we now know from Mr Dix the LTTE had no qualms about ordering citizens to dig.
Equally, where else has there been so much care about ensuring essentials for civilians (and inevitably for the LTTE forces too) even while operations are going on? For years now the Commissioner General of Essential Services has ensured food and other supplies, not only to LTTE controlled territory but also to Jaffna, despite several LTTE attempts to cripple transportation services. Except when there were actual LTTE assaults on vessels, prices in Jaffna have been affordable, in the Vanni they were always affordable.
Meanwhile handouts for the Displaced have continued at levels that sometimes amount to more than the possible population for the relevant Districts. While these have been assisted by the UN, benefiting from massive generosity from bilateral donors such as the Japanese government, the logistics have been the responsibility of the Sri Lankan government and its agents in the field. The arrangements have generally been satisfactory, despite prophets of doom – most marked in the predictions of epidemics that we have read each month from July on, epidemics that have been averted by the superb services the Ministry of Health continues to supply despite all difficulties, including the latest attempt to intimidate medical staff.
Encouraging positive measures
All this does not mean there have not been problems. With hostilities continuing, with the monsoon season on, there have been plenty of problems. But the single-minded commitment to all its citizens which has been evinced by the Government and its agents, those in Colombo as well as in the field, is surely unparalleled elsewhere in the world in the context of the struggle against terror.
The failure of the world at large to appreciate all this is striking. Perhaps it is due to a fear that appreciation of governmental efforts will lead to triumphalism, and that the destruction of the LTTE will be accompanied by neglect of minorities. That certainly is the line being pushed by Sri Lankan opponents of the government, and perhaps their eloquence has convinced the so called international community. But logic surely would suggest that a democratically elected government that has done so much for all its citizens thus far will continue on the same lines. At the very least, if elections are to be held – and the commitment of this government to elections has never been in doubt – it will want the support of the newly liberated in the North as well. And for the prosperity that is essential if peace is to be sustained, there must be an even more widespread development of opportunities than now.
In such a context, it would be a pity if the hatred and envy of those who cannot believe that this government has achieved what others could not is allowed to dictate international policy. Finally, given the appalling attacks on Tamils that precipitated this cycle of violence, there seems an opportunity for a democratic pluralistic dispensation to emerge throughout the country. The Government has shown its willingness to behave with admirable decency in the areas where people have been victimized for too long by terrorism. This should be recognized and encouraged, instead of reliance on threats and criticism to achieve positive goals for all our citizenry.
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process
|Last Updated ( Thursday, 23 July 2009 )|
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