By Owen McCracken
BETWEEN 250,000 and 400,000 civilians remain trapped in the small area of Northern Sri Lanka still controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This densely populated area is now being bombarded by the state military with indiscriminate shelling. With coming days likely to see the bloodiest period of fighting the island has seen, it is evident that a humanitarian crisis on a par with Gaza is unfolding.
These developments mark the latest horrific phase in Asia’s longest running civil war, which has seen 70,000 people die in a 25 year cycle of communalist violence. In recent weeks, the army has taken a string of important towns, including Kilinochchi, the de-facto capital of the 15,000 square kilometre territory run by the LTTE in northern Sri Lanka. The government offensive has brought misery to the people of the region.
They have stated they will accept nothing less than “unconditional surrender” and their scorched-earth policy will lead to hundreds, possibly thousands of deaths. As we go to press, reports have leaked out indicating cluster bombs were dropped in the last functioning hospital in the area and, according to the UN, 52 civilians were killed both inside and on the perimeter of a designated safe zone.
For the trapped civilians, the war must be stopped immediately. As Mullaithivu is one of the poorest regions of the country, those blockaded in this area have to contend with a severe lack of facilities to treat the injured and dying. With insufficient food, water and medicine, there are fears thousands are dying from starvation and there is no sign of significant supplies arriving from the government or aid agencies.
Over recent weeks a stream of racist rhetoric has been voiced by President Rajapakse and his political colleagues. Rajapakse has been attempting to use the military gains to promote himself as a defender of the majority ethnic Sinhalese and appease right wing hardliners on whom he depends for a parliamentary majority. The government is however not only fanning the flames of communalism, it is also linking this to a ruthless campaign against political opposition. In a recent interview with the BBC, the President stated that any Sri Lankan criticising the government at a time of war was guilty of “treason” and that people fall into “only two groups—the people who fight terrorism and the terrorists.”
The intimidation of journalists and other media personnel by government-sponsored thugs has been widespread. These attacks have included the stabbing of an editor, the wrecking of the MTV station and the brutal murder of the country’s most respected journalist, Lasantha Wickmeratunge. The victimisation of political activists has also been rife, with three members of the United Socialist Party (USP), the Sri Lankan sister party of the Socialist Party in Ireland, arrested on trumped up charges after holding a public meeting to build opposition to the war.
The government now claims it is on the verge of a “decisive” victory in this long running conflict. While the LTTE is certainly facing an historic military defeat, the national question in Sri Lanka will remain unresolved and the conflict will thus enter a new phase. The Tigers will likely regroup and switch focus to exclusively terrorist methods, continuing their longstanding failure to promote mass action by the Tamil working class and poor.
Mass protests and demonstrations calling for an immediate end to the war have however been organised both within Sri Lanka and across the world. A general strike was called in the Indian province of Tamil Nadu, for example, which saw over 600 arrests in the state capital Chennai (Madras) alone, while in London more than 100,000 people took to the streets in a huge demonstration. In the long term, the aspirations of ordinary Tamils for their national rights will not go away and socialists must stand firmly for the right of Tamil speaking regions for self-determination. This must be accompanied by a united struggle of both the Singhalese and Tamil masses for a socialist alternative to capitalism and communalist violence.