Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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An Appeal to Prevent Civil War

by Dr. Brian Senewiratne, Brisbane, Australia, May 21, 2006

This appeal has been given to PM John Howard and Members of the Australian Parliament

Dear Mr. Howard and Parliamentarians,

Concerned people from the Sri Lankan Tamil Community (and others) are meeting outside Parliament on Monday 29.5.06 to draw your attention, and seek your support, to prevent the restart of armed hostilities in Sri Lanka. 

I am a Sinhalese from the majority (74%) community in Sri Lanka and not from the persecuted Tamil minority (18%), which has been facing serious problems at the hands of the Sinhalese-dominated Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) for many years. I am a doctor of Medicine and my only interest is humanitarian, not political.

It is of no concern to me as to who runs Sri Lanka as long as it is run without discrimination of a section of the population and the violation of their human rights, including and especially, the right to life. Amnesty International (AI)  and other Human Rights groups with international credibility have documented, in a series of publications in the past three decades, the serious violation of human rights to which the Tamil community has been subjected to in Sri Lanka. This has included mass arrests, detention without charge or trial, ‘disappearances’ of thousands while in Army custody (Sri Lanka had the second highest incidence of involuntary ‘ disappearances’ in the world), murder, torture and rape of Tamil civilians by the Armed Forces and bombing and shelling of the Tamil North by their own Government Forces.

In just one area - Chemmani - some 900 civilians held in Army custody without charge or trial ‘disappeared’, their bodies being later found in mass graves. Under mounting international pressure, an exhumation was carried out in the presence of an AI representative and an Australian Forensic Scientist. Unbelievably, the Army Brigadier General in charge of this area was later sent to Australia as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner. I urged my cousin, the then President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, not to do so at least until his responsibility for this atrocity was clarified. I was not accusing him of killing anyone but when 900 people in the custody of his Armed Forces ‘disappear’, he must be held accountable. An investigation by Ross Coulthart of Channel 9 into this atrocity was screened in this country. The Australian Forensic Scientist testified that those who were exhumed showed signs of torture and the AI representative, who also appeared on the program, expressed ‘concern’ at the appointment.

I came to Canberra and presented my concerns to your Department of Foreign Affairs. Despite this, Australia decided to accept this person as a Diplomat. The Tamil community in Australia was outraged. Mr Howard, you may not see it this way, but this was a downright insult to the Sri Lankan Tamils, a slap in the face by their Government. I know the hurt that I felt as a Sinhalese, despite the fact that I had not lost members of my family at the hands of the Armed Forces under the command of the Brigadier General. 

Let me move away from Sri Lankans and see what non-Sri Lankan Australians have reported. Let us take our own Lawasia, the Law Association for Asia and the Pacific, centred here in Australia. Patricia Hyndman, the then Secretary of Lawasia’s Human Rights Standing Committee, after her visit to Sri Lanka, gave me a copy of her report on “Democracy in Peril”. This is what she said:

“There was a general consensus that within Sri Lanka today the Tamils do not have the protection of the rule of law, that the Sri Lankan government presents itself as a democracy under crisis, and that neither the government, nor its friends abroad, appreciate the serious inroads on democracy which have been made by the legislative, administrative and military measures which are being taken.

Mr. Howard, as a lawyer yourself, you simply cannot ignore this.

The bottom line of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is systematic and progressive discrimination of the Tamil minority by a succession of Sinhalese-dominated Governments over the past 58 years. This discrimination (in employment, job opportunities, education, the use of their language (Tamil) and the developmental neglect of the areas they live in) has been carried out by every Sinhalese political party to get the support (and votes) of the majority Sinhalese, to get into or remain in power.

A series of completely non-violent protests by the democratically elected representatives of the Tamil people were met by Government-sponsored Sinhalese hoodlum violence and the violence of the Police (95% Sinhalese), and the Armed Forces (99% Sinhalese). Several ‘Pacts’ to address the legitimate grievances of the Tamils, were unilaterally abrogated by a succession of Sri Lankan Governments, under pressure from Sinhalese extremists and political opportunists who envisage multiethnic, multi-religious, multicultural,  Sri Lanka as a Sinhala-Buddhist nation. If this is the perception, which is even enshrined in the 1972 and all subsequent Constitutions, then there is no alternative to the establishment of a separate Tamil State, Eelam.

In 1977, at the last credible General Elections, the Tamil people, unable to cope with the extensive violation of their human rights, voted overwhelmingly for the establishment of a separate Tamil State, in the area they live in (North and East).

With their elected representatives getting nowhere with non-violent protests, Tamil youths, in 1972, took up arms to force the GOSL to accede to the wishes of their people. The Tamil Tigers are not the cause of the problem but the result. The cause of the problem is anti-Tamil discrimination by a succession of Sri Lankan Governments and the failure of the democratic process to address the entirely justifiable demands of the Tamil minority. These ‘demands’ are that they be allowed to live with equality, dignity, safety and without discrimination in the country of their birth, and to develop the neglected area they live in.

