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Eyewitnesses interviewed during a week-long undercover investigation for Channel 4 News, told of thousands of civilian deaths as government forces advanced on the Tigers’ final stronghold.
The deaths, they said, were the result of government shelling.
The Sri Lankan president and senior government ministers have repeatedly denied causing a single civilian death in what the government had desginated a “no-fire zone.”
International aid agencies believe as many as 100,000 civilians may have been trapped inside, under a fierce bombardment.
“I think every day a thousand people were killed,” one of the very last to escape the tiny enclave told us. He was referring to the final two weeks of the conflict, during which the Sri Lankan government claimed not to have used heavy artillery.
“There were continuous shelling attacks,” said the eyewitness. We have verified his identity as a man in a position of authority, but we are unable to reveal it.
Members of Sri Lanka’s ethnic Sinhalese majority also expressed deep misgivings about the fate of the island’s Tamil minority now that the Tamil Tigers have been so decisively defeated. Despite severe restrictions on access to camps for displaced civilians, evidence is emerging of maltreatment, despite a promise made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his “victory speech” to Sri Lanka’s parliament.
Speaking in the Tamil language, the president promised equal rights for Tamils and took “personal responsibility” for protecting them.
“Our heroic forces,” he said, “have sacrificed their lives to protect Tamil civilians.” A senior Roman Catholic priest, who has worked with the displaced in the heavily militarised northern town of Vavuniya, said the triumphalism of Sinhalese was “very sad” to witness.
“There is no one to represent the aspirations of the Tamil community,” he said. “They have a very uncertain future. It means they will live as a subjugated community, like under a foreign ruler.”
One of the few senior members of the Tamil Tigers to have survived, Selvarasa Pathmanathan, its head of international relations, said yesterday that the rebels’ struggle for a separate Tamil homeland would now continue from exile.
“The legitimate campaign of the Tamils to realise their right to self-determination has been brutally crushed through military aggression,” said a statement, released from an unspecified location. Sri Lankans expressing concerns about the welfare and treatment of Tamil civilians — or questioning the army’s version of its final assault on the Tamil Tigers — are branded unpatriotic, even traitorous.
Dr Wickramabahu Karunarathne, a left-wing politician and one of the few dissident voices in the Sinhalese community said: “The state media, every day, radio, papers, they classify us as traitors and they are rousing people against us.”
Dr Karunaratne was the only interviewee prepared to talk openly on camera without having his face obscured and voice changed. One prominent Sinhalese journalist, Podala Jayantha, who had campaigned for greater media freedom, was abducted and severely beaten by unknown assailants, two weeks ago.
Amnesty International says that since 2006, 16 Sri Lankan journalists have been murdered, 26 assaulted, and many more detained. Foreign journalists have had their movements severely restricted and last month, our own accredited Asia Correspondent Nick Paton Walsh was deported.
Journalists and all independent observers were banned from the no-fire zone, during and after the fighting, so no independent assessments have been made of government claims not to have killed civilians. It has blamed any deaths on the rebels.
Journalists have also been unable to enter the hospital in Vavuniya, where thousands of wounded civilians are being treated. Channel 4 News successfully smuggled a small camera into Vavuniya and interviewed a Tamil doctor there.
“It is most sure that the numbers without limbs are over 20,000. Most of the injuries causing loss of limbs were from shelling,” he said. The doctor alleged that conditions in the camps for displaced people around Vavuniya, are poor and that malnutrition and disease are rife.
“We were all gathered together recently by the government and we were told that if we told the figures of the sick and why people are dying to the foreign NGOs that we will be killed for doing this.”
Response from the Sri Lanka government
Click on the image below to read the response in full.
Watch Jonathan Miller’s report tonight on Channel 4 News at 7pm
After a military victory for the government in a civil war that has torn the country apart for decades, Sri Lanka now begins a process of national reconciliation.
AFP/File – A heavily-armed policeman stands guard as a military vehicle moves through the Sri Lankan town of Vavuniya …
Sat May 9, 1:24 pm ET
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lankan police arrested three journalists for London-based Channel 4 television news Saturday on charges of tarnishing the image of government security forces, authorities said.
Police spokesman Ranjith Gunasekera said the trio were arrested in the eastern city of Trincomalee on Saturday. He said investigations are continuing.
Nick Paton-Walsh, the channel’s Asian correspondent, spoke to the Associated Press by telephone shortly after the arrest, saying that he was being driven to the capital, Colombo , along with producer Bessie Du and cameraman Matt Jasper.
