Sri Lanka: Tamil oppression worsens despite war's end

The Sri Lankan government claims that, after its military victory against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which was fighting for an independent homeland in the island's north-east for the Tamil minority, Tamil "terrorism" has been crushed, and that the outlook for the country is rosy.

In reality, Sri Lanka's problems have gotten worse. The need for international action against the crimes of the regime is more urgent than ever.

This year, the regime's genocidal war on the Tamil people killed more than 30,000 Tamils this year. This occurred after the government removed international witnesses.

"Genocide" is defined by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as an act committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

More than 300,000 Tamils have been incarcerated in what are essentially concentration camps set up by the government in the north. A well-functioning defacto state in the Vanni region, four large districts administered by the LTTE for more than a decade, has been decimated.

Democracy in Sri Lanka has been dismantled and a politico-military dictatorship established.

More than any other country, China has assisted Sri Lanka militarily and economically. The quid pro quo is the establishment of a major naval facility in Sri Lanka. This will help supply oil to China from the Middle East and safeguard the movement of manufactured goods from China to the West.

China has also started a coal-powered power plant in the island's north-west. Eighty families of fisher people in the area have been evicted. The government claims they are "illegal residents" because they live in huts.

A US$500 million "soft loan" has been granted by the Export and Import Bank of China.

Slaughter of Tamils

The full-scale war against the Tamil people that ended with the surrender of the LTTE in May, started after the November 2005 election of Mahinda Rajapakse as president, backed by virulently anti-Tamil elements.

Rajapakse believes that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist country. The Sinhalese, largely Buddhist, are the ethnic majority in Sri Lanka and have dominated the state since independence in 1948.

The assault on the Tamils was launched in January 2006, increased in June 2008 and further escalated in January this year. On one day alone, May 17, 10,000, possibly more, Tamils were slaughtered by the military.

In September last year, all aid groups, including United Nations agencies, were asked to leave the conflict zone so that genocide could be committed without witnesses.

On May 18, the regime declared "victory".

Despite this, international observers and humanitarian organisations are still denied access to the conflict zone by the Sri Lankan government, which says it is carrying out "mopping up" operations.

The regime is "mopping up" the evidence that would show the scale of the slaughter.

Thousands of unarmed civilians were bombed and shelled. The regime claims it was targeting LTTE fighters hiding among the civilians. Whether or not this is true, Sri Lanka's actions violate the 1977 Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, signed and ratified by the Sri Lanka.

Article 50 of the protocol states: "The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character."

Hospitals were bombed. This is in violation of the Geneva Conventions 1 and 4 that state: "Fixed establishments and mobile Medical Units of the medical service may in no circumstances be attacked."

LTTE leaders who surrendered to the military were executed, a serious offence under international law.

Food has also been used as a weapon of war, with food and medical supplies denied to civilians in the conflict zone. Article 55 and 56 of the Geneva Conventions states: "An occupying power has the duty of ensuring adequate food and medical supplies in the area under occupation."

Concentration camps

Some 279,000 Tamil civilians have been herded into 40 barbwire-enclosed "welfare camps" in the north. Outsiders, including relatives, are not allowed into the camps.

Young Tamil men are identified as LTTE fighters by masked men (from Tamil groups that broke-away from the LTTE) and executed.

International demands to have the interrogations of suspected LTTE fighters monitored have been refused.

Tamil girls and women are raped. There are claims that pregnant women are aborted and some even sterilised. It is not possible to confirm or refute these claims since independent observers are not allowed into the area.

The regime says the camps will be dismantled within six months, but similar detainees in camps set up in the north-east are still operating a year after being established.

The most likely scenario is that the camps in the north will be there for many years.

Holding people in these detention centres violates not just international law, by Sri Lankan law as well, as Sri Lanka's chief justice Sarath Silva has said.

Much of the Tamil population in the east are now refugees. The Jaffna Peninsula, in the far-north, is run as a virtual police state.

Tamil state demolished

The defacto state in the north, built and operated by the LTTE, has been totally demolished.

