Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Democracy Under Siege

by Prof. Robert Oberst, December 10, 2009

The worst human rights tragedy of the 21st century has been allowed to occur in Sri Lanka.  More than 20,000 Tamil citizens were killed by government forces while the US and its democratic allies remained silent.  The civilized community took no substantive action as the government incarcerated a quarter of a million civilians for nearly 6 months.  Look how long it took the House to pass a resolution calling for the release of the detainees.  It is important that future historians do not evaluate the actions of the US government as having supported a continuation of the abuses against the Tamils.  Failure of the US and its allies to take strong action could be seen as complicity in the acts against the Tamil people.

 

Robert C. Oberst

Nebraska Wesleyan University

Remarks prepared for presentation to
Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Hearing
" The Ongoing Humanitarian Crisis in Sri Lanka"

Thirty years ago I first went to Sri Lanka.  It was still a peaceful and innocent country unstained by the bloodshed that would soon engulf it.  My research led me to believe that the country was on the brink of a disaster.  War clouds were gathering among the Tamils and would explode soon.   Upon my return I discovered deaf ears which rejected the idea that the model democracy could ever descend into a civil war.  One journal reviewer in 1982 commented that my ideas were absurd and I was crazy to believe that a civil war was imminent.

Today, I feel as if I am reliving those days again.  Today, Sri Lanka is facing a catastrophe of immense proportions that may dwarf what it faced in the early 1980s.  Once again, the US government and many scholars are denying the reality of the current situation in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka faces a number of threats:

  1. THE POTENTIAL FOR THE RETURN OF THE TAMIL INSURRECTION: The forces which led to the Tamil insurrection in the 1970s and 1980s continue to go unaddressed.  The defeat of the LTTE has provided a brief period of peace before the next round of violence begins.
  2. DEEP SEATED WOUNDS CREATED BY THE VIOLENCE OF THE WAR:  The violence and intensity of the government attack against the LTTE and Tamil civilians has led to deep wounds that the government could but has decided to not address.  Instead of reconciliation and forgiveness, the current Sri Lankan government has chosen to continue its offensive against the remnants of rebellion and in the process, has generated more support for a new Tamil rebellion.
  3. UNJUSTIFIED INCARCERATION OF TAMIL CIVILIANS:  The incarceration of more than a quarter of a million Tamil civilians for the last six months has displayed a callous and unforgiving side of the Rajapaksa government.  While the government has claimed that they have a right to screen the civilians to find LTTE members, there is no justification to detain the estimated 150,000 children under the age of 10 and adults over the age of 60.
  4. UNLIMITED DETENTION WITHOUT CHARGES:  The Prevention of Terrorism Act allows for unlimited detention of any suspects.  This law has allowed security forces to torture detainees and murder them.  It has resulted in children being arrested and held for more than 10 years without charges.
  5. DENIAL OF PROPERTY RIGHTS OF TAMIL CIVILIANS:  The failure of the released detainees to be able to return to their homes is a continuing problem that the Sri Lankan government has failed to address.  The homes of the detainees and those of displaced Tamils who lost their homes due to seizure by the government security forces have not been compensated for their land or provided an adequate alternative.
    --- the argument that the Tamil land is mined and thus can not be returned to is a convenient excuse.  The Sri Lankan government has refused to allow foreign deminers into most of the former strongholds of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi.
  6. FAILURE TO ALLOW BASIC RIGHTS OF CITIZENS TO TRAVEL AND REPORT ABOUT TAMIL AREAS:  The refusal of the Sri Lankan government to allow any outsiders (Sri Lankan and foreign) into the north creates the impression that they are hiding something from the world and the wider Tamil population.  It also prevents anyone to assess the extent of the problem or to determine the intent of the government.
  7. THE MYTH OF RECONQUEST:  The current Sri Lankan government has been dominated by extreme Sinhalese nationalists who have a very narrow vision of who belongs in Sri Lanka.  This extremist position is in sharp contrast to many Sinhalese nationalists who accept the right of Tamils in their society as equals in a Sinhalese Buddhist society.  The defeat of the LTTE by President Rajapakse’s forces was almost immediately likened to the victory of the legendary king of Sri Lanka Dutugemunu, who in the second century BC defeated the Tamil invaders of the Chola empire of India.  The victory over the Tamils was followed by a golden period of Sinhalese society in which the country expanded throughout the dry zone jungle of north central Sri Lanka.

The comparison to Dutugemunu raises the spectre of Sinhalese Buddhist expansion into the conquered lands of the Vanni.  Since the 1970s Sri Lanka has been colonizing the southern expanse of the Vanni jungle.  In the early 1980s the government offered freedom to imprisoned criminals who agreed to farm land in southern Mullaitivu, northern Trincomalee and eastern Anuradhapura districts.  The Weli Oya project changed the Tamil names of rivers and place names into Sinhalese.

