Diplomatic Pouch / May 5, 2009
By Larry Luxner
In early April, Sri Lanka's foreign secretary, Palitha Kohona, gathered half a dozen journalists to the Washington residence of the Sri Lankan ambassador, Jaliya Wickramasuriya. There, over premium Ceylon tea and pastries, he confidently declared that Asia's longest-running ethnic war would be wrapped up in a matter of days.
"Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week," was how he put it when one reporter asked how much longer the war would go on.
Nearly a month later, the fighting still rages. But Sri Lankan government forces now appear on the verge of once and for all defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a fierce group of separatists — some say terrorists — that for 25 years has fought for an independent Tamil homeland in the island's northeast.
"Almost everybody in the world thought the Tigers were unbeatable," said Kohona. "We were consistently told by the international community that our Sri Lankan security forces would not stand a chance against them."
Only three years ago, the LTTE controlled over 5,800 square miles of territory —about 23 percent of the West Virginia-sized island — and the group had sympathizers and admirers throughout the world.
How times have changed.
At last check, the rebels were down to a 1.7-square-mile sliver of beachfront, an area less than half the size of Rock Creek Park. They've taken cover among an estimated 20,000 civilians still inside the crowded enclave. And more than 200,000 refugees have escaped the bloodshed over the last three months, as LTTE leaders plead for a ceasefire.
Yet the government refuses to stop the war, sensing victory may be less than one week away at this point. "Our message is that the war is over, the delusion of Eelam is in tatters, and it's time to recognize this and give democracy a chance," said Kohona.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a relative of Ambassador Wickramasuriya, hinted on May 1 that surrender was still an option for the armed Tigers.
"In the five or six days remaining, we have given the opportunity for the LTTE to lay down their arms and surrender to the armed forces and, even in the name of God, free the civilians held by them," he declared at an event in Colombo, the capital. "If they have no regard for their own lives, they should at least consider the lives of others."
Sri Lanka's minister for human rights, Mahinda Samarasinghe, said officials are now considering an amnesty for LTTE rebels who give up their arms — but not for leaders of the insurgency, including the group's elusive founder, Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has called on the Tigers to let the remaining civilians leave the shrinking strip of land. It's also urging the Sri Lankan government to "exercise maximum restraint including no use of heavy weapons" in the conflict zone.
"The months of fighting during which the inhabitants of the conflict zone have been trapped have taken a terrible toll among the civilian population," said John Holmes, the UN's undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs. "We must have access to all internally displaced persons wherever they are, including in the conflict zone."
At this point, said Kohona, "the LTTE is trying to save their own skins, but nobody seems to ask how the civilians got there. We insist that the civilians be allowed to go. It is a primary concern of the government that civilian casualties be minimized as much as possible. Until we came into this small area, civilian casualties were so low that even the LTTE propaganda machine had no pictures of civilians who had been hurt."
He added that "those who are now getting killed are children who have bee thrown at our security forces by the LTTE with only a minimum of training."
The foreign secretary angrily denied reports that Sri Lankan government forces are shelling civilians.
"Anybody who has experience with shells would know that you can't fire at your enemy without causing harm to yourself when you're that close," he said. "Shells are not simply lobbed across, they're fired from a distance. This is another story that goes around and is accepted without critical analysis. The president himself has given his assurance that we will not fire heavy artillery into the no-fire zone."
He added: "Why should we fire shells into the midst of civilians? The fruit is just about to fall into our hands. The LTTE is nearly defeated. What would we get by tormenting civilians?"
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington has begun taking up a collection for urgent humanitarian aid for the 180,000 or so civilians now sheltered in temporary welfare centers. The embassy said these refugees are in "urgent need of a substantial amount of essential items such as food, clothing and medicine."
The embassy is specifically appealing for milk powder, sugar, canned food, instant noodles, biscuits, clothing, toiletries, bedsheets, tents, baby-feeding bottles, candles, slippers and saucepans, among other things.
Kohona bristled at suggestions that his government is running African-style refugee camps
"I worked in the UN before, and I'm very familiar with the camps in Darfur and eastern Congo. We have no families crouching under trees with sunken eyes, waiting for their next meal. People get three meals a day. There's even a school with accommodation for 600 children. It's not ideal, but life is continuing in relatively normal fashion."
Meanwhile, Wickramasuriya is making the rounds of Capitol Hill, meeting with influential lawmakers in a bid to convince them that it's the LTTE — not the Sri Lankan defense forces — which are committing atrocities and should be charged with genocide.
"The LTTE, due to its extremely sophisticated lobbying machinery, conveys messages which are far from the truth," Kohona said. "Our mission here has been working overtime to get our side of the story to the Obama administration."
With major hostilities soon to be a thing of the past, Sri Lankan officials are focusing on the future. As such, Kohona vowed to start rebuilding the devastated north almost immediately — an effort that could cost upwards of $2 billion. He also promised that the refugees would "definitely go back to their homes" in a matter of months, not years.
"In the Eastern Province, when we recovered it [from the LTTE], over 187,000 people had been displaced, and 95 percent of them were returned to their homes within 12 months," he declared. "There's no intention of keeping people in these camps forever."