The Channel 4 had been covering fierce fighting between government forces and the separatist Tamil Tigers.
Walsh said he believed the arrests were connected to his recent report on conditions for war refugees and alleged sexual abuse in camps for those who fled the northern war zone.
ITN News, which produces Channel 4, confirmed that its reporting team has been ordered to leave the country by the Sri Lankan Defense Minister, “after reporting allegations of abuse and ill-treatment of Tamils held in internment camps.”
“Their original report, broadcast on Channel 4 News on 5th May, contained the first independently filmed video from one of the internment camps in the city of Vavuniya in the north of Sri Lanka ,” ITN said in a statement. “The report contained claims that dead bodies were left where they fell, shortages of food and water, and sexual abuse.”
ITN said it would seek an explanation from the Sri Lankan government for the decision to expel the journalists.
The government has denied the Channel 4 report.
In recent weeks, the government and aid groups have been struggling to cope with more than 120,000 civilians who fled the war zone, overwhelming displacement camps.
Media rights group have accused the government of carrying out a ruthless campaign against the media and dissidents amid the military’s recent successes against rebels.
Government troops have ousted the Tamil Tigers — who once ran a de facto state in the north and east — from their northern strongholds in recent months, cornering them into a sliver of land just 2.4 miles (4 kilometers) long on the northeastern coast.
Journalists are still largely banned from the northern war zone, making it difficult for independent journalists to verify either government or rebel reports of the conflict. The government argues the area is too dangerous for noncombatants.
The government also has come under heavy criticism for a spate of attacks on and arrests of journalists viewed as critical of the offensive against the rebels. The government denies any hand in the suppression of journalists.
According to Amnesty International, at least 14 journalists and Sri Lankans working for media organizations have been killed since the beginning of 2006. Others have been detained, tortured or have disappeared. Amnesty says 20 more have fled the country because of death threats.
The rebels have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state for minority Tamils, who have suffered decades of marginalization at the hands of governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority.
The international community, the UN Security Council, The Commonwealth Member Countries, the SAARC are all organizations and forums at different levels that could prevail on Sri Lanka over the human carnage that’s most nakedly unfolding, at the expense of innocent civilians, who are caught in the bloody conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers. This catastrophe has been unfolding in a very savage manner especially from January this year, after Tamil Tigers accepted defeat by leaving Killinochchi and retreating to their acclaimed stronghold, the Mullaitivu.
Even before that, there were calls going out to the international community, to the EU, to the UN and to most other humanitarian agencies, asking them to intervene in this conflict on the basis there is an imminent humanitarian crisis that needs independent intervention. This call for independent intervention from the outside world went out louder when the GoSL systematically closed all access to international and national aid organizations, humanitarian organizations and to the media in reaching the war affected areas and the people caught in the war. A war behind iron curtains can never be within humanitarian limits and decency.
Yet in a typically bureaucratic manner, all international organizations from the UN Security Council to the EU and the SL Aid Group, including all humanitarian agencies, worked hard to find protocols, international charters and covenants that could lay the blame square on both the GoSL and the Tamil Tigers equally and request for adherence to international law. It is not that they did not know such statements from distant cities would provide the government with time and space to continue with its military offensives how ever ruthless they could be.
This isn’t the first time these international organizations and associations have been into this business of allowing armed conflicts to grow savage at the expense of human life. The Rwandan conflict is one classic example of how the UN Security Council and the international community played on their own agenda at the expense of innocent human lives. In less than 100 days, over 01 million Tutsi civilians were hacked, butchered and cut to death in one of the most callous neglects in world diplomacy, while the UN Security Council members were arguing on who is right and who is wrong and whether it is right to intervene and how. They went into long discussions and debates over coffee and tea, for they had all the time in the world in their plush offices. But not those Tutsi men, women and children, the young and the old who were dying at the hands of Hutu power on the roads, in their homes, at workplaces and in hide outs they thought they would be safe.
