Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sri Lanka: War survivors relive horror of Sri Lanka's killing fields

By Priyamvatha | Headlines Today

The closing stages of the Sri Lankan civil war were a story of extreme brutality against civilians by the army. Despite being widely documented, Colombo remains in denial about atrocities on Tamils in the country's north and the east.

The survivors of the war still live in fear, in one of the most densely militarised zones of the world, devoid of any hope of ever getting justice.

Headlines Today correspondent Priyamvatha travelled (undercover) to Vanni, the former stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels in north Sri Lanka, to unravel the facts behind the claims and counterclaims in the land that was witness to one of the worst war crimes committed on civilians anywhere in the world.

As Headlines Today reached the Vanni region, it was swarming with soldiers of the Sri Lankan army, made up almost entirely of the majority Sinhalas. There was a soldier on patrol every few meters and there was a check post on every 100 meters.

The army has built major military cantonments across the Vanni on land mostly forcefully acquired from the local Tamil population in what has been recognised in some quarters as the core of the Tamil Homeland.

A sense of fear and insecurity could be seen among the local Tamil population, with very few people agreeing to speak on camera. The people, interviewed at secret locations, feared death if the tapes fell in the hands of the security personnel.

War victim Rosy, 45, doesn't want to live. Even after two years, just the word "war" brings shivers and tears for this Tamil woman. Rosy witnessed Sri Lankan air force jets bomb an areas designated as a "Safe zone" by the government.

On May 14, 2009, a day after she moved into the safe zone at Vattuvaha from Killinochi with her husband, a son, four daughters, a son-in-law and 10-month-old grandson, the zone came under attack.

"The bomb fell on the place we were living. These are the silent ones. We realised only after the area was bombarded. There was smoke all around. I didn't know anything. My hand was sliced and splinters lodged in my chest. My son picked me up and hid me. I asked him to look for my daughters. He assured me that everything was fine. But he knew all were dead. All my children died. Nothing is left," said Rosy, adding, "On that day of the war alone I saw 3000 people die before my eyes."

For Rathi, another war victim, that deadly day when she lost her husband and son in the war still brings back the sad events. "I was in the bunker. My son and husband were outside eating food. From the air, the bomb fell and exploded into splinters. Pieces of it killed my son and husband. We heard the sound," says Rathi, as she breaks down.

Rathi's daughter Lavanya says, "Army bombed us at Vallipuna. They used chemical bombs. It fell on the ground from air, went into pieces, but there wouldn't be sound."

Chemical bomb

"I was going to surrender with my family through a priest. But my second child was affected by chemical bomb. It's phosphorous. He was completely affected," said another victim Devi.

"All small children and old people were lying in the hospital without help. In this attack, two children, an old woman and my husband and son died," said Rathi.

Thambi, an eight-year-old victim, who had lost his entire family except his mother, describes how even children were not spared. He was injured in the war. "There was shelling always. There were bombs everywhere. Look at this injury. I had to run for my life," says Thambi.

The civilians had to run from pillar to post for the treatment of the injured. But hospitals were also not safe. Kavya's father, who was injured in the war, later died.

"We had taken father to hospital. That's when the bombardment happened. One girl died and two boys died, with brains coming out from their head," said Kavya.

The cries of these victims say it all.

Torture at secret camp

The list of war violations by the Sri Lankan army extends to the camps where women were harassed. Here is a first hand account of a woman who spent one year at a supposedly secret camp, which was not revealed to the world by the Sri Lankan government.

"It is a torture camp. No basic amenities were allowed. NGOs weren't allowed," said Sundari.

"It is a military camp…for whatever problem we had, we had to approach the armymen right? That was exploited by the army and in the night…we all were together. They misbehaved with some women," says Sandari.

"There have been rapes. Girls are raped. But how will girls tell this out? They would be embarrassed. It is a matter of dignity what else happened," Sundari adds.

"They would be very violent. They are Sinhalese and we are Tamils. We are scared of everything. We don't know the language. Women were looked at voyeuristically by the army," she says.

Reporter: There are reports that women were shut in a room without dress?

Sundari: They kept harassing us if we were from LTTE. They kept us and harassed us.

Another victim Divya says, "Two or three women were kidnapped. They have taken pictures while taking bath."

The situation was no different for LTTE cadres who were put in camps. Young men, even educated ones, had to swallow the humiliation. Murugan, a former LTTE cadre who was in the intelligence wing, was kept in the camp for almost one year. Now, he is out to be a part of the society. But he finds it difficult to forget the harrowing tales.

