Features | An island divided

How 30 years of civil war in Sri Lanka have devastated the country’s ethnic Tamil population

Correction appended

For the past 3 months, at least 300,000 people in Sri Lanka have endured suffering as a result of the country’s ongoing civil war between the Singhalese-dominated government, the SL Army (SLA), and the rebel group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The atrocities committed against civilians in the country are shocking, yet the international community’s failure to intervene has allowed the Sri Lankan government to continue its gross violations of human rights, amounting to a genocide of the Tamil people.

The current situation

Sri Lanka’s 20-million person population is made up of 74 per cent ethnic Singhalese, 12.5 per cent ethnic Tamils, 5.5 per cent Indian Tamils, 6.5 per cent Moors (Tamil Muslims), and a small percentage of other ethnicities. The ethnic Tamils, represented by the LTTE, are struggling to obtain civil rights and freedom from the Singhalese-dominated government, represented by SLA. Because of the war, more than 630,000 Tamils have fled the country to seek refuge elsewhere.

Since January 2009, the SL government has turned to an all-out war policy. Currently, 150 Tamil civilians are killed or wounded each day due to constant government bombing of an area in northeastern Sri Lanka. This area represents the last patch of land that is under LTTE control.

On February 24, the U.S. Senate took part in the Hearing on Recent Development in Sri Lanka, during which the SL Government Genocide against Tamils was discussed. Dr. Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that many of the current civilian deaths are occurring in so-called government safe zones. Accounts from the HRW suggest that the shelling comes directly from the SLA, and kills and wounds hundreds of people who were told by the government that they would be safe if they stayed within this area. The government’s use of indiscriminate three-barrel rocket launchers makes the attacks particularly deadly.

“Particularly outrageous were numerous attacks on hospitals. Our reports document at least two dozen attacks by artillery shelling and aerial bombardment directly on hospitals,” Neistat said at the hearing. Neistat concluded her report by saying that collecting information was extremely difficult since the SL government had “conducted a cynical campaign to prevent all independent coverage of the conflict in a clear effort to cover its abuses.”

The government has denied attacks against civilians. According to the BBC, the government claims the UN’s figures of those killed are “irresponsible and sensationalist.” There are at least 250,000 civilians currently trapped in the area where there is heavy fighting, according to the BBC. During a three-week period from January 20 to February 13, over 2,000 civilians were killed and another 5,000 wounded; 85 per cent of the victims were women and children. “It is sad to say, but it is almost a certainty that the latest attacks against civilians have been carried out by the government. Impunity seems total and no one has been prosecuted for any of the incidences,” said U.S. Foreign Relations committee member Jeffrey Lunstead at the hearing.

In a March 4 interview on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) web site, ICRC head of operations for South Asia Jacques de Maio reiterated the need for a mass evacuation of civilians, and said the current situation there is one of the worse disasters he has ever experienced.

The ICRC has repeatedly accused the government of preventing humanitarian aid from arriving to areas that are most in need. In September 2008, the SL government ordered the UN and humanitarian aid organizations to leave Tamil areas. Since then, the violence affecting civilians has escalated.

The few aid workers who are able to access war areas speak of a dire and desperate situation: hundreds of thousands of people lack clean water, food, and medicine, and most are trapped in these areas. ICRC spokeswoman in Geneva, Carla Haddard, told the BBC that that the ICRC is limited in its ability to evacuate the wounded and innocent because they have not received the security guarantees and permission needed from the SL government.

What’s more, those who escape from the current fighting must enter government controlled camps where they face violence, coercion, and intimidation from the army. A report by University Teachers for Human Rights in Jaffna specifies the conditions in these camps: for example, if a parent cannot produce the exact whereabouts of a missing child, the entire family is killed immediately despite international laws that prohibit such acts. Mothers are forced to separate from their children and most men are ordered to get into buses, often never to be heard from again.

An HRW article quoted Brad Adams, HRW Asia Director, as saying, “To add insult to injury, people who manage to flee the fighting end up being held indefinitely in army-run prison camps. These ‘welfare centers’ are just badly disguised prisons.”

The SL government shows no signs of halting their bomb raids against civilian villages and has rejected recent calls for a temporary ceasefire even though the LTTE has said that they are ready to comply with international calls.

