Since the beginning of the government's military offensive in October 2008, the LTTE has retreated into the northern area of the country. However, civilians have been forced deeper into territory controlled by the separatist group, leaving hundreds dead and some 250,000 civilians caught in deadly crossfire. Calls for a "no fighting" period which would allow civilians the chance to get out of conflict zones have been unanimously rejected by both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. Human rights groups and foreign governments have accused the Tigers of holding civilians as human shields. However, Sri Lanka is denying any humanitarian crisis is taking place at all. Instead, the government claims that the Tigers were "fabricating stories to invent a scenario of a human catastrophe and are disseminating false information."
The truth? Shying away from the propaganda by both sides, the reality is that 250,000 civilians are cut off from the outside world in the area of Vanni. According to the United Nations, aid agencies are unable to bring essential relief supplies to the people in the area. According to the World Food Program (WFP), the entire population of the Vanni region where fighting is taking place is facing a food crisis due to displacement of the population, as well as crop failure and recent floods. The last known UN convoy was sent in mid-January, carrying enough food for about one week. To date, WFP has not been able to get clearance to send in others, despite numerous promises from authorities that the convoys would be able to enter safely.
Reports from the sealed war zone have been difficult to confirm for authenticity. But the top health official in Vanni said last week that at least 300 civilians had been killed, and the UN said that at least 52 civilians were killed Tuesday. The government has already built an alibi, by stating that the civilians were shields for rebels, doing exactly what the Israeli army did in its massacre of Gazans last month.
Amnesty International has also called for a ceasefire. "A quarter of a million people are suffering without adequate food and shelter, while shells rain down upon them," said Yolanda Foster, a researcher at the London-based rights group. Why are these calls not heeded? Additionally, why does the international community not care? To date, 70,000 people have died in the Tamil conflict, which began in 1983 as a direct result of the marginalization of the Tamil minority by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.
Sri Lanka's government broke out of a Norwegian-brokered truce about a year ago, and has thus far rejected a new ceasefire, vowing instead to crush the Tigers. Top diplomats from Canada and the European Union are pressuring the government to find a political solution; however, without determination by both the Sri Lankans and the LTTE, such a truce will pass very little muster.
The current conflict cannot and will not ever be solved militarily; the past 25 years of fighting are a testament to this. It can only be settled through an enduring political solution that meets the legitimate aspirations of all the citizens of Sri Lanka. For the time being, international monitors must be allowed to assess the humanitarian needs of a quarter of a million people trapped in the Vanni region and to ensure proper distribution of food and other humanitarian assistance. The media must be given free and unrestricted access to the war zone; violent intimidation of media personnel has been consistently reported for the past several weeks. A temporary ceasefire must be implemented to allow the civilians a chance to access food and water, along with an opportunity to flee the war zone. The Sri Lankan government must ensure that displaced people who have fled the conflict zone to transit centers do not face improper restriction on their movement and are kept safe.
Lastly, war crimes charges must be brought against both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. Both parties in the conflict have terrible human rights records. The LTTE have recruited children in the past. They also have a history of silencing dissent in areas under their control, and they have sent civilians to dig bunkers and work at the front lines. The government has directly and indirectly been involved in disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and explicit intimidation of critics. They have also silenced dissent in the south of the country to crush critical voices, and since 2006, 16 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka.
It is time for the international community to end the silence on this egregious issue. We owe this to the innocent children and civilians of Sri Lanka.