The current fear is that the victory over the Tamils and the displacement of the residents of Mullaitivu and Kilinochi districts to settle Sinhalese in those districts.

  1. SINHALESE ENCROACHMENT ON MUSLIM AND TAMIL LANDS:  The encroachment by Sinhalese settlers has already been reported in the Eastern Province in all three districts.  This has included Sinhalese encroachment onto Muslim land in the Central Camp area of Ampara district.     
  2. DEMOCRACY UNDER SEIGE IN SRI LANKA:  The threat to Sri Lanka extends beyond the Tamil and Muslim minorities in Sri Lanka.  Today, democracy in Sri Lanka is under attack.
    1. ATTACKS AGAINST CHRISTIANS;  Along with Sinhalese extremism has come increasing attacks against Christians.  There are significant numbers of Christians among both the Tamils and the Sinhalese.  Since the election of the Rajapaksa government, there have been hundreds of attacks and incidents at Christian churches.  In addition, the government has been threatening to pass legislation which would criminalize “unethical” conversions to Christianity.  The breadth of the law would outlaw almost all conversions to Christianity.
    2. ATTACKS ON THE MEDIA:  Significant numbers of journalists have been murdered and others have fled the country because of the threats.  Although there have been almost no arrests for the attacks and murders, it is generally believed that the attacks have been carried out by supporters of the government.  The end result of the attacks has been the silencing of the once very active journalism of Sri Lanka.
    3. ATTACKS AGAINST OPPOSITION MEMBERS:  While members of the media have been under attack, opponents of the government have also experienced threats and attacks.  Important leaders of the Rajapaksa government, including his brother Gothabaya have made threats against those who have spoken out against the government or promoted human rights.  The statements have include scurrilous accusations against Secretary of State Clinton
    4. REFUSAL TO OBEY SUPREME COURT RULINGS:  As noted in the Freedom House report I prepared, the President has refused to obey Supreme Court decisions that he disagrees with.  This is coupled with his refusal to obey the requirements of the 17th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution.  The amendment requires that the police, judiciary and other government bodies be appointed by a non-partisan commission.  The president has continued to make appointments in violation of the amendment.
    5. ELECTORAL VIOLATIONS:  While the level of electoral violence has declined in recent elections, there is still widespread intimidation of voters and candidates.  This pattern has continued in the provincial council and local elections held this year.  In the 2004 parliamentary elections which brought the current government to power, I was an election observer in Ampara district.  I witnessed a candidate being assaulted after he left a polling booth.  The assailant was immediately arrested by the police, however, a month later the police told me that no one was arrested, a government minister led a band of police Special Task Force commandos who shot into the air with automatic rifles while masked men attacked the homes of government opponents.  I also observed the distribution of fake electoral id cards.  In fact the driver for the election monitoring group had given his electoral id to the government party for someone to impersonate him at the elections. 

RECOMMENDATIONS

Since 2004, the US and the British sent messages of support for human rights abuses by the government.  Condemnations of the LTTE would shortly follow massacres by suspected government forces.  There is a need for the U.S. government to be very careful to avoid appearing to support the violation of the rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka and the movement by the current government away from democratic values.  A continuation of the actions of the past will help move Sri Lanka away from its democratic tradion.

The worst human rights tragedy of the 21st century has been allowed to occur in Sri Lanka.  More than 20,000 Tamil citizens were killed by government forces while the US and its democratic allies remained silent.  The civilized community took no substantive action as the government incarcerated a quarter of a million civilians for nearly 6 months.  Look how long it took the House to pass a resolution calling for the release of the detainees.  It is important that future historians do not evaluate the actions of the US government as having supported a continuation of the abuses against the Tamils.  Failure of the US and its allies to take strong action could be seen as complicity in the acts against the Tamil people.

It is important that the US government understand the extremist nature of the current government and that there are strong Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists who are reasonable and accept the Tamils as full citizens of Sri Lanka.  We must appeal to them.

US support to the current government is important.  However, it must be contingent on movement back toward democracy, permission for journalists and scholars to freely talk to Tamils and improvement in the human rights situation of the Tamils and Muslims. 

A New York Times report on Monday of this week that the US Senate is preparing a report that will call for a toning down of US government criticism toward the Sri Lankan government because of the strategic value of the country.  There is no question that criticism of the government has pushed the government closer to China, Russia and Iran.  However, the Sri Lankan economy is highly dependent on western tourism and garment sales.  Without that economic support, Sri Lanka would not survive economically.

The United States has just left a period where we have been considered by many to be one of the worst human rights violators in the world.  The Senate report appears to be calling for the US to drop its criticism of a country which tortures its detainees, holds prisoners for unlimited time without court supervision or charges, violates the civic rights of its largest ethnic minority and appears to have killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians after deliberately targeting them.  Unqualified support for these actions would be a mistake. 

Amnesty International testimony at Hearing.