"We were kept in a reformation camp to rehabilitate former cadres like me. But more than reforming us, we became more violent. It was beyond torture. We were kept like cattle. Once a major and lieutenant colonel came to meet us. There were 800 of us. They had masked their faces. We were seen as demons," says Murugan.

Rosy adds, "We drank water from drainage, from wells where dead bodies were thrown. I know a mother and a child who fell into well and committed suicide due to hunger. I saw with my eyes."

"Sri Lankan army grabbed our land. They used weapons against us and our people. I joined LTTE in the last phase of war. They called, but I went to save the rights of our people. There was a necessity," says Shiva.

The UN says over 40,000 people were killed during the last stages of the 30-year civil war that ended in May 2009, with a full military victory for the Sri Lanka army. Non-governmental sources put the figure at over a lakh and a half.

Execution style killings, aerial bombardment of hospitals and designated "safe zones", sexual assaults on civilians and female combatants, use of chemical weapons, cluster bombs, denial of medical aid to injured civilians, illegal confinement without charges - these are some of the many war crimes Sri Lanka is accused of.

Some say it is not just the Sri Lankan army that inflicted atrocities on the helpless civilians. The LTTE also has blood on its hands. Deepan, whose 16-year-old son Rajan was kidnapped from school by the LTTE, is shattered. "My son was 16 years old. LTTE cadres took him away to join their forces. We didn't want to send him. He had big dreams and was studying in school," says Deepan.

© Headlines Today

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sri Lanka: Jungles cleared for "forced" resettlement

BBC Sinhala

The internally displaced Tamils of the Menik Farm camp in Vavunia are to be resettled in a newly cleared area against their will says the major Tamil party in Sri Lanka.

Parlimentarian Sivashakthi Anandan revealed that at a meeting held last week attended by Mullaithivu Security Forces Commander Major General Leonard Mark, Government Agent A Pathinathar and members of several government and non governmental organizations including UN agencies had disscused resettlement plans.

TNA allege that IDPs from Puthumathalan, Mullivaikkal West, Mullivaikkal East, Ambalavanpokkanai, Valaignar Madam and Anandapuram in the Mullaitivu district who are presently at the Menik Farm camp at Chettikulam or with host families, largely at Vavuniya are not to be resettled in their original hometowns.

Government accused

“Alternately arrangements are being made by clearing forest areas in Kombavil to resettle these people.” Said MP Anandan.

Sri Lanka's military spokesman General Ubaya Madawela admitted that land clearance for resettlement is taking place in the Kombavil.

At the Kombavil Progress Review Meeting held on the 3rd of August was informed by the military that 225 acres were cleared whithin 40 days.

TNA parliamentarian Sivasakthi Anandan also accused the government of preventing people returning to their respective villages in a bid to cover up war crimes.

He said that the government is claiming delays in land mine clearance to settle the internally displaced far from their respective villages.

“These were the areas where the final phase of war took place and thousands of people died. The government is depriving these people from their lands to cover up atrocities committed during the last days of war,” said MP Ananthan.

The government agent has informed the meeting in Mullaithivu that it is impossible to free six villages in Puthukudiyirippu division from landmines in near future as demining has not even started in the area.

Allegations denied

Military spokesman Maj Gen Medawela denied the allegation saying, "the Sri Lankan military did not commit any war crimes".

The newly-arrived chief of the United Nations in Sri Lanka following a visit to Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu said that the situation of displaced people in Menik Farm from Mullaitivu 'whose areas of origin were not yet tasked for demining and could not return to their homes in the immediate future was of concern'.

UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka Subinay Nandy further said, “I am looking forward to hearing from the Government the future plans for these people and we want to work with them so this group of displaced can begin to look forward to the future with some certainty and have a durable solution to their plight,”.

© BBC Sinhala

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tamils still suffer 2 years after Sri Lanka war

Associated Press | Khaleej Times

The roadblocks have been dismantled, the sandbags removed, and Sri Lanka is again a palm-fringed tourist paradise, the government says. But for ethnic Tamils living in the former war zone, it is still a hell of haunted memories, military occupation and missing loved ones.

Hundreds of thousands remain homeless, and no effort has been made to reunite families separated two years ago during the final bloody months of the war between the now-defeated Tamil separatists and the ethnic Sinhalese-dominated government.

