Civilians Become Cannon Fodder in Sri Lanka

Murderous attacks on civilians in Sri Lanka appear to be on the increase with several bombings in the last few days in and around Colombo, the capital. The latest attack came last Friday and killed at least 21 people who were travelling on a bus. Twice that many were injured, the numbers including woman and children alike. The bomb itself was a claymore set on the side of the road and detonated by remote control as the bus passed by. The force of the explosion knocked the bus on its side.

Just a few days earlier another bombing injured 18 people travelling on a train. It was the second such bombing within a fortnight and in the previous incident nine people were killed and more than 80 were wounded.

So far an estimated 70,000 people have been killed since 1983 in one of the world’s longest-lasting and deadliest armed conflicts, although relations between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority had been tense since the British granted the island independence in 1948. Since 2006, in defiance of cease-fire agreements, as many as 200,000 people have been made refugees in their own country as the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fight for the creation of a separate Tamil state in the northeastern region of the country.

At one point, during the height of the conflict, as many as 1 million of the country’s 21 million people were refugees. Despite the signing of cease-fire in 2002, the conflict has continued at varying levels almost without cease. An estimated 4,000 people have died since it evolved again into open conflict in 2005. As many as 200,000 Tamils have simply left and sought refuge in the west and several hundred thousand more have moved to India, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The latest bombing, like the others, is suspected to have been the work of the LTTE. However, the question of who carried out the bombings is not the issue. The issue is that both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces are killing and injuring innocent civilians in the name of the conflict and in violation of international law.

President Mahinda Rajapakse has made several recent statements in which he has said that victory is at hand in this 25-year-old conflict, which has claimed the lives of both military personnel and civilians. Unlike his predecessors, Rajapakse has refused to even consider the possibility of holding peace talks with the LTTE. And while both sides are claiming to be the victims of atrocities committed by the other, it is the civilians who are bearing the brunt of the conflict.

Reports of civilians being caught up in Sri Lankan Army air raids and shelling are either denied by the government or said to be exaggerated. However, the use of claymore land mines is not the exclusive right of the LTTE, who have complained frequently about the army using them against civilians in attempts to hit their soldiers.

Terrorism in any name is still terrorism; whether it is the army carrying out operations in which civilians are killed or injured or the LTTE hitting back at the Sri Lankan government. Sri Lanka has already stated categorically that the government will have nothing to do with UN human rights monitors in the country but this should not prevent the UN from making the effort to bring both sides of the Sri Lankan conflict to the negotiating table to prevent further needless death.

Earlier Friday another land mine was defused in Dehiwala. The 5 kg Claymore would certainly have caused more bloodshed and mayhem and no doubt, death and injury to more innocent civilians.

It is time to for both parties, the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to return to the negotiating table now. In the meantime, the bombing continues.

Stewart Sloan is a Hong Kong-based human rights activist.