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Why don’t we care about Sri Lanka? – Telegraph

[Telegraph, Thursday, 14 May 2009 16:40 No Comment]

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Western governments and societies are always quick to condemn atrocities in the Middle East and Africa. But there’s been a lack of comparable outrage over the events in Sri Lanka, says Dean Nelson.

 

Do we have favourites when it comes to civilian casualties? Do we care about some peoples’ suffering more than others?

 

The contrasting levels of public concern and protest over the killing of innocent civilians in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Gaza since the beginning of this year make the answer an emphatic ‘yes.’

 

When Israeli forces killed women and children in their assault on Gaza in January, there were was a public outcry in Britain, the liberal left and anti-Zionist movements staged protests, and Israeli writers too registered their public disgust.

 

But when allegations of civilians being killed in a so-called ‘no fire zone’ by the Sri Lankan army surfaced last month, the response of the world’s public was considerably more muted.

 

There were angry protests by Tamils in Paris and London, and government ministers voiced their shared concerns, but the terrible suffering of thousands of Tamil civilians trapped in the ‘no-fire zone’ has somehow failed to pluck the nation’s heart strings.

 

Is it heartlessness? The Tamils caught in this ‘safe zone’ must be the most wretched people on Earth right now. An estimated 50,000 are trapped inside a tiny strip of Sri Lanka’s north-east coast by rebel fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who will shoot them if they try to escape, and the army, which may shell them if they don’t.

 

They have been herded across the north of the island by the retreating Tigers who have used them as ‘human shields’ and conscripted their children as front-line canon fodder. They are trapped in bunkers they are too terrified to leave yet too hungry to stay in.

 

This should be enough for the world’s public to feel outraged, and yet something is missing.

 

It is partly the absence of first-person newspaper reports and independent television footage, which has stopped the world’s public from seeing the suffering with their own eyes.

 

Instead the reality of life inside the cruelly-named ‘no-fire zone’ is hidden behind a sealed Sri Lankan forces cordon. The government does now allow journalists inside the zone to see for themselves and so what we know about their conditions is filtered through the claims and counter-claims of the main protagonists, the admonishments of visiting western leaders, and occasional phone calls from doctors inside the zone.

A claim of 2,000 civilian deaths by the Tamil Tigers earlier this week quickly fell in instalments before settling at several hundred. The government by contrast said no civilians were killed. The UN says it believes the Sri Lankans are shelling in breach of an earlier promise that the use of heavy weapons had ended. Earlier this week, President Obama said both sides must stop the killing of civilians.

 

The apparent cynicism of leaders like President Obama is another emotional barrier, leaving many questioning what they are being told: While he attacked both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government this week for causing “widespread suffering and the loss of hundreds if not thousands of lives,” his own national security advisor said aerial bombing would continue in Afghanistan despite the high numbers of civilian casualties.

 

General James Jones said while the United States would do more to reduce the number of civilian casualties, it would not stop air strikes because “we can’t fight with one hand tied behind our back.” In this American calculus, Tamil civilians are worth more than Afghans.

 

We can’t see the impact of American bombing of civilians in Afghanistan, just as we cannot see the victims of LTTE shooting and army shelling in Sri Lanka. And because we can’t see it with our own eyes, our emotional reaction to it is weak.

 

Both sides in the Sri Lankan conflict know this, which is why the Tamil Tigers are mobilising their supporters around the world to ‘spread the truth’, while Colombo has stopped journalists from reporting independently in the north.

 

It’s a race against time: The Tamil Tigers need the world to be so moved that its leaders force Colombo to stop its assault, and the Sri Lankan government wants to keep out the media until the LTTE is finally crushed and it can tell the story on its own terms.

[Full Coverage]

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