The protracted armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has drastically escalated since the beginning of 2006. An estimated 4,000 people have since been killed and over 275,000 internally displaced in that period. This is in addition to more than 500,000 uprooted earlier in the conflict and by the tsunami of December 2004.
The areas mostly affected by the renewed war are Batticaloa, Jaffna, Mannar, Trincomalee and Vavunia. Apart from the large number of internally displaced, around 18,000 Tamils have been forced to find refuge in India since January 2006. Both sides to the conflict are accused of deliberately targeting civilians and committing grave human rights violations with impunity. The government and the LTTE have severely restricted access to the conflict areas under their control, thus leaving more than half of the newly displaced people and other affected populations without access to basic needs.
At this present moment the eastern district of Batticaloa is becoming a region of internally displaced persons (IDPs). More than 35% of Batticaloaâ€™s Tamil population of 422, 674 have now been displaced. In the last three months alone there has been a movement of 145,000 IDPs within the district. In addition, approximately 30,000 Tamils from eastern Trincomalee have sought refuge in the district. However there is a deliberate effort by the government to minimize the figures.
The latest reports coming out from Batticaloa are alarming; there have been numerous serious human rights abuses committed against these IDPs: forcible return and resettlement in unsafe areas, using them as human shields, mass arrests under emergency regulations, child recruitment, abductions, involuntary disappearances, sexual abuse, political killings, torture, etc. The Government has curtailed relief organisationsâ€™ access to IDP points in order to cover up the human catastrophe that is unfolding in the east. UN relief agencies state that the IDPs do not have shelter, food and water, and are living under catastrophic hygienic conditions and suffering from fever, diarrhea, coughs and various skin rashes. Aid agencies have also warned that they are on the verge of running out of food and the ever-increasing IDP influx in the eastern province has already caused a severe shortage of shelter materials. Further overcrowding, they fear, may cause major outbreaks of epidemics. The situation of the IDPs is further complicated by the active involvement of a third armed actor, the Karuna Faction, which split from the LTTE in March 2004. The Karuna Faction, with the assistance of the government security forces, also carries out abductions, political killings and child recruitment in IDP camps while pretending to do resettlement work.
The Sri Lankan IDP problem is unique because of the nature of multiple displacements. Many of the current Tamil IDP families have been on the run on and off for the last 25 years and the younger generation of this population has experienced for several months a return with a vengeance of intensive air-strikes and indiscriminate shelling of their welfare centres, mass massacres, disappearances and forced recruitment. Some of these youngsters were born in refugee camps and rotated in between camps several times within a year. For this community nothing has been permanent since 1985 other than the hostilities, abuses and atrocities committed by the government, LTTE, Karuna group and other paramilitary groups. In the recent past, the Sri Lankan government has been moving the IDPs by force to the areas that they have newly captured from LTTE. Most of these areas are full of landmines and do not provide the means to re-build livelihoods for returnees as a consequence of the heavy militarization process. It is also alarming that government officers and INGOs have to consult a government backed armed group (Karuna Faction) on resettlement and relief activities thus forcing even experienced UN bodies like UNHCR to withdraw/ reduce their involvement with IDPs.
The human right situation in Sri Lanka is deteriorating day by day. According to the Minority Rights Group International report (released on 20th March 2007) Sri Lanka has jumped 47th places since the previous year and is now in the top 20 list of countries where minority communities are most under threat. Minority Tamils and Muslims are not only caught in the cross fire and made homeless overnight but are specifically targeted for grave human rights abuses including killings, abductions and disappearances. In the last two months (January and February 07) alone, 388 people have disappeared. Citizens in the northernmost part of the country have been completely cut off from rest of the country due to the closure of the A9 road in last September. In Jaffna alone, the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission reports that every three hours one person is abducted and/or killed. Eye witnessesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ accounts from Mannar reveal that LTTE cadres have been forcefully recruiting young women from IDP camps. Some of these IDP women, who have dared to resist, have been beaten up and stripped naked by LTTE women cadres. IDP receiving points are the breeding ground for all forms of violations against minority communities by all parties that are involved in this dirty war and it is crucial that there should be an international mechanism put in place to monitor IDP condition and assure some form of security to this most vulnerable population of the north and east.
The Rajapakse government has been militarily supported by the USA, China, Pakistan and India in its war. While some countries have been becoming more critical of the governmentâ€™s human rights record, the support for the war against â€˜terrorismâ€™ has given the government the confidence to continue with the war. The government has been proactively blocking the entry of any foreign missions, including the proposed visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, which has been postponed twice; and since the EU countries are branded as supporters of the LTTE their visas to undertake even humanitarian activities have been denied or purposely delayed. Recently, security forces have been accused of killing humanitarian workers of Action Faim who were killed in execution style in August 2006, which resulted in the fear that the limited international presence in most of the needy and war torn areas being further reduced. For local human rights advocates most spaces for agitation against the war have been completely blocked and local human right defenders are constantly hunted down. The liberal media has been silenced either by killing vocal anti-war journalists or arresting them on counterfeited terrorism charges.
The current government has introduced various forms of â€˜counterterrorismâ€™ measures. These measures have been used against the minority Tamils, specially against the IDPs. There have been mass arrests from IDP camps and at crossing points and the victims have been locked up in undisclosed locations without any charges or access to lawyers. The government says the detainees are militants and have surrendered voluntarily. The main counter terrorism measures have given unlimited authority to the police and the military to arrest and detain suspects. It has also widened the culture of impunity with the government-backed paramilitary groups carrying out human rights abuses including abductions for ransom even in the capital city Colombo.
In Sri Lanka today, raising human rights concerns have become unpleasant and scary in the context of the ongoing war that the government intends to win at any cost. Simply put, the governments of USA, China, Pakistan and India (through its omissions and commissions) are encouraging this war against the Sri Lankan minorities. Concerned civil society groups in these countries must help us stop this madness.