In the clamor to prove himself tough on refugee boats, Kevin Rudd has failed to even mention the persecution faced by the Tamil people currently fleeing Sri Lanka by sea.
The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) has killed tens of thousands of Tamil civilians during its three-year offensive in the country’s north. While Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapakse, declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) earlier this year, the misery has not ended for the Tamils.
The Sri Lankan government’s air-strikes and shelling of LTTE-held territory was heavily intensified in early 2009.
Photographic evidence and eyewitness reports of indiscriminate attacks by the SLA against Tamil civilians were described in The Times of London as “an atrocity that comes close to matching Srebrenica, Darfur and other massacres of civilians.”
Hundreds of thousands of Tamils were forced to flee their homes during the SLA attacks. Over 300,000 of these refugees have been interned by the government in what eye witnesses describe as “concentration camps” in the Vanni region of northern Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan government claims that the camps are temporary “welfare villages” that are being used to “weed out” the remnants of LTTE fighters.
Life for the Tamil civilians imprisoned in the camps is brutal. Disease, starvation and violence at the hands of camp guards are the norm. One elderly man, only recently released, described the conditions: “Life inside the camp is almost living in hell…We were without food for several days. When we asked for water we were scolded in filthy language…Several elderly people with me died of starvation during the early days.”
“The government is trying to kill with disease the people who escaped their guns, and claim it is just a natural disaster.”
In attempting to justify the prisons, President Rajapakse asserts that the specter of terrorism lurks within the barbed wire enclosures. The daily fear for detainees is that they will be singled out as an “LTTE suspect” and be hauled off to face interrogation and torture in the notorious government “rehabilitation centers”. Human Rights Watch stated that Sri Lanka leads the world in these “involuntary disappearances.”
Ethnic persecution has been a reality of Tamil life since Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948. The new rulers, from the Sinhalese majority, fostered a strong culture of ethnic nationalism which reduced the Tamil minority to second-class citizens.
Tamils were excluded from the best jobs and had limited access to education. Many were simply deported. Government-initiated ethnic violence was not uncommon. Anti-Tamil riots in 1983 saw 3000 Tamils slaughtered.
The current atrocities are the worst in this bloody history. General Sarath Fonseka, head of the SLA, stated in an interview in September last year, “I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese”. Fonseka’s views are echoed by President Rajapakse. Their message is unequivocal—they do not want the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
If the Sri Lankan rulers have their way, the people in the prison camps will be unlikely to see their homes again. Prisoners have been informed by officers that even if they were released none of them would be allowed to resettle in Kilinochchi or Mullaithivu, areas captured by the SLA in the last days of the war.
Those who remain in their traditional homelands face systematic ethnic cleansing at the hands of the SLA.
Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, reported that in regions formally held by the LTTE, but now under government control, “…killings and abductions are rife, and there is total impunity for horrific acts.”
Earlier this year Britain’s Channel 4 aired video footage showing Sri Lankan soldiers binding and stripping naked Tamil victims before summarily executing them. Professor Boyle of Illinois College of Law observed that the acts were “akin to what the Nazis did to the Jews, depriving their victims of the last shred of their humanity before dying.”
In the face of genocide it is little wonder that many Tamils have fled Sri Lanka.
By Carl Taylor