sri lanka war, sri lanka civil war, sri lanka tamil
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, HO/AP
A Tamil Tiger separatist fires a heavy machine gun during a battle in Paranthan, a Tamil
Tigers stronghold village north of Kilinochchi.

Civilians Under Fire as Sri Lankan Civil War Nears End

April 21, 2009 04:30 PM
by Denis Cummings
Thousands of civilians are fleeing war zones in northeast Sri Lanka as the nation’s 25-year civil war enters it final stages.

Sri Lankan Troops Close In on Final LTTE Redoubt

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant group fighting for a homeland for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, let a government ultimatum to surrender pass Tuesday, prompting a government attack on the LTTE’s last stronghold. Most observers believe that this will be the final stage of a civil war that began in 1983.

The LTTE, known also as the “Tamil Tigers,” holds a 6.5-square-mile coastal strip of land that, according to UN estimates, was home to 100,000 civilians. The government has been trying to evacuate civilians from what was officially a “no-fire” zone; 52,000 had been evacuated by Tuesday night, according to the military.

The LTTE claims that 1,000 civilians died Monday in government attacks, and released a video showing the dead and wounded. The government denied the claim and accused the LTTE of killing civilians trying to escape.

The United Nations and the Red Cross, along with countries such as the United States and Britain, have been calling for a ceasefire until all civilians had been evacuated. “The situation is nothing short of catastrophic,” said Pierre Kraehenbuehl of the International Committee of the Red Cross. “Ongoing fighting has killed or wounded hundreds of civilians who have only minimal access to medical care.”

According to the BBC's Sinhala service editor Priyath Liyanage, “The only strategy left to the Tigers in resisting the current onslaught is by warning the army and the outside world that hundreds of civilians will die if and when the army launches its final offensive.”

Despite the presence of civilians, the government appears willing to strike a decisive blow against the LTTE. It is unknown whether the Tigers, under the leadership of founder Vellupillai Prabhakaran, will choose to make a final stand or make a desperate attempt to escape and resume the war using guerilla tactics. Amal Jayasinghe, Colombo bureau chief of Agence France-Presse, told the BBC that he believes the Tigers are “much more likely to stay fighting to the bitter end.”

Background: Military gains and human rights abuses

Since the election of hard-line President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, the government has pursued the war more intensely and made impressive gains against the Tigers. Last summer, the Sri Lankan military won a rare decisive victory, seizing Tamil land in the east. It was a devastating blow to the Tigers, who were left with control of just the northern districts.

Rajapaksa decided to turn up the pressure against the Tigers, declaring that they would be defeated by the end of 2008. In January 2008, he declared an end to the cease-fire, doubled the defense budget to $1.5 billion and added 40,000 recruits.

The escalation has proven to be a success, with the military seizing the Mannar peninsula in July, Mallavi in early September, LTTE capital Kilinochchi in January, and Mullaitivu in February.

Western countries and NGOs have criticized the government for waging an often brutal campaign against the LTTE and the Tamil people, however. The government has done little to protect civilians, and forced out aid groups, leaving Tamil refugees searching for food and shelter.

The government has been further criticized for launching attacks on the “no-fire” zone home to thousands of civilians. “The Sri Lankan armed forces have indiscriminately shelled densely populated areas, including hospitals, in violation of the laws of war,” declared a Human Rights Watch release earlier this month.

The LTTE itself has been accused of human rights abuses toward the Tamil people. According to a Human Rights Watch report released in January, the LTTE has been forcibly recruiting adults and children into its army and been forcing civilians to remain in LTTE-controlled war zones to act as human shields.

Opinion & Analysis: What does a victory mean for Sri Lanka?

The Sri Lankan government are nearing complete military victory over the Tamil Tigers, but it is unclear what a conventional war victory will accomplish. The brutal campaign against the LTTE has left thousands of Tamils dead or displaced and further increased the divide between the Tamils and Sinhalese.

The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall writes, “But the illusion that final, lasting victory has been, or can be, secured will not survive long. Even if the Tigers' leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, swallows the cyanide capsule that is said to hang from his neck, the cause he violently hijacked and distorted—justice, equality and self-government for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority—will not suddenly evaporate.”

The battle is not between the LTTE and the government,” said a Tamil journalist to ISN Security Watch. “It is between two communities. Unless you resolve the long-standing disputes between them, peace will remain elusive. Unless there is a process of devolution of powers to the Tamils and Tamils are given their rights in this country, the war will never be over.”

Historical Context: The Sinhalese–Tamil conflict

Sri Lanka is an island nation off the coast of India with two predominant ethnic groups. The Sinhalese, mainly Buddhists, make up 74 percent of the population and control the government. The mainly Hindu Tamils make up just 18 percent of the population, living primarily in the eastern and northern regions of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka was ruled by the British until it gained independence in 1948. After independence, the Sinhalese took control of the government and instituted policies that favored the Sinhalese people culturally and economically. Feeling that the government was discriminating against them, many Tamils took up violent resistance against the government during the 1970s.

In 1972, 18-year-old Tamil rebel Velupillai Prabhakaran founded the Tamil New Tigers, which became the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) four years later. During the 1980s, the “Tamil Tigers” would wipe out the more moderate Tamil organizations and become the leaders of the Tamil independence movement.

The Tamil Tigers launched their first major attack on Sri Lankan military forces in 1983, which led to riots against the Tamil people that killed 600. “From that moment onwards, it can be argued that the Sri Lankan conflict followed a pattern that in many ways is still repeated today,” writes the BBC. “Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and for parts of this decade, the country has witnessed a combination of Tamil Tiger suicide attacks on the one hand and repeated military skirmishes in the north and east on the other.”

Relief groups estimate that the 25-year war has cost more than 70,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands. For much of the war, there has been no end in sight, though there was a glimmer of hope in 2002. The two sides signed a formal cease-fire agreement, but both sides violated the truce almost immediately.

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