Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

The Barbed Wire Returns

The Sri Lankan Army's plans for camps to intern Tamil civilians is brutal and illegal. It will help neither peace nor reconciliation on the island

by The Times, London, February 13, 2009

And now the barbed wire is going up again, as Tamil civilians are herded into makeshift compounds. The victorious Sri Lankan Army, sweeping across the last holdouts of the separatist Tamil Tigers, is proposing to imprison tens of thousands of non-combatants in a “safe zone” for up to three years as the area is “cleansed” of rebel supporters. Starvation, despair and death are all too easy to predict.

It was one of the 20th century's most bestial images, and one that was invented by the British. The concentration camps set up by Lord Kitchener to intern Boer women and children were officially intended to shelter civilians while the British Forces conducted a scorched-earth policy to deprive Boer combatants of food and shelter. In fact, they were places of brutality, hardship and death. More than 26,000 people died in some 50 makeshift camps across South Africa.

Forty years later, millions more died in Nazi camps that borrowed the name and copied the brutal regime of starvation and death. Humanity vowed that never again would such atrocities be tolerated. Yet they have persisted: from the Soviet gulags to the killing fields of Cambodia and the Serb-run camps housing half-starved Bosnians. And now the barbed wire is going up again, as Tamil civilians are herded into makeshift compounds. The victorious Sri Lankan Army, sweeping across the last holdouts of the separatist Tamil Tigers, is proposing to imprison tens of thousands of non-combatants in a “safe zone” for up to three years as the area is “cleansed” of rebel supporters. Starvation, despair and death are all too easy to predict.

Some 250,000 civilians have been trapped by the fighting in the north east of the island. Hundreds have already been killed, either by Tiger fighters firing on them as they tried to escape or by government troops shelling the rebel enclave, now only some 70 square miles. Many of those fleeing the crossfire have been killed by mines. The International Committee of the Red Cross has done its best, but was forced yesterday to evacuate 160 patients from a makeshift hospital where artillery shelling killed 16 people earlier in the week. The United Nations is planning for an exodus of 150,000 people. But the troops appear intent on holding them, ostensibly for their safety but in fact to root out any supporters or relatives of the Tiger fighters.

The army has good grounds for suspicion. Velupillai Prabakharan, the fanatical leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelaam (LTTE), has apparently escaped, probably by sea, but he has left behind more than 700 zealots, ready to fight to the death, and suicide bombers. Some have already blown themselves up, killing dozens of troops and civilians. For years the Tigers have forced each Tamil family to enlist one of its members in the rebel army. Until the last minute, Tamils have been assembling mortars, grenades and roadside bombs in workshops in Tiger-controlled towns. Prabakharan's reign of terror has used civilians as human shields or forced them to build defences. Few have been able to stay out of the conflict.

Fears over Sri Lanka concentration camps

The 50,000-strong army, however, is now bent on revenge. After 25 years of fighting, some 70,000 deaths and a war that has brutalised the country and stunted its economy, the hardline Government of President Rajapaska has resolved to crush the LTTE by force and destroy the basis of Tamil separatism. All earlier offers of devolution and autonomy have been withdrawn. Sinhala nationalism was the main issue of the last election, with parties in the south competing to denounce the Norwegian-brokered peace talks. There is no talk of political reconciliation.

Instead, Colombo appears to be giving free reign to the armed forces and turning a blind eye to civilian suffering. At the same time it is asking Britain for support to fund its five “welfare villages”, ignoring protests from Indian and Sri Lankan MPs. Human rights activists have denounced these as illegal detention centres and demanded, as a minimum, international inspection and control. A century after Britain's shameful treatment of the Boers, this country should be the first to protest at this odious plan.