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12 May, 2009

Sri Lanka: hope for the best and prepare for the worst

Tamil Nadu goes to the polls tomorrow (May 13) in the fifth and final phase of polling in the Lok Sabha elections. After that, in all likelihood, the Sri Lankan government will feel emboldened to launch the final assault on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who are now trapped in a small stretch of land. One shudders to think of the plight of an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Tamil civilians caught between two ruthless forces.

There is reason to suspect that the Sri Lankan government has been going slow in the last few days since the fate of the civilians in the battlefield became a major election issue in Tamil Nadu. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and his chief political rival, former All India Anna DMK Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, were engaged in an unseemly competition to pose as the saviour of the Tamils of Sri Lanka.

Jayalalithaa, who had condemned the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the past as a terrorist organization, recently endorsed its goal of a separate Eelam state. Two regional outfits which have openly backed the LTTE, which was banned in India after its role in former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination came to light, had broken away from the DMK-led alliance on the eve of the elections and joined the AIADMK-led front.

Last week the two leaders went one step further. Addressing an election meeting, Jayalalithaa said, "If the AIADMK-led alliance wins all 40 seats (39 in Tamil Nadu, one in Puducherry), then the Indian Army will be sent to Sri Lanka to carve out a separate Eelam state, like what Indira Gandhi did to Pakistan by carving out Bangladesh. Karunanidhi responded by declaring, also at an election meeting, that he “assumes responsibility” for the creation of Eelam.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) raised the Eelam issue at the national level with a view to embarrassing the Congress, but as far as can be ascertained the issue did not cause a stir beyond the borders of Tamil Nadu.

When Jayalalithaa first announced her support for the formation of an Eelam state, in a sardonic comment, a Sri Lankan government spokesman said she should find some other place for it.

There was a flurry of diplomatic activity as the Central government realized that the mood in Tamil Nadu, where many people believe it is actively assisting the Sri Lankan authorities in the civil war, could damage the electoral prospects of the Congress and its partner, the DMK.

Following the visit of a high-level Indian official team, the Sri Lankan government said it would not use heavy arms. But it does not appear to have kept the promise.

The world's attention at the moment is fixed on about 192,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), besides the civilians trapped in the no-fire zone. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, in a press release issued after a telephone conversation with the Sri Lankan president, said this issue was among the highest of priorities internationally.

The Asian Human Rights Commission, in a statement, said the people caught in the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE are ordinary folk who have lived in the north and the east from time immemorial and who have sustained themselves and helped others in the past. They deserve the full attention of the government as well as the international community in order to be able to escape this troubled situation and as soon as possible to be integrated back into their natural habitat.

It added, “Obviously, the LTTE will not cooperate in any way either for the release of those trapped in this small area of land or to contribute to their well-being. However, this cannot be used as an excuse by the government, which has the obligation to protect its citizens. The fact of the limited resources available to the country to ensure the well-being of these persons is no excuse as the international community, expressing itself through the highest officer of the United Nations, has assured complete cooperation to the government to deal with this issue. The richer countries of the world have also assured the government and the United Nations of their support to see this through.”

Let us hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

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