Sri Lanka

An internal review has found the United Nations failed in its mandate to protect Tamil civilians during the final days of the war in Sri Lanka.

The report, released by the UN to the public without the executive summary, outlines that UN senior officials not only abandoned the Vanni region as the war escalated, but purposely avoided revealing casualty figures collated by its own staff, while knowing the death toll had entered the tens of thousands.

Furthermore, the UN was found to have failed to mention that the majority of killings that took place were inside government-declared “safe zones”, and chose to hide the fact that the Sri Lankan regime was responsible for these civilian deaths, instead casting blame solely on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

This recent internal review substantiates what the Tamil people had desperately tried to alert the world: the UN’s deliberate silence protected the Sri Lankan state from international criticism and allowed it to strategically conduct a genocidal campaign under the guise of a “war on terror”.

Even the death toll during the final stages of the war is unclear — some state it was up to 40,000; others over 75,000. Tamil church leaders and civil society, using census statistics, have calculated it to be 146,679. Yet, over three years later, the UN still refuses to release the official figure to summate the dead.

Tamils, displaced by war, are regularly being denied their right to resettle in their traditional lands. On 24 September, 2012, over three years since the war, Sri Lanka announced it had closed its military internment camp, once one of the largest in the world, which detained Tamil survivors of the war. However, further inquiry on where those “released” were resettled revealed that many were simply relocated rather than resettled, and that too into areas that were not sustainable for life.

Like the 100-odd families of war displaced community of Keappapulavu who found themselves dumped in a burnt clearing of jungle, which had neither water facilities nor basic infrastructure. Photo and video interviews reveal conditions worse than those within the internment camps.

While the Sri Lankan regime chimes “all IDPs resettled“, civil society activists estimate that about 26,000 people remain displaced by military occupation of their land in Sri Lanka.

The military occupation of the Tamil homeland is reportedly at a ratio of one army officer to every five civilians. Data from civil officials have revealed a concerted and structural move to turn traditional Tamil lands within the former warzone into a military enclave of the Sri Lankan forces, which is comprised overwhelmingly by Sinhalese.

Systemic Sinhalisation” of traditional Tamil lands is also taking place at an alarming rate. Buddhist temples are being built to cater for the changing demography, while religious churches and temples of Tamils people are being destroyed. Names of roads and villages are being converted from Tamil to Sinhala.

The heavy military presence also has other sinister repercussions such as the exponential increase in s-xual exploitation and abuse of Tamil women in the north-east of the island.

Rape of Tamil women by the military is a common threat, with several cases “reported to have been perpetrated in cells by guards or by officers usually at night, sometimes repeatedly and sometimes by more than one individual”.

Former female members of the LTTE are the most vulnerable with several cases of release and rearrest reported, with rape and s-xual abuse taking place both during detention as well as during “routine investigations” conducted on regular “summons” post-release. One such victim, a 38-year-old woman, was reported to have committed suicide as a result of repeated s-xual harassment and abuse.

A report by the International Crisis Group on the women’s insecurity in the north-east found many women to have been “forced into prostitution or coercive s-xual relationships” including being “trafficked within the country and abroad”. It added that “[p]regnancies among teenagers have increased” and that “[f]ear of abuse has further restricted women’s movement and impinged on education and employment opportunities”.

It further stated that the combination of such a large number of women-led households, heavy military and unsustainable conditions meant that Tamil women were forced to rely on the military for everyday needs, putting them at “greater risk of gender-based violence, but also prevent[ing] them from building their own capacity within communities”. There exist 89,000 Tamil widows and female-headed households as a consequence of the war.

Heavy military presence and the impunity that prevails mean not just Tamil women but men too are regularly arrested, tortured and disappeared. Sri Lankan prisons are notorious for deaths and disappearances in custody. In July this year, a young Tamil political prisoner reportedly assaulted by prison officials and died of injuries sustained.

In the scenario of such continuing abuses, for the Tamil victims and their families, the words of the UN internal review are meaningless without action. The conduct of the last war resulted not just in great loss of life for the Tamils, but also of dignity and freedom. For the Tamil people the pain and fear of war, excepting the bombs and bullets, continue even today.

Acts of genocide can take different forms. The Sri Lankan regime’s strategy of eradicating the Tamil people through various avenues is only being abetted by the super powers’ silence. What is required is a longer term solution that deals with the root cause — an oppressive force, the racist Sri Lankan regime, intent on erasing the identity of a people, the Tamils.

Peter Fray

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