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SRI LANKA: Tamils Fearful For the Future

IPS Correspondents

COLOMBO, Feb 4 2009 (IPS) - As Sri Lanka celebrates 61 years of independence from British colonial rule on Wednesday, the enthusiasm is understandably not shared by minority Tamils living under the military jackboot in the north of the country.

Patient being transferred out of Mullaitivu District Hospital after it was hit by shelling on Jan 22. Credit: LTTE website

Patient being transferred out of Mullaitivu District Hospital after it was hit by shelling on Jan 22. Credit: LTTE website

"We just want to be left alone to get on with our lives," said a retired teacher, speaking with IPS over telephone from the northern, government-controlled town of Jaffna, reflecting the common views of Tamils living in the embattled region.

Most residents in Jaffna, the unofficial capital of the north and where the rebel insurgency began in the mid-1970s, desperately want their lives to return to normalcy once the war ends – or at least this phase of it.

"This is another war-peace cycle in this long conflict. We have had cycles in 1983-90, 1990-95, 1995-05 and now… there seems to be hope for peace once again," said a veteran journalist working in Jaffna.

Neither the teacher nor the journalists wanted to be identified for fear of reprisals.

In his national day address, President Mahinda Rajapakse said he was confident that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has been fighting to carve out a homeland for the island’s ethnic Tamils since 1972, will be ‘’completely defeated in a few days’’.

The LTTE has retreated into the jungles of Mullaitivu taking along with them a population of close to 250,000 civilians whose lives are in danger as the army closes in on 250 sq km strip of land that is still controlled by the rebels.

On Tuesday, United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton and her British counterpart David Miliband called for ‘’temporary no-fire period’’ to allow the evacuation of casualties, let in relief and give the civilians an opportunity to flee.

Separately, the U.S. EU, Japan and Norway – countries that raised 4.5 billion dollars in April 2003 to encourage a peaceful settlement of the island’s ethnic problem – have appealed to the rebels to negotiate surrender and avoid a bloodbath.

The Sri Lankan government has accused the LTTE of using the civilians as human shields and stated that it is not responsible for the safety of civilians who remain in rebel-controlled areas.

A ministry of defence statement released on Monday said: "While the security forces accept all responsibility to ensure the safety and protection of civilians in the safety zones, they are unable to give such an assurance to those who remain outside these zones. Therefore, the government, with full responsibility, urges all civilians to come to the safety zones; and also states that as civilians who do not heed this call will be among LTTE cadres, the security forces will not be able to accept responsibility for their safety."

This attitude has drawn condemnation from human rights groups. The Washington-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, in a statement released Wednesday, that this ‘’indicates an appalling disregard for the well-being of the civilian population and is contrary to international law’’.

"The Sri Lankan government knows full well that the civilians caught up in the current fighting are dangerously trapped," said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW. "The government shows callous indifference by saying civilians should not expect the government to consider their safety and security.’’

The International Committee for the Red Cross reported that over the past weekend, the hospital in LTTE-controlled Puthukudiyiruppu, known as PTK, was hit three times by artillery during a 24-hour period, causing at least nine deaths and numerous injuries. The hospital was struck a fourth time on Feb. 2, killing three people and wounding ten, resulting in the hospital's partial evacuation.

HRW also reiterated concern that the LTTE was placing civilians at grave risk by preventing them from leaving conflict zones. ‘’Civilians in LTTE-controlled areas have consistently been prevented from fleeing the battle zone to reach safer areas under government control.’’

"Laws-of-war violations by one side never justify violations by the other," said Adams. "The government and the LTTE appear to be holding a perverse contest to determine who can show the least concern for civilian protection."

The Jaffna journalist says that even if the standoff over civilians is resolved, the road ahead to peace is fraught with danger. "Like it or not, the government and its allies will have to bring in the LTTE or its proxy in parliament (Tamil National Alliance-TNA) to the negotiating table. Furthermore, a solution within the current provincial councils system won’t work," he said.

Both he and the retired teacher point to the failure in the East, which came under full government control last year and where elections saw former rebels and now LTTE opponents – backed by the government – win against the United National Party, the country’s main opposition, and its allies.

One problem that will stand in the way of a durable peace is the government’s refusal to provide full powers to the provincial councils (PCs) which were set up under a joint accord between India and Sri Lanka in 1987 and were aimed at meeting some of the demands of the Tamils for autonomy in the north and east of the island, areas where they are in majority.

The PCs, under the law, can set up their own police force, decide on land use and seek more funds from the central government, none of which is in force today because governments over the years have refused to part with these powers now held by the centre.

To some extent the PC system of administration has failed even in the south as they have limited powers to run the areas under their control.

"The government and even parliamentarians are not prepared to part with these powers for many reasons – police powers could be a security nightmare if former rebels get into the police force while parliamentarians could lose their jobs and authority if provincial administrations do what the MPs have been doing," a Colombo-based editor said.

If the PCs do not have these powers or the government does not come up with another equally effective mechanism to provide autonomy to Tamil majority areas, the crisis will remain, the Jaffna journalist said.

Jaffna has been under the control of government forces for many years now but residents are still restricted in their movements with night curfews, dozens of soldiers on the streets and occasional bomb attacks by the rebels.

Most Tamil residents across Sri Lanka have become tired of the war and support for the Tigers is for the first time waning, at least publicly.

On Monday, hundreds of people, many on cycles and three-wheelers, paraded the streets of Jaffna demanding that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran release their friends and relatives trapped in Mullaitivu.

Although that demonstration was organised by a group of former rebels that rivals the LTTE and is allied to the government, such protests are uncommon in the north where either there is support for militancy or residents are simply too afraid to express their true feelings.

The retired teacher says he feels this is the turning point in the long-drawn conflict. "People are fed up of the war and now they are being used as human shields in Mullaitivu by the LTTE," he noted bitterly.

''What is urgently required now is sustainable peace under a federal kind of system. Otherwise, the Tigers can rise again,'' the teacher said.

"The southern [Sinhala political] leaders must come together to jointly offer a sustainable peace solution to the Tamils, otherwise no process will work. That has been the issue in the past where one southern group proposes and then the other [in power] disposes," a Jaffna-based lawyer told IPS.

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