HUMAN RIGHTS: No Multi-Ethnic Balance in Sri Lanka, Says Expert

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Mar 23 13:31:10 UTC 2006

   Inter Press Service News Agency Thursday, March 23, 2006   13:28 GMT

No Multi-Ethnic Balance in Sri Lanka, Says Expert

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Mar 22 (IPS) - "In today's world, the other' than me and my
community is an alien and an object to be dealt with and annihilated
somehow," said Fernando, president of the International Movement Against
All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), which was founded in Japan
in 1988. In addition, "The global economic and politic order creates and
generates vulnerabilities and marginalisation of people in an unbelievable
proportionToday human lives are threatened by poverty and the thirst for
fuel' of (U.S. President George W.) Bush," Fernando said in an interview
with IPS.

IPS: What role does racism play in the world today?

NIMALKA FERNANDO: Racism is the political ideology that moves wars and the
grabbing of resources from our countries that exposes our communities to
experiences of racism and exclusion.

IPS: How do non-governmental organisations like IMADR carry out their
activities today?

NF: Our work has become challenging and difficult in the post-9/11 era. In
the wake of (the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and
Washington) all dissident activities are viewed as the work of terrorists
and insurgents. Democratic rights activities are smashed up under the
slogan of crushing terrorists.

IPS: Is there racism in your country?

NF: Yes, racism is based on ethnic origin in Sri Lanka. The Sinhala
extremist forces inside the government have embarked on a campaign to
spread hate speech against the Tamil leadership fighting for self-rule and
democratic rights (in northern Sri Lanka) for several decades. (The
Sinhalese are the largest ethnic group in the country).

IPS: How would you describe the overall situation?

NF: Sri Lanka is a classic example of a failed nation state. A country
that could not handle its post-colonial politics to secure a multi-racial,
multi-cultural and multi-religious political ethos and power-sharing.

IPS: And the consequences?

NF: We have been engaged in ethnic conflict resulting in a war dragging on
for more than two decades. Thousands of lives have been lost (including
the) disappeared. The largest losses have been faced by the Tamil
community. Millions are displaced both within and outside the country. The
war thrives on to annihilate a community.

IPS: Is there no solution in sight?

NF: Despite the (Feb. 22, 2002) signing of the memorandum of understanding
for a ceasefire, the war looms larger every day. In the wake of the new
president (Mahinda Rajapaksa) coming into power (on Nov. 19), violence
erupted again in the north and east, killing hundreds of people. Most of
those killed were unarmed civilians.

IPS: How are the parties to the conflict behaving?

NF: Political assassinations have not been investigated by the government.
The paramilitary units operating in the east supported by the government
are engaged in violence and killing. The LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam) too have denied reports of violations by them.

IPS: Sri Lanka, one of the Asian countries hit by the Dec. 26, 2004
tsunami, lost between 17,500 and 41,000 lives, according to estimates. How
are things looking now?

NF: The situation after the tsunami in a post-conflict Sri Lanka has
further exacerbated the discrimination against the Muslim and Tamil
communities. The relief and rehabilitation activities in the south (where
the Buddhist majority and Christian minority are concentrated) received
much attention, while the north and east received only a trickle.

The president's constituency has 500 houses constructed more than was
required after the tsunami, while in the north and east hundreds are still
living in temporary shelters.

IPS: Have these developments received the attention they deserve?

NF: I must say with a sense of responsibility that even the U.N. system
has not documented the stories of the deprived in Sri Lanka. We always
hear rosy pictures of the post-tsunami rebuilding from the U.N. and when
(former U.S. president) Bill Clinton visited us to review the progress (as
a U.N. special envoy).

Action Aid has produced a document discussing the human rights issues of
the tsunami-affected and I would refer you to their website.

IPS: What is the situation of the minority communities?

NF: The Muslim community living in Sri Lanka faces a dual discrimination.
On one hand the government's failure to address their issues, and on the
other hand the conflicts and tensions they face with the Tamil community
in the east.

Many Muslim people died last year in the east and no proper investigations
have been carried out. The Muslim people who were forced by the LTTE to
leave the north ten years ago are still living as IDPs (internally
displaced persons) and their future is unknown. As IDPs they face ill
treatment and discrimination from all communities wherever they reside

IPS: And in the case of the Tamils?

NF: Tamil people living in Sri Lanka continue to face discrimination with
regard to the use of their language. Even though according to the official
language policy Tamil persons are entitled to use their language, the
government has failed to implement the provisions.

Tamil persons arrested are compelled to sign confessions written in
Sinhala or forced to sign all kinds of documents in a language they are
not familiar with. There are no officers proficient in Tamil language in
police stations in the government-controlled areas in the north and east.
Furthermore, the post offices are not equipped to send telegrams and
messages in Tamil.

IPS: What repercussions does that climate have on women?

NF: Women face double or multiple discrimination. Tamil women continued to
face violence throughout the war, though since the signing of the
ceasefire, the situation eased.

But since last December, with the heightening of activities by the armed
forces in the north and east, reports of violence and harassment against
women have been reaching us. The government of Sri Lanka has still failed
to report on or investigate the rape and death of a young girl, Dharshini,
from Jaffna. Her mutilated body was found inside a well located near a
naval base in the north.

IPS: What future do these communities face?

NF: Minorities and nationalities all over the world are struggling for
their just share in the world of work, society and governance. We need to
move beyond the concepts of concessions and welfarism to equal treatment
based on human rights.

Mr. Bush's thirst for oil must be overturned by a thirst for justice and
fair play in the global economy by the American people. Racism must be
condemned at all levels and fought against at all levels.

IPS: Could you comment on the peace negotiations that began in Geneva in
February and will continue in April?

NF: We welcome the talks between the LTTE and the government in Geneva
because Sri Lanka cannot go back to war. People have suffered as a result
of the war and the tsunami. So we take this opportunity as civil society
activists to keep the dialogue open and to look into the problem area and
also to finally come up with a solution to the troubled ethnic question.

We are not directly engaged in the official discussions, but as a civil
society group of peace advocates, we are working diligently back home,
speaking to the government, speaking to the LTTE, trying to create
confidence, which is very necessary in peace-building - confidence among
the Tamil community that discussions are important.

And we are also trying to develop a political culture, especially in the
minds of the Singhalese, that we need to resolve this issue through a
political settlement and negotiations, and not by war.

So on one hand our task as civil society activists back home is to keep
our dialogue open with the Tamil community, and on the other hand really,
really work with Singhalese society to accept that finally there could be
peace in Sri Lanka one day. (FIN/2006)

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