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26 May 2009 17:45
History is littered with the ruined reputations of leaders who won a great military victory only to squander it by self-congratulation and stupidity.
Whether Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapakse, joins them is yet to be seen.
There must be relief that the worst suffering of the quarter of a million Tamils trapped on the island’s northern beaches is over.
Cowering under government artillery fire, and shot by Tamil Tiger troops if they tried to flee, they have lived for four months in infinitely worse conditions than the people of Gaza during Israel’s invasion in December.
Palestinians were at least in their own homes, with supplies of food and water, however inadequate. The shelterless masses huddled along the lagoons and sand banks of the Mullaitivu coastline had nothing except terror, grief and the sight and sound of the dying.
The priority now is to ensure that the camps that the government has set up for the surviving refugees are properly stocked with food and medicine.
Rajapakse has described the last stages of the campaign as an “unprecedented humanitarian operation”—a euphemism for war that is hard to beat.
But if he wants to ensure he is really “rescuing hostages”, as his officials claim, he must provide facilities that respect their dignity.
If these are transit camps to help people recover while they trace missing relatives and gather strength, well and good. But if they become concentration camps, it is another story.
Government officials are ominously saying it will take a long time for people to be “re-educated” after years of relentless Tiger propaganda.
Why can’t refugees be allowed to go back to the villages they fled when the army offensive began last year? The Tigers’s leaders are dead and have no more sway over them. No one has taken the Tamils’ land or settled on it, as often happens in civil wars.
Those who wish to go home should be permitted to do so at once.
Senior officials have told John Holmes, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, that they hope 80% of the displaced can leave the camps by the end of this year. Foreign donor governments must hold Rajapakse to that pledge.
They should also insist that the camps are quickly transferred from military to civilian control with unfettered access by UN humanitarian agencies and aid organisations.
The Sri Lankan government is asking for international help. The donor community should be tough in its response. India, in particular, has a powerful role to play.
Along with other foreign governments it must make aid strictly conditional on a clear vision of the Sri Lankan authorities’ intentions towards the Tamils. Is it planning to send Sinhalese settlers into the Tamil homeland to “dilute the Tamil threat”? Will it pepper the area with army camps and checkpoints, like the occupied West Bank?
Above all, what political changes will the government make? It is 22 years since Sri Lanka’s Constitution was amended to devolve power to the provinces. The Tamil Tigers’ war gained popular support and lasted for so long in part because Sinhalese-dominated governments in Colombo never implemented that reform.
Rajapakse’s recent record in the east is not encouraging. Since defeating the Tigers there two years ago, central government has continued to take most decisions while failing to flood the area with the development aid it needs.
Worse, it has allowed two dissident Tiger commanders who joined the government side to carry on gang warfare.
If the fruits of peace in the east are so meagre it will require a major culture shift in Colombo to improve on them now that the Tigers have lost their heartland in the north.
Successive Colombo governments have failed to address the Tamils’ legitimate complaints. To write the Tigers off as terrorists or see the war against them as “just” distorts the facts.
While resorting to frequent acts of terror against civilians, and assassinating politicians, they twice fought the government army to a standstill in conventional war because they had a case which chimed with many Tamils.
If Rajapakse treats them as a conquered enemy, herding them into camps and splitting up and occupying their land, he will sow the seeds for new militancy.—Guardian News & Media 2009
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