Monday, August 16, 2010

Escaping with dead bodies: Escapees’ accounts from Sri lanka’s war zone and internment camps

Photo courtesy: Yu K. Lee

By Lee Yu Kyung | Penseur21

Writer’s Note :

The story below was filed end of last year 2009. It was published by Neues Deutschland in german and HanKyoReh21 in korean early of February in 2010, but no where in english. As the issue of ‘boat people’ from Sri Lanka “drifted” in oceans, diverted to the agenda of ‘human smuggling’ otherwise alerted by ‘Tamil Tigers on the board’, I post the story in english here hoping to attract more readers from english-speaking world.

Turning away their face from struggling asylum seekers, whose majority are Tamil ethnic, world community louds out ‘Tamil Tigers among them’. The international community have recognized that Tamil Tigers were defeated by Sri Lankan government forces, modeling the latter’s job as a successful case of ‘war on terror’, haven’t they? Why do they ‘hostage’ all those desperate lives then, excusing the defeated cadres, who should be anyway treated humanely according to the interanally recognized accord?


“It was inevitable…to save my life. The intention of the Army attack was to drive people into the Army hands”

In the evening of May 16th 2009, Karan (name changed, 60s) was one of some 250,000 Tamils on crossing over to the government side, from where the forces had kept shelling at where Karan had just left. “Inevitably, unwillingly, involuntarily”, Karan articulated as this writer repeatedly questioned if people came out to government side ‘unwillingly’, raising a criticism of ‘human shields’ by the rebel. “Tigers were not holding people as hostages, as human barriers, as human shields or whatever it is”, he continued. “Who are the Tigers? They are children of the people. Every family has a Tiger son or daughter. There’s no separation or lines between Tigers and people”

During the last assualt of Sri Lanka’s war in 2009, Karan was pushing his bike as much as he could, to cover what was happening, checking casualties. He, as one of few Tamil journalists in the war zone, estimated, “death toll from January 14th till April 25th must be at least 8,000, to my foot notes” It is about a thousand more than the UN’s estimation of the same period. In terms of the ‘contested’ toll for the last 3 weeks before the war ended on May19, the UN’s figure is upto some 20,000. Karan has declined to estimate this toll, as he couldn’t push bike anymore due to loss of his bike and intensified heavy shellings. “I can tell you what I personally observed. I don’t want to talk what I heard from others, no” said Karan.

He was ended up in Vavunya internment camps which have been severely restricted to numerous aid NGOs, let alone independent observers including journalists, by the government. He was allocated in ‘Zone 4’, the last set up as of May 20th when he was brought in. However, Karan is now neither held in the camp nor in any part of Sri Lanka. He did escape, first from the camp via the capital city of Colombo to finalize his escape by flying out of Sri Lanka, the country listed as one of the most dangerous for journalist on earth.

To get out from the most dangerous country for journalist

“Why are you sleeping here in the scorching sun? If you have money, you can get out of here”

It was in mid-June 2009, when a stranger whispered to Karan who was sleeping outside tent as his tent was over crowded with 14 people including two married couples, two girls and 70 year-old lady. Trying to figure out whether the stranger could be an army agent or not, Karan simply answered that he was very comfortable to live there. In fact, the veteran journalist was obsessed of thinking as to how he gets out of the camp, where he had uneatable food often ‘recycled’ by adding some water.

“Another day, another man approached me, saying I could get out of the camp if I had money. He was one of those who delivered vegetables for ‘Zone 4’. By then I learnt people started to escape from the camp”

Karan paid 200,000 Rupees (about 1,227 Euro) to the ‘vegetable man’, who in return gave him a specific venue and time. On the arranged day, the vegetable man was driving slowly the area, where Karan would get into the vehicle. Karan covered himself with empty vegetable sacks in a vehicle. Security forces, who were probably bribed, as Karan assumed, might have looked inside the vehicle to find nothing but empty sacks without touching them. After two hours driving, the vehicle arrived in a residential house near Vavunya town, where Karan saw 10 more camp inmates fled by one way or another. Two days later, Karan was given a train ticket for Colombo (via Medawachchi) and companied by one boy who was a part of agents to the Vavunya railway station. The worth of 200,000 rupees Karan paid earmarked for until that time. In the next day morning, Karan found himself in Colombo. It was the end of June 2009.

“In Colombo I met one person who also escaped from the camp. He told me he did by a vehicle carrying dead bodies from the camp. He was hiden under dead bodies”

Karan who had looked grave, now laughing, sitting in a house located in one of the South East Asian cities, to where he flied in mid-July after paying another sheer amount of money for another agent in Colombo.

It is impossible to know how many exactly have escaped from the camp and subsequently the country in this way. The internal report of one aid agency has estimated 5,186 for those who “left without the knowledge of authority” from the camp as of on January 4th 2010, including 3,278 for Anandakumaraswamy (Zone 1) camp alone. A ‘flow’ of escapees taking their own risks was at least a reflection of appalling condition of the barbed wire camp, where security guards were strolling along like in potential battle fields.

