The Tigers' Last Days
By Jyoti Thottam / Sri Lanka
In tiny blue chairs set up in rows, a group of young children begin their lessons at a makeshift preschool in northern Sri Lanka. They listen to stories, learn their colors, giggle, fidget and cry. The children are among thousands of Tamils who have fled their homes in the past 12 months, as the Sri Lankan army has surged toward the end of a 25-year war against an armed separatist movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Government officials and the aid agencies that help maintain the camp where these children live call them "internally displaced persons" (IDPs).
Their parents call them prisoners.
"We ask, but they don't release us," says a resident of this camp, in the Mannar district on the northwest coast. His family left their home by boat, only to be intercepted by the Sri Lankan navy and then handed over to the army, which brought them to one of several "welfare centers" set up to house Tamils fleeing the Vanni, the jungle areas at the heart of Tiger territory. "We were told, 'Two or three months, and then you can go,'" he says. "But now it's almost one year." There are about 450 people in this camp, including 39 children under the age of 5. The families live in shelters made of palmyra thatch and corrugated iron, while single folk make do with tents. They are kept behind barbed wire near a road lined with baobab trees and bunkers and are under the constant guard of soldiers. "They are suspected because they come from the Vanni," says an aid official. "They could be LTTE."
The Politics of Refugees
Sri Lanka's civil war began in July 1983, when more than 1,000 Tamils were killed in Colombo after a Tiger ambush of 13 army soldiers--though the LTTE's grievances go back much further, to what it says were decades of discrimination against ethnic Tamils, who are mainly Hindu or Christian, by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. Few families in the island nation have been untouched by the violence--more than 70,000 people have died since the war began--yet Sri Lanka has managed to preserve its stunning beaches and lush hills, as well as a cosmopolitan outlook dating back to its history as a stop along the Spice Route.
In the past few weeks, hundreds of civilians have been killed in the fighting, according to the Red Cross, during an assault by the army, which is determined to finish off the Tigers once and for all. An estimated 250,000 civilians are still trapped inside a rapidly shrinking war zone--the last remaining 40 sq. mi. (103 sq km) held by the Tigers--and the army is preparing to expand the camps to house them. The Defense Ministry says more than 6,000 new IDPs crossed into army-held territory in just a few days in mid-February.
Journalists are not officially permitted into the camps, but TIME obtained firsthand information about them from organizations alarmed by the internment of civilians, a practice that violates internationally accepted conventions on the rules of war. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Human Rights Watch and several other local and international groups have been pushing Sri Lankan authorities for months to open up access. On Jan. 10, the Sri Lankan government instead turned several of the camps into "high-security zones," off limits to everyone except the U.N. and the Red Cross. A recently disclosed proposal to set up "welfare villages" where up to 200,000 IDPs could be kept for as long as three years was condemned by human-rights groups and opposition leaders; but this kind of treatment is a reality for the 13,000 people already in the camps. A Jan. 21 memo by UNHCR states that the restrictions on movement in these camps do not meet humanitarian standards, so the agency is trying to negotiate with the government to improve conditions. Neither the U.N. nor other groups want to help run the internment camps, but they feel they have little choice. "It's a service that has to be done," says a humanitarian official. "If we don't do it, then the people suffer."
They are already suffering; the long war has seen to that. "When the dust settles, we may see countless victims and a terrible humanitarian situation," says Jacques de Maio, head of Red Cross operations for South Asia. Hospitals, ambulances and even the so-called safe zones set up so civilians can escape the fighting have been hit. The government insists that it is doing everything possible to protect civilians and blames the LTTE for using civilians as human shields. But international observers are worried. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a joint statement Feb. 3 with the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, expressing "serious concern about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in northern Sri Lanka" and calling on both sides to allow civilians to leave the front lines.
But if they leave, what will happen to them? The fate of Sri Lanka's IDPs is the central political issue that will face the nation when the army claims victory. "It's how the whole world will look at the country," says an official with an international aid agency. In the best case, the camps, under the monitoring eye of U.N. agencies, will be used as holding stations where the army can weed out any LTTE fighters who remain in hiding, before allowing civilians to return to the Vanni to rebuild the north. "In the worst-case scenario, they establish concentration camps for Tamils," the official says. There have been no reports of mass killings, but aid groups and human-rights workers say that they are troubled by reports of disappearances and that they cannot monitor the safety of detainees without full access to them.
Locked In--and Out
Most people detained in the welfare centers had no intention of becoming refugees. They all have their documents, families willing to take them in and the means to support themselves. The men worked as fishermen or shopkeepers, and those who fled the fighting by boat paid at least 100,000 Sri Lankan rupees per person (about $876) to escape. "We told all these things to the army commander," says a detainee, who also describes losing count of the number of letters he has written asking to be released. Fearing reprisals by the army, those in the camp ask to remain anonymous. They say they have enough to eat, clean water and latrines, but they just want to leave. "I feel like I'm going crazy," says another detainee. "I want to tell people that we are being kept without any reason."
