“The worst genocide of this century” was how Paul Newman, professor of human rights at the University of Bangalore, described what has happened to the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.
Newman was delivering the Eliezer memorial lecture, in memory of Professor CJ Eliezer, the founder of the Eelam Tamil Association of Victoria, at Monash University on August 25.
Newman was speaking on democracy in south Asia. He began by outlining some common features of the south Asian countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, before discussing Sri Lanka in more detail.
The south Asian region was under British colonial rule for centuries, and the colonial legacy continues to influence the region today.
Before British colonialism, the region had been divided into numerous small kingdoms out of which Britain created larger administrative entities.
For example, the island of Sri Lanka, previously divided amongst two Sinhalese kingdoms and one Tamil kingdom, was ruled by Britain as a single administrative unit.
When colonial rule ended, Britain handed over power to local elites. In the case of Sri Lanka, power was given to a Sinhalese elite, which suppressed the aspirations of Tamils for self-determination. It even denied citizenship rights to Tamil plantation workers.
Similar events happened in other south Asian countries. For example, India has violently suppressed the people of Kashmir, and Bhutan has expelled its Hindu minority.
The south Asian countries are amongst the lowest in the world on the human development index, as well as on the human rights index.
Gender inequality, corruption, child labour, and casteism remain features of these countries. In India, 48% of children in India are malnourished.
Political repression is also severe. Torture, deaths in custody and extrajudicial killings are common.
Dynastic rule is also common in south Asia. In Sri Lanka, for example, four brothers belonging to the Rajapaksa family are government ministers.
Religious and ethnic communalism are used to divide people. Politicians belonging to a majority religious or ethnic group often cultivate a feeling amongst this group that they are under threat by minorities.
Newman said that Sri Lanka is the worst for human rights violations in south Asia. Tamils are not the only ones who suffer; Sinhalese journalists critical of the government have also been murdered, or have fled into exile.
However, Tamils are the main victims of repression. Tamil areas are under military rule. All civilian activities — even family gatherings — must be reported to the military.
Newman said that in the north of the island there is one member of the security forces for every four civilians. There are 100,000 soldiers in the Jaffna peninsula. Tamil women live in fear of rape by the army.
The army occupies 40% of the land. Large areas of farmland have been designated as “high-security zones”, and the Tamil inhabitants are not allowed to return.
Tamil fishers are also restricted. They need to get 12 permits to be allowed to fish. As a result, many are now unemployed.
The government is encouraging Sinhalese settlement in traditional Tamil areas. Sinhalese settlers are given five acres of land. While displaced Tamils are being kept in temporary accommodation, Sinhalese settlers are allowed to build permanent houses.
Roads have been renamed after Sinhalese soldiers and Buddhist monks. Road signs have been changed to the Sinhalese language. While many Hindu temples and Christian churches were destroyed in the war, new Buddhist stupas and statues are being built.
On a more positive note, Newman spoke of the rise of solidarity with Sri Lankan Tamils amongst the people of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, especially the students.
They are campaigning for an international war crimes investigation, and for a referendum amongst Sri Lankan Tamils on self-determination. They have called on the Indian government to take action in support of these demands.