Sri Lanka's internment nightmare

Saturday, October 10, 2009 - 11:00

The Sri Lankan government has continued to use "emergency" measures justified by Sri Lanka's 25-year civil war against the pro-independence Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to severely limit democratic rights, despite declaring a final victory in the war in May.

Sri Lanka also continues to defy international law by holding hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians in internment camps.

The LTTE waged an armed struggle for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island. After the LTTE's military defeat in May, the Sri Lankan government promised to build an inclusive state for all.

On September 10, the Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation said Sri Lankan minister Nimal Siripala de Silva justified continuing emergency measures with references to the threat of "certain groups" to kill President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The motion to continue the measures received 87% support in the parliament.

Under the latest provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, suspects can be arrested without warrants and held for 18 months without formal charges or access to legal representation.

Sri Lanka continues to hold more than 200,000 Tamils in internment camps, which the Sri Lankan government calls "welfare villages".

The United Nations and several human rights organisations have slammed the internment camps for their inability to cope with their own overpopulated state, let alone typhoon season.

Britain's international development minister Mike Foster, who recently visited the camps, told the October 6 London Times: "Disease, if it takes hold, is going to spread rapidly. Without doubt there will be a loss of life.

"Given that there are 250,000 people living so close together, I'd hazard a guess that it's going to be more than dozens."

Gale force winds are believed to have already destroyed more than 2000 tents in the camps, and many more were frayed from overuse, an October 5 AAP report said.

Facing international pressure, Sri Lanka has begun a resettlement program. Up to 15,000 people are believed to have been released from the camps.

However, a large number of detainees that had already been screened for alleged LTTE links and were being refused exit.

For those alleged to have links to the LTTE, a web of "rehabilitation centres" have been created.

The use of these centres has been highlighted by human rights organisations like Amnesty International since a September riot at the Poonthotham Teachers Training College. Amnesty said the Red Cross and other relief organisations often had no access to these facilities, and registration and medical treatments were not reported.

On September 24, Amnesty said: "Incommunicado detention of suspects in irregular places of detention (i.e. places other than police stations, officially designated detention centres or prisons) has been a persistent practice in Sri Lanka associated with torture, killings and enforced disappearances."

The Sri Lankan government is increasing its military presence in predominantly Tamil areas. New military bases will be built in former LTTE strongholds.

The military, already made up of 200,000 soldiers, is also set to increase in size. An August 20 Reuters report said the Sri Lankan parliament approved the recruitment of 50,000 new soldiers. The government claims this is necessary to quash any potential resurgence of anti-government groups and to clear landmines from the war zone.

The government has also begun to recruit young Tamils into its police force, the defence ministry said. Since 1978, Tamils have been banned from the police force.

With the LTTE defeated, Sri Lanka is seeking to draw in a section of the Tamil population to help in repressing the Tamil community as a whole.

The government has already made use of right-wing, pro-government Tamil paramilitary organisations in its war on the Tamil people. This has helped free the government from direct responsibility for many extrajudicial killings and abductions of Tamils.

There is little indication the repression against the Tamil people is going to be eased by the government. Sri Lankan military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara told the BBC on June 29: "Headquarters camps [military bases] will be established to see that no terrorist activities take place in those areas in the near future.

"That doesn't mean people can't go and settle down. People will be able to settle down.

"But we will have to see that the whole area['s] activities are being monitored by some organised establishment."

From GLW issue 813