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21 December 2011

Why has the left neglected the Tamils of Sri Lanka?

Human tragedy on this South Asian island is all but ignored.

By New Statesman

Earlier this week, a piece was published by the Daily Telegraph that contained the latest in a powerful body of evidence that indicates the Sri Lankan army committed atrocities during the final phase of the country’s civil war.

It referenced damning allegations of war crimes committed by government forces during the conflict’s conclusion. These were sourced from an affidavit containing the testimony of a former member of the military who held a very senior position during the war, and had access to the flow of orders from the highest levels of the military command. The source asserted that government-sanctioned “hit squads” operated during the war to kill civilians; that the army killed surrendering enemy combatants and civilians in contravention of international law; and, most crucially, included the assertion that these were ordered by the Defence Minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

But yet, as the Sri Lankan government publishes its anaemic in-house “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” report (politely described by Amnesty International on Monday as “ignoring serious evidence of war crimes”) and Tamil asylum seekers get deported from this country to face the risk of intimidation — even death — at home, the left appears not to be paying the sort of attention the issue deserves.

Why? Not only do human rights organisations suspect that tens of thousands of civilians were intentionally shelled into annihilation by the Sri Lankan army’s unilaterally declared “no fire zone” in the North East of the Island nation in 2009, it appears that the survivors are being kept in camps not dissimilar to internment centres for prisoners of war. Civilians kept in these places are experiencing rape, brutalisation and malnourishment if reports by rights groups and journalists are to be taken seriously.

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That hero of the left, Noam Chomsky, described the violence during the endgame of the war as involving a “Rwanda-like atrocity”, but as yet there have been no Boycott-Divestment and Sanctions for Sri Lanka, no highly-visible displays of solidarity with the Tamil Sri Lankans, and no mass protests in Britain beyond those organised within the Tamil community.

People may complain about the way dissenting voices are suppressed in Europe and the US; but at least, unlike Lasantha Wickremathunge, outspoken journalists don’t get assassinated for their work. Wickremathunge wrote with awesome courage, foreseeing his own murder and directing his last editorial of the Sunday Leader newspaper at his former close friend the President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, declaring: “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me . . . For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death.”

All of these issues should be of serious concern to British journalists, but there has been little of the moral outrage directed at comparable causes found expressed by the usual standard bearers, despite Channel 4’s profoundly harrowing Killing Fields documentary, a series of articles in the Guardian, and this week’s Telegraph piece.

The more people willing to raise their voice and call for accountability for the Rajapaksa regime, the more people standing up for the rights of asylum seekers not to be deported home to risk of torture, the greater the possibility that, at the very least, the issue of Sri Lankan Tamil suffering will become more widely known.

It would be a source of disappointment for those who naively assume that it is the province of the left to lead the charge for such causes to discover that this was merely wishful thinking.

Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist.