Sri Lanka: Facts lost in the dusk of war

Issue 

Despite the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which waged an armed struggle for an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka's north-east, life for the Tamil minority remains one of oppression and suffering.

But for Australia's media, still heady from "victory" celebrations in Colombo in late May, the world has moved on and another oppressed people have been left behind.

Since Sri Lanka won its independence in 1948, its state has been dominated by the Sinhalese ethnic majority. Tamils suffered discrimination and were the victims of widespread ethnic violence with the complicity of the state.

The 1983 Black July anti-Tamil pogroms, which killed more than 3000 people, sparked the LTTE's armed struggle for independence.

Sri Lanka's promise was that, once the LTTE were defeated, the Tamils would enjoy freedom. However, thousands of Tamils civilians remain locked up in concentration camps in the north of the country. Some 10,000 remain as political prisoners behind Sri Lankan prison bars.

On May 20, Fairfax journalist Matt Wade, published in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald, reported on the Sri Lankan government's declaration at a press conference that it would look after the interests of the Tamil minority, now that the 25-year-long civil war had formally ended.

Since then, little has been written about the current state of affairs on the island.

The hollowness of the words of the Sri Lankan government was clear from the start.
Human Rights Watch's Asia director told the May 3 London Daily Mail about the camps: "These are detention camps, not welfare camps. They were set up to detain Tamils leaving areas on the presumption that they are all terrorists.

"This sends a terrible message to the Tamil population."

One Tamil behind barbed-wire in one of the camps, who asked not to be named, told the Mail: "This is our prison."

Alleged former Tiger combatants are pushed into re-education programs in "rehabilitation centres" run by the Ministry of Justice and funded by UNICEF.

The Sri Lankan government has claimed these centres are helping the country win the wider "war of terror".

The Mail provided an example of how such centres function. It quoted a woman in one of the camps who "sobbed as she told how her husband and son had been taken away, with no explanation. All she had was a government piece of paper, written in Sinhalese — a language she could not read.

"The paper is a 'receipt' for her husband and son. In a Kafkaesque piece of protocol, receipts are issued for people, written in a language the Tamil refugees do not understand, handed over by soldiers who do not speak the language of the people they guard.

"The men taken away were suspected Tiger terrorists. The piece of paper said they had been taken for rehabilitation at a secret location.

"I asked Dr Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka's Cambridge-educated Foreign Secretary, what had become of the men.

"'There are 2000 LTTE suspects in the entire Vavuniya area,' he said.

"The suspects are removed for questioning and placed in a terrorist rehabilitation camp. The families of suspects are given a receipt. The government is then responsible."

What makes these camps and centres even more disturbing is the support they have received from some NGO's and UN agencies. This is despite the fact that their staff are often denied access to the camps.

UNICEF, the UN agency responsible for the welfare of children, is helping fund the "rehabilitation" centres. It has also worked with the Sri Lankan government in a campaign against child soldiers, of which the LTTE is accused of using.

The problem is that running such a campaign with the Sri Lankan state, responsible for the slaughter or more than 20,000 Tamil civilians this year according the UN figures, is tantamount to an endorsement of a state responsible for gross war crimes.

Such crimes dwarf even the worst accusations thrown at the LTTE.

UNICEF and the other NGOs that are collaborating with the Sri Lankan state have become pawns in Sri Lanka's program of oppression and control. In doing so they set back the struggle for Tamil human rights and self-determination.

Some journalists have also ended up playing a similar role. Articles from the Sydney Morning Herald, can be found on Sri Lanka's Ministry of Defence website.

The Sri Lankan state is able to control the movements of foreign journalists and NGOs and can therefore control the story to some degree.

Children and other prisoners are regularly abducted from internment camps and accused of being Tiger fighters.

On June 15, BBCSinhala.com quoted Sri Lankan human rights activist Sunila Abeysekara who said that 20-30 young people disappear from camps in Vavuniya daily.

"We are already familiar with the pattern," Abeysekara said. "Our information says that former LTTE cadres and members of other militant groups — hooded informants — point to the youth in the camps and then they were taken away in the night."

The London-based Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (CSUCS) said on May 20 that pro-government paramilitary groups have "unhindered access to the IDP camps in Vavuniya, despite the presence of the Sri Lankan military which is responsible for protecting these camps".

This task is made easier by the fact that there are no accurate numbers of people in the internment camps, as verified by international agencies. The UN has been told that further access to the camps is impossible for security reasons.

Reports from the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances show that the Sri Lankan government still has not replied to over 5000 suspected cases of disappearances.