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David Miller: The Forgotten And Bloody War

David Miller Online

Sri Lanka: The Forgotten and Bloody War

If it was not for the fact that the Black Caps were currently playing in an international cricket tournament, it is doubtful that many people in New Zealand would have taken notice of the bomb attack carried out by Tamil separatists on Colombo’s airport last week. This was the third visit by a New Zealand side that has coincided with a Tamil guerrilla operation, the previous tours being in 1987 and 1992, and it demonstrates that the conflict in Sri Lanka has a long and bloody history. Despite this history, the Sri Lankan conflict is one that receives little attention around the world. It does not have world leaders trying to act as mediator as is the case in Northern Ireland or the Middle East, however it has cost the lives of over 64’000 people and it would appear that unless some remarkable political breakthrough can be found, the only way this conflict will be resolved is victory on the battlefield.

Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is an ethnically and religiously diverse country, with the Sinhalese, and generally Buddhist community, making up almost three-quarters of the population. This community is concentrated largely in the southwest of the country, in which lies the capital Colombo, and since independence from Britain in 1947, has been the most politically dominant group. The Tamil community is concentrated in the north and east and is predominantly Hindu. Over the centuries, the Tamils have migrated from India to settle there, either on their own accord or with the British to work the tea plantations. Other minority communities include Muslims, who are also concentrated in Tamil areas and people who are descendants of other ethnic groups from the former British Empire.

The Tamil uprising began in 1983 in what the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam movement calls a struggle for political independence and self-determination. They claim that Sri Lanka's minority 3.2 million Tamils can only prosper if they are free from the political and economic domination of the majority Sinhalese. Last week’s raid on Colombo’s international airport, was carried out by the LTTE or Tamil Tigers as they are more commonly known, in order to mark the 18th anniversary of when hostilities began. The campaign has not only been characterised by a sustained military offensive in the north, but has also included the use of terrorist tactics, namely suicide bombings aimed at the Sri Lankan government in Colombo. The LTTE is accused of drug smuggling in order to buy their arms and ammunition on the international black market, which are then usually smuggled into Sri Lanka in small fishing boats.

The latest round of fighting comes at a time when the Sri Lankan government has issued a statement saying it believes the only way to end the country's long running insurgency is full scale war. Since the beginning of this year, the Tamil Tigers had been observing a unilateral ceasefire, in what it called a bid to aid peace talks brokered by Norway. In return for this observation, the LTTE demanded Colombo lift the ban on the organization and stop military action taken against them, however the government maintains a different perspective.

The government has claimed that the rebels were using the ceasefire to reorganise and reinforce their fighters and were using the time to plan an offensive against the northern city of Jaffna. The government maintained that the true intention of the rebels is the establishment of a separate state by force and it reserves the right to maintain the right to protect the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka using any means possible. The rebels on the other hand, argue that the offensive is a bid by President Chandrika Kumaratunga to stave off a no confidence vote in parliament and is therefore, motivated by political reasons. In a statement released to the media, the LTTE said that the government was embarking upon military adventurism and would have to bear the responsibility for the consequences of its actions.

Should the Tigers capture Jaffna then they would achieve a strategically and psychologically important victory, similar to when they held the city, which has been a Tamil stronghold for centuries from 1990-95. In this period they used it as a centre from they controlled their de-facto state. It would also have serious ramifications for the Sri Lankan government and act as a demonstration for its lack of military power and will and mean that there would be little incentive for the LTTE to re-enter into the Norwegian-brokered peace talks that remain stalled.

Sri Lanka is another example of the intractability and bitterness that characterises so many civil wars in the world today and the difficulties encountered when trying to bring the parties together and balance claims and counter claims; traits so common in conflict around the world. It also serves as a reminder that such conflicts have little impact on a country such as New Zealand except for the fact a sporting team is presently on tour there. Hence only as a result of this has concern been raised. This is not the view of a cynic but that of a realist. In civil wars such as this, nothing can be done to bring about peace unless the parties themselves are willing to talk and make concessions and in Sri Lanka’s case that eventuality looks as remote now as it has for the past 18 years. Maybe when people call for New Zealand and organisations such as the United Nations to do more to aid world peace they should look at Sri Lanka and ask why that conflict will be solved only when one side wins the war.

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