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|Civilians stand behind the barbed-wire perimeter fence of the Manik Farm refugee camp located on the outskirts of the northern Sri Lankan town of Vavuniya, May 26. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon toured Sri Lanka’s largest war refugee camp, home to 220,000 refugees, pressing for wider humanitarian access to the camps which have become overcrowded since the government declared victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels after a 25-year war. / AP-Yonhap|
By John Smith Thang
India, the world’s largest democracy, refrained from interfering in the Sri Lankan bloodshed and turned a deaf ear by keeping out of the conflict. Usually, India states it is the regional power, and has declared its position to protect the South Asia region.
But, here is testimony to its ineptitude. The India government didn’t take any concrete steps and didn’t put any pressure on the Sri Lankan government.
Even India’s media rarely posted news about this bloodshed conflict. Even though smoke was rising next to her home, at the bottom of its map, in a neighboring country, India was “kow-towing” and keeping silent.
The conflict in Sri Lanka escalated terribly over the last several weeks before the government declared an end to the long civil war against the separatist Tamil Tigers.
Thousands of lives were lost and thousands of people are suffering in the conflict zone. According to a U.N. press statement on May 13, at least 188,000 people were internally displaced in Vavuniya alone.
Some 1,700 have been wounded and some 50,000 or more are still trapped in the conflict zone. The news from Agence France-Presse (AFP) is that 70,000 people are dead and 250,000 had fled the war zone as internally displaced persons to date.
Due to the lack of free access for rights workers, aid groups and journalists it is difficult to collect accurate casualty figures and it is assumes that actual numbers will be higher.
The pictures, circulated online by Arundhathi Roy (Booker prize winner), show the headless body of a boy and the dead body of a pregnant woman with her baby spilling out of her womb.
Many body parts were scattered here and there among dead bodies and spilled blood. Children and women are the biggest victims of this tragedy ― a cruel and inhumane act. Probably it is the biggest “holocaust” in Sri Lanka’s civil war.
Sri Lanka’s Democracy?
When democracy in Sri Lanka was hijacked by an extremist group among the majority Sinhalese, the result was the marginalization of small communities and minority groups on the island nation.
Sri Lanka is dominated by Buddhist Sinhalese as a majority, while Hindu/Christian Tamils are an ethnic minority in the country.
The country is led former movie star, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who won the presidential election through populist votes. But his actions against the Tamil ethnic group were totally unfair and heartless.
It is true that Sri Lanka has the right to defend its country. However, the government deliberately chose violence instead of a peaceful political solution.
In the case of a peaceful political solution, Sri Lanka’s government must provide the Tamil ethnic minority with political rights, such as a self-autonomous administration system preserving its language and culture.
Such a provision and mutual agreement would be fair and acceptable as it is a reflection of the democratic spirit.
The Sri Lankan government’s action was a cruel and inhumane act, and it should immediately stop deliberate attacks upon innocent people.
On other side, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) must not use innocent people as human shields, and should quickly return to the negotiating table with the government.
Furthermore regional involvement is necessary to prevent additional bloodshed. Here in South Asia, India is the most appropriate nation to do this, as the international community will be likely to join and support the end of bloodshed.
Of course, India also had committed similar human rights violations in the past ― the genocide of the Muslim minority in Gujarat and the Christian minority in Orissa. So it is uncertain what the Indian reaction to bloodshed within its own sphere of interest would be.
Undoubtedly, it is a man-made disaster ― a crime against humanity.
In conclusion, the most urgent thing is to provide emergency humanitarian aid to people victimized by the civil war. They are tormented and dying due to its effects.
John Smith Thang is a Burmese human rights activist based in Korea. He can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE MALAYSIAN INSIDER
GENEVA, May 29 — International aid groups said today they still could not access Sri Lanka’s former war zone from which hundreds of thousands of people fled, stalling efforts to help people return home.
Spokesman Florian Westphal said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has not been permitted to access the northeast strip the Sri Lankan military had advanced upon to extinguish the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.
