The Australian government says there is no need for people to flee Sri Lanka because it is a democratic country. It also claims that, following the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009, Sri Lanka is a “society at peace”.
But the end of the war does not mean the country is at peace. It just means that the violence is now one-sided. The Sri Lankan army still commits acts of violence against the Tamil people, but the Tamils can no longer fight back.
The war began when Tamil youth, angry at the discrimination and repression against their people, took up arms to fight for an independent Tamil state. Now the war is over, but the discrimination and repression continue.
The Tamil areas of the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka are under military occupation. The army has grown in size, despite the end of the war. New military bases have been built. Human rights organisations have documented many cases of Tamils being jailed, tortured, raped and murdered by the army since the end of the war.
Human Rights Watch recently said: “Torture, rape, and ill-treatment in custody by the security forces remain widespread”.
While Tamils have been worst affected by military repression, critics of the government who belong to other ethnic groups have also suffered from arbitrary imprisonment, torture and murder.
Critics are sometimes taken away by the army or police, never to be seen again. One example is the journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who disappeared on January 24, 2010. Local residents reported seeing a white van without number plates close to his home around this time.
In recent years there have been growing attacks on Sri Lanka’s Muslim community — and, to a lesser extent, the Christian community — by Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinists, who are able to act with impunity because of support from the government. Recently four Muslims were killed and ten thousand were made homeless in pogroms initiated by the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force).
It is true that there are multi-party elections in Sri Lanka. But the climate of intimidation means that these elections are not completely free and fair.
There are courageous people in Sri Lanka who continue to defy the government and campaign for human rights, democracy, social justice and the rights of the Tamil people. They deserve our respect and solidarity. But those who flee the repression also deserve our solidarity.