BASICS Statement on Sri Lanka’s Genocidal Onslaught Against Tamils

by Niraj Joshi – 25 May 2009

BASICS Free Community Newsletter condemns the Sri Lankan government’s ongoing genocidal war against Tamil civilians in their effort to occupy Tamil region in the north-eastern coast of the island. This historic Tamil territory had been under the control of the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) since 2002. The bloody climax of the war came last week with the decimation of the LTTE as a conventional military force, and claims of the death of all its top brass after months of indiscriminate land, air and sea assault by the Sri Lankan army. The “glorious total victory” callously claimed by Sri Lankan war criminal President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the latest phase of the war came with the slaughter of some 10,000 Tamil men, women and children and the maiming of several thousands more. A further 300,000 Tamil civilians from the northeast that Rajapaksa declared “liberated” by the Sri Lankan army have been herded into dozens of detention camps (illegal under international law) and commanded over by the Sri Lankan forces responsible for displacing them. The Sri Lankan government continues to restrict access to the camps to independent monitors, journalists, humanitarian workers, United Nations agencies or even Tamil parliamentarians. Conditions in the camps have been called an “unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe” by the International Committee of the Red Cross with severe shortages of food, clean water, shelter and medical aid. Shocking reports of atrocities are filtering out about mass rapes, disappearances and subsequent killing of young Tamil boys and men, forced separation of families, forced sterilizations and abortions and the starvation of refugees. The Sri Lankan government admits that Tamil men, women and children are being “processed” for links to the LTTE and will be detained in the prison camps for at least two years.

BASICS shares the deep concern of the Tamil community for the approximately 25,000 civilians that are believed still trapped in the “safe areas” of the war zones which were bombarded day and night by the Sri Lankan forces. The Sri Lankan government continues to ban the media and aid groups from the north-eastern region, and there have been reports that the government is “bulldozing and destroying evidence of massacres” prior to permitting the entry of international observers. Disturbing reports of other crimes by the Sri Lankan army include unlawful shooting of surrendering LTTE cadres and the detention of three government doctors who had recently made eye witness testimonies about Sri Lankan army violations in the “safe” zone. The fate of the doctors remains unknown, but it is believed that they are being held at the Terrorist Investigation (torture) Division in the capital Colombo on accusations of disseminating false information about the government. BASICS joins human rights groups worldwide in their appeal for the safe return of these health care professionals.

In addition, there are numerous reports that Tamils living in Sinhalese areas are being forced to join in the Sri Lankan “victory” or else face intimidation and harassment from police and Sinhalese thugs. The Sri Lankan army and police are also interrogating and detaining a number of Tamil civilians in Colombo and other Sinhalese centres, and that they are especially targeting Tamil youth. There is a real fear among Tamils in Sri Lanka and the diaspora of another pogrom against Tamils in Colombo and another mass exodus.

It was imperial Britain that post-colonially installed Sinhalese political elite to power with the concurrent centralisation of that power in the south and with no safeguards for the island’s other minorities. These Sinhalese elite have only ever acted on their personal advancement and brought the country to economic crisis by maintaining disastrous economic and political policies that have included brutal violence against minorities and extreme militarisation.

Since Sri Lankan independence in 1948, there has been ongoing anti-Tamil discrimination in employment, education and language; with developmental neglect of Tamil areas, the complete disenfranchisement of Tamil plantation workers and attempts to change the demographics of the Tamil majority in the north in favour of Sinhalese. This history and the nonviolent response of Tamils to the abuses have been written about (and should be reviewed) in previous BASICS newsletters. The armed struggle of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka came about only after the failed peaceful and democratic resistance of Tamils was met with brutal and unrestrained state violence. The Sri Lankan government has invested heavily in military expansion in order to continue its repression of Tamils, while neglecting the country’s grinding poverty; a distorted investment that continues to come at the expense of all its citizens and which has increased its unmanageable foreign debt to the benefit of regional and international powers.

The decades long war has claimed 100,000 Tamil lives and displaced over 500,000 Tamil civilians. Tamils endured its most brutal expression in the most recent phase begun last year when Sri Lanka unilaterally abandoned the internationally mediated ceasefire agreement being held with the LTTE since 2002. The government’s claim of fighting “terrorism” garnered permissibility for the withdrawal post-911, despite the grave breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law. Rajapaksa’s claim about fighting a “war on terrorism” was really about fighting the Tamil people and forcing their acceptance of their second class citizenship in a Sinhalese, Buddhist Sri Lankan nation. The Rajapaksa regime has committed genocide toward that aim, with the Sri Lankan army using Kfir jets, multi-barrel rocket launchers, helicopter gunships, cluster bombs, white phosphorus bombs and other banned chemical weapons. Even when the Tamil Tigers agreed to lay down their weapons, allow for the evacuation of civilians and give up armed conflict, Sri Lanka’s response was to continue their course of mass murder and scorched earth tactics. Despite feigning concern for “trapped” civilians, the Sri Lankan army never made an effort to guarantee the safe and free movement of people or open and maintain a safe corridor from the war zone – leaving civilians with a choice between being chemically bombed or interned in an army prison camp.

