Sri Lanka’s war of terror

Nagesh Rao explains the historical background to the Sri Lankan government’s latest war crimes against the Tamil minority.

A group of made refugees in Sri Lanka's civil warA group of made refugees in Sri Lanka’s civil war

THE SRI LANKAN military is intensifying its war on the country’s Tamil minority–but the international media is focused far more on the violence of the Tamil resistance.

Just as the Israelis did during their most recent invasion of Gaza, Sri Lankan authorities have prevented journalists from entering war zones. Consequently, the media has largely followed official Sri Lankan pronouncements and viewed this decades-old conflict through the relatively new lens of the “war on terror.”

Meanwhile, human rights organizations, various NGOs, and Tamil organizations worldwide have produced evidence of a brutal military campaign by the Sri Lankan state directed against the Tamil population at large.

A January 28 Amnesty International press release about the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Sri Lanka stated:

“Recent fighting has placed more than a quarter of a million civilians at great risk. People displaced by the conflict are experiencing acute shortages of humanitarian aid, especially food, shelter and medical care. There has been no food convoy in the area since 16 January,” said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka researcher.

The Government of Sri Lanka is carrying out military operations in areas with a civilian population. The aerial and artillery bombardment has reportedly led to civilian deaths, injuries, the destruction of property and mass displacement on this island nation off India’s southeastern coast.

Sri Lankan government forces have pushed the Tamil Tigers out of all major urban areas they had held for nearly a decade and into a small pocket of land. More than 300,000 civilians who have fled the oncoming government troops are also trapped in this small area. They have been displaced multiple times and are increasingly vulnerable as fighting moves closer.

Hundreds of people have been killed or injured and such medical care as has been available is threatened due to danger to the few health workers and damage to hospitals.

The government had declared “safe zones” to allow civilians to seek shelter, but information made available to Amnesty International indicates that several civilians in the so-called safe zone have been killed or sustained injuries as a result of artillery bombardment.

A doctor working in a hospital in a “safe zone” says that about 1,000 shells fell around the hospital.

Yet even though Amnesty International demonstrated that the overwhelming responsibility for the violence lay with government authorities, it titled its press release, “Government and Tamil Tigers violating laws of war.” According to Amnesty, “in at least one instance,” the rebel Tamil Tigers blocked the movement of a Red Cross convoy of injured and at-risk people out of the war zone. The statement ends by quoting Yolanda Foster again:

The immediate priority is medical attention for the seriously wounded. The Tamil Tigers must let injured civilians go. Preventing civilians from accessing medical care constitutes a war crime.

The Amnesty International statement thus offers a lengthy list of crimes committed by the Sri Lankan military, only to end by suggesting that the obstacle to meeting the most “immediate priority” is the “war crime” being committed by the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) group. Nowhere in the statement are the words “war crime” associated with the government’s actions, which are instead referred to as “a military campaign.”

In response, many Tamil activists and organizations have urged the international community to recognize the Sri Lankan government’s latest military assault on the Tamils as constituting, at a minimum, “acts of genocide” as defined by the Geneva Convention.

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ON THE streets of the capital Colombo, roving gangs of political thugs have waged a campaign of terror designed to intimidate any and all opposition to the Sri Lankan state. On January 28, human rights lawyer and activist Amitha Ariyaratne received death threats from police officers at a police station just north of Colombo. Three days later, his office was burned down by an unknown arsonist.

This came on the heels of the sensational assassination on January 8 of a leading journalist and critic of the government and editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper. Lasantha Wickramatunga was assassinated by unidentified assailants during his morning commute in rush-hour traffic. His car window was smashed in, and he was shot in the head, the chest and the stomach. He died on the way to the hospital.

Wickramatunga’s last article, “And then they came for me,” was a moving and passionate letter to his readers predicting his own death at the hands of his government. Not surprisingly, Reporters Without Borders ranks Sri Lanka 165th (out of 173 countries) in its index of press freedom around the world.

The Sri Lankan government has turned a deaf ear to international human rights organizations and Tamil NGOs who have complained about innumerable human rights violations and the ongoing humanitarian disaster in the northeast. Using “war on terror” rhetoric, Sri Lankan state propaganda has instead deflected international media attention towards war crimes allegedly committed by the LTTE.

However, the Sri Lankan government has absolved itself of its own obligation to respect human rights. In 2006 the Supreme Court declared that “[T]he Human Rights Committee at Geneva…is not reposed with judicial power under our constitution,” (see the text of the ruling here) providing a legal fig-leaf for the government’s draconian crackdown on the Tamils. The Asian Human Rights Commission has declared, “The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka is a part of the human rights violation mechanism.”

About 74 percent of the Sri Lankan population consists of Sinhala-speaking Buddhists, while the rest are Tamil-speaking Hindus and Muslims. Since the 1980s, a brutal civil war between the government forces and the Tamil Tigers has claimed over 70,000 lives, with hundreds of thousands more injured and displaced, the majority of them Tamils.

Most media reports date the origins of the conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese to the founding of the LTTE in the 1980s, but the Tamils have faced discrimination and repression at the hands of Colombo’s Sinhala-dominated government ever since Sri Lanka achieved its independence from Britain in 1948.

One of the first acts of the newly independent state in 1949 was to disenfranchise, at the stroke of a pen, some 1 million Tamils who had arrived in Sri Lanka in the twentieth century. They were declared non-citizens and told to return to India. Many of these “Indian Tamils” had been brought in by the British from India to not only labor in the tea plantations but to serve in the colonial administrative bureaucracy. British divide-and-rule policies resulted in special privileges for middle-class Tamils who had been educated in English in India. This bred resentment among sections of the Sinhala majority, and right-wing Sinhalese chauvinism began to gain ground during the waning years of British rule.

By disenfranchising the “Indian Tamils,” the newly-independent Sri Lankan state had resorted to a despicably ethnic-chauvinist policy, and encouraged the growth of the far right. In 1956, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) rode this wave of Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinism to come to power and unleashed the first anti-Tamil pogrom, leaving some 100 Tamils dead and thousands displaced from their homes. The pogroms were led, and egged on, by militant and fascistic Buddhist monks.

Another wave of anti-Tamil hysteria in the 1960s resulted in the declaration of Sinhala as the only official language of the state. More pogroms followed in the early 1970s, with the monks and their allies periodically terrorizing and intimidating the Tamil population, while their political patrons reaped the rewards of a ready-made majority at the polls. In 1981, in an act that often referred to as “cultural genocide,” rioting policemen burned down the Jaffna Library, which housed much of the cultural memory of the Tamil population.

Continued >>

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