Politics & Current Affairs

Think tank slams Sri Lanka’s denial of ongoing oppression in North and East

In a scathing attack on Sri Lanka's refusal to address violations against Tamils in the north and east, a US based policy think tank said that the government attitude is a denial of the day to day loss and suffering of the communities in the country.

In a new report marking six years since the violent end of the civil war, the Oakland Institute has revealed that a ‘silent war’ against Tamils and other non Sinhala Buddhist people continues. It’s exposure that Sri Lanka is systematically violating human rights of ‘Tamils and other minorities,’ has been rejected by the government.

Lack of political will

In a strongly worded statement given exclusively to JDS, Oakland Institute's Executive Director Anuradha Mittal slammed the government's rejection as one that ‘reeks of defensiveness and reflects the lack of political will to be honest to the victims and the international community’.

The report, ‘The Long Shadow of War: Struggle for Justice in Post War Sri Lanka,’   estimates that in 2014, there were at least 160,000 almost entirely Sinhalese soldiers occupying the north. This means that there is one soldier for every six civilians. The army has ‘engaged in large-scale property development, running luxury tourist resorts and business ventures on land seized from local populations’ the report said. In addition the report has concluded that Tamil culture and history are being systematically suppressed by ‘Sinhalese domination in former Tamil homelands’.

‘Outsiders’

Snubbing the findings of the report, Sri Lanka’s external affairs ministry accused the Oakland Institute as an ‘outside organization’ with ‘only a limited knowledge’. In an interview with the BBC, Deputy Minister Ajith P Perera denied that the military is occupying the north in massive numbers. Not revealing the number of troops in the north, he said that the government has ‘every right to decide how many soldiers need to be deployed’.

Refuting that the report was compiled after travelling to affected areas in the country, Deputy Minister Perera claimed ‘I am saying that they haven’t done so’.

Oakland Institute's Executive Director challenged the government to provide alternative information to contradict the report. “If our finding pointing to the continued heavy military occupation of the North is wrong, the government should provide evidence or timeline for when the troops will move out of the North,” Anuradha Mittal said.

Follows is the statement in full:

"Statement from the Ajith P. Perera, Deputy Foreign Affairs minister stating that the Sri Lankan government strongly rejects the recent report issued by the Oakland Institute, reeks of defensiveness and reflects the lack of political will to be honest to the victims and the international community. The attitude of “we know better” denies the day to day loss and suffering of the communities in the North and the East of the country, as reported to the researchers of the Institute during the course of our field work. More important, Mr. Perera fails to back up his statement with facts and evidence that would prove our findings wrong or make a strong case for the “strong rejection.”

Under such circumstances, the response,  reinforces our findings – under President Sirisena's government, it is déja vu.

Despite the rhetoric of truth, justice and reconciliation, the government’s position is clear: “No Change in Security Status or Removal of Army Camps."  Minister of Defense Ruwan Wijewardene confirmed the status quo in February 2015 when confirming that the government would not remove any army formations in the peninsula, nor does it plan to scale down security arrangements.  If our finding pointing to the continued heavy military occupation of the North is wrong, the government should provide evidence or timeline for when the troops will move out of the North.  The country does not need empty words, but the evidence. Mr. Perera’s statement seems to suggest a “security” situation in the North which builds the case for continued occupation.

In the same vein, on February 2, 2015, President Sirisena extended an order made under Public Security Ordinance by the President Rajapaksa, which transferred police powers to the armed forces. Calling out the armed forces to exercise police powers under the pretext of public security does not bode well for a return to civilian administration. Instead, the notification suggests concerns around public security and the inadequacy of the police to deal with the situation. The Sri Lankan High Commission in London, responding to our report told Guardian newspaper, “The public security ordinance which confers police powers to armed forces had been in place for many decades … President Maithripala Sirisena only extended it.” Perhaps Mr. Perera can explain what is different about this government when it comes to continued military occupation of the North!

Second, does the government deny that Major General Jagath Dias and the 57th division he commanded during the last phase of the war, recently appointed as the Army Chief of Staff – one of the armed forces’ highest post, is allegedly implicated in serious human rights abuses. Even if these charges are false and fabricated by every internationally respected human rights group, how does the government expect to have credibility to investigate alleged war crimes through a domestic accountability mechanism? Is it willing to  instill another Army Chief of Staff who has faith and trust of the impacted populations in the North and the East?

