Not many know that just below the southern tip of India, exists a small, tear drop-shaped island. Perhaps a symbol of the sadness that has reigned in one of Asia’s longest and most brutal ethnic conflicts, from the time of its independence from Britain in 1948, Sri Lanka has silently, but violently, spiraled downward.
To understand the conflict, one must first understand that two culturally different people live together on the island. The Singhalese, the ethnic majority, speak Sinhala, are predominately Buddhist, and live in the south and west of the island. The Tamils, the largest ethnic minority, speak Tamil, are predominately Hindu with some small communities of Muslims and Christians, and primarily live in the country’s north and east.
Since Sri Lanka’s independence, successive Singhalese-controlled governments, fueled by the rise of Sinhala Buddhist ethno nationalism, have maintained power through increasingly discriminatory policies against Tamils.
For over 50 years, the Tamils have faced discrimination and ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Singhalese. Hundreds of Tamils were killed in anti-Tamil riots in 1956, 1958, 1961, 1974, 1977, 1979, 1981, and culminating in Black July 1983-the most horrific of the riots, during which over 3000 Tamils were killed. After Black July, armed Tamil youth began a separatist movement, one of which-the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, emerged to defend Tamils and to fight for an independent state for Tamils, “Tamil Eelam”, in the north and east.
For the last 25 years, the Sri Lankan Army and the Tamil Tigers have fought a bloody war which has killed somewhere between 126,000 to 338,000 people; predominately Tamils, due to fighting taking place primarily in the north and east. Both sides of the conflict have committed major human rights abuses.
From the start of 2009, Sri Lanka has rapidly escalated into a humanitarian disaster, with over 7000 civilian casualties, including 2000 death in February. Approximately 200,000 Tamil IDPs are trapped within the war zone in the north where there is heavy fighting between the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE. Most of these people are living within LTTE-held territory; however, some Tamils are fleeing to the government’s side to escape the military’s heavy shelling and frequent air strikes of heavily populated civilian areas, including hospitals-which have been bombed multiple times.
When the Tamils flee into government territory, they are immediately forcibly detained in "welfare" camps, where more than 30,000 Tamils have been confined. Robert Evans, a UK Member of Parliament said, "These are not welfare camps, they are prisoner-of-war cum concentration camps", while Dr. Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch said "They are surrounded by barbed wire and machine gun nests, [and subjected to] indefinite confinement in de facto internment camps."
Given Sri Lanka’s history of ethnic cleansing of Tamils in anti-Tamil riots, as well as Sri Lanka’s notorious policy of forced "disappearances", I fear the worse may happen. Most alarming are recent reports of US Pacific Command planning an evacuation of Tamil civilians from LTTE-held areas, as a "humanitarian task force", which would leave Tamils in the hand of the government of Sri Lanka.
This is a disturbing plan, including the forced detainment of more than a quarter million Tamil IDPs, the uprooting of Tamils from their homeland, the possibility of further Singhalese colonization of the Tamil homeland, as well as the fear of mass ethnic cleansing or "disappearance" of the hundreds of thousands of Tamils who would be in the hands of genocidal Sri Lankan government.
Wednesday’s education call on Sri Lanka will include a brief history of Sri Lanka and its ethnic conflict and a picture of the current humanitarian situation. We’ll be joined by Nimmi Gowrinathan, the Director of South Asian Programs for Operation USA, a LA-based international relief organization and an expert on Sri Lanka, who is responsible for monitoring and developing projects focused on post-disaster relief and long-term capacity-building and has organized women’s groups and worked directly with policymakers at the UN, and International Non-Governmental Organizations to facilitate a more collaborative response to humanitarian crises. To call in, dial (269) 320-8300 and punch in access code 349902#.