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Politics

   
 

Dilemma over civilian casualties


The Indian National Security Advisor N. K. Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon met President Mahinda Rajapakse on Friday at Temple Trees

The week is proving truly momentous as well as a defining moment in our history as government forces stand poised to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It is the fervent wish of those who desire a peaceful and pluralistic society to see an end to the bitter feud that had dragged on for 26 years and committed around 100,000 from both sides to an early grave.

As history is being created, a jubilant President Mahinda Rajapakse earlier this week declared the LTTE’s defeat being ‘imminent.’

A President brimming with confidence in the anticipated final victory openly rejected a call by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to extend the humanitarian ‘no-fire’ period with a snide remark that the likes of Moon should be spending there energies on pressurising the LTTE Leader to grant an hour of freedom to the civilians kept under his clutches.

However, it is the undiluted hope of every peace-loving citizen that the war should surely end putting an effective end to decades of bloodletting, scourge and destruction. It is also hoped that the government would now have the prudence to capitalise on military gains and move into the next phase of rebuilding the long denied war ravaged zones and to pave the way for democratic politics in the northeast.

The nation eagerly awaits that phase and an opportunity to heal as a nation.

As the military advances continued coupled with massive humanitarian operations, on Wednesday afternoon, LTTE’ former media spokesperson, Daya Master and George, the translator of slain LTTE Political Head, S.P. Tamilselvan surrendered to the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) signifying an end to the Tiger cause as far as the two were concerned.

Ultimatum

The government last week issued an ultimatum to LTTE Leader Velupillai Pirapaharan and his cadres to surrender to the defence forces by Monday, April 20, mid day.

In the meantime, what is considered the biggest humanitarian operation undertaken in recent history is underway with over 95,000 civilians being rescued by the military within three days.

As people began to flee the last area under the control of the Liberation Tigers, President Rajapakse’s sentiments of an imminent LTTE defeat were endorsed by the international community, currently keeping Sri Lanka under its microscopic gaze as civilian suffering has reached an all time high amidst intensified battles to gain full control over the northern territory.

President Rajapakse was quoted by AFP having stated that according to aerial video footage captured by a military spy plane, non combatants in their thousands were fleeing the rebel held areas into the government held territory. 

For weeks, the government had been charging the Liberation Tigers of holding trapped civilians as a human shield, a fact underscored by the three suicide attacks carried out by the LTTE early last week injuring scores of civilians, including women and children. According to Military Spokesperson, Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, three suicide explosions targeting the fleeing civilians in the safe zone in Mullaitivu had resulted in over 100 civilians being injured.

Last ditch attempt

“But it’s over for the Tigers. This was a last ditch attempt. The hospitals are fully functional and civilians are being treated for their injuries and other ailments. Over 5,000 suffer from fever and rashes having escaped the Tiger brute force under trying conditions,” Government Defence Spokesperson, Keheliya Rambukwella said.

The final military push came Sunday morning when the military overran the last bund of the LTTE in Pudumatalan, east of Puthukkudiyiruppu stretching over 3 kms, leading to the rescue of over 5,000 civilians within a matter of hours.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka Navy units too were deployed in the northeastern coastal waters of the island. Some 103 boats were used in carrying out rescue operations of over 1,800 civilians, according to Navy Spokesperson Capt. D.K.P. Dassanayake.

The Navy Spokesperson confirmed that the navy had detected a cluster of small boats coming out of the No Fire Zone on April 20 morning.

“The navy identified that refugees were under attack and immediately galvanised the sea units to help fleeing civilians,” Dassanayake said.

Amidst military victories and the UPFA administration riding the zenith of its popularity, as the Tigers’ defeat appears irrefutably imminent, international organisations called for caution and restraint to prevent further hardship to the civilian population, the innocent victims of a protracted war.

US concerned

The United States last week expressed deep concern over the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka’s north where troops are poised for a final assault against the LTTE.

“We are very concerned about the humanitarian situation there. It is dire,” State Department Acting Spokesman, Robert Wood, told Washington based reporters as he called on both the warring parties to cease hostilities and protect the civilians in the No Fire Zone (NFZ).

“It’s important that both sides minimise, to the greatest possible extent, any civilian casualties, protect civilians, and allow humanitarian organisations to get food to the people who need it,” Wood said.

In similar vein, Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon in a statement called upon both the government and the LTTE to take measures to ensure civilian safety and also called for a resumption of the humanitarian pause that took place during April 13-14. “Canada is following this issue very closely, and all Canadians hope for a speedy resolution to this humanitarian tragedy,” added Cannon.

“Canada calls on the LTTE to discuss with the Government of Sri Lanka the terms for ending hostilities, including the renunciation of violence, the laying down of arms, and acceptance of the Government of Sri Lanka’s offer of amnesty, as the first step toward an inclusive political dialogue that can contribute to a lasting peace.”

Thousands dead

On a more crucial note, the United Nations on April 21 expressed dismay over the possibility of committing more than 4,500 civilians to death in the fighting.

Aiding the above argument, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka expert, Yolanda Foster in a statement said: “The plight of these civilians demands that the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE take all necessary measures immediately to prevent unlawful killing of civilians and that they fully comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law.”