Third, President Sirisena’s order granted the title of Field Marshal to General Sarath Fonseka, recognizing his “outstanding gallantry, meritorious performance and distinguished service to the nation during the humanitarian operation and the defeat of terrorism in Sri Lanka in May 2009.” Would a government genuinely committed to truth and reconciliation, characterize the last phase of the war as a humanitarian operation, despite numerous reports including from the UN which detail widespread killings through indiscriminatory shelling of innocent civilians? Is this a case of political amnesia for President Sirisena or bad PR advice?

Fourth, the release of a Tamil mother, Jayakumari Balendran came with conditional bail of about $1,500. Held under suspicion by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) for more than a year though shen was not charged with a specific crime. Her 13-year old daughter was kept in the custody of the child protection authorities. The release of people on bail is not the same as letting them go free. In addition, she had to surrender her passport and has to report in person to the police each month while her investigation continues. She returned to a home where her belongings have been ransacked. Unable to rent a place, she is now living with her mother in a hut with no basic facilities while her daughter is back with the child protection services. Balendran’s crime: she had been involved in efforts to find missing people from the war after her own son has been missing since 2009, when he reportedly surrendered to government forces. Her testimony to the Oakland Institute since her release is a direct moral challenge to President Sirisena’s government, questioning its commitment to reconciliation and justice. How does the new administration explain her plight and for creating the situations where a mother is forced to give away her daughter to child protection services?

Fifth, May 19, 2015 celebration of war heroes of the armed forces, police and civil defence forces at the 'Ranaviru’ commemorative parade (Victory Parade) by the Ministry of Defence, came after banning events planned to remember the civilians killed in the North during and towards the end of the war. Mullaitivu’s magistrate issued a stay order banning any events to remember the innocent up to 14 days from May 18 in Mullaitivu police area. Events that were organized, despite the ban, had an intimidating presence of the police and army officials. Is this called political freedom and efforts at recnciliation?

Lastly, a few lands have been released in the North and the East. For instance, President Sirisena revoked an agreement giving some 818 acres of land in Sampur to the Board of Investment, while a navy camp is to be relocated in Sampur. But the Sampur case involves more then 800 some acres.

Additionally, the new location for the Navy Camp is “literally just across the fence” from its old location. The challenges of resettlement when little to no infrastructure remains, lands are not ready for cultivation, and land titles are not clear given communities fled under heavy shelling without papers, is a huge problem. Also people will be resettled near the proposed Indian-funded Sampur Coal Power Plant, not affected by the release of these lands.   Would anyone from the new administration like to live next to the coal power plant?

More recently, Meanwhile, the 2,000 families who were to reoccupy 818 acres in Sampur in the Eastern Province, have been prevented from doing so because of a Supreme Court order.

The apex court has asked the parties to the dispute to maintain the status quo until the case is heard again on June 15, which meant that neither the peasants to whom the land originally belonged, nor the private company Sri Lanka Gateway Industries (SLGI) to which the land had been handed over by the Board of Investment  (BOI), could take possession of the land for now.

In the North much has been made about the release of some 1,000 acres after much negotiations. Are these the same fertile lands where the people were displaced from? Some 6000 acres were taken away—does release of 1000 acres of infertile land compensate. Will hotel Thalsevena be razed to the ground to build homes with real infrastructure for people who were displaced all these years ago? Is there an apology to the communities for the lives they have lived in the welfare camps? If not, where is justice in all of this?

On May 31, 2015, The New Indian Express quoted the Minister for Resettlement, D.M.Swaminathan,  that as per Defense Ministry figures, the armed forces hold 44,548 acres of land in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Out of these, 9,000 acres are in Jaffna district, and 9,000 acres are in Mullaitivu district. He went on to say, “We are not asking for all the lands taken by the armed forces. We are conscious of security imperatives. We only want lands which are not being used by the forces directly, and lands which are not used at all. We are also not asking for State lands, but privately owned lands for which the original owners have deeds.” This reflects the position of the Minister, but does it reflect the demands of the displaced communities? What incentive is there for the Sri Lankan army to vacate the lands? Does this includes lands that are being used directly by the forces to run resorts, farming operations and other commercial activites?

Instead of  a strong rejection of our report, a committed government would take strong steps to ensure stability, peace and full rights of all ethnic groups in the country. The UN report is coming this September.  Sirisena’s government still has time to take action and save face."

© JDS

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Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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