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“Nightmarish” situation for civilians in Sri Lanka prompts international outcry

On Monday, GI-NET reported on the escalating situation in Sri Lanka, where the long-standing conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) rebels has intensified considerably in recent weeks.  More than 250 civilians have been killed in this latest round of violence, as internationally-run hospital facilities and government-designated ‘safe zones’ have come under repeated attack. UN Spokesman James Elder said that the fighting has created a “nightmarish” situation for civilians.

A UN official recently revealed that there have been at least 11 Sri Lankan air strikes on or near hospitals inside LTTE areas between December 15 and January 15.  On Sunday, artillery shells hit a hospital in Mullaithivu. This same facility was hit by cluster bombs on Wednesday.

Earlier this year, Sri Lanka banned the UN and NGOs from the conflict zone, citing that they couldn’t guarantee their safety.  Sri Lanka also has a history of intimidation of the media. Last month, there was an uproar when a controversial journalist Lasantha Wickramatunge was murdered.  Following his death, his newspaper, The Sunday Leader published his final editorial, in which he predicted his assassination at the hands of the government. On Sunday Sri Lankan defense secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa warned the ambassadors of Germany and Switzerland as well as the BBC, CNN, and Al-Jazeera, that they would be “chased” out of the country if they appear to be favoring the LTTE.

However, despite government attempts to suppress and control news coverage of the fighting, the plight of Sri Lankan civilians has been met with significant outcry from the international community. This week, hundreds of thousands of expatriate Tamils in Canada and the UK led massive demonstrations to protest the violence. In the United States, 8 students and young professionals have pledged to fast 10,000 meals to bring attention and action to Sri Lanka – each meal represents 30 civilians endangered by the government’s offensive. Hip-hop artist M.I.A. has called also spoken out recently in an attempt to channel attention to this often-ignored region.

On Tuesday, Britain and the United States issued a joint statement condemning the violence and urging both sides to agree to a temporary “no-fire period.” The two countries also urged both sides to reach a political resolution, but The Sri Lankan government has rejected calls for negotiation with the rebels, saying they will only accept “unconditional surrender.”

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