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Why should we care about the suffering of Tamils?

[Independent.co.uk, Friday, 8 July 2011 14:38 No Comment]

Sri-lanka On Tuesday 14 June, a shocking, heart-wrenching documentary was shown on Channel 4.  ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’, broadcast just after 11pm, displayed what presenter Jon Snow described as “devastating evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and a powerful case for bring those guilty of these crimes to justice.”

I remember the massive Tamil demonstrations in London in April 2009, during what many of them viewed as genocide in progress.  Day after day, a Tamil community of hundreds of thousands would descend on Parliament Square, laying the Houses of Parliament to siege on several occasions.  For weeks on end, the Tamil community occupied the Square, in an attempt to raise awareness of the suffering and destruction their families were facing.  I slept in the Square on some nights, the air cold and the grass damp with dew, feeling inspired by their determination and resilience.

“The Sri Lankan government had the tacit support of most of the world’s powers.” says Jon Snow.  As UN officials are now more than willing to admit on television cameras, the Sri Lankan government were consistently shelling civilians in the so-called “no-fire zone”.  Civilians packed into small areas, not to protect them, but to target them more efficiently.  As many witnesses in the film claim, government forces were intent on maximising casualties; hospitals were targeted, and after a shell was fired, another would be targeted at those attempting to help the injured.  Tactics not dissimilar to those employed by the Israeli military in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead; it will not come as a surprise then, that the documentary states, that the Sri Lankan government were equipped with Israeli Kfir fighter bombers.

Despite the graphic nature of the films, and the blunt portrayal of raw human suffering, Jon Snow and Channel 4 were determined to make the videos public. But, as Serena Davies asks in her review of the programme for the Daily Telegraph, “why (show them) to the British public?” Davies argues that we have no responsibility for the suffering of the Tamil people, and ponders, “Should untutored members of another nation, one on the other side of the world and with no claims now over its former colony, be the people to bear witness to such grotesque behaviour…?”

So, why should we care?  Let me suggest a few reasons.  Firstly, as Jeremy Page reported in The Times in 2009, the British government approved commercial sales to the Sri Lankan government “of more than £13.6 million of equipment including armoured vehicles, machine-gun components and semi-automatic pistols” during the last three years of its brutal civil war with the Tamil Tigers.  As Jon Snow asserts in ‘Killing Fields’, the Sri Lankan military, freshly-equipped with British-made weapons, often did little to distinguish between the Tigers and Tamil civilians.  Or we can look to a Channel 4 news item from May 2010, also presented by Jon Snow; “‘Kill everybody and finish them off,’ that’s what Sri Lankan soldiers say they were told…”  Not the type of military our government should be arming, you might think?

And then we can take into consideration out treatment of the Tamils fleeing the conflict, escaping the bullets paid for with our taxes, and seeking asylum in the UK.  As a Channel 4 report released on the same day as the ‘Killing Fields’ documentary revealed, 40 Sri Lankans, the majority of whom are Tamil, were due to be deported from the UK two days later.

“This is despite the Home Office’s own report on Sri Lanka,” the article stated, “published in April, which says that ‘despite the end of the fighting, there continued to be human rights violations in 2010, including disappearances and extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests and a restriction on political space for free expression’.”

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