‘Escaping package’ in full swing

According to various escapees from ‘Zone 0’ to ‘Zone 4’, some of the controvertial claims on the camps raised by a few British media, seem to be rather common truth as the ‘vehicle carrying dead bodies’ indicated. On July 10th 2009, the British daily The Times has quoted a senior international aid sources as saying “about 1,400 people are dying every week at the giant Manik Farm internment camp”. It was mostly elders and children who were dying out because of simple deseases such as diahrrea or high fever, otherwise seemingly malnutrition according to escapees.

“I went to the hospital in mid-June. Long queue was there as usual. Around 1pm, an old lady fell down, getting cold and dying in hours. Nobody could think of conceding for her, as everybody came to hospital from early morning to get some tablets though”

Jeyabalan (name changed, 23), who had escaped from the Ramanathan camp (Zone 2) in early of November, accounted a death of the old lady. He also talked about a loud speaker announcement once a week on average which went on to say, “Here is a deadbody. Anyone whose family are not seen, please come here to identify”.

Rajini (name changed, 32), who was detained in ‘D2’ block of ‘Zone 4’ for 3 months, has failed to see a doctor for the first 15 days because of long queue. When she finally saw a doctor, the doctor diagnosed pneumonia. But all she’s got were some antifebriles. “More than 20 people died for three months in ‘D2 block’ of ‘Zone 4’, – which was devided into 54 blocks from ‘A1’ to ‘F9’ – to my knowledge. But I was lucky as my block ‘D2’ was nearby main road, whereas block ‘D8’ and ‘D9’ where my relatives were detained, were often flooded if rain fell” added Rajini, who has escaped on August 16th. Apart from elders and children, those having mental problems were also vulnerable to death, said another escapee.

“They even didn’t know if they had to see a doctor. So they were dying.”

Rani (name changed, 22) has recalled one mentally disordered-man who kept climbing over a tree in ‘Arunachalam’ (Zone 3) camp but died later due to unknown desease. “It was crazily difficult to see a doctor. On April 22nd, for example, my father went to the hospital at 3am to get number 89 for me. I saw a doctor at 4pm on that day.” said Sudanth (name changed, 20) a sister of Rani. The pair had escaped from the camp early of July. As dischared from Chettikuram hospital outside camp, where they were admitted with special permission from the Army, they didn’t go back to the camp, leaving other family members behind. The family got immediately informed by relatives about the escape of their children. “Our parents were happy with that” said sisters who are now seeking asylum in Malaysia.

In the meantime, one absurd fact was emerged from accounts by escapees. There were only Sinhalese doctors at hospitals in the camp, with whom Tamils cannot communicate. As a matter of fact, the Sri Lanka’s two different ethnics Tamils and Sinhalese do not speak other’s language in general, which problem has partially caused the brutal ethnic conflict. It also reminds a fact that the government was indignant at 5 Tamil doctors, who were treating a great number of lives in the war zone, giving coherent accounts to the facts-hungry journalists during the war time.

‘Sinhala doctors only’ for Tamil refugees

The lack of all sorts of facilities in the camps seems to have systematically geared up human rights violations and added to the inhuman catastrophe. As some people choosed to go for food, water, bath, toilet or hospital in the early morning or late night to avoid long queue, some of them were alledgedly missing in the darkness. “I saw one mother crying as her daughter went to get water in dark morning but didn’t return till late afternoon” said Karan from Zone 4. Chandra (name changed, 40), who’s escaped from Ananthakumarsuwamy (Zone 1) camp, has a similar story to tell which is a ‘missing followed by death’.

“It was either 23rd or 24th May. People were talking about 6 dead bodies found near the small river, which divides ‘Zone 1’ and ‘Zone 2’. I myself went to the river and saw one dead body. She was the one who stayed next to my tent. She went to toilet early morning but didn’t return. Women often took a bath there in the darkness”

The same episode was accounted by Siva (named changed, 41) who was detained in the other side of the river, which was Ramanathan (Zone 2) camp.

“They were drunk!” Rajini was enraged. “The drunken soldiers came to kitchen or water tank, when people were standing a line late night or early morning, harrassing girls by saying ‘come with me’”. Rajini further talked of how she was humiliated from the very first day of the camp life.

“There was not a single woman officer at the Zone 4 check point as we were brought in. The male soldiers have checked our body as well as our belongings for about 10 minutes per person. I felt indignity but couldn’t help it. Because there’s no one speaking Tamil”

While there’s no one speaking Tamil when it’s desperately needed, there’s one occasion in which people heard or read something in Tamil.

“You have no choice but to cross over to the government side, you will be provided with nice food, water, shelter and all necessities”

That was the propaganda by the government radio as well as air-dropped leaflets during the war time. In reality, nothing was ready for those who had not eaten anything for at least 3-4 days, when they reached at the government-controlled Vaduvakallu from the last battle field Mullivaikal or Vellamullivaika.

“We had spent 3 days in an open field with nothing. The Army counted people till 22,000 and stopped. Some soldiers seemed to be humanitarian because they gave us their food, saying they would not have shelled such heavy amount, if they knew so many people were inside the war zone”

Aravindan (name changed, 28) who has fled the war zone in the morning of 17th May, accounted. From 20th May, people started to be transfered to the Vavunya camps, which were little better than open fields.

