Distinguishing between civilians and Tigers

April 23, 2009

The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister said today that since Monday, over 100,000 civilians had fled the remaining area controlled by the Tamil Tigers and crossed into government-held territory, and that only 15-20,000 civilians were still left in the Tiger-held area (which had earlier been designated by the government as a “no-fire zone” but scarcely merits that title now).  The Minister also said that the Tigers had suffered “massive casualties” during the army’s offensive against them.  He claimed that any civilian casualties had been caused solely by the Tigers.  He dismissed calls for international monitors in the conflict area.

I found the implications of his statement alarming.  You should be aware that the Sri Lankan government has barred journalists and other independent observers from the war zone.  So it can be very hard to verify any claims by either the government or the Tigers.  The government had previously said, as late as last Sunday, that there were only 70,000 civilians trapped in the war zone by the Tigers.  Now, apparently, that estimate was too low by 50,000 or so.  So, do we now accept an estimate of 15-20,000 civilians still left in the zone?  Suppose another 15-20,000 people are able to flee the zone in the next few days.  Could the government say that anyone left in the area is a Tiger (since by their estimate, all the civilians would be gone) ?  And if everyone left were killed, there would be no “civilian casualties” but just more “massive casualties” suffered by the Tigers.  Without international monitors or independent journalists in the area to check, who could contradict the government?

We need a pause in the hostilities now.  The government and the Tigers must let aid and monitors into the zone and allow civilians to leave the zone safely.