As troops move triumphantly to end Tiger guerrilla domination of their rapidly shrinking terrain in the Mullaitivu district, the fate of civilians trapped in the war has become the most critical question.
Their numbers vary. Official United Nations estimates, through their agencies on the ground, place the number at more than 200,000. The Government has declared a lower figure of 75,000 and maintains the numbers are reducing. Some INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organisations), most of whom are bug bear for the Government, have placed the figure at a staggering 300,000. Whatever the figures are the fact remains that a large number are trapped in the battle zone. They are suffering untold hardships due to the fighting.
The fate of the guerrillas, who have lost all ground barring a little space, is now well known. They would have to face death or depart surreptitiously - either flee to Tamil Nadu, or mingle with the civilians. Either way, it would be a defeat for them. However, what is unclear is the fate of the civilians. Hundreds have died, thousands have been injured and almost all have lost their homesteads. There are claims by pro-LTTE lobbies and some sympathetic NGOs that there is starvation but the Government has stoutly denied them.
Exacerbating fears over the fate of civilians is wild speculation. Some Government leaders and their backers have been giving credence to this by widely publicizing them. According to their account, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Velupillai Prabhakaran, in the wake of imminent annihilation of his group, was planning to force civilians to engage in a mass suicide. There appeared some discrepancy in the claim.
|US Pacific Command forces at a joint exercise with the Thai military.
Pic courtesy US Department of Defence
How would he force the civilians, who were facing the brunt of Prabhakaran's own actions, be forced to commit suicide? Even if one were to believe there would be a section of the civilians, members of the so-called "Maveerar" (Great Heroes) families who would fall in line, for there is little choice, what of the ordinary civilians?
Last week, another rumour did the rounds. It said Prabhakaran planned to kill a large number of civilians when he is on the verge of losing the small area where they are now offering resistance. The aim, it was claimed, was to draw the attention of the international community, particularly the United Nations. It was claimed that a UN intervention or even greater focus would come only if there were a larger number of fatalities. To bolster the argument, examples like the crisis in Darfur, which drew substantial UN attention, were pointed out.
This is in the Darfur region of western Sudan. The lines of conflict are seen by some to be ethnic and tribal, rather than religious, according to Wikipedia. However, a United Nations report states that the various tribes under attack (chiefly the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ) do not appear to have a distinct ethnicity from their attackers. One side of the armed conflicts is composed mainly of the Sudanese military and the Janjaveed, a Sudanese militia group recruited mostly from the Afro-Arab Abbala tribes of the northern Rizeigat region in Sudan.
Though clearly rumours, they nevertheless drew the attention of the Colombo-based diplomatic community. Moreso since some of the pronouncements came from Government leaders or their backers who held influential positions. Hence, they wondered whether such bizarre accounts were based on any credible intelligence information. In the alternative, was it a transparent ploy to spur the international community into action. If it was the latter, little effort was necessary on the part of the Government.
Behind the scenes, for many weeks the Donor Co-chair envoys in Colombo have been busy communicating with their respective capitals. So did the governments of the Co-chair community, the largest aid donors to Sri Lanka, comprising the United States, Japan, Norway and the European Union. They have been in consultation with the Government of Sri Lanka on what was termed a "humanitarian operation" to evacuate the civilians.
The Sunday Times of February 22 exclusively revealed in its main front page lead story details of this operation. The report said: "A Donor-Co-chair-backed humanitarian operation, spearheaded by the United States, to evacuate civilians trapped in the fighting in the Wanni is now taking shape.
"A high-level team of the United States Pacific Command (US PACOM) from their headquarters in Hawaii is now in Colombo for this purpose. The exercise, The Sunday Times learns, will involve US military assets, including those of the Air Force and the Navy. The purpose will be purely to facilitate the movement of civilians from the northeastern coast to a ship in the deep seas. This is for transfer to IDP centres or hospitals outside the battle zones.
"Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama told The Sunday Times he was aware of the intended US-led "coalition humanitarian task force" but could not give a date when it would be set up. He said yesterday that the Government was talking to member countries of the Donor Co-chairs on an individual basis."
Mr. Bogollagama added: "we are also talking to several other friendly countries for civilian evacuation………….''
By making those remarks to The Sunday Times, Minister Bogollagama, the man who is tasked to run Sri Lanka's Foreign policy, not only confirmed The Sunday Times report by saying he was "aware of the intended US-led 'coalition humanitarian task force." More importantly, he disclosed that the Government was "talking to member countries of the Donor Co-chairs on an individual basis." It was Bogollagama who baptized the mission as a "humanitarian task force."
But just 15 days later, on March 9, Bogollagama did an about-turn by contradicting his own statement. He told a hurriedly-summoned news conference that the Government had not permitted any international forces to evacuate civilians. Here is an account of what he told the news conference published in the state run Daily News of March 10:
"Foreign Affairs Minister Rohita Bogollagama said that the Government has not permitted any international forces to evacuate civilians from the Vanni.
"Certain reports published regarding the arrival of US marines in Sri Lanka to transport civilians on the invitation of the Sri Lankan Government are baseless and incorrect," the Minister said.
"Addressing a media briefing in Colombo yesterday, the Minister said that the Government has not made any request to the US Army to support the evacuation process in Sri Lanka.
"We have also not received any proposal from any country in this regard," the Minister said. He said that the US has always extended its support in countering terrorism in Sri Lanka. "We welcome proposals from any country or foreign agency if they are not concerned in safeguarding the terrorists," he said.
"Since the Armed Forces are engaged in fulfilling their duties in eliminating terrorism in the North, the Government has committed itself to streamline the evacuation process of civilians without harming them. The Government without having any political interest is committed to ensure the protection of civilians. We have improved medical facilities while providing necessary food supplies to civilians fleeing from Mullaitivu," he said.