“We had tried to keep our dignity even in harsh condition of the war. As soon as we arrived at the camp, however, the Army threw food parcels over our heads. Thousands of people were struggling over a food parcel!”

Recalling the arrival day at the camp, the haughty woman Chandra burst into tears. She’s been eager to hear whereabout her husband and daughter are, from whom she and another daughter were apart in a chaos of last days.

Struggling over A food parcel

It has been 8 months passed since the war ended and also since the president Mahinda Rajapaksa has publicly assured that the IDPs would be released for a resettlement ‘within 180 days’. But, this assurance was proved to be a hollow when 180 days had fallen on the end of November. According to the latest report issued by UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affair (or UN OCHA) on January 11th, 155,942 have been released as of December 31, whereas 108,106 have been still detained with limited ‘freedom of movement’. Questions are remained if those who were released have been on process for a resettlement.

“Access to return areas, especially the former LTTE-controlled area, is forbidden to NGOs. Hence it’s very difficult for people to get assistance they badly need” one human rights activist in Sri Lanka who doesn’t want to be named said.

Chris Patten, the co-chairman of the Brussell-based International Crisis Group, also wrote about the behind scene of ‘release’, in his contribution for New York Times on January 12th.

“A large portion of the more than 150,000 people recently sent out of the camps have not actually returned to their homes nor been resettled. They’ve been sent to and remain in ‘transit centers’ in their home districts”

As for Karan, Chandra, Jeyabalan, Rajini and thousands others who escaped from the camp are now seeking asylum and protection after getting through horrors of war and miserable camp life. Yet, uncertainty is far ahead as, not only because the countries to where they fled are not a signatory of the UN refugee convention. But also because the signatories seem to be unwilling to accept these asylum seekers. The case of 254 Tamils asylum seekers on the boat at Merak Indonesia, where they have been stranded for more than 100 days in deplorable conditions, has presented xhenophobiotic response from Australia, which is a prime destination for many escapees. Further, negative propaganda on asylum seekers by Sri Lankan government has been folstering with help of some mainstream media which diverted this refugee crisis to the ‘people smugling’, otherwise focusing on ‘Tamil Tigers were on the board’.

“It is not people smuggling” said Irene Khan, the secretary-general of Amnasty International.

“I would call it a flow of asylum-seekers. These people are in search of protection, the international community is doing very little. There isn’t any resettlement of refugees taking place, refugee protection is very weak and, therefore, people are taking the situation into their own hands to desperately find a place where they can have safety.” she pointed out in an interview with Al-Jazeera.

© Penseur21

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Sri Lanka: The time of triumphalism

By Cédric Gouverneur | Le Monde diplomatique

The last bastions of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began falling one by one from March 2008. The Sri Lankan army imprisoned in camps almost 300,000 Tamil civilians who had been living under the guerrillas' strict authority. The Menic Farm site in Vavuniya district in the north held up to 228,000 people. Ten months after the Tigers' defeat, 70,000 refugees were still behind barbed wire, waiting for permission to return to their villages. The army let me visit a camp, called a "transitory well-being village".

At the entrance, dominating the lines of shacks, was a six metre-tall portrait of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his arms raised in a gesture of triumph. The camp commander justified the mass detention of Tamils: "We had to separate the terrorists from the civilian population they had taken hostage. Of course, repatriation takes time. But we can't send people back to their homes before the area has been properly cleared of landmines." The few NGOs allowed to operate in the camps put the hardships into perspective: "The army was overwhelmed by the number of civilians living with the Tigers, when they expected to manage 100,000," said a Western aid worker. "In spite of everything, during coordination meetings between UN agencies, NGOs and non-commissioned officers, it became clear that the military was doing the best it could. I've seen more chaotic UN refugee camps."

Even so, there remains the discriminatory principle of interning civilians en masse because of their ethnic origins. The government in Colombo would never have subjected the Sinhalese to this treatment.

In the company of a major, and two Tamils apparently meant to report our conversations, we walked through the vast camp with a medical centre, schools, stalls, banks and post office meant to alleviate the loss of liberty. At times, detainees are given temporary exit passes. After months of trying to survive under fire, the people we met seemed relieved that the worst was over. They were alive, had food and medical care, and were getting ready to rebuild their lives. Our tour left its guide rails when a group got carried away, despite black looks from our "informers": "We've had enough! How long do we have to stay here? Our homes have been pillaged. Why are we still here when others have been set free? What is the UN doing?" With the general election campaign in full swing, they criticised the lack of democracy in the camps: "Only candidates who support the president have the right to come here."

There were few young men at Menic Farm. Many were behind bars, suspected of belonging to the LTTE. The government has detained between 11,000 and 13,000 presumed guerrillas. "They are categorised according to their degree of involvement," said Rajiva Wijesinha, a former secretary of state. "About a thousand will be prosecuted." While most Tigers surrendered, others were denounced by Tamils disgusted with the fighters' hardline stance. When defeat was inevitable, said escapees, "they were recruiting up to two children from each family. They even shot at people trying to escape to zones controlled by the army".

