Trapped citizens of Wanni

Out of earshot of most of the country, there is the deafening resonance of artillery fire and aerial bombardments in one part -- the Wanni -- the area between Vavuniya and the Jaffna peninsula.

This is said to be a defining moment in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which has been fighting for independence from Colombo for the past quarter of a century or more, with the Government committed to ending the insurgency once and for all.

The separatists themselves made a statement by their aerial attack on the security forces' operational centre in the Wanni on Tuesday, triggering some reaction in neighbouring India because two technicians manning the radar system at the base were injured.

But the inevitable fallout of the military thrust is the fate of the civilians being trapped between the warring combatants -- an estimated 200,000 people, men, women and children, whose plight the media have been highlighting for two or three weeks now.

The Government had at first urged the United Nations agencies based in the strife-torn region and the International Non-Government Organisations (INGOs) to persuade the LTTE to permit free movement of the trapped civilians to Government-controlled areas where their food, lodging and safety are guaranteed, despite the discomfort of being displaced from their homes.

The international agencies seem to have taken a very negative approach to the situation, merely citing the textbook to say that they are against any restrictions to the freedom of where people should be - "however complex the situation is". They say they are not in a position to advise anybody, and by implication this would mean the LTTE as well, and that they are there only to provide humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile, the UN Secretary General in faraway New York said this week that he was deeply concerned over "the increased hostilities in northern Sri Lanka, and the grave humanitarian consequences for civilians". The leader of the Tamil National Alliance told Parliament this week that the intensity of the military attacks is "unprecedented", and that "they are the worst that have taken place anytime in any part of the world". He talked of violations of international laws and "genocide connotations". Nary a word about the LTTE's responsibility to ensure the safety of the people whom they claim to be the "sole representatives" of.

While the TNA is prone to exaggerate and must dance to the piper's tune, the Government must be watchful of a campaign to whip up world opinion against it on humanitarian grounds. The Government insists that temporary accommodation is available for the displaced, but the problem is that the LTTE is holding on to them as 'human shields'.

But what of those civilians who don't want to evacuate to Government controlled areas? Are they to be condemned to their fate? These are the complications that confront the Government amidst security forces' advances, while the rains threaten to worsen the situation. The wounding of two Indian technicians at Vavuniya has given fuel to pro-LTTE political elements in Tamil Nadu to raise their voices again pressurising the Indian Government to act. Fortunately, the support for the LTTE in the southern Indian state has waned since its heyday in the 1980s.

The Government must be mindful of international repercussions, and precedents when the world community justifies intervention even though it violated all norms of international law. There are interested parties peddling new concepts like 'Right to Protect' particularly aimed at situations like one finds in Sri Lanka.

The example of Kosovo when even the United Nations was bypassed by western powers, sending their troops under the flag of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) to take sides in their dispute with Serbia cannot be entirely lost on Colombo. Later, the UN got a foot-hold in monitoring a 'supervised independence' for Kosovo.

It is clear that the Government recognises the undercurrents from sections of the international community, but it must not take them lightly. Already, our reporters have met ICRC (International Red Cross) personnel at the Omanthai area and they boldly say that they will stay put in what they call 'No Man's Land' - the area between the security forces and the LTTE, come hell or high-water. The UN agencies are staying back as well.

There is, therefore, a heavy burden and an extra duty of care over the civilians trapped in the clash of arms. The Government may have good intentions of liberating them from guerrilla clutches, but their means must justify their ends.

Unfortunately, it does not have the luxury of an open licence that the western powers have when they go to war and cause 'collateral damage' to civilians caught up in the fighting.

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