The Sri Lankan government insists that its human-rights record is excellent compared with that of the Tigers. "In a war situation, you can't stop violating human rights in small ways," says Lakshman Hulugalle, a spokesman for the Sri Lankan Defense Ministry. "In Iraq, how many innocent people were killed?" Hulugalle says any concerns raised about the army's practices should also acknowledge the abuses of the LTTE and that there are many. Indeed there are. People from the Vanni say they left home not just to escape the fighting but also to get away from the forced recruitment of their children and from forced labor, which the Tigers used to build a massive, booby-trapped trench around parts of their stronghold in the jungle.
The detention of civilians serves a strategic purpose for the army as well. In the past, the Tigers were often able to recapture territory by sending guerrilla fighters into the general population. That's still a potent tactic. On Feb. 9, a female suicide bomber killed 28 people, including 20 soldiers, at a screening point for IDPs. This kind of asymmetrical warfare--the LTTE was the global pioneer in the use of suicide bombers--allowed a few thousand fighters to hold their own for decades against the Sri Lankan army's 50,000 soldiers. So the most recent army offensive uses a new strategy. The military clears people from every stretch of territory it captures. Those displaced must either seek shelter deeper in Tiger territory or surrender to government forces, which move them into camps. The result is a sort of scorched-earth policy that has helped the army capture and keep control of territory that the Tigers have held for more than a decade.
Facing the Gauntlet
Keeping those areas may prove more complicated. In the district of Mannar, for example, which the army has considered "liberated" since last July, people live under an unofficial curfew that turns the end of every workday into a race to get home before dark. Checkpoints are everywhere--in some cases within 165 ft. (50 m) of each other--and can turn a 15-minute trip into an hour-long ordeal, as soldiers question anyone whose identification papers mark him or her as an outsider or a possible LTTE member. Few people outside Mannar are aware of the extent of the militarization. Journalists are not allowed free access, and it is forbidden to take pictures of any military personnel or installation--not even the 16th century Portuguese fort at the tip of Mannar Island, which is used as an army camp.
Such security measures, like the detention camps, have so far prevented the Tigers from taking back Mannar. But this strategy may not be sustainable throughout the Tamil-majority areas of the north and east. The Sri Lankan government holds up the eastern province of the nation as a model of postconflict governance; the army took control of the area in 2007, and the government held local elections last year. But even in the east, 50 civilians were killed in November alone, according to local media, in violence involving two former Tiger factions as well as military and paramilitary forces. This growing insecurity, says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a public-policy institute based in Colombo, is a result of the government's failure to think beyond its military strategy. "You can snatch a political defeat from the jaws of military victory," Saravanamuttu says.
Going for Broke
Though many outside Sri Lanka have called for a political settlement, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has staked his leadership on a military defeat of the LTTE. Since taking office in 2005, he has redefined the conflict as a "war on terrorism" and cast himself as a son of the soil, a loyal defender of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. "The average Sinhalese person trusts him," says Saravanamuttu. "He's seen very much as a man of the people." The war has the overwhelming support of Sri Lanka's rural heartland in the south, and Rajapaksa is unlikely to seek a truce when triumph is finally within sight. All that remains is to find Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tiger commander who has outlasted five Sri Lankan Presidents and is wanted for ordering the assassination of an Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.
If Rajapaksa can vanquish Prabhakaran, he will have just one foe left: the economy. The cost of the war may be more than the country can afford, with the defense budget far exceeding the government's revenue after servicing of the national debt. "It just doesn't work," says Harsha da Silva, an economist and consultant to the Asian Development Bank. A victory would reduce that spending but might also bring down with it a rural economy propped up by soldiers' salaries and pensions. In many villages, the army is the main employer, and without it, families will begin to feel the full effect of the global recession in the garment, tourism and tea industries--the three pillars of Sri Lanka's economy. The government's only response so far has been to tighten import controls and promote local agriculture.
For now, Rajapaksa looks like a man vindicated. If the LTTE is indeed defeated, a generation of Sri Lankans--including the children held in the camps of Mannar--will, for the first time, begin to live in a country that is not at war.
What will that country look like? It will still have its legendary natural beauty. Mannar's isolation has made it a paradise for birds such as the brilliant blue Indian rollers that skim over the salt marshes. And some are hopeful that with the end of the Tigers, there will be room for a new dialogue between Tamils and Sinhalese, says Ahilan Kadirgamar of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, an advocacy group. But for Tamils from LTTE territory, Kadirgamar notes, "their sense of citizenship will be determined by how they are treated." They may re-enter Sri Lankan society only to find themselves subject to security measures that fulfill the worst predictions of the Tigers' relentless propaganda about the persecution of Tamils. Rajapaksa's muscular, nationalist ideology appears to be winning the war. But it may be at the cost of the open, outward-looking, multiethnic character of the nation that Sri Lanka once tried to be.
Thanks: TIME(Feb, 09)