Punctuated by haphazard attacks, the Sri Lankan war finds its fateful genesis in 1972 when Velupillai Prabhakaran formed the Tamil New Tigers. With a name change to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 1976, the militant organization has continued to wage a vicious secessionist campaign that has morphed into the longest-running armed conflict in Asia.
The Tigers are considered to be a terrorist organization by 32 countries. The Sri Lankan military began a serious offensive in January, gaining crucial ground and pushing over major Tiger strongholds. The Tigers’ control over a “shadow state” in the north of the country was ended by the Sri Lankan military, with Kilinochchi falling on January 2, 2009.
After the Sri Lankan capture of Kilinochchi, several foreign governments implored both sides of the conflict to seek a diplomatic solution.
Sadly, the fighting continued and the civilians have been caught in the middle. The government of Sri Lanka continues to press ahead, unyielding in their mission to wipe out the Tigers once and for all. Various groups, such as Amnesty International, have demanded action from the U.N. Security Council, citing “the horrific condition facing civilians” as a grave matter that must be addressed.
U.N. figures show 7,000 Tamil civilians killed between January 20 and May 7. Some health officials estimate that another 1,000 civilians have been killed since then, with combatant casualty figures remaining a mystery.
The death tolls for the Sri Lankan conflict exceed the casualty tolls this year in Gaza, Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined. The Red Cross has reported an “unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe,” while U.S. President Barack Obama has condemned the Sri Lankan government’s “indiscriminate shelling.”
As of yet, however, there have been no significant international efforts to help stop the violence in Sri Lanka. The government has faced threats from Britain and the United States to temporarily delay a much-needed IMF loan worth almost two billion dollars, but the ferocity of the Tigers appears to be affording the Sri Lankan forces some sympathy and, as expected, clemency amid the denunciation.
In terms of the Tamil rebels, there is little that can be done along diplomatic lines.
With civilians plainly trapped in what could be carelessly referred to as a buffer zone, the exigency of the conflict reaches epic proportions. An area consisting of two square kilometres has been designated as a “safe zone” by the Sri Lankan government, but the use of heavy artillery by the military and the use of civilians as human shields by the Tamil rebels have left an estimated 50,000 civilians in peril.
The differences of both sides of the conflict must be put aside for the sake of the civilians doubtlessly caught in perilous middle ground. With the Red Cross unable to deliver aid and with diminishing water, food, and medical supplies, intervention must occur to assist civilians caught in the middle. Their politics need not matter at this point and time, as their lives must come first.
There must be unencumbered access to Sri Lanka’s troubled areas for international monitors and agencies to address the human rights violations and serious need for care.
There are some reports of a mass suicide planned by the Tigers, as the Sri Lankan forces have them cornered on a strip of beach. It is estimated by some that the fighting may be over by late Saturday. If this is the case, the gargantuan need for humanitarian assistance should be readily perceptible. The Tamils, on the other hand, have said that this will only mark the beginning of another bloody chapter of conflict.
The Sri Lankan government is expected to press through with the final stages of their offensive, which will probably result in more civilian casualties before victory is obtained. With more innocent lives trapped between the military’s onslaught and the brutality of the Tigers, immediate intervention is essential.
Whether there will be war crimes tribunals or not remains to be seen, as very little access in the region has been granted to the media and diplomats. As this continues to play out, the eyes of the international community must be on the region and the first priority must be to ensure the safety, care, and protection of the civilians caught in the middle.