The war between Tamil Tiger rebels and the government continues to rage in Sri Lanka. The Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam want an independent state and the government in Colombo refuses to grant this demand. Since the government scrapped a shaky ceasefire in December 2006 -- the clashes have escalated and there is no end in sight.
Civilians are the biggest losers in the ongoing battle between Tamil Tiger rebels and the army
Sri Lanka also goes by the name “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”. The southern sandy beaches so favoured by the tourists speak for themselves. Here, there is little indication of what is going on in the restive north.
And yet, "just about 200, maybe 250 kilometres away from Colombo, the government and LTTE are fighting possibly the most fierce battles they have fought for the past two years,“ says peace activist and expert Jehan Perera who is shocked that the world is taking so little notice of this war.
"Sri Lanka comes after Iraq and Afghanistan. The other country is Somalia. So Sri Lanka is in the top four in terms of wars in the world but this is not being recognised in the international media and governments for the reason that Sri Lanka is not terribly strategic geo-politically and does not have great resources, such as oil which is why some other countries may get much more prominence in conflicts than them."
Propaganda from the conflict zone
The government rarely allows independent journalists into the conflict zone, whereas the media in Colombo tend to voice the government’s position. There is a lot of propaganda coming out of the conflict zone -- from both sides. The government regularly posts success stories of progress -- and the LTTE releases statements announcing the number of soldiers it has killed.
Rumours of human rights abuses abound even if nobody can really give any numbers. "Let’s say that it is a high-risk environment for human rights violations,” says Gordon Weiss, the United Nations spokesman in Colombo.
“These are precisely the sorts of circumstances for which international humanitarian law was written -- to separate in very complex environments civilians from combatants.“
Civilians are the main losers
As in so many of the world’s hotspots, civilians are the main losers of this conflict. Thousands have fled the combat zones. And although the Tigers, which are on international lists of terror organisations, seem to have lost some ground recently, they remain determined even if they do not attract much sympathy these days.
"The issue of terrorism has dominated international conflicts in the last six or seven years,” explains Weiss. “What might have been acceptable or considered acceptable or forgivable in some circumstances 10 years ago has changed a lot. You see that in the attitudes that some of the principle powers have towards groups that are fighting wars of revolution, resistance, insurgency or national struggle.”
Weiss adds that the world’s “principle” powers -- the US, India and China -- are quietly standing by as the government goes all out to clamp down once and for all on the rebels.
Can there be a military solution?
But the question is whether such a war is winnable. Many Sri Lankans doubt the effectiveness of a military onslaught and think that there can only be a political solution to the issue of Tamil nationalism.
Although the current government seems set to crack down on nationalism with military might, it acknowledges “that there are past wrongs and they must be rectified,” says Weiss.
“It’s a matter of historical record that the Tamil population was sidelined throughout Sri Lankan history.“
Observers fear that if a political solution is not found soon, Sri Lanka faces a sorry future.
Although most of the conflict is currently being fought out in the north, there have been bomb attacks in Colombo and experts warn the conflict could spread across the whole Pearl of the Indian Ocean.