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Sri Lankan Civilians Caught Between Worsening Military-Tamil Rebel Clashes

StoryFebruary 27, 2009
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The United Nations estimates that 215,000 Tamil civilians are trapped in northern Sri Lanka as intense fighting continues between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. We speak to Nirmala Rajasingham, founder of Sri Lanka Democracy Forum. In the early 1980s she was an active supporter of the LTTE and was the first woman to be arrested under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act. She later left the LTTE over their serious human rights abuses. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to Sri Lanka, the war-ravaged island nation off the southern coast of India. A Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee held a hearing Tuesday on the escalating violence in that country.

The United Nations estimates that 215,000 Tamil civilians are trapped in the northern part of the country as intense fighting continues between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE. Most of the rebel strongholds have fallen to the military, but the Sri Lankan government has rejected international calls for a ceasefire.

Human Rights Watch estimates that civilian casualties have risen to 7,000, including at least 2,000 deaths, largely as a result of the Sri Lankan army’s bombing of government-declared safe zones. They report at least two dozen attacks on hospitals over the past two months.

In her testimony this week, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, Anna Neistat, described an eyewitness account of an attack on a “safe zone” last month.

    ANNA NEISTAT: Nothing had been touched when we got out of the bunker in the morning. There were lots of people in bits and pieces lying around. My gut reaction was that I don’t want to see this, but I felt that I had to. One woman was lying on her back with two infants, one of whom survived, as I later heard. One baby was hanging from a nearby tree. Another baby, decapitated, was hanging on the barbed wire surrounding the playground. Next to the woman lay her husband, face down. Next to the family lay other people. One was severed in half. I think the other one was, as well, but I couldn’t look anymore.

JUAN GONZALEZ: International and domestic journalists have been banned from entering and reporting from the combat zone in the north. Meanwhile, a Tamil editor of a newspaper was arrested Thursday over his alleged support for an LTTE attack on the capital last week.

Bob Dietz from the Committee to Protect Journalists testified Tuesday about how Sri Lankan journalists who report critically on the conflict are also among its casualties.

    ROBERT DIETZ: According to CPJ’s records, during President Rajapaksa’s time in high office as prime minister and as president, eight journalists have died in what CPJ considers to be premeditated murder. No one of these has been investigated — no one of these trials has been investigated — no one of these cases has been investigated, and no one has been brought to trial. The number of dead journalists I point out does not include journalists who were killed in crossfire or accidents or other events in which journalists frequently lose their lives. These were acts of premeditated murder, people who were intentionally killed.

AMY GOODMAN: Former US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Jeffrey Lunstead, who was in Sri Lanka from 2003 to 2006, also testified about Sri Lanka’s “culture of impunity” at the Senate subcommittee hearing Tuesday.

    JEFFREY LUNSTEAD: The recent murder of prominent newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge was but the latest in a series of incidents. Tamils and Sinhalese suffer alike from these attacks on basic freedoms. Many Tamils have been abducted and have simply disappeared. It is sad to say, but it is almost a certainty that these attacks have been carried out by elements of the government. Impunity seems total. No one has been prosecuted for any of these incidents. No member of the security forces has been prosecuted for any abuses.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by a Sri Lankan Tamil activist who lives in exile in London. She’s the founder of Sri Lanka Democracy Forum. In the early ’80s, she was an active supporter of the LTTE, or the Tamil Tigers, and was the first woman to be arrested under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act. She later left the Tamil Tigers over their serious human rights abuses. In 1989, her sister was murdered by the Tamil Tigers. Nirmala Rajasingham joins us now here in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Explain the situation right now and what you think needs to happen.

NIRMALA RAJASINGHAM: Well, there is a very serious humanitarian catastrophe right now in the north of Sri Lanka. And basically both parties, the government and the LTTE, are guilty of war crimes. And there are huge casualties, deaths, and tremendous suffering. And we are now concentrating, you know, on the casualties and the conflagration right now, but this civilian population has been dragged around by the LTTE as they retreated, and they have been suffering tremendous hardship for some — a few months now. And the situation is very dire. And SLDF is calling upon greater scrutiny on the situation by the UN and all its agencies, such as the UNHCR, the Human Rights Council and even the Security Council, to find a way out for these civilians at this point.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, some human rights groups in India and other places have even labeled what’s going on there as genocide. Would you agree with that level of a critique of the situation?

NIRMALA RAJASINGHAM: I think the terminology “genocide” is unhelpful, for the reason that what they are alleging is that the Sri Lanka government is committing genocide against the Tamil people. As you are aware, for the last three years, Sri Lanka — the number of abductions, extrajudicial killings and disappearances amongst the Tamil population by government forces and, you know, armed groups related — linked to them has been very high. Sri Lanka has one of the highest records of abductions and disappearances. So the government is guilty of horrible human rights abuses against the Tamil minority, and there is no need for us to resort to very — such unhelpful terminology, when the government’s record is all there for us to see and hear also.

