Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Open Letter to Dr. Coomaraswamy on Tamils and Human Rights

The following letter was written by Usha Sri Skanda Rajah, Toronto after Dr. Coomaraswamy's comments on Tamils in a speech delivered in Canada. Coomaraswamy's speech can be viewed at . 

Radhika Coomaraswamy Chairperson
Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka
No. 36, Kynsey Road
Colombo 08, Sri Lanka

Fax:  +94-11-269-4924 

I am shocked at reading Naomi Gunasekara's article on your speech delivered in Montreal whilst receiving McGill University's Robert S Litvack Human Rights Award.

I am a Thamil who is not afraid to stand up and fight for equality and political rights for the Thamil-speaking people in the NorthEast of Sri Lanka and am writing to tell you that your comments concerning Sri Lankan Tamils were most abhorrent and distasteful.

The Tamil community

Sadly your accessibility to international fora through your position, allows you to make such statements in front of an international audience at the expense of my community. Couched in terms that may seem as not being your personal opinion, but rather a prevailing view, a statement attributed to you that the "Thamil community is now represented as a community living close to criminality, feeding the international underworld of crime and being comfortable with the forces of terror" is one that's highly derogatory of a class of people. As it is not directed at any individual, you have gotten away with defamation. What you said in a public forum not only maligns the whole community, the venue you chose to say it in makes it all the more damaging to law-abiding Thamil communities living in the NorthEast, the rest of Sri Lanka and those spread around the globe. For a person of your standing it is a dismal and disgraceful performance.

Personal bias

I have to tell you that your account and analysis of the situation in Sri Lanka is wrong. It is but a twisted version, with spin, half truths and innuendo, constructed by you, out of your own personal opinions, designed to misinform an international audience and please some people. It is as though you have been blinded by the need to serve your superiors and your personal links to the rest of the Colombo-based Sri Lankan elite.

No national idea

Your statement that "the problem with Sri Lanka is that there is not one idea of what Sri Lanka is and the contest over that idea has become vicious and brutal, fed by underlying material grievances," is indeed true. However, you are grossly misleading your audience by including the Thamils in Sri Lanka's "dirty politics."

Sri Lanka, no doubt, will have to face up to the stark realities of slow economic growth and worse, it must check on forces lurking behind all the Sinhala political parties, now directly showing their ugly faces as racist and chauvinist elements, who are but waiting to exploit Sri Lanka's material inequality and its effect on the masses, to their advantage.

Do not again include the Thamils when you indicate that "Sri Lanka is a place where these groups want to conquer and eliminate the other." The Thamils do not want to "conquer or eliminate the other." The Thamils want "out" from this heaven you call Sri Lanka that persecutes, discriminates and marginalizes on the basis of race. The Thamils want to assert their inalienable right to their traditional and historical Thamil Homeland and to chart their destiny as they see fit. In fact, as much as the Thamils want to be free, their brothers in the South should realize it is the way for them to prosper as well.

Your lament that "no one attempts to formulate a more holistic vision that tries to incorporate all these ideas in an inclusive concept of Sri Lanka where all these yearnings find expression within a plural whole" is bordering on fantasy. It shows you are living in the wrong century. I am prepared to forgive our forefathers who lacked foresight signing away Thamil sovereignty to the Sinhalese at independence with no safe guards for the Thamils. For me it was a betrayal of trust by the Sinhalese as much as human error. But I am not prepared to forgive you for ranting about solutions that are past their sell-by date.

Inequality and political rights

Your optimism about an idealistic philosophy that has no relevance to reality on the ground may make you look like a holistic visionary and an uncompromising champion of human rights, but at a huge cost to Thamils because you have failed to identify or address an underlying problem of inequality that has been festering since independence. It shows you are painfully ignorant of the fundamental issues facing the Thamils or do not consider these issues important.

Without political rights and equality, one cannot preach "Unity." Further, without political rights and equality of status - meaning two equal nations - , "Economic Freedoms" are a non-starter. By equality I mean having the equal right for a nation of people to organize the affairs of state as they see fit, as any other. With absolutely no decision-making power in their hands for determining their security, their economy, their government operations or their foreign relations at any level, and devoid of the power to create legislative enactments and effect policies to bring to fruition their desires as a people, the Thamil-speaking people are at the mercy of decisions made elsewhere and imposed on them against their will by another race of people, the numerical majority, with their own set of desires. Motivated naturally by their self-interest, this majority gives mandates to Sinhala governments who have systematically carried out that mandate to deprive the Thamil-speaking people of their rights; and sadly the Thamils have been powerless to prevent it.

For example, after last year's natural disaster, the bulk of the Tsunami funds promised by the international community never arrived for the people most affected - those in the NorthEast. The Thamils have been powerless to negotiate for funds themselves with the international community and the Sinhalese majority has actively prevented aid reaching the Tamil areas.

