Sri Lanka: Canada's attention is overdue
By Kshama RanawanaIf the declared purpose of successive Sri Lankan governments has been to ensure the unity of the island nation, then recent events seem to aim at achieving just the opposite.
On Sunday, September 21, ethnic minority Tamils hailing from the north and east of the country and living in the South Western region were required to register themselves with the police. The ruling this time was specific to those who had lived in the South during a five year period or less and was described by police as a census of Tamils living in the western region.
Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s comments on the exercise were more candid. He was quoted in The Nation: “Anyone remaining in Colombo without a proper reason should head back to the north and east, since it will create a threat to the security situation.” Certainly, this is a contradiction of the country’s constitutional guarantees of freedom of movement.
Police estimated at least a 100,000 people of Tamil origin had moved to the south of the country in the past five years, most fleeing the economic deprivations and excesses of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the war zones. A total of 10,820 registered themselves that Sunday. With the government forces reported to be knocking on the LTTE stronghold known as the Vanni, authorities claim LTTE cadres could move south along with the civilians and carry out retaliatory attacks.
Registration of Tamils visiting the south and its environs has been in practice for nearly a decade, in a nation which has been battling a war with the LTTE who seek an independent state, Eelam in the north of the country where a majority of the Tamils live. Despite the practice, the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse has begun a more aggressive sweep and search of areas populated by Tamils outside the north and the east of the country, as well as in places termed “High Security Zones”. Those suspected of having links with the LTTE or whose identification does not satisfy the authorities are often kept in detention.
In June 2007, scores of Tamils living in lodges in the capital of Colombo to attend to business, medical or personal matters were rounded up and bussed back to a border point, an act which drew the ire of civil society groups and others calling for a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict. It resulted in the Supreme Court issuing a directive that such arbitrary actions be stopped.
In a country where the best of facilities are available in the Western region, where the administrative and commercial capitals are located, it has become a necessity for its citizens to travel to Colombo to attend to most of their personal or business needs. To suggest that Tamils visiting the capital should return to their respective homes in a bid to ensure the safety of the rest, would then necessarily mean that the government accede to the demand of a Tamil homeland.
As Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, of the independent think-tank The Centre for Policy Alternatives, told the Washington Post newspaper, "At the end of the day, you are only instilling some sense of second-class citizenship and deepening a perception of discrimination."
This perception was underlined by the Sri Lankan Army Commander Lt. General Sarath Fonseka when he told the National Post recently that he does not believe minorities have a right to make demands. "I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese (majority) but there are minority communities and we treat them like our people," he said.
"We being the majority of the country, 75 per cent, we will never give in and we have the right to protect this country. We are also a strong nation. They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things."
The conflict between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils began nearly 25 years ago and stems from agitations that have been simmering for more than five decades for parity of status between the two communities. The mostly Buddhist Sinhalese make up nearly 75 per cent of the 21 million people. Tamils make up around 18 per cent. Following the conflict scores of Tamils have left the country, many moving to Canada.
The situation has been cynically exploited by leaders of both groups and ordinary people, whether they be Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, have been the worst affected.
The LTTE, who claim to be the chosen liberators of the Tamil people, expect them to conform to their regulations; children are abducted and used as cannon fodder, while even the elderly are often pressed into battle. Those wishing to even temporarily travel outside the area require a pass from the LTTE, and if a family needs to travel, at least one member must remain at home. Funds sent in by relations living outside are almost always taxed to fatten the LTTE war chests.
On the other hand, civilians from the north and the east are also required to obtain travel permits from government forces, produce police reports and register themselves; carrying such valid documentation, though is in no way a guarantee of being above suspicion.
The recent escalation of the war has resulted in nearly 200,000 Tamil civilians being trapped in the conflict zone, easy prey for the LTTE who even on earlier occasions had no compunction in using them as human shields. And could Tamils trust a regime where comments of its Army Commander and Defence Secretary reveal its ideological beliefs?
While Canada and many other nations have banned the LTTE and somewhat blunted its power over the Tamil diaspora, the international community’s attempts to raise the issue of human rights with the government of Sri Lanka has only resulted in its snubbing them and aligning itself with Iran and China.
Perhaps Canada, which is home to the largest Tamil community in the West, could give serious thought to Liberal Party Foreign Affairs critic Bob Rae, who states on his website that Canada’s aid and diplomacy “need to be focused on a renewed push for a ceasefire, for a demobilization of the conflict and a commitment to parliament democracy, the rule of law and human rights.” Rae wants Canada more engaged, not “a Canada on the sidelines or a Canada wagging its finger 10,000 kilometers away.” [courtesy: Rable News]