Even here at MIT, with so many students and faculty interested in finding solutions to the great problems of our world, very few have knowledge of the humanitarian catastrophe currently unfolding on the island of Sri Lanka.
In fact, Asia’s longest running civil war is hardly known in most parts of the world. Western attention has been manifestly disproportionate to the loss of more than 70,000 lives during 25 years of fighting between the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Government of Sri Lanka. Even with the beginning of 2009 marking the height of the war with hundreds of Tamil civilians dead and hundreds of thousands internally displaced, the world remains silent.
The minority Tamils — both civilian and LTTE — have their dedicated, but limited, voice and support.
Since late January, the global Tamil diaspora have held countless protests in the form of hunger strikes, human chains, and mass gatherings. On January 29, more than 10,000 French Tamils demonstrated in Paris protesting the killings and urging foreign nations to stop military aid to the Sri Lankan Government. Over the next few days, 45,000 Canadian Tamils and 100,000 British Tamils gathered to express solidarity and to plead that the international community deliver aid, recognize the LTTE, and encourage a ceasefire. Well into February, the call for immediate international intervention remains unheeded.
The Tamil diaspora started forming soon after Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948 and Tamils, as the ethnic minority, became relegated to second class citizenry. By the 1970s, the LTTE had formed and began its guerilla movement against the government — made of the Sinhalese ethnic majority — to reclaim the Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island.
With increased fighting between the forces, the 1980s saw a large number of Tamil refugees — including my family and I — immigrate to India, Europe, and North America. Even as the country constantly collapsed into periods of turmoil, no one could have expected the crises to unfold into what they have become within the last month. In December, the New York-based Genocide Prevention Project listed Sri Lanka on the top eight “red-alert” countries experiencing or at of risk of genocide.
Adopting and re-enforcing the “war on terror” doctrine in early 2008, the Sri Lankan Government officially withdrew from the Norwegian-led 2002 ceasefire and began an expanded military campaign to eliminate the LTTE at all costs, including risking the safety of a massive civilian population that over the past decade has been integrated into the civil society built and governed by the LTTE.
The town of Kilinochchi, the civic pride of the LTTE, was captured in early January by the Sri Lankan Army and is now desolate, with the vast majority of its people displaced within a shrinking patch of jungle. The International Committee of the Red Cross declared a major humanitarian crisis with over 250,000 civilians caught in the midst of an increasingly unstable war zone with little or no foreign aid allowed to reach them.
The plight of the trapped Tamils is expounded across the sea in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Since late January, the state’s students have carried out an entire series of demonstrations in desperate bids to draw attention to Sri Lanka’s war, calling on India to negotiate an immediate ceasefire. On January 29th, a Tamil Nadu journalist burned himself to death after writing a statement condemning Indian inaction and military support to the Sri Lankan Government. His death triggered an 8 km long funeral procession and increased protests supporting the Tamil cause.
Nothing can easily be done. Sri Lanka has very little geo-political importance in the world, and the government stands convinced of its military campaign and strategy for success with regards to the ethnic conflict.
In early February, Sri Lanka’s Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa warned that all foreign agencies “will be chased away [if they try] to give a second wind to the LTTE terrorists at a time the security forces, at heavy cost, are dealing them the final death blow.”
In regards to media access during the civil war’s most violent moment, the Sri Lankan government is sticking to its words against international diplomacy. All independent journalists are banned from the Vanni region in the northeast — the epicenter of the atrocities.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay announced that the conflict had reached a “critical” stage, noting that ‘while the government has made military gains on one hand, the rule of law has been undermined on the other.”
More than twenty years ago, well before today’s escalated violation of Tamil civilian rights, my mother foresaw the lack of opportunity and danger that awaited her Tamil children if they remained in Sri Lanka; she took us out of the country to claim new identity as Canadians — in Canada we were no longer Sri Lankans. For the Tamil civilians that stayed behind, life became increasingly difficult with tens of thousands of extrajudicial killings and disappearances orchestrated by the Sri Lankan government.
Today, the LTTE continues its justified fight for Tamil Eelam — a sovereign Tamil state with an identity distinct from that of the Sri Lankan state. The Sri Lankan government’s military campaign has degraded Tamil Eelam into a less than 300 square-kilometer patch of jungle, dismantling its civic identity and territorial autonomy; repetitive bombings of hospitals and civilian areas by the Sri Lankan Army continue to this hour.
The situation is even more dire because the Sri Lankan Army — whose every member is Singhalese — has ethnic motivations behind its use of violence. The Sri Lankan government’s strategic labeling of the LTTE as a terrorist organization — re-coding the ethnic conflict as one of a legitimate state against a criminal actor — has only served to undermine long-term peace and diplomacy both on the island and abroad.
Communication between Velupillai Pirapaharan, the leader of the LTTE, and Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa is non-existent today. Sri Lanka’s problem is no longer an internal conflict — it can only be solved through a change in policy and the voice of the international community. It is not inability, but unwillingness, that prevents the UN, the Unites States, and other nations to immediately bring the war to an end, supporting Tamil statehood as the only solution.
Jegan Vincent de Paul is a graduate student in the School of Architecture and Planning.