(by Jill Nelson, WorldMag.com) – The streets of Sri Lanka were alive with celebration on May 19: The leader of the rebel Tamil Tigers, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, was dead and the government had declared victory over the rebels and the end of the country’s 25-year-old civil war.
But not everyone was celebrating. During the final weeks of the bloody conflict, thousands of civilians were trapped in a four-mile strip of territory between Tamil Tigers willing to use their own people as human shields and government forces unwilling to suspend their offensive. Some died in the crossfire while others perished in makeshift boats they paddled out to sea. Those who made it out alive were ushered into internally displaced people (IDP) camps where misery is heaped upon misery and only a few aid groups (and no journalists) are permitted access.
News slowly trickling out of Sri Lanka’s IDP camps suggests a scenario grossly understated by the Sri Lankan government and largely underreported. Disappearances have caused panic, and alleged human-rights abuses on both sides of the conflict have left scores of amputees, injured refugees, and little hope for the resettlement of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population. Journalists who tell their stories risk imprisonment, deportation, or death. “How could the government celebrate when so many people are dead?” one diaspora Tamil said. “That shows that they do not consider the Tamil people as their own people.”
Ananda, a Christian Tamil who left Sri Lanka in 1993 to go to school in the United States, says the minority Tamil population has faced severe discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority who were given authority over the country when the British left in 1948. He fears the Sri Lankan government now that the Tigers are believed to be defeated and requested that his last name be withheld, noting that “the Sri Lankan government can trace me and arrest me at the airport when I arrive there for defaming the government.”
Prior to the country’s independence, the Tamil population invited British colonizers into their territory in the north and east to start schools and churches. Ananda says the Tamils took full advantage of the education while the Sinhalese, who were more nationalistic, resisted these opportunities. When the Sinhalese were handed control of the country, they viewed the Tamils-who are primarily Hindu-as a threat and created laws that discriminated against what they viewed as a privileged minority.
He says the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began as a peaceful resistance group on a mission for a separate state for Tamils but turned violent in the late ’80s. “It was appealing to me as a teenager growing up, but I never joined it. Somehow God protected me even though I was a Hindu growing up as a teenager.”
Over the decades, the Tigers have developed an experienced paramilitary organization, gaining control over the northern and eastern portions of the island. A large diaspora population-many of whom live in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu-has been a key component in funding a ground force, a sea wing, a small air force, and an elite terrorist wing called the Black Tigers, who were trained to conduct assassinations and suicide bombings. Former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was a victim of one of these attacks in 1991. The intelligence agency STRATFOR says the Tigers “have a record of tactical success that would make any jihadist group green with envy.” Eventually the Tigers controlled almost one quarter of the island.
The European Union added the group to its terror list in 2006, and some of the group’s resources began to dry up. The government began a full-scale offensive that year which would eventually trap the Tigers and kill its leader along with more than 7,000 civilians, according to the United Nations. The UN estimates that 80,000 to 100,000 have died since the war began in 1983.
The government has corralled almost 300,000 Tamils into several camps across the island, and human-rights groups are concerned about their fate. Sri Lanka’s minister of disaster management and rights, Mahinda Samarasinghe, told a special session of the UN Human Rights Council that his country is actively helping the refugees: “Access of course we will provide. And we have been doing so. And we intend to continue with it.”
But that’s not what aid groups such as the Red Cross are saying, and WORLD’s contact who visits these camps on a weekly basis says it’s very difficult to gain access and few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are let in. He asked to be identified only by his first name, Priya, because of concerns about continued access to the camps.
Priya, a Christian native of Sri Lanka, describes the work in these camps as “colossal.” The government denies using heavy artillery against civilians during the final months of the conflict, but Priya tells a different story: Crippling injuries are common, and 80 percent of the registration cards he filled out for refugee families listed at least one family member who had died during the fighting. Much of what he has seen was difficult for him to describe: “I saw a child about 6 years old whose entire back was blasted away. He could not walk. He could not sleep. The only way he was comfortable was sleeping on his stomach, and he could not sleep on his stomach for a long time. This poor guy was suffering. For the first time in my life I heard a doctor say, ‘I pray this child will die rather than survive.'”
One woman was missing both of her legs and one hand. She gave birth after arriving in a refugee camp and could not nurse her own child. A UNICEF survey in March concluded that one in four children under 5 had amputated limbs.
The camps are overcrowded and primitive, Priya added. One particular camp in Pulmoddai was constructed after refugees were forced out of a school they had been living in. A patch of jungle was cleared, tents were erected and fences were installed around the perimeter to keep out wild elephants. But the snakes found a way in, and four refugees were bitten on the first night alone. Priya helped get torches into the camp, but authorities would not allow batteries. Aid workers persisted and obtained approval to deliver 200 batteries a day, and it took one week to supply enough batteries for each family.
