For three decades, Sri Lanka's civilians have been pawns in a brutal war between ethnic Tamil rebels and government forces. A 2002 ceasefire exists on paper, but in reality Sri Lankans are again at the brink of a "no mercy war."
By Richard Reoch
Kethesh Loganathan gave voice to Sri Lankan civilians weary of their country's three-decade ethnic war. An ethnic Tamil and the deputy secretary general of Sri Lanka's Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process, Loganathan worked to realize an elusive dream of peace for the country's embattled multi-ethnic population of 20 million.
On Aug. 12, Loganathan was shot at point-blank range in his home in Dehiwala and died en route to the hospital. His murder was part of a resurgence of violence that began just one week after Israel and Hezbollah went to war. As Loganathan's colleagues mourned his death, Sri Lanka's four-year ceasefire began to crumble with little notice from the international news media. In the few short months since fighting resumed, some 2,000 have been killed, nearly half of them civilians. At press time, peace talks in Geneva at the end of October had collapsed, triggering fears that the civil war would escalate.
Loganathan's killing was clearly a political assassination, one of a long list of similar tit-for-tat attacks that threaten fragile efforts at brokering peace. "He uncompromisingly believed that the liberation of a people could not be founded on fear, the celebration of death, the negation or even suspension of basic democratic values," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of the Colombo-based think tank, Center for Policy Alternatives, on the day Loganathan was murdered.
A close friend of Loganathan in Colombo said, "The day after Ketesh was assassinated, I began to make a list of all the people like him I've known who are now dead. The list just kept growing and growing day by day as I remembered more and more people. I felt guilty that I had forgotten some of them. But this war has been going on so long, and we have lost so many of our best people."
Beginning in the 1500s, Sri Lanka– an island with a rich history of Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms–was subjected to four centuries of invasion and colonization by Portuguese, Dutch and British imperialists. It gained independence in 1948, when the British withdrew and left the country's two principal ethnic groups–the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority–to coexist within the framework of a parliamentary democracy.
In 1956, a newly-elected government made Sinhalese, the language of the majority population, the sole official language, thus restricting access by others to public service and educational opportunities. Ethnic tensions began to boil as Sinhalese and Tamils wrangled over the position of each community's distinct language and cultural rights. Over the next two decades, efforts to negotiate satisfactory guarantees for both communities alternated with broken promises, Tamil protests and deadly anti-Tamil riots.
Sri Lanka's 1972 and 1978 constitutions granted the "foremost place" to Buddhism, the main religion of the majority Sinhalese, while protecting the rights of other religions. The government also instituted new university admissions policies– as a reaction against the colonial legacy of English language domination–that increased the enrollment of Sinhala-speaking students while reducing the number of Tamil-speaking students.
As Tamil discontent grew, and the government strengthened its military presence in the north and east. By the early 1980s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had formed to fight for an independent state, to be known as Tamil Eelam, in the north and east of the island.
In July 1983, the Tigers killed 13 soldiers in the northern city of Jaffna. It was the largest single attack they had launched. Anti-Tamil rioting erupted in Colombo and spread across the island. For days, then-President J.R. Jayewardene maintained an ominous silence, refusing to rein in the killing and devastation. Although he later maintained the violence was a spontaneous backlash, the International Commission of Jurists said it was "a concerted plan, conceived and organized well in advance." Estimates of those killed range from the government figure of 400 to independent assessments of 2,000. At least 150,000 Tamils are said to have fled the island.
So began the Eelam Wars, which have proven to be one of the world's most intractable conflicts and have been characterized by large-scale human rights violations by both rebels and government forces. The death toll has exceeded 65,000 since fighting began, and hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled their homes for India, Africa and more distant shores in North America Europe and elsewhere. An indicator of the war's brutality: two-thirds of the world's suicide bombings have, until recently, taken place in Sri Lanka, according to a 2002 PBS Frontline report. The Black Tigers, as the LTTE suicide bombers are known, developed tight-fitting explosive vests and wear cyanide capsules around their necks, to be swallowed if they are captured before completing their lethal missions.
