Sri Lanka: No end to human rights abuses

April 17, 2010

The Sri Lankan government's fake sincerity towards the plight of the country's Tamil minority may have impressed the Australian government, which claimed "changed circumstances" as the reason behind its decision to suspend the processing of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka for three months. But it has done nothing to resolve the ongoing oppression of the Tamil people.

In the lead up to Sri Lanka's April 8 parliamentary election, Al-Jazeera reported that Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa told supporters at the Alfred Duraiappa Stadium in the northern town of Jaffna on April 1: "We should get rid of the ethnic thinking and should not be racists.

"We will be able to solve the issues in the [predominantly Tamil] north through the people's participation councils by giving the opportunity to the people to address issues by themselves."

This statement was said to an audience of only 400 — unsurprising given the checkpoints and inspections anyone attempting to attend was subjected to. It was meant to show support for the president in the Tamil-dominated north.

Instead, like the elections in which only about 20% of registered Tamil voters took part, it highlighted the Tamil people's rejection of a government that killed up to 30,000 civilians in 2009 in its campaign to defeat the pro-independence Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The LTTE waged a three-decade long armed struggle for an independent Tamil homeland in the island's north and east in response to systematic discrimination by the Sri Lankan state dominated by the Sinhala ethnic majority.

Since the country won independence from Britain in 1948, successive governments have repeatedly whipped up Sinhala chauvinist violence against Tamils. The most infamous example was the 1983 "Black Friday" anti-Tamil pogroms, in which 3000 Tamils were massacred.

Rajapaksa's election bravado indicates his new government is likely to bank on fast economic growth at the expense of providing more rights to the country's minorities. But attempts to bring international trade back to the island have been delayed by pressure over its severe human rights abuse record.

To try to deflect this criticism, Sri Lankan officials made several concessions in the lead-up to the election. These measures included freeing about 1000 prisoners from the infamous Special Rehabilitation Centres since the beginning of the year.

After the military defeat of the LTTE last May, more than 250,000 Tamil civilians were locked up in what are essentially concentration camps. Torture, rape and disappearances were widely reported in the camps.

More than 11,000 Tamil people remain imprisoned in these camps. Also, more than 80,000 still live in the "open" civilian internment camp at Vavuniyaa, where permits must be obtained before people can move.

Many in these camps have been forced to sell their dry food rations, often at below market rates, to obtain basic foodstuffs.

A February report by Human Rights Watch, entitled Legal Limbo: The Uncertain Fate Of Detained LTTE Suspects In Sri Lanka, said support for the government's rehabilitation program and centres should be granted only on the condition they are proven to be voluntary and detainees were granted all their rights under international law.

HRW said "the lack of transparency in the process and of information about the fate and whereabouts of some of the detainees raised concerns about possible torture or mistreatment in custody, and the possibility that some of the disappearances might have been forcible".

In response, Sri Lanka is said to be close to finalising a National Plan of Action for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. The Sri Lankan NGO National Peace Council's Jehan Perera told on March 22 that while some NGOs have been drawn into its creation, many are wary of the government's sincerity.

Responding to widespread criticism of its human rights abuses, Sri Lankan human rights minister Mahinda Samarasing told reporters in March: "This action plan would show our commitment and our determination to minimise, prevent, or even eradicate torture and disappearances."

However, its actions indicate the government remains committed to its policy of destroying the Tamil national identity.

The April 6 Times said that in Kilinochchi, a predominantly Tamil city that was the capital of the territory held by the LTTE, a Buddhist shrine is being used as a tool to encourage the repopulation of the north by the largely Buddhist Sinhala ethnic majority.

Suresh Premachandran, an MP from the Tamil National Alliance, told the Times: "The Government is putting up new Buddhist shrines and building permanent housing for soldiers.

"They are trying to colonise the area, to show it belongs to the Sinhalese."

Kumar, a Kilinochchi local, told the April 1 British Guardian that he felt "sad" and "nervous" when he saw the Sri Lankan army in his area.

"Look at the temple", he said. "The army rules this place now. It belongs to them.

"It was the LTTE who made demands on behalf of the Tamil people. Now there is no one."

As one prominent Tamil academic, who declined to be named, told the Times: "The archaeological department is the handmaiden of the Government.

"The concern is that they're going to identify these sites as Sinhalese, build lots of Buddhist shrines and tell Sinhalese people this is their lost land."

It isn't just Tamils that face persecution at the hands of the Rajapaksa government. All opponents of the government are in the firing line — especially journalists.

In the April 13 Sydney Morning Herald, Matt Wade wrote: "The treatment of journalists is one bellwether of the human rights climate in Sri Lanka."

He said the Australian government's decision to suspend processing Sri Lankan asylum seekers "is at odds with the plight of media workers".

"In recent weeks, several journalists have fled the country fearing for their lives. They have joined scores of others living in exile because they feel it is too dangerous to report independently in their country."

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