Saturday, August 06, 2011

Sri Lanka: Erasing the cultural leftover of Tamils

Photo courtesy: Ross Tuttle | Foreign Policy

The Weekend Leader

Travelling through the Tamil areas in North Sri Lanka, one is shocked to see the changing demography of the land. A land that was once inhabited by Tamils and a land that had a distinct flavor of Tamil culture and heritage is now in the grip of Sinhalese hegemony, seen in the form of Buddhist statues, viharas and stupas dotting the landscape that is also lined by broken Tamil homes and newly built shanties of Tamil refugees.

Sinhala and Sinhalisation are now the watch words in the predominantly Tamil areas of North Sri Lanka. Starting from Vavuniya, the change is perceptible as one enters the Tamil heartland.

All those entering into the north have to pass through Omanthai - which has been given a Sinhalese sounding name, ‘Omantha’ - check point on A9 national highway. At this place where more than 90 per cent of the travelers are Tamil speakers, one needs to go with a person knowing Sinhala to answer the queries from the Sinhalese soldiers.

Throughout our travel into the Tamil hinterland, we could sense an air of Sinhalese triumphalism.

Military camps and Sinhala soldiers are a common sight in Tamil areas. Out of a total land mass of 65,619 sq km, the Tamils inhabited 18,880 sq km of land in the north and east, but after May 2009, the defence forces have occupied more than 7,000 sq km of Tamil land.

It is estimated that 2500 temples and 400 churches have been destroyed. The Sinhala forces do not permit the people to reconstruct these worship places and many are in a dilapidated state.

On the other hand, even though the only Buddhists who are to be found here are the Sinhalese soldiers, nearly 2500 Buddhist stupas and statues have come up in Tamil areas in the last couple of years, according to the locals.

A Buddhist Vihara named Mahatota Raja Maha Vihara has come up within 50 meters of the famous Thirukethiswaram temple in Mannar district. The ancient name for Thirukethiswaram area was Mahathottam.

The government has been making a big hype about a so-called development programme in Tamil areas called Vadakin Vasantham (Uthuru Wasanthaya or Northern Springs).

Infrastructure development, electricity, water supply and sanitation, agriculture, irrigation, livestock development, inland fisheries, health, solid waste disposal, education, sports, cultural affairs and transportation are some of the areas that they claim will be covered under this program.

However, the real beneficiaries of this scheme are not going to be Tamils but Sinhala jobless youth, who would be employed in the projects that have been handed to Sinhala contractors.

The defence forces will be the ones who will be utilizing the newly developed infrastructure as a major chunk of the funds will be allocated towards road development to facilitate easy troop movement.

In Cheddikulam a housing scheme for Sinhala returnees is underway. One would have welcomed it if it was the same 13 displaced families that were to return. Instead, some 75 new Sinhala families are being relocated in the area.

Already 165 Sinhala families have been resettled in Kokkachchaankulam, which is to be renamed Kalabowasewa.

A grand new Sinhala medium school for new returnees has come up on Madhu road, whereas hundreds of schools for Tamil kids in the vicinity are in a state of disarray.

According to locals, forest wealth in the Tamil areas is looted by the Sinhalese from the south who enter the forest with permission of the armed forces for timber logging.

People also complain that Sinhala Buddhist archaeologists are engaged in nefarious activities of Sinhalization. They are said to be visiting Tamil areas and excavating ‘Buddha’ statues that they themselves plant earlier. The purpose of this exercise is allegedly to claim that the territory in question had been a Sinhala Buddhist area.

Where there were only a few old Sinhala sign boards pointing directions and mentioning names of places, today one is dumbstruck at the sheer number of new Sinhala name/direction boards in the Tamil areas.

In Mullaithivu and many other places in the north, Tamils are not allowed to enter the sea, while their Sinhala counterparts from the south are allowed to fish in their areas.

Locals say that all petitions to government services and establishments have to be given in Sinhala only since 2009.

In the heart of Kilinochchi town, the erstwhile administrative capital of Tamil rebels, streets sport Sinhalese names such as Mahinda Rajapaksa Mawatha, and Aluth mawatte (The new road).

Three roads close to the A9 highway in Kanakarayankulam have been given Sinhala names - Kosala Perera road, Anura Perera road, and Rev Yatiravana Vimala Thero Street. The first two names are those of soldiers who took part in the war and the last one is the name of a Buddhist monk.

Where will this all lead to? Only time will tell.

© The Weekend Leader

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Saturday, August 06, 2011

Sri Lanka's Tamil question: Justice, Lies and Videotape

Radio Netherlands Worldwide

Sri Lanka’s thirty year war is now more of words than of guns, but it is no less bitter. RNW’s team in the country met with fierce resistance from the Sri Lankan government to the current calls for justice from the international community.

But the problem is that the international community’s presence in the country is dwindling, a fact witnessed when travelling across the east of the island – where once there were distinctive white NGO vehicles on every corner, the sight is now rare.

