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Sri Lanka’s war on the tragic truth

September 10, 2009

The Australian – Sri Lanka’s war on the tragic truth

IT is a dim spotlight the world shines on Sri Lanka and the human rights abuses that occur there.

The expulsion from the country of Australian-born Unicef spokesman James Elder this month, for speaking out against those abuses and child casualties in the bloody final stages of Sri Lanka’s 26-year long civil war, dims it further still.

Elder was one of very few aid workers on the ethnically riven island nation who was prepared to brave the wrath of the Sinhalese-dominated government to highlight the plight of civilians, especially children, during the war and in its aftermath.

As Unicef’s chief of communications in Sri Lanka, this was his brief and his responsibility.

That the government’s chief spokesman, Palitha Kohona – an educated and charming man who spent several years as an Australian diplomat and many more as a UN official – should suggest otherwise is, as Unicef itself said this week, bordering on ludicrous.

Kohona, also an Australian citizen, has accused Elder of supporting a terrorist organisation and espousing the views of the pro-Tamil news website by highlighting issues such as child malnutrition in government-run internment camps.

About 250,000 internal refugees are now held in camps while the government de-mines the former rebel-held north and weeds Tamil militants from civilian populations.

It is a preposterous accusation, particularly given the forum far more often selectively reflects the news of the day than breaks it.

The government’s real gripe would seem to be that Elder has contradicted the state propaganda saying no civilians were killed in the last stages of the war and that all is well in the camps.

The Sri Lankan government, as the victor in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, is determined to write its own history and is brutal in its suppression of inconvenient facts.

Led by the country’s former human rights activist Mahinda Rajapakse and his two brothers, Basil and Gotabhaya, the government has successfully cowed most local media and aid organisations.

Local journalists have been arrested for casting the government in an unflattering light. Some have been murdered.

The media are refused independent access to overcrowded and unsanitary internment camps – about to get far worse with the coming monsoon.

In a self-penned eulogy that anticipated his own assassination last January, Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga wrote: “Murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism.”

In the weeks leading to Rajapakse’s May victory declaration – as the army bombarded rebel forces along with a massive civilian population it knew was being used as a human shield – most aid groups took the view it was better to temper their comments and remain in the country for the mop-up than risk expulsion.

Elder continued to brief journalists and highlight abuses on both sides.

As triumphant Sinhalese Buddhists crowded the post-war streets of Colombo and Tamil Hindus sheltered indoors, he told The Australian: “People have paid a high price for this peace. Thousands have been killed, including large numbers of children.”

In the weeks that followed, other aid groups would back those claims.

The UN now estimates as many as 20,000 civilians were killed in the final mayhem, as army shells rained down on as many as 200,000 civilians squeezed into a tiny land sliver between the two sides.

Elder called for aid groups to have unfettered access to the camps, to bring in medical aid and supplies.

“It’s important to remember these people have arrived in camps in the worst possible state,” he said. “They are hungry and sick, and many still have untended wounds from the war.”

Hardly the statements of a terrorist sympathiser.

Some aid workers say Sri Lanka has become an almost intolerable place to work. Best known in Australia as a tropical holiday island, Sri Lanka is in fact a police state. Whether the massive security apparatus – considered a necessity during wartime – will be dismantled in peace remains a test of the Rajapakse regime.

The other will be whether Rajapakse delivers on his promise for a political settlement that grants some autonomy to the Tamil minority and addresses legitimate concerns over their discrimination.

But as Robert Kaplan wrote in the Atlantic Monthly: “Like the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, the Jews in Israel, and the Shi’ites in Iran, the Sinhalese are a demographic majority with a dangerous minority complex of persecution.”

The international community continues to hold out carrots – such as the $2.5 billion IMF loan granted in July – even as the Rajapakse government bites the hand that feeds it.

In the last days of the war it lashed out at all international attempts to broker a ceasefire so civilians could be evacuated from the conflict zone.

In return for huge arms purchases, China and Russia have given Sri Lanka cover at international forums such as the UN Security Council, blocking all attempts at censure.

This week, Sri Lanka adds another weapon to its diplomatic arsenal: Kohona flew out of Colombo yesterday for New York, where he will be Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the UN.

No doubt his diplomatic grounding in our own Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including a three-year stint in the Australian embassy in Geneva, will assist him.

DFAT has refused to comment on Kohona’s role in Elder’s expulsion, or on his Australian citizenship, other than to say the decision “was made by a Sri Lankan official acting in his official capacity”.

Britain and the EU have backed calls by the UN Human Rights Commissioner for an independent investigation into alleged war crimes on both sides. Australia has remained mute on the issue.

The US and Britain made public their decision to abstain from the IMF vote, a move widely interpreted as a shot across the Rajapkse government’s bow. The Rudd government has not revealed which way it voted.

In that context, Elder’s willingness to poke his head above the parapet is even more impressive.

It’s a shame that for that bravery he has had it lopped off.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Keenan permalink
    September 10, 2009 10:24 pm

    The article is correct, I particularly agree about being everyone’s number one source for information regarding the plight of Tamils. I’ve started reading up on this conflict, and it’s good to see the media exposing genocide.

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