"He said the international community is very concerned about the ongoing evacuation of civilians and their medical facilities. We are trying to increase the numbers of civilians being evacuated, he said…………………………."
In his remarks to The Sunday Times, Bogollagama says he was aware of a US-backed "coalition humanitarian task force," At the news conference, he declares "certain reports regarding the arrival of the US Marines in Sri Lanka to transport civilians on the invitation of the Sri Lanka Government are baseless and incorrect." Which version of Bogollagama is fact and which version is fiction?
Technically it may be true that the Government of Sri Lanka did not make a specific request for evacuation of trapped civilians by the US marines. But the fact remains that a high-level team from the US Marines attached to the Pacific Command in Hawaii did visit Sri Lanka to formulate evacuation plans. The proposal for such a "coalition humanitarian task force" as Bogollagama termed it came from the Donor Co-chairs and was accepted by the Government of Sri Lanka.
This fact was confirmed by Cathy Fox, Spokesperson to the United States Embassy in Colombo this week. "It is correct that a US team was here in Sri Lanka to assess the situation on evacuation of civilians, in February and since then there has not been any progress. We are willing to help, if the request from the Government comes," she told The Sunday Times after Minister Bogollagama's rebuttal statement earlier this week.
There was no question of the Sri Lanka Government making any formal request as pointed out in these columns. To the contrary, requests to allow such a "coalition humanitarian mission" was made by the Donor Co-chairs. In addition a similar offer was also made by the Government of India. The Sri Lanka Government indeed accepted the offers. This is on the basis that the parties making the offer are able to persuade the LTTE to agree to the evacuation. The task of making contact with the guerrillas to facilitate the operation was placed in the hands of Norway, which country still remains the peace facilitator though the Oslo-brokered Ceasefire Agreement is no more. However, the LTTE had repeatedly opposed any such move until the Sri Lanka Government agreed to a halt its hostilities.
The Government welcomed the idea of a humanitarian evacuation operation. That would have paved the way to deal directly with the LTTE guerrillas and evict them from the small extent of terrain they hold in the Mullaitivu district.
The Sunday Times is able to reveal today that a six-man team from the US Marines (Pacific Command) was in Colombo last month making a full study to evolve evacuation plans. The team was led by the Commanding General of the 3rd Marine Evacuation Brigade Brigadier General R.L. Bailey and comprised a logistics planner, an Air Planner, a Navy Planner, a Medical Planner and a US Medical Corps Operations Planner.
They arrived in Colombo in a Hercules C-130 aircraft and visited Trincomalee and Palaly.
Why then did Bogollagama deny plans made for an evacuation operation? Firstly, it is a fundamental tenet in foreign relations and diplomacy that a host
country would have to agree to accept a delegation if a foreign power were to make a request, be it political or military, for any purpose. The fact that the US military team was in Sri Lanka and even visited some of the planned main staging areas was proof that the Government had agreed to it. In fairness to the Government, it must be said, that no formal request for such a mission was made by them.
The Sunday Times learnt that India was displeased by the Donor Co-chair move to ask United States to spearhead such an effort. Highly-placed Foreign Ministry sources said New Delhi had expressed displeasure over the move. "There were misapprehensions, too. New Delhi thought we (the Government of Sri Lanka) had invited the US evacuation mission. However, they made clear they were not happy," the source who did not wish to be identified said since he is not authorized to speak to the media.
"This does not mean India is opposed to the evacuation of civilians. They are very much in favour of it. However, New Delhi strongly believes the best mechanism for such a humanitarian evacuation effort would be the United Nations," the source said. Hence, the source added that due to the LTTE's refusal and its objections, the "coalition humanitarian task force" will not become a reality. According to the sources, Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon had apprised senior officials of President Barack Obama administration of India's position with regard to civilians caught up in the battle zone besides other issues related to the Sri Lankan conflict.
Sri Lankan journalist Aziz Haniffa in a report from Washington said, "A US team that had gone out to these areas "to look at the possibilities for just this kind of thing (evacuation)," had concluded that "this is not likely in the current situation because that is not what the military calls a 'permissive' environment -- which means the two sides are not firing at each other and the two sides agree to this. So, until there is that permissive environment," the sources said, it was highly unlikely "we'll see that kind of evacuation."
The subject of evacuating civilians is learnt to have figured when envoys of the Donor Co-chairs met in Colombo on Wednesday. It was noted that the primary reason for their humanitarian mission not moving forward was the refusal of the LTTE. Though some were of the view another statement should be issued, there was no agreement. India also took part in Wednesday's meeting upon invitation.
On Friday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned President Rajapaksa on the plight of the displaced people. Statements on this were issued by the Presidential media unit and the US State Department. The versions differed, especially on the emphasis.
Though the LTTE has been offering resistance whilst locating themselves in an area of some 35 square kilometers, the Army hopes to regain control before the National New Year. Thus, the decisive battles ahead will set an even bigger poser for civilians.
This is whilst the defence and security establishment in Colombo is intensifying security in other parts of the country. This is particularly after last Tuesday's suicide bomb attack at the Godapitiya mosque near Akuressa. Fourteen persons including some local politicians were killed in this incident. Post and Telecommunication Minister Mahinda Wijesekera, who was badly injured, was airlifted to Colombo for medical attention. Doctors said he is now recovering.
With Avurudhu barely a month away, and the Western Provincial Council elections immediately thereafter, Sri Lanka will have to brace itself for tougher times. The main scourge of terrorism is over with the re-capture of territory dominated by guerrillas. However, like Tuesday's suicide bomb attack, fears of further guerrilla attacks cannot be ruled out. It naturally calls for vigilance.