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

Hearts and Minds: the forced exit of humanitarian agencies from the Vanni in Sri Lanka

The day before yesterday, the government of Sri Lanka ordered all humanitarian organisations to cease all operations and remove all personnel (except Vanni residents) and assets from the LTTE controlled part of the Vanni. The question this observer wishes to explore is why the Government of Sri Lanka after ensuring the welfare of its citizens in the LTTE controlled Vanni for the last 18 years, is now is renegading on its responsibilities, even on the verge of an apparent victory.

The Government of Sri Lanka, to its credit, has treated its people, many who are forcibly kept in LTTE controlled areas, as citizens; therefore, it provided them with normal government services (education, healthcare) and also emergency aid (rations, non-food relief items). Furthermore, the government, realising that it could not ensure all services were adequately provided, requested humanitarian organizations to fill necessary gaps. These gaps were often created in emergency situations where the government did not have the immediate resources or capacity to ensure the continual well-being of its citizens. It is at these crises points that the neutrality, mobility and emergency response capabilities that humanitarian agencies possessed were most required and welcomed.

The current situation, even in the calamity familiarized eyes of the 200,000 trapped in the Vanni, can definitely be called a crisis. Many of these are IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) who fled their homes and are currently without livelihood trapped within a small strip of land, well within shelling range of the often inaccurate artillery of the Sri Lankan Army. For many, the food aid and shelter provided by humanitarian agencies is the sole means of survival.  Leaving aside the question why, often foreign, humanitarian agencies need to fulfill the government’s responsibilities, one can consider the reasons for the government  preventing humanitarian agencies from doing their good work.

As David Patreus, Commanding General, Multi-National Force – Iraq and the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan have realised conflicts of this nature cannot be solved by brute force alone. Government and humanitarian aid is now an integral component of the United States holistic anti-terrorist campaign. President George Bush, who once noted that the 82nd Airborne should “not be wasted on guarding school-children” now overseas an 82nd Airborne that builds wells, homes and roads. Why when the rest of the world is realising the value of “hearts and minds” in combating terrorism does Sri Lanka have to regress?

The government’s reluctance to cite reasons for this dramatic change in policy, especially at this point in time, leaves one to speculate whether the government is making a short-term tactical trade-off between brutal force and hearts and minds. Generally neutral humanitarian agencies have often been successful in highlighting the plight of the suffering, often due to LTTE human rights abuses. However, in turn, they often publicize the government’s human rights violations. One opinion has it; the LTTE is contained in a small, dense thorn jungle, with 200,000 people. The final solution would be to launch massive artillery  attacks against the LTTE. However, the shelling is often inaccurate and the LTTE is not below using human shields (actually the entrapment of the 200,000 can be considered a human shield) hence a large number of civilian casualties, Sri Lankan citizens, can be expected. Currently, the sole neutral observers in the LTTE controlled areas are international humanitarian agencies. They are the only credible reporters of events. LTTE propaganda is not taken is discredited. Hence, for LTTE human rights abuses to be highlighted humanitarian agencies need to be on the ground in LTTE controlled areas. Furthermore, in order to back up its military successes the government must ensure the hearts and minds of the people in LTTE controlled areas do not turn against the government who they often prefer to the LTTE regime. The LTTE will also use the removal of humanitarian agencies as a propaganda tool to convince the people of the Vanni and the Tamil Diaspora that the Government of Sri Lanka does not consider Tamils as equal citizens and is preventing them from surviving. As the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has proven it is much easier to capture than to hold territory when facing unconventional forces.

Finally, the government has promised to continue providing its own aid to the Vanni. Yet, the irony is that this aid will in the future be delivered right into the hands of the LTTE as the government apparatus is totally controlled by the LTTE, in the areas under their control. As it is given under the supervision of the LTTE authorities the LTTE will gain credit from the average Vanni citizen and member of the Diaspora as the sole provider of relief in the Vanni. For example the World Food Programme aid will be donated to the government, who will transport it to the Vanni and there the distribution process will be controlled by the LTTE. Hence, the government will hasten its rout in the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of the Vanni. It will also allow the LTTE to massively increase the funding of itself and its proxies like the TRO. Hence, in this observer’s opinion, the Government of Sri Lanka is providing the Tiger’s with the psychological and propaganda edge while not strengthening its tactical or strategic military position.