Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Guest Post - The Silenced

This guest post has been written by Auckland Tamil woman Anna Ponnampalam. Thanks Anna for sharing the recent history of Tamil female combatants and the women of Tamil Eelam.

On the May 18th 2009, the government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) declared victory over the alleged ‘terrorists’, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Majority of the Sinhalese in Colombo, the capitol of Sri Lanka and elsewhere broke into festivity instantaneously. The sound of fireworks filled the city. People paraded the streets, shouting, dancing to the sound of ‘raban’ drum beats and waving Sri Lankan flags. There were at least three days declared as public holidays for the celebration. The Sinhalese went into many Tamil shops and houses and demanded money for fireworks, rice to make ‘kribath’ (a rice dish usually made during celebrations).

Behind this lies the silence of the Tamils as many of them throughout Sri Lanka were forced to fly the Sri Lankan flags outside their homes and celebrate the cold-blooded murders of their loved ones.

The GoSL unilaterally broke off the ceasefire agreement in 2007 and the fourth wave of Eelam war had begun. The war intensified to an unprecedented level since late last year as the GoSL was determined to destroy every single LTTE member at any cost. The Sri Lankan armed forces started bombing and shelling indiscriminately. They did not care about civilian casualties as they deliberately targeted public places such as schools, hospitals and temples. Thousands of men, women, children and elderly were killed ruthlessly by the Sir Lankan army. The GoSL army even attacked the Tamil civilians who themselves had herded into an area that the GoSL claimed was a “safe zone” with full force of its military and heavy weaponry. The number of civilian casualties rose from 50 to 60 per day in January 2009 to more than 1,000 a day in late March and April 2009. The most conservative number stands at 20,000 casualties since January 2009.

Rest of the ‘fortunate’ 300,000 civilians who fled the conflict zone are now being ‘processed’ in military controlled ‘welfare camps’ which resemble more of concentration camps. Apparently they are being checked to make sure that there are no LTTE members hiding within any group of people. There are barb wired camps with people kept more or less as prisoners. The UN has asked for access into these camps many times and been denied. Children are separated from their parents; families are split and put into different camps. No independent media is allowed near the camps. The first independent report was aired on UK, Channel 4 in late April. The visas of the reporters were revoked and they were deported from Sri Lanka immediately: Channel 4 Link

There have been numerous reports of human rights abuses in these detainment camps. As with many wars the sufferings of women in such conflicts is much greater. The Tamil women have gone and are going thorough unthinkable mental and physical torment by the Sri Lankan and Indian armed forces during each conflict. Throughout history, women's bodies have been considered the justifiable booty of victorious armies. In conflict situations, whether they are inter-state wars, civil wars, or conflicts born out of deeply divided societies, women are specifically targeted in large numbers for acts of sexual and gender-based violence. They are tortured, raped and stripped of their personal sense of dignity.

There are many reports now of kidnaps, rapes and murders of girls in the camps committed by the Sri Lankan army. There are even reports of forced abortions of pregnant women. The Channel 4 footage shows an anonymous whistle blower talking about women’s decomposing bodies being left for days in some of the tents in the camps. Recent sky news footage reveals the shocking negligence of a Sri Lankan government official, carelessly blaming the NGO officials for the offences: Sky news Link

The armed forces have a history of horrific sexual violations against Tamil women. While several incidents of sexual violence against Tamil women have gone unreported for obvious reasons, the details of many reported ones too have not been revealed. Recently there was a video of armed forces removing the clothes from killed or captured LTTE female soldiers and sexually assaulting them. In many cases, the victims were killed after being sexually violated. The most gruesome was that of Koneswari where a grenade was exploded inside her vagina after being raped and killed, to remove all traces of the sexual offence. There is clear evidence that sexual violence in many different ways had been practised by the Sri Lanka armed forces. The continuing pattern of sexual violence against Tamil women persists because of the climate of virtual impunity that prevails. In the thirty year war, not one army personnel have been held accountable for any war crimes. The picture shown above is one of many photos shot by Sri Lankan Army soldiers by Mobile Cameras in the last few months and released in a local Sri Lankan website as part of Sri Lankan Army Victory Campaign. There were many women in the past who have survived and many brothers of women who were violated who have joined the LTTE later as that’s the only way they thought that they can get justice*.

Unheard voices, the blog of Regina David, a former worker at women’s centres in northern Sir Lanka for 23 years, portrays firsthand accounts of many horror stories: Link 1 Link 2

As Irene Khan of Amnesty International once said,
"Patterns of violence against women in conflict do not arise "naturally" and are not collateral damage of war. They are ordered, condoned, or tolerated by those in power. They persist because those who commit them know they can get away unpunished."
The UN has been aware of this.
“The Sri Lankan security forces have continued to commit serious human rights abuses, sexual violence, in the context of the 17 year armed conflict against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Sri Lankan Police have also repeatedly committed rape and other sexual abuse in the course of the fighting”.
- Report by UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women- 22 Dec 2000
Even then the UN did nothing and nobody has been prosecuted. Even in recent times the UN failed to act in a responsible and humane manner.