The ICRC and its aid partners, including UN agencies, have faced obstacles reaching the huge military-run camps housing those who escaped the fighting, including the Manik Farm facility whose population is estimated at 220,000.
Sri Lanka, which has said it is in control of the refugee situation and that there is no problem with access, this week relaxed its restrictions and allowed aid vehicles into the camps. But other limitations remain in place, the ICRC said.
“We haven’t been able to access the areas where most of these people would have fled from since the ending of the most recent fighting,” Westphal told a news briefing in Geneva.
The government, whose troops have been accused of killing and mistreating civilian bystanders, also kept outsiders from the war zone during the fighting that officially ended last week, making claims of abuses on both sides hard to verify.
Aid workers have cited acute health, nutritional, water and sanitation needs in the camps holding mainly ethnic Tamils, on whose behalf the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said they were waging their insurgency against the majority Sinhalese.
The United Nations estimates that between 80,000 and 100,000 Sri Lankans have died since the civil war erupted in 1983.
The LTTE is notorious for having perfected the suicide bomb jacket and recruiting child soldiers, and was reported to have used civilians as human shields against the Sri Lankan military.
Western governments seeking to examine allegations of war crimes during the conflict suffered a major setback this week at the UN Human Rights Council, when Sri Lanka gathered its allies to pass a resolution celebrating its military success and asserting its right to act without outside interference.
The resolution praised Sri Lanka’s pledge to resettle “the bulk of” those driven from their homes within six months and “to further facilitate appropriate work” by aid groups to meet urgent needs in displaced-persons camps.
Today, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said the government should do all it could to lay the groundwork for people to return to their homes in the region where the LTTE had been battling to establish an independent Tamil homeland.
“This may be somewhat of a time-consuming process but the work needs to begin now to prepare these areas of return. UNHCR for one certainly hopes that people will be able to go home as soon as possible,” spokesman Ron Redmond told the briefing. — Reuters
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
MARDAN, Pakistan — A two-week-old Pakistani army offensive against Taliban militias is triggering a massive exodus of refugees — one of the largest such crises since the Indian subcontinent was divided in 1947.
Nearly a million people have abandoned the Swat Valley and nearby districts of Buner and Dir after the offensive began, according to United Nations officials. On tractors laden with bundles, on the roofs of packed minibuses, and often by foot, these refugees keep flooding the road that leads into Mardan, the first town outside the war zone.
“It’s horror: the Taliban are shelling us, and the army is shelling us. They’ve brought us hell,” said Bakht Rana, a grandmother who fled Swat’s main city of Mingora on Friday, accompanied by her son and five other relatives. The Taliban still control Mingora and surrounding hills, fighting pitched battles against the military, she and other refugees said.
Refugee camps — rows of small tents pitched under the baking sun — are fast becoming cauldrons of fury with both the Taliban and the Pakistani government. Many escapees say the government is callous about civilian casualties and doesn’t tend to the refugees’ basic necessities.
U.N. officials who toured the camps warned of an escalating crisis. “Many people are fleeing with nothing. It will not be possible to meet their needs without massive and rapid help from the international community,” said Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, after visiting some of the camps on Friday. “And if that help doesn’t come, it will be a humanitarian disaster.”
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Thursday said that a special government agency has been set up to coordinate relief for the refugees. “Militarily, we will win the war, but it will be unfortunate if we lose it politically, so we will also have to win the hearts and minds of the people,” he said in an address to the Pakistani parliament.
So far, most Pakistani political parties and the public opinion support the army’s push into Swat, which began after the Taliban violated a short-lived peace agreement and invaded the district of Buner, a mere 60 miles from national capital Islamabad.
But, with Pakistani TV channels broadcasting nonstop footage of refugees coming to blows over blankets and food, and the civilian toll mounting, it’s not clear how long this backing will last.
“People would like to see results. They expect it to be sorted out rather quickly,” said I.A. Rehman, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Human-rights group Amnesty International said Friday that, while the Taliban show no regard for civilians’ safety, the Pakistani Army “seems to be pursuing a scorched earth policy” in Swat. Many refugees offer a similarly harsh assessment.
