Published in An Phoblacht on 27 August 2009
A humanitarian catastrophe has been escalating over the past three months in the internment camps in which 285,000 Tamil civilians have been imprisoned in Tamil Eelam in the north of the Sri Lankan state.
Even some Western media outlets have begun referring to these camps – heavily guarded by the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) and ringed by razor wire – by their accurate name: concentration camps. Now the already disastrous conditions for the camps’ prisoners, which include an estimated 55,000 children, are being exacerbated by heavy rains which have caused major flooding.
Since the brutal Sri Lankan Government offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which killed more than 30,000 Tamils between January and May when the Government declared victory, Tamil refugees displaced by the war have been rounded up and held against their will in about 30 Government-run camps in the Vavuniya, Mannar, Jaffna and Trincomalee regions in the north.
The Government has said the internees are being held until they have been “screened” for links to the Tigers and has pledged to release 80 per cent of the camps’ populations by the end of the year. But since May only 10,000 refugees have been released. Sri Lanka’s foreign secretary has publicly stated that he believes all Tamils are “with” the Tigers – “at least mentally”.
Rights agencies have reported food, water and medicine shortages and resulting malnourishment among internees. Tamil sources have reported deaths from starvation in the camps. There have been widespread allegations of the systematic rape and sexual abuse of Tamil women and children, and of beatings, disappearances and executions of Tamils suspected of supporting the LTTE.
More than 10,000 Tamils which the Government claims are members of the LTTE have been removed from the camps and imprisoned incommunicado in secret locations without any access to the outside world – or to the rights recognised under international law of prisoners of war.
In the wake of the rains that flooded the prison camps, which hit on August 14, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs news service IRIN described “a sea of mud and misery”, with tents being inundated with water and toilets flooding waste throughout the camps.
Demanding the immediate release of the 285,000 civilians last month, Amnesty International’s British director Kate Allen said: “The largest camp – Menik Farm – is horrendous. It holds about 160,000 people in an area smaller than one square kilometre.
“The people we are talking about here are doctors, teachers, farmers – ordinary people with ordinary lives. Yet, they are being held in horrendous conditions for no reason other than that they previously lived in areas held by the Tamil Tigers.”
Amnesty said there was a lack of running water and sanitation and severe restrictions on communication with the outside world, with aid workers not being permitted to talk to the internees.
Following the heavy rains, international medical officers raised concerns with IRIN in Vavuniya on 17 August over diarrhoea, dysentery and other waterborne diseases.
“From an epidemiological point of view, this is a public health disaster waiting to happen,” one medical officer said.
“How are we supposed to sleep like this?” demanded Menik Farm internee Ganeshan Sivasundram from outside his flooded tent.
The Government responded to the floods by deploying more troops to secure the camps from “unrest” by crushing the mounting resistance to the mass incarceration.
While these floods have caused huge hardship for the internees, they are only a taste of what is to come, with Sri Lanka’s monsoon season due to begin in October.
As the Sri Lankan Government prepared for an all-out slaughter of the Tamil people in order to inflict what it hoped would be a final defeat on the forces fighting for an independent Tamil homeland, all aid groups and the UN were ordered to leave the northern war zone in September last year – so internationals could not bear witness to SLA atrocities.
‘Genocide’ – defined by the UN as any act “committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” – is the only word that can adequately describe the onslaught against the Tamil people this year.
In January last year the Sri Lankan Government unilaterally pulled out of a February 2002 Norwegian-mediated ceasefire agreement and vowed to crush the Tigers using military force. In June last year, the Government’s offensive was stepped up, and further escalated in January this year.
Between January and April this year, the UN counted 7,000 Tamil civilian deaths, most caused by SLA shelling and air strikes. While the international body failed to officially reveal the dramatically rising death toll in May, UN sources revealed to the London Times and Paris-based Le Monde newspapers immediately following the end of the war that they estimated 20,000 Tamil civilians had been killed in the final weeks of the regime’s offensive – including 10,000 on one day alone, May 17. The next day the Government declared victory in the 26-year civil war.
The Times reported “internal anger” within the UN over the failure to reveal the death toll, which “had not been made public to avoid a diplomatic storm” and said: “The figure of 20,000 casualties was given to the Times by UN sources, who explained in detail how they arrived at that calculation.”
The de facto state infrastructure established by the Tamils in the north over the past decade has been almost entirely destroyed and ethnic Sinhalese (the majority in Sri Lanka) are being encouraged by the regime to settle in the “depopulated” land of Tamil Eelam as part of a long-running colonisation scheme similar to Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank.
LTTE leaders who surrendered to the SLA were summarily executed. On August 25, Channel 4 News showed mobile-phone footage of political executions released by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka which was filmed by a SLA soldier in January. It shows a Sri Lankan soldier shooting a young man, who was naked, bound and blindfolded, in the back of the head at point-blank range. The camera then pans out to reveal seven more bodies of bound, naked men, before a ninth is shot dead.
The international community has failed to act in any way to hold the regime to account for the mass murder of Tamils, including the failure to even insist upon an independent war crimes inquiry. The International Monetary Fund has recently approved a US$2.6 billion (£1.6bn) loan to “rebuild” the country that will directly benefit the regime, which has imposed a 0.9 per cent tax on all foreign aid entering the country.
It has also been revealed this month that the British Government, along with other EU countries, continued to sell millions of pounds worth of arms and military equipment to the Sri Lankan Government over the past three years of its escalating war on Tamils.
Britain sold more than £13.6 million of equipment including armoured vehicles, machine-gun parts and semi-automatic weapons to Sri Lanka, according to official records – including £1.3 million worth of arms during the last three months of 2008, when the regime was well into its latest and most brutal offensive against the Tamil people.