Although the SL government’s purported mission is solely to terminate the LTTE, its actions against Tamil civilians suggest otherwise. In September 2008, in an interview with the National Post, head of the SLA Sarath Fonseka said, “I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Singhalese.”

A troubled history

The history of the Tamil and Singhalese people is long and complex. The cause of the current situation stems from British colonization.

The Singhalese and Tamils have traditionally and historically ruled two separate kingdoms as distinct nations. In 1505 and then in 1658, Sri Lanka was colonized first by the Portuguese and then the Dutch. During this time the colonizers continued to rule the island’s distinct ethnic groups separately.

When the British usurped Dutch rule in 1796, they continued to govern the different groups separately; however, in 1833 they decided to rule everyone on the island together for administrative purposes. It was during this time, too, that the British brought over 300,000 Indian Tamils to work as indentured servants and labourers. In 1948, the British granted independence to Sri Lanka, leaving it as one country with political power in the hands of the majority Singhalese people.

Two historically distinct ethnic groups were thrust together under a centralized unitary government. In 1949, the government decided to completely deprive Indian Tamils of voting rights and deported around 100,000 people to India. The other Indian Tamils living in the highlands of Sri Lanka lost their citizenship and many basic human rights. This resulted in decreased representation for all Tamils (ethnic Tamils, Moors, and Indian Tamils) in the government, allowing the Singhalese to gain absolute power.

Subsequently, in 1956, the Sinhala Only Act made Sinhalese the sole official language of the country. The law had its intended effect: thousands of Tamil civil servants were forced to resign due to lack of fluency in Sinhalese, and through much of the 1960s government forms and services were virtually unavailable to Tamils.

Non-violent protests in the form of hunger strikes and peaceful sit-ins by Tamils were met with mob violence by the SL government and eventually snowballed into the 1958 riots. State-sponsored mobs murdered hundreds of ethnic Tamils across the country. This became the first of many pogroms in Sri Lanka against the Tamils.

The LTTE

In the 1970s and 80s a multitude of discriminatory policies were established to prevent Tamils from seeking university entrance and to limit employment opportunities. During this time, violence also increased. For example, in 1974 during an International Tamil Conference for professors, scientists, and engineers, the SL government killed nine civilians and injured hundreds of others.

The concept of Tamil Eelam, or a separate Tamil state, represented the will of the Tamil people to be independent from the government. In a 1977 referendum, the majority of Tamils gave their mandate to politicians for a separate state. This referendum was rejected by Parliament. Violence continued as Tamil libraries were burned down and people were tortured, killed, and mysteriously went missing. No one was held accountable for any of the atrocities committed, and those who spoke out against the government were murdered.

The LTTE was originally formed by educated Tamil students as an organization to represent the voice of the silenced Tamil population. They wanted to underscore Tamil grievances and represent the Tamil people’s desire for autonomy. Initially the LTTE protested peacefully, but peaceful demonstrations did not deter the violence against them, and the organization made no headway in reclaiming basic civil rights. In 1983, another major nationwide incidence of violence and killing, now known as Black July, left 3,000 Tamils dead and tens of thousands homeless and unemployed after their homes and businesses were burned down. It was at this time that war officially began between the LTTE and the SLA – the LTTE has since pursued militant actions.

The SLA is internationally financed and equipped, and has manpower at least 50 times that of the LTTE. China, India, Pakistan, and Russia supply the SL government with money, weapons, military training, and currently all four countries have soldiers in Sri Lanka assisting the attack against the LTTE. The government is said to have increased their war spending to 1.8-billion dollars; some of this money has come from the World Bank, intended for tsunami relief.

The LTTE are well-known for their administrative, engineering, and planning capabilities. They have carried out suicide bombings against military targets and on the front lines of battle. These bombings have occasionally resulted in civilian deaths; both the SL government and the UN claim that the LTTE have purposefully killed civilians, but the LTTE denies these allegations. Still, the LTTE has been known to force civilians, including children, into battle against the SLA.