Foster also called for Sri Lankan authorities to allow international monitors to visit ‘reception centers’ to help reassure both fleeing civilians and surrendered LTTE combatants will be treated according to international standards.

Further, Foster has also sought to impress upon the UN Security Council the dire need to express its concern over the escalating violence as well as the deteriorating humanitarian and human rights conditions.

Significantly, UNICEF too had called upon the authorities to de-escalate violence given that children were among the many thousands that are suffering owing to a worsening humanitarian crisis in the north.

UNICEF’s South Asia Regional Director, Daniel Toole in a statement declared: “With the high concentration of people in a small space, the number of children killed in this conflict will continue to escalate. This is a price too heavy to pay.”

Rejected

Though the UN agencies sought to pressurise both the LTTE and the government to cease hostilities with immediate effect and to extend a humanitarian pause for a reasonable duration, this call was promptly rejected by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse and President Mahinda Rajapakse unequivocally as untenable.

The government does not make any bones about wanting to end the war through military means and shows little tolerance for dissenting opinion or international pressure. In this task, the UPFA appears single-minded and unwilling to compromise or revise formula.

Importantly, India that had been shifting stances regularly, calling for humanitarian pauses at times and at other times demanding Pirapaharan’s head adopted a more diplomatic stance following the fall of the last LTTE bastion.

Irrespective of the political considerations back at home at a time of elections and having to heavily bank on Tamil Nadu to secure electoral victory, Indian Premier Manmohan Singh nonchalantly dabbled in quiet diplomacy as he declared last week that India’s position has not altered and that Pirapaharan is indeed an offender and the LTTE, a terrorist organisation.

As the military concentrates on consolidating its strength and aiding thousands of civilians to flee the last LTTE bastion through ground and sea routes, these victories could not have come at a more opportune time for an administration that is committed to holding staggered provincial polls and is scraping the barrel to sustain an economy that is down in the dumps.

Oxygen from IMF

Unable to contain the depreciation of the rupee which had dropped by 4% in the past few days and public debt at an all time high, a staggering Rs. 4,500 billion (some 81% of the GDP), the government has simply latched on to the much maligned IMF for economic oxygen.

In a gloomy local economic backdrop and the worst global recession since the 1930s, Public Administration and Deputy Finance Minister, Dr. Sarath Amunugama headed a special delegation to the IMF and World Bank Headquarters last week — considered a prelude to the administration’s pursuit of a crucial US$ 1.9 billion standby loan.

Amunugama was accompanied by Central Bank Governor, Nivard Cabraal, the man who is dubbed the architect of the hedging crisis and Deputy Governor, Ranee Jayamaha.

Meanwhile, the Rs. 92 billion oil-hedging dispute too has reached international arbitration following government talks with commercial banks collapsing.

The ministerial committee appointed to resolve the payment crisis held several rounds of discussions with the banks but failed.

Citi Bank and Deutche Bank have already filed for international arbitration for payments due from Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC.)

The CPC owes both banks as well as Standard Chartered Bank, Commercial Bank and People’s Bank more than US $ 800 million (Rs. 92 billion) over hedging agreements on oil purchases.

Dilemma

Amidst a public outcry and the opposition crying foul, petitions were filed in the Supreme Court against the making of these payments.

The case dragged into an issue over petrol pricing and later terminated when the government refused to reduce oil prices as per orders of the Supreme Court.

Having failed to renegotiate the agreements, the government is now faced with a dilemma, as the banks are only agreeable to rescheduling of payments or to offer further loans.

In this backdrop, the government managed to quickly cash in on the military victories and heightened election fever to rush through some new tax bills in parliament last Tuesday.

Through this exercise, the government received approval for an additional Rs. 150 billion through the issue of Treasury Bills.

The resolution under the Local Treasury Bill Ordinance revised the limit on Treasury Bills by an additional Rs.150 billion from the current limit of Rs. 600 billion.

Additionally, the government sought approval to increase the Nation Building Tax from 1% to 3% with effect from May 1 while the increase in the Special Commodity Levy on several food items should send the already burdened consumers reeling under the new economic weight.

The Special Commodity Levy will bring in increases ranging from Rs. 15-40 per kg and applies to items such as potatoes, sprats, Bombay unions, chickpeas, green gram, chilies, canned fish and similar items.

Taxes

An import duty on wheat grain under Customs Ordinance too was approved by parliament under which the preferential rate paid per kilo of imported wheat grain will be Rs. 4 per kg and Rs 10 per kg at the general rate.

Further, Default Taxes (Special Provisions) Bill sought to write off default taxes of state institutions and streamline and speed up the process of recovering defaulted taxes.

Though the main opposition UNP and the JVP opposed the new tax bills, the government, as expected, comfortably carried them through.

It is in such a backdrop that the Western Province voters will be called upon to vote, with a confident government poised to convert the military victories to an electoral victory, notwithstanding the many issues of escalating election violence and the significant issue of double registration for over 62,000 voters which may indeed prove more than sufficient to alter the final electoral result.

It will be worthwhile also to consider what the WPC administration had offered the people, despite a staggering Rs. 33 billion being voted last year to run the administration.


 

 
 

 

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