I visited a nearby detention and rehabilitation centre for former child soldiers. Under army guard, and with Tamil teachers from the surrounding area, these boys and girls were learning a trade after years on the front. Shivanesh was 13 when the LTTE forcibly recruited him. Now 17, criss-crossed with scars, he said: "I killed soldiers, and I was wounded. My battalion was almost all children. When the army surrounded us, when our leaders were killed, we all surrendered." Shivanesh had no regrets about his surrender: "The Tigers stole my life. They cut me off from my family, stopped me going to school, taught me to kill. The army is teaching me a trade and allows my parents to come visit. I'm learning IT. Soon, I'll go home and rejoin my relatives."

Need for information

The government's efforts at rehabilitating them were laudable, but seem only to help a minority of child soldiers. An independent source who was allowed to visit LTTE detainees condemned the lack of information: "The government does not supply any list of names. The families are kept in the dark: nobody knows exactly who is detained, or where, or why. In a country where summary executions are commonplace, this is cause for worry." The International Red Cross has been refused access to the prisoners.

The Wanni region, further north, was recaptured by the army in 2009, after being under Tiger control for two decades. Since then, it has been in total military lockdown; foreign media have so far been kept away. The A9 road across the area is marked by a bunker every 100 metres and its surroundings have been razed, to prevent ambushes. Here and there, a road sign showing a skull warns of landmines. Armed military are everywhere. The few civilians mostly live in tents, not far from their ruined houses.

We shared the road with dozens of buses full of Sinhalese tourists, encouraged by the government to visit the north, which had for so long been inaccessible. Kilinochchi, the Tigers' former "capital", where their "ministries" had been established, was unrecognisable: not a single building still stood. Even the water tower had not survived the fighting; lying on its side, riddled by shell fragments, the imposing construction was now the target of Sinhalese tourists armed with cameras. Buddhist monks and families posed at this scene of desolation, then climbed back into their buses decorated with the Sri Lankan flag and posters glorifying the president and his "army of heroes". Apart from a monument to the dead, the only new building in Kilinochchi is a Buddhist temple that the army quickly erected, to the great displeasure of the Tamil Hindu and Christian populations.

This triumphalism has exasperated Tamils recently liberated from Menic Farm. In mourning and without news of their loved ones, they survive on international aid: "We went through hell, and they come to taunt us," Nayan (not his real name) complained. Nayan, who is close to the Tigers, escaped the final offensive around Mullaittivu, where the army subjected the LTTE - and the thousands of civilians they forced ahead of them - to non-stop shelling. "The Tigers fought to the last bullet. And then they bit into the cyanide capsules that they wore around their necks. It was raining shells. My mother died in front of me, and I was wounded myself," he said, showing scars on his arm and calf. "I appreciate that since the shelling, the army has behaved well towards civilians. They want to win our hearts and minds."

But they did not change Nayan's convictions. "I lived for years under the Tiger government. I liked it a lot. There was order, work, social services, social justice." Like many LTTE sympathisers, Nayan refused to believe in the death of their leader, Vellupilai Prabhakaran, though it was confirmed by DNA tests: "On television they showed the body of a man with a moustache who looked like him." He maintained that the Tigers had "fallen back". "We had five helicopters, 35 long-range guns. Where are they? The LTTE are hiding them, they'll reappear."

Most Sinhalese savoured the victory and were relieved not to live in fear of suicide bombings any more. Many had professional relationships or friendships with their Tamil fellow citizens - despite things unsaid - and summed up the conflict as a "war on terrorism". They truly believe the media's line that their army freed the Tamils from the clutches of a criminal organisation. The Tigers' defeat closed the debate. The island will be able to live in peace and harmony, attracting investors and tourists after a parenthesis of a quarter century. Sri Lanka hopes to welcome 2.5 million tourists in 2016, five times more than today. Hotel groups covet the splendid bay at Trincomalee, a former LTTE fiefdom.

This over-optimistic vision forgets that Tamil irredentism did not start with the LTTE's bombs but three decades earlier, when Colombo took repressive measures against its minority (1). Barbed wire at Menic Farm strengthens the Tamils' conviction that they are being treated like second-class citizens. Despite the Tigers' totalitarianism, acts of violence and child soldiers, many Tamils are still ambivalent. "People say to me, at least with the Tigers we had a voice," said Shanti Satchithanandam, who heads the Tamil NGO Viluthu and was a victim of the Tigers. "They believed that the LTTE, despite their shortcomings, were fighting in their name. Their defeat has left them shocked and voiceless."

The LTTE contributed to the current representational vacuum by systematically killing any Tamil politician who might have become a rival. And in addition, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), notoriously close to the Tigers, has imploded. Many of its dignitaries had only joined the party to avoid being assassinated by the LTTE. They have since recovered their autonomy and ran in the general elections under various banners - sometimes even supported by the government, overjoyed at being able to divide the Tamils. The TNA, unable to admit the new reality, still dreamed in its political manifesto of a "federal structure for the north and east" that the conquering Sinhalese lion is hardly likely to grant. "Our ambitions are modest," said Mavay Senathiraja, a TNA candidate. "We will negotiate with the government, try to obtain the support of the international community by mobilising the diaspora (2). If our demands are not heard, we will launch a campaign of civil disobedience," he declared, in a poignant admission of powerlessness.