The civilians are affected by two — both warring parties. It is not just the government that is killing the civilians. The aerial bombing and shelling, of course, is resulting in very large number of casualties. But the LTTE — the trapped civilians are also not being allowed to leave the LTTE-controlled areas. We have credible reports, well-documented published reports that the LTTE is shooting at civilians trying to flee. They are carrying on forcible conscription of children in the war zones. And the government, of course, shows callous disregard and carries on its indiscriminate violence, which is, you know, so —-

AMY GOODMAN: Nirmala, for people who are not familiar with the situation at all, if you can give us a brief history, but as illustrated by your own situation, your own family, your own sister. You were a Tamil Tiger. What does that even mean?

NIRMALA RAJASINGHAM: Well, you know, since independence -—

AMY GOODMAN: Which was in…?

NIRMALA RAJASINGHAM: Which was in 1948, there have been a whole series of discriminatory legislations brought — introduced by successive Sri Lankan governments against the minorities, and particularly also against the Tamil minority. And what has happened is there has been — a majoritarian state was established, and this state was always dominated by various, you know, to varying degrees, depending on the government, by Sinhala Buddhist nationalist forces. And, of course, the Tamil minority parties and other minorities also tried to negotiate over many years and make deals with this majoritarian state for —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what portion of the population is Tamil?

NIRMALA RAJASINGHAM: Well, you know, we have, I think —as far as ethnic minorities are concerned, there are three distinct minorities: the Sri Lankan Tamil minority, which is 12 percent; and Muslims, who are also Tamil-speaking, largely, about seven to eight percent; and hill country plantation Tamils, who were brought there by the British to work on the plantations as indentured labor, who, by the way -— in 1948, one of the first pieces of legislation of the majoritarian state was to disenfranchise this Indian plantation labor. So, many of them have been repatriated back to India, and now their numbers are depleted. So, they are, I think, five to six percent. So, basically, these are the three minorities, distinct minorities. And they’ve all suffered under this majoritarian state.

And in addition to this discriminatory legislation, it has also — whenever the Tamils tried to challenge this, the state has responded with, you know, government-instigated pogroms against Tamils, violence. And in the late ’70s, people like me, who were very much not in favor of a Tamil nationalist cause, had no choice but were pushed into supporting groups such as the LTTE, because the government also began to militarize the north and east, where Tamils predominately live, and unleashed a wave of repression. They introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which targeted Tamil youth, etc. So, of course, Tamil militancy grew. And the 1983 pogroms were the worst, and after that, the ranks of the militant movement swelled.

But, of course, I was one of the few survivors of the Welikada prison massacre. I was in prison at the time in 1983. Tamil political prisoners were murdered in their cells and in their — you know, in the prisons in a government-engineered massacre. But anyway, I, of course, also, you know, came into serious disagreement with the LTTE, who I supported, because of their own internal abuses, you know, and internal — and they also wiped out many other — the other Tamil militant groups decimated them and tried to establish themselves as the sole — what they call the sole representatives of the Tamil people. So they’re deeply undemocratic.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to your sister?

NIRMALA RAJASINGHAM: My sister was Dr. Rajini Thiranagama. She was a prominent human rights activist. She was a founding member of the University Teachers for Human Rights, which to this day continues to report human rights violations by all parties from living in the underground. She was murdered by the LTTE, the Tamil Tigers, in 1989 for speaking out against human rights abuses. She was critical of all the armed groups and the governments and the Indian peacekeeping force. But the Tigers murdered her.

So, of course, you know, I have lived in exile. And there is a growing dissenting Tamil community in the diaspora in the West, which has challenged the LTTE’s sole representation bid. But now, of course, militarily the LTTE, as we all know, has been significantly weakened. We wait to see what the Sri Lankan government, the current government, is going to do.

And one of the serious problems is, of course, the war and the humanitarian crisis, the catastrophe, is one huge problem that we have to deal with. But at the heart of government, the government — the current government has brought Sinhala Buddhist nationalist forces, which had been sidelined by previous governments, back to center stage, and they have now come to dominate the mainstream terrain of Sri Lankan politics, one; and secondly, still the majoritarian thinking prevails. And even the resolution of the humanitarian catastrophe and the subsequent, you know, dealing with the IDPs, how the civilians are going to be treated, all of that depends on how this government is going to deal with the minorities question.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you, the role of the outside powers — United States, England, India — in the conflict in your country?

NIRMALA RAJASINGHAM: Well, the thing is, you know, the various governments have shown different levels of interest over the years, Sri Lanka being a small island nation. And India has always had a very strong interest, and in the early years of the militant movement, they supported the militants, which I thought — you know, which did not produce good results, you know. However, at the moment, India is pressurizing the Sri Lankan government to reduce, you know, civilian casualties, etc. They say that they will support the Sri Lankan government to evacuate civilians. And also India has been pressurizing the Sri Lankan government to bring about a political solution, settlement. And that is one of the crucial questions that today everyone should focus on, a democratic and inclusive political process, which will bring everyone to the table and to achieve a political settlement to this conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: We have twenty seconds. You’ve come to this country. You’re in exile in London. You’re from Sri Lanka, the Tamil minority there. What is your message? Why America, have you come here?

NIRMALA RAJASINGHAM: I mean, to the Tamil minority and to the Tamil diaspora, what my message is, that we must join forces with the other minorities and construct a broad democracy movement with the support of progressive Sinhalese to challenge the majoritarian state in Sri Lanka.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, to Nirmala Rajasingham, for joining us, founder of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum.

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