April 14th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Howard's Coalition - fewer options left as election looms

EDITORIAL: The high cost of 'symbolic' politics

THE ENVIRONMENT: Bushfire victims take NSW, Vic govts to court

WATER: Details of PM's water plan - disaster for farmers

NSW STATE ELECTION: When will Liberals, Nationals ever learn?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Why young people read less / NSW's Knight with the Mournful Countenance / Journalistic hooliganism / The Easter Rising

INTELLIGENCE CORNER: Losing the war on the home front / Assessing the terrorist threat

SCHOOLS: Labor's standard threat to schools

MEDICAL SCIENCE: New developments in stem-cell science

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Australia caught between Beijing and Washington

SRI LANKA: Bloodbath looms in war-torn Sri Lanka

OPINION: An ABC of the ABC - a listener's guide


Millions squandered (letter)

Regional rail networks (letter)

Labor's Mugabe dilemma (letter)

David Hicks (letter)

Russia's Putin should not be demonised (letter)

CINEMA: Story to scare the daylights out of you - Lives of Others

BOOKS: How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

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Bloodbath looms in war-torn Sri Lanka

by our special correspondent

News Weekly, April 14, 2007
Sri Lanka's "dirty war" against its Tamil minority has surpassed the level of abuses seen in General Augusto Pinochet's Chile, and is now increasingly being compared with Pol Pot's murderous rule in Cambodia, writes News Weekly's special correspondent.

In the last 15 months alone, more people have been killed by Sri Lanka's Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (DSRSL) Government than were killed by Pinochet in the 17 years of Chile's "dirty war". This marks its renewed offensive against the traditional homelands of the Tamil people and their de facto government, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Given the past history of institutionalised oppression of the Tamil minority, the current disdain of the Sri Lankan Government for Tamil civilians, and the calls by fundamentalist Buddhists and Marxist-Leninists for the "saving of the motherland" by the destruction of its enemies (i.e., Tamil federalists), the prospect of another genocide in Asia is not altogether fanciful.

Human rights abuses

Back in 1999, the Asian Human Rights Commission declared that the "Sri Lankan record of gross abuse of human rights is much worse than that of Chile during the rule of Pinochet".

According to Chile's National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, 2,279 were killed or disappeared in that country's 17-year-long "dirty war". According to the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, nearly 4,000 have perished recently in the "ethnic" conflict in Sri Lanka, and the number rises daily.

Indiscriminate shelling and bombing by DSRSL forces are taking a toll on defenceless civilians, scores of thousands of whom have been forced into refugee camps in the north, east and west of their traditional lands, to which access of food and medical care is being obstructed.

For example, on March 19, the Rt. Rev. Kingsley Swampillai, Bishop of the Catholic diocese of Trincomalee-Batticalao, pleaded for international help for "around 153,000" displaced people who are "suffering without sufficient food, drinking-water and other basic facilities" in his region.

The entire half-million population of Jaffna is suffering from food and medical shortages and is reported to be in constant fear from indiscriminate killing by the 50,000 or more occupying soldiers of the government, who have claimed swathes of land as "security zones" while patrolling from bunkers that control all the streets of the city.

The "disappeared"

According to human-rights organisations, a disturbing number of Tamils suffer a similar fate to los desaparecidos ("the disappeared") under South American police-states. Every day, in government-controlled so-called security zones, some two to five Tamils disappear.

Some are simply unaccounted for and never seen again. Others are forced into notorious "white vans" by the Criminal Investigation Department of Sri Lanka and are held without notification, visitation or representation in the manner of the National Intelligence Directorate of Chile's Pinochet. Their bodies reveal comparable torture.

Back in 1999, human rights groups believed there had already been 30,000 desaparecidos in Sri Lanka, comparable to the final tally in Argentina under its despised military dictatorship.

Some victims are found dead, with hands bound. Others are shot in front of witnesses - some of them in church or on the way home from church or temple.

Some deaths have a political basis; but most appear indiscriminate. Many bodies are found within the government-controlled "security zones". If authorities ever offer an explanation, they invariably allege the victim was a terrorist.

Take, for example, the 38-year-old pastor, Rev. Nallathamby Gnana-seelan, of the Evangelical Tamil Mission Church in Jaffna, who was riding his motorcycle on the way to a prayer vigil on January 13. As he passed uniformed soldiers in a Jaffna street, they shot him in the leg and abdomen.

He fell from his motorcycle and was executed with a shot to his head. The soldiers took his ID card and Bible, planted a grenade on him and claimed he was a terrorist; but when the man's identity and good standing became known, the story was modified to claim he did not stop when requested.

Rev. Gnanaseelan was a member of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance which has declared that "his death is not an isolated incident, but one of many, which take place in the north east of Sri Lanka, daily".

After the abduction, on March 2, of four Christians - Victor Yogarajan, a 51-year-old pastor from Vanuiya, his two sons, and a church member - the general-secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, Denton Lotz, appealed directly to the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapakse, for an immediate halt to the abuse and persecution of civilians, adding, "It is perfectly clear that this is not an isolated incident but part of a trend of disappearances and abductions of civilians."
Sri Lankan President
Mahinda Rajapaske

It is not just isolated individuals who are being killed. On 20 occasions since Mahinda Rajapakse became Sri Lankan President in November 2005, groups of Tamils, including women and children, appear to have been deliberately targeted for killing and cannot be regarded as accidental victims of indiscriminate shellfire or bombing.

