Sri Lanka: No Time to Stand and Stare

Gruesome pictures and tales coming out of Sri Lanka are simply horrifying. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians have fled the war zone.

The Tamil Tigers allege that the Lankan forces have butchered hundreds of people. The government, however, has denied such allegations, claiming that the civilians are dying because the rebels are preventing them from leaving the area. The Tamil civilians have been caught in the decades-old ethnic conflict with no end in sight. The situation is nothing short of catastrophic, and demands urgent attention of the world community.

The current round of battle has come weeks after the government claimed that it had captured all major LTTE bases, forcing the Tigers to escape into the woods. Moreover, Colombo says it has made enough inroads into the ‘silver’ territory still held by the Tigers.

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa that has so far rejected all attempts and overtures by the Tigers to end the conflict has to pay attention to the plight of Tamil civilians. All these months the president managed to keep the public and international opinion behind him by claiming the action against the Tamils will bring about a conclusive end to the crisis on the island. However, this has dragged on for months now with no resolution in sight. By concentrating on the short-lived victories on the battlefield, and refusing to agree to truce, the government is not only alienating the Tamil population but also losing an opportunity to coax the Tigers into a serious dialogue. It must stop now. Most of the international community has no sympathy for the Tamil Tigers, yet it cannot stand and stare any more as hundreds of innocent civilians continue to pay the price with their lives.

As the equation stands today, the LTTE, despite the battering it has received over the past few months is still not prepared to surrender. The army, on the other hand, is unable to subdue the rebels and leave the area after declaring Mission Accomplished! This impasse is dangerous and is bound to lead to more civilian casualties and losses. Of immediate concern is the evolving humanitarian crisis.

According to the UNHCR, more than 150,000 civilians are trapped in the conflict zone. Extensive shelling and use of heavy weapons by the Lankan army, and the use of civilians as human shields by the Tigers is aggravating the situation. Both sides must be pressured to hold the fire, enabling aid agencies to reach the besieged civilians at the earliest.

Accusations of genocide and excessive use of force on both sides should be investigated by the UN agencies. A sustained process of political reconciliation between the Tamils and the Sinhalese majority needs to be initiated. Last but not the least, the genuine grievances of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, which has long battled for its rights, should be addressed. Unless their concerns are addressed, organisations like the LTTE will continue to find local favour.

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