Sri Lanka: a foreseeable massacre
A World to Win News Service
For more than 26 years the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) waged the struggle for a Tamil homeland in the northern and eastern part of Sri Lanka. The Tigers once held a third of the island and administered it as if it were a mini-state. The roots of their struggle reside in the national oppression of the Tamil minority at the hands of the Sinhala ruling class. Thousands of Tamils were killed in pogroms in 1956, 1958, 1977 and 1983 by Sinhalese nationalist elements. These oppressive conditions have understandably led to resistance.
The last months of the war were particularly cruel for the Tamil masses. Reportedly 7,000 people have been killed since January. Thousands more were critically wounded, according to United Nations reports. The number of civilians trapped in the “no fire zones” (NFZs) in the northern part of the country was estimated at several hundred thousand. The Sri Lankan Government used the propaganda of “the war on terror” as a fig leaf to dismantle any semblance of rights in the country. Unspeakable crimes were committed against the Tamil people, from rape and death squads to “white van abductions”. Working on the principle that every Tamil is a terrorist unless he or she can prove otherwise, civilian areas, hospitals and shelters were being bombed and shelled with heavy artillery. As the Sri Lankan army advanced, the government kept journalists and other potential witnesses out of the NFZs so that no one could report the atrocities it committed.
The more than 250,000 Tamils who escaped the war zone are now forced to live in 13 camps under military control. They lack freedom of movement, adequate food, water and healthcare. Many wounded are without medical attention. According to an article by Arundhati Roy, due to their long years living under the LTTE, the government says the Tamils will have to be “re-educated” in the camps, an ominous phrase indeed.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told CNN after visiting Manik Farm: “I have travelled around the world and visited similar places, but this is by far the most appalling scene I have seen.” Manik Farm is one of the most presentable of Sri Lanka’s squalid and dangerous internment camps for Tamil civilians. The UN chief promised international action to investigate the shelling of civilian populations during the fighting. The Sri Lankan government has not made any concessions to Ban’s call for unhindered access to the camps by international aid organizations and that screening of displaced persons be expedited so that families can be reunited.
Ban’s meaningless phrases are like a balm on an ugly situation, a massacre that was totally foreseeable. The world stood quietly by as events in Sri Lanka unfolded. The U.S. and the UK, so quick to call for UN sanctions against Zimbabwe and Iran when that suited their purposes, have done little in this case besides declare that this is “not the moment” for an IMF loan to Sri Lanka. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called what has happened a “humanitarian crisis” (not like the “war crimes” she has accused the Palestinians of committing when a handful of Israeli civilians were killed). She said she was “disappointed” by the Sri Lankan government.
For many years the U.S. and the rest of the international community were somewhat ambivalent about the civil war going on in Sri Lanka, viewing it as an internal struggle between two armies. They thought that some compromises could be made between the two sides and in that way the war could come to an end. After 11 September 2001, the U.S. delegitimised the Tamil Tigers, putting them on their terrorist list, which in effect declared their struggle illegal. From then on, the Sri Lanka government had freedom to plan and carry out the crushing defeat of the LTTE and the massacre of Tamils. For instance, near the end of the war, when the Tigers said they would lay down their arms, the Sri Lanka government refused to accept this offer and kept up the offensive. This and many other acts (for example, treatment of Tamils in the internment camps) go against the Geneva Convention, according to international legal experts, yet the Sri Lankan government seems to have been acting on the cues of the big powers.
The U.S. does have an underlying need for stability in the world and some particular interests in that region as a whole, especially the Indian Ocean and therefore Sri Lanka and its harbour at Trincomalee on the eastern coast (south of where the fighting was). In a March/April 2009 Foreign Affairs article, Robert Kaplan identifies some geopolitical concerns for the U.S. in the South Asia region: the struggle for influence over the southern tier of the former Soviet Union, the growing presence of India and China in the Indian Ocean, the importance of the ocean’ s trade routes, the strategic significance of the adjacent energy-rich regions of the Middle East and Central Asia and the danger of a decline of U.S. influence in the region. The article notes that Sri Lanka is located at the confluence of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, and that China is constructing a refuelling station for its warships there. The U.S. also feared that the political unrest among Tamils in Sri Lanka would destabilise the Indian government with its own Tamil population and thus affect the U.S.-India strategic partnership.
For several years, government efforts to rout the Tigers were stalemated, reflected in a series of truces. In 2007 Sri Lanka sought and purchased weapons from a variety of countries, including the U.S., U.K., India, Pakistan, Russia and especially China. The U.S., Canada and European governments cracked down on Tamils abroad to prevent overseas fund-raising for the Tigers. Joint Indian-Sri Lankan naval patrols drastically reduced arms supplies reaching the rebels. India also provided the government with crucial intelligence. All this enabled the government to step up its offensive in early 2008, with predictable results.
China has cultivated ties with Sri Lanka for decades and became its biggest arms supplier in the 1990s when for a time during the civil war India and the Western governments had stopped selling weapons. Since 2007 China significantly increased its arms sales. According to Jane’ s Defence Weekly, Sri Lanka signed a 37.6 million dollar deal. In another deal it bought radar equipment. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2008 China gave Sri Lanka six F7 jet fighters – without charge. China has also encouraged Pakistan to sell weapons and train Sri Lankan pilots to fly the Chinese planes. Also last year, China’s aid to Sri Lanka jumped to 1 billion dollars. According to Asia Times, among the string of docking bases (in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Myanmar) developed as deep sea ports for refuelling, China is developing the Hambantota port project in Sri Lanka.
The Tamil diaspora around the world has condemned the atrocities of the Sri Lankan army as news of the deaths of their loved ones becomes known to them. For several weeks hundreds of Tamils in the UK maintained a non-stop 24-hour vigil in the area around Parliament, which was also the scene of demonstrations of tens of thousands and repeated clashes with riot police.
The Sri Lankan government is gleefully celebrating its victory, while the governments in the international community are clucking their tongues in an expression of hypocrisy and satisfaction.
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