The corrupt and racist Rajapaksa regime has one of the worst human rights records in the world. They have been able to get away with their crimes because of a corrupt and partisan police (95% Sinhalese) and army (99% Sinhalese), and a corrupt and partisan judiciary that has allowed the rule of law to be replaced by emergency regulations. Dissenters in parliament, the media or civil society have been threatened, imprisoned or self silenced.

BASICS supports those in the Tamil community who charge that the Sri Lankan government had always planned to conduct an unseen genocide because they began their expulsion of human rights workers and agencies in the Tamil north at the same time that they withdrew from the ceasefire agreement in January 2008 and then began their military offensive. The campaign of persecution of local journalists was intensified at the same time, as well as the expulsion of foreign reporters. The recent phase of the war was preceded with the blockade of essential items like food, medicine and fuel into the Tamil stronghold followed by repeated bombing and shelling of civilian targets. Such tactics are reminiscent of the Israeli government’s actions in its own genocidal war against the Palestinians of Gaza last December. In much the same way as Israel, the Sri Lankan government has used its 175,000 strong army as a domestic occupying force with all the abusive characteristics of an occupier – the harassment, intimidation and unrepentant murder. In addition, there is the ongoing concern for the well being of Tamils living in the rest of Sri Lanka because in January 2008 the Sri Lankan government had started registering all Tamils in Colombo on grounds that they could be a security threat.

Regional and international hegemonic powers have no worry for the lives of Tamils or for a just resolution to Tamil autonomy. The genocidal war in Sri Lanka would not be possible without substantial financial aid or deadly weapons provided through the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, USA, France and the United Kingdom. Canada has also marketed weapons to Sri Lanka, and last year Canadian tax payer dollars subsidized a military radar system sold to Sri Lanka. Despite the crushing poverty facing Sri Lanka’s working and rural poor, the government spends thirty percent of its overall revenue on weapons of war and is the most militarized country in South Asia (though it has no external threats). Recently these armaments have also included illegal chemical weapons and cluster munitions. The weaponry has been used to bomb civilian markets, homes, cultural centres, schools, hospitals, fishing boats, fishing villages, refugee camps and to commit mass killings. There have been over 20 massacres of Tamils carried out by the Sri Lankan army in the past ten months and more than 53 Tamil schools have been bombed since the ceasefire.

The Canadian government has refused to condemn these atrocities. The plea of thousands of Tamil Canadians for a ceasefire and protection of civilians has been met with silence and indifference. The callous Conservative government has not even issued a statement of condolence to the Tamil community for their loss of family and friends – the very least that would have been done had there been that number of deaths from any other disaster. Government responses have instead focused entirely on the tactics and actions of the LTTE, with no reference to Sri Lankan state sponsored terror or unacceptable loss of civilian life. Conservative Members of Parliament have even called Tamil Canadians protesting in the GTA and Ottawa “terrorists” and “rebels”. Shamefully, the Canadian Minister of International Cooperation, Bev Oda used a recent visit to Sri Lanka to offer a further three million dollars in Canadian “aid” to the Sri Lanka government to maintain the prisoner concentration camps interning Tamil civilians not killed by the genocidal bombing and shelling.

BASICS unequivocally denounces the role that Canada played in advancing the Sri Lankan war against the Tamil people. In 2006, Canada was the first country to respond to the Sri Lankan government campaign to designate the LTTE as a terrorist organization. Other countries subsequently followed Canada’s lead. The terror listing undermined the negotiations that were underway between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE, and permitted the Rajapaksa regime to brazenly withdraw from peace talks and begin the latest brutal offensive in the Tamil areas. The terror listing clearly aligned the Canadian government on the side of the terrorist Sri Lankan government in its war against the Tamil Tigers and Tamil civilians. Therefore, BASICS Free Community Newsletter further condemns any continued silence or support given to the Sri Lankan government by the Canadian state.

The catastrophic war by Sri Lanka has brutally suppressed the Tamil people’s struggle for the universal right of self determination. However, BASICS recognizes that the defeat or even elimination of the LTTE simply means the beginning of a new phase in the Tamil resistance towards peace, justice and independence. At this stage in that struggle BASICS supports:

  • The call for the protection of the 300,000 internally displaced Tamil people who now languish behind the barbed wire fences of deplorable prison camps. The camps cannot remain under Sri Lankan army administration. Humanitarian workers, independent monitors and journalists must be allowed absolute access to all camps and detainees; and the health, security and life needs of the refugees must be immediately and sufficiently met. These refugees must be allowed freedom of movement with the right to return to their homes in the northeast as soon as possible. There is a concern that the Sri Lankan government will repeat a pattern of installing Sinhalese settlements in the newly ethnically cleansed Tamil areas, and there have been reports of government plans to double the size of the Sri Lankan army in order to permanently occupy the north.

  • The call for the protection of the human rights of Tamils in the capital Colombo and other Sinhalese areas. These areas are being heavily militarized with reports of arbitrary arrests and disappearances of Tamil citizens, and of soldiers patrolling the streets and setting up checkpoints to “process” Tamil civilians.

  • The call for a full and independent investigation, accounting and prosecution for war crimes committed by the Rajapaksa regime. Independent investigators must be given immediate access to the war zone.

  • The call for recognition of the Tamil people’s legitimate struggle for economic, social and political independence in their recognizable homeland in the northeast, and for independently monitored negotiations toward that end.