Monday, January 24, 2011

Sri Lanka's war-scarred minorities living 'in fear' - rights group

By Nita Bhalla | Alertnet

Many of Sri Lanka's minority Tamils and Muslims displaced by the country's civil war have been poorly resettled and are living in harsh conditions as part of a deliberate policy to marginalise them, according to a report by a human rights group.

The Indian Ocean island's 25-year-old war against Tamil Tiger separatists ended almost two years ago, with the Sinhalese-majority government declaring victory over the rebels.

But while hundreds of thousands of Tamils and Muslins who fled the violence in the north and east of the island have since returned home, the London-based Minority Rights Group (MRG) says they continue to suffer repression and exclusion in politics and development policies.

"Despite the end of the war, many Tamil and Muslim minorities in Sri Lanka continue to live in fear," MRG's Executive Director Mark Lattimer said in a statement this week.

The report, entitled "No war, no peace: the denial of minority rights and justice in Sri Lanka", says the resettlement process has not taken place according to international standards.

"The situation in the resettlement areas in the north and east is very worrying, particularly as international and national media and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) have restricted access," Lattimer said.

"There is a high level of militarisation and state control over freedom of movement and association, with local women vulnerable to sexual abuse and harassment."

Sri Lankan diplomats have dismissed the report as an attempt to discredit the country and its government.


According to the report, not only have people going back to conflict-ravaged areas endured poor housing conditions, they also have limited livelihood opportunities after losing everything during the war.

Parts of the former conflict zone are still designated High Security Zones (HSZs), meaning former residents cannot return home.

In other areas, land has been appropriated for hotels and other development projects mostly employing labour from the majority Sinhalese population brought in from other regions of the country, the report adds.

"Unable to return to their land and resume the income-generating activities that they practiced before the conflict, and excluded from these new employment opportunities, many Muslims and Tamils are living in poverty," it says.

"Some members of minority communities living in army-controlled areas ... spoke of intimidation and harassment at the hands of the military, including sexual and harassment and rape," it says, adding that a culture of impunity means victims have been denied justice.

The report urges the Sri Lankan government to publish a policy that addresses minority rights issues, resume all-party negotiations on political representation and governance for minorities, and develop an impartial mechanism for justice and reconciliation.


Sri Lankan diplomats say the report is a deliberate attempt by Western groups under pressure from supporters of the Tamil Tiger rebels to sabotage President Mahinda Rajapaksa's current visit to the United States.

"Whenever there is some important international event which is linked to Sri Lanka, these groups issue some statement or report repeating the same old accusations to discredit the government and the president," said Sugeeswara Senadhira, minister counsellor at the Sri Lankan High Commission in New Delhi.

"This is all fabricated, and these groups are being influenced by supporters of the Tigers, which still has a lot of support in the diaspora."

MRG says its report "includes groundbreaking first-hand research from the north and east of the country, including areas that international and national media and NGOs have limited access to".

But Senadhira said MRG had not visited Sri Lanka to conduct an investigation, and the report was drawn from interviews with Sri Lankans in the West, who had gained political asylum but had actually left the country for economic reasons.

"This is absolute nonsense as 52 percent of the population in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo is made up of Tamil and Muslims - so how can these allegations be true?" said Senadhira.

© Alertnet

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