The Sri Lankan Government claims that the problem is “Tamil terrorism”. Any government’s condemnation of terror is credible only if it shows itself to be responsive to reasonable, closely argued, persistent, non-violent dissent. No Sinhala government since Independence in 1948 has been responsive to the reasonable demands of the Tamil people who form 12.5% of the country, and more than 90% of those in the North and East.

After the ‘9/11’ events in New York and America’s ‘fight against terrorism’, the GOSL has portrayed the Sri Lankan problem as a “fight against terrorism” to get the necessary arms to fight its own people.  This is going to get worse as billions of dollars are poured into the Sri Lankan coffers and massive arms shipments are given to ‘fight against terrorism’.

It must be appreciated that the extensive bombing and destruction of the Tamil North (Jaffna has more than a million civilians) cannot be a “fight against terrorism”. It is a Government fighting its own people – the Tamils, who are simply asking that they be allowed to live in peace.

After 18 years of one of the bloodiest and most destructive ethnic conflicts in South Asia, the loss of some 65,000 lives mainly Tamil civilians, and serious effects on the economy of the country, in December 2001, with the election of the United National Party (UNP) Government, the Tamil Tigers unilaterally declared a cease-fire. The Government quickly reciprocated and since February 2002 there has been no fighting.

The Tamil Tigers and the GOSL sat down to Peace Talks but with the GOSL dragging its feet in implementing the Agreements entered into, the Talks were suspended.

With the defeat of the UNP and the re-election of Chandrika Kumatunga’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), now under President Rajapakse, and supported by extreme Sinhala chauvinists and political opportunists, the chance of any reasonable offer being made to the Tamils for a devolution of power seems remote. Unless there is massive international pressure on the GOSL to come up with reasonable offers to the Tamils that will address their underlying problems, war will be inevitable.

To simply ban the Tamil Tigers as “terrorists” is clearly an exercise in futility. The Tamil Tigers are the only group negotiating for justice for the Tamils. Countries that simply ban them are opting out of facilitating a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

Australia has a large expatriate Tamil community. Some have come here as refugees, others are here by choice.  However they came, they have made a significant contribution to this country over many years. Australia has an obligation to support their just request for the Australian Government to put pressure on the GOSL to see that there is ‘Peace with Justice’ for the Tamils and prevent the return to war and a decimation of what is left of their homeland in the North and East.

The question has been asked whether a civil war in another country is our business. Yes it is. Internal conflicts have an external dimension. While it is true that it is the people of Sri Lanka who will have to decide their future, we in the international community have a duty, if not a right, to voice our opinion since we, not just the Sri Lankans, may have to pay the price for chaos in Sri Lanka

  1. Major human rights violations in a country are no longer considered an “internal affair” of that country, eg the international condemnation of apartheid in South Africa, what Indonesia was doing in East Timor, the barbarism in Rwanda. Sri Lanka cannot claim that the extensive suffering of the Tamil people in the North and East, and the suffering of the poor Sinhala rural youths shedding their blood fighting this unnecessary war, is out of bounds to comment from the international community.
  2. Chaos in one country results in a fall-out in other countries. As Sri Lanka disintegrates, refugees contact the nearest ‘people smuggler’, pay huge sums of money and get into leaky tin boxes which sink off the Australian coast. Damage is done to the image of Australia as a caring country. If the astronomically increasing world-wide problem of refugees is to be addressed, countries such as Australia, Canada, US and the European countries, to name just a few, will have to focus on the source rather than try to put up inhuman shutters. So, Sri Lanka’s problems become our problems, and we have a right, indeed an obligation, to “interfere”.
  3. When the destruction ends, the task of rebuilding the country, both the North and East, and even the South which is in a poverty crisis, falls on the international community. A good example is East Timor. We watched and we waited for years while the murderous regime in Jakarta systematically raped East Timor reducing it to a mere shell. As I write, Australian troops are on their way to stop the killing there, potting Australian lives at risk and costing this country millions of dollars. We have a right to try and prevent another devastation which is already far advanced in the North and East of Sri Lanka and will soon engulf the country unless something is done.

We in the international community, whether ex-Sri Lankans or non-Sri Lankans, have the right to ask the hard questions and exert the necessary pressure, to bring sense to a senseless situation as a country, once the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”, changes to the new “Killing Fields of Asia”, a country once with a bright future, turns into a country with no future.

Australia has a particular responsibility to try and prevent the restart of a highly destructive war in a country “in its sphere of interest and influence”. It simply cannot dismiss it as someone else’s problem or “terrorism”. What is at stake is a serious humanitarian issue and an extensive abuse of human rights with a consequent fallout on Australia, and serious consequences both to the Tamil North and East and the Sinhalese South in Sri Lanka.

I enclose a copy of a letter I wrote last week to the British Prime Minister which sets out Britain’s specific responsibility.

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