Kidnappings and murders are also plaguing the IDP camps as government officials comb through the refugees, hunting for Tamil rebels and youth they fear could embrace the Tigers’ cause. In May, the bodies of 11 young women with suspected ties to the LTTE were reportedly found with their throats slit at the Menik Farm camp. Priya says 170 people have disappeared from another camp without a trace. And these are the few stories that have made it out of the camps.
“The crux of what is happening in these refugee camps doesn’t come out. Even we are very careful to whom we are speaking and what we are speaking because the little we can do we might not be able to do,” Priya said. “Even speaking to you might put me in a position where we might not be able to get back into the camps. Most people keep silent.”
Lasantha Wickramatunga refused to keep silent as editor of the highly independent Sunday Leader in Sri Lanka, and he was assassinated on the streets of Colombo on Jan. 8. His obituary, which he had written prior to his death, was published around the world. “I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but as an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts,” Wickramatunga wrote.
The press freedom watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders, says Sri Lanka is the “least respectful of media freedom” among countries with democratically elected governments. Priya claims that 65 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka during the past 10 to 15 years, and foreign journalists are seldom allowed entrance. Both the BBC and Al Jazeera received threats from the brother of Sri Lanka’s president after producing incriminating reports about the country, and three doctors are in custody after talking to media about conditions in the IDP camps.
Human-rights groups had hoped the special session of the UN Human Rights Council on May 26 would properly address these atrocities and take action. Its European members requested an investigation into widespread reports of war crimes committed by both government troops (accused of shelling civilians and shooting Tigers who had surrendered) and Tamil Tigers (accused of using civilians as human shields and preventing their escape).
Instead, the council “commended measures taken by the government of Sri Lanka to address the urgent needs of the internally displaced persons” and called on the international community to help fund the country’s reconstruction. “I don’t know why the world community is so oblivious to these obvious facts,” Priya said. “I don’t know whether they are being bought over by the government or they are being bribed to say certain things. I just don’t understand.” Priya’s access to the IDP camps will expire soon, and he hopes international pressure will force Sri Lanka to change its policies.
Some say geopolitical dynamics have played a role in marginalizing Tamil refugees. India is clearly concerned about China’s increasingly cozy relationship with Sri Lanka and the role Beijing played in helping win the country’s civil war. China is also in the process of building a new water port on the southern coast of Sri Lanka as other nations eye the island’s strategic position in the waters of the Indian Ocean.
The current prognosis for resettling Sri Lanka’s Tamil population is grim, and healing the wounds between Sinhalese and Tamils will require time and effort. “Currently, we are at the disposal of a ruthless regime and the animosity and polarization between the two warring ethnic communities are at the highest levels ever,” Ananda said. But he believes the church can play a vital role in reconciliation efforts and says Tamils need to accept a semi-autonomous state while Sinhalese should give equal rights to Tamils.
Priya is concerned that the government will soon be searching for a new crisis to divert attention away from economic woes: “I feel the most obvious next target will be the Christians.” He advises those abroad to find out which NGOs and churches are doing reliable work in the country and get behind them and to publicize the truth about the IDP camps in Sri Lanka: “I think the world community has to raise its voice.”
Copyright ©2009 WORLD Magazine, June 20, 2009. Reprinted here June 9th with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at WorldMag.com.
1. a) Name the capital and president of Sri Lanka.
b) Where is Sri Lanka?
c) The two main ethnic groups in Sri Lanka are the Tamils and the Sinhalese. To which religion does the majority of each group belong?
2. What happened to thousands of civilians trapped between the Tamil Tigers and government forces during fighting last month?
3. What is happening to Tamil civilians displaced in the civil war? Be specific. (see para. 2-3, 13, 15)
4. What led to the animosity/fighting between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese government?
5. In what year did the war begin? – How many Sri Lankans have died since the war began?
6. The Tamil Tigers (LTTE) reportedly began as a peaceful resistance group. What types of actions did they take against the government after the civil war began?
7. How has the Red Cross contradicted the report by a Sri Lankan official that the government is actively helping the Tamil refugees?
8. How is the Sri Lankan government treating journalists in that country?
9. Despite reports and complaints by human rights groups, the U.N. Council on Human rights “commended measures taken by the government of Sri Lanka to address the urgent needs of the internally displaced persons.”
The UN was founded in 1945 after World War II to replace the League of Nations, to stop wars between countries, and to provide a platform for dialogue.
Two of its stated aims are to facilitate cooperation in human rights, and achieve world peace.
a) Why do you think that the U.N. Human Rights Council has chosen to ignore the plight of displaced civilians in Sri Lanka?
b) How do you think the U.S. government should react to the U.N.’s response? Explain your answer.
Who are the Tamils? (from cfr.org/publication/9242/#1)
For background information on Sri Lanka, go to state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5249.htm.
For a map of Sri Lanka, go to WorldAtlas.com.
Read about the Tamil Tigers at cfr.org/publication/9242.
Read about the conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the government in Sri Lanka at cfr.org/publication/11407/sri_lankan_conflict.html.
Read a previous article on the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers at studentnewsdaily.com/daily-news-article/bus_bomb_marks_end_of_sri_lanka_truce.