“There was indiscriminate shelling from all sides,” said rickshaw driver Lal Bacha whose 6-year-old daughter Fatima received severe hand burns when a shell exploded near their Mingora home. The family has no access to a hospital, he said.
“I hold the government responsible — where was it when the Taliban initially rose up in Swat, why didn’t it do anything?” bellowed Mingora tailor Mohamed Mumtaz as a crowd quickly gathered around him in the Sheikh Yassin refugee camp in Mardan.
The numbers of the displaced are expected to rise further. Already locked in pitched battles, the Pakistani military, meanwhile, is likely to face the opening of an unexpected second front. Friday, Taliban commanders in the South and North Waziristan tribal areas along the Afghan frontier — where a tenuous peace held for months — issued an ultimatum. They demanded that the army release detained militants and pull out, and that the U.S. cease its frequent drone missile strikes.
“We see clouds of war over our heads,” said the ultimatum, issued by a Waziristan Taliban commanders’ council that includes Baitullah Mehsud, the militant whom Pakistan’s government blamed for assassinating former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. According to reports from Waziristan, civilians are beginning to flee that region, too, expecting an outbreak of hostilities in the next few days.
The Pakistani army said Friday that it killed 55 Taliban in Swat, bringing the total to well over 900. It captured an important Taliban commander who often appeared on the FM radio station that the Islamists used to propagate their ideas in the valley, a one-time tourist resort dubbed Pakistan’s Switzerland for its scenic beauty.
The army also warned that some Swat Taliban are “fleeing the area… after shaving off their beards and cutting hair.” Refugees in Mardan believe that some Taliban militants have already infiltrated their camps.
“The Taliban will be aware of what we are saying — they are listening to you and they are listening to me. And if you say anything bad against them, they’ll slaughter you,” said 24-year-old pushcart vendor from Mingora, Bacha Hussein.
This fear doesn’t stop many refugees from venting their fury against the Islamist militia, which has imposed a harsh brand of religious rule in the former tourist hotspot, shutting down girls’ schools, mandating long beards for men and cloistering women at home.
Falak Naz, an 18-year-old vehicle mechanic from Mingora, still has three black stitches above his left eyebrow — the result, he said, of a beating he sustained from the Taliban for failing to shutter his shop and attend prayers. The usual penalty for such a sin is 10 lashes and a fine of 1,000 rupees ($12.36).
“The thieves, the drug dealers, the rapists, the criminals — that’s who joined the Taliban in Swat. They don’t pray themselves, they just force others to do so,” he said.
The Sheikh Yassin camp, one of three in Mardan, has 1,650 tents and some 15,000 registered refugees, said Mohamed Umar, a local councilman who helps oversee the facility. As many as 1,500 newcomers arrive every day, and are usually turned away and sent to other camps farther down the road, he said. While the refugees suffer in the camps’ harsh conditions, the situation is even worse for civilians trapped inside the war zone.
“There is complete curfew, all the roads are closed, and the Taliban and the army trade fire all night,” said 65-year-old farmer Bakht Rawan from the village of Jangei in Buner.
Mr. Rawan said he walked through the hills for several hours before he reached Friday afternoon a road intersection where an aid group occasionally distribute supplies. “I came here hoping to get some food — but I got nothing, and so I am heading back to the village,” he sighed.
Those unwilling to trek back to Buner end up in the Yar Hussein Mera refugee camp, currently home to 624 families comprising 5,800 people.
Farmer Gul Mohamed, now living in a tent in the Yar Hussein Mera camp, said he fled his village in the Buner district a week ago as the army shelled Taliban positions. “We’ve never heard shells exploding or big guns firing before. Now, when our children hear the word Taliban, they start crying,” he said.
“They’ve left behind their crops, their orchards, their luggage, their properties, their homes,” said Abdulkabir Khan, the provincial government’s representative in the camp. “Of course, they will all go home when peace comes.”
As for when that might happen, Mr. Khan did not venture to predict. On Friday alone, he said, 32 newly arrived families had settled in the camp by early afternoon.