With the help of one remaining NGO which requested anonymity, RNW met nine freshly ‘reintegrated’ former Tamil Tiger guerillas who spoke of their desire for justice for all Sri Lankans. But people in the heavily militarized north and east live in fear of reprisal if they openly criticise the authorities – which is why a vociferous Tamil diaspora, the foreign media and a UN investigation have stepped in. The Sri Lankan government is now hitting back.

Video counter-punch

This week Colombo released a documentary video in response to British Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, in which it looks to discredit all claims that government troops killed and raped Tamil civilians and prisoners of war during the closing months of the conflict in 2009. The narrator of Lies Agreed Upon rubbishes Channel 4’s documentary: "Doctored footage and deliberate lies are presented as authentic. It begs for review." The film proceeds to refute claims that the military deliberately bombed no-fire zones and seeks to bring into focus atrocities committed by the Tamil Tigers.

Reactions from the Tamil diaspora to the film are predictable - "The Tamil community is disappointed. The whole documentary is based on lies. The people speaking are all under pressure from the government. What would you do when you were a Tamil and you were under that pressure? You would probably go along with what the government wants," said Mohan, a Dutch Tamil campaigner.

Tamils who feel free to speak openly say they want an independent, international investigation into the many claims of atrocities committed in 2009 and before. "We are requesting, pleading, begging the civilised world to stop the hypocrisy and double standards. And we’re calling for impartial investigations into missing persons," said Donald Gnanakone head of the US-based ‘Tamils for Justice’.

Probing for the truth

Colombo says it is investigating the period in question and that all Sri Lankans watched over by President Rajapaksa, who smiles down from countless billboards around the capital.

Evidence of this, it claims, is his creation of the ‘Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission’ (LLRC) last year, the stated intention of which is to "focus on the causes of conflict, its effect on the people, and promote national unity and reconciliation." This body claims to have interviewed five thousand people of all ethnicities around the country in the building of its report, expected later this year.

The international community though, led by the United Nations Secretary General’s office, is not impressed by the LLRC’s work so far, saying it is "deeply flawed, (and) does not meet international standards for an effective accountability mechanism."

Lakshman Wickremasinghe is spokesman for the LLRC. Does he hear the ever louder calls from the outside world to make the Commission’s work more credible?

"I hope the international community doesn’t put pressure on the Commission because it’s the best mechanism the country has."

Whether the Sri Lankan government likes it or not, greater pressure is being brought to bear on it. The US Foreign Affairs Committee, which advises Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, says it is pushing ahead with plans to stop American aid to Sri Lanka unless meaningful investigation takes place and the guilty are brought to book.

Wanted: justice for all Sri Lankans

During RNW’s conversations in Sri Lanka with former Tamil Tiger fighters it was clear justice was a high priority for the Tamil community, not only indicting Sri Lankan generals but Tamil leaders too. Critics point out this is easy to say since most of the Tamil Tiger leadership was killed during the closing months of the war.

The desire for justice is not confined to one side, according to the UN’s former spokesman in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss: "I think there are many Sri Lankans of all ethnicities who support accountability, who support the rule of law, who support a frank and full discussion of the past history."

The problem is there is no history of accountability in Sri Lanka: "Almost nobody has done jail time for the crimes that were committed in 1971 when tens of thousands of Sinhalese were killed, or during the uprising from 1987 – 1990. So there is a long and very profound history of a lack of accountability," said Gordon Weiss.

He remains hopeful about an independent investigation and justice in the future. The UN however only wants to launch an investigation with the approval of the government of Sri Lanka, which is unlikely to happen. The International Criminal Court does not have jurisdiction, as Sri Lanka is not one of the 114 countries that have signed up to the court. Direct referral by the UN Security Council seems to be the only option left, but with China, India and Russia’s major investments in the country, they would be expected to veto any resolution on a referral.

Silenced guns or guns with silencers?

Sri Lanka has suffered from a cycle of oppression and violence for decades. And as the former Tamil rebels in the town of Batticaloa told RNW, if basic rights are not upheld, that cycle will simply continue into the future. The danger for Sri Lanka is that silent guns continue to be interpreted as lasting peace. As the NGO vehicles pull out, fear and impunity are left behind. Former Tamil Tiger Mutu told RNW: "I think there needs to be justice supervised by the international community. Because if the Sri Lankan government does it, it won’t be done properly."


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Saturday, August 06, 2011

Lifting a veil on the macabre final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war

By Vanessa Dougnac | Worldcrunch

May 18, 2009 was a momentous day in Sri Lanka’s civil war, but it did not – as many claim – completely turn the page on the country’s drawn-out bloody conflict.

That day, the government’s Sinhalese soldiers waved their flag on Mullivaikal beach to hail their victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had fought for three decades to create an independent territory for the Tamil ethic group. The rebel army was decimated. One man turned the victory into his own: President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who led the three-year military conquest of LITE-controlled territory in northern Sri Lanka.

But what the official story doesn’t mention is the Kilinochchi district, the former center of the rebellion, where residents continue to live under strict military control. Nor does it include an honest assessment of the devastation that was rained down on residents in the Tamil territory.

