Tamil op-ed piece in mainstream Australian newspaper
April 27, 2011 § 1 Comment
April 28, 2011
Two years ago, a war without witness was executed by the state against the Tamil people in the island of Sri Lanka.
In September 2008, after ordering all United Nations personnel, non-government organisations and media out of the Vanni region, the Sri Lankan government embarked on a vicious military campaign. While it informed the world it was fighting the Tamil Tiger rebels and was following a ”zero civilian casualty” policy, photographs, video footage and phone conversations with our relatives in the war zone told us a different story.
We watched in horror as images of injured babies, maimed pregnant women and rows of dead civilians leaked out. Hospitals were bombed. Refugee camps were shelled. Surrendering civilians were executed. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross was blocked from saving the injured.
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As members of the Tamil diaspora took to the streets, campaigning for the international community to act to stop the bloodshed, the world did nothing. More than 100,000 Tamils rallied around the world, yet our cries fell on the bureaucrats’ deaf ears. Kevin Rudd, then the prime minister, preferred ”soft diplomacy” with Sri Lanka, in contrast to his stand on Burma, Zimbabwe and Libya.
We slowly realised the UN was well aware of the high civilian casualties. Leaked satellite images revealed the UN knew of the Sri Lankan Air Force’s targeted bombing and shelling of civilian locations.
Following his resignation, the former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka Gordon Weiss revealed the civilian death toll could be up to 40,000, while “significant others have said that the figure may well be far higher”. Why would the world allow civilians to be killed in such a gruesome manner?
During the war, China and Russia prevented the war in Sri Lanka being discussed at the UN Security Council. Both countries are allies of Sri Lanka, China having invested heavily in it.
UN officials are said to have told Vijay Nambiar – whom the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, appointed as his chief of staff – that the final death toll could exceed 20,000, but Nambiar urged his staff not to “rock the boat” by criticising the Sri Lankan government.
Witness reports later revealed senior UN officials, including Nambiar, and senior Sri Lankan officials, including the Defence Secretary (and brother of the President), Gotabaya Rajapaksa, were involved in the surrendering of Tamil Tiger combatants, who were later executed. After waiting two years for an independent inquiry into this incident, Tamil rights groups have submitted their own complaint to the International Criminal Court.
When the war came to a bloody end on May 18, 2009, Sri Lankan government puppets were quick to continue the propaganda, claiming all was well in Sri Lanka, encouraging Australian tourists while discouraging Australia from accepting Tamil refugees.
The reality was very different. Hundreds of thousands were held in military-run internment camps, disappearances were rife and rape and torture occurred. There was a reason the number of Tamil refugees arriving by boats in Australia had suddenly sky-rocketed.
The unrelenting campaigning by the Tamil diaspora and human rights groups finally forced Ban to establish a panel of experts last year to assess the mounting allegations of war crimes. Sri Lanka was quick to condemn this decision and banned the panel from visiting the island.
The panel’s final report, submitted to Ban almost a fortnight ago, has finally been published. The panel has found allegations of war crimes to be credible and has admitted the UN failed to act to protect civilians, despite knowing about the high civilian casualty rate. The panel has also recommended an international independent inquiry into war crimes in Sri Lanka.
Today tens of thousands of Tamils are missing. Up to 14,000 Tamils, including 500 children, have been held for the past two years in secret prisons; no one knows if they are alive. The Tamil homeland in the north is under military occupation and forced resettlement of Sinhalese families is taking place, changing the demography of the region.
After Rwanda the world said “never again”, but in early 2009, what happened to the Tamils was far worse. Not only did the UN fail to act to stop the persecution of Tamil civilians – it was complicit.
Dr Sam Pari is a spokeswoman for the Australian Tamil Congress.