A war targeted against civilians

Tamil civilians have had to pay the greatest price for the ongoing war. Already over 150,000 people have died and an additional 25,000 have gone missing. The past 30 years have been marked by human rights violations, disrespect to human dignity, extra-judicial killings, abductions, disappearances, and intimidations, leaving the remaining Tamil population living in constant fear for their lives.

In 2004, 17 Tamil employees of the NGO Action Against Hunger were told to lie face down on the ground with their hands on their head and shot dead. It is unclear who orchestrated these killings: the LTTE blames the SLA, and the SLA attributes the shootings to the LTTE. Although the SLA allowed Australian forensic scientists to investigate the incident, it denied their access to the execution site.

Furthermore, according to the UN, Sri Lanka is second only to Iraq in the number of enforced or involuntary disappearances in the world. Most of these disappearance are of Tamils, and as HRW explained in a news report: “the SL government is responsible for widespread abductions and ‘disappearances’ that [have become] a national crisis.”

Women and children often receive the brunt of unchecked government violence. Rape of women and young girls by Sri Lankan soldiers is common, and victims and families are often punished for reporting incidents. The South Asia Human Rights Violators Index 2008 ranks Sri Lanka as the third worst violator of women’s rights.

Further, hundreds of children have been killed during Sri Lanka’s military campaign, and many more have been orphaned. In August 2006, after Sri Lankan jet bombs killed 67 schoolgirls and seven teachers in a Tamil village, a government minister said, “There is nothing wrong in killing future child soldiers.”

While it claims to be primarily fighting the LTTE’s terrorism, the SLA is currently waging a massive genocide against the Tamil race. Instead of stepping in to stop the brutality, the international community, including the UN, has been soft-pedalling.

Silencing the truth

Impunity institutionalizes the torture, disappearances, murders, and abysmal humanitarian violations perpetrated by police and armed forces in Sri Lanka.

Mass graves of Tamil families have been discovered in territories formally occupied by the Sri Lankan security forces. In 2006, 15 Tamil aid staff working on post-tsunami rebuilding were found dead, their bodies littered with bullets.

Such incidents are common, but so far, no official or member of the armed forces has ever been punished, with the exception of the murder and rape of the Kumaraswamy family. In this case, a 16-year old Tamil girl, Krishanthi Kumaraswamy, was gang raped by 20 SLA officers and then strangled to death. When her mother, brother, and neighbour went searching for her they did not know that they too would be tortured, strangled, and buried that night. The whereabouts of Krishanti and the other three remained a mystery and the army flatly denied any knowledge about the missing persons. After the bodies were found by sheer accident and Amnesty International launched a sustained campaign to pressure the SL government to arrest the rapists and murderers, SLA soldiers were found guilty.

When the government does agree to investigate certain cases, again under international pressure, the evidence is usually lost or becomes murky, and the case is dropped.

Sri Lanka is also fast becoming the world’s most dangerous place for journalists, further limiting dissemination of crucial information about the conflict. During the recent U.S. Hearing, Bob Dietz, from the Committee to Protect Journalists said, “Many foreign and local journalists and members of the international community firmly believe that the government is complicit in the increased attacks and disappearances [of journalists]. The attacks and murders have been premeditated, and not one of the cases has been investigated and no one has been brought to trial.”

On February 9, 2009, the BBC stopped providing radio news to SL Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) since they said that many of their news reports had been blocked. SLBC chairman, Hudson Samarasinghe, admitted to censoring BBC programming, saying that he had a duty to do so at a time of war since foreign news centres, including the BBC, create fabricated news. Freedom of speech is suppressed, dissent is silenced, critical thought is discouraged, and those who speak out pay with their life. This has allowed the SLA to continue to brutalize, marginalize, and exterminate a race of people without reprisal.

At a time when the plight of the ethnic Tamil people has reached a pivotal point, it is important the international community help mediate justice and peace in Sri Lanka before the SL government succeeds in ethnically cleansing Sri Lanka of its minority population. Presently, both sides seem to be in a fight to the death. On their way they are taking the entire country with them, robbing another generation of Tamil people of the right to live in peace.

The first sentence of the original article stated that Sri Lankans have been suffering for the past 30 years. Although the country’s civil war has been ongoing since 1983, the specific suffering referred to in the first sentence is a result of deteriorating conditions for civilians during the past three months.


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