The agony of the Tamils
The agony of 250,000 or more civilians trapped in 67 square miles in the north east of Sri Lanka as the army closes in on the Tamil Tiger movement is becoming ever graver. The desperate situation was revealed yet again this morning when a female Tamil Tiger blew herself up as she was travelling with civilians fleeing the fighting.
The brutal government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has spoken of an “endgame” in the civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers, which has gone on for 25 years. He is demanding nothing less than unconditional surrender from the LTTE.
Repeated shelling of hospitals in the war zone by government forces saw five artillery shells hit the 500-bed hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu. According to Gordon Weiss, a spokesman for the UN in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, the hospital was one of the last functioning health institutions in rebel-held territory. “Our office is next to the hospital in PTK," Weiss said. "The hospital is the main refuge for people in the area. It is overflowing with kids and women. We are very concerned as both sides are using artillery.”
The Sri Lankan government has banned foreign journalists and independent human rights monitors from the Vanni area where the ethnic Tamil civilians are trapped. As a result, a major Human Rights Watch report states that, “the continuing suffering of the people of the Vanni remains largely unknown to the rest of the world.” Two major HRW reports compiled in December 2008 reveal the scale of the catastrophe affecting the Tamils. HRW squarely pins the blame on the Sri Lankan government, which has placed sweeping restrictions on humanitarian access and has a policy of “indefinitely detaining virtually all civilians fleeing from LTTE-controlled areas in military guarded camps”.
Meanwhile, the Tamil situation has been played down by the mainstream British media. Perhaps this is connected with British involvement in supplying parts for the Sri Lankan army. According to Foreign Office figures, Britain exported £1m worth of armaments to the Sri Lankan regime, with £12m worth of export licenses issued between 2006 and 2008, according to BBC correspondent Michael Buchanon. The vast majority of these, he told Radio 4, are for military use such as machine gun components, helicopters, sonar equipment, etc. Most of the hardware being used, however, is supplied by India, Pakistan, China and Israel.
Rajapaksa’s regime is not simply responsible for the detention and murder of Sri Lanka’s Tamils. Some of the practices it is blaming on the Tamils are actually being carried out by its own army. Allegations made by the United Nations children’s organisation, UNICEF, that young children are being abducted and made to fight the Tigers have been backed up by HRW.
Far away from the fighting in the North, there is also a climate of fear in the capital Colombo. The government has cracked down on dissent as it seeks to suppress any criticism of its policies. At least nine journalists have been killed in the country in the last three years with the latest brutal attack being on the Sirisa TV studio only last week. Two days afterwards a prominent newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramatunga known for his anti-government views was shot dead as he drove to work.
Sri Lanka’s Tamil-Sinhalese conflicts are the legacy of British imperialism, which played ethnic groups off against each other to further colonial rule. Ethnic tensions grew as the first government after independence sought to redress the Tamil-Sinhalese balance. Legislation was enacted which deprived a million Tamils from citizenship. In recent years the LTTE, formed in 1976, adopted a strategy based on terror, not only against the Sinhalese majority but against its own people.
These tactics play into the hands of the Sri Lankan government and armed forces. Despite the undoubted heroism of the Tamil fighters, the LTTE leadership has no strategy to win support from the Sri Lankan people as a whole, which is needed to bring an end to Rajapaksa’s state-sponsored terror and win self-determination for the Tamil nation.
A World to Win secretary
9 February 2009