"The Tamils have lost all hope," an old militant said. "If I was younger, I'd go into exile. Thirty years of political struggle [from the 1950s to the beginning of the 1980s] have failed. Thirty years of armed struggle have recently failed. Negotiations haven't got us anywhere, neither has the fighting. We'll have to resign ourselves to living in a Buddhist Sinhalese country, under military occupation. Because the army is settling in for the long term in the north and east. Look at Jaffna: the town fell over 20 years ago and there are still just as many soldiers patrolling its streets."

The Jaffna peninsula, at the northernmost point, has been a high security zone (HSZ) since it was taken by the army in 1996. At the entrance to the historical capital of Sri Lankan Tamils, there was a huge billboard in English between two bunkers studded with machine guns: "One country, one nation." Jaffna has been in ruins since the 1990s, having been taken and retaken by the LTTE, rival Tamil groups, the Indian expeditionary corps (1987-90) and the army. There was not a single work site to indicate that reconstruction might have begun. "The situation is improving," a UN official said. "The curfew has been lifted, fishermen are once again allowed to go out on the ocean, identity checks are less numerous." But the peninsula still lives in fear. It is under military surveillance as well as under the thumb of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), a Tamil militia that went over to the government in 1987. In the last stages of the conflict, between 2006 and 2009, perhaps several hundred people were assassinated or "disappeared", according to human rights activists. "It would seem that the EPDP wanted revenge on the LTTE," a government source told me. The organisation's leader, Douglas Devananda, has good reason to hate the Tigers, having escaped 13 assassination attempts. Unable to reach him, the LTTE killed his female companion instead.

Questions unanswered

Even though the last murder attributed to pro-government militias dates to the end of 2008, nobody dared answer my questions. Only the Tamil Catholic bishop, Monsignor Thomas Sandernayan, protected by his social status, agreed to bear witness: "In August 2006, Father Jim Brown disappeared with his chauffeur on the island of Kayts, off Jaffna." Shortly before, an officer had issued death threats against the Tamil priest, accusing him of being in league with the guerrilla fighters. "We demanded an investigation. But the investigators sent by the government don't speak Tamil. And the army refuses to cooperate."

Off the island of Kayts, thousands of Sinhalese tourists gathered on the little island of Nainativu. They were on a pilgrimage to the temple of Nagadipa, which Buddha is reported to have visited. Marines helped the pilgrims climb aboard the overloaded boats, and revived those that the heat had exhausted. An officer proudly said, "Yesterday, we received 10,500 people." An orange-robed monk from the south of the country was delighted. "The Tamil terrorists had destroyed this temple. The army has just rebuilt it. After all these years, Buddhism is finally back on this soil." Many Sri Lankan monks are politically on the far right and believe the country belongs to the Buddhist Sinhalese alone. Monks running in the general election have posed with soldiers for their campaign posters. In this context, Tamils, Hindu and Christian, interpret the influx of Buddhist pilgrims to Nainativu as a "colonial" activity.

This perception of colonisation was also present in the east, where Sinhalese, Tamils and the Muslim minority (7% of Sri Lankans) live side by side and sometimes clash. In Ampara district, thousands of Muslim farmers have had their land confiscated for "archaeological excavations". According to Myown Mustapha, the former minister of higher education, the seizure of land at the expense of his fellow Muslims has been "orchestrated by Buddhist extremists who have infiltrated the president's entourage". Farid, a farmer, said: "Monks planted a stele in my fields, then told me it was a historic site and said I didn't have the right to touch it any more." His fields have lain fallow ever since. He knew that the authorities were on the side of the monks. Here, as in the north, the idea of a state governed by the rule of law is an abstraction: the forces of law and order are backed by the strong arms of the "Karuna faction". Vinayagamoorthy Muralidharan, known as Karuna, is the former regional chief of the LTTE, who defected in 2004. Like Devananda, he has been given a ministerial post as a reward (3).

In Colombo, there are no Tamil paramilitaries to reduce opponents to silence. Instead, "white vans" without number plates go out at night to seize people. The vans pass police checkpoints without any problem. Prageeth Eknaligoda, a newspaper cartoonist, "disappeared" after leaving his office on 24 January 2010. On 8 January 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader, known for his acerbic editorials, was gunned down in the street. "They killed Lasantha, a cousin of ex-president Kumaratunga, in broad daylight and before witnesses," I was told. "Now we know that they can kill anyone." Aid workers, lawyers and journalists receive death threats calling them traitors, and henchmen of the Tigers. "Journalists are free to practise their profession here," said Thana Balasingam, director of the Tamil daily newspaper Thinakkural (Daily Voice). "But killers of journalists are also free to practise."

