NY Times Editorial Jul 15 09

More than two months after declaring victory over Tamil Tiger guerillas, Sri Lanka’s government is continuing to hold hundreds of thousands of displaced Tamil civilians in what it calls “welfare villages,” but what increasingly look like military internment camps.

The civilians, many of whom were held hostage by the guerrillas in the bloody last stage of the long war, are not being allowed out of the camps, and access by human-rights organizations or journalists is highly restricted.

The government claims it is looking for Tamil Tigers among the refugees and clearing Tamil villages of landmines before letting people return. It may well be that there are former guerrillas hiding among the civilians — the Tamil Tigers had no compunctions about using civilians as cannon fodder or forcibly conscripting men and children. But the screening process is dragging on far too long. And many refugees see it as another abuse of the country’s Tamil minority. As one prominent Tamil politician told The New York Times’s Lydia Polgreen, “This is simply asking for another conflict later on down the road.” If President Mahinda Rajapaksa means it when he says he seeks reconciliation with the Tamils, he should start by letting these people return to their homes.

The government’s strict control on visits to the camps has also raised suspicions that it may be trying to block any investigation into possible government abuses committed in the last months of the war. Soldiers corralled the Tigers, along with hundreds of thousands of civilians into a narrow stretch of beach and, according to human-rights organizations, shelled the area repeatedly. The United Nations says that thousands of civilians were killed, though how and by whom remains murky in the absence of independent investigations.

Donor countries — including the United States, the European Union and Japan — as well as international aid organizations are helping provide food, shelter and clothing to the camps. Most have kept quiet so far about the Tamils’ plight, evidently fearful that criticizing conditions in the camps could get them thrown out of the camps. The time for silence is over. The best way to help the Tamils is by demanding their freedom and an end to their long ordeal.



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