The student-led movement to end mass atrocities.

What’s going on Sri Lanka? Find out Wednesday at 9 pm EST.

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#.

“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.”