In 2002, Norwegian mediators helped broker a cease-fire between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. Some refugees returned to begin rebuilding their lives, and the country's once-thriving tourism industry showed signs of life again. The island was hit hard by the 2004 tsunami, but the disaster also kindled hopes that the widespread devastation would spur the momentum for peace. Those hopes proved futile.
The peace process stalled and the country found itself trapped in a shadow war, which included armed groups linked to the government or the LTTE. Targeted killings of political and community leaders throughout the island claimed the lives of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims (who constitute a small but significant minority group). By July 2006, full-scale military encounters were back in the headlines with land, sea and air attacks. The toll of reported casualties mounted rapidly, and government hospital wards, said one senior defense figure, were filled with injured soldiers. "Other civilian medical operations in the theaters are canceled indefinitely," he added. "The Fourth Eelam War has commenced."
No mention has been made of prisoners taken by either side, raising fears of a return to what the International Committee of the Red Cross terms a "no-mercy war." Basil Fernando, executive director of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), an independent monitoring group based in Hong Kong, said, "The concept of exterminating opponents now seems embedded in Sri Lanka as a permissible conduct to end conflicts This approach of extermination, which is part of the unwritten conduct of the state in times of crisis, has caused equally repugnant retaliation on the part of the rebel groups." One of the country's former presidents, according to Fernando, summed up the conflict as "a killing match."
Years of war have left an almost overwhelming legacy of pain, destruction and social dislocation in Sri Lanka. Hospitals are continually filled with wounded soldiers and civilians injured in the crossfire. Across the country, there are those with debilitating psychological wounds accumulated over more than two decades of war. Hiding in the countryside are tens of thousands of army deserters.
In the areas under Tamil Tiger control, forced conscription of child soldiers is frequently reported and sometimes evinced in television footage of young guerrillas captured by the state. In September, UNICEF reported 1,576 outstanding cases of underage recruitment by the LTTE since the November 2002 peace talks. An armed group operating in government-controlled territory has also abducted children and taken them to training camps after passing through military checkpoints, according to the Stop the Use of Child Soldiers Coalition, of which AI is a member.
The number of targeted killings of civilians has also shot up in the past few months. The government is using emergency regulations to carry out arbitrary detentions, and the specter of "disappearances"– carried out by unidentified agents–has returned. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has registered 62 "disappearances" in the north of the country in the past year. The commission is also investigating the status of another 183 people missing under unknown circumstances.
In August, AI issued an urgent call to protect civilians, expressing dismay that "neither the government security forces nor the LTTE appears to be taking adequate precautions to protect civilian lives." According to AI, "Even when serious violations of international humanitarian law are reported, both sides trade accusations and counter-accusations rather than take steps to stop the violations."
The crescendo of indiscriminate violence against civilians has turned ordinary destinations into sites of carnage, and while rebels, government forces and paramilitaries are all involved, no one claims responsibility. Suicide bombs, mines, armed attacks and air strikes are among the potential hazards of taking a bus or visiting a college, places of worship or hospital. In June, a crowded public bus traveling on a country road was blown up by mines hung from a tree–a tactic used so the ground does not absorb the blast. The impact tossed the bus 75 feet and killed 68. Later that month, masked men tossed grenades into a church in Pesalai, where thousands of people were taking shelter from the violence.
On Aug. 13, St. Philip Mary Church in Allaipiddy, where local residents had taken refuge from fighting, received a direct hit from a barrage of artillery. At least 15 civilians were killed and another 54 severely wounded. Amnesty International issued two urgent actions on behalf of the church leader, Fr. Thiruchchelvan Nihal Jim Brown, who went missing after receiving threats from the Navy's commanding officer.
These incidents join a catalog of documented atrocities. In one particularly shocking case that attracted international news coverage, 17 local employees of the French charity Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger) were found shot to death, execution-style, in Muttur on Aug. 6. They had been working on post-tsunami relief and reconstruction. The Nordic ceasefire monitors of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission blamed government troops for the killings, a charge the military denies. The massacre marked "a turning point in the history of humanitarian action," said Denis Metzger, the group's president. "We have seen blunders, the so-called collateral damage," he said, "but this is a pure and simple execution."
