Lanka's "dirty war" against its Tamil minority has surpassed the level of abuses
General Augusto Pinochet's Chile, and is now increasingly being compared
murderous rule in Cambodia. In the last 15 months alone, more people have
killed by Sri Lanka's
Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (DSRSL) Government than were
killed by Pinochet in the 17 years of Chile's "dirty war". This marks its
renewed offensive against the
homeland of the Tamil people and their
government, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Given the past history of
institutionalised oppression of the Tamil minority, the current disdain of
the Sri Lankan Government for Tamil civilians, and the calls by
fundamentalist Buddhists and Marxist-Leninists for the "saving of the
motherland" by the destruction of its enemies (i.e., Tamil federalists), the
prospect of another genocide in Asia is not altogether fanciful.
Human rights abuses
Back in 1999, the Asian Human Rights Commission declared that the "Sri Lankan
record of gross abuse of human rights is much worse than that of Chile during
the rule of Pinochet".
According to Chile's National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, 2,279
were killed or disappeared in that country's 17-year-long "dirty war". According
to the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, nearly 4,000 have perished
recently in the "ethnic" conflict in Sri Lanka, and the number rises daily.
Indiscriminate shelling and
bombing by DSRSL forces are taking a toll on defenceless civilians, scores
of thousands of whom have been forced into refugee camps in the north, east and
west of their traditional lands, to which access of food and medical care is
For example, on March 19, the Rt. Rev. Kingsley Swampillai, Bishop of the
Catholic diocese of Trincomalee-Batticalao, pleaded for international help for
"around 153,000" displaced people who are "suffering without sufficient food,
drinking-water and other basic facilities" in his region.
The entire half-million population of Jaffna is suffering from food and medical
shortages and is reported to be in constant fear from indiscriminate killing by
the 50,000 or more occupying soldiers of the government, who have claimed
swathes of land as "security zones" while patrolling from bunkers that control
all the streets of the city.
According to human-rights organisations, a disturbing number of Tamils suffer a
similar fate to los desaparecidos ("the disappeared") under South American
police-states. Every day, in government-controlled so-called security zones,
some two to five Tamils
Some are simply unaccounted for and never seen again. Others are forced into
notorious "white vans" by the Criminal Investigation Department of Sri Lanka and
are held without notification, visitation or representation in the manner of the
National Intelligence Directorate of Chile's Pinochet. Their bodies reveal
Back in 1999, human rights groups believed there had already been 30,000
desaparecidos in Sri Lanka, comparable to the final tally in Argentina under its
despised military dictatorship.
Some victims are found dead, with hands bound. Others are shot in front of
witnesses - some of them in church or on the way home from church or temple.
Some deaths have a political basis; but most appear indiscriminate. Many bodies
are found within the government-controlled "security zones". If authorities ever
offer an explanation, they invariably allege the victim was a terrorist.
Take, for example, the 38-year-old pastor, Rev. Nallathamby Gnanaseelan, of the
Evangelical Tamil Mission Church in Jaffna, who was riding his motorcycle on the
way to a prayer vigil on January 13. As he passed uniformed soldiers in a Jaffna
street, they shot him in the leg and abdomen.
He fell from his motorcycle and was executed with a shot to his head. The
soldiers took his ID card and Bible, planted a grenade on him and claimed he was
a terrorist; but when the man's identity and good standing became known, the
story was modified to claim he did not stop when requested.
Rev. Gnanaseelan was a member of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance
which has declared that "his death is not an isolated incident, but one of many,
which take place in the north east of Sri Lanka, daily".
After the abduction, on March 2, of four Christians - Victor Yogarajan, a
51-year-old pastor from Vanuiya, his two sons, and a church member - the
general-secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, Denton Lotz, appealed directly
to the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapakse, for an immediate halt to the
abuse and persecution of civilians, adding, "It is perfectly clear that this is
not an isolated incident but part of a trend of disappearances and abductions of
It is not just isolated individuals who are being killed. On 20 occasions since
Mahinda Rajapakse became Sri Lankan President in November 2005, groups of
Tamils, including women and children, appear to have been deliberately targeted
for killing and cannot be regarded as accidental victims of indiscriminate
shellfire or bombing.
These victims include 61 girls killed in their school when 16 bombs were dropped
from Israeli-supplied Kfir bombers on August 14, 2006 - despite (according to
Tamil authorities) the identity and coordinates of the school being known by the
Sri Lankan Government.
Other victims include 17 aid
workers for Action Against Hunger who were executed earlier the same month,
and a family of four murdered in June 2006 (after which gruesome photographs of
the hanged children were posted on the web).
War on the media
Like any South American dictatorship, the Sri Lankan Government has also
declared war on media criticism.
In recent months, nine media workers have been murdered, according to a Sri
Lankan human rights organisation, the Free Media Movement. The victims include
not only Tamils but also Sinhalese who have criticised the Government.
