Sri Lankan conflict

2009-02-06 00:00

THIS week a group from Pietermaritzburg’s Tamil community took part in a march in Durban to protest at recent events in Sri Lanka. As government forces close in on the Tamil Tigers in the north of the island, fierce fighting has trapped 250 000 civilians in rebel-held territory.

After independence, events in Sri Lanka followed a familiar post-colonial pattern. The majority Sinhalese and Buddhist group accused the Hindu and Christian Tamil community of having enjoyed preferential treatment under the British. A transformation programme discriminated harshly against Tamils, particularly in the public service and universities; while economic nationalisation persecuted businesses run by minorities.

The consequence was a civil war that has lasted for nearly 30 years around the struggle for a Tamil homeland — Eelam — in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Atrocities have been committed on both sides: 70 000 people have died, hundreds of thousands are displaced and a potentially prosperous country has suffered economically.

Most of the island is now firmly under government control and there are claims that the conflict is nearly over. This may be premature. The Tigers are adept at guerrilla warfare and suicide bombing and they have the necessary terrain in which to operate. There is no simple military solution to a political problem.

Sight should not be lost of the conduct of the government in Colombo. It has often behaved with a ruthlessness that abrogates its responsibilities to its citizens. The shelling of a hospital is typical. Media repression has been severe, designed to cover up human rights violations by officials. Sri Lanka has been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists to cover and a number have been murdered. Paramilitary death squads with government connections have played their part.

There are significant parallels between Sri Lanka and Palestine. In both cases, a heavily armed and often ruthless administration has acted with scant regard for life against opponents embedded within a civilian population. Both recently abandoned truces. Yet, the relative amounts of international and media attention attached to each have been disproportionate to the human suffering involved

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