I learned about the apparent end of the Sri Lankan military’s long-running war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in this Reuters report. I also learned that, coinciding with the military victory, the Sri Lankan stock market had lept to a seven-month high. This is interesting information, to be sure, and has been part of an odd trend that I have noticed, in which reports of the Sri Lankan military campaign also consistently detail the ascent of the country’s stock market. But what this particular Reuters article did not tell me was that, despite the “end” of the war, there are still hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan civilians languishing in camps, displaced by fighting, abused by LTTE civilian-shield tactics, and now at the crux of the problems facing the new, allegedly post-LTTE Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan government likes to portray its offensives as “rescuing” these civilians. No doubt many did not feel safe in an area full of LTTE guerillas willing to sacrifice the very lives they purported to protect. But, in addition to the “normal” privations of displaced persons that these civilians are now facing, a couple disturbing factors make their plight all the more dangerous.
First, the Sri Lankan government has not exactly acted with exemplary cooperation with the international community. It has prevented journalists from entering the scene, it has routinely denied accusations of causing civilian casualties (let alone potential war crimes), and it has not made the work of humanitarian aid organizations particularly easy.
Second, the undeniable ethnic dimension of this conflict could put the dispaced Sri Lankans in the north in even greater jeopardy. Many of these civilians are Tamils — and some of them came to see the LTTE as the only pressure point (even if one with whose tactics and goals they did not necessarily agree) on Colombo for greater Tamil autonomy. The government, in turn, has been suspected of using Tamil ethnicity as a proxy indicator for LTTE membership. I’m not saying a bloodbath (or, rather, a “worse” bloodbath) will flood the camps, but some international scrutiny of the government’s management of the camps is definitely a pressing necessity.
I’ll let Francis Deng, the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, explain further, in his Guardian op-ed, why the Sri Lankan conflict will not end simply by killing top LTTE leaders:
This polarizing conflict is identity-related with ethnicity and religion as deeply divisive factors. It will not end with winners and losers and it cannot be ended solely through a military victory that may not be sustainable in the long run unless legitimate grievances are addressed. The government and the LTTE must immediately alleviate the plight of civilians and the Government is urged to work with the international community to initiate a political process to create a national framework in which all Sri Lankans can co-exist as equal citizens.
And I will add a point that I’ve made before (and that militaries in Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, among others, have learned): a terrorist movement that operates based on suicide bombings and guerilla insurgency will not be snuffed out simply by eliminating its territorial base or whacking its erstwhile heads. To extend a point that Matt Yglesias has been making frequently of late, LTTE terrorists won’t necessarily need a lot of territory from which to plot destabilization of the Sri Lankan government. The government has the territory; now it just needs to make sure it wins stability, too. And keeping displaced civilians safe and getting them re-integrated into society will be important — indeed, the only — ways to achieve that.
(image from flickr user trokilinochchi under a Creative Commons license)