What matters in Sri Lanka
April 29, 2009
As the 26-year war in Sri Lanka nears its end,
every busybody in the world is urging the Sri Lankan government to stop.
Spare the poor civilians
trapped in the combat zone, declare a ceasefire, it’s time to
negotiate, they all implore. Even the U.S. government has now joined the
Last weekend, the White House said that it was “deeply concerned
about the plight of innocent civilians caught up in the conflict between
the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers and the mounting death
The Government is right when they called the unilateral
ceasefire declared by the LTTE a joke and continued its
offensive. More than 70000 people have died in the Sri
It called on both sides to “stop fighting immediately and allow
civilians to safely leave the combat zone.”
The Tigers immediately declared a unilateral ceasefire, while the Sri
Lankan government called it a “joke” and continued its final offensive.
But the government is right. More than 70,000 people have died in the
Sri Lankan war. Some hundreds of civilians, or maybe even a few
thousand, will be killed in this last battle, but that’s far fewer than
would die if the war continued for years more.
Every time the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were granted a
ceasefire in the past, they used the breathing space to rearm, and then
relaunched their struggle for independence. So no more ceasefires; just
get it over with.
Besides, the civilians in the combat zone, all Tamils themselves,
were not just “caught up in the conflict” between the Sri Lankan
government and the Tamil Tigers. As the rebels lost control of most of
northern Sri Lanka over the past two years, they forced tens of
thousands of Tamil civilians from their homes and made them join the
If the civilians tried to escape the ever-dwindling territory
controlled by the Tigers, they were killed. They are hostages, held
prisoner in order to hinder the government’s use of heavy weapons
against the Tigers’ defences. In a just universe, all the mealy-mouthed
diplomatic formulas that omit that fundamental fact would earn eternal
damnation for those who utter them.
Even when the Sri Lankan army managed to breach the Tigers’ defences
last week and tens of thousands of the hostages escaped, the Tigers sent
along suicide bombers among the streams of refugees to punish them for
their “treachery”. Next to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, the Tamil Tigers are
probably the worst bunch of ultra-nationalist extremists that Asia has
seen in the past half-century.
They do, however, have an effective propaganda service, and command
wide support among the large Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. Not all of this
is voluntary: one Tamil-Canadian in Toronto explained to me how he
always avoided filling stations run by Tamils in order to avoid being
indentified and “taxed” by the Tigers, with unpleasant consequences for
his relatives back in Sri Lanka if he failed to pay up.
However, since there are many more Tamils than other Sri Lankan
immigrants in most Western countries, their governments tend to take the
course of least resistance, which in the current context is to back the
Tamil Tigers’ pleas for a ceasefire. Calling for a ceasefire always
sounds good, and the Western governments don’t have to live with the
If the sanctimonious foreigners really wanted to make themselves
useful, they would stop calling for a ceasefire and instead demand full
civil rights for the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka after the war,
including broad autonomy in the areas where they are the local majority.
It was the brutal suppression of Tamil rights in the decades after
independence, extending even to pogroms against Tamils by the majority
Sinhalese population, that caused this war. It will eventually cause
another if it is not ended.
If the foreigners really want to make themselves useful, they should
stop grand-standing about the civilians trapped in the Tigers’ remaining
territory, which is now down to about 12 sq. km. Instead, they should
push the Sri Lankan government to create a post-war dispensation that
makes Tamils happy to be Sri Lankans.
As a start, all the Tamil civilians who have escaped from the Tigers
should be freed from the detention camps where they are now being held
within the next few weeks. Keeping them for the planned year or more is