SRI LANKA’S WAR ON TAMILS: THE UNKNOWN GENOCIDE

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 20 Mar 2009

Tony Iltis

Thousands of civilians have been killed or injured and hundreds of thousands are in danger from hunger and disease, as the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) continues its brutal offensive against the Tamil people in the island’s north-east.

The Sri Lankan government is declaring an imminent victory in its 26-year war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an armed group fighting for the independence for the Tamil Eelam homeland in Sri Lanka’s north and east.

“The Sri Lankan government has pursued a brutal military campaign in which it has shelled its own people, including in government-designated ‘safe zones’, displacing, injuring and killing many thousands of innocent civilians”, according to a letter signed by 11 British members of parliament.

The letter, published in the March 4 British Guardian, stated: “In the past two months alone 2,000 lives have been lost and as many as 5,000 have been injured. In the areas it has secured there have been reports of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and other human rights violations.

“Dissent is treated as treason, criticism is violently suppressed and Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists.”

The MPs called for a ceasefire and peace negotiations, and for the army to allow access for aid agencies to the areas under attack.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has warned of “an impending humanitarian catastrophe”, according to a March 4 BBC report. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported on March 3 that 200,000 civilians were “living under desperate conditions”.

“Patients tell MSF how people are being shelled for days on end, with the dead and wounded surrounding them. There is a severe lack of medical care and not enough food and drinking water”, the NGO stated.

Sri Lankan defence affairs minister Keheliya Rambukwella dismissed calls for a ceasefire by the LTTE as “hilarious” as “the LTTE is on the verge of defeat militarily”, according to the March 3 Hindustan Times.

During a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire between 2002 and 2008, much of Tamil Eelam was under the de facto administration of the LTTE. In January 2008, the army unilaterally ended the ceasefire and embarked on the reconquest of the LTTE-held areas.

Since December, government and military spokespeople have announced the final defeat of the Tamil rebels several times.

While attacks by the LTTE against police and military targets have continued, it is clear that the army has succeeded in bringing most of the island under its territorial control. This has been achieved at the cost of the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

The civilian death toll from army’s assault is greater even than that during Israel’s recent assault on Gaza. According to Tamil sources, 2018 civilians were killed by the army in January and February, including 728 children. US-based Human Rights Watch has corroborated these figures.

Like their Israeli counterparts, Sri Lankan military authorities have kept media and aid agencies away from the conflict.

A high proportion of the civilian casualties have been in the areas which the military itself designated as “safe zones”. Hospitals have been targeted and columns of fleeing civilians have been carpet bombed by Israeli-supplied Kfir jets.

Illegal weapons such as cluster munitions and white phosphorus have been used.

The latest “safe zone” is a narrow 12-kilometre strip between a lagoon and the sea north of the town of Mullaiththeevu. More than 200,000 civilians have been herded into this barren land that lacks potable water and shade.

Food and medicine cannot be brought in. Health workers have reported deaths from starvation and from people eating poisonous Adampan leaves — one of the few plants that grow in the area.

According to S. Kanagratnam, member of parliament for Vanni (which covers the “safe zone”): “Scores of Tamil civilians are being killed every day. But the civilian victims are not on or near the frontline, as some international media is reporting.

“These people, inside safety zone, away from the frontline and they are being deliberately targeted by the Sri Lankan military … International actors and media who suggest that the civilians are somehow caught between the combatants or caught in crossfire and so on are deliberately misrepresenting the situation.

“This misrepresentation serves to absolve the Sri Lankan state of any blame for the killing and maiming of hundreds of Tamil people every week.

“It also serves to conceal, deliberately or unintentionally, the genocidal logic of firing thousands of shells at civilian areas — especially after arbitrarily designating these places as a so-called safe area so as to draw civilians into it.”

Western politicians and media have called for the LTTE to allow civilians to be evacuated to government-controlled areas, echoing Sri Lankan propaganda claiming that the LTTE are keeping civilians as human shields. This ignores the routine abuse of Tamil civilians in government-controlled areas.

According to a March 4 report on the TamilSydney website, the abandoned Kilinochchi hospital is being used by the army to hold young men, who are subjected to forced labour, and young women, who are held as sex slaves.

The March 2 Hindustan Times reported that the US Pacific Command (Pacom) was planning to evacuate 200,000 Tamil civilians from the conflict zone to government-controlled areas, where the government “would then imprison them in concentration-style internment camps”.

“PACOM evacuating these Tamil civilians is equivalent to signing their death warrants. These people have been bombed for months by this genocidal government; evacuating them from Vanni and delivering them to the Sri Lankan government is equivalent to being an accomplice to genocide”, Rosha Hebsur from the NGO People for Equality and Relief in Sri Lanka told the Hindustan Times.

The anti-Tamil war has been accompanied by a crackdown against the media that has resulted in journalists being arrested, assaulted, kidnapped and assassinated. During the past five years, 23 journalists have been killed by government-linked death squads and the BBC has suspended operations in the country.

The past-quarter century of civil war in Sri Lanka was preceded by a quarter-century of discrimination and escalating anti-Tamil violence. Backed by the Buddhist clergy, the major Sri Lankan political parties have promoted a chauvinistic nationalism that promotes the Singhalese people (who comprise 74% of the population) as the only true Sri Lankans.

In fact Singhalese and Tamils have coexisted on the island for millenia.

Despite discrimination in education and employment, when the LTTE was founded in the 1970s, the majority of Tamils did not support their program of independence to be won through armed struggle.

However, the success of the Singhalese elite in diverting discontent amongst the Singhalese poor into regular outbreaks of anti-Tamil violence convinced Tamils that there was no place for them in the Singhalese-dominated Sri Lankan state.

Following the 1983 “Black July” anti-Tamil pogrom, in which 3000 people were killed, a majority of Tamils switched their allegiance to the LTTE.

Attracted by the prize of the strategically important deep-water port of Trincomolee, global and regional powers have competed with each other to provide military assistance to Sri Lanka.

The US, Israel, China, India and Pakistan have all equipped the Sri Lankan army with high technology weapons, including illegal chemical weapons and cluster munitions.

The Sri Lankan army has only been used against internal enemies — the Tamils and uprisings by Singhalese rural poor youth in the ’70s and ’80s.

Since 2001, Western support for Sri Lanka has been justified by viewing the conflict through Washington’s “war on terror” prism, with the LTTE being listed by the US and the European Union as a terrorist organisation.

The LTTE are not listed as a prohibited terrorist organisation in Australia. This did not stop the Australian Federal Police from attempting to assist the Sri Lankan state by using anti-terror laws to prosecute three Tamil men in Melbourne for allegedly providing assistance to the LTTE.

However, nine terrorism-related charges were dropped on March 6 against the men. In 2007, Supreme Court judge Bernard Bongiorno had raised doubts as to whether the prosecution could succeed in convincing a jury the LTTE were a terrorist organisation, according the March 6 Australian.

The men still face charges of assisting an organisation prohibited by the United Nations, which carries a five-year maximum sentence, down from the 25 years attached to the dropped charges.

History repeatedly shows that oppression creates resistance. Even if the SLA’s current offensive succeeds in militarily destroying the LTTE, as long as the Tamil people are denied justice and the right to self-determination, there will be no lasting peace.

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