If you have even a modicum of humanity, you would see that there is clearly an injustice and an inequality perpetuated on the Thamil community since independence by successive Sinhala governments that has nearly brought the community to its knees. If not for some brave men and women who were forced out of sheer necessity to defend our dignity and our rights when all else failed, we would be destroyed as a nation. Their actions have been a desperate act of self preservation. Violence begets violence and when one has to defend one's land from the tyranny of racists, chauvinists, thugs, deceitful politicians, an alien government and an occupying force behaving as aggressors and protect that land against government-sponsored colonization intended to blur the demography of the traditional Tamil homeland, that is called a "war of self preservation."

Children and underage recruitment

When you raise the issue of underage recruitment as one of two main human rights abuses affecting the Tamils today, in the same breath I insist that you mention the 41 Thamil children "who were murdered, maimed or mutilated" in the Bindunuwewa Rehabilitation Camp. Professor Dr. Amuthachandran, who did a full-scale research on this incident and published his findings in a report titled "Tamil children in Bindunuwewa: Sri Lanka's Auschwitz Revisited," states that "you hardly ever raised your human rights voice about this most gruesome incident."

Can I talk to you about the deplorable conditions children are living in the NorthEast of Sri Lanka? The International Federation of Tamils' (IFT) Working Group on the Rights of the Child in its report "Cry Of NorthEast Child" lays a damning indictment at the feet of successive Sri Lankan governments who have by their actions and omissions violated international law, namely the Convention on the Rights of the Child – article 2 (non discrimination) article 3 (best interests of the child) article 6 (survival and development) article 10 (family reunification) article 20 (protection of child without family) article 23 (disabled children) article 24 (health and health services) article 26 (social security) article 27 (standard of living) article 28 (education) article 29 (aims of education) and article 31 (leisure recreation and cultural activities).

The IFT report says that, despite these gross violations by the government of Sri Lanka, "the biggest humanitarian concern when it comes to abuse of children in Sri Lanka is confined to violations of Article 38 of the Conventions on the Rights of the Child (child combatants) and to violations of the Optional Protocol to the Conventions on the Rights of the Child." All such violations are blamed on the Liberation Tigers of Thamil Eelam (LTTE).

Sri Lanka, aided by international human rights organizations which should know better, has used allegations of underage recruitment of children as soldiers, not out of any humanitarian concern, but as a political weapon against its opponent, the LTTE. As a human rights advocate appointed by the state, you are complicit in this hypocrisy.

The Optional Protocol on the Convention on the Rights of the Childs sets a double standard for state and non-state parties, which does not really gel with any genuine concern for the welfare of actual victims. How is it that the UK or Canada, for example, recruiting at 16 years would not be violating the law, but the LTTE recruiting at 16 years would be?

The LTTE's policy and practice, as articulated by their political head Tamilselvan, in terms of minimum age for both recruitment and use in combat as repeated in the peace talks and under the Action Plan in June 2003 is eighteen years (18). Since then it is making sure that no underage recruitment takes place and it is deeply engaged in this process. More than 1,200 underage recruits have been identified and handed over to their parents, some through UNICEF and some through NESOHR.

Most allegations of underage recruitment are based on questionable UNICEF data, flawed methodology and unsubstantiated evidence gathered in areas under the control of the Sri Lankan security forces and with their active involvement.

I believe that a lot of the UNICEF data is in error. A lot of missing children including those that are in the government paramilitary forces are being listed as being in the LTTE cadres. Paramilitary forces funded by the government of Sri Lanka are recruiting child soldiers. The recent Sunday Leader article and picture can vouch for this. In addition, Sri Lanka, having ratified the Optional Protocol and setting the minimum age for voluntary recruitment at eighteen (18), is flagrantly violating it. No less than Ranil Wickramasinghe has said in parliament that the Sri Lanka security forces are campaigning in schools to encourage 15 year olds to join the army. If you have any evidence to the contrary regarding what I have said on this subject, please let me know.

In the same breath that you mention underage recruitment, it is incumbent, if one is not politically motivated, that one mention the terrible conditions of insecurity, malnutrition, illiteracy and ill-health imposed on Tamil children by the Sri Lankan government's war against the Tamil population. As you say about Tamils as a whole, "a brutal reality where their once high physical quality of life has been reduced to some of the worst conditions in the island."

The exposure of the government of Sri Lanka's utter neglect of children in Sri Lanka is long over due. In the South underage labor, sexual and physical abuse of children, child prostitution, child pornography and incidence of children begging are rampant. In the NorthEast, the uncertain future of children living in the areas occupied by the Sri Lanka armed forces, subject to indiscriminate arrest, torture, rape and killings during the war years, suffering from malnutrition, lack of medicines and basic health care, and affected by displacement, homelessness, poverty, and lack of schooling and infrastructure services, still remains a major concern. A continuing and heavy army presence is affecting the psychological wellbeing of children. The absence of an organized mechanism to help the children in these areas is having a debilitating effect on the quality of life of children.

It is high time that the Sri Lankan government is challenged on its dismal human rights record and its procrastination on the issue of autonomy for the Thamil speaking people under the "peace process."

