Sri Lanka: Asia’s Darfur?

    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.
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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.

12 thoughts on “Sri Lanka: Asia’s Darfur?

  1. bevin

    Sri Lanka is not Asia’s Darfur. It is more like Palestine. The government seems to be modelling its refusals to carry though on negotiations with the Tamils on Israel’s, successful, intransigence. The situation there is a good example of the tremendous influence Bush’s bad example has had in encouraging ruthless ethnic cleansing and a “just try and stop me” attitude in sleazy right wing governments.
    As to the media, it is time we stopped giving thge institution credibility by pretending that it carries out any public duties. It exists to make money for its owners and the biggest source of that income comes from its brainwashing of the electorate.

  2. salah

    Helena,
    the international community has offered only minor mediation. Outside pressure and increased international monitoring is required to restore basic rights for Tamil civilians.
    The international community done nothing as the international community selective for their support and goals it’s obvious in Iraq.
    Back if the international communities have t o intervene, we expected to see what the international community done in East Timor!! when a small group of Christians backed and supported to split from their native country and took got independence although that new country have a lot of troubles till now as new democracy, but if you look deep what behind all of that international community support you will guided to the OIL and other resources on that land!!!.

  3. lisa

    This is an amazingly powerful article. Can you tell me the original source and/or how to contact the authors? I would like to try to leverage this if they would support some of us using it in our advocacy efforts.

  4. Jonathan Edelstein

    I agree with Bevin up to a point. I doubt very much that the Sri Lankan government is consciously modeling itself on Israel, not least because the current president has been a Palestinian solidarity activist since the 1970s, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is indeed the closest parallel to the Sri Lankan civil war.
    First, the government side. Sri Lanka has a functioning parliamentary system, free elections, a decent human rights record as long as you aren’t Tamil or Muslim, and a judicial system capable of stopping the expulsion of Tamils from the capital. Nevertheless, it’s no more immune than other democratic states to acting brutally in the face of insurgency and urban terrorism. The crimes of the Sri Lankan military have been many: disproportionate bombing of civilian areas where the LTTE operates, imposition of drastic movement controls, extrajudicial executions and disappearances, and use of siege tactics toward LTTE-held areas.
    There’s also a strong element of national-religious politics among the Sinhalese. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the Buddhist clergy developed a theology of possession which cast the Sinhalese as the sole indigenous population and sole owners of the island. Unlike some other countries where Buddhist monks have been a force for peace, the Sinhalese monks are the country’s biggest warmongers, and the hard-line religious factions have a large and growing influence on national elections.
    (The monks, BTW, aren’t all on the right: many of them subscribe to Marxist economics or variants on liberation theology. This means that ultra-nationalist politics can’t be reduced to terms like “right-wing.” President Rajapaksa used to be a left-wing human rights lawyer and labor-rights activist when he wasn’t calling for more bombs to be dropped on the Tamils.)
    Now, the Tamil side. The LTTE represents a constituency that is a minority in Sri Lanka, but they’re also part of a much larger regional ethnic group that outnumbers the Sinhalese, and they get lots of financial and material support from their coethnics in Tamil Nadu. This, naturally, increases the sense of siege among the Sinhalese. It also gives the LTTE the wherewithal to carry on the fight regardless of the wishes of the Sri Lankan Tamil population, and gives impetus to its maximalist demands.
    The LTTE also isn’t shy about killing civilians to get what it wants. It perfected, and indeed invented, the use of suicide bombing as an insurgent tactic. It hasn’t shown much regard for civilian life in the areas that it holds, it uses refugees as political and military pawns, and has shelled civilian neighborhoods during periods of active warfare. It also has its own national-religious tendencies, and while remaining formally secular, has made use of both Hindu and Christian theology (especially the latter) to assert that its constituents are the sole indigenous owners of Sri Lanka and to give moral approval to its tactics of warfare.
    And finally, the dynamics of the conflict. There’s a stalled peace process with which international monitors are rapidly losing patience, and the minorities on each side are hostages to the respective political factions and armies. Moreover, both sides have proven willing to escalate the conflict for tactical reasons: if negotiations aren’t going well or if one party feels that it isn’t benefiting from diplomatic stasis, an air raid on a refugee camp or a bomb on a Colombo bus can always be counted upon to reset the clock.
    Does any of this sound familiar? Does all of it sound familiar?
    There’s only one real difference between the Sri Lankan and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts: the fact that the former is taking place entirely within the internationally recognized borders of a state. This means that Jaffna doesn’t count as occupied territory under international law, and that the Sri Lankan security forces are able to get away with quite a bit more than their Israeli counterparts: among other things, there have been 16,000 extrajudicial executions and over 75,000 total deaths during the course of the war. It also means that anyone who advocates a single-state solution for Israel and Palestine really ought to spend some time in Sri Lanka, because that’s what such a state would probably look like. But here I digress.
    The bottom line is that Israel-Palestine, rather than Darfur, is the right analogy. And that’s also where we should probably be looking for pitfalls, solutions and conflict-resolution strategies.

