Behind Colombo's P.R. Battle Against the Tamil Tigers

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UNHCR / AP

Displaced Sri Lankan ethnic Tamils in their tents at a transit camp in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan Army is fighting — and apparently about to win — a 25-year-old war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a brutal ethnic separatist movement. Alongside the conventional war, which is now in its final stages, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been fighting a carefully orchestrated public-relations battle.

The main issue is access. Since the Sri Lankan Army announced on April 20 the "imminent defeat" of the LTTE, both local and international media organizations have been clamoring to get into the combat zone and witness the end of one of the world's longest running conflicts. They have all been denied. The Defense Ministry set up the Media Center for National Security in 2006 specifically to monitor and control coverage of the war, and it has refused to allow journalists into the war zone in northern Sri Lanka since early 2008. That policy has not changed even with the announcement that the end is near. There have been hundreds of news stories written and broadcast about Sri Lanka in the last few weeks, but all of them have been written under tightly controlled conditions. The Army has arranged two recent trips, taking journalists first to the former Tiger political headquarters in Kilinochchi, which has been under Army control since Jan. 1, and then to Putumattalan, just west of the current combat zone. One group had time to speak to with some of the civilians fleeing the fighting. "We need to monitor the entire thing," says Keheliya Rambukwella, a spokesman and minister in the Sri Lankan government, because, he says, media coverage has been biased in favor of the LTTE. (See pictures inside Sri Lanka's rebel-held territory.)

As a result, there are no recent pictures taken by independent photojournalists of Sri Lankan soldiers on the battlefield; of civilian or military casualties (other than the grisly, usually unsourced pictures occasionally released by the LTTE); or of of what war has done to the north of Sri Lanka since the effective collapse of a ceasefire in 2006. The primary source of news about the war within Sri Lanka comes from a handful of reporters and photographers who are embedded with the military, filing stories mainly for government-run television networks. The conflict in Sri Lanka may be unique among modern wars in that it is likely to end without any iconic images. With rare exceptions, there are only two types of pictures to emerge over the last two years, during which the Army has wrested away nearly 16,000 sq km of territory: Sri Lankan Army soldiers posing on duty, and desperate civilians seeking their help. The enemy is all but invisible, reinforcing the Sri Lankan government's position that its conflict with the LTTE isn't a conventional war at all, but what Colombo calls a "war on terror." British foreign secretary David Miliband, in a speech to the house of commons on April 30, called it "a war without witness."

Rajapaksa enjoys overwhelming support for the war among the Sri Lankan public, but the plight of civilians in and near the war zone — 100,000 have fled in the last few weeks — has sparked strong statements from the U.S., the U.K. and France, which have called on the Sri Lankan government to halt the fighting until the 50,000 or so remaining civilians can leave. The LTTE are believed to be using them as human shields, but Rajapaksa has been unmoved by entreaties from Western countries to allow aid agencies to enter the war zone to help them. On April 28, the government denied a visa to a Swedish diplomat who was supposed to be part of a European mission to Sri Lanka. On April 29, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President's brother, met with the British and French foreign secretaries and upbraided them for being "duped by the misinformation campaign the LTTE was carrying out," according to a report of the meeting published on the Defense Ministry's website. The Red Cross and U.N. agencies have raised several alarms about civilian casualties — a U.N. document leaked last week estimated that more than 6,400 civilians have been killed in the last three months. But the Defense Secretary dismissed humanitarian concerns as "a ploy employed by some people to extricate [LTTE chief Vellupillai] Prabhakaran and his top leaders from the mess they had got into," the report said. Remaining firm in the face of international pressure — particularly from its former colonial power Britain — is an issue of national pride for the Sri Lankan government. "They don't want to be told what to do," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a research institute in Colombo, and does not want humanitarian concerns to derail the final push against the LTTE.

The Sri Lankan government has been more welcoming of delegations from sympathetic countries, such as India, South Asia's regional superpower, and Japan, Sri Lanka's largest donor country. Neither has tried to exert similar public pressure. The Indian foreign secretary, Shivshankar Menon, met with Rajapaksa on April 24; three days later the Army announced that "combat operations have reached their conclusion," a declaration that was quickly clarified — it meant the Army would cease only heavy bombardment. On April 30, the Times of London reported that the U.S. and Britain were trying to use Sri Lanka's application for a $1.9 billion IMF loan as leverage in negotiations on humanitarian issues. The same day, the Sri Lankan government issued a statement saluting "the great nations that genuinely helped us fight terrorism," calling the others "a group of hypocrites." On May 2, the Sri Lankan president met with Japan's peace envoy Yasushi Akashi. "The conditions in these camps are not perfect, but I am keenly aware that the government is trying very hard and people are committed to make this better," Akashi said. "I think [military] action should be limited to self defensive purposes and absolutely necessary humanitarian causes, and if that policy is adhered to on the ground, I don't see any reason for us to re-examine our policy regarding aid."

Foreign aid is critical to Sri Lanka as it struggles to set up camps with decent food, water and sanitation for tens of thousands of refugees. It will be even more important as the country tries to rebuild the north after nearly 30 years of war. Spending on military pay, pensions and hardware has put a huge burden on Sri Lanka's budget. This year, the government's total tax revenue, after debt servicing, will not be enough to meet its expected spending. And yet the Sri Lankan government has not only refused to accept humanitarian conditions on aid; it has tightened its position on access to civilian refugees, whom it calls the beneficiaries of "the largest hostage rescue in the world's history." The Army's screening of civilians, for example, in which suspected LTTE fighters are weeded out of the civilian exodus, happens in a sort of no man's land just outside the combat zone, between the areas served by the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). That means there is no monitoring of how interrogations are being conducted, or how suspected LTTE fighters are being treated. "We still don't have access to the screening process," says Amin Awad, head of UNHCR operations in Sri Lanka. "It is very important; it is part of our mandate, we are not only an assistance agency but a protection agency. I sincerely hope we get the screening access, otherwise we would be forced to roll back our engagement." It is unlikely, though, that international aid agencies or donor countries will abandon its commitment to help Sri Lanka, a country that has lost more than 70,000 people in a generation of war. The Sri Lankan government is already making plans for a post-LTTE future. "We want to establish democracy in the area," says Rambukwella, through elections and then through a massive development project, which will require millions in foreign aid. "That is the first priority."

The military must first finish a difficult endgame. The remaining Tigers, numbering perhaps in the hundreds, are far outnumbered by the thousands of Sri Lankan soldiers arrayed around them. They could be dealt with within a matter of hours, says Army Commander Lt.-Gen. Sarath Fonseka, if not for the civilians. And so the military is moving cautiously. Military officers near the combat zone say that they believe that Prabhakaran is very close, suspected to be holed up at Vellamullivaikal, deep within the 7-km-long sliver under the Tigers. There is one unspoken fear among them: what will the final Tiger strategy be? The Army is hoping for mass surrender, but bracing for the possibility of mass suicide. The world might not be present to see what happens.

Read: "Sri Lanka: Masses Flee, Many Still in Danger."

Read a brief history of the Tamil Tigers.