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