Since being re-elected on 26 January, Rajapaksa has tightened his hold on his opponents and the independent media. His unfortunate rival for the presidency, the former chief of staff Sarath Fonseka, has been in prison since February awaiting court-martial. This ruthlessness has shocked people, although they had few illusions about Fonseka's democratic convictions. "The president accused Fonseka of preparing a coup," said a human rights activist who has received death threats. "But he carried out the coup." Soldiers were omnipresent and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the much-dreaded defence minister and brother of the president, seemed omnipotent.

The president has succeeded where his predecessors failed: he has eradicated the LTTE, one of the most formidable guerrilla forces on the planet. This success is due to the assistance of China, which is anxious to form an alliance with Sri Lanka - strategically located on its oil supply routes and facing its great rival India. Worried by this alliance, the US is said to have supported Fonseka's candidacy in secret.

According to observers, a key feature of the military victory was the lack of respect for human rights (UN experts were denied entry to investigate in June). India, convinced that the LTTE would parley only to gain time, ended up supporting this total war - albeit secretly, because of the large Tamil population in India (4).

With Maoist (Naxalite) attacks in India increasing (75 policemen killed in an ambush in Chhattisgarh on 6 April, 148 civilian casualties aboard a sabotaged train in West Bengal on 28 May), the Sri Lankan government has offered its neighbour its counter-insurrection "expertise" (5).

The Rajapaksa government is pushing triumphalism to extremes. The new 1,000-rupee note shows the president on the front and, on the back, soldiers planting the nation's flag, like the US marines on Iwo Jima in 1945. This fervour augurs badly for reconciliation: "The Sinhalese now consider the north to be conquered territory," said Jehan Perera, a Sinhalese intellectual. "During the fighting, they were afraid of the Tigers. At the time of the ceasefire, a relationship between equals had formed between Sinhalese and Tamils. Now we see a relationship of winner and loser."

No political concession is planned. "The council of the western province just has a walk-on part," said Somasundram Pushparajah, an independent Tamil representative, whose life has also been threatened. "If the government gave the provinces real power, the ethnic problem would be solved." The presidency reckons that rebuilding the conflict zones will satisfy the minority. But, as the bishop of Jaffna pointed out, "Tamils will never accept centralised government-led economic development over which they have no control." That the man in charge of the reconstruction programme is Basil Rajapaksa, another brother of the president, only worsens the situation.

The Tigers' defeat "opened the possibility of a pluralist democracy that respects everyone's rights," said Jehan Perera. "But we are going in the opposite direction - the Malaysian way - towards an authoritarian regime, a restricted democracy, where rights will be subordinated to economic growth."

Thirty years of civil war

1815 The British finish colonising Ceylon. They unite the island, previously divided into three kingdoms - two Sinhalese, one Tamil.

1948 Independence. The Tamil minority (18%), pampered by the colonial power, finds itself once again under the rule of the Sinhalese majority (74%), which imposes its language and gives precedence to its religion, Buddhism.

1956 The Tamils, discriminated against, demand autonomy for the north and east.
22 May 1972 Ceylon becomes the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

July 1983 Anti-Tamil pogroms. Thousands of Tamils join the resistance. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, impose themselves by executing their rivals.

1987-1990 Indo-Sri Lankan accord: the Indian army confronts the LTTE in Jaffna,
the Sri Lankan government puts down an extreme leftwing insurrection in the south.

1991 LTTE assassinate the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

1996 The army retakes Jaffna.

1997-2001 A series of victories for the LTTE, who control the north and large areas of the east.

February 2002 Ceasefire agreed under Norwegian mediation.

April 2003 The LTTE withdraw from the peace talks.

March 2004 The Tigers' leader in the east, "Colonel Karuna", defects.

November 2005 Mahinda Rajapaksa elected president. He promises to crush the LTTE.

April 2006 Generalised fighting.

September 2007 The army, having retaken the east with Karuna's help, goes on the offensive in the north.

2 January 2009 Kilinochchi, the LTTE's former "capital", falls.

20 May 2009 The war officially ends after Prabhakaran is killed and the LTTE are crushed around Mullaittivu. The final offensive allegedly caused 8,500 to 20,000 casualties. About 300,000 Tamil civilians are detained in camps controlled by the army.

December 2009 Rival candidates President Rajapaksa and the former chief of staff, Sarath Fonseka, dispute the election results.

26 January 2010 Rajapaksa is re-elected president, Fonseka court-martialled.
Translated by Tom Genrich
(1) See the series of articles by Padraig Colman in Diplomatic Channels on Le Monde diplomatique's English website. See also Eric Paul Meyer, "Defeating the Tigers won't solve the problem", Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, March 2009.

(2) More than 1.5 million Tamils live in exile, especially in Northern Europe and Canada. This diaspora ensured the LTTE's financial autonomy through its contributions, whether voluntary or enforced.

(3) See Anuradha Herath, "The Saga of Colonel Karuna", The Huffington Post, 8 July 2009.

(4) See "Lessons from the war in Sri Lanka", Indian Defence Review, September 2009.

(5) See Cédric Gouverneur, "India's undeclared war", Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, December 2007.

