Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Two Asian conflicts, two different responses from the West

by Andrew Buncombe, Commentator, The Independent

Two South Asian military operations. Two conflicts to get rid of two well-trained, well-armed militant groups that the governments say are threatening the very survival of the countries. Yet, seemingly, two very different perspectives from the West.

To Sri Lanka, where the government is battling to end a three-decade-old civil war and crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the international community has expressed serious concern about the civilian death toll – estimated to be 6,500 and rising. David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, is just one of a series of foreign envoys to have personally visited Colombo to urge the authorities to enact a ceasefire and allow civilians to escape safely. Diplomats have also appealed to the Sri Lankans not to use heavy weapons as they close in.

The concern is well placed. Just yesterday, after a weekend in which hundreds of Tamil civilians were said to have been killed by government artillery shelling, there were reports of another 47 deaths after a shell hit the sole remaining field hospital in the war zone. The government again denied the claims, as they have denied every previous report that civilians have been killed by their shells. The UN has warned of a "bloodbath".

In Pakistan, by contrast, the operation to drive the Taliban from the Swat valley has been welcomed in the West. US officials have expressed a hope that it represents a "new determination" in Pakistan's government to finally confront militants. Indeed, many observers have remarked on the happy coincidence that the operation began the very week that President Asif Ali Zardari found himself in Washington seeking billions of dollars in aid and military support.

Can this different approach be explained away entirely by self-interest? Is the West less concerned about Pakistan's civilian casualties simply because it sees the Taliban as a direct threat to US and Nato troops in Afghanistan? Can it afford to care more about the Tamil civilians because the LTTE is not a threat to the West?

Dr S Chandrasekharan, who heads the Delhi-based South Asia Analysis Group, believes it is possible to draw a distinction. In Pakistan, he said, the military is not targeting civilians, whereas in Sri Lanka there have been constant reports of attacks on hospitals and civilian areas that were supposed to be a "no fire zone". "In any military operation there is collateral damage," he said. "In Pakistan it's killing, in Sri Lanka it's slaughter."

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