Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Tragedy waiting to happen

The recent report of a claymore explosion that damaged a car belonging to an NGO working in the Vanni, and injured its driver, should focus our attention on the background to a factor used to criticize the Sri Lankan government forcefully over the last couple of years. I refer to the sufferings of aid workers in Sri Lanka, the most publicized case being that of the 17 ACF staff killed in Muttur in August 2006.

I believe the latest incident should be seen in that light, and the use made of those tragic deaths. These need to be investigated, and the perpetrators identified, and appropriate judicial action taken. That has never been in question. But, equally, it is necessary to investigate fully the circumstances in which those helpless individuals were placed in danger, and not withdrawn when common sense, let alone UN regulations about the need to be particularly careful about local staff, demanded that they be evacuated, at least to the shelters to which all responsible functionaries were urging them to move.

I am the more concerned now about what happened then, because I can see the current situation developing into one in which again brickbats may be flung against the Sri Lankan government. As we know, several NGOs, most of them international ones, are functioning in the Wanni, along with UN agencies. Most of them work primarily through local staff, whom they acknowledge are under tremendous pressure from the LTTE. This is one reason why they want more foreign staff there, though as it turns out such staff seem even more ineffective in dealing with the LTTE. Thus, while it was argued that the takeover of NPA vehicles was due to the absence of foreign staff, it turned out that foreign staff had been present, and had signally failed to inform anyone in authority, until the cat was out of the bag anyway, that the vehicles, 38 of them, had been taken over.

My anger about all this springs in part from what happened in Muttur. It seems to me clear that in that case the foreigners who should have made the decisions and taken proper care of their local staff, simply abdicated their responsibility. The motive for this is not however clear. It could be argued that they simply gave in to pressure from the more demanding of their local staff, it could be that they listened too credulously to the LTTE. Indeed, it is possible that there is no great distinction between these two possibilities, given the pressures on local staff from the LTTE. Certainly the tell-tale note in the UTHR report, that on the Wednesday the LTTE told the ACF staff that they could no longer guarantee their safety, suggests some sort of earlier understanding, based on the initial assumption that the conquest of Muttur would be a cakewalk.

What if something similar happens in the Wanni? Given that the LTTE, aided and abetted by hangers on such as General Henricsson and those ACF officials who allowed him to sing his song at a commemoration in Paris, has made such effective propaganda use of the tragedy, they are perfectly capable of hoping for something similar to happen now in the Wanni. After all, remembering the initial hype about the murder of Mr Maheswaran, before it was known that his assassin had been apprehended, one realizes that they are quite capable of killing with the aim of alleging that the government did it.

Hence my concern about what happened on Friday night near Omanthai, and what this might spell out for the future. The facts indeed speak for themselves. Three NGO vehicles got to Omanthai in broad daylight, and were then kept for three hours at the LTTE checkpoint beyond that. Incidentally, one does not hear wails about the grotesque inconvenience to which the LTTE subjects all those, and more particularly Sri Lankans, at such checkpoints, but let that pass for the moment. The main point is that the three NGO vehicles therefore had to proceed in the dark, and then, very soon after they left the checkpoint, the one in the middle was caught up in a claymore blast. It was not hit direct, but the driver, the only person in the car, was slightly injured.

The vehicles proceed at high speed to Kilinochchi, where the driver went to the hospital. A chorus of INGO bigwigs made sure the car was all right, and also checked on the driver. They do not seem to have informed the Sri Lankan authorities at the time, or with any sense of urgency on the next day. Thus there was no report of the incident in the Sunday papers.

Given the manner in which all claymore attacks are attributed to what are termed Deep Penetration Units of the Sri Lankan forces, it will doubtless soon be gospel that this is yet another example of the manner in which the government is responsible for putting aid workers in danger. Indeed one newspaper has already confidently blamed a DPU, blindly repeating perhaps what they have been told. No one however will bother to wonder why any DPU, assuming such exist in the magnitude ascribed to them, should function so near to the Omanthai checkpoint. No one will wonder why, given the skill ascribed to them - and knowing that the LTTE would crow if there were instances of attacks which failed to take what was targeted - they should have simply made a wave that did so little damage that all three cars in the convoy were able to speed on to Kilinochchi. Significantly, they were able to speed on without anyone stopping them, which suggest that the LTTE realized what had happened and decided not to activate any road blocks to delay them.

It seems to me unlikely then that the attack could have been perpetrated by anyone other than the LTTE, which had so sedulously, and unusually it seems, kept the vehicles for three hours at the checkpoint, time enough to arrange for an ambush. It would be nice to think that the ineffective nature of the attack was deliberate, an unusual kindliness on the part of the LTTE to save lives. It could have been due to incompetence but, given the skill of the LTTE with this type of weaponry, in for instance their period of great provocation shortly after the Presidential election, we can perhaps give them the benefit of the doubt this time round.

At the same time we need also to consider, given this kindliness, whether there were not some sorts of connivance on the part of the NGOs concerned. It is interesting that the middle car, which was the one damaged, had just one occupant, a locally engaged driver. The truck in front belonged to Solidar, of NPA fame. Though on balance I would say the only fault were the - to my mind culpable - one of wasting fuel, taking three vehicles in convoy with one of them almost empty, that in itself seems bad enough, when what these NGOs should be doing now is trying to get vehicles out, not stockpiling them in Kilinochchi. We should not be surprised if these vehicles are now used for the great exodus that has doubtless been planned, the LTTE hierarchy, obligingly driven by NGO local staff, proceeding in cars whilst the poor suffering people hobble along behind.

Even if all this has not been planned in advance, clearly the presence of so much equipment, and so many aid workers, is a godsend to the LTTE. They can take risks with them knowing that, if any harm comes to them, this can be used as propaganda. Indeed, they may decide soon enough that kindliness will not pay, and another incident like the one that was precipitated in Muttur will not go amiss. One can only hope that the international NGOs, which are still trying to issue statements to prove their neutrality, neutrality between the government whom they are supposed to assist and a bunch of ruthless terrorists, will realize how readily they lend themselves to being used, and their poor dependent workers to being targeted as part of yet another soul-stirring strategy.

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretary-General Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process

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