A power-sharing program that President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised to enact after the quarter-century war has gone nowhere.

The International Crisis Group castigated the government in a July report that said “the country is yet to see any semblance of compromise or inclusiveness.”

In the meantime, the government has worked hard to project an image of peace and redemption to the world. It insists Tamils have embraced its plan to rebuild homes and shattered lives. It is playing up the Indian Ocean island’s reputation as a tourist destination, building airports, seaports and new roads. It’s even ordered an army headquarters to be converted into a luxury beachside hotel.

But in the ethnic Tamil heartland in the north, resentment has been building.

From the school where he sleeps at night, principal Asirvatham Soosainathar watches the troops who are still living in his house in the village of Murikandy. On weekends, he visits his family in the home they have rented 50 miles (80 kilometers) away.

More than 100 families in the village were displaced by troops and the government has promised to soon return their homes. But in two years, Soosainathar said he’s seen no evidence of it.

“I have 106 coconut trees on my land, but nowadays I have to pay for my coconut,” Soosainathar, 44, said in a telephone interview. “The army has been telling me for two years that it will leave my house, but they are still cultivating my land.”

Visvalingam Komathy has also been ousted by the army from her home in the former rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi, where she lived off the chicken and cattle she raised. She has pawned her jewelry for living expenses and legal fees in trying to free her son detained on charges of helping the rebels.

“We only want the house that is rightfully ours,” said Komathy, 52.

Many Tamils fear that the soldiers in their homes are the vanguard of a government plan to send majority Sinhalese settlers into their area to dilute Tamil power and prevent any new push for a separate homeland for the minority. Tamil lawmakers say the military is seizing land that was in private hands before the war.

“The army is doing everything to be there permanently,” said lawmaker Suresh Premachandran, of the Tamil National Alliance. “They are putting up permanent camps, cantonments and of course they are very much part of the entire administrative system in the northern province.”

Electricity has been restored and roads repaired. Supermarkets, banks and Internet cafes have opened outlets in areas closed to business during the war.

But many people whose homes were destroyed continue to live under tents or in small huts covered only by tin sheets. Many families who lost their belongings and breadwinners remain in extreme poverty.

On the other hand, military camps have mushroomed and grand monuments have been erected to honor the fallen soldiers. The army also runs roadside restaurants catering to Sinhalese tourists who have flocked to see areas recaptured from the rebels.

Ahead of local elections in the north last month, the government painted the polls as a referendum on its development-oriented reconciliation efforts. But the ruling coalition was crushed, and Tamil politicians in favor of self-determination won 20 of 25 seats on local councils. Officials have since played down the results, and the local positions are unlikely to change the government’s policy.

The government insists it is pursuing reconciliation and taking care of the victims.

“Rapid resettlement and economic empowerment is taking place ... though obviously much more needs to be done,” said Rajiva Wijesinha, a lawmaker and adviser to Rajapaksa.

He denied that the military was taking over private land, and said it would pay compensation for any land it acquires.

Ananthi, a mother of three who goes by only one name, is still searching for her husband, Sinnathurai Sasitharan, a political leader for the Tamil Tigers whom she last saw being escorted away by the military after surrendering on May 18, 2009.

“He was not going to surrender. He wanted to send me off and commit suicide by swallowing cyanide,” she said, recounting the final moments of the war. “But I cried and begged him to surrender so that he could live the rest of his life for his family.”

The whereabouts of her husband, known by the nom de guerre Elilan, and scores of other rebels who mounted the last stand against the government forces, as well as a Catholic priest who mediated their surrender, are still unknown, she said.

Ananthi says she appealed to the government, the Red Cross, the national Human Rights Commission and the United Nations to no avail.

Though the government announced that it had rehabilitated many of the 11,000 former rebels it captured at the end of the war, the relatives of many rebel fighters last seen accompanied by soldiers say they have never been told the whereabouts of their loved ones. Families have searched in hospitals, camps and detention centers.

Sandana Murugaiah, a father of seven, is awaiting news about a son and daughter forcibly conscripted by the Tamil Tigers and not heard from since the war ended.

“I do not know if they survived the fighting,” Murugaiah said.

The Tamil Tigers, long seen as one of the world’s most effective and brutal insurgent groups, had fought to create an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils after decades of marginalization by governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority.

