Colombo, Human Rights, IDPs and Refugees, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

What undue humanitarian concerns? – Responding to Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts in an article published on Groundviews recently suggests that in the context of “an uncertain number of Tamil ‘civilians’ trapped within the beleaguered and shrinking LTTE territory…emotion and humanitarian concerns have eclipsed realism and factuality”.  Are humanitarian concerns ever undue?  In fact Michael’s position is lacking not only in ‘humanitarian concerns’ but also in ‘reality and factuality’.

The objective of the proposed ceasefire is, surely, not to postpone the defeat of the LTTE (which will not help the LTTE or the trapped Tamil civilians) but to negotiate arrangements for urgent relief to those trapped and to facilitate the evacuation of those who wish to cross over (this would be the large majority of those trapped).  Such arrangements, under international supervision, would greatly reduce civilian casualties and relieve suffering, i.e. serve humanitarian concerns.

The World War II situations cited by Michael are of little relevance to the civil war in which we are caught up.  Humanitarian concerns are relevant in international wars too, but the obligations of any state to its own citizens, even rebellious ones, are surely greater than to civilians of another state.  In Sri Lanka there has never been any illusion of the existence of a sovereign state of Eelam, not even in the immediate wake of the EPRLF-led provincial government’s UDI some years ago.  Despite indulging in a range of discriminatory and oppressive policies, the Sri Lankan Government has, regarded Sri Lanka as one country and in recent decades the entire population as Sri Lankan citizens entitled to equal treatment irrespective of ethnicity, location of residence and political ideology – as in the case of Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland, Muslims in Kashmir and French speakers in Quebec.

What is the basis of Michael’s claim that the population in the LTTE areas were mostly loyal to its goals?  What do the authorities (e.g. Schalk etc.) quoted by Michael know of the subject apart from what was told to them by LTTE activists and the Diaspora?  In fact if what Michael says is true, that would be a good basis for secession.  But from what I know, there is no such wish prevailing in the majority of the population; what is sought is internal self-determination.  That those living in LTTE areas submit to LTTE rule does not make them committed to Eelam anymore than submission to Sri Lankan government rule by those living in other parts of the island make them committed to a unitary Sri Lanka.  The primary factor determining where we live and work is not political ideology – there are overriding social and economic factors.  In fact those living in LTTE areas also submit to Sri Lankan Government rule, e.g. in registering births, deaths and marriages and securing IDs and passports, etc.  This is a reflection not of their duplicity but of their sensible, pragmatic ‘realism and factuality’. 

The fact that hundreds of thousands of people had to live in LTTE territory imposed many unwanted hardships on them.  These people merit understanding and sympathy not suspicion and prejudice.  Public servants, clergy and others who serve the population of these areas are indeed ‘unsung heroes’ of the region who have helped to make the life of the population there less intolerable.  Is there any evidence that most of these ‘unsung heroes’ are pro-LTTE? 

Will ‘winning’ the war help or hinder the working out of a viable solution?  From the time of the legislation of 1949 directed against Indian Tamils and through numerous other measures directed against other minorities, there has been peaceful political agitation on a range of issues.  None of these were seriously entertained till the civil war began in 1985.  It was the urgent need to end the war which led to the 13th Amendment, to the Constitutional Proposal worked out by Neelan Tiruchelvam, to the Oslo Declaration and to the original APRC recommendation.  None of these appear to be relevant anymore.  While I am totally opposed to all war, I don’t see how ‘winning’ the war will lead to a viable solution.

I do not know if the LTTE really wishes to negotiate but, if so, it should surely be encouraged.  If the LTTE is excluded, the Tamil Diaspora is likely to continue to be a destabilizing factor.  Moreover it would be unlikely that a viable solution would emerge in the absence of any force to counteract the majoritarian mood now prevailing.

The theme running through Michael’s contributions appear to be that the civilians who have the misfortune of having to earn their livelihood while being based in the LTTE areas are not entitled to our ‘humanitarian concerns’.  Even though this is a civil war and the helpless victims are our own citizens, they deserve to be treated as enemy aliens.  I disagree.


