The 25 year long Civil War in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese Government and the Tamil Rebel Group, (the Tamil Tigers also known as the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)) has seen an escalation of violence in the last three years and now it seems that the violence is coming to an end as the Government continues to overtake Tamil strongholds. Just yesterday president Mahinda Rajapaksa, (who has escalated government efforts to eradicate the LTTE) was quoted saying: "Our heroic troops have fully captured Killinochchi the main bastion of the LTTE."
However, just hours after his public statements, which were broadcasted on Sri Lankan news networks, a suicide bomber on a motorbike killed 3 military personnel and injured 37 near an Air Force base in the southern capitol of Colombo. The act is a clear sign that the rebels (who are fighting for equal rights and a separate Tamil State in Sri Lanka) continue to elude the grasp of the government.
As a war for territory rages in the north, the battle for free speech is being waged in the southern capitol of Colombo where Tamil and Singhalese co-exist peacefully albeit tensely. Yet even as the conflict seems to be drawing to a close, the government, which has a long history of abducting Tamil civilians and suppressing information, has increased its security forces in the capitol. Most recently, these forces detained Nadesapillai Vithyatharan (the editor of pro-tamil newsletters in Colombo and Jaffna) for his alleged connection to a rebel air force raid in Colombo about two weeks ago. The CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) has called for his immediate release as his detainment comes just weeks after Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of a newspaper, The Sunday Leader, was shot to death on his way to work.Wickramatunga's last piece of writing, is a riveting open letter that directly addresses Mahinda Rajapaksa:
Wickramatunga's letter went on to say:
So well known were your commitments to human rights and liberal values that we ushered you in like a breath of fresh air...Sadly, for all the dreams you had for our country, in just three years you have reduced it to rubble. No child could have caused so much blood to be spilled on this land as you have...In the wake of my death I know you will call upon the police to hold a swift inquiry but like all the inquiries, nothing will come of this one (either).
Yet Wickramatunga's most eloquent statements were yet to come when he said:
Neither shall our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organizations ever to have infested the planet. But to eradicate (them) by violating the rights of Tamil citizens is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese.
Strong stuff. Wickramatunga is of course referring to the rights of the Tamil minority which have over the years evaporated in the face of Singhalese majority rule.
While separatist terrorism must be eradicated, it is more important to address the root causes of terrorism (and the Sunday Leader) urges the government to view Sri Lanka's ethnic strife in the context of history and not through the telescope of terrorism.
An estimated 250,000 Tamil civilians are caught in the rebel controlled areas and the government continues to dodge questions of an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Ravi Nessman, an Associated Press journalist stationed in Colombo said on the PBS show Tavis Smiley that the war zone is "a black hole for journalists" and that "we are barred from going in." On the same program, Palitha Kohona, the foreign minister of Sri Lanka answered questions as to government treatment of journalists and he had this to say: "The government doesn't allow journalists into the war zone because it is not safe, you must really have a death wish," which sounded like a strange and veiled threat. When asked about civilian casualties Kohona said: "The government doesn't need to fire upon civilians, the prize (Tamil Tigers) are almost within its grasp." And when asked about allegations of Genocide he said finally: "I do not think that anyone familiar with the concept of genocide believes there is a genocide going on." Another official, Rohitha Bogollagama, the minister of foreign affairs for the Sri Lankan Government just days ago was quoted as saying "there are no human rights abuses in our country."
Human Rights Watch has just declared Sri Lanka one of the Eight Red Alert zones for genocide and on February 19th, (ironically one day after Nessman's and Kohona's appearance on PBS) HRW released a statement saying "The Sri Lankan government should immediately cease its indiscriminate artillery attacks on civilians in the northern region and its policy of detaining displaced persons in internment camps." The report also accuses the LTTE of violating the "laws of war" by not releasing civilians caught in the war zone and calls for a cease-fire from both sides.