  5. salah

    the fact that the former is taking place entirely within the internationally recognized borders of a state. This means that Jaffna doesn’t count as occupied territory under international law, and that the Sri Lankan security forces are able to get away with quite
    Jonathan, same argument can be applied for the Kurds in north Iraq and Saddam where “ taking place entirely within the internationally recognized borders of a state., but Kurds case went and got more attentions from international community while in this case we do not see any attention to it! Why?
    I think the question it beyond that in regards of the quietness with international intervene there with this case
    Is it the double standard in dealing with conflicts here and there? Or is it worth it or in interest of big players to intervene?

  6. Jonathan Edelstein

    Jonathan, same argument can be applied for the Kurds in north Iraq and Saddam where “ taking place entirely within the internationally recognized borders of a state., but Kurds case went and got more attentions from international community while in this case we do not see any attention to it! Why?
    I think you’re correct: it all depends on whose ox is being gored. The Kurdish conflict directly impacts on American, European, Turkish and Iranian interests as well as on the general stability of the Middle East, so it gets a lot of attention from those quarters. The Sri Lankan civil war is taking place in a less volatile region and doesn’t have as much impact on American or European security interests, so it isn’t a high priority for governments and media in those countries. It does get more attention in India, which has been militarily involved in Sri Lanka a couple of times, and Australia, which has a large Tamil expat community and where the LTTE has conducted fundraising.

  7. Dominic

    Out here in the free-fire zone beyond the borders of the USA we are all more or less Darfur. It’s just that from time to time some are Darfur than others.

  8. ellyn

    Jonathan
    I am shocked at your ignorance about Sri lanka and your comparisons to the Israeli government. I have lived in Israel and am a stong supporter of a strong and safe Israel. May I remind you that Israel is a sovergn country that is a member of the United Nations, and is under attack by dispicable cowards, Hamas and Hitzbollah that are committed to the distruction of every Jew ,including women, and children to take over the jewish land and ” push them into the sea” because they are Jewish. Israel supports a palestinian state with their own borders and governemnt that can coexist with them in a peaceful 2 state solution.
    Now Sri Lanka is totally different. I have worked there and am fighting for Tamil rights and to stop the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Tamil people BY THEIR OWN government.
    What governemnts kill their own people??
    The govt of Saddam Hussien, govt of Darfur, Govt of Sri lanka.
    The Israelis DONT GO AROUND KILLING THEIR OWN CITIZENS.
    Last time I looked, the Tamils were citizens of Sri Lanka, who are bieng persecuted and killed.
    Look at the Tamilnet websites and read about the conflict.
    The govt of Sri lanka must be expected to uphold humantarian standards to be part of the international community. Govt’s are not “allowed” to go on killing sprees and kill their own population. The Tamil Tigers are freedom fighters. Google the international lawyer: Karen parker and read her detailed writings on the definition of freedom fighters. ( by the way Hamas and Hitbollah are criminals and terrorists not freedom fighters, they are trying to dystroy a legitimate state from outside the sovergn borders of Israel.) Tamil Tigers are trying to protect their civilians from extinction. No war is good, but if there were no Tigers, ther would be no more Tamils left in Sri lanka. Shame on the govt. Years of persecution and killings.. The leahy ammendment passed in US Congress states that the US is not allowed to give money to governemnts that do not meet humanitarinan standards and yet the US gave millions to the SL govt last year.
    Write to your congress person, ask them to stop US funding of a corrupt , evil killing machine governemnt.Soon there will be no more tamils left in Sri lanka, and my friends there will be gone.
    Ellyn ( tsunami aide worker in Northern areas )