When speaking about your quest to sign a human rights agreement between the parties in the peace process you have not once mentioned the government as violating any human rights law. Even though you speak of "a human rights agreement that would keep the negotiating parties in place where human rights are concerned," you do not once mention the government.

Because you have no qualms about playing the "blame game" when it comes to the LTTE, you end up being partisan.. You should know the government of Sri Lanka, after having signed the ceasefire agreement, is funding and using paramilitary forces, armed to the teeth, to do its bidding and dirty work of inciting and engaging in violence against the LTTE and Thamil-speaking civilians. These forces are not only using child soldiers, but are also, according to Tamilnet,

allegedly responsible for a series of recent attacks on Muslims with the intention of provoking Tamil-Muslim riots and Muslim-LTTE dissension. Two renegades from the Karuna paramilitary camp claimed responsibility for the killing of a senior Karuna operative. The two claimed that the Karuna Group to which they belonged was attached to a Sri Lankan Special Task Force (STF) camp in the area, from which the group conducted raids on Muslim and Tamil villages.

Blaming the victim

I am appalled that you preach to Thamils, saying "We must also learn the art of reconciliation. The Sinhalese are consumed by fear of the Tamil 'other;' they have an extraordinary capacity for generosity. Generations of Tamil politicians instead of harnessing this generosity played to Sinhalese fears and nightmares, brokering deals with Sinhalese elites without explaining their grievances and aspirations to the average Sinhalese." This is a pure case of blaming the victim. Notice how the onus is ONLY on Tamil politicians, without a mention of the Sinhalese politicians who appointed you and are your friends and neighbors.

Yes, of course the Sinhalese are our "generous" brothers and sisters, but on what terms, I ask. I demand equal terms and our fraternity cannot be recognized until our rights are won.


In your speech, you mention that "federalism" is a solution to the national question. Have you worked out a solution to the most onerous question: how would the main areas of power to be divided? If the more important powers such as Foreign affairs, Defense and Finance, to name a few, are vested in the Federal Government and the Federal Government reflects the will of only the majority of the country taken as a whole, we will encounter the same problems that we face now with the majority will prevailing. Giving away control of our economy and our ability to interact and negotiate with the international community would be akin to placing one's head in the hangman's noose.    

Sri Lanka's President won in November on a unitary platform. Whilst there are no guarantees from the Sinhala ruling parties that they are even going to consider a federalist model, or a peace that is just and reasonable, your concern seems to shift more to making the NorthEast a "haven for democracy" when it already is - have you not heard of the TNA? And you have the audacity to call for "commitment from international and national actors to transform the politics of the NorthEast into a haven for democracy." Democracy can give legitimacy to governments that are oppressive. Democracy is defined as a form of society characterized by social equality and tolerance. You could ask the national and international actors to help out our Sinhala brethren who may need some prodding in that direction.

2005 presidential elections

And if you are one of those who are blaming the LTTE for the Thamil boycott of the Sri Lankan presidential elections, think again. In my article "The Thamil Electorate Has Come of Age," I say:

 "Those who are blaming the LTTE for the boycott are showing a callous disrespect for the mature Thamil electorate in Sri Lanka. Their failure to understand or credit the Thamil electorate with some intelligence shows they not only lack sensitivity, but are painfully ignorant of the issues facing the Thamil-speaking people in the NorthEast of Sri Lanka.

The stark truth is that, by their non-participation, the Thamils have rejected the platforms of both presidential candidates with a "resounding no." No one can ignore this most demonstrative and massive repudiation of Sinhala policies. It's clear the president elect has no mandate to govern the Thamil-speaking people.

There should be a serious attempt for people to study the actual choices before the Thamil electorate. Having to choose from the devil and the deep blue sea, the Thamil electorate chose neither. It shows the Thamil electorate has come of age!

They exercised their free will and fundamental right not to participate in a "farce." Neither of the presidential candidates had anything to offer. In both cases the outcome presented a story of "gloom and doom" as neither had a message of "hope" for the Thamils.

Who in their right mind would want to participate in such a futile exercise that would only endorse a system that perpetuates an inequality? Only fools would fall repeatedly in to the same trap with their eyes open, knowing they would fall further and further in to an abyss. The Thamil electorate has opened its eyes. They have become mature and aware of their rights and cannot be fooled any more by "phony vote grabbing Sinhala politicians with matching phony tales."

The Thamil speaking people in the NorthEast of Sri Lanka have aspirations like any other; they, too, want to reach for and achieve their full potential through the help of a government that cares for their welfare and facilitates their path to progress. So they ditched both candidates who they knew were not going to take them on that path and never will.

The message from the Thamil-speaking people is loud and clear. Any peace solution must reflect this mass affirmation of the Thamil people's desire to free themselves from such deceitful politicians."

Ironically, your award was named after Robert S Litvack, a McGill law graduate who was a tireless advocate for aboriginal rights. Would that you could champion the rights of the indigenous Tamils!

I have written in rather harshly, but if you care to reply maybe we could understand each other and be friends.

Yours truly,

Usha S Sri Skanda Rajah,
Toronto, Canada