The long-term implication of this wanton destruction of functioning structures is that anything built by the Tamils will be destroyed by the regime. This must be taken into account in formulating any long-term solution to the ethnic problem.

Sri Lanka's dictatorship regime is run by Mahinda Rajapakse, his three brothers and numerous relatives. The ruthless military is headed by one of the most anti-Tamil soldiers in Sri Lanka, General Sarath Fonseka.

Opposition MPs have been bought or silenced. Tamil MPs have been gunned down.

The media has been silenced. Reporters Without Borders ranks Sri Lanka as 165 out of 173 countries in terms of freedom of speech.

Anyone who questions what is going on is branded a traitor or a terrorist, and dealt with as such. A 2008 UN Human Rights Watch report said Sri Lanka leads the world in "involuntary disappearances".

Corruption is rampant. The police are among the most corrupt in the world. Use of armed hoodlums and thugs is a feature of this government.

The most recent suggestion is that there is "no need to have another election". Even if one is held, the result, in the setting of massive voter intimidation, is a foregone conclusion.

What can be done

The only actions available to assist the struggle of the Tamils for justice are the same as those used to deal with the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The imposition of economic sanctions is essential to bring this totalitarian regime, that has scoffed at international outrage about its human rights violations, to its senses.

Trade unions across the world should stop handling goods in and out of Sri Lanka (as was done with South Africa). Companies providing goods and services to Sri Lanka should be targeted. Tourism must be specifically targeted.

Sri Lanka has to be isolated. An international "razor-wire fence" will have to be run round Sri Lanka, until the razor-wire fences around the Tamil civilians are taken down and the people are allowed to return to their homes and are compensated.

The isolation of Sri Lanka should include cricket — as it was with South Africa.

Sri Lanka should also be expelled from the Commonwealth until the violations of human rights cease.

Legal action should be launched in the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court against those responsible for crimes against humanity.

International protests should be launched to make politicians and others from this ruthless regime unwelcome wherever they travel.

Action needs to be taken to counter the disinformation campaign launched by the Sri Lankan government so that the outside world can see what is concealed behind Sri Lanka's closed and censored doors. I have produced DVDs as part of this campaign.

People around the world should lobby their parliamentarians to ask what they and their governments are doing about the outrageous situation in Sri Lanka. The expatriate Tamils doing this by themselves is simply not enough. Non-Tamils need to get involved.

The Sinhalese population, who mostly live in Sri Lanka's south, need to be appealed to as part of solving the Tamil problem. Today it is the Tamils bearing the brunt of the regime's repression, tomorrow it will be the Sinhalese — especially the poor.

Impoverished Sinhalese are facing crippling economic hardship with an inflation rate of 30%, the highest in Asia. They need to be won to an understanding that it is widespread corruption and abysmally poor governance that are the problems, not "Tamil terrorism".

The Rajapakse regime is the enemy of Sinhalese workers as well as the Tamil people. With thousands of Sri Lankan workers losing their jobs under the impact of the world recession, Rajapakse's government has re-established the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) — enabling mass layoffs and attacks on workers' rights.

In the first three months of this year, 96,000 jobs were lost in the industrial sector and 36,000 in the construction sector.

The labour ministry said between September and March, 220 factories closed and more than 70,000 workers lost their jobs. More layoffs are certain.

A Central Bank report said export earnings in April fell by 28.2% to US$438 million. Rubber and textiles exports dropped by 36.1% and 10.1% respectively

Under the Termination of Employment of Workman Act (TEWA), companies can impose speedy lay offs and reduce working hours

If Sinhalese workers and poor do not act, the guns, now turned on the Tamil civilians, will be turned on them by a regime determined to suppress dissent.

The socialist parties in the Sri Lankan south are possibly the only groups who can deliver this. They must be supported by the outside world.

If action is not taken, the Tamil north could become another Gaza — the comparisons are already alarming.

[Brian Senewiratne is a long-time Sinhalese activist for Tamil rights and a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australia.]