Sri Lanka: Humanitarian disaster in concentration camps

Issue 

A humanitarian catastrophe has been escalating over the last three months in the internment camps in which 285,000 Tamil civilians have been imprisoned in the north of Sri Lanka.

Even some liberal Western media outlets have begun referring to these camps — heavily guarded by the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) and ringed by razor wire — by their accurate name: concentration camps. The already disastrous conditions for the camps' prisoners, which include around 55,000 children, are being exacerbated by heavy rains causing major flooding.

The Sri Lankan government launched a brutal offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at the start of 2008. The LTTE had been fighting for an independent state for the oppressed Tamil people in the north-east of the island.

Between January and May this year, more than 30,000 Tamils were killed. In May, the government declared victory in its 26-year long war against the LTTE.

Prison camps

Tamil refugees displaced by the war have been rounded up and held against their will in about 30 government-run camps in the north.

The government said the internees would be held until they were "screened" for links to the LTTE. It pledged to release 80% of those detained by the end of the year.

But since May, only 10,000 refugees have been released. Sri Lanka's foreign secretary publicly stated that he believed all Tamils are "with" the LTTE — "at least mentally".

Rights agencies have reported food, water and medicine shortages, and resulting malnourishment, among internees. Tamil sources have reported deaths from starvation in the camps.

There have been widespread allegations of the systematic rape and sexual abuse of Tamil women and children. There are also reports of beatings, disappearances and executions of Tamils suspected of supporting the LTTE.

More than 10,000 Tamils, who the government claims are LTTE members, have been removed from the camps and imprisoned incommunicado in secret locations without access to the outside world — or to the rights recognised under international law of prisoners of war.

'Mud and misery'

In the wake of the rains that flooded the prison camps, which hit on August 14, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs news service IRIN described "a sea of mud and misery".

Tents were inundated with water and waste from toilets flooded throughout the camps.

Demanding the immediate release of the 285,000 civilians last month, Amnesty International's British director Kate Allen said: "The largest camp — Menik Farm — is horrendous. It holds about 160,000 people in an area smaller than one square kilometre.

"The people we are talking about here are doctors, teachers, farmers — ordinary people with ordinary lives. Yet, they are being held in horrendous conditions for no reason other than that they previously lived in areas held by the Tamil Tigers."

Amnesty said there was a lack of running water and sanitation. There are also severe restrictions on communication with the outside world, with aid workers not being permitted to talk to the internees.

Following the heavy rains, international medical officers raised concerns with IRIN on August 17 over diarrhoea, dysentery and other waterborne diseases.

"From an epidemiological point of view, this is a public health disaster waiting to happen", one medical officer said.

"How are we supposed to sleep like this?" demanded Menik Farm prisoner Ganeshan Sivasundram from outside his flooded tent.

The government responded to the floods by deploying more troops. The soldiers were sent to secure the camps from "unrest" by crushing the mounting resistance to the mass incarceration.

To make matters worse for internees, Sri Lanka's monsoon season is due to begin in October.

Genocide

The Sri Lankan government ordered all aid groups and the UN to leave the northern war zone in September last year as part of its preparations to crush the pro-independence military resistance. The aim was to prevent international agencies witnessing the SLA atrocities.

"Genocide" is defined by the UN as any act "committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group". This is the only word that can adequately describe the massacres against Tamil people this year.

In January 2008, the Sri Lankan government unilaterally pulled out of a 2002 Norwegian-mediated ceasefire agreement and vowed to crush the LTTE militarily.

In June last year, the government's offensive was stepped up. It was further escalated in January.

Between January and April, the UN estimated 7000 Tamil civilian deaths, most caused by SLA shelling and air strikes.

However, UN sources revealed to the London Times and Paris-based Le Monde newspapers immediately following the end of the war that they estimated 20,000 Tamil civilians had been killed in the final weeks of the regime's offensive — including 10,000 on May 17 alone.

The next day, the government declared victory in the 26-year civil war.

The Times reported "internal anger" in the UN over the failure to reveal the death toll, which "had not been made public to avoid a diplomatic storm". The Times said: "The figure of 20,000 casualties was given to the Times by UN sources, who explained in detail how they arrived at that calculation."

The de facto state infrastructure established by the LTTE in the territory it controlled in the north over the past decade has been almost entirely destroyed. Ethnic Sinhalese (the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka) are being encouraged by the regime to settle in the "depopulated" historically Tamil land in the north. It is part of a long-running colonisation scheme similar to Israel's settlement policy in the West Bank.

LTTE leaders who surrendered to the SLA were summarily executed. On August 25, Channel 4 News showed mobile-phone footage of executions of LTTE militians, released by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka. The footage was filmed by an SLA soldier in January.

The footage shows a Sri Lankan soldier shooting a naked, bound and blindfolded young man in the back of the head at point-blank range. The footage revealed the executions of nine men.

International action

The international community has failed to act in any way to hold the regime to account for the mass murder of Tamils, including the failure to even insist on an independent war crimes inquiry.

The International Monetary Fund recently approved a US$2.6 billion loan to "rebuild" the country that will directly benefit the regime, which has imposed a 0.9% tax on all foreign aid entering the country.

It has also been revealed that the British government, along with other European Union countries, continued to sell millions of pounds worth of arms and military equipment to the Sri Lankan government over the last three years of its escalating war on Tamils.

Britain sold more than £13.6 million of equipment including armoured vehicles, machine-gun parts and semi-automatic weapons to Sri Lanka, according to official records. This includes £1.3 million worth of arms during the last three months of 2008, when the regime was well into its latest and most brutal offensive against the Tamil people.

A government that holds hundreds of thousands of people in horrific conditions behind razor wire in camps because of their ethnicity cannot be treated as legitimate. International action against the murderous Colombo regime is too late for the 30,000 Tamils killed this year. But solidarity will be vital to defend the rights of the 285,000 Tamils now incarcerated in the concentration camps, and Tamil people in general.

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