Other journalists have been imprisoned. For example, Amnesty International (AI)
has protested against the prolonged detention of the director and a woman
journalist of the Sinhala newspaper, Mawbima (Motherland). Both individuals have
reportedly been held "incommunicado and … at risk of torture or ill treatment".
The director is believed to have been detained for writing on human rights and,
under Sri Lanka's Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), need not be brought to
court for three months. The woman journalist (released on March 22) was
imprisoned for nearly four months after she had written about "disappearances".
AI declares that the PTA is "incompatible with basic international human rights,
laws and practices". It has been "used to intimidate and harass political
opponents" and has "fostered a culture of impunity". AI has deplored "acts of
violence and intimidation against journalists and human rights activists taking
place in areas controlled by the Sri Lankan Government".
The International Federation of Journalists concurs, stressing its "concerns
that the Terrorism Prevention Laws are being used to oppress the media and
silence vital independent voices".
In response to criticism, the Sri Lankan Government's Media Centre for National
Security warned, on March 1, that security forces "will continue to take into
custody anyone, without regard to their profession or status and without regard
to whether they are Sinhala, Tamil or Moslem, if it is deemed they are a threat
to the state", adding that people who protest against the arrests would be seen
as obstacles to maintenance of security.
The International Committee to Protect Journalists has not only condemned
"repeated incidents of violent attack", but has deplored other violations
against free media, including destruction of printing supplies and obstruction
to shipments of newsprint to Jaffna.
"Save our motherland"
The Sri Lankan Government has stepped up its intimidation of the media in recent
months by labelling its critics as "media tigers". Posters have appeared in the
streets with the ominous warning: "Peace Tigers, Media Tigers, Left Tigers -
Recognise Them, Destroy Them, Save our Motherland!"
According to the Bremen-based International Human Rights Association, the
posters come from the National Movement Against Terrorism, led by the
fundamentalist Buddhist Party which has nine members in parliament, one of them
recently appointed to the Cabinet.
It is the "save our motherland" concept that has distinct echoes of the
murderous ideology of Cambodia's notorious Pol Pot. For fundamentalist
Buddhists, the Sri Lankan motherland was originally entrusted to them by Buddha
himself, and should therefore be saved from "demonic" foreigners by their
For the equally fundamentalist Marxist-Leninist People's Liberation Front (JVP)
- which has 39 seats and four ministries in the ruling coalition - the
motherland must be protected from nationalists so that communism may be
Together, in the not-too-distant past, fundamentalist Buddhists and communists
have backed their words with revolutionary terror, resulting in the deaths of
some 40,000 Sri Lankans. Today, they are both calling for renewed war against
Tamil obstruction to the achievement of their respective utopias. Is the
prospect of all-out genocide fanciful?
Tamils appear convinced of the possibility and, if the Sri Lankan Government
continues to escalate the war, Tamils will be fighting for their very lives.
Thus far, the LTTE, though branded as terrorist, has been laudably restrained
and not extended the war into predominantly Sinhalese territory. It is not
surprising, however, that on March 26 the Tigers launched an audacious attack on
the air-force base near Colombo from which modern jets have been bombing Tamil
people with impunity.
Further Tamil reprisals may be expected if the Government continues its
offensive, and both sides of this wretched country will suffer. Some kind of
federal accommodation for the Tamils is the only sane option.
Links with China
Meanwhile, in February, President Rajapakse
China to mark the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka's establishment of bilateral
diplomatic ties with that country.
Noting that Sri Lanka's trade with China in 2006 had increased by a dramatic
16.9 per cent to US$1.4 billion, President Rajapakse successfully negotiated
with Beijing agreements covering construction of a new port in southern Sri
Lanka, development of extraction of resources, transportation, housing,
telecommunications, education and a free economic zone for Chinese businesses,
and some remittance of Sri Lanka's national debt to China.
The two countries affirmed their joint opposition to "the three evils of
terrorism, separatism and extremism", with President Rajapakse committing his
government to the "one-China" policy, opposing "Taiwan independence of whatever
form", and declaring he had learned from China's experience.
According to the official Chinese media, he also vowed to enhance bilateral
cooperation in "anti-terrorism" and was assured, in turn, of China's "support
for the maintenance of conditions of peace, stability and security against all
destabilising threats". Whether cooperation against "terrorism" will include
military supplies for the war against the Tamils remains to be seen, but is
certainly a disturbing possibility.
Perhaps to emphasise his friendship with China, while his security forces were
killing opposition journalists, Mahinda Rajapakse on February 10 granted
television and radio licences to Sri Lanka's pro-Chinese communist People's
Liberation Front (JVP), in recognition of its support for his government.
The growing influence of China in Sri Lanka accords with what is happening in
many countries around Australia. From the
deep-water ports of Sri Lanka, communist Chinese naval power could one day
straddle the Indian Ocean.