These victims include 61 girls killed in their school when 16 bombs were dropped from Israeli-supplied Kfir bombers on August 14, 2006 - despite (according to Tamil authorities) the identity and coordinates of the school being known by the Sri Lankan Government.

Other victims include 17 aid workers for Action Against Hunger who were executed earlier the same month, and a family of four murdered in June 2006 (after which gruesome photographs of the hanged children were posted on the web).

War on the media

Like any South American dictatorship, the Sri Lankan Government has also declared war on media criticism. In recent months, nine media workers have been murdered, according to a Sri Lankan human rights organisation, the Free Media Movement. The victims include not only Tamils but also Sinhalese who have criticised the Government.

Other journalists have been imprisoned. For example, Amnesty International (AI) has protested against the prolonged detention of the director and a woman journalist of the Sinhala newspaper, Mawbima (Motherland). Both individuals have reportedly been held "incommunicado and … at risk of torture or ill treatment".

The director is believed to have been detained for writing on human rights and, under Sri Lanka's Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), need not be brought to court for three months. The woman journalist (released on March 22) was imprisoned for nearly four months after she had written about "disappearances".

AI declares that the PTA is "incompatible with basic international human rights, laws and practices". It has been "used to intimidate and harass political opponents" and has "fostered a culture of impunity". AI has deplored "acts of violence and intimidation against journalists and human rights activists taking place in areas controlled by the Sri Lankan Government".

The International Federation of Journalists concurs, stressing its "concerns that the Terrorism Prevention Laws are being used to oppress the media and silence vital independent voices".

In response to criticism, the Sri Lankan Government's Media Centre for National Security warned, on March 1, that security forces "will continue to take into custody anyone, without regard to their profession or status and without regard to whether they are Sinhala, Tamil or Moslem, if it is deemed they are a threat to the state", adding that people who protest against the arrests would be seen as obstacles to maintenance of security.

The International Committee to Protect Journalists has not only condemned "repeated incidents of violent attack", but has deplored other violations against free media, including destruction of printing supplies and obstruction to shipments of newsprint to Jaffna.

"Save our motherland"

The Sri Lankan Government has stepped up its intimidation of the media in recent months by labelling its critics as "media tigers". Posters have appeared in the streets with the ominous warning: "Peace Tigers, Media Tigers, Left Tigers - Recognise Them, Destroy Them, Save our Motherland!"

According to the Bremen-based International Human Rights Association, the posters come from the National Movement Against Terrorism, led by the fundamentalist Buddhist Party which has nine members in parliament, one of them recently appointed to the Cabinet.

It is the "save our motherland" concept that has distinct echoes of the murderous ideology of Cambodia's notorious Pol Pot. For fundamentalist Buddhists, the Sri Lankan motherland was originally entrusted to them by Buddha himself, and should therefore be saved from "demonic" foreigners by their "expulsion".

For the equally fundamentalist Marxist-Leninist People's Liberation Front (JVP) - which has 39 seats and four ministries in the ruling coalition - the motherland must be protected from nationalists so that communism may be established.

Together, in the not-too-distant past, fundamentalist Buddhists and communists have backed their words with revolutionary terror, resulting in the deaths of some 40,000 Sri Lankans. Today, they are both calling for renewed war against Tamil obstruction to the achievement of their respective utopias. Is the prospect of all-out genocide fanciful?

Tamils appear convinced of the possibility and, if the Sri Lankan Government continues to escalate the war, Tamils will be fighting for their very lives.

Thus far, the LTTE, though branded as terrorist, has been laudably restrained and not extended the war into predominantly Sinhalese territory. It is not surprising, however, that on March 26 the Tigers launched an audacious attack on the air-force base near Colombo from which modern jets have been bombing Tamil people with impunity.

Further Tamil reprisals may be expected if the Government continues its offensive, and both sides of this wretched country will suffer. Some kind of federal accommodation for the Tamils is the only sane option.

Links with China

Meanwhile, in February, President Rajapakse visited China to mark the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka's establishment of bilateral diplomatic ties with that country.

Noting that Sri Lanka's trade with China in 2006 had increased by a dramatic 16.9 per cent to US$1.4 billion, President Rajapakse successfully negotiated with Beijing agreements covering construction of a new port in southern Sri Lanka, development of extraction of resources, transportation, housing, telecommunications, education and a free economic zone for Chinese businesses, and some remittance of Sri Lanka's national debt to China.

The two countries affirmed their joint opposition to "the three evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism", with President Rajapakse committing his government to the "one-China" policy, opposing "Taiwan independence of whatever form", and declaring he had learned from China's experience.

According to the official Chinese media, he also vowed to enhance bilateral cooperation in "anti-terrorism" and was assured, in turn, of China's "support for the maintenance of conditions of peace, stability and security against all destabilising threats". Whether cooperation against "terrorism" will include military supplies for the war against the Tamils remains to be seen, but is certainly a disturbing possibility.

Perhaps to emphasise his friendship with China, while his security forces were killing opposition journalists, Mahinda Rajapakse on February 10 granted television and radio licences to Sri Lanka's pro-Chinese communist People's Liberation Front (JVP), in recognition of its support for his government.

The growing influence of China in Sri Lanka accords with what is happening in many countries around Australia. From the deep-water ports of Sri Lanka, communist Chinese naval power could one day straddle the Indian Ocean.

- A slightly shorter version of this article appeared in the printed edition of News Weekly.

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