  9. puni selva

    Ellyn, Lisa, Salah, Jonathan, Bevin,Rageen, Prashanth, Helena
    Thank you all very much.
    I am a Sri Lankan Tamil who fled Sri Lanka thirty years ago but feel vey guilty about having left my brethren who have been suffering immeasurably for so long ‘out of sight’ of the international community.
    Right now hundreds of thousands are in camps and forcibly settled far away from their homes where Sinhalese are ‘settled’ by the armed forces – yes, armed forces rule the Northeast – as a part of decades-long state policy of altering the demography of the Northeast.
    As soon as independence was granted in 1948, nearly 80,000 Tamils(who were brought by the British from South India to work in tea plantations in the upcountry in late nineteenth/early twentieth century) were made voteless and stateless by a parliamentary Act. If this happened in Australia or the US what would have happened to the history of mankind in the twetieth century?
    Then followed discriminatory political and economic policies and practice for nearly six decades and Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis, has recently made these comments:
    1.The Limits of State Sovereignty: The Responsibility to Protect in the 21st Century
    Eighth Neelam Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES), Colombo, 29 July 2007:
    ”… Sri Lanka is in R2P situation. …. Kofi Annan told the UN General Assembly in 2000: If humanitarian intervention is indeed an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda , to a Sebrenica, to gross and systematic violations of human rights?…. At the very least, then, until the government comes up with a constitutional offer that at least non-separatist Tamil leaders can take seriously, there should be no international support for offensive operations in the north. ”
    2. Ending Deadly Conflict: Dream or Delusion?
    Second Sir Zelman Cowen Oration by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, Australian Institute of International Affairs, Melbourne, 22 August 2007 :
    ‘’We are doing better at diplomatic peacemaking, with successes from Cambodia to the Balkans to Northern Ireland to West Africa to Nepal and Aceh well outnumbering in recent years what remain so far the failures, eg. in Sri Lanka and Darfur.’’
    3. The Responsibility to Protect: Creating and Implementing a New International Norm, Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, Address to Human Rights Law Resource Centre, Melbourne, 13 August 2007 and Community Legal Centres and Lawyers for Human Rights, Sydney, 28 August 2007:
    Two weeks ago in Sri Lanka I gave a fairly cautiously expressed lecture on the subject only to be greeted by a hail of personal abuse, and reactions like this one from a Singhalese nationalist paper: “The so-called responsibility to protect is nothing but a license for the white man to himself intervene in the affairs of dark sovereign countries, whenever the white man thinks it fit to do so.”
    There is a lot of hope in R2P but it’s too late for tens of thousands of Tamils’lives lost since ‘independence’ in 1948.

  10. salah

    ellyn,
    cowards, Hamas and Hitzbollah that are committed to the distruction of every Jew ,including women, and children to take over the jewish land and ” push them into the sea” because they are Jewish.
    Keep your HYPOCRISY and your boring propaganda to yourself, Israelis have bloody history you can change the history.

  11. salah

    ellyn,
    cowards, Hamas and Hitzbollah that are committed to the distruction of every Jew ,including women, and children to take over the jewish land and ” push them into the sea” because they are Jewish.
    Keep your HYPOCRISY and your boring propaganda to yourself, Israelis have bloody history you can not change the history.

  12. paul

    Why is there no mention of the LTTE whose actions the government of SL is using as an excuse to carry out what everyone here seems to agree, is unacceptable ?
    THere is also no mention of the majority of Tamils of Sri Lanka who just happen to choose to outside LTTE controlled areas.. Why would they do that if they were hounded mercilessly by the government
    No mention of the other Tamils who oppose the actions of the LTTE in their name.
    ?

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