© Le Monde diplomatique

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Sri Lankan government's ties with Israel expose its duplicity

By Chris Slee | Links

On July 21 the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth published an interview with Donald Perera, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Israel. Perera, the former Sri Lankan Air Force commander and Chief of Defence Staff, thanked Israel profusely for its support in the fight against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), saying: "For years Israel has aided our war on terror through the exchange of information and the sale of military technology and equipment... Our air force fleet includes 17 Kfir warplanes, and we also have Dabur patrol boats. Our pilots were trained in Israel, and we have received billions of dollars in aid over the past few years. This is why I asked to be assigned to Israel -- a country I consider a partner in the war against terror."

Perera also expressed support for Israel against the Palestinians, comparing Hamas to the LTTE. Referring to Israel’s attack on a Gaza-bound Turkish ship, he said: "As a military man I can understand that Israel had to protect itself. Due to Sri Lanka's vast experience in fighting terror, I can say that it will always support countries that also oppose (terror)."

The blatant anti-Palestinian bias of these comments embarrassed the Sri Lankan government, and the ambassador later claimed to have been misquoted. But the facts on Israel’s military aid to Sri Lanka clearly show the close link between the two countries.

The interview helps expose the way in which the Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa gives contradictory messages to different audiences. When talking to Third World governments, and especially the more radical ones such as Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela, the Rajapaksa government tries to portray itself as a victim of bullying by the imperialist powers. But the Perera interview shows that Sri Lanka is an ally of Israel, which is both a bully in its own right and a close ally of the world’s chief bully, the United States.

Until recently Sri Lanka has been very successful in winning support from Third World countries. Last year it was able to persuade the UN Human Rights Council to reject a resolution mildly critical of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and instead pass a resolution congratulating the Sri Lankan government on its victory over the LTTE and offering "assistance to Sri Lanka in the promotion and protection of human rights". It was mainly Third World countries that supported this resolution.

This year, however, the Sri Lankan government has had less success in the diplomatic sphere. It was unable to block the decision of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to establish a three-person panel to investigate war crimes in Sri Lanka. Its attempts to get the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to adopt a statement opposing the panel were unsuccessful.

Because NAM decisions are taken by consensus, rather than voting, the failure to agree on the proposed statement does not necessarily indicate majority support for Ban Ki Moon's panel. But it does indicate that Third World countries are not united in opposing it.

Traditionally, NAM members have been reluctant to accept anything which might appear as interference in the internal affairs of member states. They tend to be suspicious of proposals to investigate human rights violations, because such investigations usually target Third World countries, while the crimes of the imperialist powers are usually not subject to similar scrutiny. The United States and other Western governments often use "human rights" rhetoric to attack governments that are not sufficiently subservient, such as Iran, Cuba and Venezuela.

These are valid concerns. But this does not mean that all demands for investigations into human rights violations by Third World governments are merely a reflection of imperialist interests. Sometimes they are a response to justified concerns about real oppression. And human rights violations in imperialist countries are not totally ignored. For example, Australia has been investigated for its treatment of refugees and Indigenous people.

In the case of Sri Lanka, the issue of war crimes has been put on the international agenda primarily by the campaigns of the Tamil diaspora, which protested in the streets of numerous Western cities against the massacre of an estimated 30,000 people in the last few weeks of the war.

Mass protests can sometimes influence the actions of imperialist governments. The European Union had strongly supported the Sri Lankan government in its war against the LTTE, but the protests of the Tamil diaspora forced it to feign concern for human rights in Sri Lanka. This led to the recent decision by the EU to take away preferential access for Sri Lankan exports to European Union countries until certain human rights conditions are met.

Ban Ki Moon's decision to establish the panel to advise him on war crimes in Sri Lanka was also, at least in part, a response to popular awareness raised by the Tamil protests. The willingness of some NAM members to support the panel was also a reflection of the growing concern about human rights in Sri Lanka.

However, the belated establishment of the panel, more than a year after the end of the war, and its slowness in starting its work suggest that it is unlikely to achieve much. It seems like a tokenistic attempt to appear to be doing something about human rights concerns, rather than a serious effort to investigate the atrocities that occurred in the war, and the oppression that continues today.

If it does its job well (which seems unlikely), the UN panel could help raise awareness of the oppression of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. But it cannot be a substitute for the struggles of the Tamil people and their allies, both inside and outside Sri Lanka.

The exposure of Sri Lanka's close links to Israel can help the Tamil people’s struggle win broader support among progressive people around the world, and thereby strengthen the solidarity movement.

Chris Slee is an Australian activist in solidarity with the Tamil struggle and a member of the Socialist Alliance in Melbourne.

© Links

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Sri Lanka launches new port built with Chinese loan

By Shihar Aneez | Reuters

Sri Lanka flooded a new port on Sunday, built with Chinese assistance as part of a $6 billion drive to rebuild the island nation's infrastructure after a quarter century of war.

The Hambantota port, built at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion on the southern coast, will begin handling ships from November, officials said.

"This is part of making this country an emerging wonder of Asia," President Mahinda Rajapaksa said after launching the port.

Hambantota is one of four ports being built or upgraded under Rajapaksa's plan to renew the country's $42 billion economy by returning it to its old and lucrative role as a trading hub.

