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Sri Lanka must stop treating Tamils like terrorists – The First Post

[MISC, Wednesday, 11 March 2009 16:27 No Comment]

British defence attache in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, who had been in Malaya, as Singapore and Malaysia were then called, during the only truly successful anti-guerrilla campaign, once asked me how many men I thought it took to be an effective guerrilla force. His response to my incorrect guess astounded me. "It takes 10," he said. "You can do a lot of damage with 10 men."

 

This should be a timely warning for a country which, after the assassination of its most famous independent newspaper editor and last week’s terrorist attack on the national cricket team in Lahore, is experiencing a rare surge of global attention.

 

Sri Lanka’s civil war, which has torn the island apart for almost 30 years, now seems to be coming to an end. This has been immensely popular with the majority Sinhalese, who represent 81 per cent of the population, and who have lost sons in far greater numbers than officially admitted. There has been a blizzard of national flags across the country’s south and with the fall of the Tamil Tigers’ last stronghold in the north-east last week, much understandable self-congratulation.

 

The trouble is no one seems to have read the small print. This, in essence, repeats the defence attache’s warning – as long as there remain 10 Tamil Tigers, ready to strap on explosives or plant IEDs, the end of war will not bring peace.

 

Yet still the government continues to drive brutalised and marginalised young Tamils into the arms of the guerrillas. Late last year, army chief Sarath Fonseka was adamant: "This country belongs to the Sinhalese. Minorities can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being  a minority, demand undue things."

 

This policy of subjugation is a dangerous one. The Tamil Tigers are amongst the world’s most ruthless and savage killers, whose trophies include a former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and countless government ministers.

 

And now, an unknown number of Black Tigers, Tamil Tiger suicide squads who are trained especially to detonate themselves, are hiding in the island’s towns and cities. Dozens are believed to have infiltrated during the six-year ceasefire before war resumed in 2008, which is why Colombo bristles with military checkpoints and, so that ministerial vehicles can race through unassailed, its main roads are emptied of all but stray dogs.

 

The government can do little about these suicide bombers already in place, but it can do a great deal

 

more to ensure that the remaining Tamils – almost a million have escaped the war and now live in the West – remain out of the Tiger’s ranks.

 

This would mean ceasing to treat the 200,000 civilians still trapped in the war zone by the Tigers as sympathisers and therefore, fair game. It would mean ending the indiscriminate bombing which has killed an estimated 2,000 Tamil civilians and wounded 7,000 others, and which international aid staff have called "a campaign of ethnic cleansing".

 

As a report released by Human Rights Watch in 2007 revealed: "Sri Lanka’s government has been responsible for unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and other serious human rights violations since the resumption of major hostilities. It has also apparently given its security forces a green light to use ‘dirty war’ tactics".

 

In addition, it would mean halting the construction of ‘re-settlement villages’ for refugees, which the United Nations has termed internment camps. It would mean ending the arrests and abductions of Tamils in the south, and the routine harassment of Tamil citizens at checkpoints in the capital.

 

It would also entail ending the assassinations and abductions of journalists: last week, Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, editor of two Tamil-language newspapers, was arrested by plainclothes police officers without a warrant. He is currently in detention where relatives say he has been badly beaten. In total, 16 journalists, most of them Tamils, have been killed in the last four years and 27 are still being held.

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