February 12, 2009

Tigers in the Midst

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Where do you go when you want to hide? If you’re from a war-torn country, you go to a place populated with people from all over the world and where you can easily blend in with the crowd. Geneva is convenient in this regard – it’s a city filled with people from all over world and you can find almost any culture here. Some say that’s Geneva’s downfall – the city lacks its own identity. But Geneva is also a great place if you want bring national attention to a certain issue, as it is host to several international organizations devoted to helping the impoverished and under served.

But what do you do when those international organizations are not receptive to your plight? How do you get their attention? This is the problem that the Tamils Tigers from Sri Lanka faced in the last week, as protests broke out across the world to bring attention to ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka. While this issue has been seldom addressed in the States, there has been an on-going freedom movement on the part of some groups of Tamils, who are the minority in Sri Lanka, to have their own state in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. Tamils make up 11.9 per cent of the Sri Lankan population, according to 2001 estimates. Like most separatist movements, this one too has given rise to some militant groups, most notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam who control the Mullaithivu District in Sri Lanka.

While the struggle has been on-going for the past 25 years, tensions have only escalated recently in the past weeks because the Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group who is in charge of the government, have stepped up their efforts to suppress the separatist movement using military force. The conflict initially started in 1972 when Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran formed the Tamil New Tiger, which would eventually become the LTTE. For the next three decades, the militant Tamils engaged in an aggressive campaign of roadside bombings against the government. The government responded with their own aggressive efforts consisting of bombings and military action.

Both parties have caused civilian causalities, but last week moderate Tamil protesters in metropolitan areas all over the world came out to appeal for help from the international community against the government’s latest campaign to quell the movement. The Sri Lankan government says they are close to pushing the movement into defeat as they backed the Tigers into a 200sq km plot of land.

Last week, the Tamils in Geneva staged a week-long protest outside the main UN headquarters building up into a larger protest on Thursday, where over 10,000 people were present. Many moderate Tamils taking to the streets are very critical of both the LTTE’s and the governments’ actions and responded by protesting in a non-violent, peaceful manner.

One protester outside the UN headquarters in Geneva said, “We are fighting the Sri Lankan government and protesting how many people have been killed in the attacks.”

The protesters set up a large podium in the middle of the UN courtyard, host to an over sized wooden chair with a broken leg representing victims of landmine explosions. They hung black flags along the perimeter and some protesters wore white headbands spattered with red paint. Some UN workers noticed the commotion, but others walked right past, worried that they might miss their bus.

According to one protester, the demonstration was about “fighting for the rights of the Tamils, because they have none and what the government is doing right now amounts to genocide.”

Tamil diasporas all over the world have called for their governments and the UN to issue a cease fire in Sri Lanka. The government of Sri Lanka alleges that the Tamils have used human shields to protect themselves by bringing artillery into safe zones for citizens.

Similarly, the Tamils argue that the Sri Lankan government has caused the deaths and injuries of numerous Tamils caught in the crossfire. International aid agencies estimate that 250,000 citizens are caught in the war zones.

At the protests throughout the week, protesters showed exactly how the bombings are affecting civilians by carrying signs that had pictures of maimed victims. They also wanted the UN to give medical aid and food to war-torn areas.

One protester commented, “We hope someone from the UN is coming out. We just want to stop the war. We want peace. That’s it.”

The UN finally spoke out this week. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon expressing “grave concern” over the situation and called for a ceasefire, along with several of Sri Lanka’s supporters including the U.S., Japan, the EU and Norway.

While the Tamil militants are quickly losing ground, it is up to the international community to pressure both the Sri Lankan government and militant Tamils to engage in peace talks in the near future. Throughout several points of the conflict, both sides have engaged in peace talks to no avail. Ultimately, both sides have too much at stake in the issue and there are few models where a separatist movement has achieved a land of their own. But perhaps the Tamils and the Sri Lankans should look to East Timor and Indonesia as an example of how to resolve the conflict. The Timors, the ethnic minority, existed under 24 years of Indonesian rule, during which 200,000 people died during military operations. Bur they were able to secure a homeland after a nonviolent struggle against Indonesian occupation using dialogue, not just brute military force. If only both the Sri Lankans and militants Tamils would put down their guns and listen.