30 April 2009 Edition
International Sri Lanka
Brutal slaughter of Tamil civilians
BY SEÁN Ó FLOINN & EMMA CLANCY
A largely defenceless people struggling to survive and hemmed in on a narrow strip of land while facing ruthless indiscriminate airstrikes, assault from gun boats and subjected to cluster bombs by a well equipped government army, conjures up the image of the recent Israeli invasion of Palestine’s Gaza Strip. However, in Sri Lanka, where since the start of this year government forces have stepped up their campaign of wiping out the separatist LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) militant group, which has fought a 25-year war for Tamil independence, the situation has culminated with the brutal slaughter of thousands of Tamil civilians who have literally become trapped in a war zone. The silence in the media in comparison to the daily headlines of Israel’s recent wanton destruction of Gaza has been deafening.
UN figures stated that 2,000 people have died in the fighting in the last month, not including last week; the most brutal. The civilian death toll has eclipsed 6,500 since the end of January and some 200,000 Tamil civilians find themselves trapped amongst the LTTE rebels on a tiny sliver of northern coastline measuring 10 sq km; surrounded by the Sri Lankan army who continue to pound the area with air strikes and heavy artillery fire, intent on exterminating the rebels and apparently unconcerned about the growing civilian death toll.
Sri Lanka is facing a growing humanitarian crisis. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already accused the Sri Lankan government of “causing untold suffering”. The vast majority of aid workers have been refused access to the euphemistically labelled “no-fire zones”, and journalists have been completely denied entry. Make-shift hospitals are crumbling under the demand, and people are reportedly dying of malnutrition. The Tamil civilians who are “rescued” by Government forces are being rounded into internment camps.
The international community has been pathetic in its response. Although on Sunday the LTTE announced a unilateral ceasefire, the government have not reciprocated insisting that they will push on to secure complete rebel surrender, at whatever expense. The International Committee of the Red Cross has described the war zone as a “catastrophic bloodbath”.
Sri Lanka, an idyllic island off the southern tip of India and home to 20 million people, is a tropical paradise boasting golden beaches straddled by palm trees. It is a land of unquestionable beauty, abundant in resources from tea and rubber, to coconuts and diamonds. However the ordinary people of Sri Lanka live in dire poverty and the country has been torn apart by civil war. Those civilians currently trapped inside the “no-fire zone” are being forced to endure hell on earth.
Sri Lanka’s current problems can be traced back to the legacy of British colonialism. It achieved independence in 1948 as Ceylon, changing its name to Sri Lanka in 1972. The ethnic make-up of the country includes 80 per cent Sinhalese, and 10 per cent Tamil (both Indian and Sri Lankan). The Tamils, Sri Lanka’s largest ethnic minority, are mainly concentrated in the north and east of the island. After independence, the Sinhalese government introduced controversial discriminatory policies including: stripping the Tamil plantation workers of their citizenship, unfair education laws; anti-Tamil employment rules and through the ‘Sinhala Only Act’ made Sinhala the only official language of the island. Initial Tamil resistance to these policies were peaceful, but were met with repression. Civil war erupted in 1983. After the LTTE killed 13 Sri Lankan soldiers in an ambush, 3,000 Tamils were slaughtered in government-instigated Sinhalese programs in ‘Black July’. Since then the violence has spiralled out of control, claiming over 70,000 lives.
The LTTE were formed in 1976 by current leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. They seek a separate nation for Tamils, to be called Tamil Eelam, in the north and east of the country. With the failure of politics to achieve any equality for the Tamil population, the LTTE became stronger, more numerous and eventually crushed or consumed other Tamil militant groups. It soon became one of the world’s most feared and best equipped rebel groups. It has a sea and air force, and previously launched attacks on government military airports. It killed former Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. However, it has also attracted negative attention for deploying suicide bombers and has been lambasted for allegedly recruiting children as young as twelve to engage in armed combat against government troops.
CEASEFIRES AND NEGOTIATIONS
Major military gains by the Tigers and the dire state of the Sri Lankan economy as a result of the ongoing war were the key factors that forced the Sri Lankan Government to respond positively to unilateral LTTE ceasefires declared in 2000 and 2001. The February 2002 Norwegian-mediated ceasefire agreement has been the longest-lasting attempt to bring peace.
In negotiations the LTTE has sought the establishment of an interim self-governing authority in the north-east which can facilitate human rights protection as well as “resettlement, rehabilitation, reconstruction, and development in the north-east, while the process of reaching a final settlement remains ongoing”.
But far from offering the Tamil people anything in negotiations that could lead to a lasting peace, the United National Party (UNP) Government failed even to implement the provisions of the ceasefire agreement. It failed to allow Tamils to return to their homes in the ‘high security zones’ occupied by the SLA, or have the SLA vacate public buildings in Tamil towns. It also failed to disarm the pro-Government paramilitary death squads.
As a result, the LTTE suspended its participation in negotiations in 2003. The UNP was replaced in 2004 elections, which were boycotted almost totally by the Tamil population, by the even more chauvinist Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
As peace talks stalled, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness travelled to Sri Lanka twice in 2006 to meet with representatives from the LTTE and the Government in an attempt to promote a peaceful, negotiated solution to the conflict.
But the Government pulled out of the ceasefire agreement in January last year, opting for annihilation rather than negotiation. Since then the army have unleashed a massive military operation aimed at ultimately destroying the rebels, winning back almost all of LTTE-held territory, where the latter had set up government-like services.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaska has been widely accused of presiding over a racist regime, intent on crushing any dissent. The Asian Development Bank named Sri Lanka as one of the “world’s most politically unstable countries”. Human Rights Watch labelled the Sri Lankan government as one of the “world’s worst perpetrators of enforced disappearances”. It is the fourth most dangerous place on earth for journalists to venture.
The international community must act to force the Sri Lankan Government to halt its bloody offensive and Tamil civilians must be granted freedom of movement and provided with sufficient humanitarian aid. The government-run internment camps, housing fleeing civilians, are horribly overcrowded, surrounded by barbed wire and controlled by government troops, and should be shut down. Those civilians escaping the violence deserve access to adequate food, shelter and health care.
All Sri Lankans need an all-inclusive political process, based on equality, inclusion and mutual respect. There can never be peace without social justice, and Tamils should no longer be treated as the inferior race. The International Community, through the UN, should facilitate this process. The root cause of the conflict needs to be addressed, that is the grievances of the Tamil population, those very civilians that have been risking their lives to flee to India in ramshackle boats. Civilians must stop being used as disposable pawns in this bloody political power struggle. The time has come for not only peace, but also prosperity and social justice for this majestic island and all who inhabit it.