For those of us with small children, it is always a dilemma how much we need to (or indeed are able to) shelter them from the full horror of what goes on in the world.
On Sunday, I was giving my eight year old son. Oscar, a lift home from his Tae Kwon Do lesson, along with a friend he has made from Sri Lanka, and the boy’s mother. I asked her why her son had not been at the last Sunday’s session, and she candidly replied that it was because they had just received news that her husband’s sister and her whole family, including the children, had been slaughtered by the Sri Lankan army.
Oscar was not too fazed by this information, I think because he has learned about what happens in wars at school, and for him modern day Sri Lanka is no more part of his day to day reality than Ancient Rome or the London Blitz. He asked what started the war; his friend’s mum did not have the English to reply; but his ten year old mate breezily chirped up that he had no idea; he only knows it has been going on for 35 years. The family are in Swindon because they have fled Sri Lanka due to the fighting.
The struggle has been going on for decades, as Tamils in the north of the island want to secede from the country, in the face of undoubted ethnic discrimination from the Sinhalese majority. The war in Sri Lanka has now taken a desperate turn, not least because the national liberation organisation of the Tamils, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have become firmly categorised as “terrorists” in the new post 9-11 world order, giving the Sri Lankan government far greater scope for a repressive military “solution”. Recently there has been a major offensive from the government who have captured former rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi. This has forced the Tamil guerrillas into a small enclave in Mullaithivu, where they seem to be preparing for a last stand.
On the government side there has been a wave of chauvinist and racist propaganda. Much of this goes unchallenged by the press, and to make sure of this there has been government terror, including the brutal murder of Lasantha Wickmeratunge, one of the country’s most respected journalists. The Socialist party website reports that even the German ambassador to Sri Lanka was called before the government and criticised after speaking out against media suppression at Lasantha’s funeral. Since Lasantha’s death another editor has been stabbed and numerous other attacks on journalists have taken place.
But the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), have also played their part in creating the current crisis. There are some 400000 civilians trapped in one small area of Mullaithivu district, without food or supplies, with no contact from relief agencies.
The “Tigers” forcibly moved the Tamil population out of Kilinochchi as government forces advanced, and refused to allow civilians to leave when the government offered them safe conduct on 31st January. Even though there may be reasonable grounds from some scepticism about this offer of “safety”, evacuation must be a better option for the helpless civilians. The LTTE has seemingly not made any attempt to create a safety zone in the area they control. Instead they are moving people further back into areas where there are no facilities – water, food, medicine or shelter.
The Morning Star reports the LTTE refusing international calls for a ceasefire:
Balasingham Nadesan said in the letter to the UN that international calls for the rebels to lay down their arms are “not helpful for resolving the conflict” and that the weapons “are the protective shield of the Tamil people and their tool for political liberation.
“When a permanent political solution is reached for the Tamil people, with the support and the guarantee of the international community, the situation will arise where there will be no need for the arms of the LTTE,” Mr Nadesan said.
“We are ready to discuss, co-operate, and work together in all their efforts to bring an immediate ceasefire and work towards a political settlement.”
What is most remarkable is that the world is almost completely silent. Sri Lanka is not an inaccessible country – there are direct flights there from London, but politicians and journalists in the west seem to take no interest in a humanitarian disaster that has been described by some as a “silent Tsunami”.