Signs of massive destruction are everywhere in the district’s villages: demolished houses, walls riddled with bullets, bombed-out buildings. Two years later, families still live in tents or shelters. “No house was spared,” says K.D Saran, the Kilinochchi governor.

The army and government blame the LITE. “Before fleeing, the terrorists destroyed everything,” says Ubaya Medawala, the division general and army spokesman. “It was a way to discredit us.”

But many in Kilinochchi tell another story. “The army destroyed everything,” says one resident named Prashan.

Inside the shelters, families bear the marks of the brutal conflict. Many of the women are widows. Children live with pieces of shrapnel buried in their skin. Many people are disabled or wounded. An old man has lost his mind. A little girl no longer speaks.

“I still have two bullets in my belly,” says one wheelchair-bound Tamil man. “My wife and my two sons died while we were running during the bombings.”

A woman named Meera, her newborn in tow, traveled in 2009 to Puthukkudiyiruppu, in the Mullaitivu District. “The LTTE fired, but the army fired back at us. The Tigers used us as human shields, but the strategy didn’t stop the army,” she recalls.

On Feb. 7, Meera crossed the front line with a small group of people. She managed to escape, but many of her companions did not. More than 200,000 civilians went on to join the Tigers. In the camps they dug trenches that for many would later become their graves. “I begged my husband to leave with our kids but he didn’t want to,” says Anandhi Sasitharan, the wife of Elilan, a LTTE political leader.

The rebels recruited young Tamil. A man named Amirdelingam recalls that he was powerless when the LITE seized his two teenage sons. He will never see them again.

“At the beginning of February, the army said on the radio there was a secure zone for the civilians where there wouldn’t be any shooting. They pushed us to go there. But once we arrived, the massacres continued,” says Prashan.

© Worldcrunch

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Saturday, August 06, 2011

Groups ask Swiss to prosecute Sri Lankan diplomat

By Jhon Heilprin | The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Two advocacy groups asked Swiss authorities Thursday to pursue war crime charges against a former Sri Lankan army commander now serving as a European diplomat, reflecting still-simmering Western concerns about the South Asian island nations' human rights record.

The Swiss-based groups Society for Threatened Peoples and TRIAL said they filed a confidential complaint with Switzerland's attorney general against Jagath Dias, a former major general in Sri Lanka's final offensive that smashed a 26-year rebellion by ethnic minority Tamils in May 2009.

The United Nations estimates between 80,000 and 100,000 people were killed during the civil war. Dias, whose Sri Lankan forces captured some of the rebel Tamil Tigers' last strongholds, became Sri Lanka's deputy ambassador to Germany, Switzerland and the Vatican in September 2009.

Dias, reached at his embassy in Berlin, said it's easy to make accusations, but he denied being a war criminal.

"Anybody can accuse anyone of anything. I don't see that any of these allegations are well founded," he told The Associated Press. "We did our best to complete the military operation with zero casualties. How could we have released or rescued 300,000 people if we really wanted to destroy them?"

About 300,000 Tamil civilians were caught in the climactic battle. The government then carved camps out of the jungles of northern Sri Lanka to hold them and screen out former rebels who could stir up trouble.

The Swiss groups' complaint — based largely on the findings of the United Nations and other international organizations — says Dias' army division was responsible for massive bombing of civilians and hospitals.

The groups said in a statement that "it is high time that Switzerland gives a clear signal against impunity" by pressing criminal charges against him.

The office of Switzerland's federal prosecutors said it was examining the complaint. The Swiss Foreign Ministry said it takes the matter seriously, and has been in touch with Sri Lankan authorities.

Dias also was one of a number of Sri Lankan war leaders given diplomatic status after the war, but Benedict De Moerloose, TRIAL's legal counsel, said that won't insulate him against potential legal action in Switzerland for wartime actions.

"We've made a case based on the credible and serious accusations of international organizations and human rights organizations, and we consider that Jagath Dias may be arrested in Switzerland even if he has diplomatic status," he said.

In May, a U.N. expert called for Sri Lanka to investigate and file charges against soldiers shown in a graphic video obtained by Britain's Channel 4, shooting bound, blindfolded prisoners and abusing corpses in the final days of the war.

Dias — echoing the Sri Lankan government's view — said the video is staged and an attempt by pro-Tamil Tiger groups to undermine its hard-won victory in the country's 1983-2009 civil war.

"It's bogus — there is no fact at all," Dias said, adding that the facts are contained in a documentary called "Lies Agreed Upon" that Sri Lanka's U.S. embassy has posted on its website and on YouTube.

The government insisted after the war ended there was no civilian bloodletting in the last months of fighting, contrary to a partial U.N. count showing at least 7,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed in the last five months of the conflict.

U.N.-appointed officials concluded both sides committed atrocities. A recent U.N. report said Sri Lankan government forces deliberately targeted civilians and hospitals, blocking food and medicine for hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in the war zone, while the Tamil Tigers recruited child soldiers and used civilians as human shields.

Sri Lanka vehemently rejected calls for an independent international probe in favor of setting up a national panel to investigate, while continuing to celebrate its battlefield victory.


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