Anderson Cooper 360

War at what Cost?

An elderly Sri Lankan man sits under posters on a street in Colombo on January 4, 2009, featuring an image of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse and hailing the military's capture of the Tamil Tiger political headquarters.


While there is no room in the world for terrorist organizations, their defeat cannot come at the expense of thousands of innocent civilian lives.

The greatest failing of the Bush administration's "war on terror" is not its inability to meet its prime objectives (e.g. capturing Osama Bin Laden, eradicating the threat of WMDS in Iraq, and removing Al Qaeda from Afghanistan). Rather, it is that America has given credibility to the act and the notion of pursuing terrorists at all costs.

The Bush administration has decided to ignore the very tenets of democracy (the U.S. constitution, Geneva convention, among others) in pursuit of winning the "war on terror." In doing so, it sent a very clear message to the rest of the world: all bets are off where terrorism is involved.

Today, we can clearly see the ripple effect. In Sri Lanka, my home country, the Colombo government has massacred hundreds of thousands of civilians in order to eliminate the threat posed by a small yet defiant group widely known as the Tamil Tigers (also known as the LTTE or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Make no mistake, the LTTE have engaged in reprehensible terrorist activities that have needlessly taken the lives of both civilians and heads of state. The LTTE's use of child soldiers and suicide bombers is unconscionable, and has rightly been condemned by the international community. But now the eyeglass must turn to the Colombo government as the conflict enters its 25th year. The war has resulted in what many humanitarian groups are now calling genocide. And sadly, for the Tamil people, time is running out.

Just last month, the New York-based Genocide Prevention Project released a report that listed Sri Lanka among the top eight "red alert" countries currently experiencing genocide conflicts. And Human Rights Watch estimates that between 230,000 to 300,000 Tamil people have been trapped in the Vanni conflict zone by the government, denied food and basic living essentials.

Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that no one knows how severe the crisis is because the Sri Lankan government has barred foreign media from reporting on the subject and severely limited the presence of humanitarian organizations. And worse, as demonstrated by the recent murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga, a Sri Lankan journalist critical of the war against the LTTE, those that question the government are putting their lives in jeopardy.

Yet other than the UN's slap-on-the-wrist gesture of stripping Sri Lanka of its seat on the Human Rights Council in May of 2008, the World has remained silent about this emerging humanitarian crisis. What is even more disconcerting is that the global mainstream media has largely ignored the Tamil civilian causalities, and has actually praised the Sri Lankan government for "running an effective military campaign." Additionally, somewhere along the way the media has managed to portray every Tamil as a Tamil Tiger, including myself.

Fortunately, this month brings a close to the Bush administration and its war on terror at all costs. President Barack Obama announced that he will issue an executive order on his first week in office to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility – which has long become a symbol of the administration's indifference to how it wins this war. But for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, there is little hope that the Colombo government will change its policies.

We must be clear: acts of terrorism are deplorable and cannot be tolerated by any government, but to actively seek out the killing of innocent civilians, under the guise of fighting terror is absolutely indefensible. Governments must hold themselves to a higher standard.

Editor's Note: Maya Arulpragasam (known as M.I.A.) is a music artist whose song “Paper Planes” received a 2009 Grammy nomination for Record of the Year. She was born in England to Tamil parents and fled the war in Sri Lanka after living there for ten years. She currently lives in the United States.