- The revived and very violent civil war in Sri Lanka is another world event that seems to have slipped off the scope of most of the US mainstream media. For that reason, I am glad I am able to publish the following, very disturbing account of the situation there. ~HC
SAVING ASIA’S DARFUR
by Rageen Joseph and Prashanth Parameswaran
“Either help us, or give us poison so we can kill ourselves,” cry aging Tamil mothers in war-torn Northern Sri Lanka. “The only difference between us and dead people is that we are breathing,” claims an internally displaced man in the East.
These and other similar stories have been reported both through direct conversations and stories broadcast by the BBC Tamil language service. Civilians have grown weary of the violence between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, but that cannot prevent it.
Since 1983, over 70,000 people have been killed; virtually the total population in the North and East has been displaced over the last two decades with thousands missing. Meanwhile, the international community has offered only minor mediation. Outside pressure and increased international monitoring is required to restore basic rights for Tamil civilians. With more than 5000 killed since December 2005, and disappearances, extra-judicial executions, and unlawful killings occurring every day, the violence has been getting more extreme.
In Vauniya, a government-controlled area in the North, armed and masked Sri Lankan soldiers spread fear and intimidation, demanding identity cards from Tamils at gunpoint. At night in government controlled areas, the Karuna group and other paramilitaries enter houses, holding randomly selected families at knifepoint while they rob, brutalize, and sometimes kill family members. In the past, civilians have been able to live through periods of violence without being brutalized, but recently both sides have assaulted the civilian population as part of their psychological warfare.
In the rebel-controlled Vanni region, people expect shelling and aerial bombardment without warning, while economic embargo leaves many without food and medicine. Without allowing civil dissent, the Tigers forcibly recruit one member from each Tamil family to join the armed struggle, a retired government employee reports. Temporary safety is found only in refugee camps. They provide food and some protection from attack, but no one can stay there for more than a few days. Some are soon sent back into conflict zones.
In East Batticaloa, school children go unconscious when the government forces use nearby playground to launch rockets and other artillery. At a hospital close to this launch site, patients collapse from the fear caused by the violent shaking of the buildings. Sometimes, rockets fall into civilian areas killing many people. In refugee camps in the North and East, shelter is a plastic sheet on the burning hot sand. Thousands of aid workers have withdrawn due to the violence and insufficient supplies.
More than 27 aid workers were killed in Sri Lanka since April 2006. On June 1, 2007, two Red Cross workers were abducted from Sri Lanka’s main railway station in Colombo and executed miles away. This happened despite government checkpoints in every block. Following recent Tamil Tigers bombing in Colombo, Sri Lankan government expelled hundreds of Tamils from the capital city until they were stopped by the Supreme Court. According to Sir. John Holmes, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordination, Sri Lanka has become the most dangerous place on earth for humanitarian workers. He has called on the government to probe civil war abuses and consider an international rights monitoring mission.
Monitoring and mediation are stymied by Sri Lankan government officials trumpeting national sovereignty, but a state’s sovereignty flows from the ability to protect citizens. Legitimacy is lost when human rights violations are committed with tacit state approval. No matter which party committed the atrocities against Tamil civilians, the government is responsible to prosecute the perpetrators, a former Sri Lankan foreign minister has stated.
A mission to provide international monitoring has been proposed by EU nations, local and international human rights groups, and senior UN officials. The effort would be coordinated by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. This mission would supersede the government’s Commission of Inquiry – which has not prosecuted anyone.
The appointment of a US or UN special envoy to Sri Lanka would demonstrate genuine concern. Many nations have advocated this, and 38 lawmakers in the Sri Lanka Caucus of the U.S. Congress, urged this action in a letter to President Bush in February. The Sri Lankan government has opposed the measure, so diplomatic pressure is needed. The May 2007 visit to Sri Lanka by Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher was not enough. Continuing events show his visit changed nothing. Recently, Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group warned that the situation in Sri Lanka is deteriorating to that extent where large-scale atrocities – Cambodia-style, Rwanda-style, Srebrenica–style, Kosovo-style– have occurred. Mr. Evans said “…Sri Lanka is anything but a Responsibility to Protect (R2P). So it is an R2P situation which demands preventive action by the wider international community to ensure that further deterioration does not occur.”
Under the Leahy Law, the U.S. is prohibited from providing aid to any foreign military personnel engaged in human rights abuse. Yet, the US government continues to train Sri Lankan troops, disregarding human rights violations. To add to the problem, the Bush administration signed a military cooperation agreement with the Sri Lankan government in March 2007.
Lost in the international humanitarian inaction is the voice of Tamil civilians. Whether in refugee camps, government areas or rebel territory, civilians can find no relief from this war. Despite the conflict, people deserve basic rights. If the world does not hear their cries, Sri Lanka becomes not only the Asian Darfur but it forces Sri Lanka Tamils into virtual servitude as a permanently dominated, oppressed, and exploited minority without political rights of self-determination.
Rageen Joseph is a recent graduate from University of Virginia and a humanitarian worker in Sri Lanka involved in several relief programs.
Prashanth Parameswaran is a senior at the University of Virginia. He is a columnist for the school newspaper and an editor of several research journals.