The US Secretary of State under the Clinton administration, Madam Madeleine Albright writing her autobiography in her retirement says, [quote] As I look back at the records of the meetings held that first week, I am struck by the lack of information about the killing that had begun against unarmed Rwandan civilians, as opposed to the fighting between Hutu and Tutsi militias. Many Western embassies had been evacuated, including our own (US), so official reporting was curtailed. Dallaire (head of the UN Peace keeping force) was making dire reports to the UN headquarters, but the oral summaries provided to the Security Council lacked detail and failed to convey the full dimensions of the disaster. As a result, the Council hoped unrealistically that each new day would bring a cease fire.[unquote] – (Madam Secretary / page 188; emphasis and explanations within brackets added)
That is simply how these big powers play their role as international leaders. After all that massacre, after 01 million innocent lives had been unnecessarily hacked to death, Albright says, [unquote] My deepest regret from years in public service is the failure of the United States and the international community to act sooner to halt those crimes. President Clinton later apologized for our lack of action, as did I. [unquote] – (ibid – p/185; emphasis added)
Its easy for them to tender apologies and lay the chapter of mass killings aside. So is it with all the other conflicts she lists in her memoirs. Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Angola, Liberia, Mozambique, Sudan, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Tajikistan were all extreme cases of conflict that had received priority over Rwanda according to Albright. It was 1993 and 16 years ago that she lists all these conflict ridden countries. Israel and the Gaza, is not there though. That’s despite the UN Security Council adopting 131 Resolutions on the Israel – Palestinian conflict, but has never invoked Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Israel is thus given freedom to behave the way it wants. Burma and Aung San Suki wasn’t even listed. The Military Junta carries on regardless.
How many has the UN Security Council and the international community solved or at least positively intervened in paving a way out of the conflicts, from this list in Madam Secretary’s memoirs ? None for sure. In fact the list is longer and broader now. There is Iraq, Iran and North Korea on a different plateau. Afghanistan has now turned the conflict into an Afghanistan – Pakistan – India conflict. Robert Mugabe continues with his Zimbabwe reeling with armed conflicts while enjoying inflation at over 2,000 per cent. President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan is indicted in the ICC while the international community allows Darfur to turn into a playing field for human catastrophe. The list is definitely long and bloody.
Can the Sri Lankan conflict receive from these cumbersome agencies any treatment that would be different to what they have always been doling out ? In all these international agencies, from the UN to IMF and World Bank, the US dollar has big interests in how they act. All international agencies have to accede to super power interests and that is no secret. Who are they ? They are all big time arms manufacturers and dealers. The US between the years 2000 – 2007 has been leading the military hardware market with US $ 134.84 billion which was 37% of the market share. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the US, UK, France, Russia, and China together in 2002 shared 88% of the reported sales in conventional arms.
Imagine this planet earth in soothing peace ? No armed conflicts any where, only dialogue and negotiations in managing conflicts. Can these five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council afford to lose US $ 273.5 billion ? As former US President Jimmy Carter said during his presidential campaign in 1976, [quote] We can’t have it both ways. We can’t be both the world’s leading champion of peace and the world’s leading supplier of arms.[unquote]
They would rather say “sorry” again after everything is over. If Sri Lanka could on its own finish the conflict what ever the human carnage, as in Serbia, they would still issue a statement, ambiguous in tone but thanking the government of SL for finishing off “terrorism”. For they wouldn’t lose this tiny arms market immediately and there are other conflicts they moderate on their own agenda, any way. Its ridiculous to expect international big time players including the UN to help stop human tragedies. They wouldn’t.
For details on world armament market visit – http://www.globalissues.org/article/74/the-arms-trade-is-big-business#GlobalArmsSalesBySupplierNations
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Sir, We call upon the UK Government to press for an urgent Security Council resolution on the situation in northern Sri Lanka, with the view to dispatching a fact-finding mission there under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General, in furtherance of the Security Council’s primary responsibility under the Charter of the United Nations for the maintenance of international peace and security.
[On Thursday, November 20th, 2008 The American Friends of the Phelophepa Train held their 7th Annual Gala Awards Dinner, at the TimesCenter in the New York Times building. The Phelophepa Achievement Award for Excellence was presented live to Archbishop-Emeritus Desmond M. Tutu]
We urge the UK Government, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to recognise the underlying importance of taking measures aimed at conflict prevention and resolution, and to draw its attention to its commitment under the Security Council resolutions 1265/1999 and 1296/2000 on the protection of civilians in armed conflict; resolution 1366/2001 on the role of the Security Council in the prevention of armed conflict; resolution 1325/2000 on women, peace and security; and resolution 1460/2003 on children in armed conflict.
The deteriorating humanitarian and human rights situation throughout the war-afflicted areas of northern and eastern Sri Lanka warrants immediate attention and action by the Security Council. An armed conflict entailing widespread and serious abuses continues in these areas. Calls for all sides to exercise restraint and respect international humanitarian and human rights law remain unheeded.