There were two resolutions submitted to the UN Human Rights Council on the 27th of May 2009: One proposed by Europe led by Switzerland demanding a probe on human rights violations by Sri Lankan government and the other proposed by Asia led by Sri Lanka and India proposing the war displaced should be given prominence.

Twenty-nine countries voted in support of the resolution mooted by Sri Lanka while 12 voted against it and six declined to vote. The resolution was adopted with a majority of 12 votes. While only seven of the 47 seats are held by members of the Western countries, the majority, 26 seats are allocated for Asian and African countries, many of which restrict political freedoms and civil liberties.

Human rights Watch: ‘Sri Lanka: UN Rights Council Fails Victims
“To many Western critics, the Council has failed one of its first and most important tests. For it was set up only three years ago, after a UN resolution, to replace the much criticised UN Commission for Human Rights. This body was widely regarded as toothless and ineffectual. It was always subject to the majority votes of members who had no interest in any outside investigation into their human rights records.”
- Times on line – May 28 2009
United Nations Human Rights Council has now lost its credibility. This body has completely lost the purpose for which it supposedly exists.

The Tamil Diaspora tried their best to bring these atrocities to the world’s attention with petitions, protests and hunger strikes. But it was as though we were protesting in a vacuum. It was as though nobody cared. The world chose to remain silent when 20, 000 innocent civilians were gruesomely killed in the name ‘war on terror’. Even when many of the world leaders realised the human carnage that was going on, they only chose to issue statements of warnings for GoSL without any apparent consequences if they failed to act on it. Even now, the world leaders mainly talk about reconciliation. How can there be reconciliation when the government has perpetrated genocide towards its own people? How can there be reconciliation when the root of the problem has not been addressed? The president, Mr Mahinda Rajapakse ordered the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of its own Tamil citizens and then he boasts to the world that he has liberated the Tamil people and that it was a humanitarian mission. How could it be humanly possible to reconcile with a government that arrogantly had shown no remorse for the killings of thousands of civilians and thousands more who are still going through torture?
“This polarizing conflict is identity-related with ethnicity and religion as deeply divisive factors. It will not end with winners and losers and it cannot be ended solely through a military victory that may not be sustainable in the long-run unless legitimate grievances are addressed.”
- Francis Deng, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's Special Adviser on the prevention of genocide - 15 May 2009

History of the struggle in a bullet point

Since independence in 1948, the successive Sinhala dominated governments took steps in a systematic manner to undermine Tamil’s rights as citizens of Sri Lanka. There was discrimination in education and job opportunities in addition to state sponsored colonization with intent to marginalize the Tamils and our political rights. The Tamils’ peaceful protests were met by acts of state terrorism and state sponsored series of racial riots against Tamils. This inevitably led to the beginning of an armed struggle for self determination. Hence the LTTE are the result of the problem, not the cause of it. Unless the causes for the problems are addressed and a political solution reached, the conflict will never be over.

*It also has to be noted that the Tamil female LTTE soldiers have to be given special places in history books as they have gained the courage to stand up against a brutal enemy who would stop at no cost to destroy their ethnic group, despite being born and brought up in a very male dominated, patriarchal society. The LTTE also have to be credited to have liberated Tamil women in so many ways outside the warzone. They have promoted gender equality and implemented many laws towards achieving equality in all level of the society including anti-dowry laws while they were running a de facto government in the Vanni Land.

Anna Ponnampalam


Anonymous said...

we as a woman have to do something about this

Anna said...

This is a really powerful post - thanks so much for contributing it.

Rathika said...

Thanks anna for writting a marvellous artical.

Julie said...

Thanks so much Anna for writing this, and katy for organising it.

worldasiseeit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anna P said...

Thank you Katy for letting me share this tragedy in your blog. I can't believe this is happening in the 21st century.

We just learned recently that there are only one toilet for every 800 people in these barb wired camps! According to International standards,there should be at least one toilet for every 20 people. A volunteer of International Sathya Sai Service Organisation said that due to shortage of water people are suffering from hepatitis, diarrhoea and chicken pox etc.

According to UNHCR guidelines, minimum water requirement per capita in refugee camps is 15 litres, but the people in these camps only receive 3 litre capita.

If anyone out there can think of any way to get the world governments to listen to us, please let us know.

Ambi said...

Thanks sooo much Anna for writing this article. Well done my dear friend...

sella said...

thanks anna for the useful article.siva uncle and uma aunty.

sella said...

thanks anna for th useful article.siva