The militants, who ran a de facto state in the north, sent suicide bombers into crowded train stations, while the military was accused of shelling civilians and hospitals in the war zone. Footage allegedly taken by front-line soldiers and aired on Britain’s Channel 4 television appeared to show blindfolded prisoners being shot at close range.

A U.N. expert panel report in April accused both sides of potential war crimes and recommended an independent international inquiry.

The government has denied the accusations, though it did acknowledge for the first time last week that some civilians were killed in the final offensive in 2009. The U.N. panel has said tens of thousands of civilians were killed in that offensive.

Jehan Perera, an analyst with activist group National Peace Council says true reconciliation requires a “heart and mind strategy” after a brutal war. Entrenching the military will not serve the purpose, he said.

“A great deal of transparency is required in terms of who is held in custody and what happens to them.” Despite promises to Tamil lawmakers to give such a list, the government has not done so, Perera said.

© Khaleej Times

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

SL war crimes: Gotabaya hits out at Jayalalithaa; confident of Indian support

By Rajesh Sundaram | Headline Today

Sri Lanka's defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has hit out at Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa for her recent comments seeking international war crimes investigations and economic sanctions on Sri Lanka.

Talking to Headlines Today exclusively in Colombo, Rajapaksa said. "This (the resolutions in the assembly and statements by J. Jayalalithaa) must be for her to gain political advantage...It is not reasonable, because in Sri Lanka regardless of being Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, we are Sri Lankans. We are more worried about our citizens than anyone else. This (the resolution and statements by Jaya) is without knowing facts."

"If she is so concerned about the welfare of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, the first thing you know what she must do...they must stop Indian fishermen coming into Sri Lankan waters and fishing in areas predominantly dominated by the Tamil fishermen of Sri Lanka.

"When it comes to that, they do not talk about the welfare of the Tamil people...people just talk about welfare of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka, but when it comes to the real thing they are not shouting. This is what Ms Jayalaithaa should address first if she is very keen on the welfare if the Tamil people of this area. This is what she must do," Rajapaksa said.

He advised the Tamil Nadu chief minister to focus her attention instead on the need for rehabilitation of the Tamil people in the war ravaged areas of Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa said, "Now we have to do a lot of things to develop and improve the infrastructure and help the people to resettle and restart their lives. This is what is required. This is what we have to show to the Tamil Nadu government. If they are interested in the welfare of these people, it is useless calling for international investigation. What does that bring to the people? It is much better to understand ground realities."

The US state department has warned recently that an international mechanism should have to be brought in to investigate war crimes in Sri Lanka if it failed to investigate these charges through a credible process internally within a reasonable period of time.

The UK and some other European countries concur with this view.

It has been over two years since the 30-year civil war on the island ended with the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels.

The UN estimates that over 40,000 Tamil civilians died during the last stages of the war. The Sri Lanka army is accused of firing shells and bombing areas designated "Safe Zones". The LTTE is accused of using civilians as human shields.

Rajpaksa says there is no justification in calls for an international probe.

He adds, "How can an international mechanism kick in? This is a sovereign country, and we have done nothing wrong. And it is very unfair to tell that, and that is why when they are doing that, we also have all the others. This is not the international community. This is a wrong description. This is just some countries in the international community may be doing this. We have strong backing from the rest of the world, starting from Russia and China and I am sure of it from India, Pakistan and a lot of the countries from Africa, Middle East and South East Asia. That is the international community. A few people in the world can't say they are international community."

Speaking about further devolution of power to the Tamil minorities on the island nation Rajpaksa said there was little scope to go beyond the current levels of devolution.

"The existing constitution is more than enough for us to live together. I don't think there is any issue on this more than that. I mean this was given as a solution for the whole thing with the discussion of these people. I mean now the LTTE is gone, I don't think there is any requirement. I mean what can you do more than this? This gives power at a lower lever. Even now we had the local government elections. Then the president will have very soon provincial elections and appoint chief ministers and ministers. So devolution-wise I think we have done enough. I don't think there is a necessity to go beyond that," the defence secretary added.

© Headlines Today

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

War crimes heat on, Sri Lanka's Rajapaksa goes back to China

Reuters | Yahoo! News


Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa landed in China on Tuesday seeking tighter economic ties in a stormy financial world, and against the backdrop of an aggressive Western push for a probe into war crimes allegations.

Rajapaksa was due to attend the Universiade sporting event in Shenzhen and will later meet President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Beijing, in the latest of his several visits to one of Sri Lanka's closest allies.