Accurate and timely information about the situation of civilians in these areas remain scarce because of government-imposed restrictions on independent observers, including the UN, most human rights organisations, journalists and others, from accessing the combat zones. A few remaining independent observers have placed the total civilian casualties at 7,000, with 2,000 fatalities, within a four-week period between January and February this year. The total number of civilians trapped by the fighting is conservatively put at a quarter of a million. The real figures are likely to be much higher. The alleged abuses are being carried out with total impunity and include serious and indiscriminate violations of international humanitarian law.
Humanitarian assistance and protection remain minimal owing to both targeted attacks and generalised insecurity. In the absence of concrete improvements in the security situation, each day adds to the toll of civilian deaths and injuries.
Security Council action is urgently needed to ensure an end to persistent abuses by all parties to the conflict, to protect the civilians still at risk of attacks and to help to improve conditions by demonstrating the United Nations’ continuing commitment to the wellbeing of civilians caught up in armed conflicts around the world.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu; Dr Louise Arimatsu (LSE); Dr Chaloka Beyani (LSE); Professor Bill Bowring (Birkbeck); Professor Mathew Craven (SOAS); Professor Malgosia Fitzmaurice (Queen Mary); Professor Guy S. Goodwin-Gill (Oxford); Muthupandi Ganesan (barrister); Dr Krishna Kalaichelvan; Professor Mary Kaldor (LSE); Naomi Lumsdaine; John Mcnally; Dr Roger O’Keefe (Cambridge); Andrew Price (barrister); Professor Martin Shaw (Sussex); Mannan Thangarajah (barrister); Professor Nigel White (Sheffield)
Chaired by Priyath Liyanage (BBC) Frances Harrison (journalist) Charu Lata Hogg (Human Rights Watch) Pearl Thevanayagam (Tamil journalist) Raj Jayadevan (Alliance for Peace and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka) Lal Wickrematunge (Sunday Leader, Sri Lanka) by phone
The Tamil Tigers are looking closer than ever to military defeat as government forces continue to overrun the last remaining rebel strongholds in the north of the country. With an end to the military stalemate and the 25 year civil war potentially in sight, what is the future for the LTTE and what are the consequences more generally for Sri Lanka?
Will a military defeat for the LTTE mean a return to its insurgency roots and will the Tigers continue to use their notoriously heavy-handed tactics on the Tamil people? Or can we now expect to see a new era in Sri Lankan politics with the government and the LTTE returning to dialogue and peace-building? What will happen to the thousands of displaced persons and injured civilians that have resulted from this war – a situation that the international aid agencies have declared to be a humanitarian disaster? And what is the likelihood that the end of the war will bring with it a return to press freedom and an improved human rights record?
Frances Harrison was the BBC’s Colombo correspondent from 2000 to 2004 during the last peace process between the Tamil Tigers and the government. She is now a freelance journalist.
Charu Lata Hogg worked as an international journalist in India and Sri Lanka for over 12 years, writing for numerous publications. As Associate Fellow in the Asia Programme at Chatham House, she has briefed governments, NGOs, corporations and the media on a range of issues in South Asia covering political, economic and security trends. She is currently also researcher with Human Rights Watch and covers developments in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal.
Pearl Thevanayagam is an exiled journalist from Sri Lanka from the Tamil minority. She has been a print journalist since 1990 for various newspapers in Sri Lanka including the Weekend Express (independent English weekly) where she served as a news editor until she was forced to resign under pressure from the government in 1997 and had to go into hiding until 2001. She was also Colombo Correspondent to Times Of India. Pearl is a founder member and secretary of EJN (Exiled Journalists Network) and in October 2007 was co-organiser of the Press Freedom Forum on Sri Lanka in the UK parliament to highlight the increasing threats, murders and abductions of media personnel.
Lal Wickrematunge is the managing editor of the Sunday Leader, the newspaper founded by his brother Lasantha Wickrematunge who was killed on 8 January 2009.
Raj Jayadevan is the leader of the Tamil Democratic Congress and the General Secretary of the recently formed Alliance for Peace and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka (APRSL). He has been involved in Sri Lankan politics since the mid 1970’s and came to the UK to study in 1979 following anti-Tamil violence in 1977. He was taken captive in 2005 by the LTTE and released after 62 days.
Priyath Liyanage is head of the Sinhala Service at the BBC
Source : Frontline Club