Tamil refugees — escaping from hell

Wednesday, November 4, 2009 - 11:00

While two boat loads of Tamil refugees fleeing Sri Lanka push their case to be admitted into Australia, two reports on Sri Lankan atrocities against Tamils have been released without a word from the Australian media or government.

Reports from the United States state department and the European Commission (EC) revealed the extent of the brutal crimes of the Sri Lankan state.

Alex, a spokesperson for the 254 Tamils onboard a refugee boat currently located in Merak port off West Java, told Green Left Weekly by phone: "The Australian and Indonesian governments are trying to hide what has happened to us Tamils."

The Tamils are an oppressed nationality mainly from in the north and east of Sri Lanka, subjected to systematic discrimination and violent repression. A nearly three decade-long civil war, in which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fought for an independent Tamil state, was ended with a brutal Sri Lankan offensive that finally defeated the LTTE in May.

Tamil civilians bore the brunt of the Sri Lankan Army's campaign — including one night in May when Tamil sources estimated 20,000 civilians were butchered in SLA bombings.

Alex described the effect of the war on the Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka: "Many people have been wounded, had body parts amputated, been kidnapped and been imprisoned over long periods.

"We have run away from a war against our people, a genocidal war by the Sri Lankan state", he said.

"Just the fact that you are Tamil means you will face genocide sooner or later. They are attempting an entire annihilation of Tamils in Sri Lanka."

Since the formal end of the war in May, hundreds of thousands of Tamil people have been imprisoned in internment camps, in which torture, rape and disappearances are widely reported.

An Indonesian navy patrol boat apprehended Alex's boat on October 11 after an Australian tip-off.

The boat has been moored at Merak for more than two weeks. On October 30, the Tamils released a statement saying the International Organisation of Migration was pressuring them to leave the boat. Alex said they had cut off the fresh water supply.

It has sparked a media and politician-driven frenzy about the "threat" from refugee boats — including scaremongering that LTTE "terrorists" may be among the fleeing Tamils.

What is missing is any explanation about the horrors the Tamils are fleeing or the context for the LTTE armed struggle.

After independence from Britain in 1948, Sri Lanka declared itself a ethnically exclusive state based on the Sinhalese ethnic majority. Buddhism, the main religion of the Sinhalese, declared the state religion.

For decades, the Tamils led peaceful campaigns for equality. However, the armed campaign of the LTTE won wide support among Tamils after the 1983 "Black July" pogroms, which resulted in 3000 Tamils killed by Sinhalese mobs.

Sri Lanka's military campaign against the LTTE was supported by Western powers such as the US and Britain. Australia also supports the Sri Lankan state. Australia donates $30 million a year to Sri Lanka in aid to promote "reconciliation and reconstruction".

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sri Lanka succeeded in integrating its campaign against the LTTE into the global "war on terror".

However, the LTTE armed campaign was limited to the struggle for an independent state in Sri Lanka's east and north. The LTTE was purely a national liberation group, whose purpose did not extend beyond that goal.

There is no evidence any of the Tamil refugees on either boat were members of the LTTE. But the idea that a former member of the LTTE fleeing Sri Lanka would pose a "terrorist threat" to Australia ignores the nature and purpose of the organisation.

Also, in labelling the LTTE "terrorist", Western powers ignored the constant campaign of terror directed at Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan government.

The Sri Lankan government continues to claim its forces were responsible for no civilian deaths in the civil war — even in the face of overwhelming evidence. The United Nations said during the last five months of the SLA campaign, at least 7000 Tamils were killed.

The London Times put the figure at 20,000.

The European Commission (EC) report into Sri Lankan atrocities, released on October 19, focused on allegations of breached of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child carried out by the Sri Lankan government.

It said in Sri Lanka there exists "a widespread climate of impunity". It said the holding of hundreds of Tamil civilians in barbed wire-enclosed camps amounts "to mass internment" where rape and abductions are common.

The EC report said: "The majority of deaths as a result of torture at the hands of the police are not caused by 'rogue' police officers but by ordinary officers taking part in an established routine."

Since 2006, Sri Lanka has had the highest disappearance rate in the world. In November 2008, the Sri Lankan Chairman of the Presidential Commission on Disappearances said 886 people had disappeared in the last year.

The Sri Lankan government created nine separate bodies to investigate these cases. However, the report said these failed to "carry out effective investigations" or "bring an end to disappearances".

Torture techniques used by the army included burning with soldering irons and hanging detainees by their thumbs. Pro-government Tamil groups are used to abduct alleged LTTE members from internment camps, including children.

The ongoing state of emergency enacted in 2005 allows for detainees to be held for one year in "preventative detention" without charge. Sri Lanka's Prevention of Terrorism Act allows for the detention without trial of alleged LTTE fighters for up to two years.

The report said the "anti-terror" laws have been used to target those critical of the government, including journalists, publishers and political opponents.

Summary execution is also common. The report said dissidents have been killed in police detention.

In March 2008, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said: "Extra-judicial killings and disappearances are part of a terrible pattern of abuse in Sri Lanka which must be stopped."

The EC report said those who have been freed from the camps have not had access to equal rights expected under international law. In fact, international funding to the Sri Lankan state has been used to persecute the Tamils.

When released from internment camps, Tamils are given special identification cards. The report said this is used to "restrict their mobility and access to education". The card states their residential area and defines where they can receive services like education.

The EC report said that in some cases, "the effect of these designations was to bar the original inhabitants largely ethnic Tamils, from returning to their homes".

Alex told GLW the Sri Lankan government's claims about resettlement of displaced Tamils were overblown. He said many of the people moving back into the north and east of the country were actually Sinhalese. It is part of a government plan to change the ethnic makeup of these areas.

For Tamils, fleeing to Australia is clearly a last resort. It is a decision forced on them by the actions of the Sri Lanka's ethnically supremacist military state and their collaborators in the West — including Australia.

The current scaremongering by Australian politicians and the mainstream media seeks to further cover up what should be obvious — thet Tamils need and deserve our support.

[The full US state department and EC reports can be found at www.jdsrilanka.blogspot.com]

From GLW issue 816