[lg policy] Sri Lanka under fire for lack of Tamil reconciliation

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Sep 22 14:23:24 UTC 2009

Sri Lanka under fire for lack of Tamil reconciliation

After defeating the Tamil Tigers this spring, the country has delayed
the return of more than 250,000 displaced Tamils, citing concerns
about mines and potential terrorists.
By Mian Ridge | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

New Delhi
When Sri Lanka's government finally defeated the secessionist
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May, even its harshest
critics rejoiced. Here, at last, was a chance to bring peace to an
island that had suffered 26 years of war, in which as many as 100,000
people were killed. The end of the war gave Sri Lanka an opportunity
to heal the bitter ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and
Tamil minority that had fueled it. But even as the government says it
seeks reconciliation, it is drawing fire for actions that appear
counterproductive to achieving that goal. Chief among the complaints
is delaying the return of more than 250,000 displaced Tamils. They
have been refused permission to return to their homes or, in many
cases, unite with spouses and children living in other camps. In
addition, aid agencies have been given limited access to the camps and
most reporters have been barred.

Last Friday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced he would ensure the
return of all refugees by January, after demining operations were
completed in the areas around their homes. The government has also
said it wants to ensure that it identifies any Tamil militants among
the displaced before allowing them to go home. Mr. Rajapaksa's
assurances came during a meeting with UN envoy Lynn Pascoe, who was
visiting the country to follow up on a number of issues including the
government's expulsion of James Elder, a spokesman for UNICEF – the
United Nations' child-welfare agency. The government said Mr. Elder,
who had said recently that the island's monsoon rains would cause
chaos in the camps, was "spreading propaganda." During the final, most
bloody stage of the war earlier this year, Elder had described the
"unimaginable suffering" of children caught in the fighting, including
babies he had seen with shrapnel wounds.

In August, heavy showers had caused latrines in the camp to overflow,
heightening concerns about the spread of contagious diseases. Jehan
Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka,
a nonpartisan advocacy group, says that at least three children died
in one camp in August, "which shows the sense of what [Elder] was
saying." Treating every Tamil as a terrorist? After Sri Lanka gave
Elder a Sept. 21 deadline for leaving the country, the office of UN
Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that the organization was "working
impartially to assist the people of Sri Lanka." This included "making
public statements when necessary in an effort to save lives and
prevent grave humanitarian problems."

Elder reportedly left the country Sept. 18, marking the first
expulsion of a UN worker from Sri Lanka. Many see it as yet another
example of the government's intolerance of any criticism of its
tactics either during or after the war. But more worryingly, the
government's apparent conflation of the defense of the rights of
ordinary Tamils with LTTE propaganda suggests an unwillingness to
tackle Tamil grievances – without which peace will be difficult, if
not impossible. "It seems absolutely racist, to treat every Tamil as
if he was a potential member of the Tamil Tigers," says Suhas Chakma
of the Delhi-based Asian Center for Human Rights.

Human rights abuses

In late August, President Rajapaksa told Forbes magazine, "I want to
be the leader who brings permanent peace and development to this
country," as well as reconciliation with Tamil communities, he added.
But even as the government promises to bring reconciliation, in recent
weeks a series of alarming reports have come out of Sri Lanka. Tamils,
who constitute around 12 percent of the population of 20 million, have
endured decades of institutionalized discrimination at the hands of
the Sinhalese. Only days before Mr. Rajapaksa's comment, British
television aired a video that apparently showed soldiers killing
unarmed, naked, and blindfolded Tamils – which would constitute a
serious violation of international law – during the last and bloodiest
phase of the war.

The footage was obtained by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, an
organization made up of several dozen expatriate Sri Lankan
journalists, which said the film was taken by a Sri Lankan soldier in
January using his mobile phone.  The government has said the footage
is "doctored." But Philip Alston, the UN's special rapporteur on
extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has said he hoped the
UN would open an investigation into the video.

Political settlement

Less dramatic but equally important, the government is also failing to
develop a long-promised political settlement for the Tamils. That
settlement – which is included in the country's Constitution and
widely accepted as a vital condition for peace – involves giving
Tamils some measure of regional devolution.  But Rajapaksa said
recently he would delay that solution until after his reelection,
which may happen next year. It is not surprising that Rajapaksa feels
no sense of urgency. An ardent Sinhalese nationalist, his popularity
ratings have soared since the Tigers were vanquished. The government
has said the economy is expected to grow by 5 percent this year –
double what was previously expected, after the International Monetary
Fund agreed to a $2.6 billion loan. And tourist numbers are beginning
to pick up.

Nor is Rajapaksa is likely to be swayed by international pressure. Sri
Lanka is expected to lose a valuable trade concession granted by the
European Union after it failed to meet its terms, which include
stipulations on human rights. But Sri Lanka has forged friendships
with other parts of the world, including China, Libya, and Pakistan,
thus reducing its economic dependence on Europe and the US. In the
end, says Mr. Perera, the only thing likely to change the government's
behavior is democracy. As more elections are held in Tamil-heavy areas
once ruled by the LTTE, the government, "will need to build up Tamil
votes," he says. "At the moment the government does not see the price
it will have to pay [for its treatment of the Tamils] but it will have
to pay – and that, we hope, will make it change."

from the September 21, 2009 edition -
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