Devanesan Nesiah, February 19 2009

  • Dayan Jayatilleka

    Dear Dr Nesiah, there is a line in a Hollywood movie which goes "fool me once, I'm the fool. try to fool me twice, you're the fool". That goes for this ceasefire/encourage the LTTE to negotiate "nonsense. You ask ' Will ‘winning’ the war help or hinder the working out of a viable solution? …I don’t see how ‘winning’ the war will lead to a viable solution.' Really? If not for the LTTE's war against the IPKF, the Indo-Lanka accord would have been implemented, what with the Sri Lankan military in the North and East confined to barracks, 70, 000 Indian troops on Lankan soil, the anti-Accord JVP being fought by the Sri Lankan state, and the LTTE given 7 out of 12 seats including the chairmanship in the interim adminstration of september 1987. The same goes for the Neelan – GL package, which was torpedoed preemptively because the Tigers unilterally resumed hostilities in April 1995. How can you even mention Neelan without noting that he was murdered by a Tiger suicide bomber?

  • rita

    peace in terrorist country, where more than 80000 with corps burried, or burnt?

    lots and lots named as tigers and gets arrested, murdered, woman and including underaged gals in mass amount getting rapped and murdered, in out of prisons.

    more than 80000 dead, continuing to die, of these bomb,
    churches/temples, schools , hospitals, in no fire zone area. jurnalists , and humanatarian aid personals, politican murdered,

    these ruthless, barbarines of the government forces continue to murder in mass amount, children with amputed legs, hands, with shattered body parts all over the place. blocking all medical aids, food, to the affected area.
    These forces trying to solicit underaged gals in haiti and got caught by the media. they thought they could get away like the do in there homeland. these evil forces even dont mind killing their own kids to hide the truth. lots of their own people , jurnalist murdered who were exposing the truth.

    • Observer

      you know there would not be excuses for most of these atrocities if the LTTE didn't exist. their brutality has spawn an equally brutal counter balance. ying yang. it was bound to happen. also remember wih jvp things were much worse! but was necessary at the time. this is why armed struggle never achieve their goals. you only aggravate your opponent achieving even less than what you had. understand this and we will have peace.

  • Observer

    It is surrender that is required not a ceasefire. The challenge with arms of the LTTE has come to its limits and it is high time that they accept reality and let people live. Time to try other avenues. Peaceful avenues for Tamil grievances. You will get the ceasefire when the enemy surrenders. In fact it will be a permanent ceasefire!

  • Devanesan Nesiah

    Response of Devanesan Nesiah to Observer, Rita and Dayan Jayathilake

    1.To Observer; I agree with you about the futility of the armed struggle but not about how it should be ended; surrender may not lead to a just and durable peace.
    2.To Rita; I understand your feelings but do not agree with your sentiments. Is there a viable alternative to a peaceful solution?
    3.To Ambassador Dr. Dayan Jayathilake; my focus was on the civilians and yours on the LTTE. Irrelevance apart, you distraught the facts.
    The LTTE was encouraged and enabled to defeat the IPKF through resources supplied by the state for that express purpose. After the IPKF was out of the way, the state continued to stall the implementation of the Indo-Lanka Peace Agreement and the 13th Amendment, while the LTTE continued to attack the provincial government. The net result was UDI
    The collapse of the Neelan – G.L Package was on account of opposition from the UNP as well as from within the SLFP. If there was UNP-SLFP backing, the package would have sailed through parliament. In the event it was first denuded of its devolution contents and then discarded completely.
    It is claimed that the war is close to being won but the solution is reseeding. For example, throughout the second half of the 20th century no political party other than the Federal Party (ITAK) backed Federalism. It was only since the Oslo Declaration of 2002 that Southern political leaders began to speak positively of Federalism. With the expected winning of the war the earlier situation has returned; a consensus on the constitution having to be unitary is emerging among Sinhalese political leaders (apart from one or two from the far left)
    Similarly, with the expected winning of the war, the prospects appear to be reseeding of reversing two decades of ethnic cleansing (of Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and others) In particular, Tamil IDPs, including those recently displaced, appear to have abandoned hopes of getting back their lands and are seeking to flee to India and elsewhere, (eg. PTI report in the Daily Mirror of February 23 of new arrivals in Rameshwaram)
    We all know that it was a suicide bomber who murdered Neelan is it really necessary to say so every time Neelan is mentioned?

  • “We all know that it was a suicide bomber who murdered Neelan is it really necessary to say so every time Neelan is mentioned?”

    only if you want to distract from what Neelan would’ve wanted mentioned.