The French group and other aid organizations have since scaled back operations due to safety concerns and bureaucratic obstacles , yet civilians in certain areas are desperate for aid. In the most recent round of fighting, more than 200,000 people have been displaced in the north and east of the country, and some 15,000 people have fled to India, according to AI and other organizations. The majority of the displaced are women and children, and large numbers of them now subsist in makeshift camps on dry rations.
Sri Lanka stands poised at a precipice, yet despite the escalating violence, the country has a chance to avert a return to a "no-mercy war." Much depends on the speed and strength of the international community's response. When the civilian population in Nepal was threatened by the possibility of large-scale massacres in the conflict between Maoist fighters and Nepali security forces in 2005, the United Nations stepped forward. An independent human rights monitoring mission went to Nepal, and the result, says the AHRC's Basil Fernando, "was to reduce the heights of violence and to make possible a democratic solution to the problem."
The International Working Group on Sri Lanka (of which I am the chair) concluded in a statement issued in September that the primacy of respect for human rights and humanitarian norms by all parties to the conflict is not only the key to an immediate response to the worsening situation, but also a fundamental building block in any just and enduring resolution.
Many had hoped that the Sri Lankan government would welcome an independent commission to investigate past abuses, including abductions, disappearances and extra judicial killings in all areas. President Mahinda Rajapaksa initially responded positively. The commission, agreed the president, was to consist of internationally respected judges, human rights activists and civil society representatives, who were to have full powers to investigate all such incidents.
The United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston, who issued a detailed report on killings in Sri Lanka earlier this year, welcomed the announcement. The challenge, he said, would be to ensure that the commission was independent, credible, effective and empowered to make a difference.
Yet just one week later, the government buckled under pressure from within its ranks and backtracked on its promise. It said Sri Lanka would conduct an internal inquiry and only admit international observers to monitor that inquiry. The government then showed its teeth by banning the International Commission of Jurists from sending an observer to the inquest of the 17 slain aid workers.
Louise Arbour, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, along many international organizations, has called for an international human rights monitoring operation in order to stem the momentum of violence. Although Alston warned that human rights monitoring is "not invariably effective," he said it could be extremely valuable in Sri Lanka's conflict, where civilians are "intentionally targeted" and not simply caught in the crossfire.
Many of the people of this lush tropical island, once known as Ceylon, hoped that the four-year ceasefire would lay the ground for peace, but the recent surge in violence has dimmed their hopes. Grimly predicting what may lie ahead, Sunila Abeysekara, an activist representing a range of Sri Lankan human rights organizations, told the U.N. Human Rights Council in September that unless a swift international response addresses both camps in the nation's conflict, "My country stands next to Lebanon and Darfur as one of the most dangerous places in the world for civilians caught up in armed conflict."
Escalating violence between the Sri Lankan security forces and the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has resulted in the death and injury of scores of civilians, the recent displacement of more than 200,000 people, and the destruction of homes, schools and places of worship. Because neither the government nor the LTTE is taking sufficient measures to protect the civilian population, international human rights monitoring presence is urgently needed in the country.
In addition, AI fears that a new pattern of enforced "disappearances" may be re-emerging in Sri Lanka since the introduction of emergency regulations in August 2005 granting sweeping powers to government security forces. Sri Lanka has one of the highest levels of unresolved enforced "disappearances" in the world, with tens of thousands vanishing after arrest over the past two decades. In the past year, more than 150 complaints of enforced "disappearances" have been received by the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission; the fate of more than 50 of these people is still unknown.
Amnesty is calling for the establishment of an independent international human rights monitoring presence to investigate and report on abuses in Sri Lanka. Amnesty appeals to both the government and the LTTE to fully cooperate with such a body and uphold international humanitarian law in protecting civilians. Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans have been displaced in recent months, and conditions in the temporary camps are harsh.