Sri Lanka: Brutal slaughter of Tamil civilians

May 2, 2009

A largely defenceless people struggling to survive and hemmed in on a narrow strip of land, facing indiscriminate airstrikes, assault from gun boats and cluster bombs by a well-equipped army, conjures up the image of the recent Israeli invasion of Palestine's Gaza Strip.

However, since the start of this year, Sri Lankan government forces have stepped up their campaign of wiping out the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has fought a 25-year war for Tamil independence.

The situation has culminated with the brutal slaughter of thousands of Tamil civilians trapped in the war zone.


UN figures said 2000 people had died in the fighting in April — not including its last week, the most brutal. The civilian death toll has passed 6500 since the end of January.

About 200,000 Tamil civilians are trapped among the LTTE rebels on a tiny sliver of northern coastline measuring 10 square kilometres.

They are surrounded by the Sri Lankan Army (SLA), which continues to pound the area with air strikes and heavy artillery fire.

The result is a growing humanitarian crisis. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has accused Sri Lanka of "causing untold suffering".

The vast majority of aid workers have been refused access to the so-called no-fire zone (regularly bombed by the SLA), and journalists are totally banned.

Makeshift hospitals are crumbling under the demand. People are reportedly dying of malnutrition.

Tamil civilians "rescued" by government forces are being rounded into internment camps.

The international community has been pathetic in its response. Although the LTTE announced a unilateral ceasefire on April 26, the government insists it will push for a complete LTTE surrender at any expense.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has described the war zone as a "catastrophic bloodbath".


Sri Lanka achieved independence in 1948. The Tamils, an ethnic minority making up 24% of the island's population, are mainly concentrated in the north and east of the island.

After independence, the Sinhalese government introduced discriminatory policies including: stripping Tamil plantation workers of their citizenship; unfair education laws; anti-Tamil employment rules; and making Sinhala, the language of the Sinhalese majority, the island's official language.

Initial Tamil resistance to these policies was peaceful, but met with repression. Three thousand Tamils were slaughtered in government-instigated Sinhalese programs in "Black July" in 1983.

In the armed conflict that followed, at least 70,000 people have died.

Big LTTE military gains, and the dire state of the Sri Lankan economy due to the ongoing war, forced the Sri Lankan government to respond positively to unilateral LTTE ceasefires in 2000 and 2001.

The February 2002 Norwegian-mediated ceasefire agreement has been the longest-lasting attempt to bring peace.

In negotiations, the LTTE sought an interim self-governing authority for Tamils in the north-east. This could facilitate human rights protection, as well as "resettlement, rehabilitation, reconstruction, and development in the north-east". A process towards reaching a final settlement would be ongoing.

The government failed even to implement the provisions of the ceasefire agreement, much less any other Tamil demands.

As a result, the LTTE suspended its participation in negotiations in 2003.

The government pulled out of the ceasefire agreement in January last year, opting for annihilation. The SLA unleashed a huge military operation, winning back almost all LTTE-held territory, where the latter had established administration structures.

The Sri Lankan regime is dictatorial. Human Rights Watch labeled 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.

The international community must act to force the Sri Lankan government to halt its bloody offensive. Tamil civilians must be granted freedom of movement and given adequate humanitarian aid.

The government-run internment camps, housing fleeing civilians, are horribly overcrowded, surrounded by barbed wire and controlled by government troops. They should be shut down. Those civilians escaping the violence deserve access to adequate food, shelter and health care.

The time has come for not only peace, but also prosperity and social justice for this majestic island and all who inhabit it.

[Abridged from An Phoblacht, paper of Irish republican party Sinn Fein.]

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