The Sri Lankan leader on Monday said economic cooperation was the focus of a trip made on an invitation from Hu in June, with the aim of expanding ties and learning from China's economic growth example.

China is Sri Lanka's largest bilateral donor and in June committed $1.5 billion to Sri Lanka's $6 billion post-war rebuilding plan, having already financed a power plant and new port in Rajapaksa's southern Hambantota electorate.

"They want to make sure the same magnitude of money flows in, in times of insecurity," said a Colombo-based diplomat on condition of anonymity, referring to the global debt turmoil that has hit world markets.

That, however, is not likely to be at the top of his list.

"The fact is he is awfully disturbed by the pressures he is getting from the Western hemisphere on the war crimes issue," said Kusal Perera, a political analyst at The Center for Social Democracy.

Sri Lanka is now in its third year of peace after destroying the Tamil Tiger separatists, listed by more than 30 nations as a terrorist organization.

But ethno-political reconciliation is still distant and the island nation is facing an aggressive campaign to probe civilian deaths at the end of the quarter-century conflict in May 2009, when China, Russia and neighboring India stood by Rajapaksa's prosecution of the war to the finish.

Wanted: Beijing backing

Now Rajapaksa, whose victory brought him immense popularity at home, is up against a coordinated push from the West, rights advocates and a well-financed global network of former Tiger supporters for an external probe.

"The heat is on and they feel it very much and I think he is trying to see whether he could get China to mobilize support at the September U.N. Human Rights Council session," Perera said.

A senior Sri Lankan diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the war crimes issue would be on the agenda, but there was unlikely to be any clear statement about that at the end of the trip.

Washington has told Colombo it wants the findings of Sri Lanka's internal probe, the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission, to be submitted to U.N. Human Rights Council session after they are given to the government on November 15.

That could put a host of material critical of Sri Lanka's handling of the war before the rights council at its March session, and give momentum to calls for an external probe.

Sri Lanka views that as a violation of its sovereignty based, and hypocritical of the United States, which is blamed for thousands of civilian deaths in its campaign against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

A U.N.-sponsored report found "credible evidence" that Sri Lankan forces and the Tigers committed war crimes including killing possibly thousands of civilians.

Sri Lanka has acknowledged some civilian deaths but says the U.N. report's allegations are vastly inflated or untrue and first emanated from Tamil Tiger propaganda operations.

Chinese support appears likely. Both China and Russia usually oppose foreign intervention in domestic conflicts, and both held off U.S.-British attempts at the U.N. Security Council to get a ceasefire at the end of the war.

China faces ethnic unrest in its western areas where Tibetans and Uighurs have resisted Beijing's control, and Russia has battled Chechen separatists, and both conflicts are akin to Sri Lanka's war with the ethnic minority Tamil Tigers.

"For China, it's a two-for-one. They like to annoy India, and (separatism) is a core issue for them," said a former Western diplomat involved with Sri Lanka.

India is wary of China's influence with the Rajapaksa administration, as it considers Sri Lanka in its sphere of influence and is concerned the Hambantota port is part of a Beijing strategy to encircle it.

© Reuters

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sri Lanka wildlife groups boycott elephant census

By Charles Haviland | BBC News

Wildlife groups in Sri Lanka say they are withdrawing support to an elephant census as they fear it will be used to bring more animals into captivity.

The island-wide three-day count is due to start on Thursday.

There are about 4,000 wild elephants in the country and a smaller number of domesticated ones used in sacred roles in Buddhist and Hindu temples.

This census is a complicated task, with thousands of staff and simultaneous counts at waterholes.

Officials say it will be more of an estimate than an exact count.

The government says the purpose is to help protect the species given its dwindling forest habitat.

Conservation organisations would be happy with that.

What they are not happy about is remarks on Sunday by Minister of Wildlife SM Chandrasena.

He said that during the survey, strong young elephant calves would be identified for capture, to be "donated" to temples for use in festivals.

A group of 30 conservation organisations has condemned the remarks and announced it will not take part in the census.

Spokesman Ajantha Palihawadana said such captures would interfere with nature by removing some of the best genetic stock from the elephant population, including some with tusks which are relatively rare.

He said it would perpetuate the current trend of what he alleges is the regular trapping of baby elephants on the orders of "influential people".

Despite the minister's remarks, the head of the wildlife department told the BBC he was not aware of plans to give a new batch of elephants to temples.


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