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Thursday, February 26, 2009

> The overlooked Lankan genocide

The world should rightly be outraged by the horrors inflicted on civilians caught in Sri Lanka’s war zone, but in Malaysia do we care?

By all accounts, the end looks nigh for a bloody conflict which has gone on for a quarter of a century. The Sri Lanka army has all but caged in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) into a tiny strip of territory in the north-east of the island.

The world has been weary of this war long before the 2002 ceasefire collapsed in 2005. The fatigue has lingered despite the return of grim headlines from January last year when the Sri Lankan government launched its blitzkrieg against the Tigers.

After a year of vicious combat, government troops have seized all previously LTTE-controlled areas in the north known as Vanni, apart from a swathe of forested coastland where the Tigers face a do-or-die struggle.

At least they still have a choice: to fight to the death or swallow their cyanide capsules. As for the tens of thousands of unarmed civilians trapped between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan armed forces, they can only pray that they won’t be shred by shrapnel within the next few days.

No one knows how many civilians are caught in the area but recent estimates put it at around 70,000. About 36,000 people have managed to flee the battle zones.

Since Kilinochchi – the Tigers’ administrative hub – fell in January, some 2,000 civilians, most of them women, children and old people, have been killed and about 5,000 have suffered serious injuries. The numbers are the highest so far in what is increasingly being described as genocide against the Tamils.

Sadly, unlike the plight of Pales tinians in Gaza and the West Bank, this tragedy has largely been forgotten by most of the world, including us in Malaysia.

Can we blame others for accusing our leaders of hypocrisy and looking at injustices with blinkered eyes by only condemning atrocities committed against unarmed civilians in Gaza?

The United Nations hasn’t done much to protect the innocent from harm, except for making regular worn-out calls for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

And save for the lexis of outrage, the same could be said about the Tokyo Co-chairs of the conflict (Norway, Japan, the United States and European Union). As for Britain, Sri Lanka’s former colonial master, which should take blame for much of the problems, it should display some moral decency by doing more to stop the carnage.

The Tamil civilians, comprising Hindus, Christians and also Muslims, are being killed and maimed from shelling by the Sri Lanka army as well as from the brutality of the Tigers.

In a 44-page report issued recently after a fact-finding mission, the Human Rights Watch squarely accused the Sri Lankan army of war crimes – bombing hospitals and other supposedly safe zones and blatantly killing civilians.

It also didn’t mince words in charging the LTTE with equally appalling violations, resorting to so-called “human shielding”. They prevent civilians from leaving conflict areas; they shoot those trying to flee to government-controlled territory and do forced recruitment of teenagers and children to fight in the battlefields.

“The Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE appear to be engaged in a perverse competition to demonstrate the greatest disregard for the civilian population,” HRW said in the report titled “War on the Displaced: Sri Lankan Army and LTTE Abuses against Civilians in the Vanni.”

The government and the Tigers have strongly denied attacking civilians but with the government having barred journalists and neutral parties from entering the war zone, there is little to doubt HRW’s findings.

As the human rights organisation put it: “Instead of using its victories in the field to promote a more open and democratic nation, the Sri Lankan government has conducted a cynical campaign to prevent all independent public coverage of its military operations and the plight of civilians caught up in the war.

“While decrying LTTE abuses, it has kept out the media and human rights organisations that could report on them – and on government abuses. It has kept displaced persons who could describe the artillery bombardments locked up in camps and hospitals.”

Those who have managed to escape the fighting have found themselves virtually imprisoned in what the government calls “welfare villages”, but are in effect, razor-wired concentration camps.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has repeatedly claimed that the civilians who escaped from LTTE captured areas are being treated “most humanely”. In the same breath, he has also maintained that the government “would not exhibit the troubled Internally Displayed Persons’ (IDPs) faces to gain international sympathy.”

Similar statements from government leaders give the impression that the ethnic Tamil population caught in conflict zones should be presumed to be siding with the Tigers and treated as combatants rather than people caught in the mayhem.

But for the record, one genocide indictment notice has already been filed in the US against Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Lt-Col (rtd) Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s younger brother, and the country’s army commander Lt-Gen Sarath Fonseka.

Bruce Fein, a lawyer for a group called Tamils Against Genocide and a former associate deputy attorney-general under President Ronald Reagan, has filed a 12-count war crimes indictment against them, charging violations of the Genocide Accountability Act of 2007.

The charges were filed in the United States because Gotabaya Rakapaksa is reportedly a US dual citizen while Sarath Fonseka is said to be US green card holder.

Fein claims that the degree of mayhem inflicted on the Tamil civilian population because of ethnicity or religion ranked with the atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo which led to genocide indictments against Serbs by the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

He says a virtual re-enactment of the Bosnian Srebrenica genocide of more than 7,000 Muslims has unfolded, with the army employing indiscriminate bombing and shelling to herd 350,000 civilians into a government-prescribed “safety-zone”.

Let’s hope that such a comparison will at least help to invoke some empathy among Malaysians, especially from our usually vocal leaders, towards the plight of Sri Lankan Tamil civilians - The Star.

Associate Editor M. Veera Pandiyan likes this quote from Martin Luther King Jr: " We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."

Excellent Mr. Veera Pandiyan for your courage and conviction. At last an editorial by any newspaper in the country about the Sri Lankan war against the Tamils. For your information, Malaysia has a Tamil population of about 7%, and not a single politician has cared to voice an opinion of the atrocities in the war land. Talk about MIC, the champion of Tamils and Indians, who uttered not a word  besides two demonstrations by its youth wing. This is the type and calibre of Malaysian politicians. As rightly pointed out, a significant number of those killed are muslims. Talk of Palestinian and Sebrenican brethren, when nearer home, the genocide is even more bizarre - My Journal.