Tragedy in Sri Lanka

Most New Zealanders have little idea of the struggle of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka aside from television pictures of the horrendous outcomes of the civil war on Tamil civilians. These pictures have appeared more frequently over the last month and we’ll see more in coming weeks following the defeat of the Tamil resistance movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), by the Sri Lankan army.

In recent weeks some 10,000 have been killed, 50,000 wounded and around 275,000 made homeless.

For most of us it’s just part of the wallpaper of a violent world of human inhumanity but for the people directly involved and their friends and family overseas it has been devastating.

On Saturday I was at a meeting of the Tamil community in Auckland where the 150 people were emotionally exhausted from the last traumatic months of knowing their homeland communities have been destroyed and their families made refugees. All knew of people who had been killed but they felt the helplessness of those viewing events far from the conflict zone.

It’s been a very grim, brutal end to this phase of the Tamil struggle but like all struggles based on justice and self-determination it will not end with this military defeat.

The immediate need is for humanitarian aid to get through to the so-called “welfare camps” established by the Sri Lankan army. The need for food, water and basic medicines is urgent but just as important the eyes of the world are needed to witness and monitor the Sri Lankan army. It has a well-deserved reputation for racist hatred of Tamils and is held responsible by international human rights groups for numerous assassinations, disappearances and genocidal attacks on Tamils. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission “The Sri Lankan security forces are using systematic rape and murder of Tamil women to subjugate the Tamil population. Impunity continues to reign as rape is used as a weapon of war in Sri Lanka.”

At the Auckland meeting it was encouraging to hear National Party Member of Parliament Jackie Blue and Green MP Keith Locke speak knowledgeably and passionately on behalf of Tamils and stress the need to get humanitarian aid in while making refugee camps accessible to international agencies and taken out of the control of the Sri Lankan army which has placed heavy restrictions on aid agencies gaining entry to the camps.

The Tamil struggle for self determination is a story all too familiar. Britain left its colony of Ceylon 1948 with the single administration and the Sinhalese majority gaining control. In 1956 the Sinhalese established their Sinhala language as the only official language which forced most Tamils out of government jobs and into the role of second-class citizens facing systematic discrimination. This Tamil minority, approximately 14% of the population, with their own language and religion (Hindu as opposed to Buddhism) and geographical location (the North Eastern area of the country) began to agitate for independence and self-government.

They have made some gains. The Tamil language is now officially recognised and Tamil MPs sit in parliament but the desire for self-determination has strengthened over the decades.

The Sri Lankan government has seen this as a threat and have used their dominance to violently suppress Tamil aspirations. Anti-Tamil riots have been a regular feature of the past 60 years alongside targeted assassinations and disappearances of Tamil activists.

This came home to me personally in a dramatic way a few years back. In May 2005 I met with Tamil MP and human rights activist Joseph Pararajasingham on a visit he made to Auckland. He was an engaging, sincere man who represented Batticoloa in the Tamil North-East of the country. Seven months after his visit here we learned he had been assassinated while attending a Catholic Church service in Sri Lanka on December 27th that same year.

The assassination took place despite him supposedly being under the military protection of the Sri Lankan government.

This is not to say the Tamil resistance fighters are blameless. Alongside the Sri Lankan army the LTTE has also been accused of human rights abuses and terrorist actions against civilians such as suicide bombings as they have fought a bitter civil war on and off for the past 26 years.

However while both sides have been accused of human right violations the cause of the conflict has been the Sri Lankan government determination to put down a legitimate struggle for self-determination.

New Zealand’s response to all this will be decided by Foreign Minister Murray McCully. So far he seems determined to make trade priorities dictate our foreign policy with human rights concerns taking a back seat. There is a lot riding on Jackie Blue convincing him there is a right and wrong in Sri Lanka and that New Zealand’s voice can make a significant difference.