Built to handle 2,500 ships annually in the first stage, the new port is located along the East-West shipping lane and is ultimately meant to challenge Singapore's status as a regional shipping hub.

Sri Lanka now handles around 6,000 ships annually in its only port in Colombo on the western coast, which requires ships plying the East-West shipping lane to divert course.

Rajapaksa vowed to transform the island's economy with a series of infrastructure projects, soon after crushing a 25-year insurgency by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam last year.

"It is not sea water that will fill this port but the future prosperity of our nation. From this port will emerge our true economic independence, " he said in a speech.

China's involvement in the building of the port had raised concerns in India, but analysts said Rajapaksa had successfully handled Indian pressure. Security analysts in India worry that the port was part of Beijing's String of Pearls strategy to build a network of ports across the Indian Ocean.

Beijing has loaned over $425 million for the first phase of Hambantota project including the bunkering facility. Colombo is negotiating for a further $800 million loan for the second phase.

In addition to cargo handling, Hambantota will have a fully fledged bunkering facility and a tank farm project.

The port will operate 14 tanks with a total capacity of 80,000 MT. Eight tanks will be utilised for bunkering while six will be used for aviation fuel and LPG.

Except bunkering, all other activities including bulk cargo handling, storage facility, warehouses, transshipment have been opened for offshore investors.

© Reuters

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Former Sri Lankan Army Chief to contest court martial in civilian court

Press Trust Of India | The Hindustan Times

Sri Lanka's war hero and former Army chief Sarath Fonseka will approach a civilian court to seek the overturning of a military court's verdict that stripped him of his rank, pension and medals, his political alliance announced on Sunday. Anura Kumara Dissanayake, spokesman of the Fonseka-led Democratic National Alliance (DNA) said his side will appeal against the verdict and seek restoration of the former Army chief's prestige.

"We will go to the Court of Appeal. We will mobilise public support and protest against the decision," Dissanayake said, a day after President Mahinda Rajapaksa approved a court martial's verdict on Fonseka.

The 59-year-old former Army Chief, who is also a parliamentarian, was convicted by a court martial for dabbling into politics while in active service.

The court ordered that Fonseka be stripped off his rank, pension and medals -- a decision that was ratified by Rajapaksa.

"There have been instances in the country when civil courts have overturned decisions of military courts," said Dissayanayake.

Fonseka, who is in custody since his arrest in January after his loss to Rajapaksa in the presidential election, faces another court martial on charges of corruption in defence deals.

Fonseka, who was once close to the President, fell out with him in the last days of the war, and later challenged him in the presidential election.

The opposition has called the targeting of Fonseka by the Rajapaksa government as political witch-hunting.

The ex-general has termed his dishonourable discharge as a "joke".

In comments forwarded through his wife Anoma, the only four star general of the island nation said, the verdict was handed down by lower ranking military officials, which was not the practice in military.

"It is unacceptable and a humorous joke," Fonseka was quoted as saying by his wife, after Rajapaksa stripped him of his decorations and pension.

Dissanayaka said his organisation did not accept the ruling as it was handed out when non of the defence lawyers were present.

© The Hindustan Times

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Sri Lanka painted as a country defined by an uneasy peace

By Ian Shelton | The Vancouver Sun

Tamils aboard the MV Sun Sea fled a region wracked by repression and an uneasy peace, observers said.

International human rights organizations working in Sri Lanka said that 15 months after the government's defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, disappearances, security force abuses and even ethnic colonization define life in the country's north.

"It's still very battered by conflict, still heavily militarized, very much under the thumb of the Sri Lankan military," said Bob Templer, Asian program director with the International Crisis Group, reached in New York.

The Sri Lankan government has maintained that it is committed to reconciliation and development, announcing last month that the heavily Tamil north would get the largest share of regional development money.

The government's Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation also began meeting this week. The commission is tasked with investigating the final years of the conflict.

However, critics charge it is simply meant to deflect calls for an independent international inquiry into alleged war crimes on both sides.

"The whole commission is eye wash as it is appointed by the president and is made up of his own favourites," said Kusal Perera, a political analyst at the Center for Social Democracy in Colombo.

Templer, who first visited Sri Lanka as a journalist in 1991, said while many in the heavily Tamil north were happy to see the backs of the Tigers, the end of the war has seen the return of policies that helped spark it almost 30 years ago.

The International Crisis Group has repeatedly warned of suspected "Sinhalization" policies aimed at reconfiguring the population in traditionally Tamil areas of eastern Sir Lanka.

Sri Lankan governments going back to the 1950s have supported settlement programs that introduced majority-Sinhalese communities into formerly Tamil areas.

Those programs combined with other pro-Sinhalese policies, like the 1956 "Sinhala Only" language laws, in emphasizing ethnic divides in the country.

Templer said the policies feed distrust today, as they did in the past.

"It's in some ways worse, because you now have such a long history of conflict, and there's been relatively little effort at reconciliation," he said.

The situation will be exacerbated if development planning continues to be centralized in the Colombo government, he added.

"What I think there will be is an increasing accumulation of grievance and despair, which may ultimately lead to a return to violence."

© The Vancouver Sun

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