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Sri Lanka is a police state

October 23, 2009

The Australian : Tamil refugees fleeing Sri Lankan police state
Amanda Hodge, South Asia correspondent | October 21, 2009

FIVE months after the Sri Lankan government crushed the Tamil Tigers separatists and ended Asia’s longest-running civil war, refugees are still pouring out of the country and washing up on the shores of sympathetic countries such as Australia and Canada.

Why, when peace has finally come to a nation dogged by 26 years of civil war, would so many people choose to leave behind their country and possessions and risk their lives on a perilous sea crossing to an uncertain future?

The easy answer lies in the swampy internment camps of the country’s north, said to hold somewhere between 250,000 and 280,000 war-traumatised Sri Lankans behind barbed wire while the government weeds out suspected Tamil Tigers soldiers from civilians.

They have no jobs and no money. Most have lost their houses, their identification cards and loved ones. Thousands of children have missed out on months of school.

As northern Tamils who lived for years under the parallel government of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the separatist group which once controlled more than one third of the country, all are suspected terrorists until proven otherwise. More

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  1. Australians for Tamil Justice permalink*
    October 23, 2009 1:23 am

    The Australian : Tamil refugees fleeing Sri Lankan police state
    Amanda Hodge, South Asia correspondent | October 21, 2009

    FIVE months after the Sri Lankan government crushed the Tamil Tigers separatists and ended Asia’s longest-running civil war, refugees are still pouring out of the country and washing up on the shores of sympathetic countries such as Australia and Canada.

    Why, when peace has finally come to a nation dogged by 26 years of civil war, would so many people choose to leave behind their country and possessions and risk their lives on a perilous sea crossing to an uncertain future?

    The easy answer lies in the swampy internment camps of the country’s north, said to hold somewhere between 250,000 and 280,000 war-traumatised Sri Lankans behind barbed wire while the government weeds out suspected Tamil Tigers soldiers from civilians.

    They have no jobs and no money. Most have lost their houses, their identification cards and loved ones. Thousands of children have missed out on months of school.

    As northern Tamils who lived for years under the parallel government of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the separatist group which once controlled more than one third of the country, all are suspected terrorists until proven otherwise.

    As many as 20,000 people are said to have escaped the camps, bribing their way out, often with the financial help of relatives abroad. But once out it is near impossible to remain in the country without fear of detection and re-internment.

    Sri Lanka, for all its palm-fringed beaches and holiday resorts, is essentially a police state.

    In the southern capital, Colombo, police and military checkpoints litter the roads every kilometre or less. If you are Tamil, easily identified by your name, then you can expect frequent delays and greater scrutiny.

    Many who do manage to escape the camps have done so with the help of a network of agents who now operate in the former Tamil Tigers-held north, arranging bribe payments and passage out of the country, often via Colombo airport to Indonesia or Malaysia, where visas are not required.

    There they join fellow Tamils who escaped the war zone in the last weeks and months of the war and are still waiting for boats to take them on to a new country and — they hope — a new life.

    The exact numbers and condition of those still interned in the camps is difficult to know.

    The entire north is sealed off from the rest of the country by a huge military contingent and entry is barred to most journalists and aid organisations.

    In May, when the Sinhalese-dominated government crushed the last vestiges of the Tamil Tigers resistance, it promised the world it would try to release all refugees within 180 days. But there is no guarantee.

    In any case, many Tamils who lived normal civilian lives under the LTTE administration fear what awaits them when they are finally released into what is now a heavily-militarised northern zone.

    In the former LTTE-held east, which the military reclaimed almost two years ago, Tamils returned to their villages to find in some cases they had been repopulated by Sinhalese.

    Some 5000 more in Trincomalee, one of the three eastern province districts, found their land had been compulsorily acquired by the government and declared a high security zone.

    As one aid worker from the east told The Australian in May: “The problem in this country is terror and impunity. There are never investigations. The climate of impunity has been unchallenged and is still unchallenged.”

    The government, led by hardline President Mahinda Rajapakse, proved resistant to all pleas in the last months of the civil war — including to personal appeals by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — to stop shelling areas it knew held thousands of civilians trapped between the warring sides. The UN estimates as many as 20,000 civilians were killed in the last five months of the war, many by military cluster bombs and aerial shelling.

    Attempts to have both the government and Tamil Tigers answer accusations of war crimes through the UN Human Rights Coumcil have so far failed.

    The EU has taken its own action this week, threatening to withdraw trade benefits and tariff exemptions from Sri Lanka, following a report alleging serious human rights abuses by the government.

    The report, which drew a predictably outraged response from the Sri Lankan government, found “overwhelming evidence to suggest that during the final months of the conflict significant numbers of civilians were unlawfully killed in military operations”.

    It went on to claim that “unlawful killings are a major problem in Sri Lanka, perpetrated by soldiers, police, paramilitary groups or others, not only during the course of active hostilities”.

    The more complicated historical explanation for the continued exodus from Sri Lanka lies in the discrimination policies of post-colonial Sinhalese dominated governments, which at the time were intended to correct a perceived favouritism among the former British rulers towards Tamils.

    Those policies have over time resulted in the increasing marginalisation of Tamils, who represent about 20 per cent of the population, but are seriously under-represented in government and bureaucracy.

    Sri Lanka’s National Peace Council director Jehan Perera says there is “little political will to implement equal rights provisions”. The government says the war is over and there’s no reason for Sri Lankans — whether Tamil, Muslim or Sinhalese — to seek refuge elsewhere.

    But while the country is still run like a state at war with itself, and 20 per cent of the population is treated with criminal suspicion, many will beg to differ.

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